Guide to Comparing Mattresses and Deciphering Value

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Guide to Comparing Mattresses and Deciphering Value
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Feel like most mattresses look the same and not sure where to start? Check out this guide to spotting the differences in beds that can tell you about quality and value.

Shopping for a new mattress isn’t something that a lot of people look forward to, mainly because it can be hard to compare and research beds to find the “right” one. Many mattresses look quite similar on the outside, and stores and brands often say their beds are the same as A, B or C company, further confusing many shoppers.

However, knowing the basics of beds and the most important things to look for makes all the difference. Read on to learn how to become an expert mattress buyer and breeze through your next buy.

Navigating the Bedding Biz

Buying a mattress is often compared to buying a used car, largely due to perceived lack of transparency, sales tactics and limited consumer knowledge. We previously covered mattress showroom tricks to avoid on the blog, but here’s a quick recap.

Mattress companies and retailers are businesses, who of course want to sell beds and make profits. For some brands, limiting information on the quality and type of materials used works on their favor as it makes it hard for consumers to compare their products to competitors’ options.

This also makes it difficult to determine the value if details about coils, foams and fabrics are missing, making it hard to judge if the price is a good deal. Many of the top brands in the country provide only the most basic information on their beds, which is something you may have noticed while shopping.

Another tactic that can bring confusion is creating private collections for specific retailers, which has been referred to as the “name game”. Manufacturers will change fabrics and minor details in order to give retailers “exclusive” lines that can’t be readily compared to similar models sold at competitors’ stores. That way, stores don’t have to price match other’s sales.

However, retailers will still often tout their beds as comparable to competitors or discontinued models. As Consumer Reports finds though, salespeople often aren’t good at judging comparables across brands and even claims of similarity within same line don’t always hold up.

Pricing and sales can also prove fairly misleading. Some stores will advertise discounts of 50% to 75% off on a regular basis. However, the “suggested price” they base these figures on is often quite inflated from any actual retail price. Basically, the amount you are saving is trumped up to give the perception of a great deal. The best way to see if you have a good deal is to look at value — how the quality of the mattress compares to others in the price range.

Getting the Facts When Mattress Shopping

As a consumer, the more information you have the better equipped you are to make a smart decision. Here are the most important pieces of information to gather when comparing and researching beds, listed by mattress type.

For each mattress or brand you are interested in, gather these details while you are in the researching/shopping phase. Don’t feel pressured to commit to a specific bed before you’ve had the chance to research.

When retailers or manufacturers can’t or won’t provide you with basic information on the bed, tread with caution. Usually, when mattresses use high quality materials, brands are adamant about promoting them. If a company refuses to tell you about foam density or springs but charges a premium price, there’s a good chance their value may not be competitive.

Memory Foam Questions

  • What is the breakdown of all the layers in this mattress? How thick is each layer and what type of material is it?
  • What is the density of the memory foam?
  • Is the memory foam temperature sensitive?
  • What fabric is the cover made of?

When shopping for a memory foam mattress, the key things that will differentiate beds are the thickness of memory foam and core layers, densities of layers, type of memory foam, and other materials used in the bed.

There should be a thick enough layer of memory foam at the surface to contour to your body and prevent pressure points. Most mattress will have between two and four inches of memory foam, some may have up to six or seven. Petite people and back or stomach sleepers will likely feel fine with a few inches of memory foam (too much can actually feel overwhelming), however larger people and side sleepers will need thicker layers in order to prevent pressure points.

Density is another important trait for memory foam beds. In the memory foam layers, density usually ranges from 2.5 lbs (low) to 7.0 lbs (high), with the majority falling in the middle (3.5 to 5.0 lbs). Low density foams are cheaper, feel easier to move on and are less likely to feel hot, but higher density foams are more durable and better at pressure point relief.

Type of memory foam is one way that brands distinguish their offerings from others. Traditional temperature sensitive foams mold to the sleeper using body heat, gel foams incorporate gel beads or gel layers to offer a cooling sensation, and plant-based memory foams aim to offer a greener alternative with temperature neutral properties. Each have their pros and cons; take a look at our guide to memory foam types for more details.

