How we picked
Over the course of 65 hours of research and testing, I combed through about 70 professional vacuum reviews and recommendations from the handful of reputable outlets that cover vacuums, including Consumer Reports, Good Housekeeping, Reviewed.com, CNET and VacuumWizard.com, speaking with editors of the latter three.1 I also interviewed a couple of vacuum dealers and repairmen, a Dyson product engineer, a representative from the Asthma & Allergy Foundation of America and an indoor air quality specialist.
In addition to asking for recommendations and talking about what makes a great vacuum, I asked our experts about specific use cases for vacuums like people with pets who shed a lot and allergies. The consensus was that if you’re paying for a nice vacuum, neither of these will be an issue: any vacuum worth its salt will be able to clean whatever you need it to, including pet hair and allergens. (The only caveat is that people with allergies should avoid bagless vacuums, which are messier to empty.)
Once I established what makes a great vacuum, I combed through manufacturer lineups and prioritized brands that experts had recommended to me, that are especially well known or that generally receive good reviews.
Commercial vacuums like those made by Oreck appeared promising at first but were eliminated for a lack of versatility. These machines are designed for cleaning vast swathes of short-pile office/hotel carpet and lack the adjustments and attachments needed to clean a complete home.
The initial list contained about 70 models, and I whittled it down to about 15 semifinalists based on specs and prices.
The initial list contained about 70 models, and I whittled it down to about 15 semifinalists based on specs and prices. I aimed for models with big motors and geared or serpentine belts as a baseline. A good brush roller, adjustable height, low weight, handling features like a pivoting joint, a long cord, washable filters, HEPA filters, long warranties and cloth bags all factored in as well, though none were dealmakers or dealbreakers. I automatically filtered out almost everything less than $250—the data is very inconsistent in that range, and the experts I spoke with never recommended anything below that price point.
Then I cross-checked reviews at expert outlets like Consumer Reports, Good Housekeeping, CNET and Reviewed.com—more on that in a bit—as well as Amazon user reviews and general chatter on message boards.
The $350-$600 price range emerged as the sweet spot. The top contenders in that range have the cleaning ability to match just about anything you’d get before stepping up to a commercial vacuum, and the bodies are generally pretty reliable and backed up by long warranties.
I then whittled the field down to five finalists, including three uprights: the Miele Dynamic U1 Twist, the Sebo Felix Premium 1 and the Dyson DC41. We also included two canisters: the Kenmore Progressive 21714 and the Miele C1 series (specifically the Capri and Delphi kits, though I don’t really consider them different models, since they just come with different tools).
I left out stick vacuums like the Dyson DC44, which are basically smaller, cheaper and underpowered uprights. They can be pretty good for cleaning quick messes or sucking up dust bunnies. However, unlike higher-end vacuums, they just aren’t built to deep-clean carpets (some don’t even have brush rollers). They have more trouble with big particles, fill up quickly and need more maintenance. They’re not the right pick for people who want a long-lasting vacuum that can clean any mess.
After designing and running some tests to fill in the gaps not covered by the rubric-based tests of the big reviewers, two clear winners emerged: an upright for larger homes and a canister for smaller ones.
Our pick for bigger spaces
The Twist is very maneuverable for its size and cleans equally well on carpet and hard floors.
The Miele Dynamic U1
is our pick for larger homes because it can clean most surfaces, is easy to maintain, has a solid build and comes with a seven-year warranty to back it up (alongside a broad distribution and repair network). It’s an especially good fit if your home has lots of open, carpeted space
. And despite its power and tank-like build quality, it was among the most maneuverable vacuums we tested. It was also one of the quietest upright vacuums we looked at, which is no small feat given how powerful its motor is.
As far as specs and components are concerned, the Dynamic U1 checks off the important boxes: a geared belt that resists wear; a chevron-patterned brush roller that efficiently pushes debris towards the suction head; spring-loaded height adjustment, which automatically adjusts to the optimal cleaning height for the surface at hand; a powerful 1200-watt motor; and four speeds to enable smooth cleaning across carpets of various pile length. What that all adds up to is some seriously impressive cleaning performance.
It’s not bagless, but that actually turns out to be a good thing.
It’s not bagless, but that actually turns out to be a good thing. Bagged vacuums require less maintenance, are inherently cleaner because the bags themselves act as a filter and are much easier to empty when the time comes. No messy cups to dump out—just throw out the old and plug in a new.2
All the experts we talked to agreed that bagged was the way to go (especially if you have allergies).
But the Miele Twist isn’t just good on paper; it’s great in testing too. The Twist is the second-highest-rated upright vacuum by Consumer Reports (in a three-way tie, and was only recently bumped out of first place within the last few weeks) and earns an ‘A’ from Good Housekeeping. If a vacuum can a job, the Twist is up to it—big chunks, pet hair and fine dust on bare floors and plush carpets alike.
It also aced our various tests in addition to the major publications’ tests.
Many upright vacuums struggle when it comes to cleaning corners or edges because cleaning heads are designed to pull the most air from in front of the vacuum. But the Miele actually excels at edges because it has some extra air-flow vents along the frame of the cleaning head. It did a better job than other vacuums we tested of picking up grains of rice built up against a baseboard. That means no more busting out the wand attachment to get stubborn crumbs in the corners. The Dyson DC41, by way of contrast, struggled with this test because its cleaning head hugs very close to the ground and has no channels or vents on its sides to encourage air flow. It only picks up grit under or directly in front of it.
The vacuum may look intimidating and beefy (because it’s built to last from durable, heavy components), but its steering is agile and smooth thanks to a pivoting head, soft rubber wheels and effective automatic height adjustment. It finished our slalom test quicker than any other vacuum, mainly because it maneuvered around furniture more easily than the Dyson or any of the canisters and didn’t need manual height adjustments like the Kenmore or Sebo models. Its variable suction settings let it glide equally smoothly over a variety of surfaces.
The Miele’s adjustability and maneuverability also help it reach into tighter spaces. When laid out flat, it’s only about seven inches tall—enough clearance to get under my couch and chairs.
And when the vacuum itself is too big, it has plenty of accessories to reach where you need to. The hose pops out easily and has its own handle and a built-in extension, so reaching the ceiling and behind the couch was no problem. And it’s designed to be super stable; I could not get this machine to fall over, even with the hose pulled taut—it just rolled toward me. There’s also a caddy in the back of the body for storing the basic tools (floor tool, crevice tool and a brush tool), so you’ll have to try pretty hard to lose the attachments.
