Brain near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) is emerging as a potential alternative to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). To date, no study has explicitly compared the two techniques in terms of measurement variability, a key parameter dictating attainable statistical power. Here, NIRS and fMRI were simultaneously recorded during event-related visual stimulation. Inter-subject coefficients of variation (CVs) for peak response amplitude were considerably larger for NIRS than fMRI, but inter-subject CVs for response latency and intra-subject CVs for response amplitude were overall comparable. Our results may represent an optimistic estimate of the CVs of NIRS measurements, as optode positioning was guided by structural MRI, which is normally unavailable. We concluded that fMRI may be preferable to NIRS for group comparisons, but NIRS is equally powerful when comparing conditions within participants. The discrepancy between inter- and intra-subject CVs is likely related to variability in head anatomy and tissue properties, which may be better accounted for by emerging NIRS technology. © 2011 Informa UK, Ltd.