Once reserved for holidays and house guests, air beds have recently carved out a much broader niche in the bed world, due largely to the efforts of the Sleep Number mattress company, maker of the popular Sleep Number bed. Today's more robust, upscale air beds look similar to innerspring mattresses, but use air in lieu of coils. For aficionados, the air bed's most attractive feature is its adjustable firmness, which can be easily tweaked by increasing or decreasing the air pressure in the mattress. Of course, if you are merely seeking a stowable sleep accommodation for friends and relatives, you may be well served by a more basic, portable air mattress. This type of air mattress has also seen great improvements in recent years, both in comfort and ease of use.
When evaluating air mattresses, it is important to understand the key elements of their construction.
Relative to a traditional innerspring mattress, the key differentiator of an air mattress is its unique air-filled core, commonly referred to as an air chamber. Each air chamber is connected to an electric air pump, which is located either inside or underneath the bed, and is operated via a remote control. Air chambers are typically made from either vinyl or rubber, using various techniques to ensure a tight seal that minimizes leakage. Although some air bed owners do notice small amounts of natural air loss over time, this is typically something that can be easily adjusted on a periodic basis using the electric air pump.
Some air mattresses feature two separate air chambers with a foam rail in the center to provide support between them. This design provides the obvious benefits of both customized air pressure on each side and motion separation between the sides. That said, in some models, the center rail can be a source of minor discomfort in the event that one or both sides are set to particularly low pressure levels.
The air chamber(s) are surrounded by four walls of sturdy foam encasing, as well as several layers of upholstery on top. These top layers tend to greatly resemble the upholstery in an innerspring mattress, and can be evaluated the same way. Air mattresses are sometimes sold with specific foundations, however they can often utilize traditional mattress foundations as well. In most cases, air beds will require some assembly once you get them into your home.
Perhaps the most highly acclaimed, and well-advertised, feature of the air mattress is its adjustable firmness. By increasing or decreasing the amount of air in the mattress, air beds can be configured to a precise level of desired firmness, or even different levels of firmness on each side. Air bed advocates find this advantageous in many ways, not only to resolve differing preferences between sleeping companions, but also to adapt to changing preferences for any one person over time. Some people find their comfort and support needs simply change over the natural course of a mattress' 10+ year lifespan. Others find their inclinations are influenced by shorter-term life events such as pregnancy or injury. Still others claim that their predilections vary on an even more frequent basis, depending on their activities that day for example.
In an air mattress, support is provided by the air-filled core. As such, air pressure needs to be adjusted to a relatively firm setting in order for the mattress to do its job. Some people find that the mattress loses its comfort at this level of firmness, leading to the common complaint among air bed detractors that air mattresses are either too soft to be supportive or too firm to be comfortable. Enthusiasts counter that the easy adjustability of an air bed allows you to find the precise level of pressure that delivers this balance appropriately. If you are concerned about finding such a balance, it is recommended that you go with a firmer air pressure setting for support and add a memory foam topper or other cushioning layer for comfort.
For those seeking the best possible air mattress experience, a number of additional features are available on higher-end models. Extra layers of cushioning, from traditional pillow-tops to memory foam pads, can enhance the comfort of the air mattress. Remote controls can be cordless, and are available with lighted keypads and programmable settings. And quieter air pumps, sometimes referred to as a "whisper quiet" pumps, can help prevent noise disturbance from any late-night adjustments. (When running, a standard air pump usually sounds something like a hair dryer wrapped in a blanket.)
Leading brands of upscale air mattresses include Sleep Number and Comfortaire. To find other air mattress lines, please browse our extensive list of air mattress manufacturers and product lines below.