Best Audio Baby Monitor of 2020
Best Overall Baby Monitor
The Vtech DM221 is a full-service sound monitor with useful features and the best sound clarity in the group. The DM221 has sound activation and adjustable mic sensitivity that combine to provide a silent room for a good night's sleep with a silent monitor that only makes noise when your baby does. The parent unit has a talk to baby feature that is clear and sounds like a real voice to avoid the robotic sound that might upset a baby. The DM221 is wallet-friendly for most budgets, and it earned the highest overall score in this review.
This monitor has a shorter range than some competitors, which makes it potentially unusable for those with larger homes or more than 3-4 walls between the nursery and their bedroom. Overall, we think this monitor will get the job done with great sound and the necessary features to ensure a restful night's sleep — something every parent needs and wants.
Read review: Vtech DM221
Best High-end Baby Monitor
Philips Avent DECT SCD720/86
The Philips Avent DECT SCD720/86 is a high-quality audio monitor for babies. This monitor features impressive long range abilities for a non-Wi-Fi product, and it has more features than some of the competition. This monitor has impressive sound, and has adjustable microphone sensitivity and sound activation for a silent monitor unless your little one is crying. It includes temperature sensors, lullabies, nightlight and battery backup for use should the electricity go out. We like the two-way talk to baby and alerts for everything from out of range to low battery.
This monitor has several features, which often means a monitor is somewhat harder to use. However, this monitor is easier to use than others with similar features making it better than most in comparison. Overall, this is an excellent, top scoring option for families committed to a sound monitor or those looking to combine a good audio option as a backup to a video choice.
Read review: Philips Avent DECT SCD720/86
Best Bang for the Buck
Philips Avent DECT SCD501/10
The Philips Avent DECT SCD501/10 is a high-quality monitor that is easy to use with the features most parents are looking for such as impressive sound quality and sound activation, which is something we think is more important and very useful in a sound monitor. This product has a reasonable price for most families, and it is simple enough that even grandma can use it without frustration.
This bare-bones monitor doesn't offer much in the way of additional features, with no two-way communication, or features like temperature monitoring or lullabies. While some may consider this a deal-breaker, we find most parents stop using these features over time, even when their monitor includes them. We like the look and ease of the DECT SCD501/10 and think most parents will agree its an excellent addition to the stylish nursery at a reasonable price.
Read review: Philips Avent DECT SCD501/10
The Vtech DM111 is one of the least expensive options in this review. However, it offers an above-average range with good sound clarity and an easy to use interface. The range is better than some of the competition, making it a good choice for larger homes or multiple walls (over 3).
This option doesn't have all the bells and whistles, like two-way communication or sound activation, but it gets the job done and provides life-like sound from the baby's room, which at the end of the day is all you need. The DM111 battery life is 13 hours, and the batteries are not rechargeable, so it is probably best to keep it plugged in when possible or have spare AAA batteries on hand. We think this option is an excellent no-nonsense choice or a useful travel product thanks to its ease of use and good range. Parents looking for a quick solution that is straightforward out of the box will be more than satisfied with this choice
Read review: Vtech DM111
Why You Should Trust Us
This baby sound monitor review was led by our founder, Dr. Juliet Spurrier, a board-certified pediatrician. Dr. Spurrier is a mother of two and a long-time tester of baby monitors of every type. Dr. Spurrier worked with our Senior Review Analyst, Bob Wofford, father of 7, to develop the tests for this review and our other monitor reviews. Bob conducted all of the testings for this review as he has for the last 6 years, making him an industry expert with well over 100 monitor product tests under his belt! Senior Review Editor, Wendy Schmitz (mother of 2) rounds out the team using her 6 years of experience and knowledge of monitor testing to analyze tester feedback and test results to create useful and informative reviews. The major team members in this review have over 20 years' collective experience testing monitors.
Jump to: How We Tested Sound Monitors
Analysis and Test Results
When testing sound monitors, we consider crucial metrics that demonstrate monitor performance (quality) and the features that give it an edge over other monitors or benefit parents and babies. Because monitors are a direct line to your baby's room, they must work as intended, reliably, with a useful range, and easy to use features that contribute to the overall functionality. Each monitor should have adequate range, offer features to increase sleeping potential, and provide clear sound. If a product doesn't work as intended or fails to maintain connectivity reliably, then it is likely to fail to help parents find restful sleep, defeating the entire purpose of monitoring.
We rate each product we test on how well it performs and how it compares to similar products in our in-house side-by-side tests. We calculate scores with weighted values for the metrics we believe are instrumental in making a monitor exceptional and user-friendly. Sound clarity and ease of use are the most critical metrics, with range coming in next. Without a significant, reliable range, a monitor can fail to work at all. Without quality sound transmission and sound-related features, it might be unable to alert parents when it should or help them fall asleep when they want to.
Interested in the spoiler alert of what we'd recommend to a friend? Skip down to read what we would do.
