The Best Shower Head
Taking a shower should be a relaxing and rejuvenating experience and the key to that is a good shower head. After 50 hours of research and tests (that is, showers) by multiple editors and researchers on our team, the head we keep coming back to is the Delta In2ition.
It uses a nozzle design to make water streams seem fuller without mixing in air—and cooling the shower—as many do. Three Sweethome editors independently verified that this showerhead was the best they’ve ever used at home. This shower head is $150 but that’s the only bad thing about it, and we have a budget pick for $25 that’s based on the same technology.
Here’s the kicker: Although the Delta In2ition used a measured 2.5 gallons a minute of water, it felt like it was flowing two to three times more water than a top-rated shower head from legendary shower company Speakman—and even our budget pick felt like it had more volume of water flowing through it despite using a measured 1.8 gallons per minute.
Who is this for?
This article is for people who live in places where the showerhead is not up to par, and isn’t built into the wall. If you’re looking for a shower head for a fancy bathroom remodel, you’ll probably want a permanent fixture that matches your new tub, sink and faucets. We’re focusing on the kind you can hand tighten onto your shower pipe yourself with a little bit of teflon tape to keep it from dripping.
What to look for in a shower head
There are shower heads of all shapes and sizes available online so I made some initial assumptions to help narrow down the field. I didn’t want to pick a winner that required a professional plumber for installation since that would add additional and unknown costs. I put no restrictions on output or water conservation other than the government regulated 2.5gpm. I ruled out the cheap, generic cone head option and set the top of the budget at $250. After that it became hard to tell if you were paying for quality, or for some gimmick like LEDs.
It didn’t seem beneficial to make any more restrictions since there are so many variables that play into the success of a shower head in any given shower. But there were two categories of shower heads that didn’t seem worth exploring: rain can models and single-setting heads.
Rain can models, the large-faced, 100+ jet heads can trick people into thinking more jets are better. In fact, more jets, and a bigger face require more water, and more pressure in order to have a satisfying shower. In most reviewer comments I read people recommended removing parts—flow restrictors—from head in order to increase the water flow but this undermines the 2.5gpm restriction. And a majority of these heads are designed to work angled directly downward so your experience is limited. You can’t easily shower without getting your hair wet, for example. These may work well in a hotel where you stay for a few days, but they are not as practical for everyday use. Plus, you can always get an extension arm adapter for a standard showerhead if you want a downward flow from a regular shower head.
The same goes for single-setting heads without detachable wands. Side-by-side comparisons from the New York Times and Real Simple have mostly multi-function heads and the top sellers from online retailers focus on the same. Maybe it’s that single setting heads aren’t popular, or maybe it’s that companies are spending their money on higher end models. But regardless the closest I came to finding a good single setting head was a two-setting head that just had two really similar settings. Plus single-setting heads don’t allow you to adjust for pressure, and don’t help conserve water, so I didn’t bend over backward trying to find a decent one.
Choosing the best shower head isn’t as simple as looking for the newest, or most eco-friendly models. Because of this the market is flooded with knock-offs and that sort of thins out the user review consensus to be almost useless. Reading these comments does, however, reveal that describing what makes a shower head good or bad isn’t a simple thing to communicate. The names of the components are not widely known and standardized measurements are limited to gallons per minute (gpm). In the world of gadgets size, speed, and resolution are measured in consistent ways making them easier to compare. Even if you can perfectly describe the ideal shower, there’s still a lot of subjectivity to get around. The best shower depends on water pressure, the size and plumbing configuration of your shower, and your personal particularities. So with all of that in mind, if you are happy with your current shower head, you probably shouldn’t change it. But if you have that ubiquitous cone shaped fixed head or anything similar—or if just don’t love your shower—it might be time to upgrade.
Water conservation is also kind of something to avoid worrying about when looking for a shower head—not because saving water is bad but because all legal shower heads do it anyhow.
Editorial side-by-side comparisons pointed me towards a few noteworthy brands. The Real Simple review lead me to the Hansgrohe Clubmaster, the head with the most unique self cleaning mechanism. But I was hesitant to take other advice from this review because it wasn’t clear if they actually tested the heads or not. The New York Times comparison, on the other hand, was written in first person and seemed more reliable. They tested a nondescript four jet Delta head which is what lead me to include Delta on the list of contenders. Esquire composed a list of Best Shower Heads for Men categorized by the type of shower you’re looking for. This list includes the Kohler Flipside which I ended up testing twice and the Speakman Anystream, which also appeared in Real Simple. Esquire tested a Delta head and liked it, so it became clear we had to get Delta into the semi finalist list.
