Although peripheral devices now allow smartphones to serve as everything from weather stations to eye-examiners, it's typically thought that genuine purpose-built tools still perform best. In the case of stethoscopes, however, that may not be the case. Researchers with Florida-based Orlando Health recently determined that HeartBuds – a new stethoscope device/app – performed as well as traditional stethoscopes, and better than a commonly-used disposable model.

HeartBuds was developed by Dr. David Bello, who is the department chief of cardiology at Orlando Health.

The system is based around a small electronic disc-shaped listening device that's held against the patient's skin, and which is hard-wired to an iPhone's headphone jack. Using an accompanying free app, doctors can hear the patient's heartbeat through the phone's speakers, plus they can see a graphical representation of it on the screen.

Unlike the case with traditional stethoscopes, patients can also listen in, plus readings can be saved on the phone for future reference or sharing with other physicians.

In the lab tests, HeartBuds were used on 50 test subjects, as were two FDA-approved class I and class II stethoscopes and one popular disposable model. It was found that HeartBuds matched the performance of the class I and II models, while they were considerably better than the disposable.

Additionally, because HeartBuds don't have attached earpieces in which bacteria can nest, they reportedly pose less of a risk for bacteria transmission to patients.

HeartBuds can also be used by everyday people to monitor their own health or fitness, and are available now for US$49.95. Buyers with a bigger budget might also want to check out Thinklab's fancier The One smartphone stethoscope, which sells for $499.