Sound monitoring is the most budget-friendly way to keep tabs on your baby. There is something for almost any size wallet when it comes to sound products. We believe that moving slightly up from the lowest-priced options is a smart choice as the performance of mid-price range monitors is better compared to lower-priced competitors. As you'll likely use a sound monitor every day, there is value in spending a bit more. We believe the Vtech DM221 is the best value as it is the highest performing option in our tests and still reasonably priced. If "grandparent-friendly" is crucial for your needs, then you might consider the Philips Avent DECT SCD501/10. This option may cost a bit more, but its ease of use and top performance make it worth the price for the simplicity.
For audio monitors, the sound quality is what separates the chihuahuas from the Great Danes. Any sound emanating from the parent device needs to be clear, static-free, and realistic sounding. Ideally, there should be no distortion, and we prefer the type of features that limit the kind of sounds transmitted or the volume of those unimportant sounds (non-baby sounds). We believe the sound transmission and features are the critical concerns for this type of monitor. You don't want to lose precious sleep in the middle of the night, wondering if the noise from the parent device is your baby or insignificant house noises. If features like sound activation or microphone sensitivity (that limit background noise) don't work like they are supposed to (or aren't there), then you could lose sleep listening to a loud monitor.
About half of the monitors we tested scored above average for sound clarity, but it is a little shocking how poor the sound quality is for some options given the primary goal to produce realistic sounds. Some of the units were hollow and bright without the mid-tone, and bass ranges, which we feel is disappointing but acceptable. However, static and distortion are not satisfactory, and we heard it from several of the units. The best products offer a fuller range of tones and the ability to change what level of sounds are transmitted (mic adjustment).
The best sound results are 10s earned by the Philips Avent DECT SCD720/86 and the Vtech DM221. These options have no distortion or static, even at max volume. The sound includes more vibrant tones, and while you wouldn't want to listen to your favorite music from the speakers, the sound is perfect at delivering a realistic representation of a baby's cries. All of the top units include sound activation that works as it should and is quickly silent when your baby is.
The worst sound in our tests is the Summer Infant Baby Wave Deluxe, which has a lot of static and distortion and earns only a 4. The Wave doesn't provide a good representation of what is happening in the baby's room and can be disturbing if you wake up suddenly without perspective. The Vtech DM271 and the Vtech DM111 both earn respectable 7s for sound. The highest score for sound is a 10 of10 for the Philips Avent DECT SCD720/86 and the Vtech DM221.
Ease of Use
Ease of use captures whether or not a monitor is intuitive or complicated, how easy it is to set up, and whether or not the features make it easier or more useful. Including all of this prevents the simple featureless products from walking away with top honors in a category that shouldn't be solely about simplicity. A product with an on/off button and volume control is easy to use. Still, the bigger question is if it offers anything that improves the user experience or makes using the monitor easier.
The Philips Avent SCD501/10 earned the highest score for ease of use with a 10 of 10. It has an easy to use button system that you may be able to use without the manual. The extra features it boasts make using it an overall nicer experience than much of the completion, and we liked the clean lines and simplistic styling it offers for both devices. The parent unit also has a handy lanyard for transport, and the baby unit has buttons with clear easy to read labels. The two auto-link and the instructions are easy to follow.
The Vtech DM271 earned the lowest ease of use score in this review with a 5. This unit has a variety of additional features, not standard on a sound monitor, which makes it more challenging to use. With a motion and door open sensors, there is a lot more going on here that you need to set up and navigate.
In general, all of the competitors are easy enough. They lack truly technical features that are complex to use, and they all can be plugged in and used right away without altering factory settings. We also concede that given enough time and experience, parents can get used to any monitor interface. Still, we believe you also need to think about caregivers, like a babysitter or a relative, who should effectively be able to use your sound monitor with a limited overview.
You might think all you need is a product that sends sound from the nursery unit to a parent device. However, if the baby monitor can't connect to the parent device because it is too far away or there are too many walls between the units, then it won't matter what information or sound it sends along. While ranges, in general, are better for the audio products than video or movement options, it is still vital that you consider the range and your home when choosing a product. Even though most manufacturers include their open field range on the box, they aren't all reporting this number accurately, and even fewer manufacturers report a potential indoor range for their products. While indoor range can be affected by several variables from walls and floors to appliances, our tests can give you a general idea of the potential range you might expect, or, more importantly, how each unit stacked up against the competition in the same location.
Larger homes may be better suited to audio monitors (unless you plan to use Wi-Fi), given that their average range is close to 90 feet and through 6 walls and video monitors are significantly less. The most extended range for sound products is the Summer Infant Baby Wave Deluxe, with a range of 100 feet through 8 walls. The shortest span is the Philips Avent DECT SCD501/10 with 90 ft and five walls. Most of the award winners in this review average a useful six walls and 95 ft for an indoor range.
Some of the products in this review have very few features and do little more than transmit sound from one device to another. You may be thinking, well that's what these products are for, what else should they do? While we'd love it if they made breakfast or took out the trash, we aren't looking for features outside the realm of reality. We want attributes that help the monitors function better or make using them easier to use. About half of the monitors offer a sound activation feature, something we think is an essential feature that will help you get more precious sleep. This feature keeps a parent device quiet when the baby is not making noise, so it doesn't sit transmitting white noise, room sounds, or chronic static, that could keep you needlessly awake.
