Refractor telescopes are the oldest form of telescope. They have been used for centuries from everything from naval spotting to discovering the moons of Jupiter. They are classic, tried and true and they still make up a sizable chunk of the telescope market. Whether it was the scholarly look or the instantly recognizable design if refractor telescopes have caught your attention this is the premier guide to choosing the best refractor telescope.
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Refractor telescopes are versatile, common, cheap and durable. They are capable of seeing all of the greatest sights in the night sky and their design makes them nearly infinitely customizable. This makes refractor telescopes a great base for any aspiring astronomer to build upon.
As opposed to reflector telescopes, refractor telescopes use lenses to bend and focus light in order to create the desired magnifying effect. Refractor telescopes have a primary lens called the objective lens and a second lens called the eyepiece lens. The objective lens gathers the light from the sky and the eyepiece is what is looked through at the focused image.
Refractor Telescope Advantages
There is a reason that the refractor telescope has been in near-continuous use since its invention in the seventeenth century. It is a design that works and it works well. The design of the refractor telescope gives it some distinct advantages.
The first advantage derived from the design of the refractor telescope is durability. The optical tube and lenses are much harder to damage than the components on a reflector telescope. Since the lenses on a refractor are usually made of quality glass, they are difficult to damage.
In comparison, reflector telescopes have mirrors that can get dirty and are easily bumped out of place if the telescope is handled roughly. You will not have this issue with a refractor. As long as the glass on the lenses is taken care of there are no finicky pieces to damage or misalign like there are in other telescopes.
Also, due to the dual lenses, the eyepiece lens can be swapped out or replaced in the case of an issue. As long as the objective lens stays intact, an eyepiece can be replaced with very little problems.
Durability is good for anyone who wants to travel with their telescope. This makes it so that you do not have to worry as much about packing up and taking your telescope with you. They can be put into the back of a car or slung over the shoulder and you will not have to worry about the telescope making it to the end of the trip.
Added durability also makes mishaps less catastrophic. If you have kids or are just a little clumsy, bumping, banging or even dropping a refractor telescope will usually turn out better than if the same mishap happens to a reflector telescope.
The magnification and scope of a refractor telescope are based upon which eyepiece lens is used at any given time. This means that the market for eyepieces and eyepiece accessories for refractor telescopes is extremely large. This market and the way that refractor telescopes work mean that there is a wide array of customization options available.
Different eyepieces can give you different zoom levels and focusing options. Want to see Jupiter? There is an eyepiece for that. How about Andromeda? There’s an eyepiece for that as well.
Beyond the stable of reliable and diverse eyepieces that are able to be purchased for refractor telescopes, there are also a host of other useful accessories available as well. The ability to simply attach an eyepiece style accessory to the refractor at any time makes it extremely simple to utilize a whole host of attachments with the telescope.
These attachments include illuminated finderscopes, eyepiece cameras for astrophotography, temperature reading eyepieces and so many more. While the modern user will be purchasing a refractor telescope for stargazing and astronomy purposes, they are also able to be used as a terrestrial viewer as well. Accessories like range finders and FLIR temperature attachments can make any refractor able to be a landscape telescope or advanced terrestrial spotter as well as being a stargazing tool.
That is why refractors are considered so versatile. The easy to manage 1.25” and 2” hookup sizes make it so it is easy to plug and play with a whole assortment of accessories that are made for refractor telescopes. Anyone with a goal, a little creativity, and some extra money can turn a basic refractor telescope into a platform for many different kinds of viewing.
Shape, Size, and Design
The last major benefit to a refractor telescope over other kinds is their size. They are usually long and narrow, not too bulky and not too heavy. Their consistent design makes it so that their shape and size are also fairly consistent. There will be few surprises when opening up a refractor telescope case for the first time.
These are good for people who want to travel with their telescope, as well as people who do not have a lot of room or storage space. They break down into easily manageable sizes and cases. Reflector telescopes can come in a lot of different shapes and sizes and they are usually bulkier and bigger depending on the style.
Refractor telescopes are easy to store, easy to breakdown and easy to keep clean. This is due to the fact that they only have two pieces that are important to manage and those are the two lenses. The objective lens of a refractor telescope is generally smaller than that of a reflector and refractor telescope’s tubes are closed making them sealed from the external environment. Many reflector telescopes are open making it easy for dirt, dust, and moisture to get inside the telescope and affect image quality.
While there are some great advantages to having a refractor telescope there are also some noticeable drawbacks as well.
