Digital Air Bed Review- The Basics, The Bullet Points And How To Find The Best Deal...Without Getting Taken!

in a survey of 64,000 individuals by consumer reports, adjustable digital air beds were rated as the best choice for comfort and support...

One of the hottest segments of the bedding marketplace today is digital air beds. The unique ability to adjust the amount of pressure inside of a supportive air chamber is pretty old technology, but today's top of the line air beds are vastly different from the blow up camping beds we grew up with. Today's beds offer a remote control to take your bed from soft to firm and everywhere in between, with a readout that provides a frame of reference for firmness of softness that you can employ in a memory setting on the remote. After all, our bodies need firm support one day, and a little more "cush" factor, the next.

A really nice digital air bed typically makes use of a few key ingredients, and is not as complex as you might think. The entire apparatus is contained within an exterior outer covering usually made with a zippered encasement, since in most cases, when you purchase an air bed, you will be buying it in modular kit form, following some simple instructions and assembling it piece by piece in your home.  You'll likely have a set of stiff foam side rails which form the perimeter of the interior, inside of which are placed the air chambers that are adjustable, with hoses that snake to the outside, and attach either to an exterior pump unit, or a pump unit that is concealed inside of the bed. The remote controls attach to the pump if they are hard wired, or can be wireless, in which case they communicate with the pump unit.

Above the air chambers and stiff side rails and head and foot rails, there may be one or more foam support layers, made of a variety of materials, or there may be no layers, depending upon the model and the cost. Higher end digital air bed systems will often include a layer of memory foam, pure latex rubber, or other proprietary high density foam layers given unique names by the manufacturer, usually to conceal the fact that it is a pretty common or readily available material, but they simply don't want other manufacturers to copy their product.

 Anatomy Of A Typical Air Bed System

Anatomy Of A Typical Air Bed System

Higher end air beds offer many other luxurious features, including advanced memory settings, massage options, snore reduction technology, even warming systems (Sleep Number has a model with a foot warming option that is awesome, we've tried it), and they can even be used on adjustable beds, now becoming extremely popular. You can program an air bed so that is communicates with an app on your phone, it can track your sleep performance and auto-adjust if you're a tosser and turner, and basically coach you into better sleep patterns. Pretty amazing.

The air chambers, pump, and the remote controls are common features found on all adjustable air bed systems. What distinguishes each model within a brand has only to do with the ingredients between you and the air chambers beneath. These layers are made from a variety of materials, generally referred to as "comfort layers", and offer a different sleep experience from model to model. These layers of foam materials also greatly affect the cost, and can easily confuse you when you are shopping.

Ten years ago, most air beds were simplistically designed, consisting of one layer of material, in addition to the outer fabric encasement. The only way to control the firmness or softness of the mattress was to either pump the bed all of the way up, or dump all of the air until you were practically swimming in the mattress.

But with the advances in comfort layer technology, even the leading brand offers a variety of options designed for a host of sleep issues. The foam layer options are almost unlimited,  with the advent of gel foam materials, graphite (charcoal) infused foam that disperse body heat, memory foam that disperses body weight uniformly, and latex, which offers a buoyant, lively feel. Advanced fiber materials that wick away moisture and heat from the outer covering have offered relief to hot sleepers. Green, eco-friendly materials like bamboo or organic cotton are readily available in the marketplace.

Just like buying a car, it's the extra added features that will get you, and some of them are just a waste of money. This is where air bed shopping can get very expensive-very fast. Our basic rule of thumb: don't get swept away with industry sparkle factor. Keep a basic approach in mind, and consider each ingredient in the air bed a mattress marketing tool designed to cost you money first, an asset to you second. 

We recommend being cautious about buying higher end models that offer pillow tops and foam layers with seemingly made up names like "DreamFoam", UltraFoam", employing cryptic and foggy descriptions that really don't tell you what the layers are made of.  In most cases, these foam layers are made using very inexpensive polyurethane foam, and often these materials are precisely the same kinds of foam used in packing materials and shipping containers. Trust me, we've created plenty of highly creative names for very inexpensive "filler" materials, having been on the design side of dozens of mattress models.

 Natural latex is fantastic for a support layer at the top of an air bed, offering buoyant and lively support and distributing weight laterally, and not downward, eliminating pressure.

