RDC spotlights sport diving’s top rated Regulators
We at Ricks Dive Center have been working with scuba equipment for more years than we’d care to admit. When it comes to dive gear, our hands-on experience and years of equipment evaluation have provided us with a unique insight as to what’s good, what’s bad, and what’s just plain ugly in the realm of recreational scuba diving gear.
Since entering the 21st Century, RDC staffers have wet-tested just about every reg to hit the market. Every year there is a new batch looking to make a name for themselves, some scuba regulators evolve and others stay the same, seeing no reason to improve on perfection. Out of this vast gear inventory, we’ve assembled what, in our opinion, are the top models available in dive stores today, with nods to our personal favorites. New regulators slated for release this year will be put through the same testing process when they are available and the results will be reported.
The goal here is three-fold: first, we want to consolidate all the best scuba regulators in one location that will be easy to access and reference when you’re researching your next purchase. Second, with this kind of info at your fingertips you’ll be guaranteed to get the most for your money in terms of features and performance. Finally, this will create a baseline against which we can compare and contrast each new regulator as it hits the market. As new winners appear we will add them to the list, as old favorites are discontinued and no longer available we’ll delete them from the list. That way, RDC’s “Best in Class” regulator list will always be current and relevant as you pursue your gear-buying goals.
So before heading out to buy a new scuba regulator be sure to stop here first. The biggest surprise to us was finding that many of these regulators actually went down in price since last year! Most had minimal increases or prices stayed the same. If you are looking for a high performance regulator or a reliable back-up there has never been a better time.
Once you know what gear is best, you won’t have to waste your time—or cash—on the rest. For info on all the new models scheduled for release in 2012, stay tuned to future issues of RDC.
In the past decade RDC staffers have subjected over 245 regulators to rigorous lab and in-water tests. Rising from these ranks, the following 30 proved themselves to be top performers in their respective price categories. While we’ve given shouts out to our personal favorites, each of these regs is a winner and presents a good value. Note: prices listed are manufacturer’s suggested retail prices (MSRPs) in some cases prices may vary.
Best Scuba Regulator Under $300
Aqua Lung Calypso: Simple, Cheap, Reliable
In Aqua Lung’s extensive line of regulators, the redesigned Calypso is the most basic and budget-priced of the bunch. But don’t let its entry-level moniker fool you.
The 2011 Calypso uses the same reliable piston first stage it has been using for years, with the addition of a redesigned yoke knob that doesn’t trap water (a small upgrade that takes some of the hassle out of keeping your first stage orifice dry). The second stage, however, is new. It’s a bit smaller than its predecessor, and it’s got a couple of new features. One is a handy spring-lock twist-and-turn hose fitting that enables you to separate the second stage casing from the LP hose without the use of tools. You also have the option of changing from right-hand to left-hand configuration (although this requires an authorized reg technician). The exhaust tee is fitted with a grid to break up bubbles, side slots help prevent free-flowing at depth when kicking into a current, and a new venturi knob controls free-flows at the surface.
In spite of its simple design the Calypso is hyper-efficient when it comes to moving air. Strapped to the breathing simulator, we watched it pump out work of breathing data at least as good and oftentimes better than regs a whole lot pricier. (In the depth/RMV regsdivers1category that most closely represents recreational diving it missed an Excellent rating by a hair’s breath.) And when taken beyond recreational limits, it was able to maintain an easy flow of gas down to the deepest test depths while using the most aggressive breathing rates currently in use today to rate scuba regulator performance.
In real-world ocean tests, RDC test divers just loved this little reg. Delivering smooth, dry breathing in both swimming and head-down-in-a-hole positions, the new full-cover purge was found to be soft and responsive. Also, the venturi knob did a good job of controlling surface free-flows; however, some divers felt it was hard to grab and turn when the knob was wet and they were wearing gloves. Finally, while past reg tests have shown the ComfoBite mouthpiece used on the Calypso would not necessarily be the choice of all divers, this team rated it high for comfort.
