Going to the Mattresses

How to be the best consumer you can be.
Nov. 23 2000 2:30 AM

Going to the Mattresses

How to cut through the marketing gimmicks of Sealy, Serta, and the rest.

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Ticking and Quilting: People often buy based on how a mattress looks in the store. This is moronic. You're going to spread a sheet over it the second you get home. Belgian damask? Really, now.

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No-Flip Designs: Manufacturers say to flip your mattress every three months. It's even in some warranties. Yet this year's Simmons Beautyrest 2000 boasts a "no flip" design. And it's selling like hotcakes (for which flipping, incidentally, remains compulsory). Why? People love work-saving innovations—we're too lazy to flip. But what does it really mean? It means there's block foam on one side instead of something you could sleep on. And it means if there's a stain or a rip on the sleeping side, you're SOL. They should have called it the "can't flip" design. It's like a "No Oil Change" car that's simply had the dipstick and cap soldered in place.

Warranties: Almost any problem from normal use (which is all the warranties cover) will happen in the first month or so. Ignore the 10- and 20-year coverage. Just make sure there's a solid, 30- or 60-day return policy. That's important not only if the mattress is defective, but if you plain don't like it upon further review.

What About Foam, Air, Water, and Latex?

These legendary "four elements" of classical mythology can also be mattresses. Viscoelastic "memory" foam is popular now. I tried the Tempurpedic brand and loved it—it melts to fit your form. But I wouldn't spend $1,500 for a mattress, no matter how Swedish it is.

Select Comfort air mattresses have sold big lately (though innerspring sales still dwarf everything else, owning more than 80 percent of the market). I didn't like the feeling of air, even though I could adjust the firmness with a remote-controlled pump. When you compress it with your weight, air doesn't seem to have as much give as foam. And it felt like I was camping. These start at $550 for a queen-size.

Waterbeds have hung around (still half of all specialty mattress sales), but I couldn't find one out on display to test. And they give me the yips a little.

Finally, an independent mattress manufacturer I talked to swore that latex makes the best mattresses. (Coincidentally, he makes latex mattresses.) I tried a latex bed, and it didn't feel very different from a firm innerspring, but that's me.

Futons?

Sure, why not? They're cheaper, partly because there's no box spring. But what is a futon these days, anyway? The definition has essentially devolved into "it bends." They even make innerspring futons, now. At the same time, real innerspring beds keep stacking on the foam and cotton, emulating futons of yore.

Conclusion

If you can't tell the difference between a $200 and a $900 mattress (I couldn't, but maybe you can), get the cheaper one. They're nearly the same, anyway. Anything over $1,500 and you're just paying for prestige, says Larry Thomas. There are tons of great mattress sets for low prices. Yes, to an extent, you get what you pay for (better coil design, denser foam, ritzier ticking), but don't go crazy over this stuff. Lie down on mattesses in the store and trust your own judgment. Remember: Once you're asleep, every mattress feels the same.

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.