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Choosing the right stethoscope can be a bit daunting. With so many brands, types, and even colors - it's not always easy to make an informed decision. We're here to help med students and medical professionals find the right stethoscope.

The Best Ways to Choose a Stethoscope Are:


Stethoscope History

The stethoscope was invented in Paris, France in 1816. French physician Rene Laennec rolled up a piece of paper and place one end to his ear and the other to his patient's chest. Laennec noted that the sound of the heart was amplified. Laennec named his invention the "stethoscope" - stetho, meaning "chest" in Greek + scope.

Twenty-five years later, New Yorker George P. Camman developed the first stethoscope with two earpieces. This design was used for over 100 years with very few changes to its original design.

In the early 1960s, Harvard Medical School professor David Littman created a stethoscope that was lighter and had much-improved acoustics. Since then, 3M™ Littmann® has perfected the device, introducing a tunable diaphragm, Ambient Noise Reduction, and Bluetooth® stethoscope connectivity. 3M™ Littmann® continues to be the standard for stethoscopes in the US and Canada.


Stethoscope Types

The three most common types of stethoscopes are:

Acoustic Stethoscopes

Acoustic stethoscopes amplify sound that comes from the chest piece via air-filled hollow tubes connected to the listener's ears. The name is derived from the acoustic pressure waves that make our eardrums vibrate and ultimately allow us to hear. These waves are amplified by way of the stethoscope's tubes that contain the sound until it reaches the listener's ears.

The chestpiece of an acoustic stethoscope generally has two sides: the diaphragm (a plastic disc) and the bell (shaped like a hollow cup).


When the diaphragm is placed against a patient's body, sounds from the body cause the diaphragm to vibrate. This creates acoustic pressure waves that travel up the air-filled hollow tubes and into the listener's ears. The diaphragm is most effective in transmitting higher frequency sounds such as breath sounds and normal heart sounds.


If the bell is placed against a patient's body, the vibrations from the skin produce acoustic pressure waves that travel to the listener's ears. The bell is most effective in transmitting lower frequency sounds such as heart murmurs and bowel sounds.

For cardiac exams, you should use both the diaphragm and the bell.

Littmann Stethoscopes

Littmann Stethoscopes are lightweight stethoscopes that feature dual frequency membranes. These membranes capture both low and high-frequency sound on both sides of the chestpiece. Listeners can hear the different frequencies by applying more or less pressure.

Light pressure allows the listener to hear low-frequency sounds while firm pressure allows the listener to hear high-frequency sounds.

Electronic Stethoscopes

Electronic stethoscopes, also known as stethophones or digital stethoscopes, amplify body sounds electronically. This type of stethoscope converts acoustic sound waves to electrical signals which can be amplified and processed for improved diagnostics. Some electronic stethoscopes can even reduce background noise.

Because the audio is captured electronically, recordings of the sound waves can be stored on the stethoscope itself. The 3M™ Littmann® CORE Digital Stethoscope, for example, connects to Eko software on a smart device to visualize, record, and share data.



Stethoscope Parts

Stethoscopes are made up of 8 common parts:



The chestpiece is located at the bottom of the stethoscope and is placed on the patient to capture sound. The chestpiece is made up of the:

  • Diaphragm
  • Bell
  • Stem

Some chestpieces, like those found on some 3M™ Littmann® stethoscope models, have a tunable diaphragm that allow the listener to adjust between high-frequency and low-frequency sounds by adjusting the pressure on the chestpiece. 



The diaphragm is the round and circular part located at the end of the chestpiece. The wide area of the diaphragm allows the listener to take in more higher frequency sounds from a wider area. 



The bell is the smaller, circular end of the chestpiece. Because the bell is smaller than the diaphragm, it allows the listener to detect lower frequency sounds in a more concise area. 



The stem connects the stethoscope's tubing to the chestpiece. On 3M™ Littmann® stethoscopes with two-sided chestpieces, the stem can be used to open the side of the chestpiece the listener chooses to use.



