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What to know before buying an upright or barrel vacuum cleaner

Barrel or upright? Bag or bagless? Our easy guide helps you decide. 

three barrel and upright vacuum cleaners on a grey background

Traditional barrel and upright vacuums are still the most common type of vacuum cleaner in Australian homes. They're also the best option for thorough carpet and floor cleaning (especially if you're cleaning a larger space).

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Should you buy a barrel or upright vacuum?

Don't go by brand alone – first choose the type of vacuum that best suits your needs. Here are the key things to consider when making your decision. 

Barrel vacuums

A barrel vacuum (sometimes called a cylinder or canister vac) is the typical workhorse vacuum you know and love. It's used for big household cleans and the main motor unit is pulled behind you while you clean. Barrel vacs are:

  • much more popular than upright vacuums
  • easier to use in awkward places, such as stairs or car interiors
  • good for thorough cleaning of large floor areas.
Barrel vacuum cleaner Miele Complete C3 Allergy PowerLine SGFA0-02

Barrel vacs are good for cleaning large floor areas.

Upright vacuums

Upright vacuums have the motor situated in the body of the unit, so you don't need to pull the barrel behind you. They are:

  • less popular than barrel models as they can be bulkier and harder to store
  • good for cleaning large level areas of carpet due to their built-in power heads
  • less convenient than barrel vacs for cleaning awkward places, but usually have a separate hose extension to help with these tasks.

Both barrel and upright vacs come in bagged (requires a disposable bag that holds the dust/dirt) and bagless varieties (dirt goes directly into a receptacle to be emptied).

Upright vacuum cleaner - Vax Performance Floors and All VX6

Upright vacs are often bulkier and harder to use in tight spaces like stairs and cars.

How much do they cost?

The models in our latest barrel and upright vacuums review range in price from $45 up to $1325. 

Mid-priced vacuum cleaners usually offer the best combination of performance and value. Usually the more expensive models, loaded up with the latest and most powerful technology, give the very best carpet cleaning. 

Some low-cost vacuums compare favourably with pricier models, but generally the cheaper models are better suited to cleaning hard floors.

Is a Dyson vacuum really worth it?

Dyson is by far the biggest-selling vacuum brand in Australia. Bagless models are very popular and most other brands have had to follow up with bagless models of their own. And yet Dyson barrel and upright vacs (priced from $599) are rarely recommended in our vacuum reviews.

They often get good overall scores, but not quite good enough to be recommended: they're usually not so good at picking up dirt from carpet, which is the main job for vacuum cleaners in most homes. 

For barrel and upright vacuum cleaners, Dyson models are generally good, but you can find better (and cheaper) options.

Bag, bagless or water filter: which is best?

Vacuums are generally bagless (with an on-board bin) or use bags to collect the dust, but there's also a third type to consider: the water filter vacuum cleaner. These have an on-board water container to trap the dirt.

Here's what you need to know about the three types.

Bag vacuums

  • Models that use bags are much less popular than bagless ones.
  • They tend to be less messy to empty. Bags generally come with sliding shutters to prevent dust from spilling out when removed.
  • With a bagged vacuum you can just put the full bag into the rubbish bin, rather than risk letting dust and allergens back into the air as you tip the vacuum bin into the rubbish. This could make a bagged model a better choice in an apartment, or when you don't have a garden into which you can empty the vacuum bin dust.
  • When you change the disposable bag, you're also changing and refreshing a large part of the filter system. However, the other filters still need replacing from time to time.
  • Generally a disposable bag is larger than a bin so it doesn't need to be emptied as frequently.
  • This type of vacuum does involve an ongoing cost as you'll need to buy bags from time to time, and it can be inconvenient if you run out.
  • Many warranties demand that you use only the manufacturer's branded bags rather than generic replacements. This could apply if your vacuum breaks down due to dust entering the engine or a similar fault; it shouldn't apply in unrelated cases such as wheels breaking or the power head failing.
  • You also need to consider the cost of bags on the environment (in our vacuum reviews we include the price of each bag where applicable and also make a note of the company's policy of bag disposal).

Bagless (bin) vacuums

  • Bagless models are by far the most popular type.
  • It's easier to see and retrieve an item that's been accidentally sucked up.
  • Disposing of the waste from a bin can release dust and allergens back into the area. But if you have a house with an outside area, this is less of an issue – you could even dump it straight into the garden or compost.
  • With a bin model you'll need to either clean the main filter frequently or replace it (a hidden extra cost).
  • Make sure you replace filters when necessary, as the vacuum's performance could deteriorate if you don't.
  • Bin models generally involve fewer ongoing costs as you don't need to keep buying bags.

