The Best Canister Filters for Aquariums (2019 Reviews and Top Picks)
For those hobbyists getting serious about aquarium keeping, high quality filtration is top of mind for keeping the best fish only and planted tank systems. While hang on back power filters have their place in community community setups, there are setups with heavier demands like planted and predator tanks that require a high end filtration solution. This is where canister filters come in.
There are many canister filters out on the market so it's difficult to determine what are the best canister filters on the market. This blog post covers all the major candidates and hopefully after reading this you can select the best canister filter for your aquarium. Let's first start with a simple question
Which Aquarium Filter is Best for Me?
You may be thinking about getting started on an aquarium and wonder what filtration system you need. This blog post is mostly going to cover the freshwater side of things as saltwater tanks have totally different criteria (though in canister filter's defense canister filters do make good filters for a fish only saltwater tank).
Determining the best aquarium filter for you comes down to several factors:
- What fish are you planning to keep?
- How concerned are you about noise and aesthetics?
- How long is your tank
- What is your budget?
Canister filters are often considered the best aquarium filters for freshwater tanks because they offer superior mechanical, chemical, and biological filtration often times at a reasonable price. They are also well suited for terrariums and tank tanks since the tubing can go down further than power filters.
Benefits of Using a Canister Filter
Choosing a Canister Filter over a hang on back power filter has multiple upsides to it.
High Flow Rates
Depending on the canister filter you select, there are some models that have higher flow rates than others, which make them great for tanks that need a lot of filtration flow like African Cichlid tanks.
Some also come equipped with spray bars or outlet tubing that you can run on the surface of the water, which eliminate surface scum and aerate your tank. This can eliminate the need for a noisy air pump.
Flexible Media Selection
Best canister filters hold a large amount of media space, you have the freedom to add multiple types of media in the canister filter. Most people will go for carbon, but there are other media such as additional biological media, Chemi-pure, phosphate removers, and ammonia remover.
Easy Setup Process and Cleaner Setup
Canister filters are pretty easy to setup and go into your aquarium cabinet making them easier to access when needing to maintain them. A well designed canister filtration will have auto off or drain options that allow the unit to be cleaned without causing a giant mess.
Cleaning used to be the achilles heal of canister filters of old, but as you will see, many of the best canister filters we have listed here have features that make it painless to perform cleans and easy to prime again (some you don't even need to prime!).
The best canister filters offer long warranties and are expertly built in countries like Germany and Italy. Both countries are very well known for building quality and durable aquarium equipment that has stood the test of time with 1000s of successful field results.
We do have a budget built system listed that are made in China, but they were included because several hobbyists have reported good results and not everyone is on a bigger budget.
This is the big separator between hang on the back power filters and canister filters. The best canister filters are very quiet and you avoid the vibration noise from a hang on the back unit. The vibration from the filter and the glass on your aquarium is what causes most of the noise. If you need a quiet area or sleep light, a canister filter should be on the top of your list for consideration.
Clean Aquarium Presentation
Most people who keep aquariums, especially in high traffic areas like living rooms, restaurants, family rooms went filtration parts sticking out like a sore thumb. A canister filter hides your major piece of filtration in your cabinet and you can work in an inline heater system to heat the tank without putting a heater in the tank. You also have the option of not having to run an air pump with the aeration a canister filter provides. There really anything much better in regards of hiding equipment aside from using an overflow and sump, which is a whole other topic and level of filtration spend/budget.
Best Canister Filters for Aquariums
There are many canister filters out on the Market. The list below were handpicked by our years of experience in the hobby and through various client builds. Many have unique features and others have great brand names behind them. The great thing about the freshwater hobby is that it has been around for a long time, which has given the industry time to develop high quality filtration products.
Below is our list of the best canister filters in the industry:
Best Canisters Filter Aquarium Reviews
1. Aqueon Quietflow Canister Filters - Featured Loaded with a Budget Friendly Price
We start off our list with Aqueon's new QuietFlow Canister Filters. This is a really solid unit that sports a 3 stage filtration process with plenty of media space. It's first stage uses a sponge instead of filter floss or a filter sheet, which will save you money in the long run on mechanical filtration since you can clean the sponge in a bucket instead of throwing it away. It holds two biological media chambers with media included that gives you additional bioload capacity.
The Aqueon QuietFlow Canister Flow has quick disconnect valves that are adjustable for easy clean and flow adjustment. It comes completely with multiple outlet options. You can either use the spray bar, water director, or connect it to the included water polishing unit.
The water polishing unit has is essentially an Aquaeon Power Filter that hangs on the back of the tank. You would use the mechanical filtration packs to clean water. We actually think this is an unnecessary piece of equipment as mechanical filtration should come first not last. We would have really like if this had a diatom filter option, but it's a nice attachment nonetheless especially if you want more widespread surface agitation. The canister filter also only comes with a 12 month warranty.
