After taking more than 240 showers to test nearly a dozen showerheads over the past four months, we’re sure the Toto TS200AL65-CP is the best showerhead for most people. It outperformed competing models that cost far more money, offering a better balance of price, function, and features than any other we tried.
For less than $50, you get the best “rainshower” spray among our test models—a drenching, vivifying, soap-rinsing flood—and an unusual high-pressure “mist” spray that delivers both a bathlike soak to sore muscles and a super-efficient rinse to shampoo-sudsed long hair. There’s a temporary-shutoff option among its spray patterns, which is a useful, rare function that helps to further conserve water. With its simple design, it’s aesthetically compatible with almost any existing bathroom, and it’s also extremely water-efficient with a water flow of 2 gallons per minute (gpm). It comes with a limited lifetime warranty for residential users, and you can install it in less than a minute using only an adjustable wrench. There may be no easier, cheaper way to improve your daily routine.
Among handheld showerheads (which are great for cleaning toddlers, pets, and/or the shower walls), we love the Delta In2ition 58480. It replaces this guide’s former pick—a similar and excellent Delta handheld, the 58471, which many of our readers and at least three of our editors use and rightly love—but the new pick’s 2 gallon per minute is more efficient than the former pick’s 2.5 gallon-per minute spray. It also offers gentler spray options than our former pick, but still has a best-in-test massage setting that’s strong enough to deliver a watery thumping to the knottiest muscles. Like our previous pick, the hardware installs in seconds with only an adjustable wrench, and comes with a flexible, stretchable, tough stainless steel hose—superior to competitors in its price range, which often have stiff, non-stretch plastic hoses or complex installation requirements. It’s not cheap—it’s usually two or three times the cost of our pick—but given its mix of practicality, pleasure, and top-shelf basic components, we consider it a worthy value.
All of our guides involve a huge amount of research, even before the testing begins. But usually we begin with at least some basic understanding of our subject. For showerheads, I had none. So I began by speaking with product managers—the folks who oversee every aspect of a showerhead, from design and engineering to materials, manufacture, and quality control—from three of the largest manufacturers (Delta, Kohler, and Moen) in order to build a foundation of basic knowledge. Just before writing, I attended the massive Kitchen and Bath International Show in Las Vegas, circling back with the companies to confirm my facts and inquire about upcoming changes to their technologies.
It seems a bit absurd to have spent so much time researching showerheads. But bathing is a literal everyday event. Making it a pleasure, rather than a mere function, is a way to bring a little bit of joy into life. And we had the opportunity to do something most people can’t: really study what’s out there, make direct comparisons, and choose the best based on evidence.
If you’ve ever shopped for bathroom fixtures, you know this to be true: You are overwhelmed by choices. There are literally hundreds of models; there are multiple basic forms (rectilinear, curvilinear, “exotic,” for lack of a better word) and style classes (traditional, transitional, contemporary); and every manufacturer touts its unique spray technologies and gives them obscure names. But for all that variation, every major manufacturer, I learned, has some universal design goals for showerheads: They all must deliver consistent spray under any water pressure; produce a satisfactory shower even while conforming to today’s low-flow water-usage laws; and virtually eliminate the old problem of mineral buildup.
To narrow the field, we filtered the options through a hierarchy of considerations: quality of engineering; ergonomics; water usage; reviews; ease of installation; reputation and warranty; and aesthetics.
On engineering, here’s what you need to know: Almost all modern name-brand showerheads share two basic features, and both are a huge improvement over the old and/or budget models that a new home or first apartment often comes with.
The other universal engineering improvement is found in the nozzles themselves. In the past, they were made of metal or hard plastic, both of which were prone to clogging through scale—the deposition of minerals naturally present in the water supply, akin to the formation of stalactites in a cave. To remove scale, you had to unscrew your showerhead and soak it in a vinegar solution. Today almost every major manufacturer makes its nozzles out of silicone or another flexible polymer, which are highly resistant to scale. If any scale does form, you simply rub the nozzles with your thumb and the scale flakes off.
