Here’s the deal… You’re wondering what’s the best stethoscope that your money can buy as a medical student.
In this no-nonsense guide, I will provide you with my top recommendation for the best stethoscope to use as a medical student; from one medic to another!
So, Which Stethoscope is Best for Medical Students?
My top recommendation has to be the 3M™ Littmann® Classic III™ Stethoscope. This is by far the best built, most versatile, and affordable stethoscope out there for your needs as a medical student and future doctor. Check out its latest price here on Amazon.
Top 3 Stethoscopes for Medical Students
Read on as I explain in detail why I rate this stethoscope brand and model so highly. Along the way, I cover everything you need to know about stethoscopes and answer any questions you may think of.
Alternatively, you can jump straight to reading our recommendation here.
1. The Littmann® Classic III™ | The Best Stethoscope for Medical Students
The Littmann® Classic III™ Stethoscope hails from the Classic range which has been the brand’s bestselling range for many years.
You will have most likely seen its predecessor, the Littmann® Classic II™ SE, being brandished around a doctor’s neck.
The Classic III™ represents the next generation and includes many improvements and new features.
Let’s start with the features that are unique to the Littmann® Classic III™ Stethoscope, distinguishing it from the rest of the Classic range:
It has 2 single-piece diaphragms of varying sizes.
This is one of my favourite features and here’s why:
The chest piece has one side which is an adult sized diaphragm [4.3cm, 1.7 in], whereas the second side is smaller and doubles up as either: a paediatric diaphragm [3.3cm, 1.3 in] or a traditional bell.
The versatile and removable small diaphragm – when used over the bell – provides a small surface area perfect for auscultation in paediatric patients or tricky areas such as the neck [carotid/thyroid bruits].
It also keeps the bell clean and dust free when not in use.
If you prefer the traditional bell for auscultating low-frequency sounds, then you can easily remove the diaphragm as it’s a single piece with no crevices. This also makes cleaning it a breeze.
This is perfect for medical students, advanced nurse practitioners and even paramedics [Emergency Medical Technicians, EMT] as you can examine patients of all ages.
As a medical student, you will be able to examine children [except for neonates] whilst on your paediatric rotation, then conveniently switch back to the adult diaphragm for your next adult rotation.
Both diaphragms are tunable.
The Tunable™ technology in an invention of the 3M™ company, whereby you can alternate between listening to both low and high-frequency sounds whilst using the diaphragm alone.
This is achieved by changing the pressure with which you apply the chest piece onto the patient’s skin, meaning:
Applying firm pressure on the chest piece will accentuate high-frequency sounds through the diaphragm.
If you want to auscultate for low-frequency sounds, simply apply light pressure on the chest piece whilst the diaphragm is in contact with the patient’s skin.
This way you can concentrate on listening to and recognising both high and low-frequency sounds, without having to switch to the bell and reposition the stethoscope.
It provides superior sound quality: 7/10.
3M™ rates the acoustics of their Littmann stethoscopes – in house – on a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being the supreme Littmann® Master Cardiology™.
The 7/10 rating here is good enough to make your life easy when trying to convince your seniors that you can actually hear the murmur.
Now you only have to worry about diagnosing it!
Its length is 69cm [27.2 in] which is long enough to prevent the need for bending over while auscultating.
The chest piece is made from stainless steel weighing in at 82 grams and comes in a variety of beautiful finishes from mirror, champagne to rainbow and my personal favourite copper.
Additional features – that are also found in all next generation Littmann stethoscopes – include improved tubing that is more resistant to damage from repeated contact with human skin oils.
It is also worth noting that, most of the new Littmann stethoscopes’ tubing is made from PVC and is latex-free. However, despite this, PVC tends to harden after years of contact with human skin oils [making the tubes crack].
I therefore recommend caring for your stethoscope properly and if wearing it around your neck, ensure you place it over your collar to avoid contact with your skin.
All Littmann stethoscopes come with adjustable headsets for maximum comfort. To adjust these, either gently squeeze together or pull apart the binaurals [ear tubes] to comfortably fit around your head.
Earpieces are also soft tipped providing an excellent seal whilst still being comfortable.
3M offer a 5-year warranty on the Classic III™ Stethoscope, 2 years more than it offers on the other older generation Classic stethoscopes.
