Going to the Mattresses
How to cut through the marketing gimmicks of Sealy, Serta, and the rest.
Larry Thomas of Furniture Today—a man described to me as "the guru of the bedding industry"—told me coil counts are "overrated" and "not a good indicator." Yes, if you pay more, you'll get a theoretically better coil design, but better enough to feel a difference? I sure couldn't. Not even between two mattresses thousands of dollars apart in price. So don't worry about the stats—worry about the comfort.
Pillowtops: Pillowtops are soft layers of foam (or cotton, or wool) sewn to the top of the mattress. They're hugely popular. They add hundreds of dollars to your purchase. They are, in my opinion, a massive rip-off. You can re-create their effect with a few cheap egg-crate foam pads. And why spend all that money on springs just to dampen their affect with a giant pillow? If you really want to sleep on foam or cotton, buy a foam or cotton mattress.
Thickness: A recent fad. Some Stearns and Foster (a brand owned by Sealy) mattresses I saw measured about 2 feet thick (and cost $5,000). It looked like they sewed a futon on top of an innerspring. Experts I talked to say thickness is just a ploy: It makes beds look comfy in the showroom. If you notice a difference, mazel tov, but thickness isn't vital to a good bed. You can achieve the same feel with less height (and weight—some mattresses weigh more than 200 pounds and are tough to carry up the stairs).
Mattresses have gotten so thick recently that people are complaining they can't see their headboards. Actual industry response: They made the box-springs thinner. Which of course leads us to ...
Box Springs: I find them wholly unnecessary. Think about it: Presumably, you could put a box spring under your box spring for even more "give" and "support." Another box spring under those two. Where do you draw the line? Also, remember that box springs add significantly to your cost. One reasonable argument I heard for them is that they save wear on your mattress, but I had no way to prove or disprove this.
Many Europeans use platform beds without box springs. Do you hear them complaining? I don't use a box spring, and I don't miss it. It's a princess/pea thing. If you need 17 layers, OK. If you only need one, don't buy a box spring, unless you don't like platforms and can't think of anything better to put your mattress on. My recommendation: Put your mattress on the floor—it saves money on nightstands. Give in to gravity!
Is a Firm Mattress Best for My Back? I asked an orthopedic surgeon at something called the National Foundation for Spinal Health. He said a mattress should support you in the "position of function"—the normal curve of your spine when you're standing up. When a mattress flattens the curve (too firm), or exaggerates it (too soft), bingo: back pain. According to him, a supportive innerspring works better than foam, air, or water. The NFSH recommends: the Simmons Back Care mattress. Problem solved, let's go home, yes? No! I soon discovered the NFSH takes money from companies, including, especially, Simmons! Sketchy! Next orthopedic surgeon, please.
This second guy was independent and no longer practicing. He debunked the myth that firm mattresses are best. They are if you get acute back spasms, but for regular back pain your mattress doesn't make much difference. "The back is a complicated structure," he said. "Back pain has a lot to do with how you're built, but not a lot to do with your mattress." So you don't have to feel guilty about buying a soft, cushy mattress. It doesn't make a difference. (Regional trivia: Firm mattresses sell more in the Northeast [you penitent yankees, you!], while soft wins out in the South.)
Do I Need All Those Extra Features?
No. Screw 'em. For instance ...
Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.