Rather than flood this guide with Flukes, which could easily be done, we have given a broad representation across several brands, prices and types:
|Type||All round||Electrician||Electrician||All round||All round||All round||All round||Automotive||All round||DIY|
|Battery||9V||9V||9V||AAA x2||AAA x2||Rechargeable||9V||AA x2||AAA x3||9V|
|CAT Rating||IV 600V||IV 600V||III 600V||IV 600V||III 600V||IV 600V||IV 600V||IV 300V||III 600V||II 300V|
* 10A/15A: measures current value temporarily only!
Since you will be relying on it to give you correct feedback, which is essential for safety, it pays to get the best multimeter for your situation. Quality, ratings and price vary widely and there are various categories to consider.
The best of it is; multimeters don’t tend to age as fast as the rest of the tech world does. If you were to buy a Fluke 177 today, it will likely be just as relevant in 10 years time, while newly bought tablets and smartphones will be largely obsolete in a few years.
It is worth getting it right first time, though, and we will try to point you in the right direction. See what features to look out for, what functions you would need, and which category to make note of when buying your multimeter.
If you’re new to all this, regardless of the type of multimeter you think might suit you, there are some fundamentals to keep in mind before you consider…
Prices often depend on brand, along with measuring functionality, features, display count, resolution and safety. In a perfect world, nobody would care about cost and just get the best multimeters available. That isn’t reality unfortunately, but for electricians at least, scrimping on their most important piece of equipment is not a good idea. GENERALLY, anything under $80-$100 might not include the best protection.
You could pick up a workable meter for around $20 that measures most things and looks okay on the face of it, but don’t expect solid input protection and niceties like high accuracy and a sharp, backlit display. Performance may be adequate, though it won’t be suited to high energies. There are, however, $20 meters from the likes of Etekcity that do quite well with the basics and would suit DIYers.
High-end models at the other end of the scale are geared to pros – electricians, maintenance engineers and the like. These meters will do most, if not all, of their measurement ranges well. In addition, they also have high precision, good levels of protection, both mechanically and electrically, advanced (sometimes dual) displays, and even the ability to be re-calibrated ‘closed-case’. Expect to pay in the region of $400 for one of these reliable and accurate, high-performance multimeters.
- $50: buys an okay device that will suit many tasks, barring industry
- $100: ballpark figure for a decent overall meter
- $150: better brands / top of the line from other brands
- $400: Fluke’s industry standard models
Bottom line: be prepared to pay handsomely for the best of the best brands, but avoid overspending on functionality and features you’ll likely never use.
Key Functions and Features
If you only need to measure volts and continuity, then you won’t need any bells and whistles, since all multimeters will perform these functions. In this case, you probably won’t need capacitance, duty cycle and frequency measuring capabilities either.
Auto ranging: one of the features you can’t really do without as it takes all of the guesswork and hassle out of testing. This is when the meter will select the right range value (in the background) for the subject you are testing and display results appropriately. The older, manual-only ranging meters would have you pre-select a given range before measuring. You can still get these, and indeed will have the option to switch between auto and manual ranging on the better meters.
Current: being able to measure current may be a must for those into mains fault finding, automotive and electronics work. The cheaper meters don’t tend to offer a current range, or all current ranges – amps, milliamps, micro-amps.
Accuracy: a big consideration. The best multimeters will have the accuracy levels of its various ranges down pat. DC voltage may be within plus/minus (±) 0.05%, for instance. AC voltage is harder to pin down owing to the variations in its waveform, while capacitance can also be wayward on accuracy. A sure sign of a high-end meter – at least one that gives its accuracy specs without bias – would be one that also has AC and capacitance ranges tight on accuracy.
Multimeters today can be made to do 101 things, aside from just measuring voltage, current, resistance and so on. Some are also tailored to the auto world, with range provisions like battery testing and RPM checks. Others can measure temperature, and even light and sound, and there are also integrated data logging devices.