Another feature we like is two-way communication between devices. The lack of two-way is not a deal-breaker, and many parents find they don't use it, but if you want it, it is a nice add-on that rarely effects price. Some of the other features we consider are nightlights, lullabies, alerts, battery backup in the baby unit, rechargeable parent unit, and temperature sensors. You may not need bells and whistles, but some parents want them.
The Vtech DM221 earns the top score in this metric with 9 of 10. This product has almost every feature parents want, including sound activation (a must-have) and two-way talk to the baby. The Philips Avent SCD720/86, also earns a 9 in this metric and features sound activation and two-way talk to the baby. It includes a nightlight, adjustable microphone sensitivity, alerts, lullaby, temperature sensor, and sound level LED indicators. We think both units have features to keep parents and babies happy.
The product with the lowest features score is the Vtech DM111 with a 3. Outside of the fundamental alerts for out of range and low battery, this monitor has no features that we feel make life easier or more enjoyable. It doesn't offer anything for sound control, and it lacks added features for soothing. This product is inexpensive and has relatively good sound and an adequate range making it a good option for parents who aren't concerned with features or have a limited budget.
While we don't think that every feature is a necessity, we do believe that sound activation is critical and should be something parents look for when deciding what to buy if the budget allows. You will be glad you insisted on it when you are trying to fall asleep at night, and your room is silent instead of filled with white noise, static, and strange sounds emanating from the monitor. The other potential features are merely items of convenience. If you are a deep sleeper or enjoy white noise, then the sound activation feature may be less critical, and a monitor like the Vtech DM111 could save you money without the bells and whistles.
Electromagnetic Field Levels (EMF)
Will your cell phone give you brain cancer? What about your baby monitor's health impact on your newborn infant? Concerns over EMF exposure have increased in recent years as the number of products we use that emit EMF increases every day. Add to this that infants have sensitive developing systems that are more susceptible to the effects of EMF, and we believe it is something parents should consider when making a purchasing decision.
— WHO, Electromagnetic Fields (EMF)
The jury is still out on what the risks are from long-term exposure to low-level electromagnetic fields, such as those from sources like Wi-Fi devices, mobile phones, portable phones, and yes, getting to the point, baby monitors.
Even though the jury is still out, we believe there is enough evidence to keep EMF in mind. We've measured the EMF levels of each monitoring device to learn whether some options produce significantly higher or lower levels of EMF than others. Our tests focus on the nursery unit (the listening unit you place in the baby's room) since our concern is primarily on the potential impact of EMF on the baby's health.
All of the monitors in this review emit some level of EMF. Most of them had average values under 1 V/m when tested at 6 feet from the baby device, but a few managed to come in over 1 V/m. Most of the values were below the levels we saw in our video products. In addition to having generally lower EMF values, the sound products can also sit further away from the baby, which should help limit exposure even further. It is good to know that the unit can be placed as far away from the baby as possible and still work well. These results make choosing a sound product better than video options if you are concerned about EMF.
The Philips Avent DECT SCD501/10 has the lowest average level of EMF at 6 feet from the baby unit with a reading of 0.95 V/m. The monitor with the highest EMF reading is the Vtech DM221, with a disappointing value of 3.11 V/m! The Philips SCD720/86, has a reading of 0.72 V/m for the average at 6 feet, which is one of the lowest readings in the group. No matter which product you decide to purchase, we suggest you move it at least 6 feet away from the baby's crib, and most monitors will still work well from the other side of the room. Keep in mind that EMF levels usually decline rapidly with distance, so by locating your monitor across the room, you dramatically reduce the EMF exposure to your baby. These precautions will help limit your baby's exposure to EMF, which we think is a good thing.
Our EMF level measurements were not factored into our overall rating scores since the best current scientific data available suggests that low-level EMF from sources like sound monitors do not represent a known health risk to humans.
Battery life is mostly about the parent unit you carry with you to monitor your baby. The listening unit in the nursery typically plugs into the wall outlet. Parents usually rely on their parent unit most heavily overnight while plugged into a wall outlet near the nightstand. Batteries come into play during the daytime napping, so you can move around doing errands while keeping tabs on the baby.
We tested the battery life in all the parent devices of these monitors. Only a few products offered battery backup capabilities in the baby units. It is important to understand that the batteries in the baby units are only a backup stopgap for power outages; they are not intended for extended use overnight. Also, not all product parent devices are rechargeable. This lack of rechargeability means if you use them regularly without their AC adapters, then you will be changing batteries frequently.
The battery life range for the monitors in this review varied wildly from 9 hours for the Summer Infant Baby Wave Deluxe to 46 hours for the Vtech DM221. These life ranges mean that some of the devices will be able to make it through the night without being plugged in, and others may not. However, the majority of products had a life over 13 hours with several over 20, which is ample time for napping, which is when you are most likely to use the parent unit unplugged moving about your home.
The VTech DM221 once again stole the show for battery life with the Vtech lasting up to 46 hours. It comes with rechargeable batteries. We think that having a rechargeable battery is better than longer battery life, and would choose rechargeable monitors over AA or AAA options.