You’ll also be able to clean all but the largest of rooms without having to change outlets thanks to its 39-foot cord…
You’ll also be able to clean all but the largest of rooms without having to change outlets thanks to its 39-foot cord, which was the longest in the group I tested and one of the longest I came across in my research (commercial vacuums have longer cords, but aren’t a good pick unless you live in an office building). My apartment is medium-sized, and I could run the vacuum through the entire place when it was plugged into an outlet in one of the central rooms.
Basic maintenance is pretty easy, even compared to a bagless model. The cloth bags should last about three months each (your mileage may vary, of course), and filters only need to be swapped annually. A year’s supply (roughly) of bags and AirClean filters goes for about $20 on Amazon. An optional Miele-brand HEPA filter is considerably more expensive ($50), but the Twist earned an “excellent” emissions score from Consumer Reports with the standard filter and the system is outfitted with tons of rubber gaskets, which keep dirty air from leaking into the clean environment. This is a clean machine, with or without HEPA filters. The bags and filters are very easy to swap out. Replacing everything takes about three minutes, no tools required, and it’s obvious when the parts are correctly in place. The main cavity opens by lifting a handle. Bags slide easily in and out of the vacuum’s plastic holder and keep themselves closed with a spring-loaded plastic cap when they aren’t in place. Behind the bag, there’s a plastic cage for the motor filter that swings open with a tug. The exhaust filter has its own little trap door on the front of the vacuum and sits inside a plastic bracket that slides out of the main body. I could not get the main cleaning head to jam, even with a purposely abusive mix of detritus. I ran over a sock in an effort to mess up the brush roller, but it automatically shut off. All I had to do was lay the vacuum on its back and pull out the sock, and it was back to normal.
I did manage to clog the hose with a shard of a CD. It wasn’t too hard to fix, though—the hose can disconnect at both ends. Should anything go wrong, there’s an easy-open door (a coin will work) on the rear with access to the interior clog-cleanouts. (It’s worth noting that the Sebo Felix was the only model tested that didn’t jam at all.)
One caveat about the seven-year warranty: Make sure to buy the vacuum from an authorized Miele dealer. It isn’t hard to find one—Amazon counts, as do a number of the third-party marketplace vendors that sell through Amazon—but just be sure to check. Also, it’s good to be wary of any “sale prices.” From what I’ve seen, when there’s a discount on a Miele vacuum, it’s usually offered by a non-authorized outlet.
As far as flaws go, the Miele’s weight is the only obvious issue.
As far as flaws go, the Miele’s weight is the only obvious issue. At 22 pounds, it’s heavier than the average upright by about five pounds. This is partially mitigated in day-to-day use seeing as it was the best maneuvering vacuum I tested. That said, lugging it up a staircase counts as a workout. The handle has a closed grip (rather than just being a stick), which makes it easier to hoist. But it’s still a big, bulky machine. And as with any upright, cleaning carpeted stairs won’t be as easy as it would be with a canister vacuum. The hose is pretty long, though kind of stiff (it should get more flexible over time), and you’ll need to add a mini turbo brush if your stairs are carpeted.
If you do manage to clog up the main intake or seriously tangle the brush roller and need to pull off the base plate, you’ll need a Torx screwdriver to remove it (our pick for best multi-bit screwdriver has one in it). This type of screwdriver is less than common in most home tool kits. That said, you’ll probably be able to clear most jams without removing the plate—use a razor blade to slice away tangles of hair or string from the brush roller and a thin poking tool (like an unwound coat hanger) to unclog the intake. But if those methods fail, you’ll either need a Torx tool, which you can pick up at most standard hardware stores, or some pro assistance at a shop.
Other little gripes: the release pedal for the hinge (to take it out of park mode, basically) should be made out of metal instead of plastic. It barely needs to be tapped to disengage the lock, but one accidental foot-stomp could shear the thing right off. The cord length can be a double-edged sword. I found myself getting twisted up in it, but that happened with all of the vacuums I tested. It also takes some time to wrap up and unravel and it’s difficult to get the hose out if it isn’t completely unwrapped (pro tip: turn the bottom hook upside down so that the cord just dangles, and you’ll be able to lift the whole bundle off in one go). Finally, the Miele-brand hand-held turbo brush (for getting pet hair off of furniture or cleaning carpeted stairs) is way too expensive ($75) for a piece of plastic with a spinning rod in it. Try a generic one ($20-35) or just use a lint roller.
Overall though, the Twist offers the best cleaning capabilities across the broadest spectrum of situations—bare floors, carpets of all heights, particles large and small.
Long-term test notes
For this guide we weren’t able to keep the units we borrowed on hand for extended testing. But another useful way of gauging how well a product performs for the long term is to pay attention to its user ratings over time. Six months after we first picked the Miele Twist, Amazon users are still giving it an average rating of 4.2 (out of 5) stars. That’s 163 5-star reviews out of 257 reviews total as of July 2014. A couple recent reviews mention dissatisfaction with the vacuum clogging, but that really is the nature of vacuums, especially ones that are powerful enough to suck up pet hair. We didn’t experience any issues with clogging when we initially tested it, however.
Our pick for cozier spaces
The Capri works better for cozier spaces and excels at hard floors, though it can handle the odd floor rug.
If the Miele Twist (or a full-size upright in general) seems too big for your apartment, or you just prefer a canister-style vacuum, there are a few kits in the Miele Classic C1 canister series that we like.*
The actual vacuum (aside from color) is the same size from kit to kit, but each one comes with a different combination of hoses and brushes.
If your home is mostly hardwood flooring or tile, with maybe one or two area rugs, the Miele Classic C1 Capri ($399) is a good bet. It comes with a parquet floor tool and a turbo brush for carpet work. However, it has a non-electric hose, so you won’t be able to add power brushes without first adding an electric hose.
The Delphi comes with accessories that are more geared towards cleaning carpets.
