The humble stethoscope is perhaps the single-most widely used tool across all branches of the medical field.
From cardiologists, pediatricians, and general practitioners to EMTs, nurses, and medical students, the stethoscope plays a vital role in the initial and ongoing assessment of a number of conditions.
Needless to say, all stethoscopes are not created equally. Several important factors need to be taken into consideration when choosing the most appropriate stethoscope for the job at hand. With the sheer number of options available, this is often not a simple task.
Whether you're purchasing your very first stethoscope or looking to upgrade a previous model, we at BestReviews are here to help!
Our team has compiled this guide based on our interviews with expert consultant Dr. Schreiber, extensive consumer research, and 100% unbiased product analysis.
We never accept free products from manufacturers, so you have complete peace of mind that all of our featured products adhere to our strict quality standards.
If you're short on time and already know what you're looking for, please check out our top five contenders above.
But if you’re not entirely sure which stethoscope is best for your needs, please read our detailed guide below. We’ll narrow the options down for you in a heartbeat!
Dr. Schreiber earned a bachelor of science in dietetics with a minor in biology from the University of Delaware, then continued at the University of Bridgeport in Bridgeport, CT, earning his doctorate of chiropractic and master’s degree in human nutrition. He is double board certified in rehabilitation and clinical nutrition. He has been featured in prominent publications such as the Huffington Post, livestrong.com, and WebMD.com.
At their most basic, stethoscopes work by picking up the vibrations caused by a variety physiological functions via the chestpiece, then transmitting them to our ears through the airtight tubing and headset.
In the case of traditional dual-head stethoscopes, this can be achieved by using either the wide, drum-like surface of the diaphragm (which collects vibrations directly from high-frequency sounds) or the smaller concave bell (which picks up vibrations on the skin caused by low-frequency sounds). These vibrations are then funneled through the narrow tubing directly to our ears, resulting in effective amplification.
Product in Depth
Product in Depth
3M Littmann Classic III
Superior Performance and Quality
The 3M Littmann Classic III is an incredibly popular stethoscope that receives high praise for its consistent delivery of excellent performance on every level. Those in need of a high-quality, versatile stethoscope certainly won't be disappointed by its innovative dual-head tunable diaphragms. This stethoscope offers quality construction, outstanding sound, and a thoughtful overall design. It’s comfortable to wear from its ear tips to its adaptable, easy-to-use chestpiece. Owners agree it's well worth the extra cost.
While stethoscopes themselves certainly aren't all that complicated, the various elements that go into making a good stethoscope can be difficult to identify when you're unsure of what you're looking for.
Below, we examine the common chestpiece types found on stethoscopes.
This type of chestpiece is most commonly used by cardiologists and features a one-sided, tunable diaphragm that allows for auscultation of both high and low frequencies by simply adjusting pressure. While not quite as versatile as a dual-head chestpiece, the single-head tunable diaphragm usually offers improved clarity and amplification, especially when used to listen to heart sounds.
In most cases, a single tube (or bi-lumen encased in a single tube) allows for clearer auscultation than a double tube.
Arguably the most popular type of stethoscope, the traditional dual-head stethoscope features a wide, flat diaphragm (for higher frequency sounds) on one side and a smaller concave bell (for lower frequencies) on the other.
In order to alternate between the two, the chestpiece will need to be turned by the user.
While traditional dual-head stethoscopes have a separate bell and diaphragm, many newer models conveniently feature a combined bell and diaphragm in a single head and only require a change in pressure to alternate between the two.
In some dual-head models, both sides are fitted with tunable diaphragms, creating a highly versatile tool that can be used for both adults and children, with the application of varying degrees of pressure allowing for low- or high-frequency auscultation on either side.
In most cases, the smaller diaphragm is removable for traditional open-bell use as well.
When using an adjustable-frequency diaphragm, be sure to use light pressure for low-frequency sounds and firmer pressure for higher-frequency sounds.
While the chestpiece design is largely a matter of preference or, in some cases, intended application, most agree that the quality of its overall construction is non-negotiable.