For recreational divers just entering the sport, or who just like to keep things simple, or who want to watch their budgets, the Calypso is hard to beat. Under typical recreational diving conditions it delivers all the performance you could possibly want, plus you can stress it with deeper depths and aggressive breathing and it will keep on delivering air efficiently. Having only one high-pressure port on the first stage does limit your orientation options when mounting reg to tank, and it will prevent divers who use a hoseless dive computer from running a back-up pressure gauge. That aside, we have no complaints about what this reg offers performance-wise, especially at this price.
Mares Rover 2S: Solid and Steady
What the Calypso is to Aqua Lung, the Rover 2S is to Mares. This is a basic, no-frills regulator targeted to entry-level divers as well as anybody on a budget. The 2S first stage is a simple unbalanced piston design that has been around for years and has a track record for reliability. In contrast to the shiny smooth-chrome finish you find on most first stages, Mares has sandblasted the body of the 2S, creating a rough texture that looks rugged and does a better job of hiding dings and scratches. The Rover’s technopolymer second stage is about as simple as it gets. There are no user adjustments—according to Mares, the 2S’s Dynamic Flow Control feature, which minimizes the drop in intermediate pressure during inhalation, precludes the need for user adjustments on the second stage. However, the Rover does have an interesting mesh grid on its cover that partially exposes its innards while reducing free-flows when swimming into currents.
Breathing machine tests showed the Rover 2S moves gas pretty efficiently at the test depth and respiratory rate most closely representing recreational diving, and it does a pretty respectable job of it when driven deep into the beyond. It didn’t deliver the lowest work of breathing by any means, but it did earn middle-of-the-road marks and better, with a lot of stability. This isn’t a frisky reg that needs to be tuned or detuned according to dive conditions. It’s more a workhorse reg, solid and steady.
This steady performance was apparent during ocean tests too. Test divers found the Rover 2S flowed breathing gas without fuss. And while it had a tendency to get a little misty when subjected to sharp, aggressive inhales, under normal breathing the reg remained dry, regardless of position in the water. Test divers found the mesh purge cover, while an interesting look, to be a bit stiff and the flow a bit weak when compared to the other regs in this go-round. Still, it cleared the airway of water, and that’s all you can ask. Test divers also pretty much agreed that the mouthpiece was comfortable, but too small. They needed to clamp down on it for it to stay in place; relax the jaw and the mouthpiece had a tendency to shift.
The Rover 2S is one of those middle-of-the-road regs that performs to spec and delivers reliable performance without any bells, whistles or fanfare. It’s simple to use, you don’t have to hassle with user adjustments, and it delivers reliable service at a pretty good price. Maybe it’s not exciting, but it gets the job done.
RDC Best Scuba Regulator Under $300 Favorite
Aqua Lung Calypso
Made in France. Limited lifetime warranty. Unbalanced Piston first stage with 1 HP and 4 LP ports; unbalanced second stage with a venturi knob.
Talk about an old favorite. Now in its fifth generation, the Calypso has a long-standing rep for reliable service at depth. It’s an easy breather and comfy in the mouth. A great entry-level reg.
Best Scuba Regulator Under $500
Aqua Lung Titan: A High-End/Low-End Reg
Like the Calypso, the Titan also falls into Aqua Lung’s “Entry-Level” category—it’s just dressed up a bit. Let’s call it Aqua Lung’s high-end offering in the low-end category. It uses the same redesigned second stage as the Calypso with its spring-lock twist-and-turn hose fitting, the option of right-hand or left-hand hose configuration, a modified exhaust tee and a venturi knob. Where it differs from the Calypso is on the other end of the LP hose. Whereas the Calypso uses a basic unbalanced piston first stage, the Titan’s first stage is balanced, and it’s a diaphragm design. Balanced first stages are better able to handle changes in intermediate pressure as you breathe down the tank, so breathing effort remains relatively constant whether your RDC reads 3,000 or 300 psi. And a diaphragm design tends to protect the inner workings of the first stage from sand and silt better than your average piston design. A beach diver might prefer a diaphragm reg over a piston reg for this reason.
