Refractors are a favorite telescope type and it’s easy to see why.
They’re typically what we think of when telescopes come to mind. “Classic” and “traditional” would be the words to describe them.
They’re far from old and outdated. They have a certain flair of class about the glass while they retain their age-old and tried-and-true optical light path.
Beginners love them for their celestial and terrestrial seeing benefits and their ease-of-use.
Advanced users love high-end ones for their excellent imaging benefits, and even though they’re small, they’re great lightweight and portable alternatives to large and heavy reflectors.
What’s not to love?
Yes, there is the good and the bad to refractors as there are with all types of telescopes, and we’ll delve into that too.
For now, here’s your quick-guide to just a handful of the best refracting telescopes at multiple price points that you can afford!
Best Refractor Telescopes In 2021
You’ll quickly find that refractor telescopes come at all different price points.
The varying price points are justified because there are entry-level, mid-level, and high-end refractors. Additionally, they can come with upgraded optics, various types of mounts including GoTo, and they can be especially efficient for astrophotography.
How much should you spend?
It depends on your budget. It’s always best to spend as much as you can afford since it usually means you’ll get better quality. Better quality can equal better visibility and tracking accuracy. Don’t forget to leave a little room in the budget for upgraded accessories, extra accessories, and snacks for your late nights ahead.
Since budgets also vary, we’ve provided a short list of refractor telescopes at a wide range of price points. The idea behind this genius move is to show you some of the best options that may fit the budget you have in mind.
Without further ado, let’s “refract and bend” these telescopes to reveal every little detail about them.
Best Refractor Telescope Reviews
1. Orion Grab-n-Go 80 ED80T CF
Immediately you see the 80 mm aperture and it may be a jaw-dropper to see a small size at such an expensive price point. What’s the big deal? Glad you asked.
Pros & Cons
✔️ True APO
✔️ Includes mount
✔️ Good accessories
✔️ Carbon fiber tube
The price is only a downside if you don’t have the cash to fork out, but it’s not bad at all considering it comes with the all the fixings from the mount to accessories and a hard case.
Even so, it still may not be enough to convince you that it’s worth the price, so let’s explore more. The Grab-n-Go setup has the ED80T CF OTA. The aperture is 80 mm, so it’s on the small side, but it provides a good balance between portability and ease of use.
It has a true APO triplet optical system with ED glass. The optical quality is outstanding for a telescope at this price point because there’s little to no CA that makes it good enough to image with. High contrast and excellent color fidelity is the result.
The tube is made with carbon fiber, so it shaves off a small amount of weight, but it’s primary benefit will come from its excellent tube stability during temperature changes. Think along the lines of instant cooldown, no expansion or contraction, and focusing issues related to it.
APO telescopes are very expensive and often come at this price point without any accessories or mount included in the buy. To land this entire setup at this price is a great deal.
2. Explore Scientific AR152
The ES (Explore Scientific) AR152 is a huge refractor that comes with a just as large price tag. As expected, you’ll want more out of it to justify the price. Let’s check it out.
Pros & Cons
✔️ Large aperture
✔️ Achromatic doublet
✔️ Good accessories
The AR152 is not a buy for beginners, and it’s not just the price that determines that. The fact is, this scope is a tube-only buy, so you’ll need a very generous budget to put together the other essentials to get observing or imaging.
So, about the OTA. This refractor has an achromatic optical system – two elements. As a fast telescope, this will help greatly with minimizing CA effects. The focal ratio of f/5 indicates it will be a wide-angle champ for making the most of the large 6” aperture to see faint and big deep-space objects with great resolution.
Good enough for astrophotography? Oh yeah! You’ll need to acquire the appropriate accessories and mount to get imaging done. It does come with a Vixen-style dovetail, so it will fit almost any mount of your choosing.