Check out the copper edition as well as all the 18 different tubing colours available here on Amazon.
Extra Perks with The Littmann® Classic III™
In the box, you get an extra pair of ear tips and a non-chill rim for when you convert the paediatric diaphragm to a bell. This rim wraps around the cold stainless-steel rim of the bell to ensure patients are comfortable when you place the bell on their skin.
The stethoscope is packed tightly within sculpted foam inside the box. This keeps it nice and snug with minimal chance of damage during delivery. Note: Shipping will be free with Amazon unlike other online retailers which charge you extra for this.
A wonderful perk for medical students is the free access to the Littmann Learning Institute App, available for both iOS and Android.
Simply download the App on your smartphone and insert your new stethoscope’s serial number [found on its chest piece]. You now get to practice the diagnosis of heart and lung sounds with patient scenarios, in addition to testing yourself and tracking your progress.
2. Treating Yourself? Here’s the Master Classic II™ for a Little Extra
This was my favourite prior to the release of the Classic III™ and I still own one. The Littmann® Master Classic II™ stethoscope brandishes the “Master” brand in reference to the big player, the Master Cardiology™ stethoscope.
With this one, I think 3M was attempting to incorporate some of the innovative, ergonomic design aspects of the Master Cardiology™ stethoscope into the affordable Classic range, and the result was the Master Classic II™.
It comes with a single sided chest piece and a tunable diaphragm. The diaphragm here is slightly larger than the other models in the Classic range and measures 4.4cm [1.75in] in diameter, thereby providing a larger surface area to transmit sounds.
The chest piece is slightly heavier than the Classic III™ at 90g compared with 82g, but I do not feel the difference.
Most importantly is the Master Classic II™’s acoustic performance; and this is rated an 8/10 by 3M compared with the 7/10 for the other classic models.
I can certainly attest to this performance. Whenever I compare my Master Classic II™ to the standard Classic II™ SE, I do notice it is easier to identify heart sounds and certain murmurs particularly in larger patients.
This stethoscope comes in a stylish all-black edition [mine] and 2 other colours and finishes. It usually sells for a little more than the Classic III™ and is a good choice if you decide to splash out or are buying this as a gift for a medical student. Check out its latest price here on Amazon.
3. On a Tight Budget? Here’s a Cheaper Littmann® Stethoscope
It’s understandable if you’re on a tight budget. In that case I would stick with the Classic III™’s predecessor, the Littmann® Classic II™ SE which was a strong favourite among medics for years prior.
It does not compromise on quality. The acoustics and performance are rated a 7/10 by 3M. It only comes with the traditional double-sided chest piece [diaphragm and bell]; so not as much versatility here but you will be able to cope.
The diaphragm is also a tunable one, however it belongs to the previous non-single piece generation which can be tricky to clean and dismantle.
The Classic II™ SE comes in a range of 6 tubing colours and 2 chest piece finishes. You still have the basic Littmann features mentioned above such as adjustable head set, 2 sets of soft tip earpieces and durable tubing.
Although great care should be taken as mentioned previously with regards to its contact with skin oils.
Although the 3M company does not list this stethoscope on their website anymore, they do still offer a 3-year warranty on it and it still is widely available in many online stores.
You can check out the basic black model price here on Amazon.
Who Invented the Stethoscope Anyway?
Amazingly, that was the genius of a 35-year-old French physician named René Théophile Hyacinthe Laënnec, who – in 1816 – rolled up a sheet of paper to listen for a patient’s heart sounds. Simple… yet ingenious.
Prior to that year, physicians listened for heart sounds using the method of “direct auscultation”; simply by placing their ears directly on the patient’s chest.
This was the same method practiced from the days of Hippocrates, and results varied depending on the patient’s body habitus. However – at best – the sounds were muffled.
One day Laënnec found himself examining a young lady presenting with what he called :
“… General symptoms of diseased heart, and in whose case percussion and the application of the hand were of little avail on account of the great degree of fatness. The other method just mentioned being rendered inadmissible by the age and sex of the patient…”
Ever the gentleman, Laënnec recalled how clear he could hear a pin scratch on a piece of wood, when applying his ear on its farthest end. He then proceeded to roll up a sheet of paper and applied one end to the patient’s chest while he listened at the opposite end. And the rest was history .
