A stethoscope is a medical device used to listen to a person’s heart or breathing. It’s a decidedly low-tech piece of equipment but one that has been earning its keep in hospitals, clinics, doctor’s offices, ambulances and homes for well over a century.
Those who are unfamiliar with the modern stethoscope may find the variety of scopes on the market today to be somewhat intimidating. But keep in mind that they all work on essentially the same principle. They transmit the sound of the heart from the chestpiece through flexible tubes to the eartips so you can hear it. That’s it.
There are no computer chips or smartphone apps involved. Just old school analog technology that works even when the power goes out. Below we’ve brought together the 10 best stethoscopes on the market for your consideration.
1. Littmann 6152 Cardiology IV Stethoscope
Littmann is the premier name in stethoscopes and has been since David Littmann of Harvard Medical School first invented his lightweight, high performance stethoscope back in the 1960s. The Littmann 6152 Cardiology IV features two diaphragms which enable it to capture both high and low frequency sound. Because of this the Cardiology IV is compatible with both adults and kids.
What we like: The Cardiology IV arguably offers the highest quality acoustic performance of any stethoscope on the market. There’s also dual-lumen tubing that eliminates almost all extraneous sound and the general ergonomics are first-rate. The icing on the cake are the very comfortable, fully adjustable eartips.
The 6152 is built to stand the test of time, has an agreeable ergonomic design and a larger than average chestpiece. The fact that it can be used on both adults and children is another plus and, oh yeah, did we mention it has a 7 year warranty? Game, set, match.
Flaws: There’s no way to sugar coat it; it’s expensive. Then again cost is relative. You could easily pay more for a nice pair of shoes.
2. ADC Adscope 600 Platinum
Littmann stethoscopes have some real competition these days. Primary among them is ADC with its outstanding Adscope 600 Platinum. The chestpiece of the 600 is machined from a single piece of stainless steel to a high degree of exactitude. When combined with the bi-lumen tubing and the aluminum binaurals the result is smooth, precise transmission of sound across the entire spectrum.
What we like: The binaurals are spring loaded to ensure a snug fit of the eartips. While the silicone eartips themselves are pliable and very comfortable even after repeated uses.
If you’re really in the mood to splurge on your stethoscope you can even pick up a 600 in gold plated titanium. And, if all that weren’t enough, ADC offers a lifetime warranty. You also have your choice of 9 colors.
Flaws: The eartips, while comfortable, aren’t going to last long if you use the stethoscope often. It’s no big deal to get more, just a minor annoyance. It’s also a fairly heavy stethoscope. Though the acoustic quality offsets that.
3. Littmann Master Cardiology Stethoscope
The Littmann Master Cardiology Stethoscope offers high-quality acoustic performance, dual-lumen tubing (1) and a precision machined stainless steel chestpiece. Acoustic quality is right there with the best across the full audio spectrum. Meaning you can use the Master with both adult and pediatric patients.
What we like: The ergonomics of the headset are impressive, providing high-end comfort regardless of how often you use it. Build quality is what you’d expect from 3M’s Littmann brand and will endure the most trying conditions without breaking a sweat. So jam it in your pocket. It can take it.
And one more thing: you can also adjust the sound frequency based on pressure. Though that kind of adjustment will take some time to master.
Flaws: It’s hard to find flaws with this device. It does everything you want a stethoscope to do and it’s built to last. The only real downside for average users will be the price. Though that’s not really a flaw.
4. MDF Acoustica Deluxe Lightweight Stethoscope
The MDF Acoustica Deluxe has a slightly different look than some other stethoscopes and features a variety of color options for the chestpiece. But aesthetics aside this is a highly functional budget friendly stethoscope that’s well-built, relatively light and fashioned from aluminum and latex-free PVC.
What we like: The PVC enables clean sound transmission. Though acoustics aren’t going to impress a cardiac nurse. The lightweight design is a plus. Making it a solid choice for home use and other settings where it’s not called upon on a daily basis.
Also, the acoustic performance, while it won’t set the world on fire, is more than adequate for most people’s purposes. And there’s a limited lifetime warranty.
Flaws: Cardiac specialists will find the acoustics somewhat wanting. And the eartips can start to make their presence known after a while.