Since it’s a refractor, it doesn’t necessarily require collimation. But, if you find that things need tweaking over the scope’s lifetime, it can be done. The ES AR152 covers the fundamental features required of an excellent refractor. With that in mind, be prepared to be blown away by the views and have fun putting together your custom setup.
3. Celestron Omni XLT 120
The Omni comes in a price range that may be a little high for beginners, but what you get is a larger aperture out of a refractor. Is it worth it?
Pros & Cons
✔️ 120 mm aperture
✔️ EQ mount
✔️ Good accessories
❌ Not for astrophotography
The Omni XLT 120 has an aperture that’s almost 5”. This is quite large for a refractor, and it has good optical quality. This is an achromatic doublet, so it has good control over CA. All air-to-glass surfaces are multi-coated and is only a step down from fully multi-coated optics. Great glass? Done.
But, what is the Omni good for? It has a medium-speed focal ratio of f/8.3. Medium-speed scopes are good for seeking out planets and DSOs, and this model will provide satisfactory views of both types of objects with some compromise.
DSOs will be great to see especially since you have a larger aperture, so more detail can be resolved, and a wider field of view can be achieved with wide-angle and quality eyepieces. On planets, it will be a little harder to essentially “zoom” in on them because it’s faster than what you want for a planetary scope, but with a larger aperture, you will be able to make out more features at higher magnification than you could with, say, an f/4 with a 70 mm aperture.
The manual EQ mount has slow motion controls, good tracking, and stability. The only thing is, it’s a light-duty mount, so packing on imaging gear won’t work out so well for astrophotographers. However, for observers, this is a more than decent scope for excellent viewing sessions.
4. Meade ETX 80 Observer
Looking for GoTo at an inexpensive price point? That’s right! The ETX 80 is a refractor with GoTo at an outrageously low price. This may be your kind of buy.
Pros & Cons
✔️ Fast telescope
✔️ Achromat doublet
✔️ Limited astrophotography
❌ Light-duty tripod
The ETX 80 Observer is an achromat doublet, so you’ll see come CA minimization benefits at work, although it won’t be completely eliminated. For the price, it’s still fantastic to see a doublet over a single lens element.
It’s a fast f/5 scope, so DSOs and wide-angle viewing is the name of the game. Of course, you can try your hand at imaging, but the mount has alt-azimuth movement, so you will be limited somewhat. The tripod is also iffy, so it may be worth putting the mount on a quality tripod if you want to get serious with it.
The mount has a dual-axis drive and is told what to do via the AudioStar hand controller. Priced in the beginner’s budget, the GoTo will be convenient to use since it can automatically slew to objects that you may not know how to find on your own.
As an entry-level refractor with GoTo, I’d say the Meade ETX 80 is a fantastic buy. It gives a little taste of what it’s like to have computerized benefits and to dabble with taking photos. Views will be better than average thanks to the optical doublet.
5. Celestron AstroMaster 90 EQ
If you want to aim your sights at the planets, the AstroMaster 90 may be the budget telescope you need to buy.
Pros & Cons
✔️ 90 mm aperture
✔️ EQ mount
✔️ Slow-motion controls
✔️ Good for planets
❌ Upgrade in a couple years
The AstroMaster has a 90 mm aperture – larger than smaller refractors and a good size to get a little more light, resolution, and slightly higher magnification. Why do you need the extra power? Why, to make use of the slow focal specs to get more out of your planetary views, of course!
It has a slow f/11 ratio which restricts the field of view, but it makes for seeing planetary details all the better. With an EQ mount, you can try some unguided, short-exposure photos with a planetary camera, but a DSLR and guiding equipment will require a motor and heavy-duty mount/tripod system.
As is, the mount has manual movement and slow-motion controls. It’s good enough for visual, but for imaging, you will need to upgrade after you’ve learned the basics on the AstroMaster.
The Celestron telescope has a good price point that it can be used by everyone in the family or shared with others. It’s not a professional scope, so don’t let your expectations be a down payment on resentment. But, if you can recognize it as a quality, entry-level scope for casual observations and getting a better look at planets, you’ll be pleased.
