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The best aquariums have happy fish.

Happy fish come from controlling the water quality as one of your absolute top priorities.

And the key to controlling that water quality is having the best aquarium filter media in your filter.

Best Aquarium Filter Media Quick-Find Table

Image Product
  • Exclusive, effective design
  • Dense structure for capturing more particles than ever
  • Combines both mechanical and biological filtration in on sponge
  • Exclusive, effective design
  • Dense structure for capturing more particles than ever
  • Combines both mechanical and biological filtration in on sponge
  • Specially designed for efficiency
  • A really great value
  • Fast-acting
  • Specially designed for efficiency
  • A really great value
  • Fast-acting
  • Complex pore system for optimal environment
  • Effective and efficient
  • Very affordable
  • Complex pore system for optimal environment
  • Effective and efficient
  • Very affordable
  • Very lightweight
  • Designed specifically for canister filters
  • Super easy to maintain
  • Very lightweight
  • Designed specifically for canister filters
  • Super easy to maintain

Why the Right Filter Media is Important

Filter media can be a bit of a mystery for beginner aquarists just learning the ropes. The different styles, types, specializations, and brands can get confusing, so you might just grab the first thing that has the right “label” on it for what your filter box said.

But there’s more to choosing the right filter media than just grabbing something that has a high rating from fans of a given brand.

best aquarium filter media

Without the right ones – i.e. those that actually work in your type of aquarium – you’ll find build-up of things like algae and other nastiness happening.

And when those bad things build up, you can start to lose plants and fish.

The Types of Filter Media

A healthy tank requires clean, clear water. And that healthy aquarium water comes from using the right filtration system.

Depending on the type of fish you keep, the types of plants you have, and the other biological factors of your aquarium, you will need different filter media.

There are three specific aquarium filtration media types that you choose from. All three types are recommended, but if your filter only allows for two, it’s most critical to have both biological and mechanical filtration as your minimum.

Mechanical Filtration

Mechanical filter media is made from porous, inert materials. It’s used for removing the particles in the water, like waste and sludge, and captures them in its fibers.

This media is sort of like a fish net. Water passes through the mechanical filter media, straining out the debris. Mechanical media ranges from very coarse to very fine material to effectively trap all the particulates and remove them from the aquarium.

The best mechanical filter media for aquarium can be made from a variety of materials, such as sponges, pads, and blocks of various materials, including filter wool.

This type of media removes dust, uneaten food, dead plant pieces, and fish waste from the water.

Biological Filtration

Biological filter media can be thought of as a house. Inside the house lives the healthy bacteria that you want inside your aquarium for the health of everything in there.

Things like fish waste and uneaten food create ammonia build-up in your aquarium and that build-up is often deadly for your fish.

As ammonia builds in your aquarium, the ammonia eating bacteria housed in the biological filter media reproduce and consume the ammonia in the fish tank. As they do this, nitrite is given off. A different type of bacteria then consumes the nitrite. The two bacteria types work together to help maintain the health of your aquarium environment.

The best biological filter media comes in an even wider range of materials and types than mechanical filter media. You’ll have everything from “bio-balls” to foam media, ceramic or glass rings, pelleted carbon, or even plastic pieces.

Chemical Filtration

Chemical filtration media are specialized chemical additives that have been created to remove specific impurities from fish tank water. Chlorine, copper, water impurities, and odors are some of the targets.

Most popular in this category is the carbon chemical media that removes copper, chlorine, dissolved proteins, carbohydrates, and other impurities in the water. It’s also really popular because it removes dis-colorants from the water, increasing and improving the clarity of the aquarium water.

Carbon chemical filter media is filled with microscopic pores that attract and pull in the impurities and then absorbs them. They also remove drugs or antibiotics used to treat the aquarium, as well, though, so be careful to use them carefully during any medication regimen.

And technically, chemical filtration isn’t mandatory for a healthy aquarium, but it can certainly add to the overall health significantly.

Overgrown algae aquarium on a white background best filter media
The right filter media keeps your tank from looking like this.

The Order of Filter Media

While it may not seem that important, the order in which your filter media is positioned is vital to the effectiveness of the filtration system overall. They’re designed to work harmoniously with each other, so placing them as they’re best suited will be most effective.

The foundation of your filter media is your mechanical media – like a foam block or sponge – to trap the largest particles before sending it through the rest of the filtration system.

Next, is the finer mechanical media – typically a floss pad.

Next, the water will pass through the chemical filtration, starting with carbon and then by any other form of chemical filtration you may choose.

Finally, everything passes through the biological filtration.