5. Littmann Classic III Stethoscope
Not that there’s any such thing as a ‘cheap’ Littman stethoscope but the Classic III is definitely more attractively priced than some of their other models. The good news is you don’t have to give up much by way of performance to enjoy that more reasonable price. The Classic III is cited by many as being perhaps the best all-around value in 3M’s Littmann line. And we’re inclined to agree.
What we like: It has a no-nonsense but highly agreeable design and feel, offers generally excellent acoustics and sports Littmann’s characteristic comfy eartips. It’s available in a variety of colors and the no-chill chestpiece makes it a hit with patients.
While not a pediatric stethoscope per se, the ability to tune the diaphragm to pick up higher frequencies – as well as the no-chill chestpiece – should make it attractive to pediatric nurses and parents with small kids.
Flaws: Sound quality is good to very good but not on par with something like the Littmann Cardiology IV.
6. Omron Sprague Rappaport Stethoscope
The Omron Sprague Rappaport is very modestly priced stethoscope that may have the best acoustic characteristics of any budget scope. The tubing is latex-free, while the bell and diaphragm (2) combination used here effectively covers a wide swath of the audio spectrum.
What we like: This is an outstanding choice for anyone who wants to have a quality stethoscope on hand in the home. Build quality is not going to impress cardiac specialists, but is more than adequate to handle occasional use.
It demonstrates good acoustic capabilities for such a budget stethoscope. It’s also pretty comfortable. The real selling point here though is the combination of decent to good quality and a very low price.
Flaws: Cardiologists will want to look elsewhere. As will anyone who uses their stethoscope on a daily basis. Simply because this isn’t built to stand up to regular use. Still, it’s a good scope for the home.
7. Paramed Classic Single Head Stethoscope
The Paramed Classic Single Head Stethoscope is another no-frills device that is a good choice for home use. It’s well-built using latex-free PVC with a machined steel head with and a no-chill face. The ergonomics are surprisingly good, although the eartips are a bit on the unforgiving side.
What we like: This is a budget stethoscope we could see finding its way into the pocket of EMTs as well as home users. Acoustics-wise it does a fine job at the lower end of the sound spectrum but not as good at the high end. Meaning it’s an adult-oriented stethoscope.
Build quality is surprisingly good and it’s nice and light. Plus Paramed provides a pair of replacement eartips.
Flaws: Due to less than outstanding performance at the high end of the audio spectrum it isn’t recommended for kids. And it’s not going to impress your cardiologist.
8. Littmann Classic II
Our list may seem a bit Littmann heavy but we call ‘em like we see ‘em. And what we see with the Littmann Classic II is a great teaching stethoscope that embodies most everything the Littmann line stands for: high build quality, outstanding acoustics and high-quality ergonomics.
What we like: The twin headsets make it a great teaching tool, no matter who the student. It’s also reasonably priced and built to last. Parents who want to get their kids involved with their health will find the Classic II a great tool that encourages engagement. What else is there to say? Typical Littmann quality.
Flaws: Don’t pick up a two-headed stethoscope unless you really need one.
9. Welch Allyn 5079-138 Professional Stethoscope
Welch Allyn grabs for the brass ring with their generally outstanding 5079-138 Professional Stethoscope. It offers crystal-clear acoustics, latex-free single-lumen PVC tubing, molded silicone eartips and a no-chill stainless steel chestpiece.
What we like: The acoustic quality is close to that of Littmann’s best. Build quality is first rate and the dual head nature makes is a versatile diagnostic tool.
In short, this double-head stethoscope for heart and lung monitoring makes a solid choice for emergency room nurses, EMTs and students. Although it’s price may make it a bit impractical for home use.
Flaws: While build quality is high ergonomics are where it suffers in comparison to its Littmann competitors.
10. MDF Rose Gold MD One
The last of our best stethoscopes is our second from MDF. The Rose Gold MD One is a fine piece of medical equipment that also happens to look great. It features a stainless steel chestpiece, latex-free tubing and generally good ergonomics.
What we like: Acoustics are good to very good across the audio spectrum. That means it’s going to hit all the right beats for nurses, EMTs and the like. There’s typical MDF build quality with those high-end acoustics. And of course, we can’t forget the MDF lifetime warranty either.
But it’s really intended for those health professionals looking to add a bit of spice to their life. And in that regard it’s hard to beat with a handsome rose gold finish that will turn heads.
Flaws: The white tubing can sometimes pick up color from less color-fast uniforms and clothing.
Who Needs a Stethoscope?