I also browsed through Amazon, Home Depot, Overstock, Target, Bed Bath and Beyond and a few other online retailers looking for popular brands and found that Delta, Kohler and Moen are the most reviewed. I looked for the models from those companies with the best user reviews and combined them with others I had come across that had a unique concept or technology claim and also threw in the head I had been using in my own shower for about 8 months, the Moen Nature Three Function which I bought without doing extensive or conclusive research as a personal purchase, as a baseline.
Then I took my top ten heads and I got to testing.
I was already someone who showered often and at length so over the course of the last few months I put in close to 50 hours of testing. I first tried each head without actually showering with it and took down some basic notes on ease of install, the range of settings and if there were any glaring issues like leaks. I turned the water on full blast to both extreme hot and cold. (None of the heads popped off with a deluge of water like so many cartoons would have you believe. Don’t trust cartoons!) Then I retested and retested and retested.
Going a full day between showers made it hard to recall specific details so I began changing heads mid-shower. Heads were easier to compare when used back-to-back and that helped eliminate questions lingering about the consistency of the water temperature and pressure in my apartment. So for the next few months my bathroom floor remained covered in shower heads and I switched them in and out regularly depending on what kind of shower I wanted, and what details I was looking to scrutinize at the time.
It’s worth noting that unlike many other of our product categories, it was hard to come up with a scientific protocol for testing. With actual flow not being a part of the equation, it came down to feel. And to take those subjective personal impressions from anecdotal to something resembling actual data, I had three other editors test some finalist showerheads.
The Delta in2ition was a standout pick for all of us.
I knew from editorial and buyer reviews that I wanted to test at least one of Delta’s shower heads. There are hundreds to choose from and there wasn’t particular model that stood out immediately.
Since every model comes in a variety of finishes and slight variations I was overwhelmed again with a useless jumble of user reviews. I had a budget, I knew I wanted a model with the H2OKinetic technology and I wanted something with more than one setting and both a wand and a fixed head. I used the Delta website to narrow my search since Amazon and other online retailers were flooded with old models and inconsistent data. Delta had a few intriguing options but none caught my eye more than the In2ition line with the H2OKinetic tech. I hadn’t seen anything at this point that combined a hand held and a fixed head seamlessly rather than as two pieces so I was intrigued and wanted to give it a try.
While the New York Times and Esquire didn’t mention this particular model as the one they tested, they liked Delta. Esquire’s description sounds similar to our description of the In2ition, saying “The Delta throws out big, heavy droplets of water: You won’t know you’re using a low-flow showerhead.” User reviews on Amazon are sparse but out of 11 reviews on Amazon the Delta In2ition scored an average of 4.75 stars, so we gave it a try. (Note this is 11 reviews total across 4 finishes—not a ton of data, I admit.)
The Delta In2ition has both a fixed, and a handheld portion which can be used together, or independently. The In2ition line comes in a few different shapes and sizes. The components inside all of them are the same but model number 58471 has the best combination of features. It’s got a sleek, all chrome design (but some plastic parts on the inside), the handheld and fixed portions fit seamlessly together, and it has a small number of jets (which, after testing, proved to be a positive attribute). A magnet keeps the handheld portion attached to the fixed piece which means no fumbling with a wet handle or that little ring holder thing that most handheld shower heads fit into.
I was skeptical about how the high $150 price corresponded with quality and I was put off by having to use two features to adjust the settings; an arm on the fixed portion, and a button on the handheld. (Note that we looked for a combo H2OKinetic wand and fixed head unit for less but could not find one.) The face is over 7″ in diameter but only has 25 jets so this seemed like an inefficient use of space. But when I turned the water on high it became clear that the spacing between the jets was very important.
Here’s the immediate thing I noticed: The showerhead feels like a lot more than 2.5 gallons per minute.
To verify my findings, I had three editors, Joel Johnson, Mike Zhao, and Brian Lam, with 30 years of product writing between them and lifetimes of showers verify the head was better than their current showerheads (all of which were relatively low-end heads that had come installed in their apartments and homes), which they did with a resounding yes.
Brian said, “Words that come to mind are ‘firehose,’ ‘drenching,’ ‘drowning.’ Water seems to come from everywhere, and indeed the high portions of my shower are soaked when before they were not. It’s a subjective judgement call, but it’s so much more of a flood than my last showerhead that I can’t be imagining it.”
Turns out some of the jargon has an explainable technology, or at least a claim that we can explain as a reason for the torrent. The In2ition uses Delta’s H2OKinetic technology. Delta’s channeling method causes water droplets to oscillate as they exit the head to create the sensation of a more volumetric flow.
