YOU CAN SPEND A LOT OF MONEY on a regulator or not much at all. All are now CE-certified as life-support equipment able to be legally sold within the European market, so every one should be capable of doing just that, no matter how little you pay.
A Scotsman, an Irishman and an Englishman set off to compare 12 inexpensive regulators at depth to see if they were up to supplying air when really needed.
George Brown, an engineer and working diver based in the Scottish Highlands, is a BSAC National Instructor. Colin Mac Andrias is a PADI Master Instructor, while I have a few instructor tickets with both these agencies and others that are getting a bit curly at the edges now.
hspace=5 We wanted to know not whether regulators at the bottom of the price range, those most likely to be bought by recently qualified or less experienced divers, were up to supplying air at the maximum depth a leisure diver is likely to reach, but how they went about it. So we asked a dozen manufacturers or their distributors to supply us with an example of their least expensive regulator and took them diving side by side to spot the differences.
There seemed little point in doing an ANSTI test
on a breathing machine as each unit met CE criteria, though one manufacturer did say it would decline to submit a regulator had we done so. We needed the ANSTI test only to provide the scientific evidence that keeps us out of court, in the event of reporting a bad underwater experience. That regulator brand is not represented here.
We went to the Aqua-Sport International diving centre at the Taba Hilton in Egypt, near the border with Israel. It has hosted DIVER regulator tests before, and offers access to the deep water of the Gulf of Aqaba straight off the beach, so we could work uninterrupted by the needs of other divers.
Armed with two regulators each on independent twin cylinders mounted with Buddy Twinning Bands to Buddy wing-style BCs, we would surface-swim to a buoy that marked the drop-off before descending to our working depth of 40m, where we could try both the regulators we carried plus some of those carried by others while we had time to do so.

WE TRIED TO BEAT THE REGULATORS by heaving whole-heartedly on them, breathing as hard as we could. We inverted them to imitate panicking divers who might stuff someone elses regulator in their mouth upside-down. With the exhaust port uppermost, small amounts of water will inevitably enter when the port opens to release exhaled air.
The question is whether this water has anywhere to drain to, or else interferes with your breathing.
We checked how easy it was to activate the purge control, or whether there was a tendency for a unit to free-flow uncontrollably when a second stage was dropped from the mouth. We also considered mouthpiece comfort, overall breathing experience, and whether exhaled air interfered with our vision. We got to know what it was like to dive with each regulator, and how it stacked up against the others.
We made a series of identical dives at the same spot, briefly interrupted at times by passing wildlife, like the free-swimming giant green frogfish that perched on my head; as well as diversions caused by an eagle ray, a yellow-mouth moray, a spotted snake eel and a passing electric ray.
Copious notes were made. We would then make the long swim back to the shore up through a gently sloping reef system, making a naturally progressive decompression as we did so.
Generally piston-type regulators tend to give bigger gas flows and a faster response, while diaphragm-type regulators are less inclined to develop operating faults in very cold conditions.
We noted the position of the ports on the first stages - important when fitting hoses. Many had only one high-pressure port, which might disincline you from using a gas-integrated computer with it. Some had knobs to allow you to increase the amount of effort needed to draw open the demand valve.
Some had venturi controls to reduce the chance of a surface free-flow. Some didnt have this, and at least one didnt need it. A couple were designed for trouble-free use in very cold, fresh water.


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SEEMANN-SUB SL200 £120
A classic piston-type first stage with only one high-pressure and three medium-pressure ports means that this unit is unsuitable for drysuit diving. The words Resort Pro written on the knob-free second stage say it all - this a warmwater reg for schools. It has a long set of molar grips on the mouthpiece.

George: There was no effort with this one throughout the whole breathing cycle. It was smooth as Guinness. It had a very comfortable mouthpiece, which I believe would adapt to many types of mouth. Inverted, it delivered a tiny amount of water with the air, but nothing to write home about.
John: To me this one was indistinguishable eyes-closed breath-by-breath with the Oceanic that I had on the other tank. The purge was gentle but the front felt rock-hard when it came to pushing it. Inverted, it was only slightly damp. I liked the long molar grips of the mouthpiece.
Colin: There was a very slight labouring effect when I really needed to heave on it, but otherwise it proved good at all angles. The purge was of only average effect. Inverted, it was slightly wet but nothing anyone couldnt handle.

