There’s a balancing act going on between a telescope’s technical specifications and types of materials and parts used to determine what type of astronomy it performs best for.
All this can affect the final cost that will eventually end up as a charge on your credit card statement.
What is it that you need to know about its price point?
Is it true that you get what you pay for?
Are cheap telescopes worth buying?
Let’s go over telescope price points so that you know what to expect and how to set your budget.
How Much Does a Good Telescope Cost?
While you can find some worthwhile telescopes under $200, most good telescopes cost anywhere from $300 right up to $20,000 USD! The price you pay for a telescope is dependent on many factors including the type of telescope, quality of mirror and glass coatings, aperture size, technology and included accessories.
There are multiple types of telescopes each with their strong-suits and weaknesses. Since one may be better than the other at a specific astronomy activity, it’s the norm to eventually own more than one telescope type at any point during the lifetime of your hobby.
Here are some of the most common types of telescopes that you will find in the amateur astronomy market and will likely end up owning.
The dollar sign indicator gives you a rough idea of where these types of telescopes may start in the price spectrum. For example, while Cassegrain telescopes can start off with entry-level models at a moderately expensive price point, they can be excessively expensive.
|Achromatic (doublet) refractor||$|
|Semi-APO/ED doublet refractor||$$|
|APO (triplet or more) refractor||$$$|
$ = Inexpensive
$$ = Moderately expensive
$$$ = Expensive
Telescope Features that Drive Up Cost
This is where the “you get what you pay for” mantra comes into play. The better the optical quality, the more expensive the telescope is. You will also pay more for features that are indirectly related to optical quality like accessories, mounts, and tripod features. These are just some of the key features to look for that may be why the scope costs so much.
The aperture is a very obvious telescope feature that is directly related to cost. The larger the objective lens or primary mirror, the more expensive you can expect the telescope to be. This is also true with refractors, but they can be pricey even though they still retain a small aperture. Most of the time, this is due to another feature that improves performance such as additional glass elements, an upgraded, robust mount, or even GoTo capability.
ED glass is one of those additional glass elements in a refractor that drives up cost. It provides extra-low dispersion benefits to help keep chromatic aberration in check. Low dispersion is already a benefit within an achromatic doublet, but when you add in ED glass, it gives it that extra CA correction performance making it more expensive than the typical achromat.
Apochromatic or APO refractors are extremely expensive. They consist of at least three elements to provide improved performance because of the refractor’s inherent design flaws. They’re often sold with just the tube and no mount. They provide the best type of CA correction a refractor can offer with excellent optical quality.
Mirror & Glass Coatings
The type and quality of optical coatings contributes to the overall cost. Both refractors and Newtonians need coatings. This helps to improve light transmission, reduce glare, and provide other optical benefits.
However, coating elements, formulas, density, layers, and application procedures vary between telescope models and manufacturers. Although there are some standard terms and materials used between manufacturers, there is no regulation to provide an industry standard.
Most of these coatings will be proprietary formulas. However, the proof is in the pudding. Experienced users may be able to tell an immediate difference while others will see how well it holds up over time.
Upgraded Manual Mounts
Manual mounts are underestimated. Many associate them with cheap, flimsy, and plastic mounts on budget telescopes. However, just like anything else, there are different levels of mount quality. There are many parts from the tripod legs, brackets, bearings, Teflon versus cheaper materials, mount accuracy, smoothness, slow motion controls, metal versus plastic parts, and much more. Any upgraded mechanical features in a manual mount can influence cost.
This is a major contributor to cost. Tech in the form of built-in WiFi, GPS, GoTo, PushTo, app control, features to assist with astrophotography, and more – they all come at a price and that price is usually high. Even so, some of these features are offered at very low price points, and this would mean it has the basic tech features and will likely provide rough to mediocre performance. Again, you get what you pay for. If you spend significantly more, you should expect significantly improved performance.
It’s best not to see eyepieces and all those small accessories that are included with the telescope as added “value” to the buy. The truth of it is, most are unusable and not paired appropriately with the telescope. Expensive telescopes may come with decent accessories if they’re included in the first place. Most tube-only telescopes lack any included accessories.
You should expect to buy extra or replacement accessories. Unfortunately, they’re not what most people would call affordable. When you’re buying a few, entry-level $30 eyepieces, it gets expensive really fast. But, then again, there are eyepieces that can cost $300 and more. Fortunately, it’s not a waste, it’s an investment as they can be used with a different telescope.
How Much Does a Good Telescope Cost?
Let’s set the budgets and provide some guidelines on what to expect within them. Each price range will also have some product examples of specific scopes or features mentioned.
Straight-up, don’t spend 50 bucks on a telescope – you’ll end up with junk. To advise a beginner to buy a telescope for under $100 is not good advice because there are many unusable scopes in this price range. The only way to turn it into good advice is if some education is provided that enables a beginner to identify the good ones from the many bad ones.
With that in mind, it’s better if you stay at the higher end closer to $100 as you can get. You will mostly find refractors that are termed “travel” or “grab-and-go” telescopes. They’re small, lightweight, and single-element refractors. They provide adequate performance but will suffer excessively from chromatic aberration. This isn’t a big deal for amateurs using the scope for only visual purposes. They will be around the 50 mm to 70 mm size.
