Consumer Reports - A Look at Buying Astronomy Stuff

Jack Kramer

If you're in the market for a telescope or accessories, where do you go to buy them? Unlike cameras, sporting goods, or books, there just aren't any local "telescope stores". Lacking a mass market, manufacturers such as Meade, Celestron, and Tele Vue prefer to deal only with larger retail vendors. This limits the ability of small local stores to supply the telescopes and accessories we crave. Therefore, most equipment is obtained through mail order suppliers who deal in the nationwide marketplace. With regard to the reliability of suppliers and the products they sell, here are some thoughts based on the experiences of a number of amateur astronomers.

Most items on the market nowadays are pretty good in terms of quality, though there are always exceptions. I have heard of more quality problems with Meade products than with any other manufacturer, but this may be in part due to the law of numbers -- Meade simply sells much more equipment than any other manufacturer. Meade has been a leader in bringing to market technologically-sophisticated but relatively inexpensive products. Here are examples of problems:

  • One of our members purchased a Meade 10-inch LX200 several years ago. When he opened the box, the corrector plate fell out of the telescope. It had never been secured properly. He sent it right back.
  • A woman at Astrofest said she really loves her Meade 5-inch refractor, but she's on her third mounting. The clock drives never worked properly on the first two. Fortunately, she had purchased it at Shutan Camera in Chicago and was able to exchange the faulty mountings with little trouble.
  • We received an e-mail from a man who had recently purchased a Meade SCT and found that all the star images were elongated. He was looking for some suggestions on what to do because in his words, "Meade was no help at all".

This isn't intended as a Meade-bashing; other brands can have problems, as well. For example, I've heard that the Russian-made telescopes suffer from inconsistent quality. Obviously, the more complex the item, the more potential there exists for problems.

When it comes to suppliers, you're looking for knowledgeable sales people, honesty in terms of what they have in stock, no sales pressure, and delivery as promised. Price is certainly a consideration, but weigh all the factors. The only thing mail order suppliers have is customer confidence; if they lose that, they won't stay in business. The full-line suppliers who have regularly received the highest marks include Astronomics, Pocono Mountain Optics, and Orion Telescope Center. Orion's prices tend to be somewhat higher than others; in a way, I think we're paying for their slick catalogs. Our nearest retail outlet is Shutan Camera in Chicago and Highland Park. Here we have no shipping charge to pay, but there is the Illinois state sales tax; however, there's a lot to be said for dealing locally. (In their Chicago store, they also have a selection of used equipment.) The east coast discounters such as Adorama, Focus Camera, and Wholesale Optics have the lowest prices, but the poorest reputation for customer support. I've also dealt with various limited line suppliers such as University Optics, Lumicon, Tuthill, Thousand Oaks, etc. and have always been pleased with the service. Some suggestions:

  • Check the product reviews in Sky & Telescope and Astronomy magazines. Past S&T reviews are also archived on their web site:
  • Ask the supplier about their own guarantee. Usually you have a 30-day return privilege. Also make sure the products themselves have a warranty of some sort beyond the supplier's guarantee.
  • For the sake of convenience, it is often better to purchase locally. The only supplier in our general area that carries a large selection is Shutan Camera. If something is wrong, you can take in the item and frequently get an exchange on the spot.
  • Check out the equipment right away in actual use. If you buy an item in the summer, there's a better chance you'll have clear skies to try it out. If you're not sure whether it's working properly, ask for advice from someone more knowledgeable.
  • If anything's wrong in the initial checkout, immediately send it back to the place where you bought it -- not to the manufacturer. Also contact the supplier if it looks like the problem is shipping damage. After the supplier's guarantee period is over, you can still contact the supplier, but you'll probably have to try to get satisfaction from the manufacturer. Keep all the original boxes and packing material for several months; you just might need them.
  • What if something is wrong with the item, but you feel you can fix it yourself? Use your judgment, but if there's the slightest doubt send it back!
  • Buying used equipment can save you money. There are no warranties, but this can still be a good alternative, especially if you know the seller.