Also, while the Calypso’s first stage is pretty plain Jane, the Titan’s first stage has a certain flair to it. The compact forged brass body is covered with a composite outer skin that not only offers protection, but looks pretty cool too. It too comes with a new yoke knob designed to eliminate water trapping. Also, this first stage now comes with two high-pressure ports instead of one, which increases your options when assembling your diving rig.
First stage differences aside, the Titan and Calypso are kissing-cousins performance-wise. On the breathing machine, while the Calypso missed earning an Excellent rating in the initial test category by a hair’s breath, the Titan nailed that Excellent rating—by a hair’s breath. Everywhere else the two regs performed virtually the same, sharing Very Good ratings in all other depth/breathing rate test levels.
In ocean tests the Titan barely edged out all other regs for ease of breathing in a swimming position, was found to be a dry breather in all positions, and, like the Calypso, it’s purge cover earned high marks for being easy to use. Its mouthpiece was also rated tops for comfort. Finally, like the Calypso, the Titan’s venturi knob, while effective at warding off surface free-flows, was dinged for being hard to grip and turn while wearing wet gloves.
The Titan is, across the board, a solid performer, both on the breathing machine and, more importantly, in the water. It comes with enough features (including a swivel hose clip for securing the second stage when not in use) to make it feel like you’re not diving a bare-bones model, but it sells for close to a bare-bones price. That’s a pretty good combo in our book.
Zeagle ZO Onyx: Solid All-Round Reg
The Onyx compact balanced diaphragm first stage offers a black satin finish trimmed with chrome that looks pretty slick. It comes with a bevy of LP ports, and attaches to the second stage with a high-flex braided hose. The ZO second stage is medium-sized with a large center purge button, a couple of user controls and a rather large mouthpiece.
This reg turned out to be one of the stronger performers of this group in RDC’s ANSTI tests. It earned an Excellent rating for work of breathing in the test category most closely representing recreational diving, and Very Good ratings everywhere else. It also came within only 10 feet of reaching the “Outer Limits” test level before exceeding test parameters. In ocean tests, the ZO/Onyx proved to be an easy breather, and generally dry in all positions (divers commented on it being a little misty in the heads-down position, but not a big issue). The reg’s purge cover is ultra-flexy, teetering on the edge of being too sensitive. But it worked, as did the user controls. The dive/pre-dive lever is tall enough to flip with a gloved thumb, and the breathing resistance knob offers over two full turns of adjustment. Divers liked the flexy braided hose, but thought the mouthpiece, while generally comfortable, was a bit too large.
Offering above-average breathing performance, user controls for fine-tuning air delivery, a flexy purge and a relatively comfy mouthpiece, the ZO/Onyx came across as a solid reg that looks good and breathes even better, all at a pretty good price.
Sherwood Magnum: A Top Contender
Sherwood’s latest version of its venerable Magnum reg uses a beefy balanced piston first stage that features a unique dry-sealed spring chamber that helps keep its internal parts clean. To this Sherwood has mated a freshly-minted, medium-sized, oval-shaped second stage. This new design is fitted with a full cover purge over a sharp-looking chromed grill. On the side of the casing they’ve added a flow control lever.
According to Sherwood, this second stage uses a larger diaphragm to enhance inhalation effort, and a larger exhaust valve to reduce exhalation effort. While we were itching to take it apart to confirm these claims (such disassembling would have disqualified the reg), turned out, the breathing simulator tests confirmed them for us. The reg turned in the lowest work of breathing on each of the first three depth/breathing rate test levels, and tied for lowest work of breathing on the fourth—and most extreme—test level. Breaking that down a bit further, during each phase of these tests, including the most aggressive test level at 200 feet using a gorilla respiratory rate, the exhaust effort put out by this reg never exceeded nine millibars (12 to 15 millibars on the exhaust stroke is common for regs and perfectly acceptable). So Sherwood engineers have definitely earned some swagger rights.