GOOD VALUE FOR WETSUIT DIVERS


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BEUCHAT VS3 £125
Another old-fashioned regulator with a simple piston-type first stage, its single high-pressure and four medium-pressure ports are arranged around its barrel with the hp port positioned well away from the others to facilitate the fitting of a computer transmitter if needed. The second stage is large and rather unattractive-looking, but it has a heat-sink inline with the hose.

George: This was only an average performer, with a certain amount of drag or resistance on the initial part of both inhalation and exhalation. There was still plenty of air eventually. I could feel my cheeks puff as I pushed open the exhalation valve on breathing out. It proved quite wet when inverted, with some fine spray felt in the breathing gas. The purge felt insensitive across the front of the regulator. You need to find the spot. The mouthpiece was reasonably comfortable.
John: I found this one to be indistinguishable from the Tigullio regulator tried here. I sensed a slight increase in cracking pressure at depth and a resistance to the flow when I asked it to give me as much as I could draw from it. The purge control proved easy to find and nice to use once you find the right place to press, but when inverted this regulator tended to make me gag.
Colin: It gave a fine and powerful breathe when I needed it but the purge was very disappointing. I thought it was most ineffective. The mouthpiece was comfortable but the inhalation was slightly wet when the regulator was inverted.


hspace=4hspace=4 OCEANIC ALPHA8 SP5 £150
This regulator has a classic looking piston-type first stage with the solitary high-pressure and four medium-pressure ports arranged around its narrow barrel. The last mp hose fitted always ended up in an awkward spot. The neat-looking second stage has no knobs, and the mechanism is easily accessed for removal of grit if need be.

George: This regulator seemed to perform perfectly in every way, and it was nice to have at depth. It gave an excellent breathe from the surface all the way to 40m, with an even supply of gas at all times. The second-stage was reasonably comfortable, even though I found that the mouthpiece was a little small. There was loads of air and no effort. Inverted, it was quite useful, despite a fine spray
of water.
John: I found this one to be indistinguishable from the Seemann-sub SL200, even when I closed my eyes and swapped regulators with alternate breaths, swapping back and forth on each over a long period. It answered the call when I really tried to beat it by heaving on it hard. It was not too wet for comfort when inverted, and the purge was easy and effective.
Colin: It gave a very good breathing rate, with each inhalation very crisp. It was good at all angles, and even when inverted it was wet but very manageable. The purge gave a sharp full thrust of air.

RECOMMENDED


hspace=4hspace=4 SCUBAPRO MK2 PLUS/R295 £155
Another classic-looking piston-type first-stage formula, with the water flow holes big enough for quick response, so much so that they allowed the pressure-sensitive spring to be visible. It has four medium-pressure ports arranged close together and a single high-pressure port spaced apart from them. The nice second stage has no knobs and a reusable mouthpiece clip that might need a tool to remove.

George: I gave this full marks in all categories except when inverted, when I detected a fine spray of water. Otherwise it was a very comfortable companion to have under water.
John: I thought it gave a slightly tighter breathe than some of the better regulators tried alongside it. It gave a lower-frequency sound than, for example, the Seemann-sub SL200 and Oceanic Alpha, probably indicating that the air path was broader. At depth, when I really heaved it seemed a little asthmatic, and squawked a bit from time to time. The purge was very progressive, which was nice, but when it was inverted I choked on a fine spray of water.
Colin: This was a very effective regulator with a delivery of gas that was nicely diffused in the mouth. I felt no spray of water when it was inverted, and the purge control gave a full effective blast. I liked the mouthpiece, which gave me a nice tight fit.


hspace=4hspace=4 AQUALUNG CALYPSO £160
This regulator came with a simple piston-type first stage that had a single high-pressure port and four medium-pressure ports arranged around its barrel, so that hoses fanned out around it. The second stage has a venturi control and a heat-sink inline on the hose.

George: I thought this was an excellent regulator, but maybe not as smooth as the one I tried alongside it. The Comfobite mouthpiece doesnt suit my mouth. When really heaving on it, I detected a fine mist of water, yet inverted it was perfectly dry.
John: A pleasant breathing experience. There was a good flow of gas that diffused nicely in the mouth. The purge was strong but the flow of air was equally diffuse, too. It was perfectly dry while breathing from it inverted.
Colin: There was very little resistance to inhalation. It gave a lovely crisp breathe every time I demanded it. There was never any sign of a free-flow. Inverted,
I detected that it gave a minute spray of water. The purge was very effective, but not a tonsil-blaster.