If you would benefit from power brushes (usually if you have more carpeting or pets) the Miele Delphi ($499) is a better option. It comes with an electric hose and a power brush, which is better at agitating rugs. The standard power brush that comes with it has no height adjustments, so it’ll be most effective on medium- to low-pile carpets. If you’re dealing with tighter knits or higher piles, you should think about upgrading to the SEB-228 power brush ($209), which has a five-step manual height-adjustment system. Yes, the kit can get pretty expensive if you go all-out—upwards of $700—but it’ll handle just about anything.
The Classic C1 canister is excellent for the price. In a review of the step-down S2 Olympus kit, Keith Barry, editor-in-chief of the Reviewed.com appliance section, said that “it mastered hardwood floors and didn’t do too badly on short carpet.” That’s with the combi-brush, so with the turbo brush (Capri) or especially the power brush (Delphi), it’s even better. Consumer Reports gives it an “excellent” emissions ratings, thanks to cloth bags, gaskets and good filters (HEPA is optional if you think you need it). Other helpful features include a self-retracting cord and six suction speeds.
The motor is a power 1200-watt unit (like the Twist), but it’s about the quietest vacuum I’ve ever heard—my cat barely noticed it. The plastic body is light, but feels like it’s made to last, and it has a seven-year warranty (again, you have to buy it from an authorized seller).
In our handling tests, the canister moved smoothly in any direction that I pulled it or kicked it, even rolling over its own cord easily.
In our handling tests, the canister moved smoothly in any direction that I pulled it or kicked it, even rolling over its own cord easily. The 18-foot cord is short, but it was long enough to reach most spots in my apartment when I plugged it into a centrally located outlet. Situated toward the middle of my living room, I found that with the canister on the ground and the hose extended, the vacuum fell about two inches short of reaching the ceiling. But that’s not a huge issue because I just picked up the light, 11-pound canister (that weight not including the hose and cleaning head) and it reached just fine. All of the attachments we tried with the Classic C1 have rotating joints, so they fit under chairs and couches, no problem.
Clogs weren’t too bad to deal with either. The power brush has big-groove screws that open with just a coin or flathead screwdriver. The roller (powered by a geared belt) pops out to clear tangles. The downside to having a canister is that the hose is long, so if something gets lodged in the middle, you’ll need some patience to clear the clog. I worked out a bundle of paper shreds by whacking the outside of the hose with a stick until it all came out—there are probably better methods, but it was fine.
As with the Twist, it only takes a few minutes to change the Classic C1 bags and filters—it’s an almost-identical system, with cages for the filters and a clip for the cloth bags. The only difference is that the Classic C1 series uses different bags, which are about 13% smaller than the bags for the Twist and other Classic C1 series uprights.
On the downside, the Delphi and the Capri are more expensive than any of the models in the Kenmore Progressive series, and all of those include a five-step power brush that can handle more types of carpet out of the box. Consumer Reports loves these vacuums. But they have cheaper builds, and there are widespread user reports about parts falling off and the electric connection in the hose cutting out after a couple years.
So let’s do the math. The Kenmore 21514 is the lowest-end model in the series and usually costs $230. Based on user reviews—including the positive ones—it’ll last three or four years before some serious malfunction. A $400 or $500 Miele Classic C1 is under warranty for seven years and, if the history of the brand is a reliable guide, it should last for a few years beyond the warranty. You’ll probably end up buying three Kenmore models ($690) in that time span. If you’re especially handy, you could buy parts and try DIY repairs to keep it going, and you might end up saving a few dollars over the lifetime of the vacuum. That’s without factoring in time and frustration. For most people, one of the Miele models will end up being a better value over the long term. You get what you pay for when it comes to vacuums.
The hose on the Classic C1 is also a little stiff, but will loosen with time and feels very durable. And we’ll say it again—Miele charges too much for its mini turbo-brush, so go with a generic model.
It’s also worth noting that Consumer Reports gives middling scores to both kits, but I’m chalking this up to the low scores they received on the medium-pile carpet that CR uses in their tests. The Classic C1 kits come with brushes designed to work best on short carpets and bare floor so dinging them on medium/long performance misses the point, and it hardly matters if you don’t have tall carpets (which is the case for many people).
If you want a small, lightweight vacuum, the Classic C1 canister kits are a good bet. They’re excellent for apartments and also work well in bigger homes with moderate carpeting.
Why not step up or step down?
Spending more gets you some nice features that won’t necessarily improve cleaning ability…
Spending more gets you some nice features that won’t necessarily improve cleaning ability or make it much easier to maintain the machine. Some examples are LED headlights, electronically automated speed and height adjustments (rather than manual or spring-loaded systems), dirt sensors, locking wheels, extra attachments, higher-quality filters…features you’ll appreciate, but don’t really affect the way you get your house clean.
When you spend less…well, in the words of Keith Barry, “You can make a good vacuum for under $200, but it’s an accident.” Our picks for best cheap vacuum and best portable vacuum are two such happy accidents.
In the $200 to $350 range, there are plenty of models with great cleaning performance, but they aren’t as durable or reliable as the models in our sweet spot. The Kenmore 21514 is a perennial favorite at Consumer Reports, for example, but as we mentioned above, it has its share of build-quality problems. Likewise, Consumer Reports’ new top-rated upright, the Kenmore Elite 31150 ($350), has tremendous cleaning power. But it comes with just a one-year warranty and handles like a brick on wheels.
We put together a handful of steering, handling and maintenance trials to run our top-rated vacuums through their paces, designed in conjunction with our resident testing guru Richard Baguley (who designed part of Reviewed.com’s performance-based vacuum rubric).
The most telling test was purposely clogging the vacuums. I ran each machine over a mixed pile of sawdust, wood chips, shredded paper, bits of broken CDs and pet hair until the vacuum clogged or the pile was cleaned up—whichever came first.
If it jammed, then I fixed it to gauge how difficult it was.
The best of the bunch were the Sebo Felix Premium, which didn’t clog at all and would’ve been the easiest to clear had it done so, as well as the Miele models, which took some effort to jam up and not too time much to fix. The Dyson DC41 and Kenmore 21714 didn’t fail per se, but they got stuffed up quicker and took longer to fix—though with practice, the process should get easier for owners.