I spoke with Paul Patton, Senior Product Development Manager at Delta, who explained how they manage to achieve this sensation with such little water. “What we do is: inside the shower head we have different channels and dams and we control how large the droplets are going to get, how fast they are going to oscillate out of the shower head. At the same time we create two vortices just as the water is starting to come out and we get a push/pull, and that’s how we get the oscillation.”
Patton says this oscillation creates a wave pattern, rather than a straight line, which you can see with the naked eye as pretty thick streams that look like they shake back and forth or sputter. This is all done without moving parts so there are fewer components that can break. Since the streams of water are moving back and forth they take up more space in the air than a stream that has a straight trajectory so the jets have to be farther apart, which explains the fact that this shower head felt more full in stream than a typical showerhead, despite fewer jets. Paul Patton says that Delta’s own research shows that “The typical H2O shower head provides 90% coverage on your body.”
More testing to cut through the hype
At first, The Wirecutter’s founder Brian thought this all sounded like bullshit.
He tested the In2ition against the two highest rated shower heads from Speakman that could be found on Amazon, Speakman being one of the most highly regarded shower head makers in the world. Facing off the high-end $100 Speakman against the high-end $150 Delta, the Delta felt like it had about 2x more flow, subjectively. Facing the lower end models against each other, the Delta felt like it had 50% more flow than the cheaper ($50) Speakman.
Brian’s theory was that despite the ratings, the high-end Deltas we liked were using more water to achieve the undoubtedly greater feeling of flow. So he tested water consumption by holding a measurement bucket under the tap at full flood for a minute for all the picks. Surprisingly, the $150 Delta ended up using exactly the same amount as the $100 Speakman, at 2.5 gallons per minute, measured.
Even more surprising was the budget $25 Delta used a little less than 2.5 gallons per minutes measured, yet somehow managed to create a greater sensation of water flow than the budget Speakman did, and a little less flow-feel than the higher end Speakman. (Keep in mind the budget Delta and the Speakman showerheads also don’t have detachable wands.)
Brian said, in his test notes, “I vouch for the Delta’s ability to make the same amount of water flow feel thicker than other highly rated showerheads like those from Speakman.”
And the shower isn’t just fuller by measure of having a more concentrated jet. Brian also took notes on the spread pattern, remarking that the $150 Delta and the $100 Speakman both had the width pattern as it hit his wall of about two feet wide. (The cheaper Delta and Speakman were at around a foot and a half wide.)
He wasn’t alone: the other two editors noticed their showers were better when using this head versus the various cheap heads we replaced it with, despite the low number of jets and the constant water pressure we were very used to in our respective buildings.
More details about our pick
The shower’s wand and settings are adequate. Adjusting the settings using two features (a variable lever and a mode-change button on the wand) was a bit awkward and condensing the button and arm into one feature would improve this aspect—but being able to have 9 combinations of settings (three on the fixed, and three on the handheld) meant that I could adjust the pressure and flow to fit many different shower needs. I used only the handheld portion to rinse the shower after I cleaned it. I used only the fixed portion to reduce the flow while taking a quick shower. Because of its magnetic wand fixture, detaching and attaching the handheld portion is easy with any height fixture and person. (You don’t want to be standing on your tip toes or reaching beyond your means in a slippery shower.) The hose has a metal casing that remains twist free so there’s great range of motion. Between testing other heads I found myself reinstalling the Delta for regular showering. (It goes on in under a minute.)
There’s another benefit that the In2ition has, which it shared with other premium shower heads: it does not mix air into the stream in an attempt to create volume.
Over the last eight months of testing heads I realized some showers were significantly hotter than others. Previously, using only the hot water faucet, the water temperature was never so hot I couldn’t stand it at my apartment. But with some of the better heads, like the In2ition, I have to add cold water in to make the temperature bearable. It would be nearly impossible to test the success of aeration and get reliable results outside of a lab but it’s safe to say that the best shower head isn’t one that depends on unpredictable factors like the ambient air temperature in your bathroom, nor is it one that provides a jet of water over a limited area at any given time.
A mid-price option for small showers (or if you want a handheld-only showerhead)
As the name might suggest, the 9-Spray offers nine different spray settings, easily accessed using three buttons on the top of the showerhead — no annoying twisting and turning to get the settings you want. Each button controls some of the 67 nozzles, so its easy to turn sections on and off to get the settings you want. None of the settings are wasted on pounding, hail-like “massage” settings. Best yet: There’s a fourth button, which turns the showerhead off without having to turn off the water. It’s great for soaping your hair, taking breaks when washing animals, or conserving water.
