The Best Aquarium Filter

AquaClear Power Filter

Our Top Pick for 2016: AquaClear Power Filter
Read our full review.

See it on Amazon for $19.99*
*Price typically updated every 24 hours. Current price may be different.
Too expensive? See our budget pick.

You just spent a pretty penny on a nice, large aquarium and spent even more getting a beautiful collection of fish. You know they need a filter to keep the water clean as well as assist with oxygenation, but which filter is right for your set up? Depending of the tank size, the number of fish, the types of fish, and host of other considerations, you may need a bigger more powerful filtration system that could set you back a bit, or you may be able skirt by with a less expensive model rather than waste that money getting a filter that is meant for a much bigger job. That is why we have scoured the options available to present you with our list of the top 3 aquarium filters on the market based on their value. In case you do not have the need for the best—or are just a little light in the wallet—we have even added a budget pick, so you can get the best filter that satisfies your specific needs.

Table of contents

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Certified Flow Rate Of 350 GPH
Offers Superior Contact Time With Filter Media
Patented Carbon Filter Carrier
Uses Two Rite-size C Filter Cartridges
Energy Efficient Pump
Four Model Sizes Available
Three Stage Mechanical, Chemical, And Biological Aquarium Filtration
Quick And Easy Installation
Easy Access Door Located On Top
Four Available Sizes
Continuous Biological Filtration
Up To 340 GPH
Easy And Effective Filtration
2 Year Warranty
Submerged Motor

*Price at time of publishing and may not reflect current pricing.

#1 Gold pick (Winner): AquaClear Power Filter

AquaClear Power Filter Gold Pick

View it on Amazon for $19.99*
*Price typically updated every 24 hours. Current price may be different.

2016-gold-winnerQuite simply, this filter does not have genuine competition with the other entries on this list. While all of the filters reviewed generally do a decent to good job, they all have their issues. However, the AquaClear minimizes those issues while also providing some of the better perks that make this easily the Gold Pick Winner.

The AquaClear, like the other filters on this list are a three-way filtration system. However, this filter’s system is designed in a more biologically beneficial way for both the fish and the ecology in general. The filter provides both chemical and biological filtration methods that customers find to be far superior to its comparably priced competitors. At the top layer of the filter are the patented BioMax filters. These are not just sheets of bacterial colonies, they are solid filtration rings. The rings are made of a porous ceramic that not only fosters the growth of the good bacteria necessary to keep a tank healthy but also begin the first stage of the water filtration. Some of the other biological filters are not their own micro-ecosystems and instead are simply integrated into the mechanical filter which makes them less effective.

Once the water passes through the BioMax filter, it is then cleaned by the traditional Activated Carbon filters. This is fairly standard, though the AquaClear uses 100 percent premium research grade carbon. Essentially, this carbon is of a high enough quality that it can be used for laboratory testing or settings. This means your fish—which generally are living a fairly luxurious lifestyle compared to research fish—should have nothing to worry about. The third and final stage of the filter is also a bit unique compared to some of the other entries on this list. The AquaClear uses a foam insert to remove any residual debris. Moreover, the foam is designed to control the flow of water so that the three layers of filtration all work a peak efficiency.

However, the AquaClear goes a step further in terms of controlling the glow of water. Unlike some of the other entries on this list, The AquaClear includes an adjustment control system to increase or decrease water intake to the filter. This is important because it allows a single filter to be used for numerous situations. For instance, if you have a fish tank with 5 generally clean fish, then you filter may not need to be set to a high water flow level. However, if you add more fish to the tank or switch out some of the fish for others that are known to produce more contaminants, you will need the filter’s water flow level to increase just to maintain the same balance. Similarly, if you have a 15 gallon tank with a given number of fish, your water flow will likely not need to be set as high as if you move those same fish into a 20 gallon tank. In this way, the AquaClear can act as a variety of different filters, each more or less suitable for different jobs.