The tubing within a stethoscope is made up of flexible rubber or PVC material pipe and connects the chestpiece to the headset. Tubing is how sound travels from the chestpiece to the ears. 


3M™ Littmann® Cardiology Stethoscopes have dual-lumen tubing that eliminates the rubbing noise generated by traditional twin-tubed stethoscopes.



The headset is the upper half of the stethoscope. It is made up of:

  • Eartubes
  • The Yolk
  • Eartips



The eartubes are the hollow metal tubes that connect the tubing to the ear tips and allow sound to pass between the two parts.



The eartips are located at the very end of the headset and are the parts that go into the listener's ears. Think of eartips like cooked pasta - they should be soft but firm - making for a snug but comfortable fit. Eartips also help filter out ambient noise.




Determine Your Requirements & Uses

The field you work or study in may determine which stethoscope you're required to use. For example, some medical professionals need a standard or classic stethoscope to hear typical heart, lung, and bowel sounds.


While others, such as cardiologists, have to listen for and hear a much wider range of frequencies. To detect these frequencies, heart specialists must use a more advanced stethoscope.


Akin to requirements are the expected applications for your stethoscope. Before you choose a stethoscope, you'll want to answer this question: How will I use my stethoscope?


Med Students

The most important question a med student should ask when choosing a stethoscope is: What does my educational institution require? If there is a specific stethoscope type they've asked you to purchase, then finding that stethoscope is crucial.


If you're not sure if there is a requirement, just ask! Reach out to your institution, professors, or counselors to better understand what you'll need before attending classes and clinicals.


For students that may be specializing in nursing or studying to become a PA, it's best to find a stethoscope that is versatile since you'll be treating a wide range of patients with various needs.


Common Stethoscope Uses for Med Students:

  • Vitals
  • Blood Pressure
  • Lung Function
  • Heart Function
  • Bowel Sounds
  • Patient Assessment
  • Patient Monitoring
  • Diagnoses


SurgoMed's Pick for Med Students: 3M™ Littmann® Cardiology IV Stethoscopes

These stethoscopes tout outstanding acoustic performance which is ideal for med students. They're also incredibly versatile and can be used across an array of specialties and use cases.



RNs and Nurse Practitioners

Nurses in hospitals and clinics generally require a sturdy, classic stethoscope that will allow them the versatility to monitor multiple patients at once. Aside from nurses working in cardiology, most don't require a more specialized stethoscope. The key is to find a stethoscope that is affordable and will last.


Common Stethoscope Uses for RNs and Nurse Practitioners:

  • Vitals
  • Blood Pressure
  • Lung Function
  • Heart Function
  • Bowel Sounds
  • Patient Assessment
  • Patient Monitoring
  • Inpatient Exams
  • Outpatient Exams


SurgoMed's Pick for RNs and Nurse Practitioners: 3M™ Littmann® Classic III™ Stethoscopes

These stethoscopes are an ideal tool for healthcare providers working in non-critical settings, particularly when evaluating the health of children or adults.



Advanced Practice Clinicians

PAs and APRNs are generally required to make autonomous treatment decisions. Because of this additional responsibility, many PAs and APRNs opt for a more advanced stethoscope that allows them to hear at a higher amplification than a classic stethoscope.


Common Stethoscope Uses for Advanced Practice Clinicians:

  • Vitals
  • Blood Pressure
  • Lung Function
  • Heart Function
  • Bowel Sounds
  • Patient Assessment
  • Patient Monitoring
  • Diagnoses


SurgoMed's Pick for Advanced Practice Clinicians: 3M™ Littmann® Electronic Stethoscopes

These stethoscopes have up to 40x amplification, allowing medical professionals to pick up on even the faintest of frequencies. They also feature sound recording and sharing ability to help better diagnose and treat patients.



Pediatricians and Infant Care Specialists

Pediatricians and Infant Care Specialists are often times required to use a smaller stethoscope when examining their patients. These medical professionals also have the added challenge of comforting their patients who may be anxious or upset about being examined. 