Its spray is strong. It’s perhaps not the “firehose,” “drenching,” or “drowning” effect of the In2ition — partly due to its lack of Delta’s expensive H20kinetic technology — but it does more with 2.5 GPM than any of the other similarly rated handheld models we tested. After a week of testing the other showerheads (and a year with a terrible, landlord-provided model), my boyfriend, a veritable shower snob, practically wept with joy when he first tested the 9-Spray. He even asked me if I’d forgotten to install the flow regulator. I hadn’t. It just feels that good.
However, it’s also worth noting that it’s not too strong, which makes it ideal for smaller showers–like my own 3’ x 3’ one. If you’re using the In2ition, you’d ideally have at least a few feet of space separating you from the rather large showerhead to get the full force of the In2ition’s spray. The more compact 9-Spray can easily be redirected to spray downwards.
Like the In2ition, the 9-Spray has a handsome chrome finish and sturdy build quality — it certainly doesn’t feel dinky. This is important for a handheld showerhead because if you’re using it to, say, rinse off an unruly puppy, you need to feel like you have control at all times.
The metal hose expands from 60 to 82 inches without any trouble or kinks, and hangs flat, unlike other plastic hoses, which took several showers before they stopped holding their packaged shape and poking us in the face. As far as using the hose goes, it twisted and turned freely as I manipulated it. And at no point did water spray from anywhere but the nozzles–a common issue on cheaply made showerheads. It also attaches securely to the holder, and can be turned to face any direction without falling back to center (useful if, like me, you have a tiny shower and want to direct the initial blast of cold water elsewhere).
Other options we looked at (and eliminated)
Even without a wand, I thought the Speakman Anystream was going to be the better than the Delta in terms of its feeling. It flows at 2.5gpm which would hopefully provide a drenching feeling, but as our tests showed, it was not as powerful.
Its all chrome minimalist design is beautiful; by far the best looking shower head. It weighs 3 pounds, has solid construction, and boasts a patented self-cleaning method. Coming in at just over $100 the 5 star reviews on Amazon seemed to make this a no-brainer. But testing proved otherwise. There are 8 jets separated into 8 streams each and as you rotate the arm on the side the jets move in and out of the head narrowing and widening the spray. It’s a continuous motion which will accommodate a shower with hard or soft pressure. But it doesn’t provide an even stream. You get those few jets of water that spray wildly and sputter. A self cleaning mechanism will help once hard water begins to build but on the first use there shouldn’t be any clogs. Its all-chrome casing makes for an attractive faucet but on full blast it got really hot—so hot that it was difficult grip the arm firmly enough to adjust the stream. These results left me disappointed. Just to make sure I couldn’t get the Speakman look in a functional head I also tested a knock off, the Giessdorf Original 8 Jet. There are a few small differences like the exposed screws on the face, and a different fitting on the neck, but generally the quality and functionality are the same. It’s $20 less than the Speakman and still not worth it.
Grohe’s Rainshower Next Generation Icon handheld head is a donut-shaped wand with high and low setting options. That would certainly help save water but the switch is hard to slide. The shape makes the wand top heavy so it’s uncomfortable to hold in your hand.
The Kohler Flipside is a thick disk that has a different setting on each side and you rotate the head to switch between settings. This shower head has the best setting I’ve seen on any head; a slim line of about 300 pin holes that spray water in sheet. It’s like being in a body carwash—when it works. But after only a few uses all of the jets on all sides seemed to clog. The water slowed to a trickle as if there were no pressure behind it. But when I removed the head the pressure was fine. Hoping this was just problem with my shower I eagerly passed this head on to someone else but they had the same problem. I didn’t want to believe that this was a fundamentally flawed head so I bought a second one. The installation went much the same as the first time and the first few minutes of use were great. But again the stream slowed to a trickle and I was left with a head full of shampoo and no pressure to rinse. How could such a unique concept, and original jet configuration simply not work? It was a big disappointment. It appears the pin holes clog extremely easily in a shower.
The Kohler Forte is a 3 setting, fixed head and after reading the reviews on Amazon I was intrigued enough to want to try it. The main draw was that it seemed to have a wide spray. I was hoping that this head would have the same feel as a rain can head but without all of the jets and more flexibility. When it arrived I installed it with no problem but the minute I got in the shower I was sorely disappointed. The outer portion of the face turns to switch between settings but it’s hard to do without totally moving the head. I sprayed my floor by accident. This part is also made of plastic and it cheapens the look and feel of the head. One of the settings worked fine, but the massage spray was very intense and the soft spray didn’t seem functional at all (the pressure was so low droplets of water ran down the face and dripped off).