Unfortunately, if you have a filter that does not allow you to adjust the rate of water flow—like some of the others on this list—then you will either have to purchase a new filter, adjust the nutrient levels, or even change the fish in the tank. Thus, the AquaClear provides you a bit of breathing room to “future proof” your aquarium. Though, it should be noted, for this specific model, the maximum certified flow rate is 100 gallons per hour. This is 5 times the total maximum capacity of the recommended tank size, which means you should not have any problems with flow rate. However, this model of AquaClear also offers versions that are suitable for tanks up to 110 gallons in capacity which puts out 500 gallons per hour.

The filter itself is billed as quiet, but to be honest, there are few powered filters that are actually “quiet” as we would expect them to be. This, of course, means that “quiet” should be treated as a relative term. Still, when compared with many of its competitors, the AquaClear comes out ahead in this category as well. Numerous experienced aquarium owners have praised the AquaClear for its level of noise. Some people have even noted that their version is almost silent. Of course, this does not mean that every product of this model line is equal in this regard, and you may have to slightly modify your filter. Still, compared to the noise levels that numerous customers who purchased different filters complain about, this is likely as quiet as it gets at the price point.

This brings us to another benefit of the AquaClear. It is known for being highly moddable. By this, we do not mean that you will be crafting pieces for a new filter or that you will actively make new parts. Instead, there are numerous tips or tricks that experienced aquarium owners have discovered that can make different filters more effective. For instance, sometimes the intake valve for the filter is a bit too big. If the filter is working on a large tank and running at its highest water flow rate or there are smaller fish, this can create an issue where the valve accidentally sucks up a fish into the filtration system. One easy way to fix this problem is to make a small filter or grate at the intake valve to prevent fish from getting sucked into the filtration system. However, many filters are designed in such a specified way that modifying them like will either drastically decrease the effectiveness of the filter, or it may actually damage the entire filtering mechanism. The AquaClear was designed to accommodate these minor tweaks and uses a system whereby each section is separated from the others so this type of problem will not arise. Of course, AquaClear also makes a number of different additions for you to modify the filter itself from such things as its aesthetic casing design to pumps that specifically aid in water aeration.
The AquaClear is a man among boys when it comes to this price point.

It provides a superior filtration system that is unmatched by its competitors. Not only that, but this filter is also exceptionally quiet compared to other power filters. When you add all of the ways that you can modify this filtration system—whether by purchasing additions or using various tricks and rigs that experienced aquarium owners have developed, this filter is an amazing value for a variety of situation. Add in a 2-year manufacturer’s warrantee and you have an incredibly versatile filter that does not sacrifice quality and is guaranteed against failure.

#2 Silver pick (Runner-up): Marineland Penguin Power Filter

Marineland Penguin Power Filter

View it on Amazon for $28.62*
*Price typically updated every 24 hours. Current price may be different.

2016-silver-winnerFor the Silver Pick Second Place winner, we have the Marineland Penguin Power Filter. This filter is not nearly as impressive as the AquaClear, however it still provides a maximum amount of value when compared to the other comparable filters on the market. More specifically, while the AquaClear will provide a superior performance to most other filter, the Marineland will provide a similar experience to the other competitors while providing a large capacity for the same price.

This Marineland model is the largest model offered at 50 to 70 gallons. This is important because you are essentially getting a filter that can handle twice the capacity of tank as a filter from a competitor at the same price point. Whereas the AquaClear is an all-around superior product, the model at this price point provides less than one third of the tank capacity. To clean the amount of water that the Marineland can, you would have to move up 4 full model sizes—with an increase in cost to go along with it each time.

Still, the Marineland does keep up with the AquaClear in terms of raw power—though that is hardly the best measure of filtration effectiveness. Much like the AquaClear, all models of the Marineland generally have a maximum output of 5 gallons for every gallon of tank capacity. However, unlike the AquaClear, adjusting the rate of water flow is not as easy. It is not impossible, it simply does not work quite as effectively. Specifically, the Marineland adjusts the rate of water flow with the mid-level strainer. This does not actually affect the motor which will run constant. Instead, the rat of water flow is affected by valves which either allow more or less water to run through the filter’s opening. This is not a bad way of controlling the water flow, but it requires much more regular cleanings of the entire filtration system to be as effective.