To his surprise, Laënnec found that he could hear the heart and lung sounds with an unprecedented clarity, despite the distance between his ear and the chest. He proceeded to modify his technique and eventually came up with a simple design comprising a 25cm by 2.5cm hollow wooden cylinder, that could also be dismantled for portability .
He named his instrument the Stethoscope from the Greek for chest: “stethos” and to view or observe: “skopein”. This was a reference to the language he learnt as young man.
He also termed his method of auscultation: Mediate [indirect] auscultation, then progressed to describing and naming many of the pulmonary pathologies still in use today such as crackles and crepitations .
To further explore the evolution of the stethoscope from Laënnec’s early model to what we recognise today, have a look at our interactive timeline below :
Do First Year Medical Students Need A Stethoscope?
Short answer… No.
However – throughout the UK, USA, and Canada – medical schools are increasingly exposing medical students to early contact with patients.
This is known as Early Clinical Experience [ECE] and is designed to better integrate the clinical years with the preclinical ones (i.e. years 1 and 2 mainly).
You should check if your medical school runs this scheme as part of their curriculum and if so, expect to see patients while supervised from as early as the first year.
This exposure in the early years may be very infrequent and you may get away with borrowing a stethoscope from another student. However, you will find that most students will purchase a stethoscope during their first year.
This is simply because they are bombarded with advertising and pressurised into buying these during fairs and inductions.
Regardless, by your third year of medical school… You will need one and a good one that is! Which brings me to the next point.
Stethoscope Brands – How Do You Choose?
If you have done any research online on which stethoscope is best for medical students, you will have likely come across many brands including Littmann®, Welch Allyn, ADC and MDF.
Let me be clear about this, no matter what you read or who you ask, Littmann® stethoscopes will always be the brand of choice for medics. These are manufactured by the reputable 3M™ company and are named after Dr David Littmann – Professor of Cardiology at Harvard medical school – who was instrumental in revolutionising the acoustic performance of the early stethoscopes.
Certainly, Littmann® stethoscopes are trusted by many clinicians around the world for their innovative design and their durability. I have owned mine for nearly 12 years now and never had to replace it.
Sound or acoustic quality is unparalleled even with the entry level models, and I have confirmed this on the few occasions where I forgot my own stethoscope only to have to use another brand and realise the difference.
So, now we have established that Littmann® stethoscopes are the way to go… Which model do you go for?
Here is a summary of the notable models offered by Littmann®:
- The Classic™ range.
- The Cardiology™ range.
- The Lightweight range.
- The Electronic range.
The Classic™ range includes our recommended Littmann® Classic III™ Stethoscope and its predecessor the Littmann® Classic II™ SE Stethoscope which you have undoubtedly seen around someone’s neck in your hospital.
In fact, this is the entry level range for medical students and if you choose the right model, you will not need to upgrade your stethoscope throughout your medical career. Provided you look after it!
I can also say that, as a medical student, you will not need – nor be able to afford in many cases! – the Cardiology or Electronic stethoscopes.
If you do decide on becoming a cardiologist, then you can treat yourself to one after graduation, or even better: get someone else to treat you!
The lightweight stethoscope range will simply not do for diagnostic and physical examination purposes. These are generally used for tasks such as blood pressure measurement.
Now you know which brand and range to choose from, the question remains… How much should a medical student spend on a stethoscope?
Well there is no single best answer here, but it I believe that money well spent early on, will save you heartache later [excuse the pun!].
I certainly do not share the opinion that you should buy a cheap stethoscope during the early years of medical school, only to upgrade to a quality one as you graduate. All the while never hearing a decent murmur throughout your undergraduate medical education.
What Are the Uses of a Stethoscope?
Apart from its obvious role in auscultation of the heart and lung sounds, stethoscopes are also used for listening to bowel sounds during abdominal examinations.
An example is using it to listen for the high pitched or “tinkling” bowel sounds in intestinal obstruction.
Furthermore, they can be used for the auscultation of the sounds transmitted by vascular pathologies due to the turbulent blood flow within them. Examples of these are carotid or renal bruits.
Of course, stethoscopes are still used in the measurement of blood pressure in conjunction with a sphygmomanometer, that is when an electronic sphygmomanometer cannot be found on the ward!
