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Littman is the gold standard in stethoscopes, according to the medical professionals Healthline talked with. It’s known for quality and a wide range of models and prices. But there are also other economical options.
Whether you’re choosing your first stethoscope or looking for an upgrade, you have lots of options.
Here, we’ll review some of the top choices, as evaluated by professionals we spoke with, medical websites, and customer reviews.
We’ll look at the bestselling stethoscope models for quality, durability, functionality, special features, and price range.
Healthline chooses the best stethoscopes based on the following criteria:
- Consistent performance: Consistency is key. The instruments on this list provide consistent results.
- Insurance coverage: In general, we selected stethoscopes that are health savings account (HSA) and flexible spending account (FSA) eligible, but always check what’s covered by your policy.
- Durability: Whichever stethoscope you choose, it should remain reliable with repeated use.
- User experiences and reviews: We also took into account reviews, both good and bad, from real people like you who use stethoscopes on a regular basis.
- Budget: We selected stethoscopes to accommodate a wide range of budgets.
- Professional reputation: We vetted products that come with high praise from other medical professionals.
We’ve indicated the price range for each product as follows:
- $ = under $50
- $$ = $50–$100
- $$$ = over $100
|Price||Type||Best used for||Length|
|3M Littmann Classic III||$$$||dual head acoustic||physical assessment in a noncritical care setting||27||adult and pediatric size bells, |
tunable diaphragm easy to clean, open bell, no latex or phthalate plasticizers, comes in several colors
|FriCARE Dual Head Stethoscope||$||dual head acoustic||home use, checking blood pressure, general clinical settings||28||inexpensive, stainless steel construction, nonlatex rubber|
|Omron Sprague Rappaport Stethoscope||$$||Sprague||home health, students, personal use||22||shorter tubing, double tubing, inexpensive|
|MDF Instruments MD One Adult Stethoscope||$$||dual head acoustic||general clinical settings||32||good quality, trendy color combos, personalization available|
|3M Littman Master Cardiology Stethoscope||$$$||cardiology||critical care or high acuity clinical work, any setting where high quality acoustics are essential||27||highest quality construction, picks up widest range of sounds, extended warranty|
|3M Littmann CORE Digital Stethoscope||$$$||electronic||cardiology, intensive care units, loud or critical care environments||27||active noise cancellation, up to 40 times sound amplification, app connectivity|
|3M Littmann Classic II Pediatric Stethoscope||$$||dual head acoustic||infants and children||28||high quality acoustics, smaller diaphragm designed for pediatric use, “no chill” surfaces|
There are three main types of stethoscopes:
- acoustic (the classic)
- electronic (digital)
- stethoscopes for anyone with hearing impairments (these can be used with or without hearing aids)
Within these types, there are single head, dual head, and triple head stethoscopes.
- Triple head: These stethoscopes are fairly uncommon and are primarily used in cardiology settings.
- Dual head: This means both sides of the stethoscope head can be used for auscultation (listening), which allows you to hear a broader range of sounds when you’re listening to a person’s heart, lungs, or bowels.
- Single head: These stethoscopes use just one side for listening, which may mean you miss a few of the highest or lowest tones.
In addition to the type and head style, you can also categorize stethoscopes by their function:
- Cardiology: These stethoscopes are the best when it comes to sound quality. They’re most useful in cardiac or critical care settings, where even the slightest difference in sound matters.
- Pediatric: These smaller size stethoscopes pick up higher tones and are just the right size for children’s bodies.
- Infant: This is the tiniest stethoscope bell available for the tiniest patients.
- Sprague: This design features two tubes running down the entire length of the stethoscope (one from each earpiece), which is meant to enhance the sound.
- Lightweight: High quality stethoscopes are often heavy, which can be a challenge if you experience neck or back pain. While you may sacrifice a bit of sound quality, a lightweight stethoscope can be a good option to relieve some of the pressure on your neck.
- Veterinary: These are stethoscopes designed for pets, such as cats and dogs, although many vets use human stethoscopes on their patients as well.
Infant and pediatric stethoscopes have both a bell (open) side and a diaphragm (covered with a membrane) side. The smaller sizes allow the listener to hear only what they want, instead of heart and bowel sounds, which happens when an adult size is used on an infant.
Just like an adult stethoscope, the diaphragm side picks up the higher pitched sounds, and the bell side picks up more of the lower pitches.
Sheri Tokarczyk, MS, PA-C, director of academic affairs and physician assistant education at NorthShore University HealthSystem in Illinois, suggests stethoscope buyers, such as nurses, nursing students, doctors, medical students, and patient care technicians, consider these factors:
- Frequency of use: “There are some great stethoscopes for $50–$80 if your use will be light or infrequent,” she says. For frequent or heavy use, “consider a higher quality, more durable model and tubing.”
- The sensitivity of the acoustics: “You want a diaphragm and bell to allow you to hear various frequencies and vibrations.”