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TUSA RS100 S-10 £170
The squat diaphragm-type first stage has two high-pressure and four medium-pressure ports arranged so that hose routes were always easy. The second stage has a lovely orthodontic mouthpiece that employs a reusable clip with no tools needed.

George: Probably the best of the bunch. There was a reassuring amount of air available on demand. The mouthpiece was so comfortable. It slotted in perfectly, but it was so chewy and velvety soft that if things got too interesting I feel I might have bitten its lugs off. That said, it was probably the best mouthpiece of any of them. I wasnt happy about its upside-down performance, however. I got globs
of water rather than a spray. It didnt fit a couple of the tank valves we had with us, due to the A-clamp screw being too short.
John: A very pleasant and easy breathe at depth. It proved perfect no matter how much I heaved on it. The purge control was excellent, easy to find and easy to control, yet very effective. Once inverted it was totally dry. The mouthpiece was as comfortable as a dentists gum-shield.
Colin: I got a very nice full breath of gas, with no apparent resistance at all. I detected a minute amount of spray when it was inverted, but that was almost unnoticeable. The very powerful purge needed only
a feather-light touch, but when I took the second stage out of my mouth and waved it around under water, it didnt free-flow, which some other of the more sensitive regulators did.

RECOMMENDED


hspace=4hspace=4 APEKS ATX40 DS4 £176
One of the few diaphragm-type regulators tested here, and cold-water rated, this unit has a fairly heavy environmentally dry-sealed first stage with four medium-pressure ports conveniently positioned around it. There is only one high-pressure port, but this was positioned well away from the others so that there was plenty of room to fit a computer transmitter if required. The second stage has a venturi control and a heat-sink inline on the hose.

George: It proved a good breather and very comfortable, though I didnt like the (Comfobite) mouthpiece. It gave lots of gas on demand but, inverted, it was almost unusable because it was so wet. I cant believe the low price!
John: The airflow seemed crisp, almost mechanical, but it came in a broad flow into my mouth. The purge button had a very positive action with a well-defined button. I couldnt beat it no matter how hard I heaved on it. Inverted, it was damp the first time I tried it, but I managed still to use it that way up. If it free-flowed first, it was almost totally dry. I felt it was always on the edge of free-flowing and, when it did, the flow of gas was massive. The venturi switch should obviously be set to minus before you take it out of your mouth at any depth.
Colin: It seemed to be very efficient at delivering air no matter how deeply I breathed. I liked the silky-smooth Comfobite mouthpiece. The purge button gave a very soft blow of air. Its very sensitive to demand, but you pay for that in that it tends to free-flow immediately you take it out of your mouth.


hspace=4hspace=4 MARES MR12 ROVER £180
This new regulator has a diaphragm-type first stage with an over-large barrel that affords the two hp and four mp ports good spacing. It has a marked port for the primary second-stage hose with Mares patented Dynamic Flow Control. The second stage had no visible metal parts, but it included the bypass tube that obviates the need for a venturi control. Everything seemed nice about this one.

George: I got a comfortable and uniform supply of air across the whole breathing cycle, even when I worked hard. The mouthpiece is reassuringly easy to retain. When inverted, it was hardly damp at all. It was quite endurable, with only a slight mist of water detected. The purge was extremely effective.
John: There was simply masses of breathing gas available. It was an eye-opener in comparison to some of the other regulators that I still thought were good. The purge control appeared a little hard to push but the purge was very effective. Inverted, it was a little damp but eminently usable.
Colin: An excellent regulator that gave gas with very little effort. There was no splash whatsoever when it was inverted. The purge needed a heavy press, but once done it had a very powerful effect. I got a nice all-round grip to the mouthpiece.

RECOMMENDED


hspace=4hspace=4 TIGULLIO AIRTRAK T52 £181
A bulky piston-type first stage and an enormous second stage mark out this regulator. The first stage has four medium-pressure ports and a single high-pressure port evenly spaced around its barrel. The second stage has an aluminium ring that allows access to the internals for cleaning in the field if required, and the exhaust-T is huge.