The other questions to ask would include what is the mattress cover and whether or not any additional materials lie between the memory foam and the sleeper. For memory foam beds, cover fabrics should be breathable to allow good airflow and have stretch in order to allow the memory foam to contour adequately. Memory foam should also be at the surface just below the cover for maximum benefit.

Latex Questions

  • What is the breakdown of all the layers in this mattress? How thick is each layer and what type of material is it?
  • What’s in the latex for each layer? Is it made of 100% natural latex or does it contain synthetic materials?
  • How is the latex made for each layer, Dunlop or Talalay?
  • If the mattress has other foams – what are they made of what’s their density?
  • What is the ILD/IFD for each layer or the mattress overall?
  • Are the layers glued together?
  • What fabric is the cover made of?
  • Do you have proof of organic or all-natural claims?

When comparing latex mattresses, it’s important to get a full description of what’s in the bed as this can greatly affect value. Latex mattresses in the mid to high range are generally made with only latex foam, while less expensive options generally contain latex foam over poly foam or springs.

For each latex layer, the brand should be able to tell you the latex content (whether the latex comes from natural latex trees or is created synthetically). A blend of natural and synthetic latex is most common, but some companies using blends will still call their latex “natural”. Ask or look for a percentage (for example 70% natural or 100% natural latex).

Natural latex is more expensive but is generally considered superior since it doesn’t contain harsh chemicals and has better elasticity, durability and owner satisfaction than synthetic or blends.

The other aspect is how the latex is made, in the Dunlop or Talalay method. Dunlop latex is the more widely used process and is less expensive. Owner satisfaction is the same for both, but Dunlop is said to be better at support while Talalay may be better at contouring in softer ranges.

Another thing you may see when looking at latex mattress is IFD or ILD ratings. These refer to the firmness of the material. Some companies may provide this by individual layer while others may provide this for the mattress as a whole. This number provides an objective way to compare firmness (but not quality). To provide a general scale, an IFD of 18 is soft, 25 is medium, 30 is medium-firm, and 40 is firm.

If the mattress contains other materials like poly foam, memory foam or springs, check on their quality as well. Beds that use poly foam over latex have significantly lower owner satisfaction compared to all-latex beds.

Additional things to look at when shopping for latex beds are glue, fabrics, and claims of being natural or organic. If you are concerned about chemicals, ask whether the layers are glued together. Even water based adhesives have low levels of VOCs, and unglued layers give you the freedom to customize the mattress feel or swap out layers (greater longevity). Talalay latex also usually has glued seams within the layers due to the nature of manufacturing. Latex beds commonly cater to natural and organic shoppers, but be sure to ask for proof of any claims such as natural, eco-friendly, chemical/VOC-free and organic as some may be misleading.

Innerspring Questions

  • What is the breakdown of all the layers in this mattress? How thick is each layer and what type of material is it?
  • What type of coils are used in the mattress?
  • What is the coil count?
  • What is the coil gauge?
  • What is the density of poly/memory foam in the padding layers? If latex, what is it made of (natural/synthetic) and how (dunlop/talalay)?

Just as with other mattress types, it’s important to get a full breakdown of the layers in an innerspring bed including the springs, foams, and fibers.

Coils provide the support and durability, so they are an important area of focus. There are three aspects to consider here: type, gauge and count.

Coil types include bonnell, continuous, offset, and pocket. Bonnell coils are generally cheaper and fairly supportive, but offer limited motion transfer, poor durability and lower owner satisfaction. Continuous coils offer decent durability and owner satisfaction, but poor motion transfer and support. Offset coils tend to offer good support and motion isolation, decent durability and satisfaction but average durability and higher prices. Pocket or individual coils excel at support, motion isolation, and satisfaction, but durability tends to be about average.

Coil count is one thing that is often hyped in spring mattresses. A count of 450 to 750 in a queen is considered average. Some manufacturers will inflate this to 1000 or more by using small coils, layered or coil-in-coil designs. While very low coil counts indicate poor quality, support and durability, there isn’t much evidence that super high counts mean better comfort or lifespan. However, Sleep Like The Dead says that heavier individuals may want to opt for higher coil counts for the support factor.