We've been using and testing the top baby sound monitors in our annual side-by-side comparison since 2010 to determine which worked well and which failed to pass muster. We also tested dozens of video monitors in our Best Video Monitor Review comparison and movement monitors in our Movement Monitor Review. In this article, we'll try to share some of the lessons we learned after using more than 100 baby monitors over the last decade, with detailed input from multiple parent testers and babies.
In the past, not all parents considered monitors a necessity, but with houses getting more substantial and lives becoming more hectic, it almost feels like a must-have item. When you consider the peace of mind knowing your baby is sleeping soundly, and the potential increase in sleep for parents, it is hard not to add a monitor to your list of baby items to buy. With prices being relatively low for sound products, it is possible to find a great monitor, even for parents on a tight budget.
Buying a monitor for your baby can be a complex operation due to the extensive number of products available. It is especially complicated for first-time parents since what to look for and what to avoid isn't obvious. In this article and our corresponding review of baby monitors, we will share what we learned about choosing the right product for your needs. We also suggest you review our article on The Best Video Monitor for more information on all things monitor and if a video product might suit your needs better.
The photos above show the Philips Avent DECT SCD501/10 (audio monitor) and the an inexpensive Wi-Fi (video monitor). These two products have similar price tags that might have you reconsidering what type of monitor you really want.
Price is often a deciding factor with monitors ranging from relatively inexpensive to several hundred dollars, depending on the model.
The range is another primary consideration when choosing a monitor. Disturbingly, we found no correlation between manufacturers' claims regarding a monitor's range, with what we observed in our extensive hands-on testing. You would expect a monitor advertising 2,000-foot range would work at a longer distance than one advertising 820-foot range — sadly, this did not turn out to be true in our tests. We advise you to review the manufacturer's range claims with considerable skepticism. We feel the tests we performed on each monitor, which provide an apples-to-apples comparison, are much more reliable than the manufacturer's claims.
In this article, we'll walk you through the different types of monitors and explain what features you should look for and why.
Are you wondering what we would do in our home or recommend to a friend? Check out the section below and potentially save some time.
Which Type of Baby Monitor? Video? Sound? Movement?
We consider the essential benefit of a baby monitor to be longer and better sleep for parents by gaining confidence that the monitor will wake you if the baby needs attention. We have reviewed three different categories of monitors here at BabyGearLab:
- Sound Monitor Review
- Video Monitor Review
- Movement Monitor Review
While any of the three types of monitors can help you keep tabs on your baby, the critical component that parents rely on while sleeping is sound.
Why Sound Monitoring Is the Most Important
In practical use, it is the sound capability of the monitor on which you will rely. Sound prompts you to wake and listen for further details. Without sound, any kind of monitor is virtually useless for sleeping parents. Being able to see what your baby is up to, or knowing when your baby stops moving as predicted are interesting features, but the first thing you should think about is sound.
A newborn will typically cry to alert you to their need to nurse or diaper change every 2-3 hours, providing you with brief windows to sleep. As your baby gets older, the time will increase, and by six months, you might enjoy 4-6 hour periods of sleep between cries.
The more confident you are in your monitor's ability to wake you if the baby needs attention, the better you'll sleep. This confidence is especially important for first-time parents who tend to be more anxious and sleep-deprived than experienced veterans. Even if the monitor offers video, it is still the sound that will make or break how well it works (and in our review of Video monitors, we base much of the overall rating score on sound capabilities).
Therefore, we recommend that you emphasize sound capabilities in your purchase decision. Both the Vtech DM221 and the Philips Avent DECT SCD720/86, earned perfect 10s for sound clarity.
How Video Monitors Can Get You More Sleep
Video plays no role in the essential act of alerting you to baby's crying, so to address this issue, video monitors usually include sound as well. The sound wakes you, and the video gives you more details on what is happening in the baby's crib.
Video can play a crucial role in helping you determine whether to make a quick trip to check on the baby. Sometimes your baby just wakes up briefly and then self-soothes back to sleep. The ability to look in on the baby and see what is going on in the crib can be beneficial in determining that nothing serious is happening. With a sound-only monitor, you need to listen for clues or open the door to the nursery room (which will often fully awaken your baby). For this reason, we love the ability of a video monitor, such as the Top Pick for Wi-Fi monitors, the Nest Cam Wi-Fi video monitor.
A video monitor is also useful if you have multiple children and want to keep an eye on two areas at the same time. When your baby is older, a video monitor can be used to watch kids playing while you do chores in another room.
Last but not least, some of the video monitors offer the ability to transmit over Wi-Fi, which allows you to view your baby on your iPhone, iPad, Android, or desktop computer. The ability to see your baby from work, or keep an eye on your baby when they are with a caregiver, is a compelling feature.
Why Movement Monitors Are Controversial, Yet Might Save Lives
A new parent can't help but contemplate the worst-case scenarios; what if the baby stops breathing? Some monitors go beyond sound and video and attempt to alert you in the unlikely event that the baby stops moving. This type of monitor is a movement monitor.The idea of an alarm if your baby stops breathing is attractive to parents in the first six months, where the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and other sleep-related death causes are most significant.
So, what's the controversy?
There appears to be no scientific study available that validates that movement monitors reduce the risk of SIDS or sleep-related infant death. These are not medical-grade monitors, and their effectiveness is questionable.
