Meade’s ETX-125 Observer is the latest product in Meade’s ETX (Everybody’s Telescope) line of telescopes, being the largest of the three ETX models. However, has the Observer upgrade really benefited the ETX-125? Let’s find out via this review.
A Brief History of the ETX-125
Meade’s ETX line was born in 1996 with the original Meade ETX-90, retroactively dubbed the “RA” or Astro version. Designed to copy the highly-successful (and highly expensive) Questar and replace Meade’s old 4” Schmidt-Cassegrain which never sold well due to cost, the telescopes were a massive success and subsequently spawned a whole ETX line.
The ETX-125EC was born around 1999, with the launch of the new ETX “EC” line – the original ETX was a simple clock-driven affair, while the EC scopes had simple push-button hand controllers. The EC scopes also included 60mm and 70mm refractors and a 105mm Maksutov.
The EC line was short-lived and the ETX AT series superseded it in the early 2000s, with full GoTo hand controllers using Meade’s Autostar system. The ETX-80 was created sometime during this time period and eventually replaced the 60mm and 70mm scopes, which were little more than cheap toys – they were too small to show anything, didn’t even come with finderscopes, and had the optical quality of something you’d find in a Cracker Jack prize.
The ETX-125AT over its lifetime went through numerous variations since, including various internal upgrades and also a higher-priced Premier Edition which had metal gears (as opposed to plastic ones) and better GoTo technology, as well as other features. Production of the ETX-105 ended in 2009 and the 125 and 80 ended in 2011, leaving the original ETX-90 as the last scope standing in the ETX line.
In early 2016 the new ETX Observer line was announced, adding upgrades to the ETX-90 and bringing back the ETX-80 (in an incarnation which has little in common with the original apart from the name and the same specs). Later in the year, Meade announced a new ETX-125 to little fanfare, and the new ETX-125 Observer scopes started delivering in early 2017.
The Optical Tube
The original ETXes were produced at the Meade plant in the United States before production moved to Mexico to reduce costs.
The new ETX-125 is made in China by Jinghua Optical Co. which also produces telescopes for Explore Scientific and Bresser. Thus, the ETX-125 tube is nothing more than the Bresser/Explore Scientific FirstLight 127mm Maksutov with a different back end and Meade branding. Optically, these scopes are very good performers – they are designed primarily for the Moon and planets due to the long focal ratio (f/15), but have sufficient aperture to do some deep-sky work.
The #1 problem I have with all ETX incarnations is the focus knob. Despite there being plenty of room on the back for a large, rubberized knob, the ETXes come with a tiny, metal knob that can be hard to reach when the scope is at certain positions.
The flip mirror works, but you’ll need an adapter to put a visual back or camera adapter on the back of the scope, and the scope will not be able to reach the zenith/pole (depending on whether it’s used in alt-azimuth or equatorial mode) because whatever you have attached will actually hit the base of the fork. For safety, you’ll also have to go into the scope’s settings to set an altitude limit so that the scope doesn’t accidentally crash your camera/erecting prism/etc into the mount when slewing. Forget putting a DSLR camera on for anything but terrestrial photography – you won’t have the clearance.
The flip mirror also tends to have a shifted image relative to the focal plane when using the telescope, and you’re almost guaranteed to have to refocus when switching between the main port and the rear port, which further complicates using it. Also, there’s nothing stopping you from plugging your CCD or DSLR onto the regular eyepiece port.
All of this makes the flip mirror a colossal waste of time, money, and funds and it is little more than a nice added gimmick you can brag about to your friends who don’t have an ETX.
Unlike the smaller Observer scopes, the ETX-125 optical tube cannot be removed from the fork mount easily, but most users will never do this anyway.
Unlike prior incarnations of the ETX, the dust cap is a plastic clip-on unit rather than a metal thread-on one. While a metal cap is preferable, threading the cap on and off is a little time-consuming so I consider this an improvement.
The ETX-125 Observer comes with a 26mm Plossl for low power (73x) and a 9.7mm Plossl for high power (196x).
Both eyepieces have a lot of plastic in the construction, and the 26mm has a recessed eye lens making it short on eye relief. The 9.7mm is short on eye relief simply due to the optical design. Both work okay, but for the high price and quality of the scope, I’d expect better eyepieces. Also, a 32mm Plossl would deliver slightly lower power (59x) and a wider field of view (0.88 degrees versus 0.68 degrees) – far better for observing most deep-sky objects as well as initial alignment.
The Observer scopes all come with an incredibly cheap red-dot finder which has a tinted window (utterly idiotic to have on an astronomical instrument), but since all, you’re really using it for is to align the GoTo, that’s okay.