The common belief that no one other than a highly trained medical profession has any use for a stethoscope is somewhat outdated. The fact is, just like a thermometer, a stethoscope can provide valuable real-time information to parents and relatives of sick individuals that can be used to determine if that individual needs medical intervention.
Of course, medical professionals still make up the vast majority of those who purchase and use stethoscopes. And while a trained medical professional can obtain vital information from any reasonably good stethoscope different types of medical specialties typically have their own stethoscope preferences as we’ll see now.
The Cardiologist – The cardiologist specializes in the heart and conditions that affect it. They need to know precisely what is going on at any given minute so they can make, what often times turn out to be, life or death decisions. The cardiologist then will want to spare no expense and opt for a top of the line stethoscope that produces crystal clear sound under all conditions. That typically means a stethoscope fashioned from stainless steel, or perhaps titanium. It will be a bit heavier than some other stethoscopes but weight consideration in this case take a back seat to accuracy.
The Cardiac Nurse – The cardiac nurse (3) plays a vital front line role in the care of patients with heart conditions. She or he needs to be able to discern subtle shifts in heart performance in order to relay that information to the cardiologist if necessary. However, the cardiac nurse often operates in the confined quarters of an ICU or perhaps an emergency room. And may spend a great deal of time on her or his feet moving from patient to patient. For that reason they’ll often want to balance outstanding audio quality with lighter weight.
The EMT – The emergency medical technician or EMT is the civilian equivalent of an army medic (4). They arrive on what are often chaotic scenes and their primary responsibility it to evaluate and stabilize the sick or injured before transporting them to a hospital where they can receive more targeted, intensive care. Because EMTs tend to deal in medical generalities (“Is he breathing?” “What’s his heart rate?” etc) and because the theater in which they operate is, as we mentioned, often chaotic they are typically well served with a standard professional stethoscope.
The General Practitioner – The General Practitioner or GP is more commonly referred to as the family doctor. These are medical professionals with broad, generalized medical training who use a stethoscope to make big picture evaluations about the state of their patient’s health. Although the GP does not typically need the type of high-end stethoscope a cardiologist may require, they nonetheless still need to be able to distinguish subtle sounds that could indicate larger problems. Most GPs then will want a standard professional grade stethoscope rather than a budget scope or something with a titanium chestpiece.
The Medical Student – Which type of stethoscope is right for a med student will depend in large part on whether they wish to become a GP or if they plan on becoming a specialist. If they plan on pursuing specialist medical training the next question becomes “what type of specialist?” Certainly an aspiring podiatrist won’t have the same need for a high-end stethoscope as an aspiring cardiac surgeon.
The Pediatrician – Pediatricians (5) and pediatric nurses need reliable stethoscopes but ones specifically geared to smaller, younger patients. Pediatricians also have a need to mitigate the often intimidating atmosphere of the hospital or clinic and so they choose stethoscopes with brightly colored tubes and other fun touches.
The Registered Nurse – The registered nurse is roughly akin to the general practitioner. They provide care to patients with all manner of health problems ranging from the nuisance to the potentially fatal. The registered nurse is often very active all day long, although they may goes days without ever using their stethoscope. A reliable, lightweight stethoscope that can accurately pick up on basic heart sounds is often the best choice for the registered nurse.
How We Ranked
If you’re a cardiologist or a cardiac nurse whose job involves listening to hearts on a regular basis, then comfort is important. But if you’re a registered nurse who may only use her or his stethoscope intermittently then comfort becomes less of an issue. For our purposes comfort only entered into the equation in the case of expensive, high-end stethoscopes. If for no other reason than if you’re going to pay top dollar the scope shouldn’t hurt your ears.
Acoustic performance was another thing that weighed heavily in our decision making process. To the trained ear there’s a significant difference between the acoustic performance of a budget stethoscope and that of a high-end stethoscope. And that’s only natural. While each profession has different requirements when it comes to this issue it was, for us, primarily an economic issue. That is, the more expensive the stethoscope the higher our expectations regarding acoustic performance.
The more expensive scopes are almost always crafted from better materials and are designed to last decades. While budget-friendly stethoscopes tend to be made from lesser materials and may start to show signs of age in a couple of years. We don’t expect a budget scope to last a lifetime. But nonetheless, should one budget stethoscope exhibit better build quality than another, similarly priced scope, we would give the nod to the more durable model. Provided of course that it didn’t have any glaring performance issues.
