January 2008
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Whirlpool tubs: First-class economy

Kohler Devonshire water-jet tub.
MORE MASSAGE, LESS MONEY The $650 Kohler Devonshire water-jet tub felt as good overall as tubs priced hundreds and even thousands of dollars higher.
Photo courtesy of Kohler
The ability to turn a bath into a massage has given whirlpool tubs a starring role in new and renovated bathrooms. Roughly 25 percent of high-end bath remodels include one, according to the National Kitchen and Bath Association, a trade group.

Lower prices are helping put whirlpools in more remodeling plans. Sales are growing by roughly 10 percent per year. While you can still pay $5,000 for a typical 5x3-foot tub, many are closer to $1,000, and one high-performing model we tested costs just $650. Manufacturers are also selling models that combine the vigorous massage of water with the champagne effervescence of air bubbles.

For this report, our testers had the best assignment in the house: immersing themselves in six similarly sized acrylic tubs of all three types: water-jet, air-jet, and combination water/air tubs from leading brands American Standard, Jacuzzi, and Kohler, as well as one from Waterworks, a high-end retailer. All mounted against a wall and replace a typical tub. Some tubs are an optional part of coordinated bath suites that promise more matching and less mixing.

On their way to nirvana, our testers found some notable distinctions:

Pricier isn’t necessarily better. Well-placed jets and more-upright seating helped the $650 water-jet Kohler tub deliver as satisfying a soak as the priciest, $5,100 combination tub. It was also quieter than the air-jet tubs and the combination models when they used water and air simultaneously.

Build quality can vary. Some models leaked and one had to be replaced. One pricey air tub had fiberglass walls thin enough to see through.