Best Cartridge Upgrade for Rega Planar 2

In this article, I will review the 9 most popular cartridge upgrades for the Rega Planar 2. Then I will pick the one that I think is the very best one. The one that I personally chose to replace the original Rega Carbon cartridge on my Rega Planar 2.

Not too long ago I decided to upgrade the cartridge on my Rega Planar 2. A decision that I am extremely happy with. The Planar 2 was already a very good turntable. But with the cartridge upgrade, i reached another level of sonic performance.

(If you are in a hurry and don’t want to read the whole article, then click here to see which cartridge I bought to upgrade my Rega Planar 2.)

When I started my research to find the best cartridge upgrade for the Rega Planar 2, I searched for and collected as much information I possibly could about all all the cartridges that seemed to be regarded as the best and most popular upgrade candidates for the Planar 2.

The result was a list of 9 cartridges. I then narrowed the list down to five candidates. Finally, I picked the one that stood out as the very best one based on five specific selection criteria.

So, in this article, I will take you through that very selection process to provide you with a few valuable tips to help you select the best cartridge upgrade for your Rega Planar 2 as well.

And if you have a Planar 1, RP1 or RP2, you should find this information just as relevant and useful.

Below are the 9 cartridges that most frequently showed up as the vinyl community’s favorite cartridge upgrades for the Rega Planar 2 in my research.

Top 9 cartridge upgrades for Rega Planar 2:
1. Audio-Technica VM540ML (AT440MLa/b)
2. Denon DL-110
3. Grado Prestige Gold
3. Nagaoka MP-110
5. Ortofon 2M Blue
6. Ortofon 2M Bronze
7. Ortofon 2M Black
8. Rega Elys Mk2
9. Rega Exact Mk2

In the sections below, I will first narrow the list down to the top 5 cartridges. I will then take a closer look at the top 5 before I pick the one that I think is the very best cartridge to upgrade the Rega Planar 2.

I will also review and compare my Rega Planar 2 with its upgraded cartridge against the original Rega Carbon cartridge and against my Audio-Technica AT-LP120 which is upgraded with a higher quality cartridge as well.

Rega Planar 2 Turntable and Rega Carbon Cartridge

The current version of the Rega Planar 2 was launched in 2016 and sits between the affordable Rega Planar 1 and the audiophile approved Rega Planar 3.

So, the Rega Planar 2 can be categorized as Rega’s top ‘entry-level’ turntable. And it might very well be the pick in Rega’s turntable range that gives the most bang for the buck. Its reception among HiFi journalists and critics has been exceptionally good. Just as for most other Rega products.

I bought my Rega Planar 2 a while back when I realized that the Audio-Technica AT-LP120 I used for my vinyl spinning together with my Denon PMA-1600NE receiver and B&W 705 S2 speakers didn’t sound quite as good as I would like. When I got the Rega Planar 2, I quickly discovered that it was quite a step up from the LP120.

And as you are about to discover, it is absolutely possible to take the Planar 2 to yet another level of sonic performance with a cartridge upgrade.

The Planar 2 (and Planar 1) comes standard with a Rega Carbon cartridge. And that cartridge might actually be the weakest part of the turntable. A Rega Carbon cartridge costs around $65 to buy separately at the time I write this article. Which is quite an inexpensive cartridge for a turntable that narrowly misses the mark to be ‘approved’ as an audiophile graded turntable.

In my opinion, the Rega Carbon has an even level of sonic performance throughout the frequency range. It is hard to point at one specific frequency range that is its weakest point. What I felt lacking a bit with the Rega Carbon, in general, was dynamic and precision throughout the frequency range. It sounded a little “lazy”, and didn’t quite reproduce music with top level presence and engagement.

The cartridge is the “heart and soul” of any turntable. The unit that transforms the physical grooves in the record into an electrical music signal. And the quality of the cartridge has a significant impact on the sonic performance of a turntable. Even more so than the impact of the tonearm or of the motor/drive.

The Rega Planar 2 sells for around $700 as a write this article. Which is a bargain in my opinion. But the cartridge price ($65) is only about 1/10 of the price of the turntable.

As a comparison, the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon that currently sells for around $400 comes with a $100 Ortofon 2M Red. The cartridge price is 1/4 of the price of the turntable.

The popular beginner turntable Audio-Technica AT-LP120 that currently sells for around $300 comes with a $50 AT95E cartridge. The cartridge price is 1/6 of the price of the turntable.