Unlike the AquaClear, there is also no way to prevent having to change out the filters. The AquaClear comes standard with interchangeable filters, but it also offers the option of simply running a mechanical filter that can be cleaned manually. This decreases the ongoing upkeep cost of replacing filters, albeit at a decrease in the filter’s general effectiveness. Still, the AquaClear is such an effective filter, that, depending on your aquarium needs, you may be able to get by on the mechanical filter and the BioMax ceramic filter exclusively—though this would require you to clean the mechanical filter more often. Unfortunately, this is not recommended with the Marineland. Of course, you should likely use the disposable filters for both filtration systems to achieve the maximum results, but you do not really have much a choice with the Marineland unless you want to take a much riskier chance of your fish getting sick or dying.

However, this is not to imply that the filtration system is subpar. In fact, the Marineland has a novel filter system that, while not superior to the AquaClear, is still pretty unique in its own right. First the mechanical filtration and the chemical filtration are pretty standard. The mechanical filtration system is managed by a floss screen that keeps debris and other large contaminants out of the water utilizing a patented ribbed back system for maximum water to carbon contact. Likewise, the carbon chemical system is also fairly standard, though the carbon filters are Black Diamond Premium Activated carbon. It is the biological filtration system which is somewhat unique. Rather than using a specific filter or pad with the biological micro-ecosystem to clean the water of ammonia and nitrates, the Marineland uses a patented BIO-Wheel that incorporated the bacteria into its design. This is not quite as effective as the porous ceramic that the AquaClear uses, but it is generally far more effective than the standard pad or strip that many other filtration systems use for their biological filtration.

While the Marineland is still a far cry from the AquaClear, it provides a very reasonable and effective filtration system that is on par or perhaps better than its other competitors. It has enough power to keep up with the AquaClear and will actually provide filtration for a larger tank capacity at the same price point—this is especially relevant when compared to other competitors in the market beyond the AquaClear at the same price point range. Unfortunately, you do not get a warrantee with this model, but purchase does allow you to call their toll-free hotline for assistance.

#3 Bronze pick (3rd place): Tetra Whisper EX 70 Filter

Tetra Whisper EX 70 Filter

View it on Amazon for $39.99*
*Price typically updated every 24 hours. Current price may be different.

2016-bronze-awardThe Tetra Whisper EX Power Filter is our Bronze Pick Third Place winner because it does many things adequately, but it is simply not as effective—or reliable—as the previous two entries on this list. That is not to say this filter is a piece of junk, however, the difference in price between this filter and the first and second place filters is negligible at best as all three are priced right around the same point.

One big knock on the Tetra is a sense of betrayal from its marketing. This filter specifically claims that it is extra quiet. Supposedly, this reduction of noise is due to the motor being submerged in the water, thus reducing the amount of sound that travels through the air. However, this does not seem to be the case. As it turns out, the motor being submerged in the water does little to nothing to alleviate the degree of noise it produces—which can be substantial.

Another issue with this filter is that the motor seems to be a bit finicky. There are many reports from customers about the motor dying shortly after it starts. The one good thing is that Tetra seems to understand this and generally rectifies the situation—often providing a brand new filter, rather than simply replacing the part. While this is an appreciable step, it also indicates that this is a consistent problem.

Like the other entries on this list, the Tetra is a three-way filter. Aside from the general mechanical filter, the Tetra also provides Bio-Bag cartridges and carbon filters. However, unlike some of the other entries on this list, the filters themselves are disposable. This means you cannot simply clean the carbon filter and reuse it. You must purchase new carbon filters and throw out the old one after every filter maintenance. Aside from this being a bit of a pain, it also adds an additional, ongoing expense to your filtration system that is not necessary if you consider one of its competitors.