Anatomy of a Stethoscope
So, what are the different parts of a stethoscope and their respective functions? Have a look at the diagram below and click on the hotspots to learn more about each part.
Most models [apart from the electronic ones] have similar parts and we list the basic structure below:
- Chest piece:
The part that we rest on the patient; this can be single or double sided. Each side can either be a hollow cup shape [bell] or with a drum piece [diaphragm].
This is the tube connecting the chest piece to the headset that you place in your ears.
Tubing can be single or double-lumen. In the latter; sound waves are transmitted separately through 2 tubes into each earpiece.
The 2 tubes are embedded within a single outer tube to prevent them rubbing against one another and causing artefact, which interferes with the acoustic quality.
This is composed of the binaurals [a.k.a. ear tubes] and the ear tips.
The binaurals are made of strong, durable, and lightweight aluminium alloy and are angled in a way that fits optimally in your ears, directing sound down your ear canals.
The correct angle for inserting these into your ears would be with the ear tips facing forward [towards your nose].
How Does a Stethoscope Work? The Bell vs The Diaphragm
To answer this, let us remember how our own hearing works.
Sound is a series of vibrations that travel as waves through a medium, classically air. This is kinetic energy and once it arrives at our ears; the pinna [external ear] channels it into the external auditory canal [ear canal] and finally vibrates our tympanic membranes [ear drums].
The vibration of our tympanic membrane then conducts this energy to the 3 smallest bones in the human body [ossicles], which in turn vibrate and move fluid within the inner ear [cochlea]. The movement of this fluid simulates specialised nerves within the inner ear, subsequently sending signals to our brains.
Now consider the stethoscope.
When the diaphragm is placed onto a patient’s chest; heart sounds transmit vibrations to the chest surface and these in turn will vibrate the diaphragm of the stethoscope. The diaphragm here acts as your ear drum, and the chest piece channels these sound waves into the tubing, through the earpieces, to enter your ear canals as described above.
Therefore, the diaphragm is good for picking up high-frequency sounds that will easily vibrate it [and the skin of the patient].
The bell however, is best suited for picking up low-frequency sounds that are not powerful enough to vibrate the diaphragm, but still vibrate the patient’s skin.
As the rim of the bell is placed on the patient’s skin, the skin acts as your ear drum and the hollow bell enhances any low-frequency vibrations transmitting them into the tubing.
This is classically the case when listening for the murmur of Mitral stenosis or an S3 heart sound in heart failure.
Amplified or Electronic Stethoscopes for Hearing Loss & Hearing Aid Users
Learning to use a stethoscope if you are hard of hearing or use hearing aids can certainly be challenging.
While I have NOT tested any of the stethoscopes I mention with regards to hearing aids, my main aim here is to provide you with as much help and knowledge that will enable you to make an informed decision when choosing your stethoscope. As there are only a handful of helpful resources online for this.
Here at ENT PASS, we know a thing or two about Ears and Otology, so here’s our two cents.
First things first…
When it comes to which stethoscopes are best for use with hearing aids, there isn’t a one size fits all answer despite what anyone else might suggest. The answer to the question is… it depends.
Another important piece of advice here is that you should involve your Audiologist whilst making your decision.
As for which stethoscope you find helpful, well that will depend on these factors:
- The severity and type of your hearing loss.
- Whether or not you use hearing aids, and what type of aids they are.
Before I discuss each of those factors in turn, it is important that you know this: heart and lung sounds are collectively low-frequency sounds [anywhere along the 20Hz – 650Hz range] .
So, when stating that a stethoscope’s diaphragm is best suited for high-frequency sounds; we are simply referring to the relatively higher frequency sounds within this low-frequency range.
Amplified Stethoscopes for Hearing Loss – Non-Hearing Aid Users
If you suffer from mild high-frequency hearing loss, and do not use a hearing aid for this, then you will find using an electronic stethoscope most useful. Particularly if your lower frequency hearing is unaffected.
Electronic stethoscopes work in a similar fashion to the traditional acoustic ones, apart from digitally enhancing and amplifying the sounds transmitted into the earpieces. Hence their name; amplified stethoscopes.
Since you do not use hearing aids, these can be used in the same fashion as the acoustic models, and you can amplify the different frequencies as required.
Two brands leading this market are Littmann and Thinklabs.
