Memory Foam Mattresses vs. Air Beds

Determining whether an air bed or memory foam mattress is an ideal option can be challenging

For people sick of spring mattresses, the two most popular alternatives remain memory foam mattresses and air beds and many shoppers often find themselves comparing foam and air to see which is best. These two types of beds offer distinct benefits and features with very different constructions, so determining which might be the ideal option can be a challenge. In this guide, we will contrast memory foam and air beds to explain differences and compare owner reviews to offer insight for prospective shoppers.

Sink or Float: See How Memory Foam Mattresses and Air Beds Compare

The two mattress categories utilize different materials and support systems which result in different “feels,” however both types of beds aim to relieve pressure points. Both types also offer advantages over spring beds, but differ in the benefits they provide and in owner reviews. This comparison begins with an overview of each type, followed by an in-depth look at pros and cons.

Memory Foam Mattress Primer

Memory foam mattresses contain a special type of polyurethane foam that excels at contouring to sleepers’ individual shapes while still returning to its original shape afterward. This visco foam uses either temperature or pressure to contour and mold to the sleeper. The material excels at pressure point relief as the sleeper’s weight is evenly distributed across the surface. Rather than resist weight like springs and coils, visco foam cells disperse air to accommodate you. True visco foam beds are also all foam, with the upper layers containing the “memory” foam with a bottom core layer of regular poly foam to provide support and prevent sleepers from sinking too far.

Memory foam mattress layer constuction
Air bed mattress layer construction

Air Bed Mattress Primer

Air bed mattresses utilize adjustable air bladders that allow sleepers to add more air pressure for a firmer feel or use less air for a softer feel. The air bladders are set inside a mattress cover and topper layers can vary from fiber pillowtops to different types of foam. Some brands use baffled or multi-chamber bladders to provide more even support, others use one single chamber. Controls and the adjustable air pumps also vary by brand. Air beds tend to do well at relieving pressure points as the core support is provided by an inflatable air chamber rather than springs.

Mattress Type
Memory Foam
Air Bed
Construction
Visco Foam over Polyurethane Foam
Layers of Foam or Fiber over Air Bladders
Upkeep
Minimal
Moderate
Durability
Good
Fair
Lifespan
7-10 years
8-10 years
Support
Good & Support Conformability
Good & Support Conformability
Pain Relief
Helps Reduce/ Relieve Pain
Helps Reduce/ Relieve Pain
Motion Isolation
Good
Average
Noise
< 1%
10%
Sleeping Hot
3-10%
4-8%
Availability
Excellent
Fair
Average Price Range
$150-8000
($1500 avg)
$400-7000
($1900 avg)
Average Owner Satisfaction
81%
78%
Layer construction icon

Construction

The two bed types differ considerably in how they are put together. Memory foam beds are made exclusively of foam with comfort layers over a support core. Air beds have bladders made of vinyl, rubber or urethane topped with layers of fiber quilting or foam. While foam mattresses are adhered together, air beds typically come apart, with a zippered encasement containing the air bladders and a vinyl moisture barrier inside, topped with a padding layer. Foam rails surround the perimeter of the bladders, and some brands place a foam bar in between dual-chamber beds as well. Air bladders connect to external electric air pumps via hoses which allow users to adjust the firmness.

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Upkeep

Maintenance and upkeep are an important aspect of owning any product and mattresses are no different. Memory foam mattresses require minimal upkeep and there are no parts that require maintenance. They should not be flipped, but should be rotated every 6 months or so and vacuumed occasionally to remove any dust. Air beds also do not get flipped, and depending on the pump/hose placement, may be difficult to rotate. They do require frequent cleaning of the internal parts to prevent mold or mildew, and the topper should also be vacuumed. The parts in an air mattress, like seals, hoses and pumps, may occasionally require maintenance.

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Durability

There is little to break down on visco foam beds aside from the foam itself, which can show impressions over time. Higher density foams (in both the visco and core layers) are more resistant to impressions, while low density foams are more susceptible. As mentioned previously, air beds have many parts which may require replacement during the lifespan of the mattress unlike other types, and topper materials can also show impressions.

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Lifespan

The overall useful lifespan of the mattress refers to how long most owners keep their beds. Air beds can have a slightly longer lifespan since many of the parts can be replaced, about 8 to 10 years on average, though full coverage warranty usually ends within the first 1 to 5 years. Memory foam mattresses average around 8-10 years, with some very high density beds last longer and low density beds lasting closer to 6 years. Warranties on mid-range and higher beds usually include at least 10 years of full coverage against deep impressions.

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Support

Memory foam mattresses offer good support for back alignment, while air mattresses offer good to excellent support (depending on firmness). Visco foam is better at conforming to sleepers’ shapes, though the air chambers do still allow for a good degree of conformability compared to alternative spring beds.

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Pain/Pressure Relief

Both beds receive good reviews for preventing and relieving pain (which typically results from pressure points or a lack of support). In general, about 10% of air and memory foam mattress owners report more main with their bed, while 20% of innerspring mattress owners attribute increased pain to their beds.

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Motion Isolation

Motion isolation refers to how well a mattress prevents one partners’ movements from disturbing the other. The absorptive natural properties of foam excel at isolating motion, and visco foam mattresses prove excellent for limiting partner disturbance. Air bed mattresses have somewhat more motion transfer especially in single chamber models, though still fare better than spring beds.

Noise icon

Noise

Some sleepers are fairly sensitive to noise at night, which can disrupt rest. The construction of foam beds make them virtually noise-free, with less than 1% of owners complaining about the issue. Since air bed mattresses utilize pumps to inflate and deflate, there is the potential for noise with these types of beds. Many models auto-adjust pressure throughout out the night which can wake people up. Certain brands and pump types fare better than others, though about 10% of all owners mention significant noise.

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Sleeping Hot

Memory foam mattresses sleep hot for around 10% of owners in general, although different brands and types of foams vary (for example, on Amerisleep’s plant-based foam, less than 2% of reviewers mention heat). Air beds overall have fewer complaints regarding heat at about 5%, although models with foam tend to be closer to 8%.

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Availability

Memory foam mattresses are widely available in local stores and online from several brands and retailers. Fewer retailers sell air beds, which are primarily available from branded mall stores, specialty mattress outlets and online.

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Pricing

Both categories are specialty mattresses and have traditionally been priced higher than spring beds. However, recently, many of the specialty beds are available at competitive prices as well. The average memory foam mattress proves about 20% cheaper than the average air bed, though among luxury brands prices can be fairly similar.

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Owner Satisfaction

The percent of current owners who are satisfied with their mattress can offer some insight for determining how likely you are to like your new bed. Memory foam has slightly higher ratings, with 81% of owners satisfied versus 78% for air. Individual brands can vary significantly on either side of the average however, so it is always important to research and check reviews.

Revere Bed memory foam mattress

Ultimately, both mattress types aim to accomplish similar goals: improving upon the traditional spring bed with enhanced support and longevity as well as reducing and relieving aches and pains. The differences between the two result from the different means of support, with one using all foam and the other using adjustable air chambers. According to owner reviews, memory foam has the advantage when it comes to conformability, pressure reduction, motion isolation, noise, upkeep, durability, availability and general owner satisfaction, while air generally excels at sleeping cooler and offering firmness adjustability.

Both types prove fairly similar when compared generally on lifespan and pricing, and both also exceed the ratings of spring beds on most factors. When contrasting memory foam mattresses and air beds, keep in mind that the best mattress will truly depend on your own personal comfort preferences as well as on the individual brands and models, so always be sure to compare your options in depth and check reviews and ratings.

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