When switching from machine to man, the Magnum proved to be a better-than-average breather in the swimming and heads-down positions, and a very dry breather in virtually all positions. The big purge cover is a bit stiff but delivers a good blast of air when depressed. Test divers particularly liked the action of the flow control lever. It’s well-positioned, so a gloved thumb can find and adjust it easily. But the lever doesn’t sport any markings, so you can’t tell which position is which without experimenting. Finally, test divers couldn’t agree on the Magnum’s mouthpiece. Some thought it was too thick and narrow, some found it rubbed against their upper gums, some thought the bite tabs were just fine. To each his own.
No question, the new Magnum is a smooth breather with a lot of reserve capacity for handling aggressive depths and breathing rates. It’s by far the best lower-end Sherwood reg we’ve tested in a long time. It earned the highest overall breathing simulator scores of this test group, and rivaled all competitors in real-world performance. It’s also the priciest reg of this bunch, but not by much. The lack of markings on the flow control lever is a bit annoying, but if you can shelve that nitpick, you’ll have yourself a heck of a breather for a pretty reasonable price.
Tusa RS-510: The Weaker Sister
Tusa’s latest low-end reg offering, the RS-510, teams up the same R-500 balanced piston first stage they’ve been using on a couple of their middle-range regs, with the new no-frills S-10 second stage. The first stage is compact and comes with an attractive, highly-polished chrome finish. The mid-sized second stage has no user adjustments. It sports a solid front cover with a small purge button in the center, and what Tusa calls an “ortho-friendly” mouthpiece.
Of all the contenders in this budget-breather round-up, the RS-510 could be considered the weak sister of the group—at least when it comes to breathing simulator performance. When taken down to the depth and breathing rate that most closely represents what might be considered “aggressive” recreational diving, the RS-510 turned in respectable work of breathing—not the best, but nothing to sneer at, either. Unfortunately, it turned out this was about all the performance we were going to get from this reg. Taken to deeper depths, or subjected to higher respiratory rates, it simply couldn’t keep up.
In ocean tests, however, the RS-510 held its own. It proved to be a smooth breather in swimming and heads-down positions, and while it could get a little misty if you engaged in quick, deep, panic-style breathing, under normal breathing it remained dry in the swimming position and relatively dry in the heads-down position. Test divers didn’t mind the lack of user adjustments, and the purge button, while small, delivered some good purge action. Although a couple divers felt the RS-510’s mouthpiece shape caused some pressure against their lower teeth, the majority of test divers felt it was sufficiently comfortable for their tastes.
When cruising among the reefs, under typical recreational diving conditions, the RS-510 isn’t a bad breather. But venture beyond that and tests show the reg has little if any reserve capacity. True, breathing simulator tests purposely stress regs beyond what a normal diver would ever subject them to, but that’s really the point; to find out exactly how much these regs can take when pushed to extremes. And the RS-510 can’t take much. In RDC’s opinion, the limitations of the RS-510 can probably be found in the S-10 second stage, simply because we have tested the same R-500 first stage in the past with other Tusa second stages attached, with substantially better results. At any rate, the RS-510 is not a bad reg for basic recreational diving. But there are other regs that offer a lot more performance capacity, and at a better price.
Cressi Ellipse Black Balanced MC9: A Stealthy Breather
Cressi’s Ellipse Black Balanced MC9 uses the same compact hyper-balanced diaphragm MC9 first stage as Cressi’s flagship reg, the Ellipse Balanced, but the company has added a new second stage to create a new system. The Ellipse Black Balanced is lightweight and compact and sports black cosmetics for the stealthy look. It doesn’t come with a breathing resistance adjustment knob like the Ellipse Balanced, but it does offer a dive/pre-dive lever.