Pediatric Stethoscopes are designed with smaller patients in mind. They offer a smaller diaphragm for more focused sound waves in a smaller area.


Common StethoscopeUses for Pediatricians and Infant Care Specialists:

  • Physicals for School
  • Pediatric and Infant Exams
  • Vitals
  • Blood Pressure
  • Lung Function
  • Heart Function
  • Bowel Sounds
  • Patient Assessment
  • Patient Monitoring
  • Diagnoses


SurgoMed's Pick for Pediatricians and Infant Care Specialists: 3M™ Littmann® Classic II Pediatric & Infant Stethoscopes

These stethoscopes have a dual-sided chestpiece with a small 3.3 cm diaphragm making them ideal for pediatric patients. They also come with a non-chill rim and diaphragm to help keep young ones calm during their exams.




Cardiologists require a stethoscope that allows them to hear a wide array of high and low-frequency sound waves within the heart. This means that their stethoscope must allow them to alternate between both frequency types and must also amplify sound in the chest enough for the listener to make a proper diagnosis.


Cardiology stethoscopes were created for just this purpose. These stethoscopes come with features like a tunable diaphragm that allows a cardiologist to hone in on various sounds that originate from the patient's heart.


Common Stethoscope Uses for Cardiologists:

  • Cardiac Exams
  • Heart Function
  • Vitals
  • Blood Pressure
  • Patient Assessment
  • Patient Monitoring
  • Diagnoses


SurgoMed's Pick for Cardiologists: 3M™ Littmann® Master Cardiology Stethoscopes

These stethoscopes were created by 3M™ Littmann® to serve cardiologists and their specific needs. They come with a tunable diaphragm which allows the listener to alternate between high and low-frequency sound waves. It also comes with pressure-based sound frequency adjustment.



Listen, See, & Feel

When choosing your stethoscope, it's always recommended that you try out different versions and brands. With so many stethoscopes being purchased online, the best way to experience different stethoscopes is to ask your friends or colleagues to try theirs.


When trying out stethoscopes, remember to listen, see, and feel.



The most important thing you should compare with other stethoscopes is how well you can hear the sounds you're targeting. Take the stethoscope and place the diaphragm on your chest. If the diaphragm is adjustable, turn it and apply variations of pressure to hear different sound frequencies. If the stethoscope has a bell, place that against your chest or body and try to target those lower frequency sounds.


5 Questions to Answer When Trying Out Stethoscopes:

  1. How loud was my heartbeat?
  2. Did adjusting the diaphragm make a meaningful difference?
  3. Do I prefer to use a bell to target low-frequency sounds?
  4. Which brand had superior sound quality? 
  5. Could I hear my body's sounds well enough to make an accurate diagnosis or administer the proper treatment to my patients?



Chances are, any 3M™ Littmann® stethoscope that you tested would have provided you with the best sound quality. An internal 3M test showed that heart sounds heard through the adult diaphragm of a Littmann stethoscope were more than four times louder (20 dB) than the same sounds heard through a different brand of stethoscope.



After you've listened with various stethoscopes, you'll then want to see the differences between each. Visualizing how your stethoscope will hold up for your specific needs may help sway your decision.


Try holding the stethoscope by its headset and let it hang vertically. Look for any obvious kinks or bends. These could indicate stiff tubing which can pull on eartips making the stethoscope both uncomfortable and difficult to use.



Look at the eartubes and notice how they cross. Symmetrical eartubes, like that on 3M™ Littmann® stethoscopes, are ideal because they allow the eartips to seal with comfort.


And of course, see if these stethoscopes come in varying colors. Although it may be the least important feature, stethoscope colors allow you to express a bit about your personality while remaining professional.



The last step of your inspection should be to feel the stethoscope. Try to notice the subtle differences in quality between each brand.