- Well built and Aqueon name
- Valves for easy clean
- Ample media space
- 12 month warranty only
- Water polishing unit feels unnecessary - should have been a diatom filter instead
2. Cobalt Aquatics EXT External Canister Filter - Uniquely Designed with An External Pump
The Cobalt Aquatics EXT Canister Filter is the most uniquely designed canister filter on this best of list. There are several features that makes really love this unit.
First, The canister is designed to force water through each of the 4 stages separately. With other canister filters, the water flows through the unit on one side and out the other which can lead to debris filtering into the other stages. The Cobalt canister filter pushes water one stage at a time resulting in cleaner chemical and biological media.
Second, the canister filter is equipped with an inline pump. Most canister filter pumps are inside the canister, which make it messy to clean and more prone to clogging. This also give it the incredible feature of being about to fully move water while the canister itself is being maintained. This makes the unit very easy to open and quick to maintain and also easier to replace if the pump ever breaks. The flow on the unit is easily adjusted with a dial at the top of the unit.
Third, is the amble media space. The total canister volume here is 1.85 gallons and Cobalt does a disservice rating this only to 55 gallon which it can be more, but they are a pretty honest company and they offer a great 3 year warranty.
The are shortfall that we see in this unit however. We really don't like that the 4th stage finishing floss is at the end of the canister, it really should be in the 2nd stage. The unit also only comes in a single size, meaning you will need multiple units for larger aquariums. It's also expensive given its rating.
- Unique features like the inline pump
- Great filtration design pushing water through each stage one at a time
- 3 year warranty
- No spray bar if you want one
- Only one model available
3. Eheim Classic Canister Filters - German Design with Legendary Durability
The Eheim Classic Canister filters are a throwback to the original canister designs. It is a old, but proven design and with a name that back it. Eheim is best known for its canister filters and pumps. Their quality engineering, design, and durability are unmatched in the industry.
The Eheim Classic Canister filters offer a lower priced option while getting the quality Eheim name. The pumps are extra silent and extra energy efficient, so much so that it is possible to run even the 600 model off a simple UPS for several hours during a power outage. That means you can run your entire filtration unit during a power outage - that's a pretty stellar feature!
The main downfall with the Classic units is the design. It just looks ancient and ugly. It hasn't been updated in years and the tubing is a algae green color. It doesn't exactly hide well inside your aquarium. It also only comes with the mechanical and biological media, meaning you have to purchase the chemical media separately.
- Canister filters are what Ehiem is known for - incredible durability
- Quiet operation
- They use very little power
- Ugly looking Canister
- Green tubing shows like a sore thumb in tank
- Hasn't been updated in years
4. Eheim Pro Filters - High End German Design for the Aquarist That Demands The Best
For those looking at a higher end upgrade to the Eheim name, the Eheim Pro Canister Filters answer the call. This square model provides extra media capacity and suitable for larger aquariums.
The pro units come with a self priming feature which allow for the unit to quickly and easily start. The also has the ability to control flow with it's Xtender control function and also has the ability to redirect water from different chambers to extend media life.
Because of the high quality bearings and ceramic axles on the pump, this is one of the quiet and durable canister filters. Eheims have withstood the test of time, with many hobbyist reporting Eheim canister filters operating 10+ years with no setbacks. They come with a price tag, but it's as one and done as you get with a filtration solution. You will not be disappointing choosing Eheim.
- Massive media space
- Self priming design
- Designed for high bio-load and large aquariums
- Quiet operation
- Hard to find
5. Fluval Canister Filters - Classic Canister Design with Italian Made Aesthetics
For those of us who have been in the Aquarium business for a long term, we are very familiar with the Eheim vs. Fluval battle. Both of these manufacturers have been debated among the community as to who makes the best canister filters and for a very good reason.
The Fluval Canister Filters are quality Italian made units. We really wish we would hear more about Italian and German made equipment in the Reefing side of the hobby with all the Chinese manufactured equipment, but I guess the freshwater community gets all the good names :).
The Fluval Canister Filter steps up with this new design that now comes with flex ribbed tubing versus the cheap vinyl you are used to see with canister filters. It brings water down into the chambers of the filter to ensure the first chamber filters first as it should and it has a nice check valve feature on the drain preventing a flood in the even of a power outage of motor failure.
Like all the other canister filters reviewed previously, the Fluval has great media capacity. The instant prime system allow for quick start up and the lift-lock clamps make it easy to access.
The main downfall we see with this unit is that it does not have valves so you cannot adjust the flow or easily drain it when maintaining. The flex hosing also keeps you from installing an inline heater unless you modify the plumbing.