Next, we considered ergonomics. With any showerhead, the dial that determines the spray pattern is your chief physical interaction. A sharp click and solid engagement between spray patterns is vital; mushy shifts and limp engagements are an annoyance when repeated every time you shower—hundreds of times a year. With handheld showerheads, the head also has to engage well with its holster. There are several styles, including the increasingly popular magnetic holster, but the main thing is that the head should drop into place easily and intuitively: Soapy hands aren’t built for fussing.
Water usage is a concern for many people, for environmental or economic reasons. Since 1994, manufacturers have been required by federal law to limit their showerhead water flow to 2.5 gallons of water per minute (though some skirted the law for years by producing multihead models that collectively put out much more water). There’s also a federal WaterSense guideline that showerheads can qualify for if they use 2.0 gpm or less. (In California, WaterSense is a state law.) For this guide, we looked at both 2.5 and 2.0 gpm models.
We looked at user reviews, editorial reviews, and prices to help narrow our list. First, we identified the best sellers and best-reviewed models in our sub-categories—traditional showerheads (the kind that are affixed to the spigot) and handhelds (which have a flexible hose). Our search focused on two price ranges, roughly defined as the low-end (below $70), and middle ranges ($125 to $200), while generally excluding products exceeding that $200 mark.
Ease of installation was another priority. Our hypothetical best showerhead would involve nothing more than unscrewing the old one and screwing in the new one. This requirement eliminated a swath of handheld showerheads that require the installation of a slide rail, which means drilling into the shower wall. (Based on positive reviews, we did make an exception to test one such model, the Kohler K-98362; see The competition below), but decided even its excellent performance didn’t warrant the extra work involved.)
We further limited our search to major manufacturers, who offer lengthy warranties (up to lifetime on manufacturing) and readily available parts for maintenance.
Finally, we considered physical design. On this point, I’ll be frank: If our experience is anything like normal, after you install it, you’ll never again look at your showerhead—as long as it works intuitively and reliably. So we prioritized unobtrusive, so-called transitional aesthetics—which, as the name suggests, are likely to fit well with your existing hardware, whether it’s traditional, modern, or in between.
At last, with all of these considerations in mind, I asked the product managers to recommend showerheads that, according to their internal research, consistently deliver satisfied customers; and to suggest options at price levels from modest to extravagant. Our research team did a deep independent assessment, the results of which I cross-referenced against manufacturer recommendations. Amazon, Consumer Reports, and other outlets provided additional insight into build quality, value, and satisfaction. From all this, we were able to zero in on 10 test models from five leading manufacturers: American Standard, Delta, Kohler, Moen, and Toto.
Our judgments of performance were necessarily subjective. But our concerns boiled down to this: Does the showerhead feel good and work well? And, if so, how does it compare to the rest?
One last point: We are lucky enough to have really good water pressure. But if your pressure is weak, your experience may not exactly match ours. Modern shower bodies—the units installed behind the wall to deliver the water—are built with pressure-balancing valves, which deliver steady hot and cold pressure to the showerhead to compensate for fluctuations in the domestic supply. Generally, if your shower has a single handle, you have one; if you have separate hot and cold handles, you don’t. Any showerhead will work with either setup, but our results were measured using a shower with a single handle and a pressure-balancing valve.
At a strikingly low price for a showerhead of its quality, the Toto TS200AL65 is unmatched as far as value. We tested models that cost more than three times as much and can’t perform half as well. Its rainshower setting is the nicest of any model in our test: a soft but drenching pattern that feels wonderful and has no large gaps in coverage, which was an issue with several other multiple-pattern showerheads we tested. That’s especially impressive given that this is a 2-gpm showerhead, not the more common 2.5 gpm. It’s also important, because even with a multipattern showerhead, you’ll probably spend 90 percent of the time on rainshower: It’s simply the most useful (in terms of drenching and rinsing) and comfortable setting.