Materials such as titanium or stainless steel with a smooth, well-finished interior and exterior generally provide superior performance. But, be warned: the same high-density materials that offer improved clarity may also add considerable weight.
In terms of patient comfort, most chestpieces come with a non-chill rim that not only helps to form a seal but also goes a long way toward ensuring your patient’s consultation is a pleasant, gasp-free experience.
Product in Depth
Product in Depth
3M Littmann Lightweight II S.E.
Comfort and Weight
3M Littmann is arguably the most highly regarded manufacturer of stethoscopes, so you would expect their Lightweight II S.E. to be a quality instrument. According to owners, you wouldn't be disappointed. It has a non-chill diaphragm and rim and non-latex tubing that stretches it to an overall length of 28 inches. 3M Littmann claims that the headset is ergonomically designed and easy to adjust for comfort. While you do only get one set of ear tips, they are particularly soft to adaptable to the ear – and they're firmly attached so you won't lose them.
When it comes to tubing, thick and durable construction is a must.
Thin, flimsy tubes will easily pick up external sounds and are more likely to produce distortion or lose signal. Both PVC and latex rubber are commonly used materials.
However, many physicians opt for PVC as it not only reduces the risk of skin irritation but also offers better durability.
Traditional stethoscopes have both the bell and diaphragm on the same end, and the user is able to switch them back and forth. Newer models have a hybrid bell/diaphragm, and the user only has to change pressure to change between the bell and diaphragm.
While shorter tubes do tend to produce marginally better acoustics, they can also be uncomfortable.
A shorter tube may force you to bend over frequently, causing unnecessary strain on your back. And for some practitioners, examining patients in such close proximity can be uncomfortable.
Applying too much pressure to the diaphragm is a common beginner mistake. The ideal pressure should only cause a slight depression of the skin. With the correct pressure, sound should be noticeably louder and clearer.
You’ll need to decide whether you’d prefer double tubes, a single tube, or a bi-lumen single tube.
A stethoscope with double tubes features two separate tubes, just as the name suggests. Each tube is independently connected to each ear piece. While this design works for some, the tubes can be prone to rubbing against one another, causing considerable interference.
A stethoscope with a single tube has a tube that runs from the chestpiece and splits into two at the earpieces. For some, the “split” quality of a single sound source is insufficient. Others actually prefer it.
A stethoscope with bi-lumen single tubes features two tubes moulded into one casing to prevent rubbing. This design is considered by many to yield optimal overall sound quality.
Product in Depth
Product in Depth
American Diagnostic Adscope
The ADC Adscope 609ST stethoscope's low price is hard to beat. It's an entry-level instrument that offers a good compromise between cost and performance. It does benefit from a non-chill, reversible aluminum chestpiece, and it's comparatively lightweight for a low-cost model. As a tool for those who work in respiratory medicine, it scores well, but it isn't rated quite so highly by those in other branches of medicine. Durability shouldn't be a problem; this instrument comes with a five-year limited warranty.
Ensuring that the binaurals (ear tubes) are constructed from the same high-quality materials as the chestpiece is crucial for accurate sound transmission.
Size, adjustability, and angle are also important considerations, as an uncomfortable headset will only serve as a distraction.
Most people associate stethoscopes with the heart, but they can also be used to listen to the lungs, bowel sounds, and blood vessels.
Not to be overlooked, suitable eartips aren't simply a matter of comfort. They are also vital to getting an accurate reading.
A snug fit will create a seal that effectively blocks out ambient noise.
Ill-fitting eartips, on the other hand, will cause pain and could make hearing heart sounds nearly impossible in noisier environments.
Ensuring that you have the ear tips placed on the correct ear is essential. You may not hear any sounds at all if they are on the wrong ears.
The stethoscope is a tool that is certainly put through its paces in terms of handling and use. A well-made stethoscope could last for years, if not decades, and some manufacturers offer extremely generous warranties on high-end models.
Many quality stethoscopes also feature replaceable parts which go a long way toward extending the life of the instrument.
However, if you need a stethoscope for light or infrequent use, selecting a heavy-duty model probably isn't necessary.
