What’s The Difference Between Cheap And Expensive Air Purifiers?

If there’s one thing that never seems to go away, it’s the confusion people have about fancier & more expensive air purifiers. Some make some really special claims, using all kinds of big words and complicated designs. 

Let’s clear things up: what’s the difference between cheap and expensive air purifiers? I want to help to I’ve put together this article just for you!

Inside you’ll learn:

  • The differences between cheap, medium priced, and expensive air purifiers.
  • The basic features you need at a minimum – and the fancier options out there.
  • Are expensive air purifiers worth the money?

And more!

Cheap vs medium priced vs expensive air purifiers

cheap vs expensive air purifiers section image

While it’s never as simple as just a matter of quality vs price, the good news is that for the most part air purifiers are different in few basic ways. To help you understand what I mean here’s a table comparing them all.

Air purifier price & differences comparison table

Purifier Price Level Differences
Cheap (budget) Usually have lower performance, no CADR ratings (more about that later), a non-HEPA filter in some cases, fewer features, and may not have odor absorption ability. Tend to have higher noise levels also. Also tend to have poor owner’s manual.
Mid-priced Good value. Brand name units often have CADR ratings, low noise operation, true HEPA filter, odor absorption/pre-filter, easy maintenance. Many are good performers and reliable. May include additional features also and reasonable filter costs.
Expensive Offer advanced filtration (above the HEPA standard), better odor absorption filters, ionizer or other secondary technology. Filters are often expensive and not easy to find. Not always a good value but can be the gold standard for cleaning performance.

I would say the most helpful advice I can give here is that generally speaking, most people are best off (and get the best value from) medium-priced air purifiers. In fact, by far this price range/category is the most popular.

The reason for this is that good models & brands of medium-priced products can offer very good performers, have quiet operation, optional features you’ll love, and low to reasonable filter replacement costs. Most people don’t need an expensive air purifier – they’re great to have if you have special needs or want the best that money can buy but not at all necessary.

To help explain this further I’ll show you some basic examples and go into more detail

In general the difference between cheap and expensive air purifiers is how many different types of pollutants can they remove from the air, their air cleaning effectiveness, their room size coverage, and the features and options they offer.

Examples of cheap, medium-priced, and expensive air purifiers (and what you need to know)

1. Cheap air purifiers

Cheap air purifier examples image

Shown here are some examples of cheap air purifiers of different types. You need to be careful when buying budget (cheap) purifiers – there’s a lot of nonsense, false claims made, and otherwise just bad products for sale.

Cheap air purifiers can come in a variety of types – much more so than expensive and midrange products. In fact, budget-priced products are some of the worst for cleaning performance! Some barely do anything at all!

However, that’s not to say that they’re all bad – for the smart shopper you can in fact get a fairly good one and not break the back.

Cheap air purifiers often have these characteristics you need to know:

  • May not contain a quality filter: “HEPA type” filters can be ok (I’ll explain later) but some have low-quality filters that perform poorly. Many cheap air purifiers are difficult to find replacement filters for, too.
  • Poor airflow: Cheap purifiers often have weak or low-powered fans that simply can’t move air well, meaning their air cleaning efficiency is bad – even if the filter itself is ok.
  • May not include a pre-filter or odor-absorbing filter: Most expensive or mid-priced purifiers include a pre-filter for dust, hair, etc, and also at the very minimum a standard activated carbon odor-absorbing feature. That’s often not true for cheap ones.
  • Some cheap purifiers are only ionizers: While it’s true that ionizers do have some cleaning ability and are also safer than ozone generators, they pale in comparison to how well a HEPA purifier works. Not recommended.
  • Poor quality, power owner’s manual, etc: Cheap purifiers are notorious for mediocre quality at best and things like instruction manuals or replacement part info are typically pretty poor.
  • Noise levels are worse than for other price levels: Budget models don’t have the same low-noise design of better quality products. You’ll need to be aware of this. If anything, budget products that are quiet during operation tend to be that way because their fan performance is poor, not because of a good design (unlike others with much better airflow rates).