The Toto also has a couple of unique features among the traditional showerheads we tested. The first is its mist setting. This creates a dense cloud of fast-moving fine droplets that completely envelop you in drenching warmth. It’s particularly excellent for rinsing shampoo out of long hair, but the main attraction is the physical sensation; it’s almost like taking a bath while standing up. If you’ve caught a chill or pulled a muscle, there’s nothing like it for making you feel better. (Be warned: It also fills the bathroom with a cloud of steam—you’ll need to ventilate.)
The Toto’s other settings include a pleasant spray-massage combo—it feels a bit like someone is pouring water onto your shoulders from a pitcher—and massage alone, which is honestly a little anemic. But practically speaking, most people won’t spend enough time on massage to make this weakness a major fault.
To install the Toto (and any other traditional showerhead), you simply unscrew the old one from the pipe, wrap the threads in a bit of Teflon tape, and screw the new one on. The Toto’s threaded collar, though, is noticeably deeper than most; this makes for a sturdier and more leak-proof connection.
That massage setting could stand to be more powerful. More seriously—though this is more a concern than a flaw—using the mist function requires a bit of caution. By the laws of thermodynamics, small droplets lose heat more rapidly than larger ones, so to make the mist feel good and warm, you have to increase the shower temperature. The potential problem comes when you decide to switch back to a non-mist setting: Then, the pleasantly warm mist suddenly becomes painfully hot spray. Just be aware of it and use common sense.
Another major plus: The 58480 comes with the best standard features among the off-the-shelf hand-shower kits we tested. You can buy a hand shower as separate components—the hand unit, the hose, and a method of attachment to the outlet pipe—or, which is far easier, as a complete package. The 58480 package comes with a flexible 5-foot stainless steel hose. What’s more, the hose stretches to nearly 7 feet, and both the additional length and the stretch are valuable—the latter because it acts as a shock absorber, helping to reduce tugging and other wear and tear on your plumbing. Other hand-shower packages in this price category often come with plastic hoses, which tend to be quite stiff—meaning their loops are always getting in your way—and don’t stretch at all.
And the 58480, unlike many handhelds, installs as easily as traditional showerheads. You simply screw its outer unit to the outlet pipe, then attach the handheld via the hose. The process takes less than two minutes. This method isn’t unique to the 58480, but many aftermarket hand showers require the installation of a wall-mounted slider bar or separate socket—lots of work for no appreciable gain in performance.
The 58480 consists of a fixed, ring-shaped outer showerhead and a hand shower that clicks automatically (with an assist from a magnet) into a central pocket. Water can be run to each component separately, or to both in combination; a simple valve switches between the options. The hand shower—like most hand showers—also features a temporary-shutoff button, a necessity when rinsing off kids or pets.
On that note, the 58480’s hand shower is a marked improvement over our previous pick—a similar Delta, the 58471, with a higher 2.5 gpm flow and fewer nozzles. The 58471 sends out a blast of water in every setting, pleasant for grownups but a bit too rough for washing little two- and four-footed creatures. The 58480’s hand shower offers a gentle spray, making it perfect for the task many people will use it for. But it also offers three heavier spray patterns, including that thumping massage—and with that long hose, it’s easy to reach down to massage sore feet or legs.
Running about $125, the 58480 is not cheap. But it is designed to last for years and comes with a lifetime warranty against defects; even measured against a conservative five-year lifespan, it comes out to about 11 cents per day. Given its performance and utility, we consider it a sensible purchase.
The Moen S6320 Velocity is, in the words of Sweethome senior editor Harry Sawyers, “a wonderful showerhead.” (He used one for more than a year.) He’s right. It has two settings, a wide, gentle rainshower and a narrower, standard spray; both of them are delightful, alternately relaxing and vivifying. We found it to deliver plenty of water, though many people note that you can easily remove the internal restrictor plate and boost it well beyond its 2.5 gpm factory limit. It’s also beautifully made—the only all-metal head in our test. But costing about $140, it is also among the priciest, and we found ourselves wanting a few more options—at least a massage setting. One other thing: The 8-inch-wide head is so broad that it makes hanging a shower caddy from the riser pipe almost impossible.