Refractor Telescope Disadvantages
The disadvantages of a refractor telescope are few and well known. There are few surprises when using a refractor and their drawbacks are well studied and come with some handy solutions but they still exist.
The biggest drawback to using a refractor telescope is the existence of aberrations during viewing. The way that refractor telescopes bend light to create the images you see also causes an imperfection in the magnified image. These imperfections usually manifest themselves as chromatic aberrations.
Chromatic aberrations are distortions of light around bright objects when they are viewed through a refractor telescope. They look like little dancing halos of multicolored light on the fringes of a bright object. While they are not usually a deal-breaker in terms of overall image quality, they can be distracting and in some cases, ruin the view.
Aberrations are unavoidable with refractor telescopes. They are directly related to the design of the telescope which always makes them a factor during viewing. Reflector telescopes do not have this issue which is one of their biggest advantages over refractors.
That’s not to say that there are no fixes for this problem. There are but they have varying levels of success and only go to point out that this is a prevalent issue in refractor design.
Power and Scope
The other potential disadvantage to a refractor telescope is their relative power and scope compared to that of some reflector telescopes. Refractors usually have a much narrower field of view and less overall power than their reflector cousins.
This doesn’t mean that reflectors are better telescopes but only that they serve a different purpose than refractors. Refractors accel at viewing single objects in great detail such as planets or single stars. If that is the kind of viewing you are looking for, a refractor is the way to go.
However, due to their relatively high focal ratios and lack of light-gathering power, they fall behind reflectors in doing general deep-sky viewing of distant celestial objects. Reflectors are great for seeing a wide swath of sky in wider detail while refractors are great for looking at a single object in greater, narrower detail.
If deep space or sky scanning are the kinds of things that interest you the most about astronomy then the power and scope of many refractors are not going to be able to fit your needs. It all depends on what you are looking for out of a telescope and the kinds of things you want to do with it.
Important Things to Keep In Mind When Choosing a Refractor Telescope
Since refractors derive all of their image generation from their focal length in combination with their objective lens and eyepiece lens, these are things that need to be taken into account when searching for the best refractor telescope. The different combinations of the objective lens, focal length and eyepieces create very different telescope viewing conditions and knowing which combinations produce what kind of sights will make it much easier to understand what sort of telescope you are considering.
Take these things into account before choosing the best telescope for you.
A focal ratio is a number that represents how broad of a view a telescope is going to give you. A higher focal ratio means a higher level of focus while a lower focal ratio means a more broad focus. Higher focal ratios will give you a more detailed and narrow view of night sky objects compared to a wider, less detailed chunk of sky.
For example, if you want to use your telescope to see the moons of Jupiter or the details of the rings of Saturn then you are going to want a telescope with a lower focal ratio. This is because you are trying to look at a very specific spot in the sky. A lower focal ratio makes it much easier to do this.
If you want to more broadly see the night sky or look at larger objects such as nebulas or distant galaxies then you are going to want a telescope with a lower focal ratio. This will show you more space in less detail.
The numbers usually run between three and twelve and are denoted by the letter f over the ratio number. It will look something like this:
The lower the number, the higher the focal ratio. The highest would be an f/1 compared to say f/13 which would be a much broader view.
If we were going to keep the examples on earth it would be something like this. If you wanted to see a bird in a tree, you would want a higher focal ratio. The bird is small and has a higher level of detail compared to the tree. If you wanted to view distant mountains, you would want a lower focal ratio so it is wide enough to encapsulate the whole view you are looking to get.
Telescopes behave in a very similar way. Many refractor telescopes have a higher focal ratio than reflectors which makes them better at those smaller, detailed objects.
A Focal ratio is a prominent number that factors heavily in telescope specs and it is good to get an idea of what kind of ratio you are looking for in a telescope before choosing one.
Achromats, Apochromats, EDs, and Doublets
Remember those pesky aberrations we mentioned earlier? There are ways to get around those and they have to do with how the lenses of the telescope are made or coated. There are a few different kinds of lenses that can be used in order to try and cut down on the types of and prominence of chromatic aberrations during viewing.
Achromats and apochromats are different types of lenses that you will see referenced when researching refractor telescopes. Achromatic lenses focus light in a way that allows two colors to merge in the same plane together. Apochromatic lenses focus light in a way that allows three colors the align in the same plane together.
The types of lens are usually denoted in the following way making it easy to tell which kind is being advertised.
These abbreviations might show up in the names of certain lenses or in the product description of the telescopes. APO is short for an apochromatic lens while ACHRO is short for an achromatic lens.
These are both upgrades over a single lens which only allows for one color at a time to be viewed in a plane together. This means that a single lens is going to have the worst chromatic aberration, followed by the achromatic and then the apochromatic lenses.