Some products like the Holmes desktop purifier pictured above actually are ok. For example, while the Holmes (priced about $50 or less) doesn’t have a true HEPA filter, it’s very close in performance and features an easily replaceable filter. You can also purchase better filters, too.

The main thing to remember for cheap purifiers is you’ll want one with a HEPA or HEPA-type filter and one that you can find filters for without much trouble. I recommend purchasing one with no less than a few hundred reviews that are mostly positive.

I’d recommend avoiding very small purifiers as they can’t physically move much air.

2. Mid-priced purifiers

Examples of medium priced air purifiers

Pictured: some popular (and very good) mid-priced air purifiers that deliver good air cleaning performance while being affordable. Many offer different convenience and/or additional air cleaning features.

Mid-priced air purifiers are some of the best buys for your money and the good quality models are reliable, clean the air well, and have high customer satisfaction. This price category of purifiers tends to be very similar in their basic design: a true HEPA filter, a pre-filter (usually with activated carbon coating for odors), and easy maintenance when it’s time to replace the filter.

Here are some of the most common traits you’ll find with medium-priced models:

  • Use a true HEPA filter: nearly all use a real HEPA filter that complies with the standard HEPA filtration requirements – this means they’re very efficient at how many airborne particles they remove.
  • Include a pre-filter and odor-absorbing filter: Good quality models almost always include a pre-filter to capture dust, hair, etc before it reaches the main filter and usually also include (at the minimum) an activated carbon coating that traps odors and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
  • Not hard to find replacement filters: brand name products in this price range usually have replacement filters available from the manufacturer but also many retailers including Amazon. They’re also easy to replace in most cases as they’re designed to be that way.
  • Filter replacement reminder: most cases also have a feature to indicate when it’s time to check the filter and replace as needed. This may be an LED light or display panel indicator.
  • Low noise levels: they are also some of the quietest products and some also include a sleep mode (ultra-quiet, low speed operation) to allow cleaning while not disturbing you as you sleep.
  • Good like expectancy: you can expect a good brand to last for years as well-designed models are reliable.
  • More options: mid-priced products also, in many cases, offer a version with more features like WiFi control, self off timers, auto air quality sensing, and more.
  • Clean Air Delivery Rate (CADR) ratings: CADR ratings are lab-tested air cleaning performance ratings that you’ll almost never find on cheap purifiers. They’re common for brand name units here, however.

All in all, mid-priced purifiers are the best overall value and the most popular by far. Many people use models for medium-sized rooms but large-room models are affordable as well and often have great CADR (air cleaning efficiency) performance.

Some models also offer enhanced versions for pet owners or a more substantial odor filter as well.

3. Expensive purifiers

Expensive air purifier examples image

Some examples of expensive air purifiers are seen in the image here. They often offer advanced level HEPA filters with even finer particle size capture ability, more powerful odor & gas absorption filters, very large room size capability, and different air cleaning technologies not available in medium-priced products.

Buying an expensive air purifier is sort of like getting to own & drive a Ferrari or Porche instead of a Honda or Nissan vehicle: nothing wrong with the affordable ones, but for people who want even more performance they’re a nice option.

While medium-priced purifiers will definitely get the job done well, more expensive models take air cleaning to the next level and offer more advanced technologies that simply can’t be used in lesser ones. Here’s what you can expect from this price category:

  • More advanced HEPA filters: Standard HEPA filters work well and trap particles down to 0.3 microns (below 1 millionth of a meter) in size. More costly products offer even more advanced HEPA filters (such as the H13 standard) and can trap even smaller elements in the air – as small as about 0.003 microns in size! That’s near 100x times smaller than affordable filters.
  • Advanced cleaning features: some products offer photo-chemical or other processes that break down airborne elements, especially chemicals, viruses, microbes, and other health issues. Standard purifiers can trap some of them but not to the extent that pricier purifiers can.
  • Great odor absorption filters: more expensive models typically have a much more robust (and longer-lasting) odor & gas absorption filter that not only traps a lot more but also has a wider range of gasses, chemical vapors, and other harmful contaminants they can remove.
  • Expensive maintenance: yes, they’re excellent performers (in many cases) but you’ll definitely pay more when it’s time to replace filters – up to $100 or more each. The good news is that many of this type have a life of around 12 months in some cases. You’ll typically need to order them from the manufacturer although some are carried by retailers online.
  • Excellent airflow rate & room coverage: one thing that distinguishes these from mid-priced models is how great they can move air and clean a room. 1,000 to 2,500 square feet room coverage isn’t unusual at all, and they typically have excellent airflow thanks to better design and efficient fans (some use more than one, in fact).
  • Longer warranties
  • Some models offer additional colors or designs for you can choose from: some (unlike most mid-priced products) offer special finishes, colors, or designs that make them more appealing for your interior at home or elsewhere.

