This study was conducted to determine the aroma-active compounds of five sweet cherry cultivars grown in Yantai region, China, viz. ‘Lapins’, ‘Rainier’, ‘Stella’, ‘Hongdeng’ and ‘Zhifuhong’. The samples were extracted by headspace solid phase microextraction (HS–SPME) and analysed by gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC–MS) on DB-wax and DB-5 columns. A total of 52 volatiles were identified. Among these, hexanal, (E)-2-hexenal, 1-hexanol, (E)-2-hexen-1-ol, benzaldehyde and benzyl alcohol were the main volatile compounds in the five cherries. Furthermore, the aroma compounds of five cherry samples were evaluated using a combination of HS–SPME and GC–olfactometry (GC–O) dilution analysis, and a total of 40 aroma-active compounds were identified. The results suggested that hexanal, (E)-2-hexenal, (Z)-3-hexenal, nonanal, benzaldehyde and geranylacetone (FD ≥ 16), responsible for the green, orange, almond and floral characters of the cherries, were the potentially important common odorants in these cherry cultivars. Benzyl alcohol and linalool were significant aroma compounds in most cherries, with the exception of ‘Stella’ and ‘Rainier’. In addition, (E,Z)-2,6-nonadienal (cucumber-like odour) could be important to ‘Hongdeng’ and ‘Zhifuhong’, and (E,E)-2,4-nonadienal (fatty odour) probably made great contributions to the aromas in ‘Lapins’ and ‘Stella’. From the present result, it was concluded that the aroma profiles were similar in the five cherry cultivars, but significant variation was found in the contributions of these compounds to each cherry. Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.