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Tele Vue Alt-Az Mounts: Tele-Pod, Panoramic and Gibraltar

ThreeTVMounts

Tele Vue scopes and mounts: TV-60 on Tele-Pod, TV-76 on Panoramic, NP-127 on Gibraltar 5.

I remember the first time I saw a Tele Vue Panoramic mount. It was back in the late Nineties when goto was really getting going. I had started looking for information on Tele Vue telescopes, imagining another computer-filled techno wonder.

When I first saw a photo of a Panoramic, I was surprised. Pictured with a Pronto, I loved the elegant simplicity and the courage of Tele Vue in marketing premium scopes and mounts with no electronics at all. I personally hadn’t owned an altaz mount since I was about 12, so the idea was a bit of a shock, but when I thought about it, it made perfect sense. For a grab-and-go scope what you want is something you can just use quickly and intuitively, almost the way you do binoculars. And being made of just aluminium and wood and brass, if I looked after it this thing would last the rest of my life (and maybe beyond); I found that attractive too.

So I bought a Panoramic, which now holds the distinction of being the piece of astro gear I owned longest (well apart from a 70’s Erfle 20mm eyepiece). I have since owned all the other versions of this mount, so I’m reviewing them as a group.

Design and Build

Note: The head on the Panoramic is the same head you also find on the Tele-Pod and the Gibraltar; only the tripods and labels differ. The Gibraltar 5, made expressly for the NP127, is a bit different and I have added a section about it at the end. Also different is the original ‘Upswing’ mount that looks the same but had no azimuth bearing – you had to supply your own by mounting it on a photo head.

The Tele-Pod head works like a large spotting-scope head. There are no slow motion controls; it’s about as simple as it could be. To use it, you just push the scope around in altitude and azimuth, either using the handle provided or with the OTA itself.

The Tele-Pod difference is in the way it works. Instead of sitting on the mount, the scope rests in the Tele-Pod head, in a swinging cradle. This lowers the centre of gravity and reduces (but not eliminates) that horrible tendency in spotting scope heads to suddenly let go and bang the scope on the tripod. Properly balanced, even when loose, the Tele-Pod cradle just sits in place.

The cradle pivots in a pair of smooth brass altitude bearings set in a shallow fork that rotates on another bearing. All the bearings have tension adjustment by knurled knobs; on the altitude bearings these are made of solid brass. The fork and cradle are fabricated from finely cut and machined aluminium plate finished in black anodising. The parts are held together by recessed allen bolts. It’s an elegant piece of engineering.

All the Tele Vue mounts have two holes in the side of the fork on each side to accept Tele Vue’s eyepiece brackets. These brackets are an (inexpensive) accessory, but highly recommended as they hold three 1.25” EPs and two 2” eyepieces on the mount, allowing you to securely combine mount, scope and eyepieces into a grab-and-go portable observatory.

Tele Vue provide digital setting circle encoders and a computer with a 2000-object database for the Tele-Pod head in a package called “Sky Tour” that isn’t a goto (you still have to push), but tells you where to go to find an object and also tells you what you’re pointed at. It requires a two-star alignment. The encoders attach to pre-drilled holes in the mount head. I haven’t tried it.

The base of the fork is threaded to fit any photo tripod, with both 3/8 and ¼-20 threads built in. Two holes in the cradle are provided that match all Tele Vue clamshells and ring plates and some other small scopes too (Stellarvue clamshells, for example). Other scopes will need adapter plates.

Tele Vue don’t advertise the fact, but the Tele-Pod head is the same whichever tripod you buy it on and the Panoramic and Gibraltar tripods just screw on with different adapters. Only the labels on the altitude bearings differ between the mounts. So you could buy just one head and attach it to one of several different tripods, depending on your scope and application. The main difference, then, between the three different mounts is the tripod.  We’ll look at each in turn.

Update 2019: Tele Vue now seem to have replaced their bespoke wooden tripods with similar models from the German company Berlebach, whilst the folding Tele-Pod tripod still seems much like the one reviewed here. I have other Berlebach products that are excellent, so this move makes sense, but I haven’t tried the Tele Vue branded Berlebachs.