Natural latex is fantastic for a support layer at the top of an air bed, offering buoyant and lively support and distributing weight laterally, and not downward, eliminating pressure.

When shopping, and you're speaking with a salesperson, or when engaging in a chat online, be very specific about finding out exactly what the comfort layers are made of, prior to offering up your credit card number. You not only come off sounding more astute about what you are buying, but you're likely going to get a salesperson to suddenly cough up additional discounts or incentives. A variety of comfort layer foam materials are available that you can specifically inquire about, including high density foams (similar to those used in home furnishings and in conventional mattresses as support layers), memory foam (used for pressure relief and weight distribution), and natural latex.

 Memory foam is an ideal ingredient for a support layer in a digital air bed as it cradles the body, relieves pressure points and distributes weight effectively.

Memory foam is an ideal ingredient for a support layer in a digital air bed as it cradles the body, relieves pressure points and distributes weight effectively.

The upside with air bed shopping is that there are far fewer options to choose from than if you were shopping for hybrid, coil, or other mattress choices that can make you dazed and confused. This makes it much easier to evaluate and shop for an air bed. And, only recently, the air mattress industry has caught on to the competitive nature of the bedding business as it has quickly become overcrowded with mattress options and even the larger brands now offer price point models that are reasonably priced- and well made- often under $1,000, putting them in the same accessible price ranges as the most hottest mattresses out there. 

An additional feature created by intense competition: most mattress companies, merely due to keen competition, are offering great trial periods that allow you to return the bed if you don't like it, no questions asked, and you get your money back. Right now is probably the best time in the last 50 years to shop for a mattress.

Also, the reason that there are only a handful of air bed manufacturers and retailers (there is only one brand that actually has a substantial retail store operation which sells their own product exclusively) is because they are fairly complex, and the technology surprisingly difficult to master, primarily due to the pneumatic pump and air chamber systems involved. We know this, because we designed and sold our own air bed product line for over 10 years.

The most confusing part about shopping for an air bed of this kind is trying to figure out what the fundamental difference is between each model, and understanding the support foam layers that are found inside of each option, as we discussed above, and trying to determine if you are getting a good deal or not. We've studied reviews of digital air beds on a lot of other third party review sites, and a lot of models in the marketplace had high marks, even more so than conventional mattresses, like innerspring mattresses, hybrid mattresses, and even memory foam beds. Air beds are hugely popular because often couples cannot agree on one continuous sleep surface to share, and a two chambered or two sided adjustable air bed fills that market in a unique way.

Because humans tend to be very fussy sleepers, with varying body types, a litany of possible medical issues, most notably gastro-esophageal disorders and sleep apnea, light sleepers, tossers and turners, or other quirky characteristics, an adjustable air bed often is the perfect solution to quell and calm all of these picadillos, but buying the right model with the right components is very important.

I also know that many people don’t know how to shop for an airbed because of their complexity, and are often overwhelmed when trying to decide which model to choose, or how to narrow down the vast number of internet dealers and retail bedding stores that sell them. This guide is designed to help you narrow down your options and make a comfortable decision so you don’t second guess yourself after the fact. Quick tip: If you are shopping online, fine, but hit a retail store or two to test drive a few models, and ask to see what's under the hood. You'll get resistance on this, but have someone unzip the bed and show you how they are made.

Of course, there are many brands to choose from. Many offer a wide variety of models., and some of these beds are very similar in design. You can do the research on your own, but it is often frustrating narrowing down the list when finding a digital air bed that works for you and your partner. Essentially, most air bed buyers are buying their air bed for two unique sleepers since you can control the range of softness vs. firmness, and alter the feel of the bed substantially.


The Key Ingredients Of A Digital Air Bed- A Quick Overview

The best way to approach buying an air bed that is right for you is to understand the main ingredients and the architecture of a well made digital air bed. There’s a few key considerations regarding the structural elements of a an air bed that will last, in my opinion. From the ground up, a typical air bed might be constructed in a layer cake fashion. The outer encasement or covering is usually made like a gift box, with a bottom “container” type of construction, and a top piece that either zips on or attached somehow to the top of the bottom piece.