Still, the Tetra did at least make the attempt to ensure that changing the filters was a relatively smooth process. First, the Tetra does come with a timestrip. This is a chemical strip that essentially changes at the same rate as the carbon filter fails. Of course, it would be a major annoyance if the strips were not of sound construction, whether due to design or simply a bad batch, and you did not change your filter in time. This could potentially lead to sick fish or even death which would not only make the money you spent of the fish wasted but would invalidate the filter’s reason for existence in the first place.

Another area where this filter does not really stack up as well against the other filters is tanks size. This Tetra is able to handle 30 to 35 gallons. However, the Tetra also has models of the Whisper EX that are suitable for 10 to 20 gallons or a model that is suitable for 20 to 30 gallons. While the AquaClear model in this list is only a 20 gallon filter, the AquaClear brand has a model suitable for up to 110 gallons—an amount the Tetra cannot come close to. Even the Marineland surpasses the Tetra by 35 gallons.

The Tetra is not a bad filter, but its price does not put it in the same league as the first and second place filters on this list. With a filter system that must be changed regularly, and the inability to control the flow of water, you will very likely have to play around with your tank’s nutrient balance more than say the other entries on the list. Still, if you have a smaller tank that will require you to fine tune the ecosystem anyway, this is not a bad choice.

#4 Budget pick (Best cheap): Aqueon QuietFlow 10 Power Filter

Aqueon QuietFlow 10 Power Filter

View it on Amazon for $5.10*
*Price typically updated every 24 hours. Current price may be different.

2016-cheap-budget-pickOur budget pick actually still provides a solid value, though it comes at the price of capacity. However, at one third the cost of the other filtration systems on this list, the value is on point. You will not find some of the more advanced bells and whistles with this filtration system that you might with other more advanced competitors, but if you just need a solid filter to get the job done in a smaller aquarium, this is definitely worth a look.

The Aqueon is actually the only filter on this list that uses a four stage filtration system. While this may seem impressive, the actual filtering stages may leave a bit to be desired. By no means is that meant to be taken as an indictment of the Aqueon’s filtration system. Simply, the Aqueon uses an additional filter that is more or less a standard part of the other filtration systems internal integration. The first step is the large debris catcher. This is standard and not fundamentally special. The second stage is the activated carbon which is decent, but not made out of some of the premium activated carbon we have seen with some of the other entries on this list. The patented Bio-Holster removes ammonia and nitrates, but the water is passively filtered with this bio-system rather than actively like with the other filters. Finally, there is a diffuser grid which, while it ostensibly removes additional toxins, functions more to aerate the water and reduce splashing noise.

This model does have an advantage in that there is no wheel mechanism, so you do not have to worry about that part failing. Instead, this filter uses an internal pump that is submersed in the aquarium itself. This allows the filter to maintain adequate suction while somewhat reducing the noise. Moreover, the entire filtration system comes with a lifetime warrantee. This is unheard of in the aquarium filtration market and drastically increases this filter’s value. However, you still have to take into account that the filter is much smaller. Still, even the largest filtration system from Aqueon is on par with the Marineland in terms of capacity at two thirds the cost. While this filter is best used for smaller tanks and those with less mess to worry about, if you have such a system, then this is an excellent filter for you.


Pre-purchase considerations

Types of Filtration Method

This is not actually covered in any depth in our product reviews, but it bears mentioning as it could affect your decision when choosing a filter. By “method,” as opposed to the following consideration’s “mechanism,” we mean, which of the three categories does the filtration fall into: mechanical, chemical, or biological. While this list only covers mechanical filters, it is common for savvy fish tank owners to mix and match the filtration method to find one that best suits their needs.

For example, even with the aid of a mechanical filtration system, you will inevitably create a biological one as well. The question is will your biological filtration system benefit or hinder your fish. This method is a defined by the bacterial ecosystem of your tank and possibly some of the fish themselves. A chemical filtration is not necessary, but it can assist with filtration so the mechanical system works more effectively. However, chemical systems are usually not used by themselves.