I also set up a maneuverability course around the furniture in my apartment and across a mix of area carpets and hardwood flooring. With each vacuum, I steered it all the way around my coffee table on an area rug, moved to the floor, tried to fit it under a tall chair, maneuvered it between two obstacles (cat-scratch posts) set up a few inches apart, drove it up onto another medium-pile area carpet and made two passes back and forth, moved back onto the floor, parked it in a corner and tried to reach the ceiling with the hose, put the hose away and pushed it to the finish line. Whenever I switched between the rug and the floor, I would make the appropriate adjustment to the brush roller (on or off, and the manual height setting if necessary) and adjust the speed if there was an option to do so.
Racing vacuums on a timed circuit isn’t the most accurate representation of real-world vacuum use, but it did provide good sense of real frustrations that owners might run into.
Racing vacuums on a timed circuit isn’t the most accurate representation of real-world vacuum use, but it did provide good sense of real frustrations that owners might run into. Canister vacuums are more maneuverable in a sense, but it’s also easier to get tangled up among the long hose and the cord, and it bumps into furniture as you pull the canister along behind you.
The biggest issues, though, came from operator error. Sometimes I’d go over a rug without turning on the brush roller, so I wasn’t really cleaning it. Other times I’d leave the suction too high, and the vacuum would pull up the edge of the carpet and get stuck. I always remembered to increase the height for the medium-pile rug, but often forgot to lower it again once I got back on the bare floor. This illustrated (to me at least) that although manual controls tend to clean more deeply, they don’t count for much when they’re used improperly. I made the fewest mistakes with the Miele Twist and Dyson DC41, in no small part because they have self-adjusting heights and the other controls are on or near the handle.
The Miele Twist was the easiest to maneuver, with smooth steering and an auto-adjusting head. The Dyson also made it around the course quickly, though the ball joint wasn’t as responsive as the pivoting joint on the Miele Twist and made it harder to get under furniture.
Both canister vacs performed similarly—their chief disadvantage is that you have to bend over and unhook the cleaning head before you can just use the open hose (and tools that attach to it) for ceilings or tight areas. The Miele Classic C1 did roll more smoothly than the Kenmore, though that didn’t really affect their times on the course. The Sebo Felix was the easiest to steer, but ultimately took the longest time to complete the course—having to repeatedly switch heads really slowed it down, so it’s not the best vacuum for people with multiple flooring types.
I also ran a battery of quick, single-purpose tests to gauge versatility rather than just pure suction power.
I used the hose to reach the four corners of a 10-foot ceiling in a 14-by-8-foot room (I’m 6’2”, so probably not the most representative test subject). The Dyson reached easily, even with the vacuum toward the center of the room. I also had no trouble reaching with the Miele Twist, though I had to pull the body closer. I had to lift both the Kenmore and Miele canisters to get them to reach the ceiling, though they’re both light so it wasn’t a problem. The Sebo didn’t even come close—its hose is by far the shortest of the bunch.
Then I tried to tip over each machine by yanking on the hose. None of them tipped except the Sebo, which came crashing down with just a regular tug.
I then spread a half-cup of rice under my couch and tried to clean it up with the main head, though I switched to an attachment when necessary. I had the hardest time with the Dyson—the main head couldn’t fit under the futon because of the bulky ball joint, and the floor tool didn’t do a great job of corralling the grains toward the intake. The Miele Classic C1 did a phenomenal job, particularly when it was equipped with the parquet floor tool that comes with the Capri kit. Everything else did reasonably well, though we have to give special mention to the Sebo and Miele Twist for fitting almost all the way under the couch despite being uprights.
I also tried sticking each hose behind the couch, moving it away from the wall as little as possible. I didn’t have any problems with any of the hoses here.
Since it wasn’t obvious if any other outlets performed this test, I also focused on side-suction and corner performance. I sprinkled some rice into two corners—one carpeted, one bare floor—and their adjoining walls, and tried to suck up the grains in as few passes as possible with the main cleaning head. The Dyson struggled the most, failing to pick up the grains jammed all the way against the baseboards. The Miele Twist did very well on both surfaces, though the Sebo was the best on the floor and the Kenmore was the best on carpet. Of course, you can always use the hose to clean out corners, but it’s one less step if the main head can do the job.
All in all, both Mieles consistently placed at or near the top of each test and never even got close to touching the bottom.
What makes a great vacuum?
To help explain why we picked the vacuums that we did, it helps to know our criteria. Basically, a great vacuum should work on any surface you need it to and be durable enough to last many years. This is far easier said than done.
Regardless of what type or style you choose, great vacuum performance flows from the combined efforts of four features: the motor, the belt, the brush roller and the height adjustment system. They work together to maximize airflow and agitation, and shortcomings with any of them will drag down the efficiency of the entire system.
The motor is the centerpiece of any vacuum cleaner, because it’s what moves air to create suction.
The motor is the centerpiece of any vacuum cleaner, because it’s what moves air to create suction. A bigger motor can move more of that air. Anything with 50 inches of water lift (the somewhat archaic industry-standard measurement for suction power—this translates to about 1.8 PSI or 0.12 atm) should be able to handle most jobs, says Justin Haver, vice president at GoVacuum.com
and 17-year veteran of the vacuum industry. More suction is generally better, though—that increased suction picks up more debris in fewer passes, makes it easier to pick up large particles, and helps pull in debris from the sides as well as the front of the cleaning head, which is helpful for cleaning in corners and against walls and for using hose attachments. The best of all options is a vacuum with adjustable suction levels (usually referred to as speeds). You can crank up the power for bare floors and dial it back if you’re cleaning curtains or furniture.
A belt’s only job is to connect the brush roller to a spinning motor shaft, but a good one is key to a great vacuum. A well-designed vacuum uses a gear belt, which has interlocking teeth on the roller and motor shaft, or a serpentine belt, which has grooves in its surface. These don’t lose tension, so the roller always spins at maximum RPM, all else being equal.
“They will eventually wear out, but you’re looking at probably 10 years instead of six months. Something else will probably go before the belt goes,” says Denis Spindler, who has owned the Mr. Sweeper Sew & Vac dealership and repair shop in Waltham, MA since 1984 (and worked there since 1977).
Cheap belts—the flat rubber belts—lose tension from the moment you start using them. In his Youtube buyers’ guide, Haver says that this design is “extremely inefficient because it constantly stretches.” With a fresh belt, a roller might spin on the carpet at 1,000 RPM but drop to 100 RPM once it wears out, no longer able to sufficiently agitate the carpet. It takes just a few minutes and a couple bucks to replace one of these belts, but with this setup, your vacuum is less effective each and every time you use it.
