Stethoscopes are an important piece of medical kit. Having been around since the early 1800s, they play an important part in diagnosing and helping to treat patients. New electronic stethoscopes, that amplify body sounds, claim to take accuracy to whole new levels.
But are electronic stethoscopes worth it?
Yes, but only if their sensors and transducers are of the highest quality. Quality components help convert acoustic sound waves to electrical signals, boosting diagnostic power. This makes it far easier to hear important sounds from the patient and helps make it less likely to miss key clinical indicators.
But the increased price tag that comes with electronic stethoscopes also means they’re not for everyone. You need to ask yourself the question; “how bummed will I be if I lose it?”
So if you’re unsure if an electronic stethoscope might be for you, read on. This article will help you figure it out.
Here’s what else you’ll learn:
- What electronic stethoscopes are (and how they compare to acoustic ones)
- How long they last
- Their important pros and cons
- How much they cost
- What the best models are
As a med student myself, and one who spends a lot of time reading about and recommending tools of the trade, I understand just how critical a good stethoscope can be. But I also recognize how important saving money is too!
Ready to learn more? Let’s go.
Electronic Vs Acoustic Vs Digital Stethoscopes
Before deciding to part with your cash and pick up an electronic stethoscope, you’ll want to understand exactly what it is you’re getting and how it differs from traditional, cheaper stethoscopes.
Most of us reading this already know that a stethoscope is an instrument that enables us to listen to the heart and lungs. And that it’s made of a resonator (the disk placed on the chest), tubes, and earpieces.
But what’s the difference between an electronic, acoustic, and digital type one?
First things first, the term “digital” and “electronic” is often used interchangeably when it comes to stethoscopes. Both refer to similar technology (although digital tend not to run off batteries) . And neither should be confused with acoustic ones.
So here are the key differences between electronic and acoustic…
|Acoustic Stethoscope||Electronic Stethoscope|
|Technology||Transmits sound from chest piece via tubes to the ears||Converts acoustic sounds waves to electronic signals|
|Components||Chest piece (with bell) that detects high and low-frequency sounds||Transducers or sensors operating via a microphone in the chest piece|
|Functionality||Simple (no Bluetooth connections, apps, etc.)||Varied (noise cancellation, app synchronization, etc.)|
|Sound Volume||Fixed (no sensors)||Adjustable due to amplification of the signal|
The last point of contention, sound quality, is something of strong debate.
Because the sensors in electronic stethoscopes produce electrical energy by deforming a crystal substance, there can exist some signal distortion specifically when using the diaphragm of the chest piece.
How much this distortion exists can vary widely depending on the types of sensors and microphones used as components in electric/digital models (Source).
So it’s not always true that an electrical stethoscope will produce higher quality sound than a top-of-the-range acoustic one!
What is the purpose of an electronic stethoscope?
Now you know a little more about the differences in technology, it’s time to dive a little deeper into who might need a pricier electronic model.
Here are the use cases that, based on research, I feel would most benefit:
- Other specialists working in critical care
It’s hardly any surprise that specialists in these areas of medicine would be best served by the top of the range, electronic models. They spend a lot of clinical time diagnosing patients via chest and heart sounds!
But they’re also possibly the most experienced when it comes to auscultation (listening for chest, heart, and other organ sounds), meaning they’re probably just as proficient in diagnosis without the extra amplification power.
So what about internists, medical students, or any other physician/nurse or health practitioner that’s often tasked with using a stethoscope in the clinical assessment of their patients? Would they benefit?
Here are the few cases I feel they would:
- When they struggle to hear through acoustic models
- When they need added functionality to share data from clinical assessments (if the technology allows)
- When they require a visual display (again if the technology allows)
- If they have the budget to afford an electronic stethoscope
That last one is probably a deal-breaker though when considering how much some models can run.
To summarize though; the main purpose of electronic stethoscopes is the exact same as acoustic ones. They are designed to help guide clinical diagnosis.
If the primary features of an electronic model help (amplification, enhanced frequency, accuracy and added functionality, etc.) then they’re obviously worth their place in a medic’s tool kit.
But there’s also the added argument that people should learn to be proficient with an acoustic model first.
Especially if they find themselves practicing in remote areas on the off chance they don’t have access to their own medical gear!
How long do electronic stethoscopes last?
Unlike acoustic stethoscopes, electronic ones are very dependent on battery life.
Littman models, the 3100 or 3200 for example, have a battery that lasts around 60 hours with continued use (Source).
Because of how important this factor is, and how the added functionality of certain models (especially those using Bluetooth) can further deplete battery life, it’s important to check the specifications and individual reviews of any model you’re considering buying.
Although there are ways to make the batteries in electronic stethoscopes last longer (minimizing backlight display time, ensuring the Auto-On/Auto-Off feature is enabled), they definitely won’t last as long functionally as acoustic ones that work without.
The exact timings of how long a specific model will last are best checked by paying close attention to manufacturer specs. Higher quality, lithium batteries, for example, will add greater lifespan to an electronic stethoscope.
