This article is the archived version of a report that appears in the May 2010 Consumer Reports magazine.
Buying a mattress is one challenge in life that you should take lying down. Though salespeople might tout a particular design or technology, the best mattress for you is the one you find most comfortable and supportive, and the only way to know for sure is to try some out.
Mattress shopping is further complicated by the pricing games manufacturers and retailers play. Markups are so high that stores routinely announce "sales" of 50 percent or more off. So if you don't time it right, you can end up overpaying by hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Different stores might also sell similar beds under different names to thwart comparison shopping. Those practices are hardly new; we have criticized them for years as a disservice to consumers, perhaps the worst for any major household purchase.
To cut through the hype, we cut through 11 firm mattresses from the big three brands, Sealy, Serta, and Simmons. We also tested Select Comfort (adjustable air) and Tempur-Pedic (memory foam). Before we started our dissection, 54 staffers participated in blind rest tests of the mattresses, assessing each for comfort. The role played by personal preference, as well as store-to-store product differences, make it impossible for us to rate mattresses in the same way we do cars, TVs, and kitchen appliances, but we did glean information that can help you make the right choice.
WHAT WE FOUND
Within brands, the innerspring mattresses we dissected were fairly similar inside, regardless of price, and they came with the same foundation, or box spring. Most innerspring products bearing the same brand name incorporated the same coil design, though we observed differences in the ticking, or outer fabric; stitching patterns and design; and padding. Some pricier models had a higher coil count, but that's no big deal. All of the mattresses we examined had more than enough coils to provide adequate support.
In our panelists' tests, every mattress had supporters and detractors, regardless of what we paid. Overall, panelists judged all of the mattresses at least moderately comfortable on average. Panelists perceived the Sealy Posturepedic Reserve Spring Blossom Cushion Firm (Sears), approximate retail $1,800, as slightly more comfortable, and the Tempur-Pedic ClassicBed Advantage, $2,100, and Sealy Posturepedic Reserve Loring Park Firm (Macy's), $1,730, a bit less so. But the differences were slight and far from unanimous. (For mattress brand Ratings and mattress store Ratings, subscribe to ConsumerReports.org.)
Our panelists were especially divided on the memory-foam mattresses, which use your body's heat to help conform the foam to your contours. Forty-eight percent of panelists who tried the Tempur-Pedic liked that feeling, but 36 percent didn't. Don't automatically dismiss memory foam based on your assessment of one bed. Some panelists who were critical of the Tempur-Pedic didn't find the Sealy Comfort Series Blue Lake Firm (Sears, $2,120), another memory-foam mattress, as objectionable.
The bottom line from both sets of tests: If you don't like it, don't buy it.
HOW TO CHOOSE
If your mattress is at least eight years old and you're not sleeping as well as you used to or are waking up with aches and pains, it might be time for a replacement. But first be sure that your bed is at fault by ruling out other common causes of sleeplessness, such as anxiety, stress, and habits such as consuming caffeine or snacking too close to bedtime.
The best mattress for your back will support your spine at all points while allowing it to maintain its natural curve, according to Alan Hedge, professor of ergonomics and director of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Research Laboratory at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. If you sleep on your side, for example, it should let your shoulders and hips sink in while it fills in your body's curves.
Any new mattress will probably be better than your old one. In a survey of Consumer Reports online subscribers last year, 72 percent said their new bed was an improvement. If you decide it's time to go mattress shopping, here's what to do:
Pick a Size
Couples often choose a queen-size bed, according to industry data. It measures about 60x80 inches and provides substantially more personal space than a full-size one (about 53x75 inches). A king-size mattress measures about 76x80 inches.
Consider the Type
Innerspring models are the best sellers. If it's been a while since you bought one, the major change you'll see is that they're now one-sided and no longer have to be flipped to extend their useful life (though it's still a good idea to rotate them from time to time).
Solid-foam mattresses, either a single block of foam or several layers of different types laminated together, also offer a wide choice of "feels." Some are memory foam, and some aren't. Michael Breus, a sleep specialist who is board-certified in clinical sleep disorders, says you might want to avoid a memory-foam mattress if you sleep "hot," that is, tend to be warm in bed, because the foam can make you feel hotter. Latex foam, on the other hand, is more resilient and might offer better ventilation.
An inflatable air bed such as Select Comfort's allows you to adjust the firmness level on each side with an electric pump. Forty-percent of our panelists who tried the Select Comfort Sleep Number Performance Series P5, $2,000, liked that feature, but some thought the pump system was noisy and should have come with a second controller for their partner's side.
