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Updated September 2022
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BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We only make money if you purchase a product through our links, and all opinions about the products are our own. Read more  
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.Read more 
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Buying guide for best whistles

Walk past a soccer pitch or football field on just about any weekend, or listen to the sounds from the nearby high school gym. Do you hear the whistle? Somewhere in the middle of those sports arenas and training complexes, a referee is signaling a foul or a return to play with a shrill, high-pitched pea whistle, or a coach is grabbing the attention of their players during a training session.

Team sports are just one of the many places where the whistle is used. We may have smartphones and electronic alarms, but the low-tech whistle is still a fast, popular way to communicate with others. There are dozens of reasons why owning a whistle is an absolute must.

a referee blowing a whistle
There are sound frequency standards for whistles designed for specific uses, like referee whistles (3,000 to 5,000 Hz) and ship’s whistles (70 to 700 Hz).

How to buy the best whistle

How a whistle works

All whistles have the same science behind them: Air is forced into one end and exits from the other end. In between, something is in place to slow the air’s passage from one end to the other. Depending on the construction of the whistle, that can be an angled wedge or a bigger obstruction like a round pellet or a stopper valve. Air backs up behind the obstruction, and as the air pushes around the obstacle, its molecules are compressed, increasing pressure at that point. Air escapes from the nearest opening, and the higher pressure results in audible noise.

Where are whistles a must-have?

  • Hiking: Whistles are a must-have on the trail and in the backcountry. They’re used to signal other hikers and alert rescuers during an emergency.
  • Sports: Referees and coaches rely on the loud, distinctive noise of the brass pea whistle to keep players in line and the game moving smoothly along.
  • Traffic control: In major cities, police still use whistles to catch motorists’ attention and guide them safely through intersections.
  • Dog training: Whistles are tried-and-true devices to train dogs to follow specific commands and can be heard over long distances, which is useful for agility and tracking.
  • Signaling: Whistles can start and stop a race, get a crowd to quiet down — you name it.
  • Music: Whistles are frequently used in marching band routines and just about any piece composed by Sousa, and they punctuate other types of music as well.

Loudness and pitch

A distinctive whistle not only gets people’s attention, it can also clue them in about the reason for the whistle. A boat’s loud and low-pitched whistle is pretty distinctive, as is a coach’s high-pitched, sharp whistle.

Other whistles aren’t so jarring. In fact, most dog whistles make little to no noise — at least to our ears. They’re designed to produce sound waves in the 16 to 22 kHz range, which is higher than humans’ ability to hear (we just hear a hissing noise) but clear as a bell to a dog.

Types of whistles

  • Pea: This compact whistle has a small pellet or “pea” nestled inside the air chamber that provides additional airflow disruption to increase the whistle’s volume and pitch.
  • Emergency: Used to signal for help in remote areas, emergency whistles are available in many shapes and sizes. They’re even built into belt buckles and backpack straps.
  • Dog: A dog whistle is a small handheld whistle that’s pitched higher than humans can hear. Electronic versions are available.
  • Cylinder or Bobby: Bobby whistles are cylindrical whistles based on a classic brass whistle design used by British “bobbies” in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
  • Boatswain’s: A curved pipe is the signature shape of this classic naval signaling device. Its high pitch is easy to hear in rough seas.
  • Tin: Also known as a penny whistle, this whistle makes the leap into woodwind territory with six finger holes and a mouthpiece.
  • Steam: Steam whistles are large mechanical whistles used on trains, boats, and in factories and mines.
a swimming coach's whistle
DID YOU KNOW?
The whistle is closely related to the flute and dates back thousands of years to clay and wooden models.
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How do you accessorize a whistle?

Lanyard, chain, or floating lanyard

Most whistles are pretty small, so attaching one to a lanyard that’s hung around your neck is a handy way to keep from losing it. A whistle chain is a decorative metal chain that attaches to a band major’s uniform. Designed for boaters and swimmers, a floating lanyard has one or two small, brightly colored floats attached so the whistle is easy to locate in the water.

Whistle tip

A whistle tip is a silicone tip designed to fit over the mouthpiece of a pea whistle for greater comfort.

Carrying bag

Store your whistle and lanyard in a carrying bag to keep them clean and prevent them from getting tangled up in your other gear.

Referee kit

A referee kit includes everything a soccer ref needs besides a whistle, such as penalty cards and match report slips.

Overblowing is a problem, especially in pea whistles. It occurs if you blow too hard and the pellet jams or the air disruption no longer passes over the air hole correctly. Correct it by shaking the whistle gently and then blowing again with less force.

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How much do whistles cost?

Inexpensive

Plastic or stainless steel whistles can be purchased for just $4 to $8 and get the job done.

Mid-range

Expect to pay $9 to $17 for thicker metals or alloys and unique whistle styles.

Expensive

Coaches, referees, and collectors can find high-quality, durable whistles as well as electronic whistles for $18 to $30.

a dog trainer blowing a whistle
DID YOU KNOW?
Sir Francis Galton developed a slide whistle in the 1800s that measured the upper limit of human hearing. He later created the dog whistle used by trainers today.
STAFF
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Tips

  • Tongue it. Get that distinctive, sharp “coach’s whistle” by placing the tip of your tongue against the mouthpiece and withdrawing it just as you begin to blow.
  • Dry it out. Some of your spit will get inside the whistle with each use. Rinse and dry your whistle in a well-ventilated spot.
  • Carry a spare. It’s easy to lose a whistle, so keep an extra one on hand just in case.

  • Adjust your lips. Embouchure, or the shape of your mouth, can “shape” the sound of a whistle. If you’re having trouble getting the desired sound, purse your lips.

  • Practice. If you’re using a new type of whistle, try it out at home so you’re confident with the whistle outside.

whistle with yellow lanyard
Some whistles can produce sound at 100 to 120 decibels, which is enough to damage a person’s hearing. Avoid blowing a whistle too close to others.

FAQ

Q. What’s the best type of whistle to take hiking?

A. Look for a whistle that produces high decibels of sound with minimal effort. If you’re in a situation where you need to signal rescuers with a whistle, you may not have much energy to spend forcing more air through a hard-to-use whistle.

Pea whistles aren’t the best choice for emergency whistles, because the pellet can jam or freeze in place (especially in sub-freezing temperatures).

Plastic whistles are an advantage since they won’t freeze to your lips, are lightweight, and many models are designed to float. Just beware of cheap versions, as the plastic may not be as durable — you don’t want an emergency whistle splintering just because you sat on it. An electronic whistle is another option, and you can push a button instead of blowing, but carry an analog backup, too.

Q. How does a dog whistle work?

A. The dog whistle was developed in the 1800s by Sir Francis Galton, who noticed that dogs responded to sound frequencies that humans couldn’t hear. He then walked up to dogs and blew whistles near them to see which frequencies got their attention. Today’s dog whistles use the frequencies that Galta dog to obey many different commands.

Q. What’s the best way to clean a whistle?

A. Whistles collect plenty of spit, and while most dry out without a problem, there’s always the chance of moisture and bacteria remaining inside the chamber or cylinder. Soak a plastic or metal whistle in a mixture of warm water and baking soda for a few minutes, then rinse and allow to air dry. Avoid using hot water, because some whistle materials can warp in higher temperatures. For wooden whistles, avoid soaking in water. Instead, dry the interior by pushing a soft cleaning cloth through the cylinder. Occasionally, you can lightly oil the inside of the cylinder if the wood looks dry, but be careful not to saturate it.

 

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