- Lightweight design and comfortable earpieces: “This is important if you’re wearing the stethoscope all day.”
- The length of tubing: “Shorter tubing may provide better acoustics but will also mean bending down more.”
- Personalizing: “It’s always fun to have the options of engraving, various tubing colors, or stethoscope accessories to tell your stethoscope apart from others.”
Other things to consider are:
Are you working with infants or children most of the time? You may want a stethoscope that has a cute design that can distract the child, nursing student Ana Valdez suggests.
Some accessories, like stethoscope covers, are designed with pediatric care in mind.
Will you need the best acoustics possible to listen to very faint sounds? If you frequently work with people who have heart conditions, have respiratory illnesses, or are in a critical care setting, you may need to look at a higher priced model.
The more expensive stethoscopes use materials that conduct sound more efficiently.
Stainless steel is considered the best sound transmitter. The better instruments have thicker steel heads.
All of the stethoscopes mentioned in this article are latex-free, which may matter if you or a patient has a latex sensitivity.
How does a stethoscope work?
There are three main parts to a stethoscope: the earpieces (rubber tips that go in your ears), the tubing (which carries the sound), and the chest piece (the metal part, or head, of the stethoscope).
The chest piece is typically made of a bell and a diaphragm. The bell is the open side, which often seems smaller because it’s deeper. It transmits lower sounds.
The diaphragm is the larger, flatter side, which transmits higher sounds. Single-head stethoscopes combine the bell and diaphragm functions.
Sound waves are amplified when they bounce off a stethoscope’s metal disc (diaphragm or bell) and are carried up the tubing. Because the sounds are contained in the tubing and carried directly to the listener’s ears, you can hear more than if you just put your ear next to someone’s chest.
How do you clean a stethoscope?
Isopropyl rubbing alcohol that’s 70% or higher is recommended to clean your stethoscope.
Many hospital settings have heavy duty disinfecting wipes on every wall, but some of these cleaners can cause the rubber tubing of your stethoscope to break down over time. It’s usually best to use alcohol wipes.
How long does a stethoscope last?
While some organizations recommend replacing your stethoscope every 2 years for superior function, many healthcare professionals we talked with have had their stethoscopes for many years, even decades.
Are more expensive stethoscopes better quality?
For the most part, yes. More expensive stethoscopes tend to have higher quality materials and construction, which allow for better sound quality.
However, there are some very good quality tools at a fraction of the cost. Typically, you’ll want to look for stainless steel and nonlatex rubber.
Which type of stethoscope is best for doctors vs. nurses vs. students?
If you’re a doctor specializing in critical care or cardiology, a cardiology or digital stethoscope may be the best choice.
The best stethoscope for nurses seems to be the 3M Littmann Classic, trusted by many medical professionals.
But those in nursing specialties — cardiac, neonatal intensive care unit, pediatric intensive care unit, pediatrics, and flight medicine — may benefit from specialty stethoscopes, such as cardiology, pediatric, or infant.
Nursing students, medical students, and patient care technician students may want to choose one of the budget options until they get a good feel for their practice.
Why is Littmann the best stethoscope?
If you talk with medical professionals, many use a 3M Littmann stethoscope. These stethoscopes have been around since the 1960s and were the pioneering technology for all modern stethoscopes used today.
The company is known for using high quality materials (such as steel, aluminum, flexible tubing, and soft earpieces), in addition to superior design and manufacturing. This combo produces a stethoscope that provides the best sound quality possible.
This is a big deal even in the age of modern technology. A stethoscope is still one of the most valuable diagnostic tools for any clinician.
In a study conducted by 3M, the maker of the Littman stethoscope, the company found that patient heart sounds were four times louder through the diaphragm of a Littmann stethoscope than that of the competitor.
Which stethoscope is best for vets?
Given the unique nature of the patients that veterinarians care for, there are some very specific qualities that will make for a great veterinary stethoscope.
“One of the most important features for vets especially is a dual head, because we care for such a wide range of animal sizes. So you want one side that is larger and one smaller,” says Dr. Heather Weir of the CSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital.
“Additionally, longer tubing gives you better access (especially since some animals don’t want you right in their space), and a double lumen for better sound quality, since vets work in noisier and more varied environments,” she says.
The 3M Littmann Classic II 32-Inch stethoscope is primarily used in veterinary medicine thanks to its generous tubing length. However, that model has recently been discontinued, so it can be tricky to find online. At the time of publish, we were able to find it here.
Whether you’re buying your first stethoscope or an upgrade, there are plenty of options when it comes to design, quality, and price.
If you’re a nurse, doctor, advanced practitioner, emergency medical technician, respiratory therapist, or student, you’re likely to have your stethoscope with you most of the time.
Littmann is considered the gold standard brand for high quality sound, and it offers special models for cardiology, newborns, and everything in between.
However, Littmann models tend to be more expensive than competitors. Other stethoscope brands may better suit your needs and budget.