The Moen 26000 hand shower has six settings, including three levels of massage (from reiki to Russian sauna). We liked its easy installation—like the Delta 58480, you simply screw it in like a traditional showerhead. What we didn’t like is the lack of an off/pause button, the non-stretch hose (which is, however, high-quality stainless steel), and how the screw-in portion of the unit is made of a dull, gray plastic. It should really match the chrome look of the rest of the showerhead.
The Delta 58471 is our previous winner, and the words we used to praise it—drowning, drenching, firehose—still hold. It makes 2.5 gallons per minute feel like a flood, and if that’s your aim, you won’t find a better model. And both our readers and our editors universally love it. But, as previously mentioned, its sprays are a bit too powerful for rinsing small children and pets—and our editors who’ve used this model long-term say it can actually be even more intense (as in, borderline uncomfortable) if you have strong water pressure. It’s also less water-efficient than our new 2-gpm pick, the Delta 58480. If either of these is a chief concern of yours, the 58480 is a superior choice.
Delta also made our previous budget pick, the simple 75152. This is a basic single-spray head, with a toggle that lets you switch between 2.5 and 1.8 gpm. It does the basic jobs of a shower—make you wet and rinse you off—effectively, but not vastly better than most other basic showerheads, including the old and/or budget ones that seems to come with every new home or apartment. If that describes your situation, it’s not worth spending $25 to “upgrade” to the 75152—especially not when you can get the superb Toto for just $20 more.
The American Standard Flowise 3-Function is a solid traditional showerhead, and its three sprays—massage, concentrated spray, and rainshower—are all very good. But it costs just a couple of dollars less than the much superior Toto, and it has an annoying feature: When the water is turned off, it automatically reverts to the massage function. That means every time you turn on your shower, you get a big blast of water, and then have to switch to one of the other sprays—which you’ll use much more often than the massage. To be blunt, it’s a dumb design.
The Kohler K-10282 is a well-made, single-function traditional showerhead. It delivers a rainshower-type spray, and a nice one—nozzles cover its entire 5.5-inch face, ensuring a pleasant and effective drenching. But the 5.5-inch Toto delivers a rainshower that feels even heavier, despite being 2 gpm versus 2.5; adds multiple other spray patterns; and costs a little less, to boot.
The Kohler K-98362 hand shower was one of the nicest models in our test, and it lives up to Kohler’s claim that it’s one of the most powerful sprays in its lineup. The concentrated spray setting, in particular, is terrific: If competitors’ equivalents feel like a bunch of silky threads, the 98362 feels like a heavy silk rope. But its complex installation, which requires drilling into your shower wall to attach a slide bar, helped eliminate it. Moreover, the 98362 package comes with a stiff plastic hose (not stainless steel, like our pick) that forms itself into tenacious loops that constantly get in the way of the shower spray. To be fair, you can buy a separate stainless hose, and there’s an optional holster that screws in like a traditional showerhead, eliminating the slider bar installation. But numerous online reviews say the holster loses the ability to hold up the weight of the showerhead. It’s not worth the hassle.
Finally, we tested the popular and unique Kohler K-15996-CP Flipside. A traditional showerhead with non-traditional mechanics, the Flipside toggles through its four spray patterns not with a dial but by flipping the entire head on a transverse axle. Great idea; but in practice, it means two of the sprays (“Kotton” and “Kurrent,” respectively a fine spray and a massage) exit the head in planar form—horizontal sheets of water rather than broad cones. They just don’t deliver the full-body coverage that you need for effective showering. You’re better off spending the extra 10 bucks for the Toto.
(Photos by Michael Hession.)
Originally published: February 29, 2016