A price comparison like this one does not, of course, give us the complete picture. There is much more that goes into discussing the quality of a cartridge and turntable beyond looking at how much the cartridge cost is relative to the turntable cost. But this comparison appears to indicate that fitting the highest quality cartridge possible on the Rega Planar 2 has not been the Rega engineers top priority.

The Rega Planar 2 sounds great for its price with the standard Carbon cartridge. As all the positive reviews in Hi-Fi magazines confirm. It is likely one of the very best (if not the best) turntables you can buy in its price range.

But it is still reasonable to think that the Rega engineers must have left a lot of sonic performance potential on the table when they decided to put the relatively inexpensive Rega Carbon cartridge on a great turntable like the Planar 2.

They might know that the cartridge is the first upgrade that their customers consider anyway. Which is what this article is all about.

My Rega Planar 2 Cartridge Upgrade Selection Criteria

To find the top 5 cartridge upgrades for the Planar 2 and to conclude on the best one, I decided on five selection criteria that I used for my shortlisting and final selection. Here they are.

Criterion 1: Price ($250-$600)

Price does not say everything about the quality and performance of home stereo equipment. But I have learned that it is very a good indicator. Especially at the price point where the top level affordable products meet the lower-level Stereophile rated products. It seems like vinyl and stereo enthusiasts that are shopping in that price category are very aware of the value (quality) they get in return for the money they spend.

The list of the 9 most popular cartridges for the Rega Planar 2 that I compiled included cartridges from about $100 to about $800. More or less.

I decided to focus on the candidates in the middle of that $100 to $800 price spectrum. Cartridges that cost from about $250 to $600.

Why did I do this? I wanted a solid pump in sonic performance. So I decided to look away from the most affordable candidates. I also decided not to spend more money on a cartridge than I did on the turntable itself. So I set the upper limit to $600. Which is a tiny bit south of what I paid for the turntable.

Criterion 2: Good Enough for Rega Planar 3

As a Rega Planar 2 owner, there might come a day when I want to upgrade to a Rega Planar 3. I have currently no plans to do that, but you never know. This might be something to keep in mind for Planar 1 owners as well. A Rega Planar 3 might be the next step on your journey towards Stereophile insanity.

So I wanted the cartridge that I selected for my Planar 2 to also be the perfect choice if I later decide to upgrade to a planar 3. It needed to be a good match for the Planar 3 as well.

Criterion 3: Sound

Since it was not really feasible to buy a dozen cartridges to test them all against each other on my Planar 2 and home stereo, I needed to rely heavily on first-hand experience from other vinyl enthusiasts to determine the sound characteristics and sound quality of the different cartridges.

So, by now, I have probably read every online review, discussion and opinion on all the 9 cartridge candidates on my list. Picking a cartridge that receives a lot of love and praise from the vinyl community when it comes to sonic performance and sound quality was crucial to me.

My sound preference is warm sound with deep punchy bass. I like that drums, vocals and string instruments to sound present, engaging, authentic and real. But I don’t need an extreme level details in the sound of cymbals and cowbells. That is not too important to me.

So a bright and analytical cartridge with a lot of details in the upper midrange and top end, at the expense of warmth and engagement in the lower and midrange, is not a trade-off I am looking for.

Criterion 4: Easy to Install

Easy to install was also a selection criterion. It would be ideal if I could avoid adding shims/spacers to the tonearm to raise it and if I could use the simple Rega 3 point fixing to mount the new cartridge.

I am not too experienced with ‘complex’ tonearm adjustments and alignments, any issue with alignment, overhang, VTA, insufficient counter weight and all that stuff. So the easier to install the better. Also, tweaking VTA is not easy on Rega turntables as you will have to play around with different shims, which is quite time consuming.

Criterion 5: Work Well with Rega Turntables and Preamps

As the Rega Planar 2 tonearm lacks height adjustment (VTA adjustment) and anti-skate adjustments, I learned that the selection of cartridges that work great on the Rega Planar 2 is slightly limited.

I found no crystal-clear guidelines for this, but the general advice seemed to be that selecting a cartridge that is substantially different from the original Rega Carbon when it comes to weight, height and size as well as recommended tracking force could potentially generate problems.

It seemed like a good idea to select a cartridge that is time tested and proven to not generate any unwanted problems when mounted on the Rega tonearm. Also, I wanted the cartridge to be a good match for my Rega FONO MINI A2D phono preamp.

That sums up the 5 selection criteria. Now, let’s move on to the shortlisting and final selection process.

