Review: Rega Elys Cartridge
Okay, so I’m a cartridge-swapper. I admit it. For me, the grass is always greener on the other side. Somewhere out there is the perfect cartridge for me. The Rega Elys was the latest in my quest to find nirvana at less than $300.
In the past three years, I’ve been through—let’s see, ten? fifteen? more??—cartridges in the sub-$300 price category. What I’ve learned thus far factored heavily into my opinion of the Elys.
What attracted me to the Elys was that it is purpose-built for Rega tonearms. Being that I own a P2, I wondered if this would be as good as it gets. After all, Rega’s tolerances and build quality are exemplary in both tables and cartridges. Who better to make cartridges for their own tables than Rega?
As I understand it, the recommended cartridge for my table is the Super Bias. At $175, it’s supposedly identical to the Elys internally, but the three-point mounting system adds $50 to the price, bringing it to $225. (The other cartridges in Rega’s lineup include the entry-level Bias, the Super Elys and the Exact.)
Rega’s philosophy of maximizing performance by spending the majority of R&D and manufacturing dollars on product, not packaging, is immediately evident upon unpacking the Elys. It’s a purposeful-looking thing, conveyed in a simple but strong plastic case. The cartridge is not screwed to the case, but rather, wedged into a small block of foam. The kit contains three screws, two nuts, and virtually worthless instructions.
The instructions state that the Elys should be mounted by a Rega dealer only, using their proprietary torque wrench. There’s a diagram showing where the leads go, and that’s it. Buy it by mail like I did (my nearest dealer is about 70 miles away) and you’re on your own, jack.
Luckily, mounting this cartridge is a piece of cake. With the stylus guard in place, attach the cartridge to the headshell with the center Allen bolt first. (Use a washer; it scratched my tonearm.) Then, remove the stylus guard to access the remaining two standard-mount holes. Again using the supplied Allen bolts, secure the cartridge and install the headshell leads. Grab your protractor, and do a little side-to-side alignment. You’re done! I did mine in less than 30 minutes, which constitutes record-setting time. The lack of a provision for VTA adjustment on my RB250 wasn’t a problem with a Rega cartridge, so next came tracking force.
As before, the instructions were completely worthless. So I downloaded the manual for the Super Bias from Rega’s outstanding website, and in that manual they suggested 1.75 grams. My advice: don’t believe it. Like all cartridges, the “optimal” force is usually too light. Using my Hi-Fi News & Record Review test record, I confirmed mistracking up until 2.0 grams. That’s where I left it.
While I understand Rega’s position with regard to having the cartridge installed by a trained dealer, it’s silly in this digital day and age to think that everyone will trek for miles to their dealer to have their cartridge installed. Maybe there are some sonic benefits to having the bolt torque properly set. I’d imagine that unequal pressure might cause the body to flex and upset the innards somehow. But in my experience, the Procan body is robust as all get out.
Breaking in the Rega was maybe the most painful ten or so hours in my analog life. Out of the box, the Rega was brittle-sounding and dull. Luckily, it warmed up fast—really fast. Within 15 hours, it was painting a very detailed musical picture with deep soundstaging and profound balance. Rega does not publish specs, but this cartridge seems to have excellent response across the range.
On No Doubt’s “Rock Steady,” the pulsating reggae-inspired beats shook the room while never disrupting Gwen Stefani’s vocals. Switching gears, I reached for “An Evening With Windham Hill Live,” and the acoustic guitars and piano were stunningly real. Windham Hill’s close-miked recordings can tend to be rather in-your-face with some more aggressive cartridges, but the Rega Elys allowed me to listen without feeling that each note was being launched at me.
I went through about 50 hours’ worth of material, from David Johansen’s regrettably forgotten “Live It Up!” to Classic Records’ reissues of Living Stereo golden age classical performances. All in all, this was a nice cartridge and surprisingly good tracker on challenging material.