6. Celestron Inspire 100 AZ
The Celestron Inspire telescope is an entry-level buy best suited to amateurs or families looking for a recreational refractor telescope for casual observation.
Pros & Cons
✔️ 100 mm aperture
✔️ Dual-purpose ready
✔️ Built-in focus micrometer
✔️ Built-in phone adapter
✔️ Built-in flashlight
❌ Course mount movement
For an entry-level model, it sure features a ton of extra perks. It has a built-in focus micrometer that may seem like a toy to advanced users, but it helps to make it easy for instant focusing especially when you’re going back and forth between the skies and land-based targets.
It’s instantly ready for terrestrial use because it comes with an erect image diagonal in the buy. To snap photos, a built-in smartphone adapter is included. It may look a little crude, but at least you know your phone will be held securely – no cracked screens anytime soon.
While we all know that light that can be detrimental to providing ideal seeing conditions, a built-in LED flashlight can prove to be essential, especially when you’re not sure what eyepieces you’re grabbing.
The Inspire 100 obviously has a 100 mm aperture – 4”. It’s a great starter aperture for seeking out faint features on planets or DSOs that are not visible with a smaller size. As a relatively fast telescope, you may want to set your sights on DSOs and take full advantage of the wide fields of view.
This is a great example of entry-level quality equipped with a few, extra perks to make the experience a little more enjoyable for beginners.
7. Celestron PowerSeeker 80EQ
The PowerSeeker 80 EQ is attractive to many for obvious reasons. It has an EQ mount, it’s inexpensive, and obviously it’s a refractor, so it has some double-duty seeing benefits.
Pros & Cons
✔️ Slow telescope
✔️ EQ mount
✔️ GoTo compatible
✔️ Good for planets
❌ Upgrades required
The low cost should give you a quick clue that there are compromises to be aware of. The accessories are not so great, but that’s expected with a budget telescope package. Since cheap accessories can exacerbate existing aberrations, you’ll want to upgrade as soon as possible.
Speaking of aberrations, the CA isn’t bad with this scope due to its much longer focal ratio of f/11. Field of view will be narrow, but it’s not necessarily a drawback when you’re looking to explore planets and their unique features.
The PowerSeeker OTA sits atop an EQ mount and is intended for visual-only use. So, you’d really want this scope if you want the extra tracking ability which you may very well need for high power viewing. As it stands, it’s a manual model, but it can be upgraded with GoTo if you end up going that route someday for fast and easy object acquisition. Even if you do upgrade to GoTo, don’t expect to do any imaging with it as the setup is a light-duty one.
While the PowerSeeker is a budget buy, it has all the benefits of a refractor. As such, it’s a great telescope for beginners and with an EQ mount and some additional skills can be developed.
8. SkyWatcher EvoGuide 50 APO
This is not your ordinary type of small refractor buy as it’s usually used as a secondary optic for much larger telescopes. The EvoGuide could stand on its own as a DSO imaging telescope for the photographer or can be your new-found guide scope for a professional setup.
Pros & Cons
✔️ Fast telescope
✔️ Wide field of view
✔️ Helical focuser
❌ Tube only
This is a tube-only buy, so if you intend to use it as a telescope for imaging, you’ll need to provide the mount and accessories required to get it done. To clear up some confusion, the EvoGuide is not a true APO, but it is a semi-APO telescope.
It has an achromatic doublet with ED glass which provides its APO-like benefits to minimize CA, improve contrast, and maintain resolution. Its helical focuser provides stability with its locking ring, so you can try to load it up with a matching CCD camera.
Due to its focal specs, it’s an extraordinary DSO scope with wide fields of view. This may prove to be helpful when cropping out any visible coma from the edges. You’ll need to do a little research if you need a longer focal length to achieve focus.
