Telescope equipment suppliers want to showcase their products, so it's wise to take some of their advertising rhetoric with a few grains of salt. That's especially true when prices considerably undercut the competition. It's hard to do a quality job when you're aiming at the lowest price point in a fiercely competitive market.
To keep prices low, some products are subcontracted to sources in China. The quality and design of Chinese-made gear is often reasonably good, but sometimes it's pretty bad. The critical factor is the distributor's tolerance for passing poor quality on to the consumer. Stellarvue is a firm that markets refractors that have received consistently favorable reviews from users. They get some of their optics from the same sources in China as do other firms, but they rigorously test the lenses and reject many of them. Of course, their prices are a bit higher because of this.
Seriously flawed products often are quietly dropped or widely heralded replacement models are introduced. Some products are worth really improving. For example, in early 2002, Meade made a largely unpublicized improvement to some mounts in its ETX line by adding more metal in the fork arm structure. Chris Erickson of Anchorage, Alaska, owned both the original ETX 125 and the improved version. Here are his comments: "Compared to my present '125', the first one seemed to vibrate and jump around a lot when told to GOTO an object. Settling seemed to take quite a bit longer too. The new mount is much smoother in takeoffs and landings. The other thing I have noticed is that different eyepiece weights would easily take the older '125' off-target (mount sag) but the redesigned '125' does much better." Celestron also quietly modified its NexStar line in response to user complaints about the drive system in early versions. Meade and Celestron both are in the forefront of product innovation and knew they had basically good products that deserved refinement. The moral to this story is that it might be a good idea not to buy the first production run of an enticing new product.
The worst situation is when poor products continue to be marketed. But don't dealers have some inkling about the quality of what they're selling? Yes, but marketing clout plays a role too. On an Internet group there was a discussion of Meade's low cost DS line of telescopes, which has serious flaws. Joe O'Neil, the owner of an optics shop in London, Ontario, reported that an authorized Meade dealer refused to carry the DS series, but Meade told him he had no choice if he wanted to continue to sell Meade's high-end products. In fact, they called to say they'd checked his web site and noticed the DS series wasn't included. He ended up buying a minimum quantity that he stored in his basement and eventually sold off at a bargain price.
What about the published specs? According to telescope guru Philip Harrington, the optical world generally uses linear diameter when giving the size (in percent) of the central obstruction in reflecting telescopes. Image quality is related directly to the diameter of the central obstruction - the smaller the better. But Harrington notes that Meade consistently uses area in its specs because the numbers look smaller. Area of the obstruction affects image brightness but is not directly related to definition. And a review in Sky & Telescope pointed out that when referring to the central obstruction in its Maksutov-Cassegrains, Meade cites only the size of the secondary mirror while neglecting to also include its rather large baffle. That doesn't make them bad products, but does call the specs into question. As RASC telescope critic Geoff Gaherty wrote, "The one thing that Meade does better than any other manufacturer is their advertising."
I think it's no stretch to say that we are living in the golden age of amateur astronomy. Some very nice instruments have been introduced at surprisingly reasonable prices. But in the red-hot competition for consumer dollars, a few less than stellar products have made their way to market with a lot of superlatives in the ads. Rather than place undue trust in the ads, it's wise to find out what actual users have to say. Among the many Internet groups devoted to specific products, you'll find first-hand reports and even advice on fixing product flaws. Hype comes cheap!Published in the June 2005 issue of the NightTimes