These days, it’s rare to find wearable fitness tech that doesn’t have a built-in heart rate monitor. Many of the big names in wearable tech have made huge leaps in the technology they use to track heart rates; as such, it’s fair to say that most devices will be pretty accurate.
For many athletes, runners, or fitness buffs, a standard optical HR works fine and that ability isn’t the deciding factor in which device to buy. Others, however, want the best in HR technology – whether it’s for training or for health purposes. For you all, we’ve created this review of the best heart rate monitors on the market.
Table of Contents
Best HR Monitors
There are two main types of heart rate monitors: wrist-based (such as fitness trackers and sports watches) and chest straps. Chest straps measure heart rate via electrical pulse, and tend to be regarded as more accurate. Wrist-based uses something called optical technology, though many of the best rely on more than just that.
We’ll get into the technical aspects a bit later. First, let’s look at our picks for the top devices you can buy.
Best Chest Straps
Polar H10 Heart Rate Sensor (Our #1 Pick)
The H10 by Polar is the updated version of the well-loved H7. It boasts improved algorithms and interference prevention, as well as internal memory and Bluetooth connectivity. The H10 is versatile and comfortable, and Polar is known for consistent and accurate readings. In addition, it stays put and hidden under your clothes.
The Wahoo TICKR X goes beyond heart rate tracking and offers additional data on your movement. It’s highly compatible, works with nearly every fitness app out there, and offers consistent feedback on your health and workouts.
The app isn’t the best out there, but fortunately it is both easy to navigate and efficient. It’s an especially good option for those who prefer to run and cycle in the gym.
Best Sport Watches
Garmin Forerunner 235 (Top Pick)
The Garmin Forerunner series of sports watches has legions of fans, and for good reason. They are designed specifically for runners and extreme athletes. Thus, they are durable and offer all the data you need to train harder and run further.
For a watch, the Forerunner 235 does a great job tracking heart rate. For even more heart rate data, you can easily pair it with a Garmin chest strap. There are more expensive and cheaper models of the Forerunner, but we like the 235 for its price, comfort, and usability.
The TomTom Spark 3 is a relatively affordable running watch with a lot of perks. There are different versions of the Spark (be sure to get the Cardio version for heart rate tracking) so you can tack on music storage if you’re seeking a sports watch that will let you leave your phone at home on your run.
TomTom is a less conspicuous brand in the world of sports watches, but they do a good job of offering tech that is accurate, designs that are comfortable, and an interface that’s easy to use.
Related: Full review of the TomTom Spark
Best HR Fitness Trackers
Fitbit Charge 2 (Top Pick)
The Fitbit Charge 2 has been a favorite of ours (in many categories) since it came out. We have to keep up the trend when it comes to HR fitness trackers, too. The Charge 2 offers continual heart rate monitoring, so you can always see your current heart rate and get a look at your averages.
As with any wrist-based HR monitor, there may be some errors at high intensity or during longer runs. However, for the most part, Fitbit’s HR tracking technology has improved significantly with each new device. You can be confident that your readings are typically correct.
Related: Our full Charge 2 review
Garmin makes another appearance on our list with this Vivosmart 3, a lightweight, understated fitness tracker with great HR capability. One feature we really like that heart rate monitoring contributes to is stress tracking – the Vivosmart 3 is an excellent device for someone trying to improve their overall wellness.
Wearing this and other bands correctly is key to getting accurate HR data. It should stay put on your wrist (not sliding around) and sit about a finger’s width below your wrist bone. For runners and other athletes, it’s especially important to be sure the device is snug (but not too tight!).
Related: We reviewed the Vivosmart 3 here
While these are the most common heart rate monitors available, there are a few other options as well. They may not seem be quite as accurate as some of the devices we’ve just discussed, but actually some of them are more accurate. Plus, these other styles may make more sense for your needs.
There are actually quite a few wireless earbuds on the market that will give you heart rate tracking. Your ear is a good place to get an accurate read – most of the HR earbuds use the same kind of sensors. Some studies have shown that measuring your heart rate from your ear is significantly more accurate than your wrist.
However, most of the earbuds with HR monitoring have not received great reviews. And, they can be very expensive. Several of the models have decreased in price since they first hit the market, but you’re still going to be spending over $100 no matter which pair you pick.
Even though the pricing may seem steep, good wireless earbuds are often over $100 these days. Most heart rate monitors are at or above that price point as well. Considering all that, you might say that HR earbuds are actually pretty cost effective.
As we mentioned, many of the models have not thrilled consumers. The best reviewed HR earbuds are the Bose SoundSport headphones; they are also the most expensive. These have excellent sound quality and pair easily with devices. You can use these earbuds with most fitness apps, but they also have their own Bose Connect app.
Why a Heart Rate Monitor?
Heart rate monitoring is important to a few different populations of people. While you can workout and get through your days just fine without knowing your BPM, it can be useful information in a few different cases.
Runners use HR training to run faster, train for marathons, learn to recover better, and more. There are a number of workouts and methods for tracking and training your heart rate. Typically, runners or athletes that are using HR tech for training purposes want the most accurate number as possible, so chest straps are the most popular tool for this. HIIT workouts also rely on heart rate.
There are differing accounts and studies that discuss the benefits (or lack thereof) of working out in the so-called “fat burning zone.” However, many who are looking to lose weight utilize HR monitoring to hit that zone. Fitbit lets you know when you’re in the zone, making it a useful tool.
For some cardiac patients or individuals looking to improve their heart health, HR trackers can be useful devices to keep an eye on things day to day. You should always check with your doctor first for recommended devices and to get their take on how to utilize an HR monitor. With your doctor’s guidance, an HR device can be incredibly useful for monitoring your resting and active heart rate, and for living a healthier lifestyle overall.
Some devices give you information related to stress (like the Garmin Vivosmart 3), but even without dedicated data about stress, using a heart rate monitor can help you watch for times when you are stressed or anxious. It can also help you understand trends and what tends to stress you out by showing you an overview of your day’s heart behavior.
What to Look For
As we mentioned above, be sure you’re under the guidance of your physician if you are seeking a heart rate monitor for heart health purposes. Your doctor will likely have recommendations for which devices are best for your particular situation.
When seeking a heart rate monitor, you probably want to consider accuracy as one of the key features of the device. As I said above, most wearable tech is advanced and can give you fairly accurate results. There are plenty of articles available online which provide comparisons of devices, with ECG measurements as the baseline to which to compare.
Regardless of the device you choose, you will want to note that nearly every device experiences deviations from actual BPM during activity – especially intense activity. Many dedicated athletes use both a watch and a chest strap to get more precise readings.
Another important consideration is connectivity and pairing. Some devices only work with certain devices or operating systems. For example, Apple Watches only work with iPhones, and some Android Wear watches only work with Android phones.
Additionally, adding something like a chest strap to a fitness tracker means accounting for that kind of connectivity, too. For example, watches and fitness trackers that use ANT+ will only work with ANT+ chest straps.
Related to that is connectivity to your favorite app, if needed. If you are picking up a chest strap or earbuds, for example, you’ll want to either check out the app it comes with or ensure it will integrate with the fitness app you already use.
Of course, none of this matters if you don’t find it to be comfortable. Watches and fitness trackers have to sit snugly (but not too tightly) against your wrist in order to have the best chance for accurate readings. It’s worth it to read the manufacturer’s information about how and where to wear the device.
Chest straps are notoriously uncomfortable, but some are more comfortable than others. Read reviews from athletes who are doing the same activities as you to get a sense of which one might be best for you.