Breaking down the difference between Halogen, LED, HID and LED Light Bars
Here in the dark days of winter (at least at the time of writing), if there is one thing more important than tires on your 4WD, it is quality lighting. With the sun setting at 3:30 pm and not rising again until 8:00 am, if you’re going to take a jaunt out into the wilderness, chances are you are going to have to strap some daylight to the front of your rig.
Coming from a background in rally racing, I know the value of a good set of lights on the front of a vehicle. I’m a self-proclaimed aftermarket light junky if you will, but with the endless options of illumination types available on the market, which sources are best for your particular application. We chose three different light sources that were all available in the same model of lamp from KC HiLites, receiving three sets of their Pro-Sport 6-in round lamp equipped with Halogen, LED and HID bulbs. For the sake of comparison, we also strapped a set of Rigid Industries SR2 Combo LED light bars in place to judge the difference between a round LED and LED light bar. All lenses were spot beams to help judge the intensity and range of each particular light source.
For our test, we went up into the BC Mountains and found one of a very few forestry roads that were still plowed. With a dark overcast sky, no moonlight and even a bit of snow, we set up on a 350 m long straight (straights are hard to come by in BC) and directed our beams toward a reflective signpost 250 m away and a nonreflective signpost at the far end, 350m away. With our 2015 Chevrolet Colorado, we cycled through a base high-beams shot, followed by all our different light sources all mounted in the same position with the high-beams turned off to get a full scope of the capabilities of each light source. Here is what we found.
Base - High-beams: Free
For our test, let’s start with the bare basics, high-beam headlights. What you see here is the rather pitiful performance put on by a 2015 Chevrolet Colorado Z71 with all its lighting glory being smacked down by the darkness of a BC forestry road. While it lights up the first 100 m decently enough, even on a paved highway these things were sucking something fierce.
Halogen Bulbs – 6-in KC HiLites Pro-Sport
Talking to KC HiLites, they informed us that Halogen technology was created to overcome the inefficiencies of the incandescent light bulb. A halogen bulb is a form of incandescent light that also uses a tungsten filament. The main difference is the presence of the halogen gas, which when combined with the filament produces a chemical reaction that redeposits evaporated tungsten back onto the filament allowing it to burn hotter and brighter.
The problem is that while Halogens used to be great lights, the intensity of the modern HID and LED has simply out classed these older technology lamps. While dim, these spots reached out to 350 m with a warm incandescent glow, but made features at that distance hard to make out. The dark just seemed to soak up the light as soon as it left the reflector, and in all honesty, these were about on par with the high quality after market highbeams I had on my personal vehicle.
The area where these lights shine best (pun intended) is in cost of ownership. At a starting price of $254, this allows you to pump some extra lumens off the front of an older rig without the huge investment or the stress of damaging higher-end lights. It is also simple to replace the bulbs or even upgrade to higher wattage, you just might get jealous when someone with HID’s or LED’s light up terrain from behind.
LED (Light-Emitting Diode) – 6-in KC HiLites Pro-Sport Unlike incandescent bulbs, which use a filament that relies on gas, LEDs create light by exciting electrons. LED’s are considered solid-state lighting, which means they don't rely on incandescense but electroluminescence, which is a semiconductor based light source. LEDs are all the rage these days and for good reason as they have many advantages over traditional incandescent lights such as lower energy consumption, longer life and in other cases, smaller size. However, what is vitally important to wheelers is that they are incredibly durable as there are no filaments, glass or moving parts that can brake and they are powered and switched digitally. However, is the latest technology for the front of your rig worth the steep price that is only starting to level out with consumer demand?
These LED’s lights produce cool, bright light beams, as the diode producing the light is aimed at a mirrored lens like a traditional lamp, magnifying the lights power and range. The light produces the same brilliant sharp and clear light as the HID’s, but it’s just not quite as powerful or able to reach out as far. The LED creates instant light, in a lighter more durable package that sucks far less energy than the HID. In terms of quality of light and distance reached, these lights may not perform quite as well as the HID’s at long range, but they do out perform them up close and you will get up to four times the lifespan from them.