However, if the Rega Elys has an Achilles heel, it’s the stylus. For $225, I had expected something more refined. The thing is huge! Under my stylus microscope, it was about the size and shape of styli on much lower-priced cartridges from Goldring and Grado that I’ve used. This would not be a problem if not for cartridges like the Audio-Technica 440ML, a moving magnet which offers an equally convincing musical performance at half the price of the Elys, plus a MicroLine stylus that really digs in to extract maximum detail from the grooves. Speaking of styli, the Elys’ is not user-replaceable. As far as I can tell, there’s no re-tip offered, either, When it wears, you can toss the whole cartridge.
The real test came when I rescued a copy of Paul Williams’ “A Little On The Windy Side” from a used-record bin for $1. It was fairly clean-looking, maybe VG condition. I pre-cleaned it on my Allsop Orbitrac, then machine-cleaned it using my Record Doctor II with Disc Doctor brushes and Tourmat fluid. On the Rega, it was unlistenable, having obviously been played with a worn stylus or an improperly-setup arm many times. The left-channel groove was severely worn, and there was significant noise on the right. I quickly threw in the towel.
Well, I’m glad I didn’t throw the LP away because a few days later I mounted my reference Denon DL-160 for comparison purposes before writing this review. This time, when I popped on the album, it played like it was VG+. The left channel groove noise? Gone. Instead, just a few pops and ticks. The Denon’s awesome stylus obviously dig in far deeper than the Elys did, and the results were magical.
This brought up an interesting question: To what degree does the stylus make a difference in this price range? Well, for rabid used-record buyers, it would seem to make a night-and-day difference. Just to be sure, I went back and played a few records that seemed unusually noisy on the Elys. I had originally assumed that it was because of the Ely’s unusually-high output that pops and ticks and surface noise seemed exaggerated. I’m sure that’s partly true, but the Denon DL-160 tracked the same records with much more aplomb, and much less noise.
I’ll concede that the Denon is not the most musically truthful cartridge out there. Where the Elys is warm and natural, the Denon is Don Rickels on Mountain Dew. Where the Elys is grainy, the Denon is clear as glacially-cold Russian vodka. But, where the stylus is concerned, the difference between the Elys and the Denon is like the difference between Ginsu and J.A. Henckels.
It must be said that the next-step-up Super Elys includes a more convincing stylus, but at a much higher price that puts it up against the Benz Micro Silver/Gold, Dynavector 10x4 and Clearaudio Aurum Beta. It must also be said that, in my opinion, the Rega Elys and the Audio-Technica 400ML are neck-and neck sound-wise. And of course, if you’re a speed and detail freak like me, then the Elys is certain to be a let down compared to some of my previous favorite moving coils like the Benz Micro MC20E2 and my current favorite, the aforementioned DL-160.
So why buy an Elys? Well, for starters, ease of installation. I’m 27 with good eyesight and steady hands, but someday it won’t be as easy for me to swap cartridges on a lark. In that case, I’ll want an easy mounting experience, along with quality sound and a stylus that will last awhile. The Elys has all that. It also has the quality of easy listenability, which is nice for those who listen hours on end or through cans.
But $225 buys a lot of cartridge these days, and so the Elys is out and the Denon is back in. Someday, I’d like to try the Super Elys or Exact. But that will have to wait until I’ve tried the Benz Ace, the Shure V15VxMR and the Ortofon Kontrapunkt A. Until then, buy the Elys if you have a predominately near mint record collection and you want secure mounting, detailed yet relaxed performance, and tight tolerances beyond any other moving cartridges in the Elys’ price range.
Rega P2 turntable
Denon DL-160 moving coil cartridge
Rotel RC-980 preamplifier with MM/MC phono stage
Rotel RA-970 amplifier
Rotel RQ-970BX phono stage
Sony SCD-CE775 SACD player
Phillips AM/FM tuner
Realistic laserdisc player
RCA DVD player
Apex Digital 27” TV
ProAc Tablette 2000 loudspeakers
Paradigm speaker stands
AudioQuest CV-6 biwire speaker cables
Various Audioquest/VampireWire/Kimber/Monster interconnects
Monster Power HTS 2500 Power Center
Record Doctor II record cleaning machine/Disc Doctor record brushes
StudioTech HF series racks
Audioquest MC cartridge demagnetizer
Denon DL-110; Denon DL-160; Grado Green; Audio-Technica 440ML; Goldring Elan; Benz Micro MC20E2; Dynavector 10x4