The list of the top 9 cartridges I found to be the most popular choices for the Rega Planar 2 contains cartridges that sell from around $100 to around $800. You can check the current pricing on Amazon by clicking on the links below.

Top 9 cartridge upgrades for Rega Planar 2:
1. Audio-Technica VM540ML (AT440MLa/b)
2. Denon DL-110
3. Grado Prestige Gold
3. Nagaoka MP-110
5. Ortofon 2M Blue
6. Ortofon 2M Bronze
7. Ortofon 2M Black
8. Rega Elys Mk2
9. Rega Exact Mk2

When narrowing down the list of from 9 to 5, it was important to me to select cartridges that would give my Planar 2 a solid bump in sonic performance. To tap into all the sonic potential the Rega engineers left on the table when they decided to fit the Rega Carbon cartridge as standard. I wanted this to be my first and final cartridge upgrade for the Planar 2. And something that I would never have to think about again.

So in my shortlisting I eliminated the cartridges that sit on the very low end of the price spectrum. As previously discussed, I believe that price is a quite solid indicator of performance for cartridges in this price range.

As a result of this, I eliminated the Denon DL-110 and the Nagaoka MP-110 from the list. Even though these are super popular and very good cartridges for their price. These cartridges are likely awesome upgrades from the original Rega Carbon. But I wanted to be sure that I did not leave any sonic potential on the table that would bother me later. So the cheapest ones had to go.

I also eliminated the Ortofon 2M Blue and the Ortofon 2M Black from the list. And kept only the Bronze from the Ortofon 2M range. The 2M Black usually cost more than the Planar 2 turntable. And started to push the limits on the far end of my selected price range. Furthermore, the Ortofon 2M Blue does not seem to receive quite as much love from the community as the Bronze. And as the Bronze fit perfectly in the price range criterion I had selected. So, the Bronze felt like the right Ortofon cartridge to keep on the list.

My short list then ended up containing these five cartridges.

Top 5 cartridge upgrades for Rega Planar 2:
1. Audio-Technica VM540ML (AT440MLa/b)
2. Grado Prestige Gold
3. Ortofon 2M Bronze
4. Rega Elys Mk2
5. Rega Exact Mk2

Let’s look at each of them in more detail.

Audio-Technica VM540ML (AT440MLa/b)

Dual magnet (MM) cartridge with MicroLine stylus. 
The VM540ML replaces the discontinued and very popular AT440MLa/b.

Specifications

Type Moving Magnet (MM)
Output Level4.0 mV
Channel Separation28 dB
Recommended Load Impedance47k ohms
Recommended Tracking Force 2.0 grams
Stylus Shape 2.2 x 0.12 mil MicroLine®
MountStandard / Half Inch
Price $$

PROS

  • Price is on the lower end of the spectrum
  • The go-to higher-end MM cartridge for many vinyl enthusiasts
  • Huge following in the vinyl community
  • Good tracker
  • No tonearm spacers needed on Rega tonearms

CONS

  • Hard to find any major cons for its price
  • Regarded by some as being a fraction on the bright/analytical side in some systems

Click here to check price on Amazon

Grado Prestige Gold

The Golds are hand selected from Silver production runs which meet higher test specifications. Approximately 5% of the run usually exhibits these specs and become a Gold.

Specifications

Type Moving Magnet (MM)
Output Level5.0 mV
Channel Separation35 dB
Recommended Load Impedance47k ohms
Recommended Tracking Force 1.5 grams
Stylus Shape Elliptical diamond
MountStandard / Half Inch
Price $$$

PROS

  • Price is on the lower end of the spectrum
  • Loved by many for its warm and pleasant sound character
  • Deep bass
  • Hand made in NYC (I think that is cool)

CONS

  • Known to often produce significant hum on Rega tonearms (unfortunately!!!)
  • Regarded by some as a bit boring as details might be sacrificed for warmth and smoothness throughout the frequency range. (Some enthusiasts do not agree with this at all!)
  • Tonearm spacers needed (2mm) for correct VTA

Click here to check price on Amazon

Ortofon 2M Bronze

The 2M Bronze sits just below the top of the range 2M Black, and above the 2M Red and the 2M Blue. Its stylus is interchangeable with the 2M Black.