Then there’s the brush roller itself. It does most of the vacuum’s dirty work, pulling the unwanted debris from between the carpet fibers so that it can get sucked up by the intake. The best vacuums will let you raise or deactivate the roller—on bare floors, a spinning brush will just send particles shooting away from the vacuum and can damage softwood or stone flooring. Haver points out that many vacuums use rollers that lead away from the intake on one side. It sounds obvious, but bristle patterns should push debris toward the intake port—a design known as a chevron roller.
Other generally positive, but not super-important, features include bristles made from horsehair or other natural hair (nylon bristles break easily and can be abrasive on soft flooring); an aerodynamic roller design rather than a cylindrical one; a metal, wood or high-grade plastic bar (because cheap plastic can melt when the ball bearings seize up and will stop rolling freely, Haver says); and some easy way to either pop the roller out of the vacuum or to clear tangles from the roller, such as a cleanout row.
But a brilliant brush roller design, a long-lasting non-stretching belt and all the world’s suction don’t add up to much if the cleaning head isn’t the right height from the ground. If it’s too high, you’re wasting suction power and probably aren’t agitating the carpet properly. But if the head digs in too much—especially on tight carpeting—it blocks air flow and prevents the roller from spinning freely. “For clean carpeting, you really need to have height adjustments,” Haver says, especially in homes with several different carpet heights.
Most vacuums use automatic height-adjustment systems, which can be a crapshoot. For instance, Keith Barry of Reviewed.com noted in his review of the Sebo X4 that it took a full 10 seconds for the vacuum to change heights when moving from deep carpeting to a wood floor. Hardly seamless. Other brands just spring-load their rollers. Haver says that some brands do it well, others don’t, and there’s no magic word to look for on a spec sheet. (And they can’t be bypassed in favor of manual control, either.) Vacuums with auto systems probably lose a bit of cleaning power on thicker carpets, but never having to think about picking a setting is a net-positive for most people. If you live in an apartment with nothing but bare floors and a low-pile area rug, you don’t really need to worry about adjustable height. But if you have a vacuum that can handle all kinds of carpeting, it’s futureproofed regardless of where you live.
Used properly, a well-designed vacuum “will almost pull itself across carpet,” Haver says. When the head is set at the right height, the brush roller tugs the rest of the vacuum along. Haver says that self-propulsion systems are nice and fine, but they add about eight pounds to the weight of a machine and generally aren’t necessary in residential vacuums if the vacuum has good agitation.
A good set of attachments and tools expands the areas that your vacuum can clean. Most models come with a crevice tool and floor tool, and some come with a hand-held turbo brush for cleaning pet hair off of furniture or other fabric (or cleaning stairs, if the main head doesn’t fit). A longer hose is better, and it’s nice if a vacuum can stop itself from toppling if you pull on the hose a little too hard.
Other features that are helpful but may or may not be important for some users include an LED headlight; a longer cord and the ability to self-retract; rubberized wheels, rather than cheap plastic ones; and, for an upright, ease of locking into its standing position.
What’s the best type of vacuum?
After talking to experts in the field, we learned that for most people, the best vacuum is a bagged, upright vacuum.
After talking to experts in the field, we learned that for most people, the best vacuum is a bagged, upright vacuum.
It might seem like bagless are better because they’re currently more popular than their bagged cousins. But as a rule of thumb, bagged vacuums require less maintenance and tend to be cleaner to run, because the bags themselves act as a very efficient filter. They are also cleaner to empty, because there’s no fiddling with a cup full of dust. You just take the whole thing out to the curb with no opening necessary.2
The upright versus canister debate is more about personal preference because each has its strengths and weaknesses.
Uprights are the classic, all-in-one solution that keeps things simple by putting the motor, fan, brush roller, intake port, hose and bag or dust cup in the same wheeled unit. Unless you’re getting a commercial model, they will also have a built-in wand for cleaning curtains, shelves, ceilings and other hard-to-reach places. They’re larger and heavier than canister vacuums (averaging about 17 pounds), but a good upright vacuum will have a pivot or ball joint to help it handle around corners.
They also have larger capacities. This makes them better-suited for most American homes, which tend to be pretty big and have lots of carpeting. Uprights are also more familiar to more people, so we think most people would prefer them to smaller canister vacuums for that reason alone. That said, if you have a smaller home with less carpeting, a canister might be a better pick if you can deal with the unfamiliar form factor.
Canister vacuums split up the components, with the motor, fan and bag or dust cup in one compact main canister. This is separate from the intake and cleaning head (usually including a powered brush roller), which are attached to the main canister with a long hose. A good canister vacuum will have attachments with articulated joints, which are super easy to maneuver due to their slim profiles and low weight (they’re typically about 10 pounds). Most people pull canisters behind them as they clean, which can feel weird at first if you’re not used to it. It’s worth noting that most of our experts use and prefer canisters, but they’re far from evangelizing the benefits of canisters—it’s just what they personally prefer.
In editorial vacuum tests and marketing materials, pet hair gets special treatment as some kind of mythical particle like stardust or unobtanium or kryptonite. It isn’t. When a vacuum is marketed as the Animal or Pet or Cat and Dog model, “it means nothing,” according to Spindler, except that it probably comes with a hand-held turbo brush attachment.
Yes, pet hair is a pain in the ass. Cats and dogs are literally covered in it and leave it everywhere. It clings to fabric and embeds itself in carpets. Unlike dust, it’s plainly visible and really hard to ignore, and the dander that accompanies it can trigger unpleasant allergies.
But to your vacuum, it’s just another piece of debris. Any vacuum that isn’t totally worthless can grab pet hair off of a bare floor, just like it would with a dust bunny. On carpet, if a vacuum can pull dust up out of the fibers, it can also grab pet hair. If it isn’t cleaning the pet hair, it isn’t really getting the dust, either.
If it’s good at cleaning carpet, it’s good at cleaning pet hair…
Removing hair from furniture gets a bit more complicated—it’s a bad idea to vacuum your sofa like it’s part of the floor. Attaching a hand-held turbo brush (an air-powered brush roller, basically) will do the trick. They have no electric parts and are usually cheap, though some brands charge way too much for them, knowing how important they are to some people. Miele and Dyson have particularly egregious markups, though we found a few low-cost generic brushes
to fit Miele hoses (no such luck with Dyson, though the brush comes included in kits with the Animal designation—typically $50 more than non-Animal configurations).