The fabric used in the outer cover should be a breathable material, such as cotton or bamboo, though it’s ok to have a little rayon in the weave, I think, since that usually provides some stretch and give to the covering. Passive ventilation is important in an air bed, since a lot of foam layers are used, which can sleep warmer if the proper outer cover is not breathable. Hot sleepers need to be looking at breathable materials that passively move heat away from the bed. Materials like Tensel, for example. A naturally based fiber that is proven to wick away moisture and heat, we are fond of referring to it in the business as "air conditioning by the yard".

Generally, a perimeter, or outer edge, of a firmer foam material is used to provide the “exoskeleton”, in which everything sits inside. This outer edge is also important, since you rely on it to provide support to get in and out of bed, put your shoes on, and for those with physical limitations, allows for easy transfer in and out of bed. A good digital air bed will often use at least a 2 lb. density foam rail system to provide the edge system.

Inside the edge system is where you fill typically find the air chambers, which when controlled by the pump, allow the bed to range in comfort levels from firm to soft, merely by adjusting the handheld controller. Your best with air chambers? Make sure you're buying fabric backed, vulcanized rubber air chambers. Don't buy an air bed with PVC, Nylon, or other plastic air chambers. These materials do not stretch well at higher settings, and at lower pressures, will swallow you into a pit of despair. Vulcanized rubber will stretch at higher settings, and still be supportive and supple while at softer settings. 

Generally, above the air chambers, you'll find the foam layer options we talked about, each providing a unique feel and personality for every model.

So, if you are seeking pressure point relief for example, say from hip or shoulder pain, you’d likely want to find an air bed using a memory foam layer, along with some supportive layers placed below or above this layer. The memory foam we recommend- all across the board- is a 4 lb. density foam. Ask about it, insist on it. The inferior, most commonly used 2-3 lb. density memory foam won't last more than five years. Also, because memory foam responds to body heat, it becomes more moldable and flexible after you've been lying on it a bit, and many people fall in love with that wrap around your body and cradling sensation.

Let's say you like a buoyant, livelier mattress, without that sinking sensation, but like the softer, giving feel of a bed. You'll definitely want some latex, preferably natural or at least a blend, and at least a layer that is 2" inches thick, situated directly beneath the outer quilted top or encasement material.

Ask about the support layers. Be specific about the density. If high density foam is used, (HD foam) we advise using 31 ILD foam.

ILD is an industry term that the public really has no knowledge of. Start throwing this term around, and you're going to challenge even seasoned sales people, and that means more control and more discounts, more incentives. It shows a sales person that you know what the hell you're talking about, and they're not going to mess with you. 

ILD is an acronym for Indentation Load Deflection, and refers to the amount of weight occupying one square foot that will compress a layer of foam (generally a 4" thick sample) 1 inch. It's a general guideline for density and degree of support and firmness.

20-24 ILD  Very Soft- Good for very top layers, the interior of a pillow, or inside of a quilted pillowtop.

25-30 ILD  Soft to Medium feel, ideal for the top of direct body contact layers, allows a comfortable amount of sink or immersion, and cushiness.

31-40 ILD Medium To Firm feel, ideal for lower layers, providing support. Don't go higher than 36 or so for pieces in an air bed for the simple reason that the more you stack firmer layers of foam on top of the air chambers, you can begin to diminish the ability to detect adjustments when you remove or add air to the chambers. 

The ILD quantification is most commonly used for those foam layers or components that are given  hyped-up names like "Plushfoam". Regardless of the name, if you can get an ILD on the material, it will tell you the general characteristics of the foam. Rule of thumb: high density foam with an ILD range of 27-35 tend to last the longest, are more durable, and resist splitting, stretching, and cracking.

HD foam, or polyurethane foam, is one thing, but memory foam is quantified a bit differently. the rating of density and quality for memory foam (also called visco-elastic foam) being characterized in density, meaning one cubic foot of a given sample weighs x pounds. For memory foam layers, we recommend finding memory foam that is at least 4lb density rather than 3 lb, since the 4lb variety is a bit more durable and tends to resist cracking and splitting. It is not noticeably firmer, and will last longer in the 4lb range. Also, if you like a firmer feel up top and still like the memory foam sensation, ask for a 5 lb. density material.

If you are looking for an air bed that is uplifting and buoyantly supportive, a bit livelier and springier, definitely seek out a model with natural latex, or softer layers of HD foam, like a high density (HD) foam that is around 25 ILD , or an HR (high resiliency) foam layer, that has flex and a more elastic feel, roughly in the 22-25 ILD range. I personally like the feel of natural latex, since it is springier, and it’s also completely chemical free and does not off gas fumes or odors.