Water filter vacuums

  • The container needs to be emptied after each use, and when finished for the day, you must clean and dry the container and filters to prevent mould growing in the vacuum cleaner. This means a bit more more work but is generally an easy process.
  • Water filter models can also usually be used for cleaning up wet spills.
  • They claim exceptionally good dust filtration and to be ideal for people with allergies, asthma and dust sensitivity. We haven't tested this aspect, but note that many other bag or bagless models come with HEPA filters and could be just as good if not better for dust filtration.
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Australia's best vacuum brand

So which brand of vacuum cleaner should you buy? We've identified the best barrel and upright vacuum brand based on our test results for vacuum cleaners and feedback from our members on brand satisfaction and reliability.

As well as testing more than 115 barrel and upright vacuums since 2018, we surveyed our members about the vacuums they own. We use this data to determine which brands are the most reliable, and which have the best customer satisfaction (something we can't easily test in our labs). This feedback, and our test results, are combined to determine the best vacuum brand of 2023.

Best vacuum brand for 2023: Miele

Miele is the best vacuum brand for the past 12 months. The German appliance manufacturer has taken out the top spot for the fourth year in a row in the barrel and upright vacuum category, with strong scores in our test results in addition to being a reliable brand with highly satisfied customers.

Best barrel and upright vacuum brand 2023 scores

  1. Miele: 83%
  2. Bosch: 79%
  3. Dyson: 73%
  4. Electrolux: 73%
  5. Hoover: 73%

It's important to note that the performance of specific product models may vary quite significantly, so don't assume that one brand's products are the best across the many different features, functions and price points.

To find out which specific barrel and upright vacuum models we recommend based on our test results, and to make sure you buy the best, click on the 'Recommended' box in the filters section of our vacuum cleaner reviews.

The environmental impact of vacuum cleaners

If you're looking to reduce your environmental impact when getting a new vacuum, start by considering a bagless model. No bag means no unnecessary waste. 

But if it's a bagged vacuum you're set on, check the manufacturer's specifications – while they aren't necessarily recyclable, some bags can be biodegradable. If the bags are completely biodegradable, you can simply put them in your compost (your garden worms will thank you for the tasty snack).

Mid-range vacuums generally last around six years, so if your vacuum has started to lack in performance, consider if it can be repaired before dumping it in landfill. Issues like blocked filters, jammed brush rolls and broken accessories can be fixed or replaced, and sometimes all your vacuum needs is a good clean to give it a new lease on life. 

Key features to look for

Power head or turbo head

power head has a built-in motor with a rotating brush. They're very good at removing dirt from carpet, as they agitate the carpet pile to release more dirt.

turbo head also has a rotating brush but isn't powered – it uses airflow to get the brush spinning. It's usually less effective than a power head.

These attachments are designed to boost cleaning performance but tend to make the vacuum bulkier and/or heavier. And they may not be as easy to use or manoeuvre.

The basic hard floor/carpet cleaning head is usually all you'll need for most floors. But when it comes to picking up pet hair from carpet, a model with a turbo brush or power head will often give a more thorough clean.


Tools such as a crevice nozzle (for narrow corners and around chair cushions), an upholstery brush (for curtains and soft furnishings) and a dusting brush can be very handy. Check whether these tools are supplied with the vacuum cleaner or if they're optional extras.

Telescopic wand

This lets you adjust the wand to suit your height, so you can vacuum without bending your back too much. If you're tall, try to test the model instore to make sure it's long enough for you.

Adjustable head height

This feature's useful if you have carpets with different pile heights, and also for wooden or tiled floors.

Variable suction/power

A control on the wand that allows you to vary the suction for more delicate jobs, such as cleaning curtains.

Dustbag full indicator

This handy feature lets you know when the dust collector is full without having to open the vacuum.


A vacuum that can reverse the airflow to blow air continuously is a godsend when it's time to inflate the airbed!

Onboard storage for accessories

Helpful when you're cleaning edges and upholstery, and/or dusting furniture while vacuuming.

HEPA filter

HEPA stands for high-efficiency particulate air filtration. It's an international standard for filters that trap minute particles. 

This type of filter can help if you have asthma or a dust allergy or sensitivity, but you have to clean or replace it regularly (about once a year) to make sure it works efficiently, which may mean more ongoing costs. 

If you have asthma, a dust allergy or are simply sensitive to dust, it can help, though for asthma sufferers it's not likely to be the complete answer to house dirt. 

Wand storage

This allows the wand to be attached neatly to the cleaner when storing, and is useful for keeping all the bits together.

Retractable cord

This is much easier than winding up the cord manually! Upright vacs don't have this feature, but you can wind the cord around two hooks to keep it tidy.

Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.