I should note that some use fancy jargon for some of their cleaning features (which may or may not be effective) and it’s very important to read reviews and do your research before buying. Just like with other types, it’s best to choose one that relies mainly on one or more filters for its fundamental air cleaning. The other features are then “nice to have” and enhance how well it can clean the air.

Expensive models range in price from somewhere around $500 or so to $800 or even near $1,000 for especially large & powerful or advanced units. Expensive air purifiers are a lot more capable of helping with cigarette smoke particles as they’re some of the smallest airborne particulates.

What is a HEPA filter? What does a HEPA purifier do?

Diagram showing HEPA filter efficiency
High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filter describes a type of filter designed to meet efficiency and air purification quality levels set by the United States Department of Energy. These filters are made of a very dense fiber-like material.

To meet the standard a filter must be able to remove 99.97% of airborne particles that enter it down to 0.3 microns in size.

Note: A micron, or micrometer (uM), is 1/1,000,000 of a meter. It’s a common unit of measurement for microscopic elements.

A filter’s efficiency refers to how many particles it can trap and remove from the airflow that passes through it. At 99.97%, for every 10,000 particles flowing into it only about 3 escape. That’s why even mid-priced air purifiers are very good at cleaning the air.

The good news is that thanks to the High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) standard exist it’s much easier to know what you’re getting for your money.

HEPA type vs. true HEPA filters explained

HEPA filter efficiency graph

This graph shows how air filters (like HEPA ones) perform when used in an air purifier.

A HEPA filter’s efficiency actually begins to fall for particles near the size of 0.3uM, which is why they’re rated to “99.97% of particles down to 0.3uM.” Filters actually work even better above that size (as seen in the graph, like 5uM for example).

Following the red line on the graph, you can see that the efficiency (the number of particles it can capture) drops a bit near a certain size range. The interesting thing to know is that filters actually trap more particles below that size range but it’s misleading to sell a filter based on that.

Minimum particle size is what matters

HEPA type vs true HEPA visual comparison image

(Left) A HEPA-type purifier looks similar to a real HEPA filter (right) but it’s not – the air cleaning ability is lower. For example, the Holmes desktop purifier’s filter can capture particles only down to 2 microns in size, nearly 10x bigger than a real HEPA filter.

The smallest particle size a filter can remove from the air is the most important thing to know. In the case of a genuine (true) HEPA filter, you can be sure that’s 0.3uM (less than 1 millionth of a meter).

“HEPA-type” filters are those that look like true HEPA filters but don’t meet the same requirements. They’re not standardized and can have any range of efficiency and minimum particle size rating.

As I mentioned in the first part of this article, cheap air purifiers sometimes use this type of filter. HEPA-type purifiers are sold to give a buyer the impression they’re getting the same performance as better models when in fact who knows?

Why are air purifier filters so expensive?

Winix type T replacement HEPA filter set product image

Example of a replacement filter set for mid-priced air purifiers from the Winix brand.

Generally speaking, air purifier filters aren’t expensive. Most are around $25, $35, or sometimes $50, so it depends on what you consider to be “expensive.” The basic facts are:

  • Standard budget or mid-priced model replacement filters normally have a pre-filter and HEPA filter, costing about $15-$25 or so depending.
  • Models with better carbon filters (like solid activated carbon pellet, extended life) are more expensive both because of the design and the materials used. Those replacement sets do tend to be around $50-$60 in some cases (usually for moderately large filters).
  • Expensive models, as I mentioned earlier, use an even finder filter material and therefore can cost around $100 or even more. H13 HEPA filters are an example of this, as they’re a level above the filtration performance standard of standard HEPA ones.