Moreover, both the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the National Institute of Health (NIH) have come out with formal policy statements recommending that parents do not buy products, like those from Angelcare, that claim to reduce the risk of SIDS, citing the lack of data indicating that they work.
In contrast, there is a published set of techniques advocated by the AAP and NIH that are proven to reduce the risk of SIDS and sleep-related death. It would be a grave mistake to ignore proven methods to reduce the risk of SIDS and sleep-related death because you had false confidence in an unproven monitor.
Not much, at least not in their documentation or website.
Angelcare seems to ignore the obvious question about their product's benefits or effectiveness. In our examination of their product packaging, marketing materials, and the FAQ section of their website, we found no mention of SIDS or sleep-related death. They do not claim their product will alarm if your baby stops breathing. In fact, as far as we can tell, they fail to make any benefit claim regarding their movement monitors other than to claim that the monitor will alarm if no movement is detected and that their monitors offer "peace of mind" to parents. In the end, Angelcare leaves the question of whether their movement detection feature might save a baby's life mostly unanswered.
In favor of Angelcare's products, are a handful of passionate and compelling testimonials in user-reviews that describe cases where the Angelcare movement monitor did alarm in situations where a baby had stopped breathing. In those cases, the alarm allowed the parents to revive their baby, and the monitor appears to have been instrumental in saving those babies' lives. Critics say that those cases were probably not SIDS as formally defined medically, but rather a situation where baby stopped breathing from asphyxiation or other sleep-related causes. From our point of view, we don't feel the semantics matter. The Angelcare alarm appeared to have worked in those cases to save lives, and we think that is significant and hard to ignore.
Our take on it has been to evaluate the Angelcare product's primarily on their sound monitor capabilities and other features, and to only consider the movement detection feature as a bonus — albeit one we like, as it seems to be one more way to alert parents to a potentially dangerous situation.
One Parent Unit or Two?
Many parents get by using just one monitor, placing the power supply in their bedroom (the central location you'll use your monitor), and taking the parent unit with them to the kitchen and other rooms in the house. This method works fine and is only a minor hassle as long as you're monitor's battery life is sufficient. But before the time your baby is a year old, you'll probably find that the battery life on the rechargeable parent unit has degraded to a fraction of its initial longevity. You can solve this by replacing the rechargeable batteries or by merely moving the power supply around with you.
Or, just get a two-parent unit product, and you'll eliminate a lot of that hassle. Some of the units we tested are available with additional parent units. If that feels like something you are interested in, you'll want to double-check that option before purchase.
The most convenient way to use a baby monitor is to have a two-parent unit model, so you don't constantly have to move the parent unit from one location to another. Dedicate one parent unit in the master bedroom and plug it into the wall. You generally won't be moving the unit that is in the master bedroom. Place the other parent unit in the kitchen or living area where you'll be while the baby is sleeping in the day. You will often move this 2nd monitor around as you move from the kitchen to another room to work or watch TV, etc. Place the power supply for the 2nd monitor wherever you'll use it most (the kitchen usually), and use it on batteries when in the other room(s).
However, some of the monitors do not have a 2nd parent unit available (video monitors often have the option of a second camera, but not typically a 2nd parent unit unless they are Wi-Fi). As a result, you'll end up running these monitors on batteries or dragging around the power supply when you are out of the master bedroom.
Range, Clarity, and Interference
Range, clarity, and interference are all interrelated. A monitor that offers excellent range can be brought to its knees by interference from another monitor or electronic device on the same frequency. Similarly, the clarity of sound deteriorates as you increase the distance. That said, there are substantial differences between devices.
Most manufacturers state a "range" for their monitor in their marketing materials and on their packaging. The stated range will be a so-called "open field" range test performed where there are no obstructions between the baby unit and the parent unit. These "open field" range specifications are very misleading for several reasons. First, you aren't going to use your monitor in an open field; you'll use it indoors with walls between you and baby. Who cares if the monitor can allegedly transmit 1,000 feet across an open field? Second, we found no correlation between the stated ranges from manufacturers and what we measured in our own extensive range tests. Third, we found surprisingly little correlation between our own "open field" range tests and our "indoor" range tests; a monitor that went twice as far as another in open field tests doesn't necessarily offer better performance indoors.
Bottom line: don't trust the manufacturer's range distances. They are flat out misleading and useless.
Your actual range at home is what matters, and that is going to be very different than the manufacturer's stated range in any event. Inside your home where it really counts, the range is going to be anywhere from 5 to 30 times less than the open field range. Also, each home is a bit different because your home's walls and wiring will present unique obstructions that interfere with the monitor's ability to receive a clear signal. Further, each monitor is different, and some are much better at getting a clear signal through multiple walls and distance than others.
So, how can you get a grip on the real range you can expect from a monitor?
We concluded that the only way we could find out was to perform our own tests, both indoor and open field methods. The majority of monitors in our tests worked for an average of 90 feet and five walls, which is probably good enough for most homes.
Since our tests were done consistently (same location, same obstructions) across all the monitors we tested, we recommend you look closely at our test results to compare and contrast monitors to get a feeling for relative range performance. We also advise that you focus primarily on our Indoor Range Test results since the open field range numbers are less predictive of what you'll find in your home (unless you plan to leave your baby in a field, which we don't recommend).