Price certainly plays a role in our assessment process. We want to see people get optimal value from their purchases. We also hold the most expensive stethoscopes to a higher standard because that’s only fair. But price alone is not a determining factor in whether or not a particular scope made our list. We’re much more interested in value than price. Value is one of those things like art: it’s hard to describe in words exactly what it is, but you know it when you see it.
Stethoscopes are vital front-line tools for health professionals. Whether you’re a cardiac surgeon, an EMT or a navy Corpsman the stethoscope is a vital front-line piece of medical equipment. It enables you to quickly and accurately assess a person’s condition so you can decide on an appropriate course of action. Without them it’s fair to say that medical science would take a fairly significant step backward. At least in the realm of useful non-clinical care.
Stethoscopes are a common sense idea for the home. Most people are not doctors yet nearly everyone has a thermometer in their home. And for good reason. A thermometer can provide basic but vital information about the state of your health or the health of a loved one. That’s the same reason you should also consider having a stethoscope in the home. This is especially true if someone in the house has a history of cardiovascular problems. If there is an emergency the stethoscope can provide vital information which can be relayed to emergency services so that EMTs arrive on the scene prepared.
Stethoscopes are a cost-effective way to monitor health. Whether you’re a person with a history of heart ailments or a parent who wants to be able to keep closer tabs on your childrens’ health a stethoscope is a valuable diagnostic tool. Due to the simplicity of its construction, it should last for many years. Its modest price makes it a worthwhile investment that could wind up paying handsome dividends in the long run. As they say, if something only saves your life once it was worth the money.
Stethoscopes are vitally important but modestly priced. If you are intent on pursuing a medical career you must certainly be aware of the cost involved (6). When it comes time to set up your own practice many of the pieces of equipment necessary will cost tens of thousands of dollars. A stethoscope, on the other hand, will play an important role both in your education and practice. While at the same time being one of the least expensive investments you’ll ever make.
Stethoscopes can help those with heart problems monitor their condition. Having a stethoscope around if you’ve had heart issues in the past, or if you have a family history of heart issues, is a no-brainer. A stethoscope can alert you to potential problems or confirm that something usual is afoot. The important thing is learning how to accurately interpret what you hear. And there are myriad courses available that can teach you that.
Q: What heart conditions can be diagnosed using a stethoscope?
A: The amount of information a doctor can glean from a stethoscope pales in comparison to what they can learn from something like an echocardiogram (7). That said, stethoscopes can still be useful in detecting a range of problems including a heart murmur (8), systolic heart failure (9) or diastolic heart failure (10). It may also be able to pick up on what are called soft tissue artifacts (11) on the heart that could indicate other issues.
Q: Who invented the stethoscope?
A: The stethoscope was invented in 1816 by a physician at the Necker-Enfants Malades Hospital in Paris. That doctor – Rene Laennec (12) – felt it was inappropriate to place his ear directly against a woman’s chest to listen to her heart. He tried various alternative approaches, including using a rolled up piece of paper placed between the chest and his ear, before settling on a type of modified ear trumpet (13). He called his invention the stethoscope after the ancient Greek term ‘stethos’, meaning ‘chest’.
It took another 20+ years for the first stethoscope with flexible tubing to arrive on the scene. And there is some disagreement about who may have actually invented it. There is little disagreement, however, about the fact that in 1851 Irish physician Arthur Leared (14) produced the first binaural stethoscope with flexible tubing. The following century saw gradual refinement of the instrument. But it wasn’t until the 1960s that David Littmann of the Harvard Medical School produced a new stethoscope design. His was lighter, yet generated more accurate sound. The ‘Littmann’ brand (now produced by 3M) is generally regarded today as being the best in the industry.
Q: Does every stethoscope have a tunable diaphragm?
A: The tunable diaphragm was invented by 3M. Not all stethoscopes have it. But it is a common feature on high-end 3M Littmann stethoscopes and has found its way onto more expensive scopes from other manufacturers as well. The tunable diaphragm enables you to listen to the full acoustic spectrum without having to remove the chestpiece, flip it and reposition it. In a nutshell, to hear low frequency sounds (typical of adults) you hold the stethoscope against the patient’s chest and press lightly. To hear higher frequency sounds (typical of children) all you need to do is press a bit more firmly against the patient’s chest.
Q: Does the length of the tubing affect sound quality?