The scope also comes with a small bubble level/compass meant to sit on the accessory tray – though it also works as a backup eyepiece-end dust cap, as it fits the scope’s 1.25” port.
The ETX-125 Observer, like its smaller siblings, has a somewhat fattened mount with bowed fork arms. I don’t love the aesthetic and it makes the scope a little less compact, but at most it’s a minor inconvenience.
Unlike previous non-Premier ETX scopes, the ETX-125 Observer has real metal gears in the mount, which makes it quieter and less prone to wear and tear over time.
Also unlike previous ETX scopes, the ETX-125 Observer sports no internal clock, meaning you have to put in the time and date every time you set up. In addition to being a nuisance and prone to causing a slight reduction in accuracy, this was a nice advantage over the Celestron NexStar scopes and it seems stupid for Meade to have removed it.
The tripod comes with a tilt plate – basically a poor man’s wedge – to allow for polar alignment. Since the ETX-125 is an f/15 telescope that can’t be autoguided you really aren’t going to be doing deep-sky astrophotography with it, so the only advantage of equatorial tracking is to eliminate field rotation when doing lunar and planetary imaging – a slight convenience at best.
However, the tilt plate has no precise markings and there is also no marker on the tripod for the exact latitude setting, so you’d have to use the scope to directly sight the pole – a rather troublesome inconvenience. If that weren’t enough, there’s no way to adjust the azimuth so to get a precise alignment you’ll have to resort to picking up and rotating the whole tripod/mount/scope assembly, and obviously, it’s hard to achieve much precision with that. Thus, I would put the tilt plate in the same category as the flip mirror – a cool gimmick that does technically work and will impress your friends but has little practical value.
The tripod is sturdy and made of tubular steel, so the ETX-125 Observer has none of the stability problems that plague many cheap GoTo telescopes.
The accessory tray isn’t so much a tray as a brace for the tripod with a few holes for 1.25” eyepieces – and all plastic, too. I don’t like most accessory trays, but I would’ve appreciated a metal one on this scope at the very least.
The GoTo is accurate and the AudioStar controller provides detailed audio descriptions about each object – I typically turn it off as it consumes more power and can be annoying to those around you if you’re at a star party or have neighbors nearby.
Speaking of power consumption – the ETX-125 Observer takes 8 AA batteries. The scope will consume these very quickly, so a portable DC power supply is something I highly recommend. Don’t forego putting those AA batteries in though – like most scopes, the ETX-125 will immediately shut down if DC power is accidentally lost and there are no batteries installed, and you’ll have to re-enter the time and date and align the scope again before you can resume observing.
5” of aperture plus a super long focal length and GoTo doesn’t yield too much. Some bright planetary nebulae like the Blinking Planetary, Eskimo Nebula, and of course the Ring and Dumbbell nebulae are interesting, but that’s about it.
The Andromeda Galaxy would show a dust lane with a 5”, but the ETX-125’s super long focal length means you’re cramped at too high of a power to see it. Many of the Messier galaxies like M33, M74, M95, M96, and a few in Virgo are downright impossible to see due to the ETX’s f/15 focal ratio making them too diffuse and dim to shine against the background.
The ETX does pretty well on globular star clusters. It’ll show you most of the ones in the Messier catalog (except for some of the dimmer and more diffuse ones like M4 and M55), but none will be resolvable as anything but smudges except perhaps M3 and M13.
The ETX-125’s extensive double star database allows you to find pretty much any double you want with it, and the scope’s optical quality, long focal length, and lack of a diffraction-inducing spider holding the secondary mirror make it especially suited for the task of splitting double stars. This is an area where the GoTo is actually pretty useful.
The Moon and planets are where the ETX-125’s long focal length and high-quality optics really shine. The Moon may show thirty craterlets in Clavius and the one in Plato on a night of good seeing, along with countless valleys, ridges, flatlands, mountains, and of course craters. Venus is a beautiful crescent, Mars shows a fair amount of detail at opposition, Jupiter’s Great Red Spot and cloud bans are fantastic (though the moons still remain pinpoints) and the Saturnian clouds, rings, Cassini division, and its family of moons are visible. Uranus and Neptune are nothing more than colorful, star-like dots – the ETX-125’s meager aperture is insufficient to reveal their moons.
While 5” aperture is a little small to really appreciate the usefulness of GoTo, it is enough that I wouldn’t totally discount it.
An 8” or 10” Dobsonian is cheaper and faster to set up than the ETX-125, but there are certain cases/scenarios where I myself would pick the ETX over a larger Dobsonian.
So in my book? Recommended, although not the highest.