Sometimes, you may also see “coil density” especially in mattresses with foam edges. This refers to the number of coils the mattress would have in the space for that size if not for the encasement (the actual coil count will be lower, but the coil density is used to compare it beds without the encasement). If you are unsure, ask the manufacturer to clarify.

Coil gauge refers to the diameter of the coil wire. Smaller numbers (like 12) generally mean a stiffer, firmer mattress and perhaps higher durability. Higher numbers (like 15) generally mean a softer, springier mattress. Coil gauge and the topper layers will help provide insight into how firm or soft a bed feels.

Layers used to pad the coils also prove important. If a mattress uses low-quality foams or thick layers of fiber, the pillow top can wear out quickly leaving the mattress quite uncomfortable even if the springs are still in good shape. Check out the density of poly foams and memory foams and the latex specs if used (see categories above for details on comparing these materials). Back sleepers, stomach sleepers and smaller people may prefer beds with less padding, while side sleepers and larger people will generally be more comfortable with thicker layers to cushion against pressure points.

Ticking and fabrics may not be quite as important with spring mattresses, though beds with thick layers of foam will benefit from breathable fabrics like cotton or rayon. If fiber padding is used in the topper, baffling may be desirable since it can prevent shifting.

Questions to Ask for All Mattresses

Here are a few additional questions to include when you compare beds that are the same regardless of what type of mattress you are shopping for.

  • How long is the full coverage portion of the warranty? How deep must impressions be for warranty coverage?

Warranties are an important part of shopping, as they can clue you into how the manufacturer perceives the quality and longevity of the mattress. However, most mattresses only have a useful lifespan of six to twelve years despite warranties that may exceed 25 years.

Rather than full warranty term, what you should be focusing on is the “full coverage” or “non-prorated” period. This is the period during which defects are covered in full (perhaps less shipping costs). Some warranties may also have a extended pro-rated coverage during which the manufacturer will pay a portion of costs. For most mid to high quality mattresses, warranties will have around 10 years of full coverage. Less expensive or lower qaulity options may have zero to five years.

The other thing to look for when scanning warranty terms is how deep impressions or sagging must be in order to be considered defective for warranty purposes. Some manufacturers particularly with foam beds may cover sagging as little 0.75”, while others may not cover sagging until the depth reaches 1.5” to 2”.

  • How long do I have to return this mattress? What is the process for returns and the typical cost?

Return or trial periods are another way companies stand behind or guarantee their products. Since beds often feel different in stores or may take some adjusting to, having a reasonable return period can make all the difference between good sleep and buyer’s remorse.

Ideally, you should have a minimum of 30 days to determine of the bed is right. Ask what fees are associated with returns and pickup/shipping. Some retailers may only allow you to exchange, while others may not accept any returns – so you will have to weigh the risks.

  • How is the flame resistant standard met?

Some people have concerns about fireproofing chemicals used to achieve requirements for resisting flame tests. If this is a concern for you, ask how the company achieves flame resistance.

Companies are not required to disclose their methods, but the more transparent brands will usually at least tell you if they use fiber barriers, treated fabrics or other methods. Options considered most eco-friendly include natural wool (usually only seen on natural latex beds) and kevlar/fiberglass fibers that wrap the bed, as opposed to chemicals that are sprayed on foams and fabrics.

  • Are there any independent certifications for quality or eco-friendliness?

Since eco-friendly and healthy products are popular, many manufacturers make claims regarding chemicals, materials, off-gassing and other aspects. If they do, check to see if they have independent certifications or tests to back it up. For example, the Oeko-Tex, Green Guard and other places test for chemicals and VOCs, while organizations like the Forestry Stewardship Council certify woods and others certify organic textiles.

Once you have the facts on the mattresses you are interested in, it becomes much easier to determine which beds are the better deals and which are most likely to provide you with lasting comfort. Keep notes in a notebook or spreadsheet as you shop to make it easy to compare when you are ready to start narrowing down candidates.

One other way to determine potential durability, value and comfort is to check online for mattress reviews. Trustworthy reviews can offer quite a bit of insight that you can’t glean from retailers.

Making an informed mattress comparison takes a little time, but considering your bed is a place you spend about 3,000 hours each year, it’s definitely worth the research in the long run.

If you’re ready to shop now, take a look at some of previous mattress brand comparisons to get started:


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