How to Choose the Best Aquarium Filter Media

While choosing your filter there are a few things to keep in mind. Each aquarium is unique – the fish you keep, the volume of water, the plant type, the corals or live rock, et cetera – and has different requirements for optimum health.

So, as you shop around for the best aquarium filter materials for your situation, keep these things in mind.


While this isn’t the most important thing about choosing filter media, it is important to make sure you’re sticking to your aquarium keeping budget.

I do recommend, however, if you’ve got a small budget that you prioritize filter media and the filter itself about just about anything else.

High Quality

Because filtration is so incredibly vital to the health of your aquarium, you don’t want to skimp on it. Be sure to only use brand names that are either long-standing companies that you know and trust or that come highly recommended by other long-time aquarists who know their stuff.

Easy to Maintain

Finally, the aquarium filter media you purchase should be easy to maintain and keep healthy. You don’t want to replace the media often – as this removes the beneficial bacteria you want to keep around – so that means something that’s easy to maintain is important.

Reviews of the Best Filter Media for Aquariums

To offer the best filter media options, we dug through a lot of reviews and information, and spent hours studying the various types of media, the brands that are most trusted – and why or why not – and the best types of aquariums to use them in.

As you look for the best fish tank filter media for your set up, look for your aquarium type in the breakdown section of each option below to see what your best options are.

How We Chose the Aquarium Filter Media

After doing tons of research and study, as well as our own reviews, the below list is the result of looking for these qualities in aquarium filter media. All of our choices meet these criteria.

  • Lasts for a long time – up to a few years or even the life of the filter
  • Easy to clean and maintain over time
  • Great value for the price
  • Easy to install or replace
  • Meets quality standards and above
  • Comes from a well-trusted brand

#1. Fluval Bio-Foam

Fluval Bio Foam Review

If you’re using a Fluval filter, you’re in luck with this best bio media. The Fluval Bio-Foam is one of the absolute best options on the market for filter media. It combines both mechanical and biological filtration into one sponge filter media, which saves times, space, and energy for you as you work with your aquarium.

Here’s the breakdown:

  • Type of aquarium: Freshwater, marine, reef
  • Fish tank size: Medium to large
  • Media type: Biological sponge
  • Filtration type: Mechanical and biological

What We Loved

We love the fact that this Bio-Foam has an incredibly dense structure. It’s extremely effective at trapping small particles that most first stage foam filtration can’t.

Plus, the intricacy of the network of pores provides the good bacteria in the filtration with tons of surface space for healthy growth – which means more of that beneficial bacteria.

We also love that this filter media is great for both marine tanks and freshwater tanks and is equally effective for both.

We also love that this is an inexpensive option that’s easy to maintain.

And, technically both an upside and a downside, the Fluval Bio-foam is custom designed for Fluval filters only. For those using the 306 or 406, this is awesome. For those not using a Fluval filter, unfortunately you’ll need to look elsewhere.

What We Didn’t Love

As mentioned above, the Fluval Bio-Foam is designed specifically for Fluval filters. If you want to use it in another kind, you’re probably out of luck, which we don’t really love about this.

Because it is a sponge filter media, you have to clean it pretty often to prevent clogging. As with all filters, be sure to only use established aquarium water, not tap or other water to do the cleaning.

Our Verdict on the Fluval Bio-Foam for 306 to 406

Overall, the Fluval Bio-Foam is one of the best options on the market – if you use Fluval filters.

It provides loads of surfaces for the beneficial bacteria to cling to, while filtering out loads of the yuck that you don’t want in your aquarium water. It does, however, require fairly frequent cleaning, which disturbs the good bacteria.

If you have a Fluval filter, though, you can’t really do better than this two-in-one filter media option.

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#2. Marineland Black Diamond Media

marineland black diamond media review

Marineland provides you with another great filter media product: the Black Diamond Media Premium Activated Carbon. This activated carbon media is designed to work faster, longer, and more efficiently than the competition. Your water comes out clean and pure and your fish and plants are healthier and happier.

Here’s the breakdown:

  • Type of aquarium: Freshwater or marine
  • Fish tank size: Any
  • Media type: Activated carbon granules
  • Filtration type: Chemical

What We Loved

First off, Marineland is one of the most trusted brands in the business – for a reason. So, the fact that they produce this one is one check mark in its favor.

The fact that the Marineland Black Diamond Media is specifically sized for more efficiency is also another thing we love about this. It’s perfect removing discolorations, odors, and other impurities that cause harm to our fish.

It’s also heat activated bituminous coal-based granules, which also means it works more efficiently than other options.