Tele Vue Panoramic Mount

The Panoramic has a light weight wooden tripod made either of ash or walnut, the latter with brass fittings.  The tripod has a centre tray and attaches to the head with a push-fitting (which you can buy separately to adapt a generic Tele-Pod head, if you buy them separately).The Panoramic is very light and easily portable and extends to a good height, allowing standing viewing even for a 6 footer. The Panoramic is designed for TeleVue’s smaller OTAs (Pronto, TV76, TV85), but works OK with the NP101 at medium powers, just as TeleVue promise.

An early version lacked the threads for eyepiece holders and Sky Tour, whilst the tripod had a splitter instead of the centre tray – see below.

Panoramic

TV76 and Panoramic – pretty and functional.

Early walnut-and-brass Panoramic with Tele Vue Renaissance.

Tele Vue Tele-Pod Mount

Confusingly, the generic Tele Vue head – used on all three mounts - is called the Tele-Pod head, even if you buy it on its own. But you can buy it with a specific lightweight tripod designed for TV’s smallest scopes like the Ranger or TV-60.

The Tele-Pod tripod is made of tubular aluminium insulated from knocks by foam and the whole thing is finished in satin black. It is very light weight. The legs are in just two sections and adjust with twist collars that are much easier to use than the clamps usually found on photo tripods.

Like a photo tripod, the Tele-Pod tripod has an extending centre pillar with a 3/8 inch bolt on the top.  The legs are tensioned to fold in on their own when you lift it up and for this reason there is no eyepiece tray. I thought these things were design flaws at first, but that was my misunderstanding.

The Tele-Pod tripod isn’t nearly as nice to look at as the furniture-quality Panoramic and Gibraltar, but has a couple of tricks that the wooden tripods can’t match. For one thing, the legs are much easier to adjust for length, but you don’t need to do that as much anyway, due to the extending centre post. The centre post is incredibly handy for ensuring that the eyepiece always remains at the perfect height: it works very well for the TV-60 with the post extended, but doesn’t feel quite as safe with the TV-76; you wouldn’t want to use the centre post with a heavier OTA.

The final clever feature of the Tele-Pod tripod is those self-folding legs. True they can trap you fingers, but the big advantage is that you don’t have to manoeuvre a tripod out of the door. Just hold by one leg with scope tucked under the arm, let the other legs fold in, open the door with your free hand and walk out! Again, it’s the TV-60 that works best in this mode and makes for the most portable setup I have tried.

TelePod_1

Tele-Pod with TV60 – the best grab-n-go setup I’ve tried.

GrabnGo

Tele-Pod: grab... and go!

TV-76 is less ideal on the Tele-Pod tripod.

Tele Vue Gibraltar Mount

The Gibraltar is the heaviest of the mounts and designed for the 4” TeleVue scopes, the NP-101 and NP-102. It attaches the Tele-Pod head by a long 3/8” stud through top of the tripod. The tripod itself is of chunky ash or walnut (but without brass accents this time) and looks the best of the three. It’s still just about light enough to pick up and walk outside with, including the telescope and a couple of eyepieces. The same tripod is also used for the heavy-duty Gibraltar 5 mount described below.

NP101_1

Ash Gibraltar with a tele Vue NP-101.

Using the Tele-Pod Head on a photo tripod

Your final option is to buy the Tele-Pod head separately and attach it to any sturdy photo tripod via the ¼-20 or 3/8 threaded holes in the base. I once had one attached to a big Manfrotto and this made for a very flexible and portable mount due to the sturdiness and infinite adjustability of the tripod, which was designed for heavy cameras.

