It may seem like everyone is ohming and ahhing about meditation these days. In recent years, the practice has grown in popularity as a tool for people to relax and destress. Moreover, smartphones and their apps have made guided meditation sessions widely accessible, and ready on demand. But there are so many meditation apps out there, it can be overwhelming to pick the best one for you. Sure, they all offer guided sessions, but what makes one better than another?
Breathe easy: We tested eight of the most popular meditation apps, and looked at their library size, how effective meditations were, and the overall user experience. In our testing, Headspace came out on top, because of its user-friendly interface and variety of quality, guided sessions that are good for anyone who wants to develop, and stick with, a meditation habit.
Here are the best meditation apps we tested ranked, in order:
Headspace offers a little bit of everything, striking a fine balance between providing users with a lot of options while maintaining a high standard of quality content.
When you first download Headspace, you quickly set up an account and select an area to focus on—like stress and anxiety, help to fall asleep, or “trying something new”—and it carries you through to a page specific to your choice. You can also start with the “basics” program, which is designed to teach the fundamentals of meditation and mindfulness through 10 sessions. If these options don’t fill the bill, you can track down specific meditations in the library by searching with a keyword (“stress” or “relax,” among others).
I found the app’s beginner course easy to follow and useful, and the sessions conducive to relaxing and focusing on being present (without dozing off). Other basic meditations I tried were good as well, and I never left a session feeling as though I didn’t achieve what it said I would, whether that be a feeling of calm, focus, or decreased stress.
One big pro of Headspace is its customizable session length. Users can set the duration of sessions from as little as three minutes to up to 20 minutes—many apps offer sessions of different lengths, but Headspace is the only one that lets you pick a session and then change the length. Shorter versions, sometimes just three minutes, can feel rushed. On the flip-side, longer versions, at 20 minutes, can feel drawn out and have long pauses. I found that the middle length, usually about 10 minutes, was well-paced, and filled the Goldilocks bill; not too short or too long.
Each of the meditations uses the same default male voice, though most sessions have a female voice you can select instead. Some users may find that just two voices isn’t enough variety, though I never got frustrated with the narration.
Many people look to meditation as a way to help them fall asleep. Headspace has a growing library of sleep content, from nighttime breathing exercises to narrated "sleepcasts." In fact, I can’t remember being awake at the end of a Headspace sleep session!
Headspace also releases short daily videos addressing a variety of wellness topics, which I came to really enjoy, and even look forward to. They’re usually less than a couple of minutes, and sometimes even incorporate a quick breathing exercise. One day, the video subject was a Q&A with a nutritionist. I was surprised (and skeptical), because it’s a meditation app, after all. Nonetheless, I walked away with a better understanding of people’s relationship with food. Other videos offered bitesize insights into subjects like meditating with kids.
While Headspace is the best app we found overall, it still has its shortcomings. I found it difficult to rewind or fast-forward in meditations, which you sometimes want to do if you’ve lost your focus or want to advance past a lull. But skipping backwards and forwards is imprecise, because it relies on moving an external ring around an internal circle that has the play/pause button.
Headspace also lacked a feature I came to appreciate in other apps: The option to underlay meditation narration with some sort of white noise, like rain or a stream. At times, it was hard to sit through long, silent periods for 20 or 30 minutes without getting distracted.
Ultimately, what made Headspace our top pick: It was the only app I tested that a) did not consistently lull me to sleep during daytime meditations, and b) I found myself regularly queuing up, even beyond testing for this article.
Relax Melodies isn’t as versatile as Calm or Headspace, which is why it came in at third place in our testing. While it doesn’t offer the same breadth of options for users, the sleep-specific content, white-noise and sound-machine features are impressive and make it worth consideration if you’re aiming to use a meditation app to bolster your nightly routine.
Relax Melodies has a large library of meditations and stories geared toward falling asleep, as well as winding down and relaxing in the evening. Some of these were so effective that I nearly dozed off in the middle of the workday while testing. Moreover, even categories that aren’t labeled for sleep, like “relaxation,” have sleep-related content that can be used in nighttime routines. Relax Melodies has a grand total of 42 sleep stories (narratives to listen to while dozing off) to choose from, outnumbering Headspace by 12. For people who enjoy sleep stories on a nightly basis, this could make a huge difference.