Types of Filter Mechanism

This specifically refers to the form and function of your mechanical filtration system. There are actually a fair number of mechanisms to choose from and some of the reasons to choose one over the other may not necessarily have to do with the filter’s effectiveness. For instance, Under Gravel Filters are generally used for starter kits and for those tank owners who wish to hide the filter, but are generally not as powerful or effective as some of the other mechanisms.

On the other end of the spectrum you have canister and power filters which are far more effective and generally much more powerful. These are the two mechanism that are used most often and will generally depend on the size of your tank or number and type of fish.

Noise

One of the big draws for an aquarium is the supposed sense of relaxation that it will provide. Of course, nothing will detract and counteract that pacifying effect quicker than a filter which makes enough noise to wake the dead. While you should expect most powered filtration systems to make some kind of noise, you do not want to have to deal with the sound of a noisy motor running 24/7. Another reason this is bad is because the motor noise may negatively impact the quality of life for your fish. It can cause them to develop psychological pathologies due to the fact there is really little to no correlation in nature for which they would have evolved. This can even shorten the lifespan of you scaly investments.

Positioning

Aesthetics often play a large part in the appeal of a fish tank in the first place. For the most part, fish are generally not interactive pets. There are of course some adorable exceptions to this rule, like this parrot fish that loves to be pet. Still, with most fish immediately scattering for a place to hide the second you put your hand in their tank, it is more commonly understood that a fish tank is a display piece of sorts. With this in mind, when choosing a filtration system you want to be sure that it is a beautifying element—or, at the very least, that it is not an eyesore.

Type of Fish

There is a big difference in the filtration needs between different types of fish. While there is an obvious consideration between freshwater and saltwater fish, even fish within the same generally water salinity group may require differing types of filtration systems. For example, the Plecostomus, or sucker fish, that has been mentioned earlier, certainly does not require an advanced or elaborate filtration system left on its own. In fact, an excellent quality filtration system will often deprive these fish of their food source. Likewise, if you place a Plecostomus in a tank with other fish, then that tank’s filtration needs will also be decreased as the sucker fish will help clean up some of the other debris left from the other fish in the tank.

Size of Tank

It may seem kind of obvious that larger tanks require more powerful filters, but this actually opens the door for a wide range of possibilities. For instance, a smaller tank that only holds a few fish may not need a large or powerful filter, but you may be able to get by on even less filtration with the proper planning and selection of fish. Conversely, a large tank may seem like it necessarily needs a larger filter, but using two or more different types of filters may work out as effectively or even better. The point is, the size of your tank will greatly affect the degree and need of your filtration system—whatever you choose.

Conclusion (Wrapping it up)

In all of these lists there is always a first, second, and third place, along with a budget option. However, rarely is the first place winner so clearly the best product. The AquaClear really does steal the show with a superior filtration system that is expertly designed at every step along the way. It utilizes more intuitive, natural, and effective technology and design principles.

Moreover, the AquaClear is also one of the quietest models in its class, which is a major factor for many people who may be more easily disturbed by the noise of an aquarium’s filtration system. Still, the price of the AquaClear reflects its quality and perfectly adequate and effective filters can be had for less cost—though additional, long-term costs are more common. Regardless, with this list, you should be more than informed when purchasing your next aquarium’s filter.

Discussion and comments

We want to know what you think. Do you own any of the products we discussed? Which did you buy and how did it work out for you?

Do you know of an even better product?

Comment below and help your fellow consumers make the right choice. Over to you!

Resources

  1. Shirlie Sharp. “Before You Buy an Aquarium Filter” Drs. Foster and Smith. “Filter Functions and types: How to Choose the Right Kind of Aquarium Filtration.
  2. Katherine Barrington. “Choosing the Right Filtration System for You Aquarium.

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