Hooked to the ANSTI breathing machine, the Ellipse Black Balanced earned Very Good scores for work of breathing in the first three RMV/depth test levels, and Good scores at the deepest, most aggressive test level. When taken to the “Outer Limits,” the reg was able to breathe at our most crazy-extreme breathing test rate down to a depth of 162 feet before exceeding test parameters, demonstrating that it packs a decent amount of reserve capacity. When RDC test divers subjected the Black Balanced to some real-world ocean diving, they found it to be a pretty smooth breather overall. The purge button was deemed to be a bit stiff; once divers found the sweet spot it worked fine, but otherwise it took some pressing to get the purge action going. Test divers liked the dive/pre-dive lever; it is located right on top of the casing in a spot that’s easy to get to, and it’s easy to shift from pre-dive to dive when wearing thick gloves. However, they felt the mouthpiece on the Black Balanced, while not uncomfortable, was way too small, which made it more of a challenge to hold the reg securely in their mouths.
The Ellipse Black Balanced MC9 is no slouch. It delivers air smoothly and efficiently, it’s light in the mouth and easy to use. Switch out the mouthpiece and you’ve got yourself a winner.
RDC Best Scuba Regulator Under $500 Favorites
Cressi Ellipse MC9/Balanced
Made in Italy. Limited lifetime warranty. Balanced diaphragm first stage with 2 HP and 4 LP ports; pneumatically balanced second stage with a dive/predive switch and breathing adjustment knob.
Cressi packs a lot of performance into this compact breather, and then offers it at a pretty good price. Its size and weight make it a particularly good travel companion.
Aqua Lung Titan
Made in France. Limited lifetime warranty. Balanced diaphragm first stage with 2 HP and 4 LP ports; unbalanced second stage with a venturi knob.
This compact breather has been around since 1998. It has undergone two design updates and keeps getting better and better. It’s a smooth breather with some pretty good reserve capacity. The addition of a second HP port increases its versatility.
Best Mid Range Scuba Regulator
Mares Abyss 22: A Reg for All Seasons
The Abyss 22 Navy ranks near the top end of Mares’ reg line, under the “ready for anything” category. The super trim first stage comes with a cold water kit for use in extreme conditions, its primary LP port is high-flow, and it is fitted with a couple of Mares secret weapons, like DFC (Dynamic Flow Control) which minimizes the first stage pressure drop when the diver inhales, and the VAD (Vortex Assisted Design) system that increases breathing sensitivity without the need for a user control.
The Abyss 22 Navy has a lot of guts for such a simple, compact breather. It cranked out Very Good work of breathing in all four of our standard RMV/depth test levels, and while it couldn’t quite reach the “Outer Limits” test depth without exceeding test parameters, it got closer than most. During ocean tests it turned out to be one of our test team’s favorite breathers. The lack of user controls made diving the reg the easiest by far. Air delivery was smooth and dependable in all positions, although a number of test divers noted a little wetness when breathing in the heads-down position. The purge button was easy to find and even easier to use, and the mouthpiece was the only one in this group that was given a unanimous thumbs-up for both size and comfort.
The Abyss 22 Navy is a simple reg but it packs a lot of punch. It’s the priciest breather in this go-round, but for divers who are looking for a smooth breather with reliable reserve capacity and who don’t like lots of user controls, or who tend to find themselves in dive situations ranging from murky water to ice diving (it just received approval from the NEDU for use in water temperatures down to 29 degrees), the Abyss 22 Navy does not disappoint.
Scubapro MK11/C300: Take it to the Limit
Scubapro’s MK11/C300 may be labeled with familiar model numbers, but it’s really a new reg system. The MK11 first stage is actually referred to as the MK11 Lite. While offering the same design and performance characteristics as the original MK11, this version is made from a forged brass body so it’s a bit lighter than its predecessor. A HP port and a pair of LP ports are mirror-mounted on each side of the first stage, enabling you to hook it to the tank valve in either the up or down position and still have the same port layout. Also, two of the low-pressure ports are high-flow, delivering about 15 percent more air than standard low-pressure ports. The C300 second stage, which is new in both name and design, is light and compact, and comes with both a VIVA lever and a breathing resistance knob.
On the breathing machine this reg showed itself to be a real workhorse. It was able to pump out Excellent work of breathing at the RMV/depth test level that most closely represents typical recreational diving, and Very Good breathing performance in the next three progressively more difficult test levels. Then it did something no other reg in this go-round was able to pull off. It withstood the high breathing rate and extreme depth of the “Outer Limits” test level without exceeding test parameters.