The Hansgrohe Clubmaster handheld has exceptionally small jets, similar to the Flipside that make up the outermost ring of the head. To combat the clogging problem each jet is cleaned by a small plastic pin that pokes through the jet every time you rotate the head to change the setting. This bit of technology is intriguing but the stream felt like soft rain and didn’t seem functional enough for cleaning.
The Moen Nature Three Function head comes in at only 1.75gpm, the lowest of the bunch. The jets have silicone tips so they are easy to clean and resist hard water build up. The head has a good range of motion and the tab on the side of the face allows you to easily switch between the settings. There aren’t any remarkable features to this head. It’s sort of ugly, and the settings don’t give much variety. But the water consumption intrigued me and that’s why I initially bought it for myself about 8 months ago. So how does Moen achieve such a low flow? This head uses aeration, a process in which ambient air is sucked into the head and pushed out with the water. The goal is to use the air to break up the water droplets creating a spray and making less water feel like more. But what if the air in your bathroom is freezing cold? Then it stands to reason that the cold air would chill the water and you would have to turn up the heat of your shower in order to compensate. This does not make for a more efficient shower.
The Peerless 76950 has the same 2-in-1 functionality as the In2ition. It has 4 settings, which is more than the Moen Nature. And unlike the In2ition it has silicone tipped jets for easy cleaning. It has over 600 Amazon reviews with an average rating of 4 stars but when I tried to make the purchase it was on back order. I couldn’t find it for sale anywhere else online so I called Peerless to order directly from them. To my surprise the automated message thanked me for calling Delta customer support. A brief conversation with a customer representative reveled that Peerless is owned by Delta but does not use the same H2OKinetic technology. It also turns out the the 76950 model was discontinued because it failed to stay below the maximum flow rate of 2.5gppm (even though that’s what it claims to be on Amazon).
We also tested the Vortex Fixed Shower Head from Oxygenics. Although we loved the mist setting and the fact that it offers a full 8 different spray settings, it’s just too cumbersome to recommend. Installation is difficult and awkward, and the water stream is loud—very, very loud, loud enough to drown out any music in the bathroom. And despite the wide variety of stream settings, they’re arranged in no logical order, skipping from massage spray, to trickle, to needle, to mist. It’s not pleasant to run through all of those, getting a surprise each time. And there was no one setting that was good for a generic shower, for both rinsing your hair and washing your face—and switching between settings throughout your shower is the exact opposite of a relaxing experience.
This dual shower head by Speakman was recommended to me by a friend. The shower heads don’t really create a sense of heavy flow like the main Delta pick, even if the total flow rating is 5 gallons per minute (if your water pressure can keep up with it). At $180, with no wand, I’d definitely pass.
We looked at something with a fixed head for $60 called the Delta RP70172, but with a 2.0-gallon-per-minute rating, it felt less powerful than our budget pick, although its spread was wider. I’d just go for the budget pick and skip the wand.
Delta also has a $42 wand-only model with H2OKinetic tech, but it is also limited to 2 gallons per minute. It also stands very tall on its mount and is made out of a lot of plastic. We didn’t like its feel, spread, or flow nearly as much as the fixed head model, but if you need a wand and this is your budget, you should go with our handheld choice Delta 9-Spray Shower Mount for the same price and better gallons-per-minute flow.
Wrapping it up
The In2ition is a shower head that gives great pressure, has a wide variety of settings, and promotes water conservation. But what puts it head and shoulders above the rest is the feeling of a torrential downpour while using only 2.5gpm. If you want to improve your shower experience while giving yourself the most options for pressure, spray, and where you want the water to go, buying the Delta In2ition is the way to do it.
"The WaterSense specification applies to showerheads that have a maximum flow rate of 2.0 gallons per minute (gpm) or less. This represents a 20 percent reduction in showerhead flow rate over the current federal standard of 2.5 gpm, as specified by the Energy Policy Act of 1992."
Road Test: Saving Water, Staying Clean, New York Times, August, 2009,"The final shower head brought me full circle, back to Waterpik. The new Waterpik model has five sprays, most of which are impressive, with solid power. My only disappointment was with the mixed massage-spray: the massage sensation gets lost inside the regular spray; they work better separately. My favorite was the “soaker” mode, a wall of water that feels like getting caught in a downpour. It didn’t have the house-shaking force of the original model, but it was creative and satisfying."
A Man and His Showerhead, Esquire, November, 2012"The only real problem with the 2.0 gpm is the plasticky feel; it's light, less than half the weight of more expensive metal options. But it looks nice, and once it's installed, you'll never notice again. The Delta throws out big, heavy droplets of water: You won't know you're using a low-flow showerhead."
Originally published: June 7, 2013