Specifications

Type Moving Magnet (MM)
Output Level5.0 mV
Channel Separation26 dB
Recommended Load Impedance47k ohms
Recommended Tracking Force 1.5 grams
Stylus Shape Nude Fine Line
MountStandard / Half Inch
Price $$$$

PROS

  • While its smaller brothers, the Red and Blue, seem to have a little bit of a love or hate relationship with the vinyl community, the Bronze is widely accepted as a very good high-end MM cartridge
  • Known for great dynamics and openness. Engaging.
  • Possible to upgrade for a Black stylus for even better sound when it is due for replacement

CONS

  • The second most expensive cartridge on the list.
  • Tonearm spacers needed (around 4mm) for correct VTA
  • Can be picky on VTA so spacer tweaking might be needed for optimal sound

Click here to check price on Amazon

Rega Elys Mk2

The Elys sits just below the top of the range Exact. A multi award-winning, hand-built moving magnet cartridge with three-point mounting system.

Specifications

Type Moving Magnet (MM)
Output Level7.0 mV
Channel Separation
Recommended Load Impedance
Recommended Tracking Force 1.75 gram
Stylus Shape Elliptical
MountRega 3-point
Price $$$

PROS

  • Price is on the lower end of the spectrum
  • Rega 3 point mount. Easy to mount on Rega tonearms. No alignment.
  • The second-best cartridge in the Rega MM cartridge lineup
  • High output level

CONS

  • Basically, only one. But a big one. It just does not receive a lot of love from the vinyl community at all. Not widely accepted as a good cartridge for its price. Even though some HiFi journalists seem to love it.
  • Seems to lack the dynamics, engagement and openness that is expected from a higher end MM cartridge

Click here to check price on Amazon

Rega Exact Mk2

The Exact is the top of the range MM cartridge from Rega. Hand built moving magnet cartridge with three-point mounting system and Vital profile diamond stylus with zero tolerance channel balance.

Specifications

Type Moving Magnet (MM)
Output Level7.0 mV
Channel Separation
Recommended Load Impedance
Recommended Tracking Force 1.75 gram
Stylus Shape Vital
MountRega 3-point
Price $$$$$

PROS

  • The MM cartridge in the Rega lineup that seems to get the absolute most respect, praise and love from the vinyl community and audiophiles. Also when taking price into consideration.
  • Widely accepted as one of the best high-end MM cartridges on the market
  • Neutral sound character. Not on the bright side.
  • High output level
  • Very straight forward to install on Rega turntables and tonearms
  • Designed to match perfectly with Rega phono preamps (or vice versa)
  • A very good cartridge also for the Rega Planar 3

CONS

  • The most expensive cartridge on the list.
  • Might not look quite as expensive as it is

Click here to check price on Amazon

The Best Cartridge Upgrade for Rega Planar 2 (My Pick)

The Grado Prestige Gold made my top 5 list because it is probably the cartridge that intrigues me the most. Its warm and pleasant tube-like sound is a big yes to me. But, it is unfortunately reported too many problems with mounting it to the Rega tonearms and turntables for me to take the chance on it. It has a reputation for producing significant hum on Rega tonearms, and that was a dealbreaker for me.

The Audio-Technica VM540ML (and its predecessors) is one of the cartridges I have studied that receives the most love from the vinyl community. I ended up selecting this for my AT-LP120 as you can read all about in this article where I find the best cartridge upgrade for the Audio-Technica AT-LP120. So I wanted something different for my Rega Planar 2. Also, the VM540ML has a reputation for sounding slightly on the bright side. Which I can attest to after testing it on my AT-LP120.

The Rega Elys Mk2 seems to be receiving good reviews from HiFi journalists, but not from the vinyl community. It is hard to find a lot of praise of this cartridge in discussion forums. And there are quite a few audiophiles in those forums that really know what they are talking about. So I became hesitant on selecting the Rega Elys. If we look at where it sits in the Rega MM cartridge line-up and its price, it should be the perfect fit for the Rega Planar 2. But it is hard to find evidence that it is as good as it should be for its price. It is kind of left in the shadows by the vinyl community.

Rega MM Cartridge Lineup

In the end, it was a choice between the Rega Exact and the Ortofon 2M Bronze. Under ideal working conditions, I think it is hard to put one significantly over the other. They are both absolute top-notch high-end MM cartridges. It is hard to find any negative criticism of these two at all. Both are reported to have great engaging sound and a close to neutral sound characteristics. Not too bright. Not too warm.

The Ortofon 2M Bronze has a price advantage. It is a bit cheaper than the Rega Exact. But it will need spacers to fit on the Rega Planar 2. And possibly quite a bit of spacer tweaking to fully open up its potential. And it will need to be “manually” aligned as it doesn’t have the Rega 3-point mount.