- 3 Year warranty
- All black design makes it easier to hide pipes in aquarium
- Uses flex tubing instead of cheap vinyl
- More on the pricey size
- Due to the flex hosing - you can't integrate an inflow heater without modification
6. Fluval FX Series Canister Filters - High Flow and Designed for Monster Fish Keepers
The Fluval FX Series canister filters are a top of the line canister filtration system for those with aquariums with high demands. The filter is built to last with it's Italian made design, external pump design, and high quality parts.
The FX Series filters are well known for its high flow, with the FX4 model pulling 700 gallons per hour and the FX6 pulling 925 gallons per hour. This flow power makes it ideal for larger fish that produce a ton of waste in the aquarium. The basket in basket media tray design easily has the great capacity of all the canister filters on this list. The filter also comes with a multi-functional utility valve drain that makes it possible to empty the canister for maintenance and also to drain water out of the aquarium seemlessly without having to bust out your siphon. It also has a gravel vac accessory so you can vacuum though the filter.
The largest model, the Fluval FX6, is rated up to 400 Gallons making this ideal for folks who keep large fish tanks. The twin output nozzles allow for customized flow and prevents surface scum from building at the top of the aquarium. Fluval really has though of everything with this design.
Our main drawbacks with this wonderful filter is the price tag. It is easily the most expensive canister filter on the list, but rightly so given the features and performance. We also do not like that they us a carbon pad instead of actual activated carbon. The flex hosing also makes it more difficult to incorporate an inline heater (though in full disclosure you would need multiple heaters for a large tank anyway). The industrial like design all makes it time consuming to maintain.
- Built for larger systems - larger model goes up to 400 gallons
- High flow
- Italian built with external pump design - 3 year warranty
- Flush valve and adjustable valves
- Annoying to maintain with the industrial level design
- They are massive - won't fit in tight setups
7. Hydor Professional Canister Filter - Loaded with Features
Hydor is a new player in the canister filter market, but well known for other equipment, especially for marine equipment. They really have thought up of a well built canister filter with the Hydor Professional Canister filter line.
The main thing we like about this canister filter is the safety lock design. While we don't expect kids to get into our filters, there also is a risk they may get in your cabinet o knock something around so this is added piece of mind.
The canister filter comes with a no water bypass design, which means that you don't have to worry about water passing down a filtration chamber. This is a feature we have seen with the higher end canister filters we have reviewed. The ball valves allow for you to adjust the flow of the filter. It has a rubber feet design to reduce noise as well.
The main drawbacks we see is the warranty is only 2 years versus the 3 years we usually see with the Fluvals of the world. It is also a bit messier to maintain compared to the the other models we have looked at.
- Adjustable media cambers
- Flat design makes it easier to store in cabinet
- Adjustable flow with valves
- Only a 2 year warranty
- Higher price than other mid-level canister filters
- Louder than the other filters
8. Marineland Mangiflow Canister Filters - The Successor to the Incredible Magnum 350 Canister Filters
The Marineland Maniflow Canister Filters are the successor to the Magnum 350. For those of you who weren't in the hobby before the Magnums were around, the Magnum was considered one of the more versatile canister filters. The main downfall of the old magnum was the lack of media space options with the limited media space.
The new Marineland Magniflows addresses the media space issue with this very well built canister filter. The new magniflow have a stack and flow filter tray feature which keeps water from moving into the various stages prematurely. The canister lid is a quick latch on and off function with a better seal then the old mangums. What we really like is the quick release function which immediately shuts down water flow and separates the motor for quicker and less messy cleaning.
Marineland also does a great job with the starting media that comes with it. They use foam for the mechanical filtration, which is reusable and the bio-balls are a good mid-tier media. The water polishing media is sizable and cheap to replace, but we would have liked it after the mechanical filtration to keep our chemical and biological media chambers cleaner. Another thing we really miss is the diatom feature of the old magnum filters. The diatom filter option was great for water polishing, ich management, and removing dinoflagellates. That's what made the Magnums so you unique and it's really an underrated filter feature. It's a shame it could not be included.
- 3 year warranty
- Auto shut down feature makes for quick cleaning
- Quiet and clean operation
- We REALLY miss the diatom filter option on the old Magnum 350 filters
- Filters only go up to 100 gallons
- No valve switches to adjust flow
9. Penn Plax Cascade - Family Owned Business Does Canister Filters Right
Penn Plax's Cascade Canister Filter is a filter with a lot of features with a great price attached to it. While I can talk about what the filter has, the big draw to me is the story of the Company itself.
Penn Plax is a family owned business operating since the 1950's. Started up by an engineer turned pet store owner, he brought his family into the business who still operate the Company to this day. Their main product was fabricating their own mold plastics to create a business making plastic pet products. If you are fimilar with licensed pet products from Disney, Penn Plax's name is all over them. They are masters of licensed pet products. The story itself is very much in the spirit of American entrepreneurship and being part of a family of entrepreneurs they hold a place in my heart.