George: Another good performer that delivered gas on demand, with no noticeable drag on inhalation or resistance on exhaling. I thought it was better than some snorkels for ease of breathing. The mouthpiece was a little small for me, making me feel it was insecure in my mouth. Inverted, it was much better than I expected. The purge was easily controllable and the flow of gas was sufficient to do the job. I dont like the aluminium ring around the second stage, because it will soon look scabby.
John: There was more effort needed with this one than some of the others. The purge control worked well but it gave some initial resistance and the resultant flow of gas felt weak. The second stage felt huge and clunky, but its very wide exhaust-T routed exhaled bubbles well away from my field of vision. Inverted, it was fairly wet, with a fine spray of water in the gas flow.
Colin: The breathing effect was acceptable but not great. I would think I could put up with it for a couple of days but I wouldnt be happy with it for long-term use. I felt that the air needed to travel a long way from the valve to the mouth. Inverted, it was a little wet but manageable. The purge seemed not at all strong. The inter-stage hose was unusually inflexible, and the mouthpiece felt too bulky.


hspace=4hspace=4 CRESSI ELLIPSE BLACK MC5 £190
A very compact diaphragm-type first stage and an oval-shaped second stage distinguish this regulator. There is a single high-pressure port and only three medium-pressure ports but they are well-spaced for good hose routes. The neat second stage has a narrow exhaust-T that could lead to exhaust bubbles interfering with vision. It has a venturi control.

George: This one was very good, if delicately tuned. It would easily free-flow when dropped out of the mouth at depth. The purge was easily controlled and effective, and it proved reasonably dry once fully inverted.
John: It delivered more than enough air, but in a narrow cone within the mouth. I felt that it was quite a damp breathe when the regulator was sideways with the hose side downwards, but once fully inverted it was reasonably dry. I found that the purge took quite a hard push to activate, and the effect was not very strong. There was a small amount of disruption to my vision from exhaled bubbles when I was stationary.
Colin: I found that air delivery was good but I sensed that this reg hissed a bit with deep inhalations at depth. This did not seem to affect the quantity of air I got from it. Inverted, I found it became quite wet. I thought the purge was very weak and that the mouthpiece was a little hard to grip.


hspace=4hspace=4 EFFESUB HD290 £230
From Italy, this regulator may be Effesubs cheapest but is the most expensive tested here. It has a fine finish to its environmentally dry-sealed diaphragm-type first stage, and is coldwater-rated. Its four mp and two hp ports are sensible arranged so that hose routes are never tortuous. Even the tightening hand-wheel drew comments of appreciation. It has an automatic depth-sensitive venturi control and a breathing-resistance adjustment knob on the second stage, and a heat-sink inline on the hose.

George: It gave a reasonable breathe but with a slight increase in the cracking pressure needed over some of the others tested alongside it. I was not the least bit convinced by it. There was little problem when it was inverted and well purged before inhaling, and the purge was good and effective.
John: In terms of effort of breathing this one felt as if it had moved up a class from some of the others. However, I felt that when I heaved, the air was delivered with a bit of a hiss. The purge was strong and effective but when inverted it proved so wet as to be unusable.
Colin: The effect appeared very slightly laboured on delivery but equally good at every angle. The purge was strong and effective, but when inverted it was very wet indeed.


Conclusion
Although each of us had our own particular favourites, none of these regulators really stood out above the others. In fact, we were each happy to use any of them on any dives we might make.
Some had a shortage of ports for certain applications, but not for diving in water that didnt require the use of a drysuit.
What is really interesting is that only a few years ago we would find ourselves testing some regulators that gave an uncomfortable experience at depth. Perhaps thanks to the requirement to meet or exceed CE criteria, no such model was included among the present group, despite their low cost.
If pushed we would single out the Seemann-sub (the cheapest here, though unsuitable for drysuit divers) and the Apeks, Mares, Oceanic and TUSA models as being slightly more satisfying in performance than the others, but all provide value for money.

CONTACTS

AQUA LUNG www.aqualung.co.uk, 0116 212 4200
APEKS www.apeks.co.uk, 01254 692200
BEUCHAT (Alpha Distribution) www.alphad.org, 01709 515157
CRESSI-SUB www.cressi-sub.net, 01484 711113
EFFESUB (Blandford Sub-Aqua) www.blandfordsubaqua.co.uk, 01823 663849
MARES www.mares.com, 01539 724740
OCEANIC www.oceanicuk.com, 01404 891819
SCUBAPRO www.scubapro.co.uk, 01256 812636
SEAC SUB (Beaver) www.beaversports.co.uk, 01484 512354
SEEMANN-SUB (Scubapro) as Scubapro
TIGULLIO (Beaver) as Seac Sub
TUSA (CPS Partnership) www.cpspartnership.com, 01424 442663