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, 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” (Electronic Controller) 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The EC line was short-lived and the ETX AT (AT for Autostar) series superseded it in the early 2000s, with full GoTo hand controllers using Meade’s Autostar system.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 poor optics.
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 Performance Overview
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 scope’s built-in flip mirror diagonal 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.
Looking Closer at the Accessories
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, you would 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.
Reviewing the Mount Features
The ETX-125 Observer, like its smaller siblings, has an alt-azimuth fork mount. These fork arms make it quite wide in profile and thus it requires a rather large case if you plan on flying with it or packing it under anything. Unlike most previous models, the ETX-125 Observer has real metal gears in the mount, which makes it quieter and less prone to wear and tear over time.
The tripod comes with a tilt plate – basically a poor man’s equatorial wedge – to allow for polar alignment and equatorial tracking . 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, we 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 it’s all plastic, too.
The GoTo is accurate and the AudioStar controller provides detailed audio descriptions about each object – which can be annoying to those around you if you’re at a star party or have neighbors nearby, so we recommend just turning it off.
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 forget to put 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.
Should I buy a Used ETX-125 Observer?
Unless it’s deeply discounted, even a used ETX-125 Observer is likely to cost more than another 5” GoTo telescope. If this isn’t the case or doesn’t concern you, the ETX-125 is a fine scope.
There are multiple computerized instruments that offer quite a bit more value than the ETX-125 at a similar price.
- The Celestron NexStar 6SE offers a wider field of view, 2” accessory capability, larger aperture and an easier-to-use mount than the ETX-125.
- The Celestron Astro-Fi 130 offers about the same aperture as the ETX-125, but at a significantly lower price point and with the bonuses of a super-wide field of view and the ability to be controlled from your smartphone or tablet.
- The Orion XT8i doesn’t move on its own, but its IntelliScope controller helps you find targets and the huge 8” of aperture absolutely blows away what the ETX-125 is capable of.
- The Celestron NexStar 127SLT has almost exactly the same optics as the ETX-125 and also features a computerized mount, for those who must have a 5” Maksutov.
Aftermarket Accessory Recommendations
The included eyepieces with the ETX-125 are okay, but you might want something for higher power in the 6-8mm range (316-238x). Our top picks would be a 6mm goldline or 8mm Agena Starguider. The 316x provided by a 6mm is about the most the ETX can handle, while an 8mm provides just a smidge more magnification than the included 9.7mm, which is helpful for splitting tight double stars and picking out fine details on the planets. You might also want to consider a 32mm Plossl eyepiece (59x) to get the maximum field of view possible at low magnification.
Additionally, we’d recommend purchasing a dew shield to increase contrast as well as of course prevent dew, and a small rechargeable power supply – it saves a lot of money compared to burning through AA batteries on the regular.
What can you see?
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. Galaxies are disappointing due to the ETX’s small aperture and narrow field of view. However, the ETX does pretty well on globular star clusters. It’ll show you most of the ones in the Messier catalog, but it kind of lacks the resolving power to bring out many individual stars.
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.