Since it’s so small and is designed to be mounted atop a larger scope, you can only imagine how easy it is to get setup and to transport it. Imagers, this may be your new addition to your “profesh” astrophotography system.
What to Look for in a Refractor Telescope
This guide section covers Refractor Telescopes 101. You will learn the basic workings of a refractor and why they can be so expensive. We lay out the good and the ugly side of these popular types of telescopes so that you can determine if a refractor is really worth the cost or if a cheap one is even worth buying.
How Refractors Work
Refractor telescopes use glass lenses to collect light and focus it to form a magnified image brighter and clearer than what the human eye can do on its own. There is an objective lens that refracts light, hence the name, and the long tube allows light rays to come to a focal point and focal plane so that an image can be seen with use of an eyepiece.
While it seems simple enough, there is much that can be done to provide a variety of refractor types. Special coatings can be applied to the lens to improve light transmission and anti-reflectivity as well as glass elements to correct for aberrations.
What does it look like to look through a refracting telescope?
The image is inverted (flipped upside down) but left-right correct. Refractors can use Amici prisms, also known as an erect image diagonal, to provide correct image orientation suitable for terrestrial viewing, that is, land-based observation much like what a spotting scope is used for.
This is why we all love refractors.
- True aperture size – Refracting telescopes are able to effectively use their entire aperture size for maximum light-gathering potential. This is because they lack mirrors that are dependent on reflection, so there is no secondary mirror that interferes with the use of light being collected, light being “blocked”, or how stray light is controlled. This in turn also improves visual contrast.
- Wide field of view – Small refractors tend to have fast focal ratios and small apertures. This provides excellent fields of view for wide-angle viewing. This means you will be able to see the entirety or much of a large object like a faint and big DSO. Wide fields are also good for deep space photography and low power observation.
- Portability – Since refractors tend to be on the smaller side, they’re especially convenient for travel. They’re lightweight and easy to setup. The larger they get, the more difficult it becomes to get set up and transport, not to mention the costs associated with a larger aperture refractor.
- Almost maintenance-free – Refractors are often recommended to beginners because they don’t require the maintenance a reflector demands. They have little to zero cool-down time, collimation is rarely necessary, there is no mirror shift, and the tube is closed protecting the inside.
- Accessory ease-of-use – They handle cheap eyepieces better than other types because they rarely suffer astigmatism and coma at low power. Typically, the larger the aperture, the more magnified optical issues become.
And, there’s the not so pretty side of refractors.
- Small size – Refractors come in small sizes, that is, with a small aperture from around 65 mm to 152 mm. The larger the aperture, the more expensive it gets.
- Price – Quality refractors are more expensive per inch in aperture compared to reflectors. This is because the lenses require quality materials, precision manufacturing, and are more expensive to acquire than what is involved with mirrors.
- Color fringing – This is what is known as chromatic aberration (CA) or color bleeding. You’ll notice this as a lack of sharpness around high-contrast and bright objects. It can be unacceptable for imaging and annoying for visual use. Key features like ED glass or doublet and triplet lenses help to correct for CA and is why these refractors are more expensive.
- Dew susceptibility – Closed telescopes like a refractor are susceptible to dew formation because the objective lens is placed right at the front end of the tube. Dew shields help, but there are other forms of dew protection products that serious imagers and observers may invest in.
Key Refractor Types
Single Lens Refractor
At the cheaper end of the refractor spectrum, you’ll likely have a single objective lens. They’re affordable and that’s about it. The main flaw that comes to mind is CA.
Without CA corrective measures, try to look for a slower refractor to minimize it – f/7 or slower. But, if a fast refractor is the order of the day, plan on getting the most satisfaction out of DSO observation as you must expect visible CA on the moon and planets.
As the name implies, it’s a doublet objective lens assembly typically with crown and flint elements. Doublets are better than single lens optics. It’s usually in this specialized category of refractors that you may see ED (extra-low dispersion) glass.