Components are everything when it comes to determining how long a model will last.
One thing worth bearing in mind here is that digital stethoscopes because they don’t usually require batteries, can last a lot longer than electronic ones.
Pros and cons of electronic stethoscopes
Probably one of the more crucial aspects of deciding if an electronic stethoscope might be for you is by weighing up the pros and cons.
Although we’ve previously mentioned several, here’s a quick overview…
What are the advantages of an electronic stethoscope?
- Amplified sound
- Noise reduction
- Visual display (certain models)
- Extra data functionality (record, replay, share etc.)
- Increased frequency range
The fact that electronic stethoscopes can amplify sounds, on average, up to 50X greater than acoustic ones, is a huge benefit. That’s something that can add to the accuracy of a diagnosis.
But it’s also important here to highlight that sensors and microphones in some models, as mentioned previously, can actually distort sound, potentially hindering this advantage.
One clear advantage however is the added functionality. Being able to adjust a stethoscope’s settings via a mobile app or share readings via Bluetooth connectivity, could prove really important in certain clinical settings where senior doctors/nurses may be positioned more remotely.
What are the disadvantages of an electronic stethoscope?
- Higher price
- More liable to wear and tear
- Possible software bugs and faults
- Quality varies massively due to components
There’s also the elephant in the room alluded to earlier; that a lot of the functionality of many electronic models isn’t necessarily needed when it comes to providing quality patient care.
Paying through the nose for access to an extra couple of bells and whistles that only the top specialists in a field would probably care about, maybe isn’t worth it.
That, coupled with the fact that some models can add more bulk and weight to your medical equipment bag, provides a lot of food for thought when thinking about a purchase.
How much does an electronic stethoscope cost?
Electronic (and digital) stethoscopes typically range anywhere from $200 upwards.
Here are is a quick price comparison on some of the more popular models…
|Cardionics||Hearing Impaired E-Scope||$340|
|Littman||3M CORE Digital Stethoscope||$240 (Amazon)|
|Eko||DUO ECG & Digital Stethoscope||$349|
|Mabis||10-400-020 Signature Series Electronic Stethoscope||$255|
|ADC||Adscope 658 Electronic Stethoscope||$240|
How much do acoustic stethoscopes cost?
Comparatively, acoustic stethoscopes run much cheaper. The typical cost of one can range between $50 to $200.
Things like personalized engraving can add to the cost a little but overall they’re much more cost-effective.
What is the best electronic stethoscope?
The best electronic stethoscope will be the one that hits the sweet spot between your budget and your needs. All of the models mentioned above are considered their best in their category, according to sales numbers on medical supply websites and via reputation.
Littmann is probably the biggest market player when it comes to electronic and digital stethoscopes, and is one of the longest established brands in stethoscopes, dominating the market since the 1960s.
Future Market Insights notes that the market is growing (to a projected $170.9 million in 2029), which should lead to varying competition among brands and the emergence of new cutting-edge models (Source).
The best electronic stethoscope you buy today may well be outmatched by one tomorrow!
Are electronic stethoscopes from Littmann worth it?
Littman is famed for producing quality electronic stethoscopes that are effective in canceling background noise and are a popular choice among ICU doctors and nurses.
Although they’re hardly a magic bullet – you’ll still need plenty of practice to recognize heart and lung sounds – they’re definitely a useful aid. But they’re also expensive.
What sets them apart from other competitors is patented technology.
Littmann solves the problem of amplifying noise while reducing ambient noise.
And they were the first stethoscope brand to really do this.
According to user reports on Reddit, here are some of the more common pros and cons of Littmann’s electronic models…
|– Suitable for cardiologists (and anyone else needing to pick up heart murmurs)|
– Great for those with hearing loss/difficulties
– Fantastic ambient noise canceling (great for road/emergency medics)
|– Overkill on functionality|
– Fragile and expensive
– Not a huge need for amplification (especially in EMS where lung, airway, and Korotkoff sounds are more important)
Littmann electronic stethoscope 4000
One of the best Littman models is the 4000, capable of amplifying sounds up to 18 times more than a standard stethoscope.
Other things that add to its popularity, include:
- Digital recording and sound storage on six different tracks
- Instant playback at normal and half speed
- Transmission of sounds to a PC
- Chestpiece display with heart rate deadour
- 20 hours continous use on 2X AAA batteries
It’s also worth checking out sites like eBay for good deals on stethoscopes like this. I was able to find several used 4000 models selling around the $150-200 mark.
Deciding on biting the bullet and investing in an electronic stethoscope can be tough. Summarizing this guide, I’d argue by suggesting they’re probably only really worth it if you’re hard on hearing or having a lot of trouble listening and distinguishing between sounds.
For the average clinician, doctor, nurse, or medical student, you’ll probably get on just fine with a cheaper acoustic model.
Not to mention becoming better skilled in auscultation by being forced to listen to the quieter sounds!
Born and raised in the UK, Will went into medicine late (31) after a career in journalism. He’s into football (soccer), learned Spanish after 5 years in Spain, and has had his work published all over the web. Read more.