This study analysed patterns of mate choice based on different types of laboratory test, and points out the advantages of combined methods to assess mate preference. We compared dyadic encounters and two-way choice tests involving a pair of mice or their urinary signature. Preference was assessed in males and females of the two European subspecies of the house mouse Mus musculus that share a secondary hybrid zone. A preference was deduced from directional choice or behavioural discrimination in favour of a mouse. Our results show discrepancies between the outcomes of the different types of test, which we discuss in terms of the quality of the stimuli involved, and of physical access to the information carried by those stimuli. Despite variation, our results indicate that M. m. domesticus did not show a preference, but could discriminate between stimuli of the two subspecies and tended to direct sexual behaviour assortatively. In contrast, both male and female M. m. musculus showed positive discrimination and preference for potential mates and signals carried by their own subspecies. Additionally, our results confirm that subspecies informative signals are present in mouse urine and suggest that they may be molecules of low volatility, necessitating contact for preference to be displayed. © 2005 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2005, 84, 461–471.