The clarity of a monitor refers to how clear the sound comes through from the baby's room, or in the case of a video monitor, the video image quality as well as the sound quality.
It is not critical that you hear everything in baby's room crystal clear; as long as you can hear the baby cry, you've covered the basic functional need. However, it sure is helpful if you actually can hear everything clearly. Given two monitors that are otherwise identical in performance, we'll take the one with better sound clarity every time (or possibly pay a bit more to get it).
The downside of clarity is when a static hiss is overwhelming the sound of the baby's room. That kind of background noise can drive you nuts. If the monitor lacks a sound activation feature to turn it off or a mic adjustment to filter it out, it's going to wreak havoc on your ability to sleep, which negates the whole reason of getting a monitor.
We developed our clarity ratings by testing monitors in the room next door to the baby units, using an iPod sound loop so that all monitors were tested under identical conditions. The Philips Avent SCD720/86 and the Vtech DM221 earned the highest score for clarity with 10 out of 10 in our tests.
Monitors suffer from two primary types of signal interference. One is the degradation of sound quality as the distance and number of walls increase. When these increase, the signal gets weaker, and more static/white noise is evident. The other common source of interference is from other radio frequency devices such as other baby monitors (perhaps a neighbor's monitor) and/or wireless telephones. Most of the monitors in our review did better with interference than those we tested in previous monitor reviews, indicating that quality and/or technology changes have resulted in improvements to this kind of product across the board.
Save Your Receipt and Return Any Monitor with Interference Issues
Range and sound quality issues are significant enough that we encourage you to buy your monitor only from a retailer that allows you to return the product for exchange or refund in the event you have a problem.
Our advice is this:
- Buy products only from a retailer with a liberal return policy; save your receipt
- Carefully unpack the monitor so it can be returned without difficulty
- Immediately test it in your home to make sure there are no issues that limit or impede performance
- Try it in all the areas you'll use the monitor most (typically your master bedroom, living room, and kitchen areas), and turn on all your wireless phones, Wi-Fi network, and other devices that might interfere
- Keep in mind that interference may also come from a neighbor's home (test it at night when other baby monitors in the neighborhood will be on)
- If interference or range is an issue in your home, immediately return the monitor. It's not something you'll be able to fix, and it's not worth the loss of sleep you'll incur suffering through an interference issue. The sooner you return it, the better
Sound Activated Monitoring with Adjustable Sensitivity
We think you'll appreciate a monitor that offers a sound activation feature and/or microphone sensitivity adjustment, and we highly recommend it.
The best monitors offer the ability to filter out background noise and are tuned to the specific frequencies of a baby crying. While the baby is silently sleeping, the best monitors offer the ability to filter the background noise and hiss that might otherwise occur and become silent. Yet, when the baby cries out, the monitor tunes-in immediately and even amplifies the sound so you wake up and can check on the baby. Silent until activated can increase your ability to sleep or the longevity of your sleep.
Different monitors describe this feature with different words, but they all refer to the same thing: microphone sensitivity, background noise filter, sound sensitivity, sound-activated, or voice-activation (VOX).
To a first time parent, this feature may not seem important, but it can play a crucial role in getting better sleep . Why? Because most parents will want the monitor set to relatively loud volume to ensure they hear it (and wake up) when baby cries. With the monitor volume turned up loud, you'll invariably hear a background hiss that sounds like a radio tuned between stations combined with whatever subtle sounds exist in the baby's room. This background noise can be very annoying and prevent you from getting needed sleep. With the sound-activated feature enabled, that reduces the background hiss to absolute silence, which can help you fall asleep. Yet when baby cries or a significant noise occurs in the room, the monitor kicks in, and you immediately can hear everything going on in the room.
A critical feature, from our point of view, is the ability to turn sound activation off from the parent unit easily so you can briefly hear everything in the baby's room, make sure the monitor is working correctly, and adjust the monitor volume correctly. Then you can turn the sensitivity filter on, so you can get some sleep.
The higher-end monitors, like the Philips Avent DECT SCD720/86, give you adjustable control over the sound activation's sensitivity from the parent unit. This ability can allow you to tune out background noises, yet assure that the slightest sound above the background level comes through on the monitor. However, any sound activation or mic sensitivity adjustment is better than none.
Battery Life - Does it Really Matter?
Battery life is not a significant consideration, not really. Almost all the monitors we reviewed offer rechargeable parent units with battery life over seven hours, with some running for a significantly longer period over 20 hours. So even if the lowest-cost monitor offered the best battery life, you won't see us recommending them because of it. However, we do think you should think twice about parent units that are not rechargeable, like the Philips Avent SCD501/10, which has a battery life of 19 hours, but uses AA batteries you will need to replace frequently.
Battery life comes into play as you temporarily move the monitor away from its usual location (typically the master bedroom). Battery use comes up if you only have a single parent unit, as you'll want to have the monitor with you in the kitchen, office, and living room while baby sleeps. Relocating the power supply every time you move from one room to another is a hassle. However, with the majority of the products in our review staying charged well over 10 hours, we don't think many parents will struggle with battery life as long as they get the parent unit back to its charging cradle before bedtime.