The Rega Exact will, on the other hand, be a lot easier to mount on the Rega Planar 2. No spacers or alignment will be needed. Making it much easier to install. And there will be no risk of being unable to maximize its sonic potential due to less than ideal alignment or VTA. The biggest downside for the Rega Exact is the price. It is a bit more expensive than the Ortofon 2M Bronze.

Finally, I decided on the Rega Exact. The hassle-free, easy install was the key factor that led to that conclusion. Plug, play and enjoy. Other factors that contributed to my decision were that it would match perfectly with Rega preamps and be just as easy to install on a Rega Planar 3 if I chose to upgrade my turntable sometime in the future.

My Pick
Rega Exact Mk2

Runner Up
Ortofon 2M Bronze

Review and Comparison

I have now upgraded the cartridge on both of my turntables. The AT-LP120 has gotten a VM540ML and the Rega Planar 2 has gotten a Rega Exact Mk2. And I am quite amazed at how much increase in sonic performance a cartridge upgrade on affordable turntables can give. Both the AT-LP120 and the Rega Planar 2 reach a completely different level of performance with a cartridge upgrade.

So, my claim seems to be true. The cartridge is the heart and soul of the turntable.

The music that I used for this review and comparison was Diana Krall – Turn Up the Quiet, Pink Floyd – The Wall and Tom Waits – Heartattack and Wine. I also spun a little AC/DC – Back in Black to check the rock and roll groove.

Rega Carbon vs Rega Exact

The Rega Exact costs about 10X as much as the Rega Carbon. So a big difference in sonic performance is to be expected. And the Rega Exact does not disappoint.

Where the Carbon sounds a bit lazy and not too engaging, the Exact sounds refined, present, dynamic and open. I also think it sounds slightly warm which is a pleasant surprise. Listening to the amazing vocals of Diana Krall in ‘Sway’ and the punchy bass lines of Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’ is just another experience with the Rega Exact compared to the Carbon. The Exact has a totally different level of presence and engagement.

The installation of the Rega Exact was completely hassle-free. It is a bit fiddly to get the tiny wires connected, but besides that it was very straight-forward. I have had no issues with inner groove distortion, noise, sibilance, skipping or any of that stuff. I run the tracking force at 1.8 grams.

Another observation is the significant increase in volume. The Exact has a much higher output level than the Carbon. And that is very noticeable. The volume is much higher.

One last thing to mention is that the Exact needs quite a bit of break-in time. I have now used it for a few months and it just keeps sounding better and better.

I am really happy about my choice and the result. My Rega Planar 2 is a completely different turntable with the Rega Exact cartridge upgrade.

Upgraded Rega Planar 2 vs Upgraded AT-LP120

I recently upgraded the cartridge on my AT-LP120 too. I replaced the original AT95E with a VM540ML. You can read all about that process in this article. I think the VM540ML is the best cartridge to extract the sonic potential from the AT-LP120.

Just as with the Rega Planar 2, the AT-LP120 really got a bump in performance with a better cartridge. But I have to say that the relative increase in sound quality was even bigger on the Rega Planar 2.

The AT-LP120 and VM540ML combo cost about $600. For that price, you will get pretty good HiFi sound. The Rega Planar 2 and Rega Exact combo, on the other hand, costs about $1300 as I write this article, and will give you audiophile approved-sound.

The most noticeable differences between the two are that the Rega sounds warmer and more engaging. The Rega has more details in the low and midrange. More control and more drama.

Please note that the Rega Planar 2 and the AT-LP120 have very different tonearms and motor/drive so this is not an apple to apple comparison of the two cartridges. The VM540ML would probably sound different and better on the Rega Planar 2, as it is a pricier and higher quality turntable.

Conclusion

When I decided to upgrade the cartridge on my Rega Planar 2 I started with a list of 9 cartridge candidates and narrowed it down until there was only one left. I ended up selecting the Rega Exact. A decision that I will never regret.

You might conclude differently than I did when deciding on your cartridge upgrade for your Rega turntable. That is cool. I still hope that there is a lot of value in this article that will be useful to you in your decision process.

I am now totally happy with the sound of my turntable and stereo. My next project is to increase the acoustics in my living room. In a stylish “wife-friendly” way. And, I will probably put as much research effort into that project as I did when searching for the best Rega Planar 2 cartridge upgrade. So, stay tuned for updates on my acoustics improvement project.

Resources

Rega Research
Ortofon
Grado Labs
Audio-Technica
Needle Doctor
Steve Hoffman Music Forums
What Hi-Fi

  • Tom
  • June 9, 2019