Reflectors will be around $100 and on a tabletop mount. It will have a spherical primary mirror with a fast focal ratio which means the views will be blurry. The mirror comes fixed in place. Sizes start at 2.5”.
There is a jump in optical quality in telescopes under $300 versus in the $50-$100 price range. You will start seeing parabolic primary mirrors in tabletop Newtonians with collimation as a feature. This is an exceptional improvement that allows you to achieve the best focusing and clarity as much as possible. Newtonians will come in aperture of 4” to 6”.
Newtonians and refractors will come with tabletop/bench and full-length mount/tripods. Many scopes will be aimed towards beginners and kids. The mounts will be basic with a plethora of manual alt-azimuth mounts. They are light-duty mounts and there is to be some reasonable amount of tremors and shaky movement to be expected.
Refractors in this price range come in apertures of 60 mm to 90 mm with few 100 mm models available. They will likely have a single element lens, but there may be some achromat doublets at the higher end.
- Orion StarBlast 4.5 Astro – 4” tabletop Newtonian w/collimation and parabolic mirror
- Celestron Inspire 100AZ – 100 mm refractor
- Carson Red Planet RP300 – 4.5” Newtonian on EQ mount
This is the price range where you can get a taste of new features. Inexpensive GoTo and manual mounts with upgraded features like slow-motion controls start to appear. Even if you have GoTo in this price range, it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily suited to astrophotography. However, it does give you the ability to acquire computerized tracking and slewing on a budget even if movement is course and not as accurate as you would like.
As far as the optics go, there’s not a huge change. You should be able to find 6” and 8” Dobsonians telescopes under $500, and perhaps more 100 mm refractors.
- Orion SkyQuest XT8 – 8” Dobsonian at low price
- Celestron Omni XLT 150 – 6” Newtonian with manual EQ mount
- Celestron NexStar 4SE – 4” SCT with GoTo
This is where things get interesting. It’s the budget that would be considered mid-range for people who know about telescopes and yet it would be expensive for beginners and those who don’t know much about them.
These telescopes offer everything at a decent price point. GoTo is better, PushTo is an option, there should be no spherical mirrors on a fast Newtonian here, and all Newtonians should have collimatable primary mirrors. Mounts are more stable, accurate, and heavier-duty which all aids with achieving maximum performance from your setup.
Apertures get bigger with 6” to 12” reflectors, mostly Dobsonians, and refractors also get bigger with sizes starting to vary between 114 mm, 127 mm, and 152 mm. Rather than getting bigger in aperture, optical quality goes up. You will see semi-APO telescopes under $1000 as tube-only buys or with mounts included.
This price range also introduces catadioptric telescopes, the SCT and MAK. They usually come with a fork-arm mount with alt-azimuth movement, but there are EQ mounts too. This is the starting price point for catadioptrics as you will find that they can be even more expensive.
- Zhumell Z12 Deluxe – 12” Dobsonian with cooling fan
- SkyWatcher EvoStar ED80 Pro – Semi-APO standalone, tube-only telescope
- Explore Scientific AR152 – Refractor with 6” aperture standalone, tube-only telescope
- Celestron NexStar 6SE – SCT with GoTo
As you’ve noticed, things just get better from here on out. The more you spend, the more quality you must demand out of the OTA and the mount. It’s best to be specific about what is you will be doing with your scope. Is it taking photos of planets or DSOs? Will you be taking long exposures? Are you using it only for visual? There are different telescope features to look for that will be better suited to your astronomy interest.
Refractors will still have their small sizes but there will be a better variety of high-quality refractors to choose from. Some will have very good and accurate, manual mounts, GoTo, and APO optics to provide stellar optical quality.
Dobsonian telescopes will come in very large sizes of 10”+, have GoTo, cooling fans, and even collapsible tubes or truss rods. Standalone tubes may also have multiple or customizable mounting connections that allows use of many accessories, achieving excellent tube balance, and mounting to the larger Losmandy dovetails.
Variety is the name of the game in this price range, and preciseness is expected from head to toe from the optics in the tube to the tube itself and down towards the mount to the very bottom of the tripod legs.
- Meade 8 LX200 ACF – An SCT with a hyperbolic secondary mirror with GoTo
- SkyWatcher FlexTube 250P SynScan – Collapsible Dobsonian with GoTo
- Orion Grab-n-Go ED80T CF – APO refractor with ED glass and carbon fiber tube
How Much Should You Spend?
By now, you can see that telescopes are not cheap toys. They’re real scientific instruments with real glass, mirrors, and a lot of other parts that help to bring that far-off view of the galaxies to your eye.
Setting a budget is no menial task. Whether your budget is a tight one or if you have some cash to burn, there’s a lot that must happen and be learned before you even think about spending it. However, having a set budget helps to narrow down the options.
If you can determine what type of telescope you want, the features you need and can do without, and what you want to use it for, you’ll be better prepared to pick the right telescope. Next time, and there will be a next time, you can expand your horizons with a telescope that would be better suited for a different task, something that meets weight requirements, or is better suited to imaging. Don’t skimp but spend as much as you can afford. Remember, you get what you pay for.