Going back to the filter itself, you get a number of higher end features like flow rate control valves, hose clamps, and a nice rubber feet base to make the canister study and quiet. They use simple filters like sponges which costs down on ongoing cost and provide a good amount of flexible space to allow you to put whatever you want in there. The price for these units are very attractive and worth a consideration.
There isn't really much to say about cons here except that the filter looks cheap vs. the more modern designs of the Marinelands and Fluvals.
- Family owned business
- Cheap looking design
- Filter media not as readily available and bigger brands
10. Sunsun Pro Canister Filter - Cheap Canister Filter with Loaded Features
If you are looking for a budget canister filter, the SunSun Pro Canister Filters are just what you are looking for. This canister filter provides a lot of generous features for the money. The main feature is the UV sterilizer that is included with the unit. This provides additional water clarity, algae control, and some parasite and bacterial control for your aquarium. It has your standard 3 stage filtration and the gallons per hour rating on these filters is surprisingly high compared to canister filters on this list.
The main thing we do not like is the build quality. The included media is pretty cheap and almost suspect on a more demanding system. The canister filter does not have a stage separating feature so you will have water going through the stages, and some uses have reported issues with the motors. We also feel that the UV is a under powered, but we believe the purpose of it was really water clarity from the manufacturer.
- Cheap with lots of features for the price!
- 5 stage filtration that comes with a UV Filter
- High flow rate
- Motor has been suspect in long-term field usage
- UV is under powered
- Not adjustable
How to Choose the Right Canister Filter for Your Aquarium
We have listed out a number of good canister filters to choose from. Now the question is which one would be right for you? Lets talk about decision making factors.
Size of Aquarium Aquarium and Space
The size of your aquarium is a major factor in your decision. If you have a larger aquarium over 100 gallons, the Fluval FX and Eheim Pro series are strong considerations or even a multiple canister filter setup. You will want to measure the space you have in your aquarium cabinet to see if you can fit these inside.
Motor Adaptability and Durability
The motor is everything to a canister filter. If the motor breaks early, you are out of a filter. To us, the motor quality is the biggest factor of our purchase, which is why we lean on Italian and German built motors. You run the risk of getting a faulty motor purchasing a Chinese made pump and manufacturers who do not have a mult-year warranty on their canister filters should be seen as suspect. We believe the Eheim, Fluval, and Marineland, and Cobalt canister filters offer the most well built pumps of the bunch and they are all backed with 3 year warranties.
Our next factor is adaptability. We want our aquarium canister filter to have the ability to adjust its flow with a ball valve. Some units on this list do not have ball valves and that does limit the ability to adjust your flow and quickly shut off your canister filter drain.
Your Aquarium Budget
Everyone has a budget and what they are willing to spend. You should take all the factors we mentioned in this post to determine the best budget canister filter to buy. If you simply want the cheapest canister filter out there, the SunSun's would be the best to go with while the Fluval FX series would be the best to go if you are operating on a higher end budget.
Canister Filter - FAQ
We included this section here to answer some frequently asked questions about canister filters. See our responses below:
1. What is the best canister filter for saltwater aquariums?
All of these filters can work in a saltwater aquarium, but we feel that canister filters are best in a fish only setup. This is for multiple reasons:
- Live rock and Dry rock are far superior biological media providers in saltwater aquariums than a canister filter can provide and is natural
- In a reef aquarium, a canister filter's biological media could lead to excessive nitrate production, which would result in more required water changes and non-idea parameters needed for corals
- Many saltwater aquariums are built off a reef ready system or a sump, which do not really fit well with a canister filter
There are other uses a canister would be great for in a saltwater tank however. Using them as a media reactor or to feed water into a UV sterilizer from the display or additional flow would all be good uses for a canister filter.
2. What is the best canister filter for freshwater aquariums?
Some readers just want our selection instead of this list, which is understandable. The most feature rich canister filter is the Cobalt Aquatics EXT Canister Filter and that would be our go to for smaller systems. For larger systems, we would recommend the Ehiem Classic/Pros or Fluval FX filters. We feel that the Marineland canister filters are great, but we just can't get around the lack of ball valves on the unit and we put the Hydor Canister Filters over them for most applications dispute only having a 2 year warranty.
3. How often should you clean your canister filter?
It does depend on your bioload and type of fish you have, but you will want to replace or clean your mechanical and chemical media at least once per month. You will want to clean the canister and motor at least every 3-6 months to keep it running well. We do have a preference of running foam/sponges over consumable mechanical media like filter floss to save on monthly expenses and to hold more beneficial bacteria.
Wrapping It All Up On Best Canister Filters
We hope we were able to provide you with the information you need to make the best informed purchase. There are good reasons for these canister filters to be listed as they represents the best available in the industry. They all have their place in an aquarium depending on your needs.
If you have any questions, please leave a comment in the comment section. Thanks for reading :).
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