If you’re a vegan or vegetarian, suffer from allergies or any kind of neck pain, a plush down or feather pillow can be the stuff of nightmares.
Enter the memory foam pillow, a squishy, synthetic alternative that can properly support your cervical spine and neck, whichever way you sleep. Firm memory foam is a must for side and front sleepers, who need extra support to keep their backs in alignment and prevent stiff (frozen) necks and shoulders.
But it comes with its own idiosyncrasies: dense foam is terrible at dissipating heat, and can lead to unbearably sweaty nights. Solid foam – without much give – can feel like sleeping on a sofa cushion. And it’s hard to match the sheer, marshmallow-y give of a feather pillow with a block of artificial foam.
Two of the best-known mattress tech companies on the market, Emma and Simba, have released innovative takes on the traditional memory foam pillow that get around these obstacles in different ways.Both promise comfortable support, customisation – to help you get just the right sleeping height – and temperature regulation. Both regularly feature at the top of our own pillow reviews – for specifically memory foam pillows and for all types too.
Simba’s pillow is significantly more expensive than Emma’s pillow: so we put them both to the test in the ultimate supportive pillow-off. Both pillows were tested by side, front and back sleepers over a few nights to get a comprehensive picture of how effective their customisation options are.
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Size: 70 x 40 cm
Loft: 16 cm
Total weight: 1.3kg
From a company that leads the way in mattress technology comes this classic memory foam pillow – with a twist.
Think of it as a memory foam sandwich: its three layers of squishy foam come apart, so you can customise the height depending on how much lift you need (which will vary depending on your height and sleep position) and how soft your mattress is.
The three layers are made of different kinds of memory foam, all with sci-fi sounding names. The top layer, of HRX supreme foam, is the most supportive, so gives you the firmest feel. The middle layer – cooling “airgocell” – is much softer and bubblier and works to disperse heat. The third layer is “zerogravity” vicoelastic foam, which is great at moulding to your neck.
The real innovation is that you can take the layers out, move them around or leave them aside entirely. Unzipping the pillow and delving in gives you a better sense of what the fancy foams really offer: the HRX supreme layer was our side sleeper’s favourite surface, with a great blend of give and firm support. And while the airgocell sounds too soft on paper, when we took it out and tested it, it still gave plenty of support.
This all means that the pillow is wonderfully customisable – and not just to sleeping height. Memory foam pillows can be atrocious at dispersing heat and a nightmare in the summer. With the Emma pillow, you can sleep with the heat-dispersing middle layer at the top on hot nights. It’s worth noting that the case itself, a non-toxic, vegan and hypoallergenic cover, is also naturally good at dispersing heat. Its dimpled texture feels lovely under a normal pillowcase.
The contouring on the top and bottom layers is a really nice feature, and naturally supports your neck in the right position whatever way you sleep. The middle layer is rectangular, though – so if you do decide to sleep with this layer on top, it can make the shape feel a bit weird. Removing a layer entirely – as you might want to do if you sleep on your front or if you have a very soft mattress – does make the case feel just slightly baggy, but nowhere near as much as we expected.
Removing the foam layers takes a little bit of skill: rather than trying to remove layers one at a time (we found this made it feel like the foam might tear), take all three out of the case in one go, remove the layer you don’t want, and replace the other two together.
Overall the pillow is brilliantly supportive, with a luxurious “squish” that’s missing in many solid foam pillows.
Buy now £62.00, Emma Mattress
Simba hybrid pillow
Size: 50 x 75 cm
Loft: 20 cm
A foam pillow that you can customise down to the last centimetre of height. Simba’s unique pillow is a little more like a traditional feather pillow than a solid memory foam one, except that instead of down, it’s stuffed with small open-cell foam “nanocubes”. This means that you can add or remove cubes to get the perfect amount of loft – more if you’re a back sleeper and you want a bit of height, less if you’re a side or front sleeper who needs to lie closer to the mattress to protect your neck. Getting to the cubes is simple – just unzip the case.
This is a really welcome innovation, because even though there are as many pillows on the market as there are sleeping positions, every body is slightly different. A low profile pillow that ought to suit all side sleepers could be too low for a very tall side sleeper, for example. With the nanocubes, you can tailor the fill to the exact specifications you need – and it’s always reversible.
To sleep on, the cubes feel like a middle ground between a traditional down filling and memory foam. There’s more support than with a feather or down pillow, but there’s more comfort than with a solid memory foam filling. If you’re a reluctant convert to memory foam because of back or neck pain and you miss the feeling of an expensive down fill, this is the pillow for you: in terms of sleep-feel, it’s the closest match we’ve found that still gives you plenty of support.
Another area where this pillow excels is temperature control. The striking black mesh border means that air circulates through the cubes, which helps the pillow disperse heat efficiently. A separate layer of hypoallergenic “aerelle” fibres, that sit around the cubes, also helps to dissipate warmth.
The pillow then has two sleeping surfaces: one side (which you can spot because it has a blue border) is made of a temperature regulating fabric called “stratos”, supposedly inspired by the science used for space suits. It absorbs heat and then releases or retains it depending on your body temperature. This is a great feature, particularly in the winter.
The flipside (identifiable by the grey border) is made of breathable cotton from sustainable sources. Memory foam is, unfortunately, not very eco-friendly – so it’s good to see Simba innovating in this area where they can.
Undeniably, this is an expensive pillow – although not as expensive as a premium down fill pillow, which would offer you less support and tech. But it’s worth the cost: it’s extremely comfortable, a lovely surface to sleep on and suitable for summer and winter. Bear in mind that it arrives wrapped up (like a memory foam mattress) and it takes about five to six hours for the cubes to expand, and it’s best not to sleep on it until then. The foam has that unique memory foam smell, too – this dissipates quickly.
Buy now £99.00, Simba Sleep
The verdict: Which should you buy?
Although we balked at the cost, the Simba pillow emerged as the favourite among all our testers. It’s packed with innovations, and they all work – the nano cubes are a fun idea that closely mimics the feeling of a traditional fill, and we loved how incredibly easy it was to make micro adjustments to the height and firmness of the pillow as we tested. While we tested the pillow with a pillowcase, the surfaces – even the supposedly space age side –all worked really well.
If £100 is too much to spend on a pillow – and particularly if you need two for a double bed – then the Emma pillow is a brilliant alternative. It’s the best solid foam pillow we’ve tested, and our side sleeper loved the neat contouring on the edges – it fits perfectly into the curve of the neck, with just enough give to feel invisible.
As we mentioned above, memory foam isn’t great for the environment – it’s hard to recycle, and whether it’s recyclable at all depends on your local facilities and the exact kind of foam you’re using. It would be good to see two of the leading synthetic fill companies taking the lead on this.
If you’re also after a new mattress, make sure you check out our guide to the best mattresses of 2020
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