LED Bar – Rigid Industries SR2 10-in Combo
While we were testing LED’s, we decided to put the KC 6-in round spot up against the popularity of the light bar revolution, represented here with Rigid Industries new SR2 combo. As we all know, light bars put out a terrific amount of light, but they just don’t reach very far down range, useless if you are at any kind of speed.
The “Combo” refers to designate hyperspot lenses placed over the centre lights to maximize long distance illumination. Coupled with regular lenses on the outer diodes, this is supposed to be a “best of both worlds” solution that floods light at close distance and is also capable of long distance reach down range, all while drawing as little energy as possible. The SR2’s are rated as a 45W lamp, draw 4.1 amps and feature a very compact and low-profile design that will aid in aerodynamics on the highway. However, they don’t come cheap. Foreign made knockoffs can be had for nearly half the price, however in our testing we have found these to be of very poor quality and are usually just not worth cheapingout for.
The result, the SR2’s put out a nice clean blueish light that does exactly what Rigid say. They flood the short range very nicely and do reach out long range. The problem is, they are not as long range as the LED 6-in spots. The hyperspots seem to fall flat around 250-300 m, which if you’re
a slow mover, is all you’re ever going to need anyways.
With our little comparison inside a comparison, the excellent flood lighting coupled with decent spots make the SR2 a fantastic all-round light if you only want to throw a couple lights on your rig. If you want to specifically tailor your lighting to your needs, the more traditional round lamps like the KC’s will allow you to make use of different light sources as well as lenses to best distribute light the way you need it.
HID (High Intensity Discharge) – 6-in KC HiLites Pro-Sport
Advancing beyond halogen in context of light output as well as size and heat efficiency is high-intensity discharge bulbs. HID bulbs have no filament but instead use tungsten electrodes. These electrodes are sealed in a quartz tube which is filled with both gas (usually Xenon) and also various metal salts, which are ignited to produce an extremely intense amount of light.
HID lights produce light beams that illuminate long distances and are available in 35W, 50W and 70Ws. They produce Lux and Candela ratings that could exceed 2-3 times the distance to similar wattage Halogens and LEDs. HIDs are the most balanced across Output, Cost, Technology and Power.
Putting the HID’s to the test, you can see that they call these lights “high intensity” for a reason. A sharp crystal clear light with a blue tinge seems to cut through the darkness like a hot knife through butter. The beams are not as sharp as LED’s so there is bit of fade light bleeding around the edges of the beam, helping to illuminate more area.
There are a couple drawbacks; the beams are so intense that they seem to light up any kind of particulate in the air, creating almost a fog in the beam close to the eye. To the eye, it is not as bad as the camera shows, but I wouldn’t want to mount these rooftop. They also take a while to warm up. As the gases start to heat up, the light only grows in quality. I had to take several shots of these lights since they just kept getting brighter and brighter, reaching their maximum after around 5-minutes.
In slow off-road conditions, these are actually a little overkill and are only worth getting in flood or driving beams for anything under 100kmh. Leave the spots for the rally cars.
Does Size Matter?
The simple answer is “Yes”. A larger reflector’s increased surface area is more capable of re-directing light with more intensity and efficiency than a smaller reflector. An 8-in reflector will be capable of focusing and directing more light coming from the same light source (LED diode, Halogen Bulb, HID Bulb) than its 6-in counterpart.
High beams from a 2016 Chevrolet Colorado Z71. Whole lot of suck.
Halogens are much improved over OEM highbeams, but technology has moved on.
A traditional incandescent bulb.
Light is brilliant and clear, but just doesn’t quite reach out like an HID.
The centre LED’s are covered with a hyperspot lens to increase range.
A Light Emitting Diode shines onto the reflector.
The hyperspots work well, making this the jack of all trades.
The HID’s shine right past the end of our range. Notice how particulate is illuminated in the beams.
A delicate tungsten electrode produces brilliant light.