Bottom line: don’t worry about the “pet” designations. If it’s good at cleaning carpet, it’s good at cleaning pet hair, and you can buy a special tool for furniture if you want it.
Here’s what we know: a vacuum is supposed to remove dust from your living space, not recirculate it into the air. Most folks can agree that’s a good thing, and for anyone living with allergies or asthma, it’s a big deal.
Step one is to move allergenic dust—pollen, dander, dust-mite poop, to name a few offenders—off the floor and into the vacuum. Most particles get collected inside the bag or dirt cup, while the leftover small particles pass through filters. (In bagged vacs, the bag itself is the primary filter, but all bagged and bagless vacuums also have at least one dedicated pre-motor filter and one exhaust filter.3) Ideally, the air that leaves the vacuum is completely particle-free. Then, when it’s time to throw away the bag or empty the bin, a good system minimizes the opportunity for dust to escape back into the living environment.
Don’t rely on HEPA filters, which are intended to prevent at least 99.97% of particles 0.3 microns in size from passing through them. If you’ve got serious allergies, they’re definitely recommended, but first, Spindler suggests looking for a machine with gaskets around its filters and hookups and filters that click snugly into place.
If you don’t have serious allergies, don’t worry too much. Almost anything in the price tier that we’re considering in this guide should do an effective job at filtering out dust.
Dyson is the 800-pound gorilla of vacuum brands today. They weren’t the first company to sell a bagless vacuum in the US, but Haver says they were the first one to do bagless right. Their design addressed two of the biggest issues associated with bagged vacuums: the cost of bags and the steady drop-off in suction as those bags filled. But good modern bagged vacuums have solved those problems, and most of the experts we spoke to say that they prefer bagged. That said, we still needed to test one to see what all the hype is about.
The DC41 is Dyson’s flagship model and one of the five models we called in for testing.
The DC41 is Dyson’s flagship model and one of the five models we called in for testing. There’s a lot to like about the DC41—looks, feel, no need to buy bags or filters, long hose, five-year warranty, AAFA-certified for clean air, won’t tip over and serious suction. But its biggest asset is probably the wow factor. I used it to vacuum a friend’s carpet, and we were both shocked at how much dust and cat hair it collected. The carpet hadn’t been properly cleaned in roughly a year, so any vacuum would’ve pulled up a ton of crap—but we could see it, all piled up in one plastic cup.
But it has some irritating quirks. As CNET notes, the moving parts don’t fit into place as tightly as they should—you might think it’s locked in its upright position, but it might just tumble. The ball joint is not as maneuverable as the swivel/pivot joint on vacuums like the Miele Twist and it prevents the vacuum from fitting under low-clearance furniture. It clogs pretty easily and the unclogging took about 15 minutes—longer than any of the other vacuums I jammed up. You’ll need a Philips head pocket screwdriver to unhook the hose and get at the deepest clogs. When I jammed the brush roller with a sock, it kept spinning, so the fabric got crammed deep into the channel. (The other test models could sense jams and would automatically shut off the roller.)
Opinions on high-end Dyson vacuums tend to be pretty polarized—people who have owned them (including Sweethome founder Brian Lam) really love them. The repairmen-slash-dealers I spoke with think that they’re inherently worse than bagged vacuums, and YouTube is littered with videos trying to talk buyers out of getting Dysons or other bagless models.
The truth, of course, is somewhere in the middle. The DC41 is a very good vacuum. But it has spotty performance reviews across the board—it works exceptionally well at cleaning small particles, not so much with bigger ones—and yet costs more than the Miele Twist, while taking more effort to use and maintain.
Dyson announced the DC65 in early 2014, set to replace the DC41. It looks the same, but Dyson claims some under-the-hood improvements, including a more powerful motor, tweaks to the cyclones, and a new brush roller. Basically, as tends to be the case with new Dyson vacs, it’s all said to add up to even more suction than before (and better agitation, too). I got some hands-on time with the DC65. The extra suction does seem to improve the side- and corner-cleaning, which was one of the DC41’s shortcomings. But the other issues—decent but not great maneuverability, inconsistent large-particle pickup, baglessness as a fault in high-end vacuums in general—haven’t been addressed. We think that as more reviews and opinions roll in, the DC65 will be confirmed as a definite improvement to the DC41, but it also won’t replace the Miele Twist as our top pick. We took quick looks at some other Dyson models. The Cinetic Big Ball Animal Allergy vacuum loses the filter and–again–Dyson says it’s a change that should improve suction. CNET found in its tests that it was great at sucking up fine particles, but that its overall performance didn’t justify the $600 price tag. The Sweethome’s previous pick, the Dyson DC28, is out of production, but factory-refurbished units are still kicking around for under $300. If you have your heart set on a bagless vacuum, it’s still a good buy. The DC40 is lighter and smaller but doesn’t have as much suction power, which is a main reason that you’d want to own a Dyson. The DC50 is much more compact but significantly weaker than even the DC40 and has a tiny bin. I didn’t hear anything positive about any bagless canister vacuums, so I didn’t spend much time looking into Dyson’s offerings.
Sebo is the other popular German brand. We tested the $600 Felix Premium, one of Consumer Reports’ recommended uprights. It cleans anything on any surface. Handling is effortless. It’s quiet and light—16 pounds with the power head and closer to 13 with the floor tool. I couldn’t clog the thing, as hard as I tried—and if I had been able to, it would’ve been one of the easiest vacuums to fix. There’s a trap-door cleanout port on the bottom, and the brush roller can slide out of the vacuum sideways (instead of having to unscrew or unhook the baseplate). It isn’t AAFA certified and doesn’t have HEPA filters, but it uses cloth bags, the filters snap into place, the system is sealed with gaskets, and the cloth “decorative” cover actually pulls double duty as an exhaust filter. Pretty neat.
But it’s much more expensive than the Twist, and if you’re switching between carpets and bare floors, it’s not very convenient. It’s an upright vacuum, but has separate cleaning heads for bare floors and for carpets. You need to turn off the vacuum, bend over, pull out one head and swap another one in when you switch surfaces (there’s no off switch for the brush roller on the power head, which is a bad thing on bare floors). It also has a short hose and tips over easily—it actually doesn’t stand at all when the floor tool is attached.
