A Professional Review of Stethoscopes
Confused about the sheer array of choice in medical devices? Not sure whether more expensive devices guarantee better quality? Well, you’ve come to the right place.
We compile and test the top personal medical devices for every health role. But that’s not all you’ll find here: In our clinical section we’ll post regular helpful guides to aid in daily clinical practice. All our articles are written and reviewed by health professionals for health professionals.
Our free guides and reviews are here to help you learn how to choose the right stethoscope and avoid making wrong decisions.
Browse our top rated stethoscope charts ranked for different professional groups, as we’ve ranked what our doctors consider the best stethoscopes for nurses, doctors, EMTs, cardiologists, nursing students, and medical students separately. Or scroll down to see the best stethoscopes overall:
Best Stethoscopes of 2018: Reviewed & Compared
|Littmann® Cardiology IV||Check Price →|
|Littmann® Master Cardiology||Check Price →|
|Littmann® Master Classic II||Check Price →|
|ADC Adscope 601 Convertible||Check Price →|
|Littmann® Classic III||Check Price →|
How do you Choose the Best Stethoscope?
Too commonly health professionals use the wrong stethoscope for their role and needs, but with so many options it can be tricky to choose wrongly, then be forced to stick with it, or pay dearly for an upgrade. Before you buy, learn which criteria and preferences you should prioritise.
If you’re short on time and already know what you’re looking for, check out our top five contenders above. Otherwise browse our menu to read detailed individual reviews.
Most health professionals buy one stethoscope to last them their entire career, therefore, much rides on making the right choice from the beginning. Do you need a quality stethoscope that distinctly captures all relevant sound frequencies necessary for high-level Cardiac, Respiratory, and Abdominal auscultations? Or do you just need one that’s good enough to identify the presence or absence of breath and bowel sounds?
The Parts of a Stethoscope
Acoustic quality, durability, bell type, shape, color, bulk, and weight, are just a few of the many things to take into consideration when purchasing a stethoscope.
Not all stethoscopes are built the same. Nor will they last the same. But which parts are important to know about when selecting a stethoscope? Here are some tips on different parts to guide you.
Chestpiece: The Bell & Diaphragm
A two sided headpiece will have a smaller raised side called the “bell” and a larger flatter surface called the “diaphragm”. These are designed so to pick up different frequencies. The wider flat diaphragm is optimally designed for higher frequency sounds such as breath sounds and heart sounds. The concave bell is designed for low frequency sounds such as Korotkoff sounds heard in measuring blood pressure, some heart mururs, and abdominal bowel sounds.
Many Littmann models now have a single-sided tunable diaphragm. These allow you to hear both high and low frequency sounds (i.e. the full range of frequencies) without having to turn the chestpiece. Amplification of different frequencies is done by increasing or decreasing pressure on the chestpiece during auscultation.
Whether you prefer the single or double sided chestpiece is often a key deciding factor for healthcare professionals in choosing a stethoscope.
The material with which the chestpieces are finished play a role in the acoustics: titanium or stainless steel provide high quality sounds but increase weight.
Tube Length, Material, and Style
Nowadays tubes are very rarely made with latex but instead crafted of thick durable and stain-free materials (usually PVC). Tubing should be thick and robust to carry sounds without diminishing quality and allowing inteference.
When assessing stethoscope tubing, it should be firm and not be easily flattened between fingers, but retain its shape through manipulation.
Cheaper stethoscope tubing is often thin and flimsy, and should be avoided at all costs.
Tube length is usually not given much consideration when choosing a stethoscope, but this can affect usability. Shorter tubes can give marginally better acoustics but also reduce manoeverability and require closer proximity. Welch Allyn tubes tend to be longer than Littmann, but still offer exceptional acoustic quality. Ultimately it comes down to user preference.
Ear Pieces and Binaurals (Headset)
Eartips serve two key purposes: to transmit the final sound while blocking out ambient noise, and for comfortable stethoscope wearing. Ear pieces can be hard, soft, or gel styled. The key to choosing the best eartips are to find ones that fit snugly and effectively block out external ambient noise.
Eartips of the cheaper stethoscope models tend to be made of hard plastic – these are neither effective at blocking noise nor comfortable for the wearer.
The best eartips are of a medium-firm and rubbery consistency that mould to the shape of the ear canal opening, such as in Welch Allyn and Littmann stethoscopes.
Almost all stethoscopes are designed to have changeable and replaceable ear pieces. Higher quality brands such as Welch Allyn and Littmann will come with replacement eartips or even eartips of different sizes to fit users wearing preferences and comfort.