In a doublet, one element provides low dispersion benefits and the other provides extra-low dispersion benefits. While ED is a universal term, various ingredients can be used or combined to form the ED lens material, such as fluorite crystals, fluorophosphate, titanium dioxide, and others. Think of it as an ingredient that the glass is made with to create the lens. It provides improved control over CA which raises the cost of the scope.
While achromatic doublets do help to minimize CA, don’t expect to see it completely eliminated. They are also known as semi-apochromatic or semi-apo telescopes.
If achromatic is a doublet, then apochromatic is a triplet. Ironically, an APO triplet can also have more than three elements with at least one of those being ED glass. It goes without saying that APO scopes have exceptionally good control over CA along with other aberration-minimizing benefits.
APOs are coveted for astro-imaging because of the quality imaging benefits they provide. Obviously, the more elements there are, the heavier the optical assembly becomes which affects overall weight of the tube. Cost follows the same trend.
Who Makes the Best Refractor Telescope?
The answer will vary depending on who you ask. There are multiple brands that have their telescopes manufactured by the same company.
So, is one scope really different from another if it’s optically identical, made by the same company, but sold with a different label? GSO and Apertura come to mind? Some swear they are, and others see no noticeable difference. But, this isn’t the place for debate.
Popular brands to consider for refractor telescopes are the big-shot names: Celestron, Orion, SkyWatcher, Explore Scientific, and Meade. While these brands have high-end refractors, they also have a huge inventory of affordable scopes under $2000 for the average Joe.
Then, you have the giants that tend to reign above them all like Takahashi, Stellarvue, Tele Vue, and William Optics with telescope prices that many of us only wish we could afford.
What is the Best Refractor Telescope for Beginners?
A small size refractor telescope is the best starter scope for a beginner as they provide a good balance between convenience features, optical performance, and cost. This will encompass aperture sizes from 70 mm to 90 mm. A simple AZ mount will suffice for visual and recreational use.
There will be visible chromatic aberration (CA), and if you’re not willing to spend a lot more for ED glass on an achromatic doublet, you’ll find how quickly you’ll be okay with the CA.
If a beginner is interested in the planets, a scope with a slow focal ratio (f/10 or higher on a refractor) is what you want.
If you want to see more galaxies and deep-space objects, a fast focal ratio (f/5 or lower) will be better.
Do Refracting Telescopes Have Mirrors?
Refracting telescopes do not have mirrors and instead use glass lenses. This is what sets them apart from reflectors.
No mirrors mean no collimation, secondary mirror obstruction, and mirror shift. But, it does mean a slightly higher price per inch in aperture due to the materials and precision manufacturing required for glass assemblies.
Which is Best Refractor or Reflector Telescope?
While every person will have their own preference, the refractor and reflector telescope designs are just two different beasts. Sure, the end result is the same as you can see astronomical objects, but how it provides that view is done differently.
Put simply, a refractor uses glass lenses to refract and bend light to a focus point. A reflector uses mirrors and depends on reflection to bring an image into focus.
Refractors are more convenient to use due to the closed tube and lack of mirrors used in the optical system, but they are more expensive, come in smaller apertures, and suffer from chromatic aberration.
Reflectors are desired for their large apertures at low cost with no chromatic aberration issues. But, they require more user maintenance in the form of collimation, and they have various issues relating to mirror coatings, mirror shift, coma, and spherical aberration.
Refractors are versatile scientific instruments. Even though they’re generally smaller in size compared to Newtonians, they offer a lot of benefits that often make them a favorite type of telescope of the masses.
While they come at multiple price points, you should remember that you get what you pay for. The more you can invest into a quality refractor, the more optical benefits you can get out of it. Of course, the mount will largely contribute to the experience, so pay attention to that too.
If you can identify key features and acquire an understanding of the focal specs of a refractor, you’ll be able to confidently pull the trigger on the best type of refracting telescope to achieve your astronomy goals.