Tele Vue Gibraltar 5 Mount

This is a completely different head that attaches to the standard Gibraltar tripod and is designed for use with bigger OTAs (specifically the NP-127). The design is basically the same as the Tele-Pod, but everything is bigger, even the gauge of aluminium used. The azimuth bearing is much larger and quite stiff to turn on its own, but with the NP-127 installed it feels just right. The altitude bearings are bigger too. Attachment of an OTA is via the familiar pair of bolt holes, just like the Tele-Pod and the head goes on the tripod using a long 3/8 stud, just like the smaller Tele-Pod does. Interestingly, Tele Vue have retained the ability to remove the stud and screw the Gib 5 onto a photo tripod (but it would have to be a big one).

NP127_Gib5

Gibraltar 5 with NP-127.

ED120_Gib5

Gibraltar 5: Designed for the NP-127, but the Sky-Watcher ED120 Equinox bolts straight on and looks gorgeous.

In Use - The Night Sky

The Tele-Pod head, attached to whichever tripod, makes a very good way to sweep for clusters and DSOs at low powers and it’s my opinion that this was really what it was designed for. It’s also an excellent support for terrestrial viewing.

At medium powers, the Tele-Pod head is generally fine too – smooth and easy. However, at high powers it can be another story. A lot depends on the OTA you’re using.

Surprisingly, longer OTAs can be easier to control at high powers. Very short OTAs like the TV-76 don’t have enough leverage to overcome “stiction” in the bearings. When you nudge the mount to compensate for Earth’s rotation, you end up nudging too far and losing the object.

Wide-field eyepiece designs, like Naglers and Ethos, work well for high powers on Tele-Pod mounted scopes simply because you don’t have to nudge as often.

The other problem with short telescopes is that they are very sensitive to balance point and if you are not careful with the tension on the bearings, the head can tip forward or back when you swap eyepieces. This can lead to a most unpleasant “donk” as the front of the scope hits the cover for the azimuth axis, but at least that cover is made of Delrin plastic, so it doesn’t mark the tube.

The TV-60 and Range don’t suffer so much from these problems. They are easy to balance on their sliding bar and can’t take the heavy 2” eyepieces anyway.

The Panoramic and Gibraltar work very similarly, with the beefier Gibraltar legs absorbing vibrations better for high powers, as claimed. One slight criticism is that the varnish seems a bit thin on both tripods: the ash-wood can get marked with dew and water drops after a while. A regular dose of furniture wax helps to prevent this.

The Gibraltar 5 does a good job of coping with bigger OTAs and is commendably smooth when nudging to track. In fact, it works better than the Tele-Pod in most situations, perhaps due to the extra leverage and momentum of the heavier tube.  However, there was an initial problem with large amplitude, low frequency oscillations that took ages to settle. I was able to all but cure this by adjusting the three dome-headed allen screws that the mount rests on, so they all contacted the base. However, the Gibraltar 5/NP-127 still vibes more than is ideal and again it works best for lower to medium powers, sweeping for clusters and DSOs with intuitive ease.

A grab-n-go 5” refractor take your fancy? With the NP-127/Gibraltar 5 it’s possible (just)!

Summary

I still like TeleVue’s altaz mounts for their elegance and simplicity. My favourite of the mounts reviewed here is the Tele-Pod, despite it being by far the least prepossessing of the three alternatives to behold. Combine it with the TV-60 and a couple of eyepieces, say a 13mm Nagler T6 and a Nagler 3-6mm zoom, and you have the most functional grab and go outfit I know of this side of binoculars.

The Gibraltar 5, once properly setup (see note above), is stable for bigger OTAs at moderate powers and recommended. If you like sweeping star fields at low powers, it’s highly recommended.

All the mounts are less than ideal for use at high powers, in my opinion. It’s all too easy for a bit of stiction in the bearings to make you overshoot and have to start over with a lower power. Counter-intuitively, longer OTAs seem less prone to this problem. Mounts with slow motion controls, like the Vixen Porta, are easier to use in this respect, but less intuitive in others and certainly – and this matters, though you’ll deny it – less classy looking in your living room or study!

Tele Vue’s range of alt-azimuth mounts are highly recommended if you like sweeping for DSOs at low-medium powers. For higher power observing they are a bit less ideal.