The superior perforance of the added weight of these materials (often titanium or stainless stell) are generally considered well-worth the extra weight, for the vast improvement in acoustics.
There are several lightweight stethoscope models of sufficient quality for basic every-day assessments, that are a great alternative for those who value versatility and practicality over sound performance.
Stethoscope prices range greatly from budget models to specialist quality stethoscopes at hundreds of dollars. When it comes to stethoscopes, the adage “You get what you pay for” is more true than ever. The increased cost of higher-end stethoscopes are due to the greater value of the materials used in construction.
As a general guide:
- Budget stethoscopes in the under $50 range are suitable for students new to auscultation and those in training. These are excellent for learning, but will need to be upgraded for professional use.
- Professional stethoscopes at $50 – $130 are mid-tier and suitable for the everyday use of most health professionals. These tend to offer good quality and durability at an affordable price.
- Expert stethoscopes $130+ offer the highest range acoustics, quality, and durability. For experienced users and those that value durability beyond generations. With the highest quality stethoscope users can be certain that sounds are never missed due to equipment quality.
What can you use a Stethoscope to Hear?
Human and animal hearts make two loud sounds when they beat:
First the “lub” sound created by the closure of the mitral and tricuspid valves between the atria and ventricles of the heart. Then as the blood rushes out of the heart into the body through the great vessels (aorta and pulmonary arteries) the aortic and pulmonary valves close and make the second “dub” sound.
When this perfect opening and closing of the valves is not occurring as normal – for instance if one valve is unable to close completely – then extra sounds and unusual noises can occur. These are heart murmurs, and the characteristic of each murmur gives us clues to where the pathology in the heart is.
To Measure Blood Pressure:
Despite the growing number of automatic blood pressure machines, measuring blood pressure by auscultation with a stethoscope and sphygmanometer is still considered the gold standard by the Heart, Lung and Blood Institute of the NIH.
This is done by wrapping a pressure cuff around a seated patient’s upper arm, ending just above the antecubital fossa. With the stethoscope placed over the brachial artery in the antecubital fossa, the cuff is inflated to 180mm Hg. As the air is released from the cuff slowly, listening with the stethoscope and observing the sphygmanometer dial will allow one to hear the first Korotkoff sound signifying the patient’s systolic pressure. This sound disappears again at the patient’s diastric pressure. Recording both these numbers will give you the blood pressure, eg. 120/80.
The Korotkoff sound heard is created when the pressure around the cuff is equal to the systolic (higher) pressure of the patient, allowing blood to rush through the cuff and create a sound. These are not the same sounds heard during cardiac auscultation that create the “lub” “dub” sound.
When the breath sounds are decreased or absent, this is abnormal and suggests reduced air flow to that lung area. This could be due to air or fluid replacing lung tissue in that chest area, or increased thickness of the chest wall, or another pathology such as emphysema.
In a respiratory assessment, the varying quality of a stethoscope can either be used to crudely hear the mere presence of breath sounds or, with better stethoscopes, to determine its character. A good stethoscope will allow you to clearly discern normal vesicular breath sounds from bronchial breathing. The best stethoscopes make it easy to hear added sounds: for instance the difference between coarse and fine crackles (or rales). Between wheeze and stridor. To accurately assess the volume of breath sounds to pinpoint small consolidations or effusions.
We’ve created a detailed guide to lung auscultation and the respiratory examination for medical professionals here.
Auscultation in Surgery
Some think stethoscopes are only used by physicians and surgeons have few uses for them. But this is far from the case:
In an abdominal auscultation a stethoscope can be used to hear bowel sounds to rule out obstruction and paralytic ileus after surgery. There are increased bowel sounds in the initial phase of bowel obstruction, which then become “tinkling” or entirely absent in late stage obstruction.
In abdominal aortic aneurysms, auscultation may pick up a bruit (soft blowing sound) of the blood rushing through the abnormal vessel. Similarly ENT or Head & Neck surgens may use a stethoscope to listen to the carotids neck vessels for a carotid bruit, or for a thyroid bruit.
Some orthopaedic surgeons even use stethoscopes over joints to listen to subtle clicks and sounds as the joing is manipulated.
The Best Stethoscopes of 2018: The Top List Reviewed
- Littmann® Cardiology IV Stethoscope
- Littmann® Master Cardiology Stethoscope
- Littmann® Master Classic II Stethoscope
- ADC Adscope 601 Convertible Cardiology Stethoscope
- Littmann® Classic III Stethoscope
The medical profession depends on stethoscopes, and clinical diagnosis has evolved around their use. For such a simple and elegant piece of equipment, it elicits powerful information to aid diagnosis and managment, while being completely non-invasive. Learning how to use your stethoscope can be a challenge. We’ve created this guide for beginners to get started.