The stellar performance in the test lab continued into the ocean tests. Breathing smooth and easy in all dive positions, test divers were impressed by the reg’s lack of bubble interference in a vertical, stationary position, and felt the user controls were well-positioned and easy to use at depth, even when wearing thick gloves. The full cover purge was found to be a bit stiff, but it was still efficient at clearing water from the casing. The only gripe test divers had with this reg was the mouthpiece, whose tall ridges tended to rub against gums.
While its price tag positions it at the lower end of this Over $400 category, the MK11/C300’s muscular design, consistent performance and reserve capacity rival that of many top-market regs. All said, not bad for a breather in this price range.
Sherwood SR1+: Proven Performer Plus
Sherwood introduced its flagship SR1 regulator back in 2008 to rave reviews for its sleek design and first-rate breathing performance. This year they’ve unveiled their SR1+, which features a little something extra. While the SR1 comes with a traditional 360-degree LP swivel turret to manage the hose routing from its five low-pressure ports, for the SR1+ Sherwood designers came up a unique, square-shaped, low-profile 360-degree swivel whose four LP ports are aligned so hoses run in parallel. The first stage also comes with a dry-sealed ambient pressure chamber, something that’s unique on piston first stages. The SR1+’s compact second stage is pneumatically balanced, and is armed with a breathing resistance knob and a very flexible full-cover purge.
Performance-wise, the SR1+ was this year’s big dog in the Over $400 category. Strapped to the ANSTI breathing machine, the reg dominated all comers, turning in the lowest work of breathing at all four breathing rate/depth test levels, then showed itself to have some pretty good reserve capacity at the “Outer Limits” level. In ocean tests the SR1+ performed with equal aplomb. Right off the bat test divers loved the look of the new swivel turret. But more importantly, they liked the way it cleanly routed hoses either right or left, keeping the area right behind their heads clear.
Under water, the reg proved to be a smooth breather and a dry breather in all diving positions. While bubble interference can be hard to gauge due to the variables of position, breathing pattern and head angle, the SR1+ nonetheless earned some of the best scores for diverting bubbles while in a vertical, stationary position. The breathing resistance knob was responsive, and the full-cover purge turned out to be super flexible and easy to use.
The SR1 impressed us when it first came out, and so does the SR1+. It is nicely finished and shows a lot of attention to detail. And while first stage swivels are not necessary, they sure are convenient, and we like the look and the workability of this H-shaped swivel. You can debate whether the mouthpiece is too small, but when it comes to pure
RDC Best Scuba Regulator Mid Range Favorites
Sherwood SR1 & SR1+
Made in the USA. Limited lifetime warranty. Balanced piston first stage with 2 HP and 4 (SR1+) or 5 LP ports on a swivel turret; pneumatically balanced second stage with breathing adjustment knob.
If you’re a fan of Sherwood dive equipment, the SR1 is the hands-down choice for a top-flight breather. It’s the company’s flagship reg and, performance-wise, it deserves its props. For the newer SR1+ Sherwood designers came up a unique, square-shaped, low-profile 360-degree swivel whose four LP ports are aligned so hoses run in parallel. It is nicely finished and shows a lot of attention to detail. Both versions are first rate.
Made in Italy. Limited lifetime warranty. Balanced diaphragm first stage with 2 HP and 4 LP ports; OFD Downstream valve second stage with a VIVA venturi lever, and inhalation adjustment knob.
This is the new forged MK11 first stage that offers the same performance as the original but just a bit lighter. Now paired with the new C300 second stage it’s a rock-solid reg with excellent breathing performance and some impressive reserve capacity.
I’ve been a diving addict since my 14th birthday when my parents took me to the Bahamas and had my first scuba diving experience. I’ve been an active diver ever since but in the last few years my focus shifted on sharing my thoughts and experience on diving gear, writing product reviews and gave up on organizing dive tours.