Without getting too technical, these lenses make it so there is less light dispersion. When the light is more focused and less scattered it cuts down on the imperfections of the images. Which lens is best for you will depend on the kind of viewing you will be doing with your telescope.
For general viewing, achromatic lenses should be completely fine. There will still be some distortion depending on what you are looking at but it will not be distracting. If you are going to try your hand at astrophotography or any other subfields that require an extremely high image quality then you might need to look into apochromatic lenses for the least amount of aberration possible.
Also in the aberration corrective space is doublets and ED glass. Doublets are lenses that have a second or even third layer of glass in them with the aim of adding some sort of corrective power. Some of the glass is higher quality or has a special coating on them to try and cut down on light aberration. When there are two layers of glass it is called a doublet. Three layers of glass are called a triplet.
ED stands for extra-low dispersion and is another kind of glass used to cut down on the scattering of light and therefore cut down on the potential for visual imperfections. So an ED doublet would be the second layer of extra-low dispersion glass that is added to a lens to cut down on chromatic aberration.
ED glass and doublets are not super common on the market but they might crop up and it is good to know exactly what you are reading in order to make an informed choice in a telescope. All lenses in the telescope space should be either achromatic or apochromatic and these will appear much more regularly.
Now there is only one last thing to take into account before choosing the best telescope for your needs.
Setting a budget is a good idea when making any significant purchase and it will be very helpful when shopping for a telescope. Telescopes can vary widely in price. The lower budget scopes can start around a hundred dollars while higher-end telescopes can reach a thousand dollars or more.
Like anything, the more you are willing to spend the more you are probably going to get but there are some great telescopes at the lower end of the budget as well. It all depends on what you are looking for. Once you know the nomenclature and the language used to describe the telescope’s capabilities and features it becomes a lot easier to know if you are getting a great deal or a bad telescope.
Give yourself a budget and know what price range you are looking to spend in and keep those things in mind when choosing a telescope. Now without further ado, here are some of the best refractor telescopes. These telescopes are well-reviewed and cover a wide range of budgetary and optical needs.
Low Budget Refractor Telescopes
Meade Instruments Infinity 80mm TelescopeCheck Latest Price
This basic refractor made by Meade Instruments checks all of the boxes for a beginner astronomer and does it at a very affordable price. It comes with a handful of useful accessories as well as a great mount. This telescope would be great for anyone on a budget looking to get into astronomy for the first time.
This Meade Instruments Infinity 80mm Telescope model has an 80mm objective lens which is plenty big enough to see all of the best sights in the solar system. It has a focal length of 400mm giving it a focal ratio of f/5 which is perfect for zeroing in on the best features of the moon, Saturn, Jupiter and more.
For the price, Meade has added a few great accessories to the mix. This kit comes with three eyepieces, one low powered, one mid-ranged and one high powered giving you a solid range of magnification to start off with. It also comes with a red dot finder, a 2x Barlow lens and an accessory tray to hold it all for you.
Perfect for the beginner or an astronomer on a budget, the Infinity 80mm by Meade is an all-around solid choice for someone just getting into refractor telescopes or astronomy in general.
Meade Instruments Infinity 102mm TelescopeCheck Latest Price
For a little bit more money, you can upgrade to the next size up in the Infinity line by Meade Instruments. The Meade Instruments Infinity 102mm version is the same kit as the 80mm version but it comes with enhanced light gathering capability.
At 102mm for the objective lens, that is a 25% size increase in the objective lens which boosts the power of this model by quite a bit when it comes to light gathering. This boosts the highest potentially useful magnification of this telescope all the way to 240x which is quite hefty.
It still comes with the same accessory set: three eyepieces, a red dot finder, and the accessory case but adds a good amount of power for a little bit more money. Meade Instruments is good at making solid telescopes for astronomers on a budget.
Medium Budget Refractor Telescopes
Celestron Omni XLT AZ 102mm TelescopeCheck Latest Price
Celestron’s Omni XLT telescope boasts a 102mm objective lens giving it some great power. But the additional money with this model gives you some unique upgrades. Celestron put some extra features into the optical coatings and the mount on this model.
Celestron has coated all of the glass on this telescope in its proprietary XLT coating. They claim it is the same coatings used on observatory telescope lenses. Either way, this coating is going to cut down on the amount of aberration experienced while using this powerful refractor telescope.
This telescope has a smooth altazimuth mount which allows it to be used as an astronomy telescope or a terrestrial one. Just move the arm down to a horizontal plane and begin viewing the wonders of the Earth and the sky all in one package. That’s the refractor versatility for you.