In the semifinals, I also considered Sebo’s D4 (canister, $899 with power brush) and X4 (upright, $679) flagship models, but didn’t call either one in for tests. They look like impressive pieces of machinery, but fall squarely into the step-up price range.
I also tested the Kenmore Progressive 21714. It’s Consumer Reports’ favorite canister vacuum, earning “excellent” marks in bare-floor cleaning, pet-hair pickup and emissions, and it likewise earned “very good” marks for carpet cleaning and airflow. It was the noisiest vacuum we tested, and steering was extra-clunky. For $380, including an adjustable-height power brush, it seems like a great value.
But we found several user reviews on Amazon and on vacuum forums complaining about the power brush failing over time, often within the first year. The culprit seems to be a shoddy electrical connection inside the hose—when it gives out, you’ll still have suction, but the roller won’t get any juice to spin. The power brush also clogged pretty easily, and took some finagling to open up and clear out. Once I was able to get the head open (I had to loosen four screws and pry back some plastic tabs, which I’m confident will snap over time), all of the components in the brush were visible. It’d be pretty easy to bump a connection while messing around in there—none of the other models I tested exposed the fragile parts so openly. It just isn’t built to last as long as other vacuums in this price range.
It’s also worth mentioning the Kenmore Elite 31150 upright vacuum, the company’s latest flagship upright. It had just been released when I started research for this guide, so there were no professional reviews or user reports out there that drew my attention to it. When Kenmore shipped me the 21714 canister for testing in November 2013, they also included the 31150 upright, though I originally didn’t test it alongside the finalists. Since then, it’s become Consumer Reports’ top-rated upright vacuum, supplanting the Miele Twist. But even with CR’s data, this model still wouldn’t have landed among the finalists—the one-year warranty is short by any standards, and especially for a $350 vacuum. Since Kenmore’s canister vacuums have such widely reported build quality problems, this Elite upright needs to prove that it can hold up over time. And in terms of real-world usability, I found that it handled poorly with no pivot or swivel in the neck, it’s super loud and it doesn’t roll smoothly across bare floors.
Miele S7260 Cat and Dog — This is the Twist with a hand-held turbo brush and an LED headlight for an extra $200. Nope.
Miele S7280 Jazz — This is the Twist with a HEPA filter for an extra $100. Nope.
Miele S7580 Auto Eco — This is the Twist with six speeds instead of four and an indicator for when your filters need to be changed. It’s an extra $300. No thanks.
Miele S7580 Bolero — This is the Auto Eco with extra tools for an extra $100. Moving on.
Miele S2121 Olympus — This is the cheapest Miele canister. It’s just like the Capri that we recommend except that it comes with a combination brush rather than separate rug and floor tools. We don’t think that’s worth the $70 savings.
Miele S2181 Titan — Same as the Delphi that we recommend, plus a parquet floor tool and a HEPA filter for an extra $100. It’s not the kit we’d pick.
Miele S6 series — This is the mid-range canister series. Apparently these have better sealing than the S2 canisters and better noise insulation (the S2 is still pretty quiet). But they’re more expensive and use smaller bags. They’re in no man’s land.
Miele S8 series — The top of the line, ranging from $650 (no power brush) up through $1,450 (the works). Big bags again, all sorts of cool and maybe useful features, high-end power brushes if you want them…all great, but you don’t need to pay this much to get a super vacuum.
Riccar/Simplicity Brand — These are American-made vacuums with great cleaning power and some dedicated fans in the vacuum-enthusiast crowd. None of the big review outlets ever write about them, though. They’re also heavy and relatively expensive (feature for feature), the warranty periods in the “sweet spot” price range are shorter, and they don’t have as wide a dealer or distro network as most other brands. For what it’s worth, these brands also need the most repairs, based on Consumer Reports’ annual survey.
Royal — Not a lot of info on these vacuums. Like Riccar/Simplicity, there’s a vocal minority that really loves them. Spindler pointed out a low-end Royal that he recommends to customers on a budget. But nothing in the lineup stuck out as an obvious rival to the main contenders.
Kirby — These cost $900—if you can successfully haggle with the salesman who comes to your home to demonstrate it for you. Yep, they’re still sold door-to-door. Some people say that they’ve paid close to $2000 for one of these vacuums. They’re excellent cleaning machines and the warranty is basically unbeatable. But they’re super heavy and super expensive.
Aerus — Similar to Kirby with a marketing focus on air quality. It’s also a great vacuum, but also too expensive.
Samsung — The MotionSync is the same price as our pick but fails at sucking up anything larger than dust, CNET says.
Rainbow — These use water filtering, which does a bang-up job of stopping dust from leaking out of the exhaust vent. But they’re expensive, and the brand was never recommended by any experts we spoke with.
Oreck — Their top bagged models—you might remember them from the cable TV ads during the late ’90s—are specifically excellent at cleaning the low-pile carpeting you’d find in an office building. Their other bagged models weren’t recommended highly. Their bagless models are all Dyson clones.
Electrolux — This was a great brand back in the day, and their newest bagless model got a favorable review at CNET. But there are plenty of unfavorable user reviews, and these are more expensive than other, better bagless vacuums.
Shark — Really divided opinions on this one. The good news is that they’re cheap, pretty effective and very versatile. The bad news is that they don’t seem to last very long. For what it’s worth, it was the only brand that the vacuum repairman on Reddit said was “bad.” We are considering some of this brand’s models in our step-down guide.
Hoover — Based on pro reviews, they seem to be good for cheaper bagged models, though we didn’t see many recommendations for their higher-end vacs.
Eureka — Similar to Hoover—decent vacuums that clean well at first but need maintenance and don’t last few more than a few years (though Eureka models are a bit cheaper and a bit more prone to breakdowns than Hoover models). Our current pick for best cheap vacuum is a Eureka, if you want to go down that road. They don’t really make high-end vacuums.
Dirt Devil, Bissell and other down-market brands — Low-end vacuums might visually clean your floors and rugs (sometimes they can’t even do that), but the reviews we read indicate that they usually don’t deep clean. Air quality is a concern, as they typically kick up dust and don’t always have clean exhaust. Mostly, they just don’t last very long.
