Standalone answering machines are becoming obsolete, as makers continue to abandon the category. Consequently, there aren't many options from which to choose. More popular these days are cordless phone/answering machine combos, which are covered in our companion report on cordless phones.
Nevertheless, there is a small but loyal contingent of consumers who prefer these devices to a voicemail service from a phone company, as evidenced by a May 2009 post on ConsumerReports.org's electronics blog that opened up a debate about these options. The upshot? Many readers came down squarely on the side of answering machines, citing features such as a one-time cost, instead of a monthly fee, and the ability to screen calls, making caller ID unnecessary).
ConsumerReports.org has not reviewed answering machines since 1999, and no other professional reviews of this product category are available. Retail websites, however, are a good source of user feedback, with owner satisfaction hinging largely on sound quality, breadth of features and ease of use. We found the best owner reviews at Amazon.com, eBay.com, JR.com and RadioShack.com.
Digital answering machines are the only type of machine still being produced; the older variety, which recorded messages on tape, was phased out years ago, although you can find used models on eBay. Digital machines are faster and quieter than the tape style, and they let you bounce from message to message, picking and choosing which messages to keep or discard. The downside, however, is that digital machines generally record about 30 or 40 minutes worth of messages -- far fewer than the old tape models, which could often hold 60 minutes of messages on a cassette.
The best-reviewed answering machine on the market is AT&T 1739 (*Est. $17). Users say it is an inexpensive model that offers a lot. The 1739 can hold 40 minutes worth of messages, and it offers a range of useful features, including remote access for picking up messages, call-screening capabilities, a time/day stamp, message protection in the event of a power failure and toll saver. You can set up an audible signal that tells you when you have a new message, and you can also program the answering machine to announce incoming calls. Voice prompts in English or Spanish guide you through the setup of the machine, and you can choose to listen to messages at various speeds. The device comes with a one-year warranty.
This AT&T answering machine gets above-average user reviews on Amazon.com and other retail sites, with consumers calling it durable, easy to set up and easy to use. A few users, however, complain that the sound quality is poor and that message announcements are too loud, and a few find the cord too short.
GE had offered some reasonable alternatives, but its well-reviewed models have been discontinued, with nothing to replace them.
For those who have hearing or vision difficulties, the ClearSounds Digital Amplified Answer Machine ANS3000 (*Est. $50) may be worth considering. The unit offers 10 amplification levels, three playback speeds and an easy-to-read keypad with oversize buttons. The nearly one dozen users posting to Amazon.com about this model give it mixed reviews, with some users saying the sound is clear and others complaining about feedback noises and muffled recordings.
ConsumerSearch receives a number of inquiries from owners who have lost the manual to their answering machines. The best source of information we've found for these owners is www.InstructionSheets.com. This website has a large archive of owner's manuals available online or through links. This is a great resource if you have a perfectly good answering machine but can't quite remember how to program it.
There are no professional reviews of answering machines, but we found a significant number of helpful user ratings and reviews on retail websites, including Amazon.com, eBay.com, JR.com, and Radioshack.com. We also found a ConsumerReports.org blog post mulling the pros and cons of answering machines versus voicemail services. While this blog did not recommend specific products, several comments show that many consumers prefer an answering machine because it alerts them visually to new messages, allows them to screen calls and doesn't require payment of a monthly fee.