Keep in mind that battery life degrades after use. By the time your baby is a year old, your monitor's battery life will be a fraction of what it was when new. We recommend that you replace the batteries with new rechargeable batteries if battery life degrades significantly. All of our award winners batteries lasted over 13 hours, ample time for about any purpose.
Risk of Strangulation
A primary safety consideration with any monitor is making sure the cord(s) are out of the baby's reach. The power cord, and any other cords, should be secured well out of reach of the baby. While a newborn initially lacks the mobility to reach through a crib, they will gain the ability and curiosity as they get older. We urge you to secure all cords from the get-go since you'll have forgotten about cord placement months later when your baby becomes mobile and can reach the wires.
Choosing the Right Monitor for You
Here are some guidelines on how to choose the best monitor for your needs.
First - Range
Without a doubt, the range is going to be the most significant limiting factor in any of the monitors you might consider, no matter what type you consider. Sound monitors generally have longer ranges than video. However, it can still be a problem finding one that works in your home, depending on the distance between units and the number of obstructions and interference that might be present. The Summer Infant Baby Wave Deluxe has the longest range in our review, working at 100 feet and through 8 walls. However, most of the audio monitors we reviewed worked up to 90 feet through 5 walls of indoor range, so the difference isn't too bad. Both the Philips Avent SCD720/86 and the Vtech Safe & Sound DM221 work at 95 feet through 5 walls.
Second - Sound Clarity
We love sound activation and think it is well worth any extra penny to get a monitor that has it as a feature. It can make or break whether or not you ever get to sleep at night, and given that is the whole point of a monitor, we find that monitors that lack it, also lack our love. Both of our award winners score 10 of 10 for sound activation. They go silent quickly and "wake" up as soon as the baby cried. Theoretically, sound activation also solves any interference issues a monitor might have as well.
Last - Features
While we think you should be able to narrow down your selection of which monitor to buy by the range and sound activation alone, there might be features you are looking for that aren't captured in those metrics. Several of the monitors offer other interesting features. We prefer those with sound activation and sound filtering properties to create a quiet parent unit. Still, there are other features to consider, like lullabies, nightlights, and temperature sensors. If you've narrowed your options to two contenders, these features can help break the tie.
What Does BabyGearLab Recommend?
BabyGearLab thinks most parents should seriously consider creating a hybrid solution by combining a sound monitor with a top-ranked Wi-Fi video monitor.
Why buy two different monitors? Isn't that a little overkill?
Parents purchase a baby monitor to increase their odds of getting more sleep when their baby sleeps. Crying is what alerts you that your baby needs you. A sound monitor typically offers the best sound clarity and the most useful features like sound activation, so you can hear when your little one is in distress. However, the sound doesn't let you peek inside the nursery to see if your baby is truly in need or able to self-soothe. Here is where the video monitor is useful. So, why purchase a video monitor and a sound product? None of the video options we've tested include noise filtering features or provide quality sound. Superior sound features can help you get quality sleep. So, using a top-ranked sound monitor as your primary monitor with a sound activation feature keeps your bedroom quiet, so you and your baby can achieve deep sleep. Plus, it can still transmit the sound of your baby crying when you need it.
A Wi-Fi video monitor is what you'll require after you hear your baby cry through the sound monitor. You then use your Wi-Fi video monitor to determine with visuals whether or not your little one needs you. A Wi-Fi video option also allows you to check-in on your baby when you are away from home — we love this ability and it is only available with a Wi-Fi monitor.
Why can't you rely on your video monitor and skip the sound product? In our experience, Wi-Fi options lack adequate sound and sound-related features. Wi-Fi video products transmit all background noise (static white noise or anything in the baby's room making noise). So even when your baby is silent, the monitor isn't, which can impact your ability to fall asleep or maintain deep sleep. Then, the sound that video products transmit when your baby is crying isn't the best.
We believe parents should purchase a sound monitor like the Vtech DM221 or the Philips Avent DECT SCD720/86, to have the sound quality and features required for quality sleep. Then, we recommend that you add a highly regarded Wi-Fi monitor to create a "system" that provides impressive sound and quality video.
We think creating a sound and Wi-Fi monitor combination is a win-win. You can create this combo for a low price that saves money in comparison with some fancier video choices.
We started by researching the top-rated and most popular baby monitors to see which we should include in our hands-on testing. We consider a variety of options with different features in a variety of price ranges. In total, over the last seven years, we've considered over 50 baby audio monitors, before narrowing the finalists to put through our entire series of tests.
Baby Monitor Torture Testing
We put each baby monitor through a myriad of tests to see which perform the best. The design of our tests is to stress each monitor's capabilities objectively for range, sound quality, ease-of-use, features, battery life, and more. We used a combination of lab tests and real-world use to influence our ratings and opinions.
To create a controlled environment, we recorded the sound of a baby crying and background white noise from an actual nursery and created an MP3 loop that we played on an iPod. This MP3 allows us to test each monitor under identical conditions. We use an industrial sound monitor to measure sound volumes and a commercial-grade distance meter to measure open-field and indoor range tests for accuracy.