Pump And Remote Controls- What Options Are There?

Basically, you can buy an air bed that has either hardwired remotes, or wireless. The considerations there are really personal choices, though with a wireless unit, you need to occasionally change batteries, and if you operate other media equipment like a TV, there may be remote hunting at night, as I often have that problem with my wandering remote controls. Many brands provide a hardwired remote, which you can trace back with the cord, and most models out there offer a readable LED screen, so you can punch in your desired setting, find it, and lock it in with a memory button, so you can reset it as required.

Remember that it is normal for a digital air bed to lose a few points of pressure during the day and the purpose of the memory setting is so that you can tap it, and bring the bed right back to your comfort zone.

Shipping And Assembly Of Your Digital Air Bed System

Typically, most air beds are shipped to you either partially assembled, or fully assembled, generally depending upon the vendor. In fact, a digital air bed is highly modular, which is an asset, I think. Down the road, if you are out of warranty and need a replacement layer of foam, you only need to replace that one component, and you’re not stuck with replacing an entire mattress.

Also, assembling an air bed gets you highly familiar with the working components, which I like. Unlike conventional innerspring mattresses, a digital air bed system allows you to handle and understand the structure of the bed, making it easy for you to go back in when required, should you ever need to troubleshoot a problem.

Generally, however, digital air beds are fairly bulletproof, and most suppliers have worked out the kinks with components and can deliver a bed that offers comfort elements that are durable, long lasting and have been used in the bedding industry for many other kinds of mattresses.

Pricepoints- What Should You Pay For A Decent Air Bed System?

A decent air bed can vary widely in price, from under $1000 for a basic, entry level model, to over $6,000 for a more sophisticated model from the most popular brands, with top of the line components and a luxurious outer covering. The top of the line model might feature a layer of memory foam or as other layers as we mentioned at the top of this article, and some other support foam layers that are designed to add some cushion and aesthetic qualities to the bed.

Also, I think a decent air bed should offer a moderately quilted top, without too much filler, otherwise you’re again separating yourself too far from the functional abilities of the air chambers beneath you. Too much piling on of material above the air chambers, and you begin to lose the ability to detect subtle changes in softness and firmness.

Also, ideally, you want to purchase an air bed that allows you to swap positions of the various support layers, so that you can “customize” your sleep surface. Be wary of any air bed that is sewn shut so that you can’t get inside of it. A zippered, removable outer covering allows you to remove and replace internal parts, or the outer covering itself, should you ever need to do so. The more “modular” you can make your air bed, the better off you will be during the long haul.

I’d say, after reviewing many different air bed companies, that a reasonably priced air bed system will run anywhere from $1400-$3000, depending upon the ingredients. If you want two premium layers such as memory foam and natural latex, expect to pay around $2800-$3000. If you’re paying $4,000-$5,000, understand what it is you are paying for by researching the individual support layers and the outer covering. Obviously, if you want a cashmere fabric on top, it’s going to cost you more.

trial periods, warranties and return policies

Make sure you get a decent trial period, at least 90 nights, with a no questions asked return policy. Air beds, though often made with foam layers that can be moved around allowing you to change the feel of the beds, involve some assembly, and if you are moving to an air bed from another kind of mattress, there may be a slight adjustment period. You need to give some time, say two weeks, to allow your body to adapt to the unique floating and buoyant sensation that only an air bed can deliver.

This means that you should be able to get a full refund, with a minimal return ship charge of around $100 to get the mattress back to the manufacturer. Look for sales, as digital air beds tend to be on sale more frequently that other categories of mattresses. And, as we outlined above, study the material we've presented and be prepared to throw around some industry terminology to get your self further discounts and incentives. Trust us, it works.

A decent warranty should cover any defective parts with free replacement for at least a couple of years, and have a good lifespan on the pro-rated side, lets say another 15-18 years. We think a 20 year factory warranty on all parts and pieces should be available, with additional premium options available as an upgrade to your warranty. Best example of a clearly outlined warranty? The leading brand in the USA, Sleep Number offers a very concise and well outlined warranty page for their products. Check it out, here