Other useful features: min/max, to pick up the highest and lowest value in a changing signal. Relative mode is useful for comparing a stored value and zeroing the resistance in the probes. And any meter worth its salt will have a hold feature to enable the freezing of the screen. Better yet, some models have an auto-touch hold function. All of these features would be beneficial, with the exception of RPM if you’re not into testing cars.
Design and Build
Even cheap meters may look solid and will often stand up to a moderate amount of abuse. Delve deeper, though, and price is always a factor in how well a device is designed and built. The lower end ones used in homes don’t need to be super-robust, of course, and some of the best multimeters on the market are not built like bricks.
Not to beat the drum, but Fluke usually wins out on build quality. They are made with high quality plastics and rubbers and are put through the paces in a state of the art test facility. The ones reviewed here are all of a good build quality and it would be unwise to consider anything else if you’re working in a plant with hefty machinery.
Inputs and probes: there are two to four inputs that the probe leads plug into. Four is best as it means that both the high and low current ranges are separate and, usually, fused. Sometimes the milliamp current range is included with the main terminal (voltage/resistance) input. This is not great practice. Also, probe leads are often overlooked, with stock ones on the cheaper meters in patricular prone to being a bit rubbishy.
What to Look for in a Display
Most displays on DMMs today are quite well done. A sure sign of a quality meter is one that not only has good functionality and accuracy, but that also has a good screen. While you won’t generally need a 4 ½-digit, 50000-count display, having one that can read to 3 ¾ digits (or 4000 counts) is recommended. Equally important is the resolution, the smallest increment that can be detected and displayed, such as to 0.01mV on millivolts range.
The best, biggest and clearest screen with the best resolution is not much use if it doesn’t update frequently to show legible changes. This is the refresh rate and should be around three times per second and up. Bar graphs are also useful for reading changing values, saving you having to break out the analog meter. A backlit screen should be a given. Cheaper, backlit display meters may only stay on for a few seconds at a time to preserve the battery due to excessive drain in their inefficient product.
The very best multimeters may also have dual screens; that is, two independent readings on the same display, plus the bar graph if they have one. These dual displays have the main reading and another one above; good for comparing values directly or when also reading temperature, for example. Agilent is renowned for its state of the art OLED displays, which are fantastic in dim conditions, though they eat up the battery.
Safety Rating and Protection
Safety is naturally an important criterion when picking a multimeter. All meters are categorized – I to IV – the higher the number the higher the rating. The best multimeters might not necessarily have a category (or CAT) rating of IV, but they will have good internal protection and be up to the job in relation to their specs.
Watch out for bogus ratings: inevitably, some test meter manufacturers will state a category rating even though the device cannot stand up to it. Example: such and such a device is given a CATIII rating up to 600V, which suggests that it could handle three phase power circuits, when in reality it might not have the input protection or build mechanics to cope with such power and the potential for high voltage spikes. As a rule, if a $20 meter is rated to CATIII 600, or even 1000V, be wary. It may be fine for lower power circuitry, but likely won’t cut it at higher energies.
- CATI: low voltage, electronics and automotive
- CATII: single phase mains, house sockets, etc
- CATIII: up to three phase circuits (load side), including motors and panel boards
- CATIV: up to three phase, including supply side, heavy duty machinery
Note: although vehicle electrics are low voltage, they are high amperage and would generally require high capacity multimeters when testing current draw.
Input protection: the best multimeters also come with high rupture ceramic, or HRC, fuses. These are more expensive and rarely seen in cheap multimeters. They are filled with sand and are fast-blow, so less damage is done to the meter or environment in a catastrophic failure. Also, better models typically use high quality electronic components, to include MOVs, PTC thermistors, and shunts for added protection.
Types of Multimeters
We’ve split this guide up into categories that target different areas: budget, automotive, professional, and industry. Prices will vary in each category, usually depending on the features, current rating, as well as on brand in the case of Fluke and Agilent.