It’s always important to check maintenance costs so you’re aware of them before buying air cleaning products. Some filters aren’t available from retailers which means they’re more expensive typically. That’s not very common with mid-priced purifiers, however.

Cheap air filters vs expensive ones: does it matter?

Yes, cheap filters tend to be poorly made and may not even fit correctly! I’ve seen this personally – non-original equipment manufacturer (OEM) filters often are not made the same as the original brand:

  • Cheap filters are often listed as replacements for air purifiers when in fact they do not actually fit correctly!
  • Cheap filters do not have the same filter fiber material density as the original in some cases, meaning they don’t even clean as well as the original brand.
  • Budget filters also affect airflow and the purifier not work as well as it originally did and can be noisier, too.

While it’s not true 100% of the time, based on personal experience as well as complaints from buyers, I’d recommend you avoid cheap replacement filters. If the filter doesn’t fit correctly air will not be able to flow as designed and the purifier will have much worse performance than it should. They also don’t sound right and are louder.

What is a CADR rating in air purifiers?

Example CADR rating label with notes explained

As I mentioned earlier, the Clean Air Delivery Rate (CADR) is an industry-standard rating, based on testing in a lab, that describes an air purifier’s air cleaning effectiveness for particles from 0.10 to 11 microns in size based on the volume of air it moves as it cleans.

While not mandatory in the industry, it’s often used by better air purifier manufacturers to provide buyers with a way to choose the best air purifier based on proven numbers instead of advertising claims. The higher the CADR rating, the better, and the faster it can clean your air.

Basically, the idea behind it is that manufacturers can use the independent test company to verify the performance of their products. If the claimed air cleaning performance isn’t met, they’re not allowed to display the certification label on the product box.

In simple words, this means that the CADR rating will help you pick an air purifier that’s right for the room you use it in, your air quality problem, and you can buy with confidence based on a reliable & proven standard.

What is the cubic feet per minute (CFM) rating for purifiers?

With or without CADR ratings, purifiers are often rated for their airflow rate (how much air they can move) which is expressed in cubic feet per minute (CFM) in the United States and a few other countries. (This is listed sometimes also in cubic meters per minute.)

Purifiers with a higher CFM rating can move air more quickly for cleaning and normally are more efficient at cleaning a room’s air (and usually have a good CADR rating, if available). The CFM rate will depend on the size of the purifier as smaller models have smaller fans and can’t move the same amount of air as quickly as larger or more expensive models.

Do all purifiers sold have a CADR rating?

Do all air purifiers have a CADR rating

No, CADR ratings are not provided for all air purifiers sold. Only for those that the manufacturer has submitted the product to the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers for testing and that has passed the test requirements.

  • Cheap air purifiers almost never provide CADR ratings and if they did, they’d probably be so poor you wouldn’t buy it.
  • Moderately priced and expensive models do often provide CADR or CFM specs as proof of their effectiveness.

This tends to be well-known, larger manufacturers such as Levoit, Honeywell, Winix, GermGuardian, and some others in the mid-priced range. It’s rare to find “off-brand” air purifiers with CADR ratings listed.

If they’re not provided by the AHAM, then they may not be legitimate at all.

Quick summary – which should you buy?

Here’s what I recommend:

  • While it is possible to get a cheap air purifier that can clean the air fairly well, it’s rare, so in general I don’t recommend it. If you do so, at least get a filter-based model with a HEPA-type or real HEPA filter.
  • If you don’t want to spend a lot of money, a quality mid-priced air purifier is a smart choice for the money. These range from about $80-$170 or so depending on the room size coverage & features you want.
  • Expensive purifiers can definitely be worth it if you have the money and need or want even better air cleaning performance along. People with respiratory problems (like asthma for example), especially bad allergies, those who deal with wildfire smoke, or who are super sensitive to airborne contaminants find them helpful.

More great air purifier articles

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