What to look forward to
Hoover vacuums haven’t fared very well in our research, but the company has a new vacuum coming soon that is different enough to warrant consideration. The Hoover Air Cordless is a full-size vacuum that’s powered by battery only. The battery is said to last 50 minutes, and it’ll weigh about 10 pounds. That’s about half as heavy as our current pick, but it’s not exactly ultra portable like some smaller cordless vacuums, either. We’ll have to see for ourselves if it’s able to compete with corded models on cleaning power and maneuverability. It’s set to arrive in stores in May for $300.
A great vacuum cleans an entire home without feeling too much like a chore and will last at least a decade with only minor maintenance required. After extensive research and testing, the Miele Dynamic U1 Twist is the right pick for bigger homes, especially those with carpet, while apartment dwellers should look at the Miele Classic C1 Capri (less carpet) or Classic C1 Delphi (more carpet).
1. The reviewers
Consumer Reports is the heavy hitter, having tested dozens of current models across all price ranges, and they even put a vacuum on the cover of their magazine every few months. Good Housekeeping is the other big name, going so far as to offer its own two-year warranty program for vacuums that earn the GH stamp of approval. CNET and Reviewed.com also dabble in vacuum reviews, but Reviewed.com hasn’t done so consistently in more than a year, and CNET just launched their sub-site a few months ago.
All four outlets provide pure performance testing. The procedures aren’t always transparent, but generally, they measure what percentage of debris a vacuum will pick up, given different surfaces (floor, low carpet, high carpet) and different particles of various sizes (hair, sand, bits of food). As far as I’m aware, all of the testing is done when the vacuums are brand new and fresh out of the box with empty bags or bins.
These reviews can tell you which vacuums perform well under short-term testing and if there’s anything that’s obviously a pain in the ass about using them. They paint a limited picture of how these vacuums work for real people vacuuming real debris in real homes.
It’s really, really hard to design those tests and balance their weights when you’re considering a diverse product category—even without considering the price. Testing rubrics are inflexible. They don’t do well with complexity, ifs and buts. The less linear a category is, the less reliable the test data is. Vacuums present a few of those ifs and buts. They’re all supposed to clean your house. But houses are different, so what’s the “right” way to clean? Uprights usually try to split the difference and be everything to everyone—this is the approach favored by testing rubrics. Canisters, on the other hand, make it easy to swap cleaning heads, so they can be molded to work better in certain settings—and on the flip side, the wrong tool can make them ineffective.
Consumer Reports and other testing houses do provide lots of great data—I absolutely considered them when I made my picks, and think that a good CR score counts for a lot—but it’s important to read between the lines. It’s not gospel. It’s one report on how well some models perform under limited testing conditions.
Overall, these reviews are best used as a supplement to your personal research, which should include reading user reviews and ideally some hands-on time in a vacuum store. Jump back.
2. Why bagged is better (a longer explanation)
There are many benefits endemic to the bagged design that give bagged vacuums some distinct advantages when it comes to maintenance. Spindler explains that the vacuum bags themselves act as primary filters, capturing 99 percent of dirt and dust. This means the additional motor and exhaust filters in the system have a lighter workload compared to their counterparts in a bagless model. Dirty filters and full bags or dirt cups impede air flow, which reduces the effectiveness of the vacuum. “With filters, the cleaning efficiency begins to taper off immediately,” says Robert Knox, a reviewer at VacuumWizard.com, and filters in bagless models get dirtier much faster. “With a bag type machine, full cleaning power is restored each time a new bag is installed.”
Bagless vacuums also need to be emptied more frequently. Even the largest dust cup—the half-gallon Dyson DC41 is the biggest that we found—is smaller than most bags, so it needs to be dumped every few weeks instead of every few months. According to manufacturer recommendations and assuming “average” usage, a good bagless vacuum like the Dyson DC41 needs to be emptied probably 12 times per year and needs its filters washed four times—that’s monthly upkeep, with some extra work every few months. A bagged vacuum like the Miele Twist goes through four bags per year on average, and needs its filters replaced once—seasonal upkeep.
Most decent models come with washable filters, but if those are damaged, they’re costly to replace—and there is definitely a risk they’ll get moldy, mildew-y and smelly if you put them back into the machine before they’re completely dry.
But conversely, the cost of replacement bags and filters is certainly a factor for bagged vacuums—to use the Miele Twist as an example again, it’s about $20 per year for bags and a basic Miele AirClean filter. With a high-end bagless, on the other hand, you shouldn’t need to pay for basic maintenance and you won’t have to remember to buy bags.
As for long-term maintenance costs, we can’t find any good reports on whether bagged or bagless models last longer or tend to need more serious repairs. Anecdotally, this Reddit AMA with a vacuum repairman suggests that bagless vacuums (specifically Dysons) come in for repairs more frequently, though he doesn’t say why. There’s nothing solid to lean on, and bagless vacuums haven’t been around long enough to tell if they hold up over decades like top-notch bagged models do.
Then there’s the (alleged) added mess that comes along with bagless models. If you spill the dirt cup while you’re emptying it, it’s one more thing to clean up. Over time, dust builds up in every crevice of a bagless machine, which can impede air flow, Spindler says. The “never loses suction” tagline that some bagless vacs use is misleading—they can and do lose effectiveness without proper care. There’s extra vigilance required to prevent these buildups, and bags make the process a bit easier.
For people with allergies, bagless doesn’t make sense at all—at some point, you’ll have to dump all that dust into the the bin. “I have allergies,” Haver says, “and I would not use a bagless vacuum.” Jump back.
3. The AAFA has still seen fit to certify 17 bagless machines (all Dysons) as asthma and allergy friendly. The certification involves tests with a proprietary mixture of allergenic dust, which contains cat dander (it’s smaller than dog dander, according to Oliver), dust mite dander and eggs, and timothy grass pollen. AAFA’s certification tests evaluate factors including cleaning effectiveness; airborne particle counts while vacuuming, basically whether it kicks up dust or sucks up dust; integrity of the filtration system, or looking for gaps where dusty air can leak through; performance when the vacuum is almost full, because no other outlets test it; and “exposure to allergens during bag change or receptacle emptying.” The certification does not require HEPA filtration. It’s a voluntary standard—brands submit their vacuums for testing, AAFA doesn’t seek them out. Jump back.