Feel the eartips. Many stethoscopes come with hard edge ear tips that have a sharp, square shape near the edges. These can begin to irritate your ears from repeated use. Instead, look for stethoscopes with soft, rounded eartips, like those on 3M™ Littmann® stethoscopes.


Pull the eartips. Do they come off easily? Or do they snap tight? Eartips that come off easily generally won't provide the best in acoustic performance.


Feel the chestpiece. Does it have an adjustable diaphragm? If it does, is the diaphragm easily adjusted or does it require a lot of effort? Ensure the diaphragm can be smoothly adjusted to avoid fumbling with your stethoscope while with a patient.


Feel the headset. Is the headset adjustable? How easy is it to adjust? Adjustable headsets are crucial as one size does not fit all. Make sure you can set the stethoscope headset to your liking for maximum comfort.


Feel the quality. How sturdy does the stethoscope feel? Will the parts hold up against everyday wear and tear or do they feel cheap and unreliable? You'll not only want a stethoscope with great performance, but you'll also want one that lasts.


Finally, feel the weight. Place the stethoscope around your neck. Does it feel light and comfortable? Or does it feel like you have a crash cart hanging off your neck? Quality stethoscopes will offer both a sturdy feel with a lightweight design that allows you to drape the stethoscope over your neck or place it in your pocket with comfort.



Trust Your Colleagues & Instructors

While you're borrowing your friend or colleague's stethoscope, make sure you ask them what they think of it. Their input is invaluable, especially if they're using their stethoscope in the same setting as you.


This also goes for med students. If you're unsure of which stethoscope will be best for your classes and labs, ask your instructors. Chances are that they've seen hundreds of medical students through the years and have valuable insight into which stethoscopes work best.



Suggested Stethoscope Questions to Ask Friends, Colleagues, or Instructors:

  • How long have you had your stethoscope?
  • How are the acoustics of your stethoscope?
  • How well does your stethoscope help you in making the proper diagnosis?
  • How comfortable is your stethoscope?
  • Where did you purchase your stethoscope?
  • Do you think your stethoscope was a good value?
  • Have other colleagues or students mentioned which stethoscopes they prefer?
  • As a med student, am I required to have a specific type of stethoscope?
  • Would you purchase your stethoscope again?


Do Your Research

Your stethoscope is one of the most important purchases you'll make as a current, soon-to-be or aspiring medical professional. It's an instrument you'll likely use on a daily basis and there is a bevvy of options to choose from.


But that's why you're here, isn't it? So you're already off to a great start! Browsing the web for online reviews and information is the best place to begin your search for the perfect stethoscope. You can compare specs, pricing, and more. From there, you should be able to narrow down your choices to just a few stethoscopes.



That's when the opinion of a friend or colleague and some hands-on experimentation can help you make a final decision. Online reviews are great, but gathering them from people you know and trust is unmatched.


As you conduct your research, remember to bear in mind the important stethoscope features.


10 Important Features to Look for in a Stethoscope

  1. High-Quality Acoustics
  2. Good Fit for Speciality or Schooling
  3. Adjustable or Non-adjustable Diaphragm
  4. Comfortable Eartips
  5. Durable Materials
  6. Easy to Clean
  7. Lightweight
  8. Brand Quality
  9. Affordability 
  10. Stethoscope Warranties


Look for Special Offers

It's important to ensure the quality of the stethoscope takes precedent over the cost, but that doesn't mean you can't find a great deal on a high-quality stethoscope.


Some retailers will offer special discounts on particular featured brands. Check for sale prices or even store-wide discount codes that you can apply to your stethoscope purchase.


At SurgoMed, we want to make sure you have the right equipment, at the right price, so that you can get back to what matters most: taking care of your patients. That's why we've partnered with the best in the industry, 3M™ Littmann® Stethoscopes, to offer their best-in-class stethoscopes at a price you can afford. 


Shop our selection of 3M™ Littmann® Stethoscopes and know that you're purchasing from a reputable distributor who will ensure that you have what you need when it matters most.