We also love the speed at which is works. If your tank is in urgent need of chemical filtration, this is the one to go with. You’ll see changes within a couple of days.

It doesn’t require a lot of washing and it doesn’t grind down into dust like many others out there, which is kind of huge.

With this you don’t have to worry about your impeller getting clogged, nor do you have to worry about the carbon breaking apart.

What We Didn’t Love

The top-notch efficiency of this product has one drawback: you’ll have to replace it more often than other chemical media. But, even so, you’re getting a great value for your money.

Our Verdict on the Marineland Black Diamond Media

This is a fantastic chemical filter media. Marineland Black Diamond Media simply is top-notch. It’s designed for efficiency, works really fast, and absolutely lives up to its reputation.

The only downside is that you have to replace it more often than other activated carbon, but even with that, it’s a real value purchase.

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#3. Fluval Biomax Bio Rings

Fluval Biomax Bio Rings

The incredibly complex pore system in the Fluval BioMax Bio Rings provides your aquarium with a massive surface amount for biological filtration for any aquarium. They have more capacity than most filter media, while allowing the ideal water flow movement throughout the media for optimal contact time.

Here’s the breakdown:

  • Type of aquarium: Freshwater, marine, or reef
  • Fish tank size: Medium to large
  • Media type: Ceramic rings
  • Filtration type: Biological

What We Loved

We love the special design of the BioMax Bio Rings. They’re made of a silica and aluminum oxide blend formed into a porous ring. We love that the internal pore system provides loads of surface for nitrifying and denitrifying bacteria for colonization for your healthy aquarium.

The pores are also great at capturing debris and helping to balance out ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate to remove them from the aquarium water.

We love that you can pour them info a filter bag for easy removal and maintenance – though you should only switch out half at a time to maintain the good colonies of bacteria in there! – and they’re super easy to deal with overall.

They’re inexpensive – always a win – and genuinely work in all aquarium types.

This is also the best filter media for planted tanks, so anyone looking for that kind of care, you’ve got it right here.

What We Didn’t Love

The only real downside we found is that the manufacturer recommends replacing half about every six months. We prefer media that doesn’t need replacing, but, since it is inexpensive, it’s not horrendous. Disturbing the colonies of good bacteria are the only real issue.

Our Verdict on the Fluval BioMax Bio Rings

When we’re talking about biological filtration, I’m always a fan of ceramic rings first, everything else second. And based on my research and the many positive reviews on the Biomax Bio Rings, you really won’t find better ones than these.

They’re high-quality rings, specifically designed for use in any type of aquarium while providing tons of space for your good colonies of bacteria to thrive. The only negative I really see is that you’re probably going to replace about half them of them every six months, which can mess with those colonies.

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#4. Marineland Bio Balls

Marineland PA11486 Canister Filter Bio-Balls

The Marineland Bio-Filter Balls, or Bio-Balls, for canister filters provide your tank with a multi-faceted biological filtration through a larger surface area than many of the competitors. The filtration balls help support the growth of the beneficial Bio-Spira bacteria that helps your tank remain clean and healthy.

Here’s the breakdown:

  • Type of aquarium: Freshwater or saltwater aquarium filter media
  • Fish tank size: Small to medium
  • Filtration type: Biological
  • Media type: Plastic bio-balls

What We Loved

Marineland is one of the most trusted brands in the business. We love that about these bio-balls, because we know they’re going to do what they promise. And after researching quite a bit, along with doing our own review, we know they live up to the company’s reputation.

The bio-balls are extremely effective at cleaning away waste. I will note, though, that because they’re so effective, they have to be cleaned fairly regularly. Just use some established tank water to rinse away the build-up and never use soaps or detergents.

The bio-balls work any type of aquarium, but they’re absolutely great for freshwater tanks in particular. In fact, I’d say these are the best filter media for freshwater aquariums.

They’re also really small, so they don’t take up much space. They’re lightweight. They’re also really easy to maintain.

What We Didn’t Love

We only found one potential downside, which may not even be a downside. This aquarium filter media is designed specifically for canister filters, and therefore can only be used in canister filters. If you have a canister filter, no problem, but otherwise, you’re out of luck and should look elsewhere.

Our Verdict on the Marineland Canister Filter Bio-Balls

All-in-all, the Marineland Canister Filter Bio-Balls are a really great option – the best for canister filters, really – for any aquarium. They’re especially great for freshwater fish tanks. The bio-balls help support healthy bacteria growth and keep things fresh in there. Care for properly and maintain regularly for best results.

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