A: This is an issue of some debate. There are those who believe shorter tubing equals better acoustic response. Some laboratory tests seem to confirm this while others are inconclusive. But even if there is some difference it’s unlikely the average person would notice it, unless the tubing were extremely long. For the most part, the length of tubing is considered little more than a personal preference. Some medical professionals just like to have a bit more range when conducting examinations. Some doctors also prefer to keep a greater distance from flu patients or those with respiratory infections. Just as a matter of common sense self-preservation.
Q: Are double lumen tubes important?
A: You will often hear a stethoscope described as having a ‘double lumen tube’. From the outside all stethoscope tubes look more or less the same. On the inside however, they may well be different. A single lumen tube has one internal channel extending from the chestpiece to the binaurals. At that point the single channel splits in two with one channel going to each ear. In a double lumen tube there are two separate internal channels originating at the chestpiece. Each channel carries its sound to one ear. The result is stronger air pressure in each channel and stronger overall sound transmission. Double lumen tubing tends to be most important to cardiologists and cardiac nurses.
Q: Are stethoscopes heavy?
A: Stethoscopes may be fashioned from various different materials (15). And there tends to be a direct correlation between the quality of the material and the weight. For instance, stethoscopes fashioned from titanium, stainless steel or brass are going to be heavier than those fashioned from aluminum. But of course there’s a tradeoff in that the lighter aluminum stethoscope is not going to last as long and may not be quite as accurate when it comes to transmitting sound. Unless you’re a cardiologist or some other sort of specialist however, it’s unlikely you’ll actually need the exactitude you’ll get from a heavy, stainless steel, high-end stethoscope.
Q: Are stethoscopes expensive?
A: Like most things stethoscopes run the gamut from budget to high-end. Beginner models are available for as little as $15 to $20. Professional grade stethoscopes will typically fall into the $40 to $100 price range. Maybe a bit more. While high-end stethoscopes aimed at specialists can run as high as $200. If you’re interested in having a stethoscope around the house for occasional use there’s no need to invest in a high-end scope.
Q: How do You Clean a Stethoscope?
A: In most cases cleaning a stethoscope is not a difficult proposition. There are 4 major areas of concern and the good news is no special equipment is needed for the job.
The eartips are usually cleaned with a cotton swab dipped into some isopropyl alcohol. This allows you to get into all the various nooks and crannies.
Binaurals are the rigid pieces that connect the flexible tube to the eartips. They can be cleaned quickly by simply wiping them down with an alcohol soaked cotton pad.
The tubing requires a bit more care than the rigid binaurals. The material making up the tubing may respond negatively to harsh chemicals. So you’re advised to ditch the alcohol soaked swabs and pads and to use a clean cloth with some soapy water.
The chestpiece typically comes into regular contact with patients in medical situations. This calls for it to be cleaned more often than other parts of the stethoscope. It is advised that you use a combination of alcohol soaked cotton pads for the flat areas and cotton swabs dipped in isopropyl alcohol to get into crevices.
Q: Can damaged stethoscopes be repaired?
A: In many cases a damaged stethoscope can be repaired. But it depends in part on the extent of the damage. Another factor in determining whether to repair a damaged stethoscope is how much you paid for it. If it was a budget stethoscope it might actually be cheaper to simply replace it outright. We would advise that you determine which component is damaged and then talk to the manufacturer about whether a replacement part is available and how much it costs.
Q: How long does a stethoscope last?
A: As is the case with most things in life you often get what you pay for with stethoscopes. So if you’ve paid top dollar for a scope that is built with the highest quality materials and comes with a lifetime warranty there’s no reason to think it won’t last, if not a lifetime, then certainly many years. Another factor weighing on lifespan is how often you use the stethoscope. A well-built stethoscope that is used only infrequently may literally last a lifetime. A budget stethoscope that is used every day may begin to falter after a year or two.
Other diagnostic tools have been developed in the past 50 years that provide much more data regarding the heart and heart health. Yet the stethoscope nonetheless holds down its place as a valuable front-line tool for recognizing and diagnosing heart ailments. Health-conscious individuals should consider having a stethoscope in their home as part of their standard medical kit. And that goes double for those with a history of heart problems. Or those who come from a family with a history of heart disease. Of course, those with the most obvious need for a quality stethoscope will be health professionals. And due to the full range of stethoscopes on the market today they can be sure of finding one that fits their needs to a T.
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