Relax Melodies can also turn your phone into a sound machine. Calm has a few sounds that users can choose from to underlay meditations, but Relax Melodies’ library is far more expansive, and allows users to overlap multiple sounds and create “mixes.” I made one with a trickling river sound and birds, and it’s something I still use to fall asleep on occasion. What’s more, if you use the app at night, you can set the app’s sleep timer to shut down after a certain length of time, a feature unique to Relax Melodies.
My biggest complaint about Relax Melodies, aside from its relative dearth of general mediation content, is that the interface isn’t always as intuitive as Headspace or Calm. For example, figuring out how to save a sound mix was confusing, but it rarely took me more than a minute or two to figure things out.
For better or worse, Relax Melodies’ meditations are geared towards sleep. If you’re looking for an app to use primarily at nighttime and that can function as a sound machine, Relax Melodies is a great choice. But, if you want something more versatile for building a meditation habit throughout the day, Headspace or Calm will better suit your needs.
I’m Lindsey Vickers, the senior staff writer covering sleep here at Reviewed. Like most people, I’m a seasoned sleeper. Getting a good night’s rest, whatever it takes, has always been a priority for me. I also tend to be on the stressier side, so using apps to explore mindfulness exercises and meditation practice was an exciting endeavor to change my mindset and improve my outlook. I’m not one of those people who can meditate without guidance, as my mind starts bouncing all over the place, or I’ll just quit early (likely because my brain came upon something else I need, or want, to do slightly more than meditation). Using guided sessions was the only way I could break into meditating, and as a newbie to the practice, I was able to experience the apps as a true beginner.
Meditation apps are tricky to test, because they’re so subjective and based on personal experience and mental health. Moreover, certain people are likely looking for different functions. There is no “one size fits all” in the meditation world.
That said, I worked with Reviewed’s scientist, Julia MacDougall, to develop questions and assessments that consider the app’s user friendliness, versatility, library of sessions, and, of course, the effectiveness of the meditation sessions. The testing was broken into three stages.
For the first round of tests, I used the free versions of each app. I tried various meditation sessions, types, and lengths, when possible. I also used apps’ sleep specific content (including sleep stories and sleep meditations), if available, and left them running overnight to see if any took a significant toll on my phone’s battery. I looked at how much information the apps provided on why users were doing certain things throughout their meditation sessions. And, of course, I considered how effective the content was overall. A final and key consideration was whether I, as a normal user, would be motivated to continue using the app.
In the second round of testing, I tried the paid version of every app. With full access, I tried additional meditations, guided sleep sessions, and used sleep stories or sleep meditations from different apps on a nightly basis. In this round, I considered additional questions, like whether the apps allowed for customization of meditation sessions in terms of the speaker voice, and length, and the content available behind the paywall.
In the final round, I assessed my overall experience with the apps. With every subscription comes a cancellation, so I went through that process for each app and considered how easy or difficult it was. I also finalized my overall impressions of the paid to unpaid versions, taking into account the breadth of content, any glitches I experienced, and my experience overall.
Fortunately, I liked most of the apps I tried, just for different reasons, and I can see how certain users could benefit from each one. Some apps offer versatility, while others are really inexpensive (or completely free). Even our lowest scoring app has noteworthy merits.
What To Know If You Want To Start Meditating
People meditate for a variety of reasons: to reduce stress, cope with events in their life or the world, wind down for sleep—the list goes on. If you’re new to the practice and want to reap the full benefits, it’s best to meditate on a daily basis. The duration of a single meditation session doesn’t matter so much, it’s fine even if you can only briefly meditate once a day, says Dr. Bassam Khoury, an assistant professor in educational counseling and psychology at McGill University and director of the university’s Mindfulness Research Lab. What’s most important is that you actually do it.
Building meditation into your daily schedule by doing it at the same time everyday is a good way to keep yourself on track and practicing regularly, he says. Any meditation is better than none, but people who meditate regularly will see the greatest benefit.