This telescope is great for the beginner astronomer or for someone who wants a higher optical quality out of their average refractor telescope.
Orion AstroView 120ST TelescopeCheck Latest Price
The Orion AstroView is a more advanced refractor telescope that comes with some great features. It has an objective lens size of 120mm making it a very large telescope in terms of light acquiring ability. It also comes with an advanced equatorial mount that is perfect for long-form tracking and viewing.
Most telescopes can be difficult to position and track specific objects over long periods of time but with the Orion AstroView’s solid equatorial mount, it becomes a breeze. If the telescope is properly aligned with the equator it will be able to keep its target in sight over long hours in the night allowing you to observe a single celestial object as it slowly moves across the sky throughout the night.
This mount and the larger objective lens makes the Orion AstroView 120ST geared more towards the intermediate user. This telescope is has a lower focal ratio and is able to see deep space objects as well as more familiar objects nearby in great detail and quality.
This telescope is perfect for someone who wants to view the solar system as well as some more advanced deep space objects over the course of an evening. It comes with the power and accessories to make more advanced astronomy possible.
Big Budget Refractor Telescopes
Sky-Watcher ProED 80mm TelescopeCheck Latest Price
The Sky-Watcher ProED was designed with the total elimination of all sorts of aberrations. If chromatic aberration or general distortion is something that bugs you but you still want a refractor telescope then this setup is for you.
In addition to being completely coated with extremely high-quality coatings on every glass surface, this telescope is also baffled. There are a lot of different lens coatings out there but the addition of baffling to the tube is very unique. The baffling works to cut out any unwanted or unfocused light which makes sure that only the light needed to give you a great quality image gets through.
Combine this unique baffling system with high-quality lens coatings as well as extra-low diffusion glass and you get a refractor telescope with hardly any aberrations or distortions at all.
It boasts a sturdy mounting system and an 80mm objective lens. This telescope is not the most powerful telescope on this list but it could be the one that gives off the best overall image quality. If the image quality is more important than versatility or power then this is the perfect telescope for you.
Celestron Advanced VX 6” Refractor TelescopeCheck Latest Price
While the Sky-Watcher focused on image quality, the Celestron Advanced VX focuses on technology. This telescope comes with a fully computerized German Equatorial mounting system using go-to technology to automatically track objects for you.
This technology usually is featured on reflector telescopes or Schmidt-Cassegrain models but for those who want to use a refractor but still get the technology that usually comes with different designs then this is a great telescope for you. Like everything in the refractor telescope world, this setup comes with versatility and customization in mind. It has the option for easy manual control as well as two AUX ports for additional accessories to fully kit out your telescope.
It also comes standard with telescope control software to fully control and customize your computerized telescope from your computer. They also threw in Starry Night, the most comprehensive astronomy software available to pair up with your telescope control software for the ultimate computerized refractor experience.
The 6” objective lens means that this telescope comes loaded with plenty of power to see the planets as well as distant wonders. This all comes packaged in high quality and familiar refractor design. This is the perfect telescope for anyone looking for that extra tech boost added to a high-quality refractor.
Orion Sirius ED 80mm TelescopeCheck Latest Price
The best overall telescope on this list is also the most expensive. You get what you pay for after all. While each of the other telescopes on this list does one thing exceptionally well or has a set of unique features that make it stand apart, the Orion Sirius ED 80mm Telescope takes the best of all the others and combines them into one supreme package.
This telescope combines all of the following into one of the best refractor telescopes on the market:
- High quality coated lenses made from double extra-low diffusion glass
- Fully computerized go-to mount
- Database of thousands of objects to automatically find and track
- A gorgeous and versatile mounting system
- A middle of the road focal ratio perfect for both near and far objects
This telescope truly is the jack of all trades and master of all. If you are an astronomer with money to burn this is the best bang for your buck. If you want truly high-quality images with very little aberration, as well as power and a high tech computerized system look no further. This telescope has enough features to keep an intermediate astronomer interested in astrophotography or deep space busy for a lifetime and is user-friendly enough to introduce novices to astronomy and keep them engaged.
Money may not be able to buy happiness but it certainly can buy the Orion Sirius ED Telescope.
Refractor telescopes are versatile, old and beloved and there is one for everyone out there. This list has some of the best options on the market from the budget-conscious novice to the wealthy journeyman looking for a new piece to showoff. With a little knowledge, some planning and an array of options there is a perfect telescope on this list for anyone interested in refractor telescopes.