Budget (DIY etc): if all you need is something to check batteries, household socket outlets, lights and the like, there’s really no reason to go out and blow a fortune on something with features that you’ll never use. It is best to go with a brand name, however, and avoid $10 Chinese-made devices. These low-budget multimeters may have the measurements and look okay, but will usually lack accuracy, reliability and safety. You can go budget if you are perhaps doing low current work and not in-the-field, but keep in mind they are cheap for a reason; often lacking proper input protection and performance.
Professional / electrician: it depends on what you’re doing – domestic installation work, industrial based, light or heavy HVAC, etc. But there is a huge variety of multimeters in this category, from compact, low current types for general purpose electrics for under $100, to high-performance, full range meters with dual displays. Most pros will go with a Fluke, with the 110 series being among the best value. If you want more functionality, you can’t go wrong with the 170 series, while Amprobe also produce some really good models.
Automotive: these also run the gamut and require an extra set of functions to the average multimeter. Tests might need to be run on solenoids, alternator diodes and to ascertain RPM, for example. A normal multimeter couldn’t do this. The Fluke 88V is the best known automotive multimeter on the market. Although not in our line-up, it is typically robust and has a great feature-set, category rating and amperage rating. At the other end of the scale is the INNOVA brand, which makes cheaper auto meters. The 3340 is your best bet, but if you are on a tight budget, the 3320 could get you by.
Industry: there is no place for a budget multimeter when in industry. If you are going to be testing three phase machinery and control panel boards, you’ll need the best CATIII-CATIV rated meter. In addition, those maintaining plant and machinery might also need the finesse to measure electronic circuitry. The likes of the Fluke 87V is good for both scenarios. In general, industrial meters are the best of the lot regards build quality, with tough enclosures, rugged holsters and good input protection.
FEATURED IN THIS GUIDE
The Fluke 87V is the top pick of our line-up of best multimeters. Apart from the cost, the flagship of Fluke multimeters has few cons. It is very accurate and rugged and can be used for electronics work as well as in industry. Read full review…
If it weren’t for the lack of micro-amps range, the Fluke 177 would probably win. It is quite compact in comparison and has just the right amount of functionality, together with reliable accuracy. A fine, rugged, True RMS test meter. Read full review…
One of the more reasonably priced Flukes is the 110 series’ 117. Though Chinese-made and sans low current, it still has Fluke’s ruggedness and reliability. CATIII-rated, there are some nice features, including voltage detection. Read full review…
Klein Tools MM1000
The Klein MM1000 is one of the best value meters available and muscles its way in among the greats. Tight specs and accuracy, plus it also measures temperature and is made in the USA. A good CATIV-rated meter if you’re on a budget. Read full review…
The Extech EX330 has a lot going for it considering its price range of around $50. Compact and bursting with features, this auto / manual-ranger boasts voltage detection and a rugged exterior. Not lightening fast, but you can’t have it all. Read full review…
The most feature-packed multimeter in this guide is also the most expensive. Agilent is a highly respected brand well known for quality and the U1253B boasts an incredible OLED dual display, together with data logging and eye-popping specs. Fairs worse than others owing to price and battery issues. Read full review…
An alternative to a Fluke or Klein for those in industry, the rugged Amprobe AM-570 is a great value multimeter. With a CATIV rating, dual display, temperature measuring and low pass filter, it has a lot going for it. Read full review…
The INNOVA 3340 is a good, sub-$100 meter for the automotive repair industry, as well as for general purpose fault finding. Feature-packed with several vehicle-testing features – like RMS, dwell angle and battery test – it also has a nice display. Read full review…
This Chinese-made tester made it on the list because of its many features and price. The Mastech MS8229 can measure light, sound and temperature as well as general electrical ranges. It is also solid and fairly accurate. Read full review…
As one of the best multimeters in the light duty category, the Etekcity MSR-R500 sells like hotcakes. Although only a manual-ranging device, it is compact and cheap and measures most things quite well. Read full review…
We also have a handy guide to the best pocket multimeter.