Make sure you keep your stethoscope clean and that you are the only person to use it. There have been cases of infection resulting from poor stethoscope hygiene.
Unfortunately, the same materials that provide the best acoustics and durability also add extra weight to a stethoscope.
While most consider the added weight of stainless steel or titanium a worthwhile tradeoff for superior performance, others find these materials too cumbersome to comfortably carry around all day.
Fortunately, there are plenty of quality lightweight stethoscopes available. Unless you're a specialist or using your stethoscope for critical assessments, one of these could make a perfectly good alternative.
Product in Depth
Product in Depth
MDF® Stainless Steel, Dual Head
Chestpiece precision is an area of great focus with the MDF MD One stethoscope, which uses stainless steel rather than the aluminum often found in cheaper stethoscopes. This dual-sided unit is carefully machined and polished to provide excellent acoustics and, according to MDF, “accurate auscultation of heart, lung, and Korotkoff sounds.” It would seem the majority of medical practitioners agree. Although several owners did say they had difficulty with murmurs and bruits, others who initially reported similar problems found that ear piece angle could be the culprit.
Stethoscope prices can vary drastically, with budget models starting out around $15 and specialist stethoscopes making their debut at the $200 mark.
$15 to $40 budget stethoscopes are entry-level tools that offer decent performance for those in training.
$40 to $100+ professional-grade stethoscopes fall under the broad scope of mid-tier stethoscopes. Instruments in this price range generally offer a combination of quality, versatility, and affordability.
$100 to $250+ specialist stethoscopes are the best available and make no sacrifices in terms of quality, performance, or price.
Dr. Schreiber cautions that although a budget stethoscope might be “good,” a medical professional with a focus on accuracy probably wouldn’t want to use one.
Q. How do I clean my stethoscope?
A. Cleaning your stethoscope is easier than you might think, although certain parts do require special care.
Eartips: For quick cleaning, a cotton swab dipped in a 70% isopropyl alcohol solution is perfect for gently reaching into smaller crevices. For more thorough cleaning, the ear tips may need to be removed.
Headset (Binaurals): These are quickly and easily cleaned by thoroughly wiping each ear tube with alcohol prep pads or a cotton ball soaked in a 70% isopropyl alcohol solution.
Tubing: A stethoscope’s tubing requires special attention, as harsh chemicals and alcohol-based cleaning agents can cause them to become sticky. A paper towel or clean cloth soaked in warm, soapy water is your best bet. After wiping the tubing down with a soapy solution, a paper towel can be used for drying.
Chestpiece: As the chestpiece comes into contact with contaminants more often than the rest of the stethoscope, this area requires the most frequent cleaning. For wiping surface areas, a prep pad or cotton ball soaked in 70% isopropyl alcohol solution may used. Harder-to-reach areas can be cleaned with a cotton swab dipped in rubbing alcohol.
Note: While the aforementioned methods of cleaning are suitable for most stethoscopes, it's always a good idea to refer to the manufacturer’s care instructions to understand how to best clean your stethoscope.
Q. I’m having problems hearing with my stethoscope. Am I doing something wrong?
A. A number of factors can contribute to acoustic problems.
Incorrect headset alignment is a common culprit and one that is easily corrected. Holding your stethoscope in front of you, ensure that the ear tips are pointing forward and away from you before inserting them. Dr. Schreiber points out that if the ear tips are in the wrong ears, you probably won’t hear anything!
Badly fitting eartips can severely affect sound quality. Finding the correct size is essential for optimal results.
Obstructions in the form of lint (when carried in pockets) or dirt buildup can be eliminated with proper cleaning and maintenance.
Loose seals around the chestpiece and tubing, as well as cracks in the tubing, will hamper your stethoscope’s ability to properly transmit sounds.
Q. My stethoscope is damaged. Do I need to buy a new one, or can it be fixed?
A. Many quality stethoscope manufacturers offer replacement parts. However, budget stethoscopes are usually cheaper and easier to replace entirely. Check with the manufacturer to find out more about replacement parts.
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