Littmann boasts their flagship 3M™ Littmann® Electronic 3200 Model, which they claim amplifies sounds to a level 24 times higher than their acoustic Cardiology stethoscopes [rating it a 10+!].
It is advertised as having up to 85% ambient noise reduction capability, although many users report this to be too generous and that ambient noise can still be heard. However, everyone agrees that the superb sound amplification overshadows this problem in most cases.
The Littmann® Electronic 3200 has a single-sided chest piece with a large diaphragm at 5.1cm [2in] in diameter. This is removable and can be cleaned.
The chest piece’s digital panel enables you to select filters and modes for different needs. For example, the bell mode specifically amplifies the frequency range from 20Hz – 200Hz, whereas the diaphragm mode will emphasize the frequency range between 100Hz – 500Hz. Perfect for the heart and lung sound frequencies mentioned above.
Additionally, the stethoscope can record up to twelve 30-second tracks locally, and built-in Bluetooth™ can be used to transfer these files to a PC or MAC. Note that the Bluetooth™ here is NOT used to connect to hearing aids.
It is operated by a single AA battery and comes in 3 choices of colours with only a 2-year warranty. See its latest price here at Amazon.
Amplified Stethoscopes for Hearing Aid Users
If you are using hearing aids, then your choice of electronic stethoscope will depend on the type of hearing aid that you use, and the choices you make while using the stethoscope.
So, consider these options:
- You could simply remove your hearing aids temporarily every time you use an electronic stethoscope. Some remove both aids, and some operate with the “one in one out” method.
The obvious disadvantage here is potentially having to do this repeatedly in a busy clinic, which will be inconvenient to say the least.
- You could use adapters or extensions to connect your electronic stethoscope’s ear tips with your hearing aids while you are still wearing them.
Examples of these tips are the Stethomate tips which comprise 2 ends. One end is narrow and completely replaces your electronic stethoscope’s ear tips, while the opposite end is cupped and rests over your hearing aid.
These tips are best suited for the Completely-In-Canal [CIC] hearing aids that sit within your ear canal .
However, an important consideration with these is overall comfort. There is a tendency for the spring mechanism of your stethoscope’s headset to exert too much pressure on the adapters, and subsequently onto your CIC hearing aids causing discomfort.
Moreover, some users find placing these adapters perfectly over the microphone of CIC aids quite tricky, with reports of no sound being transmitted or excess feedback produced.
You can check out the Stethomate tips here on Amazon and be sure to read the customer experiences.
- Alternatively, you could use amplified stethoscopes that integrate with your hearing aids.Here is where the Thinklabs brand comes into play. Founded by an electrical engineer in 2014, Thinklabs has designed an innovative electronic stethoscope called the Thinklabs One™.
This stethoscope claims to amplify sounds to over 100 times the level produced by acoustic stethoscopes and is small enough to fit in your palm. It connects to any headphone type [in-ear, on-ear, and over-the-ear] thanks to its 3.5mm jack.
Thinklabs One™ can be used in non-hearing aid users too but shines when used with hearing aids.
For open-fit Behind-The-Ear [BTE] hearing aids, which mainly amplify high frequencies, you can simply use Thinklabs One™ with over the ear headphones. The stethoscope will bypass the open-fit BTE aids and transmit amplified sounds straight to your ear drum.
With closed-fit BTE, In-The-Canal [ITC] and CIC hearing aids, the ear canal is sealed, and all sounds are transmitted through the hearing aid and amplified directly onto the ear drum.
It is therefore essential that these hearing aids are programmable to reproduce the low frequencies; so that they can optimally amplify the sounds transmitted to them by the overlying Thinklabs One™ headphones.
This why you need to involve your Audiologist who can advise and help you fine tune this process.
Another advantage of using Thinklabs One™ with closed-fit BTE, ITC and CIC hearing aids, is its ability to connect straight to your hearing aids wirelessly through a device called a streamer.
A streamer hangs around your neck and connects with the Thinklabs One through a provided cable. Discuss with your Audiologist if you think this is a viable option for you, as streamers are manufactured by your hearing aid company.
You can learn more about the Thinklabs One™ on their website or check it out on Amazon here for availability and prices.