While most of the apps we reviewed primarily use meditation sessions based on breath, there are also other ways to meditate. You can meditate by keeping your focus on a single, external object, like a photo, Khoury says. For people with anxiety, especially those who feel chest tightness or have difficulty breathing when they’re stressed, shifting meditation away from the breath may be a good option.
Some types of meditation include the practice of “body scanning,” in which you direct your focus to your muscles and sensations you’re experiencing, or to feeling the weight of your body in space. While this is relaxing for some, these kinds of sessions have the potential to be triggering for people with eating disorders, or those who are in recovery, says Jennifer Rollin, a therapist who specializes in working with adolescents and adults with eating disorders, and founder of the Eating Disorder Center in Rockville, Maryland. In that case, breath-focused or object-focused meditation exercises might be a better choice.
Meditating can also be difficult for people who have experienced trauma, she says. For this group she recommends, “being aware of specific triggers and whether meditation, closing your eyes, and going inward feels safe to you.”
This all goes to say: Meditation is a personal experience, and choosing the right app and types of sessions for you will come down to a variety of factors, from personal preference to experience level. Fortunately, all but one of the apps we tested have a free trial period, so you can try them on for size before committing.
Other Meditation Apps We Tested
Calm is one of the most versatile apps we tested. When we first published this guide, its price earned it our best value award. However, over time pricing has changed among the products we tested. The app features a broader array of voices guiding meditations than Headspace, which may be appealing to some users. In addition, Calm boasts a huge library of sessions, including more extensive sleep content than Headspace. However, Calm’s meditation content wasn’t as consistently effective for me as Headspace’s—for example, one of the sleep sessions actually kept me up. This, in addition to minor but annoying app glitches and slow loading times for sessions, left Calm in second place.
Calm touts one feature that Headspace lacks: background sounds. Instead of having periods of silence during sessions, you can layer a soundscape, such as a mountain lake, or rainfall, beneath the narration, and adjust the relative volume of the background noise to your liking. Users living in noisy environments or who focus better when they’re engulfed in sound may benefit from this feature. For people who just want to listen to the voice, the volume of the background sound can be turned all the way off.
The majority of Calm’s meditation library is recorded by a female narrator, though a number of the same sessions were also recorded with a male voice, giving users the option to choose. In addition, there are a handful of celebrity voices that make appearances, such as Lebron James, as well as sessions led by various guest instructors. This variety is nice but not necessary in a good meditation app.
Calm offers a broader library of sleep content than Headspace does, but some of Calm’s sleep sessions are better than others. One that I selected is narrated by John McEnroe, the retired tennis player. In the session he describes, well, the rules of tennis. Maybe the idea is that tennis rules are boring enough to put people to sleep, but somehow the session kept me up. Others, however, had the desired effect for me during my testing, such as the introductory course, “7 Days of Calm,” and “7 Days of Calming Anxiety.”
I also had some difficulty with Calm’s interface. Some meditations took a long time to load, which wasn’t an issue in the other apps I tested. A couple of times, switching between the male and female narrator was so slow-going that I just shut down and restarted the app. This is a minor inconvenience, but it could become annoying on a regular basis. In addition the duration of an individual session can’t be customized, like on Headspace. That said, Calm offers meditations of various lengths, from 3 to 30 minutes.
Calm’s extensive library of guided meditations and sleep content, in combination with its cheaper-than-many price, make it a solid choice. (This is especially true for anyone looking for celebrity-led meditations and bedtime stories—Calm has sessions by Matthew McConaughey, Camila Cabello, and more.) The app is especially good for people new to the practice of meditation who want more variety in narration and style than Headspace offers—just try not to let any app glitches spoil your zen.
Simple Habit is easy to use and navigate, but requires users to create an account in order to access content, even on the free version of the app. In addition, users only get three free meditations before hitting the paywall, at which point they may use the premium version for a week on a trial basis (which requires entering payment info) before fully subscribing. I was surprised by the strict limits, because they barely allow users to skim the surface. Other apps, in contrast, provided a better selection of meditations in the unpaid version, and sometimes even enough that casual users could scrape by without paying at all.