Testing Sound Clarity
It's not critical that you get crystal clear sound from your baby monitor, after all, you aren't listening to your favorite album, you just want to know if your baby needs you. As long as you can hear a baby cry, your monitor works, but it's certainly nice to have clear, distortion, and static-free sound. In practice, a monitor's sound fidelity is typically degraded by static or background hiss (like a radio tuned between stations). This degradation inhibits your ability to hear your baby clearly and may limit your ability to get sleep. The sound clarity and quality vary widely between monitors. We test each monitor for both sound fidelity (does the monitor clearly reproduce the sounds in the nursery), as well as hiss and static.
Baby monitors suffer from two primary types of signal interference. One is due to a weakening signal with more walls and longer transmission distance. This type of interference is particularly noticeable on analog monitors or the lower-cost options where the interference can reach intolerable levels with moderate indoor obstruction (>50 ft and four walls). This problem is part of the reason we only chose digital monitors for testing. The other common source of interference is from other radio frequency devices such as other baby monitors (perhaps a neighbor's monitor) and wireless telephones. The higher-end and digital technology monitors seem impervious to this kind of interference in our tests, automatically finding a clear channel for communication.
Testing Sound Level & Sound Activation
We used a looping MP3 track that cycled between 30 seconds of a baby crying and 30 seconds of background white noise. We placed the baby nursery unit of each monitor in one room, and 4 feet in front of it, we played that track at a standard volume setting. In the room next door, we used a sound meter to measure the max and min sound dB volume levels from the parent unit. Each parent unit was set to maximum volume for this test, and we recorded the sound level 5 inches from the monitor (that dB value is displayed in the Max Sound row of our comparison table). For those monitors with a Sound Activation feature, we wanted to ensure that they would activate when the baby cried, but could still filter out the background noise. If they did filter out the background noise, the min sound of 0 dB (meaning that background noise was filtered entirely out).
Testing Ease of Use
We measured the time to set up each monitor and rated the ease of operation. We test the control features such as turning on/off, adjusting sound activation sensitivity, talk-to-baby, linking/pairing of units, etc. For the most part, the sound-only monitors are easy to set up and use.
We also consider how the various available features influenced the user-experience, and whether or not they improved the overall experience or made the monitor frustrating to use. Being simple isn't necessarily an asset for ease of use; being able to use the product and benefit from its features is what makes one product more natural to use over another.
Some of the most important tests in our point of view are those that measure range. Your baby monitor must operate in your home between the baby's room and your master bedroom. Ideally, your monitor will also work well between the baby's room and other rooms, but the master bedroom is non-negotiable. Most monitors have some range specifications listed on the box. However, we found these ranges to be unreliable at predicting actual in-home performance, and wildly out of sync in some cases with our real-world experience.
Indoor performance is the most important when it comes to baby monitors. While open field range tests are fun, they don't mean anything in the real world (unless, of course, you plan to leave your baby alone in an open field, which we don't recommend). What truly matters is how the baby monitor performs inside your house, with walls, interference from other wireless devices, and the potential interference from monitors and phones from your neighbor's. To test indoor range, we used a home that had a unique straight-line torture-test situation where we could test each baby monitor's ability to pass through up to 8 indoor walls over a 125' long distance. This home had active Wi-Fi networks, wireless phones, multiple cell phones, and various other wireless gadgetry providing an ideal environment to separate the weak from the signal-strong monitors. We recorded the distance and number of walls through which each monitor effectively transmitted. In some cases, the distance was limited by the monitor's ability to maintain a signal connection. In other cases, it was due to the level of interference, reaching an unacceptable level.
Open Field Range
Most manufacturers provide a range specification in feet or meters that are an open-field (unobstructed) distance. We wanted to see f we could duplicate the claimed measurements in our tests. To do so, we used our baby-crying MP3 loop to play into each monitor's nursery unit. We then walked the parent unit away until it lost the signal, or the interference became unacceptable.
Some competitors managed to exceed the manufacturer's claims, while others struggled to come close. As a result, those claims get our "pants on fire" rating for credibility.
Testing Battery Life
We test each monitor's battery life after fully charging the parent unit (or adding fresh batteries) and in operation with its matching nursery unit. Battery life is recorded in hours and rounded to the nearest 10th of an hour. In our experience, battery life degrades over time, and we'd expect all the monitors to need replacement rechargeable batteries within a year or so of regular use.
We collected EMF values using an EMF reader at approximately 6 inches, 3 feet, and 6 feet away from the parent unit and baby device. We test monitors in the same location with equal ambient EMF to eliminate erroneous readings outside the monitors. Values were assessed by circling the units and using an average of the measurements at various points in the circle. Testing was repeated multiple times and in multiple locations to ensure the reading accuracy.
Choosing the right monitor for your family is not as easy as you think. Especially if you haven't decided what you want or don't know what kinds are available. With different functionalities, features, and prices, it can be hard to say why one product is superior over the competition. If you consider the critical metrics and features that create a highly functional sound monitor, we believe you'll find the best choice for your budget and your goals. Our award-winners are excellent products that will work for most families, but if you don't think these options will meet your needs, we also include the pros and cons of the competition we tested to help you find the best audio monitor for your goals.
— RJ Spurrier