OBJECTIVE--To determine the value of transoesophageal echocardiography in the assessment of selected patients at risk of cardiogenic embolism or after it. DESIGN--Prospective comparison of the results of transoesophageal and transthoracic echocardiography. Transoesophageal echocardiography was performed with a 5 MHz single plane phased array transducer. SETTING--University teaching hospital. PATIENTS--100 patients referred for transoesophageal echocardiography after a cerebral ischaemic event or peripheral arterial embolism (n = 63), before percutaneous balloon dilatation of the mitral valve (n = 23), or before electrical cardioversion of atrial fibrillation (n = 14). RESULTS--Transthoracic echocardiography showed potential sources of embolism in four patients including left ventricular thrombus in two patients (with one false positive), left atrial appendage thrombus (n = 1), and patent foramen ovale (n = 1). Transoesophageal echocardiography showed 59 potential embolic sources in 45 patients including left atrial spontaneous echo contrast (n = 33), left atrial appendage thrombus (n = 13), left ventricular thrombus (n = 5), patent foramen ovale (n = 3), left ventricular spontaneous echo contrast (n = 2), mitral valve prosthesis thrombus (n = 1), mitral valve prolapse (n = 1), and pronounced aortic atheroma (n = 1). Transoesophagal echocardiography showed potential embolic sources in 36/53 (68%) patients with atrial fibrillation compared with 9/47 (19%) patients in sinus rhythm. Percutaneous balloon dilatation of the mitral valve was performed without embolic complications in 18 patients without left atrial thrombi and in three patients with small fixed thrombi in the left atrial appendage. It was cancelled in two patients with large thrombi in the left atrial appendage. Cardioversion was performed without embolic complications in 14 patients without left atrial thrombi. CONCLUSIONS--Transoesophageal echocardiography detects potential sources of embolism better than transthoracic echocardiography in selected patients at risk of cardiogenic embolism or after it.