I liked the sleep-specific meditations I tried on Simple Habit and found many of the sessions and topics they covered useful. The app also offered sessions lead by different meditation guides and experts, like Calm, which is a plus for some users. But the interface and overall user experience isn’t as polished or appealing as our top picks. The app is decent, it just wasn’t very memorable and didn’t consistently make me want to come back for more.
For users who are battery-conscious, be sure to click the lock button or shut down your screen because, at least on iPhones, the screen won’t automatically shut off after you start a meditation on Simple Habit. Your battery could take a noticeable hit from running a 20-minute meditation, especially if your display is at full brightness.
Some of the meditation sessions I completed on Ten Percent Happier were solid, but others didn’t feel as if they delivered on what they promised. While testing, I listened to a meditation titled “Boosting Low Energy” mid-afternoon in hopes it would help perk me up. After about 10 minutes I quit because it wasn’t rejuvenating at all. In fact, it made me super tired.
One course the app offers is called "The Basics." I thought the meditations themselves were fairly effective, and beginner-friendly, but each session is prefaced with a short video that introduces a concept users will encounter during the meditation. The clips, which are in interview format, try to explain what users will be doing and why. Unfortunately, I never found them very informative or useful—they just seemed awkward, almost as cringy as the videos you were subjected to in middle-school health class. I wound up skipping them most of the time.
Ten Percent Happier also sends users an onslaught of emails. I got nearly daily emails from the company, and some days I received multiple messages (masquerading under different names in my inbox) from the app developers. The app requires you register, with an email, before you can access anything. There was likely an option to opt out of messages, but I didn’t see it, and this kind of spamming is unbecoming of an app that’s supposed to reduce your stress.
I appreciated that I could access Insight Timer's content without entering my email, but this only applies to the free version—to unlock the trial of the premium app, you must create an account.
For more seasoned practitioners, this app could be a good choice because, as the name implies, it integrates a timer function with adjustable durations, interval bells, and even ambient sound.
However, the free version of the app has a few frustrating limitations, despite allowing users to access thousands of meditation sessions. Users can’t fast-forward, rewind, or start a mediation where they left off if they had to step away, got distracted, or closed the app mid-session.
I also didn’t love the interface, especially the home page. Several of the other apps we tested, including Headspace, have a daily meditation that the app automatically opens to. On Insight Timer, the default home screen is a map of where users are (from my understanding), beneath categories of content available to users. This screen can be customized, to show your favorite meditations or timer, but it’s not the same as introducing you to a new approach, practice, or idea on a daily basis, a feature I appreciated in several of the other apps I tried.
The free version of Waking Up performed well in our first round of testing, but the paid version had less to offer than some of the other apps we looked at. Relative to what was in front of the paywall, the breadth of what was behind the scenes was underwhelming.
On the plus side, Waking Up offers more content devoted to understanding the theory of meditation than any of the other apps we tested. For people who want to build a deep and thorough understanding of the practice of meditation, this app could be a good fit.
The interface is fairly easy to navigate, but the app lacks a search function, which makes it difficult to find meditations for specific purposes. Another major downside is that users can’t access a trial version of the premium content. In order to see what lies beyond the paywall, you have to pay the full price of a subscription. Waking Up offers a satisfaction guarantee, so if you don’t like the app, you can get your money back.
The premium content on this app is decent, but I didn’t find it as extensive, versatile, or practical as some of the other apps I used. The length and voice in meditation sessions can’t be customized, and users aren’t able to incorporate white noise. All this, in combination with the smaller library, contributed to its low ranking.
We thought that it was important to find and test an app that was completely free (as in, there is no paywall whatsoever), which is how we landed on including UCLA Mindful. Unfortunately, it came in at the bottom of our test due to its lack of versatility and limited number of sessions—just 13 in total.
The interface of UCLA’s app is easy to navigate, and for people looking to dip their toes into meditation without a paywall or for people who seldom meditate, it could be an acceptable choice. But if you’re looking for something to use on a regular basis, its small library of meditation sessions could feel limiting.
Lindsey writes about sleep, lifestyle, and more for Reviewed. In her waking hours, she likes to spend time outside, read, cook, and bake. She holds a master’s in journalism from Boston University and bachelors' degrees in English Literature and Anthropology from the University of Utah.
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