Work Your Way Up the Price Ladder
In the showroom, try out various mattress brands, starting with their less expensive models. Once you find a bed you like, look at others in that price range, and stop there. There's little reason to buy any higher up a manufacturer's line.
Evaluate the Bed
The best way to judge a mattress is to wear comfy clothes, remove your shoes, and lie down on it for at least five minutes in each of your sleeping positions. Breus says it takes at least 15 minutes for your body to relax sufficiently to accurately judge comfort.
Haggle for a Better Deal
With so much price variability, there's usually room to negotiate. Among the mattress buyers we surveyed last year, 72 percent who tried to negotiate for a lower price were successful.
Inspect it on Arrival
Lie on the mattress to be sure it is what you expected, and check it and the box spring for damage. If you discover any damage, as we did in several cases, you should refuse delivery and ask for a new one.
8 MATTRESS MYSTERIES
Consumer Reports gets hundreds of mattress questions from readers each year. We put some of the most frequent ones to our in-house experts and our consultant on this project, who has worked in research and development, manufacturing, and product design for several major mattress companies.
1. Why do mattresses cost so much?
Because they carry hefty markups. In a furniture store, for example, the margins are usually higher for mattresses than any other product. Mainstream innerspring mattress sets from major labels carry gross profit margins of 30 to 40 percent each for wholesalers and retailers. More luxurious models are even bigger moneymakers, with margins for the retailer of around 50 percent.
2. What's the difference between a $2,000 mattress and a $1,000 one?
Less than you might think. Generally speaking, you get more of the same, maybe six inches of cushioning instead of four, more coils, heavier wire, fancier fabric, and extra support around the edge or lumbar region. A lot of the niceties are overkill for many people. A queen-size mattress set from a major manufacturer with a list price of $1,000 is a satisfactory product that should last most people eight to 10 years, the same as a pricier model.
3. Are those really cheap mattresses advertised in store ads worth considering?
Probably not for everyday use. They often skimp on support and comfort, even durability. The padding might be so thin that you can feel the springs. Often, the foams and fabrics are of an inferior quality. The spring systems are usually just enough to get by. Stores use promotional or subpremium mattresses to draw customers in and upsell them to a fancier model.
4. What's most likely to go wrong with a mattress?
Most of the time it's the cushioning materials. Plush pillow-tops and euro tops, which add layers of foam and other soft padding to the top, are usually more prone to sagging and indentations. Also, king-size mattresses can get a ridge down the center (head to foot) because their foundations come in two pieces.
5. How can someone return a defective mattress?
Call the retailer where you bought it or the mattress manufacturer. But bear in mind that aside from obvious flaws such as a broken spring or ripped seam, a mattress has to sag at least 1½ inches before it's considered defective and eligible for replacement. If you file a claim, the manufacturer will send a representative to your home to measure the indentation. An estimated 5 percent to 8 percent of new big-brand mattresses are returned either because the mattress was defective, damaged in delivery, or just plain uncomfortable.
6. Will pairing an old foundation with a new mattress void the warranty?
Not necessarily, but check with the store or manufacturer. As long as it's in good shape-no cracks, rips, warps, or dips-the old foundation ought to provide adequate mattress support and perform as it's supposed to. But when in doubt, replace it.
7. What's the difference between the warranty and comfort guarantee?
A warranty covers manufacturing defects, while a comfort guarantee allows dissatisfied consumers the opportunity to exchange a mattress if it doesn't live up to expectations, typically within 21 to 100 days. But note that most comfort guarantees carry a penalty of as much as $400 or 15 percent of the purchase price, and there could also be a redelivery charge. So be sure to ask. The models we tested from Sealy, Serta, and Simmons offered a non-prorated 10-year warranty; the Select Comfort and Tempur-Pedic warranties were for 20 years. The Select Comfort warranty was prorated after a few years, and the Tempur-Pedic was prorated after 10. Prorating refers to a warranty that covers less and less of the original purchase price the longer you've owned the mattress. If your mattress is stained, that could also void the warranty.
8. Are all mattresses flame-retardant?
They should be. On July 1, 2007, the first new federal flammability regulation for mattresses in more than 30 years took effect, requiring all mattresses to have a much slower burn rate if they're ignited by a lighter, match, or candle. That's supposed to allow you more time to discover a mattress fire and escape from it.
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Copyright © 2005-2010 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction, in whole or in part, without written permission.