Auscultation with a stethoscope is a vital skill to learn for all health professionals with patient contact. This includes doctors, nurses, EMTs, vets, physician assistants, medical students, and nursing students.
It can be difficult to get good at auscultation by learning with a bad stethoscope. This is a mistake many students make: you can only get good at discerning different cardiac and respiration sounds if your stethoscope is of sufficient quality to carry these sound characters clearly in the first place. Give yourself an advantage from day 1 by choosing the best stethoscope for your professional needs.
Medical students are often limited on budget but need a stethoscope of high enough quality to be able to hear delicate cardiac and respiratory sounds. The best stethoscope for medical students are those that strike a good balance between budget and quality, that will help solidify their foundation in the medical practice.
Learn about and read reviews of the best stethoscope for medical students by clicking here.
These stethoscopes are reviewed for nurses and respiratory therapists who need versatility and practicality while ensuring quality.
EMTs and Paramedics work in adverse and noisy conditions, they need the best balance between versatility, loud and clear acoustics, and affordability. Click here to see our shortlist and reviews specifically for EMT and paramedic use.
Nursing students tend to be limited on budget but need a stethoscope of high enough quality to be able to learn ausculatation. The best stethoscope for nursing students are those that strike a good balance between budget and quality, that will help solidify their foundation in the nursing practice. Click here for the best stethoscope for nursing students.
Doctors need professional-grade stethoscopes with the full range of acoustic ability. Check out our page dedicated to reviewing best stethoscope for doctors.
For cardiology-grade stethoscopes we have created a separate detailed review page of the best expert stethoscopes.
Types of Stethoscopes
Did you know there are several different types of stethoscopes?
Stethoscope Reviews & Guides
Looking for more specific reviews? Click here to read some detailed reviews of individual stethoscopes.
We’ve created unbiased stethoscope guides for all the best stethoscopes on the market, you can check them out by browsing our menu for the individual stethoscope of interest.
What is the best stethoscope brand? Is it better to buy the best stethoscope of a lesser brand or a cheaper stethoscope of a well-respected brand?
To help answer these questions, understand the common stethoscope brands:
A 3M brand, is one of the oldest and best respected stethoscope brands in existence. The history of this brand dates back to Dr. David Littmann M.D., an American physician and Harvard Medical School professor who first patended his stethoscope design in the 1960s. At that time, the Littmann range consisted of only two models: a doctor’s stethoscope and a nurse’s stethoscope.
Since then the Littmann brand has lead in the acoustic developments of these medical devices. It remains the most popular and trusted stethoscope brand amongst physicians across the globe. Particularly in the UK, it would be exceedingly rare to find a doctor that owns any other brand. Unlike most brands that source in countries with cheaper production costs, Littmann stethoscopes are manufactured in the USA.
MDF Instruments are makers of a variety of light-weight quality stethoscopes. They originated in 1971 as makers of sphygmomanometers, and neurological hammers. MDF stethoscopes are considered high-quality and sufficient for most doctor’s level examinations. MDF frequently released limited edition prints in support of charitable events or seasons.
American Diagnostic (ADC)
ADC are makers of a variety of medical devices since 1984. The brand is popular largely within the USA, and less known internationally. ADC produces the popular Adscope line of stethoscopes and is known for durable quality. ADC stethoscopes are manufactured in Taiwan, and are able to deliver quality at lower prices.
Welch-Allyn are an American manufacturer of a wide array of medical devices since 1915. Until 2015 it was still a family-run business. The Welch-Allyn brand is highly-trusted amongst medical professionals and best known for their Otoscopes, Ophthalmoscopes, and medical monitoring devices. Welch-Allyn is a lesser-used stethoscope brand, but due to it’s general status as a quality medical devices brand, it continues to have a following amongst doctors.
Ultrascope stethoscopes, a newer brand owned by Parker Medical, made a mark in the stethoscope scene with their colorful and lively designs. This brand is understandably most popular amongst nurses and paediatric doctors. The acoustic quality and durability of Ultrascope is considered less than that of other brands, but is also priced accordingly cheaper. The brand also offers lifetime warranty on all its stethoscopes. Ultrascope stethoscopes are not considered sufficient for advanced auscultation, such as for heart murmurs or detailed cardiovascular examinations.
Prestige Medical focuses on producing nursing and student level stethoscopes. These are widely considered the cheap and cheerful brand of stethoscopes and are the ones you’ll find as spares on wards and trolleys, as well as with first-aid kits. Prestige brand stethoscopes are not considered suitable for most doctors or for a healthcare professional’s personal ownership.
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