How to Care for Your Stethoscope
Generally speaking, the Littmann brand is quite durable, particularly when it comes to the Classic and Cardiology ranges. A common problem however is the long-term effects of skin oils and alcohol on the PVC tubing, namely its hardening and subsequent cracking.
With the Littmann® Classic III™ Stethoscope, next generation tubing provides increased resistance to the detrimental effects of skin oils and is less likely to stain with the lighter coloured models.
The main tips when caring for your stethoscope are:
- Avoid tubing contact with your skin. If wearing your stethoscope around your neck, ensure it is in contact with your collar.
- Gently clean it in between patients with 70% isopropyl alcohol wipes. Never immerse it in any liquids or send for sterilisation.
- An easy way to remove the paediatric diaphragm during cleaning, is to do so with a rubber gloved hand for increased traction.
Pull outwards on the rubber seal as if stretching a rubber band and it should come off easily. I know many users struggle with this as it is a tight fit.
- Should you require any replacement earpieces, non-chill rims, or diaphragms, these can be purchased easily online and are affordable.
Click here to see the price for genuine Littmann Classic III stethoscope replacement parts on Amazon.
- Keeping your stethoscope stored in a protective case while carrying it in your bag will help with prolonging its life and keeping it dust free. This reduces the need for taking it apart and cleaning it too often.
There are a variety of good quality holders and cases, however, this case by Vive Precision is a durable, stylish and spacious case for your new stethoscope.
The outer hard casing will prevent damage from heavy textbooks whilst it is in your bag. Moreover, it is spacious enough to fit in your sphygmomanometer and pen torch as well.
Personalising Your Stethoscope with Engraving | Name Tags | Charms
When it comes to personalising your new stethoscope, engraving has been an all time favourite but there are differences in opinion here.
You could have your name engraved directly onto the stethoscope’s chest piece using laser engraving. This looks professional whilst being discreet, however certain users are concerned about the warranty becoming invalid due to this.
The jury is out on this one, but I can assure you that laser engraving from a reputable source, will not affect the acoustic quality of your stethoscope. This is the route I took with no issues.
A safer method is to purchase Littmann name tags that attach securely to your stethoscope.
You can simply handwrite your name on these or if you prefer, you can have your name engraved in aluminium that is glued onto these.
Upon receiving your stethoscope, you send it to 3M who will do this for a small fee. You can check out Littmann name tags here on Amazon.
Finally, a new trend that is increasing in popularity when it comes to stethoscope bling, is the fad of stethoscope charms.
These are decorative pieces of jewellery that are wrapped around your stethoscope tubing and contain crystals. I am personally not sure what to think of these but just in case you are wondering, here is a selection of popular charms on Amazon.
In this ultimate guide to buying the best stethoscope for you as a medical student, I hope I have transformed this confusing and ambiguous process into a much simpler and clearer one.
As a medical student you are bombarded with lots of information at the start of medical school. What you will learn is that the application of knowledge [i.e. learning by experience] is the key to success. This also applies to choosing your stethoscope.
Ask if you can use a colleague’s stethoscope, or even a senior’s while on a round or in clinic and use it to listen to a patient’s heart sounds or even your own.
Once you have purchased the right one for you… get to work and start practicing. I’ll leave you with a pertinent quote from René Laënnec himself  to realise how far we have come:
“I was surprised and elated to be able to hear the beating of her heart with far greater clearness than I ever had with direct application of my ear. I immediately saw that this might become an indispensable method for studying, not only the beating of the heart, but all movements able of producing sound in the chest cavity.”
ENT PASS has NOT been paid or sponsored by any of the stethoscope brands mentioned in this article. All opinions presented are the author’s opinions.
 Tomos I, Karakatsani A, Manali E, Papiris S. Celebrating Two Centuries from the Invention of the Stethoscope: René Théophile Hyacinthe Laënnec (1781-1826). Annals of the American Thoracic Society. 2016;13(10):1667-1670. [Link]
 Roguin A. Rene Theophile Hyacinthe Laennec (1781-1826): The Man Behind the Stethoscope. Clinical Medicine & Research. 2006;4(3):230-235. [Link]
 Bankaitis A. Amplified Stethoscope Options for Professionals with Hearing Loss A. U. Bankaitis [Internet]. Audiology Online. 2010 [cited 1 April 2018]. Available from [Link]