Headlight Showdown - Halogen vs Xenon vs LED
Car lighting started out as acetylene lamps in the 1880s, they were good because the flame was resilient to the wind. These days however, we’re a bit more advanced than we were in the 1900s. We travel much faster than we did a few generations ago, and as such we needed to see more on the road.
Nowadays we’ve got a few options, they’re all pretty good so they’re often picked over aesthetics than much else. Other than their good looks, the only other thing to sway decisions is brightness. Sure, your car from the late 2000s halogen lights are absolutely fine for driving at night, but LED and HID lights are superior in their brightness. They also offer different colours to choose from. Let's have a look at each option.
In older cars we had incandescent lights, then along came halogen as an improvement and in most cars today, these are what you'll find. Halogens are the "standard" bulb for both low beam and high beam, as well as your side lights.
They work by being a closed off bulb that's full of either iodine or bromine - the tungsten filament in the bulb heats up and the combination of the two gases stop the tungsten from breaking. With this heat, it makes handling the bulb quite difficult. If you're replacing a headlight for example, you really don't want to touch the glass.
The moisture from your fingers can change the glass in a way that either damages it or makes it susceptible to imperfect light spread, so it'll look more like a disco light than a solid light.
Here's the stats for comparing halogens with the other bulbs:
- Cost: quite cheap - manufacturing costs are low so buying costs are also cheaper than the other options.
- Colour temperature: halogens are about 3000k, or yellow.
- And strength of illumination: about 1500 lumina
Let's have a look at HIDs (aka Xenon)
HID stands for high intensity discharge and they don't use a metal filament to create the light. Instead they use two electrodes which create an arc of electricity between them, like a little bolt of lightning.
Inside the tube is the xenon gas, this illuminates as the electricity passes through it which gives an intense light. Depending on the amount of xenon or sometimes the mix of other chemicals, the colour can change from yellow to white and even a bright blue! You can also buy some green emitting bulbs from eBay, were not sure how far you'll get before the police pull you over with these though. These bulbs create far less heat for a similar wattage compared to halogens, however they take a few seconds to warm up until they get to full strength.
They are, however, quite bright. Newer sporty cars have xenon as standard, you'll be able to tell during the day because of the squares in the bumper under the lights, these are jets, like windscreen washers, but they spray on the light cover instead! You can also tell if someone is rocking HIDs during the night time too, however you won't be able to make out the little jets under the lights, or anything really, because they'll be rocking HIDs and you won't be able to see.
- In terms of lumens, compared to the pitiful 1500 from halogens, these guys kick out twice that. 3000 lumens.
- Colours range from 3000k up to 12000k from some places, however the white light is around 6000k to 8000k, 10000 is when it gets blue.
- Cost: expensive. Most of the time if you're upgrading to HIDs (which you probably are, as they have a lifespan of around 2000 hours) then you also need ballasts too, you'll see them in HID kits, they're the little black boxes.
They're also difficult to install as you have to find a place in the engine bay to lock those ballasts down - they don't fit in the headlight assembly.
Also a small note: if you've upgraded to HIDs it's likely that anyone else Infront of you, such as oncoming traffic, hates you. This is because the shiny part of the light assembly wasn't made to spread that much light, so it dazzles all life Infront of your car for around 100 meters at night. We suggest dipping those headlights down to the ground slightly to limit this.
Okay last up: LEDs. The future.
Let's just start by saying hands down, LEDs are brilliant. They're cheap, they're easy, they're effective, you can even get RBG which lets you change the colour of your lights with a remote control, which while probably illegal, is still brilliant. They're really easy to retrofit, sometimes however you will get earning lights on your dash if you've got a fancy car (we're looking at you, Audi and BMW drivers) so wherever possible you'll want to get ones that are "canbus ready".
They use far less electricity than other options, which is why you get the error messages - they're fine to use but your car doesn't register that there's even a bulb there because they use so much less electricity than the other options. Their longevity is ridiculous too, HIDs last for 2000 hours on average.
But what about LEDs? 50k. That's 50,000 hours for high quality diodes. That's a car lifetime for use in the dark. Mental. They also don't dazzle people as much as HIDs do, so there's that too. (You can even get led strips for inside the car that changes colour).
- Easy to fit
- 4000 to 12000 lumens
- 6000k to 8000k
- Incredibly efficient
- More expensive than halogen but cheaper than HIDs.
And in conclusion:
LEDs. There you go. They win. If you want a bit more light to guide your night drives then sure, upgrade. HIDs do look incredibly nice and are a great way to make your car appear newer. However, LEDs do the same job, for less money, are usually easier to install, retrofit most bulb sockets, last forever and you use sliiiiiightly less fuel because they're less needy of that electricity.
That said. Don't buy cheap LEDs. 10 bulbs for £1.99 on Wish might seem like a great idea, you won't think that when you're changing your side lights every week. Pay the extra, they'll last a lot longer and will be made better, you'll make that money back over their 50,000 hours of use.
We also don't recommend colour changing headlights, keep the outsides white. If you buy the inside strips however, go wild.
One last comparison, is our friend Matti from MWM Digital, who recently changed from Halogen to Xenon and LED, here's a few photos:
"This is my Xenon headlight, that little bit of yellow you can see is the sidelight. As soon as I put them in you could tell there was a massive difference. It took about an hour to do both sides because we had to find a place for the ballasts to go where they wouldn't rattle around inside my engine bay."
"For a brightness comparison, here's the xenon low beam and halogen high beam. Down the road the Xenon bulbs definitely illuminated more than the high beam did. "
"Lastly I got rid of the side lights and the fog lights and replaced them both with LED bulbs. Because my car's an Audi though, I had to take the entire front off of my car to get at the bulbs - so if you guys at home are doing this, it shouldn't take you anywhere near the 3 hours it took me. In terms of the brightness, the HIDs are still brightest, i've gone with 8000k. However the LEDs are a lot brighter than the old halogen bulbs and were half the price of the HIDs. I only went with xenon for the headlights as i'd read a lot of reviews around the LED lights that said they were a bit of a hassle with error codes on Audi's, otherwise it'd be LED all around. For my sidelights and fog lights though, i've had no error messages."
Thanks for reading our blog post! For all your cars servicing, repairs, MOTs or bodywork, give us a ring or drop down to the garage:
Special thanks to Matti from MWM Digital for helping us with the blog!