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Navigating the road comes with its share of eye-opening experiences—and mine came a few months back when my charging system died while I was driving on a remote country road. While objectively dangerous and frightening, what truly struck fear in me was when the headlights ceased functioning, and I was left looking at an unbroken pitch-black expanse ahead.
But folks don't have to experience a headlight blackout to appreciate the role of being able to see clearly while driving at night. This is where the evolution of lighting technology enters the scene, with LEDs leading the charge. Their ability to offer an expansive, bright field of vision has made LED headlight bulbs a favorite of drivers, especially those in rural areas. Join us as we check the hype and dive into the top picks for LED headlights, as tested by the Gear Team.
Things to Consider When Buying LED Headlight Bulbs
Technically, aftermarket LED headlight bulbs are illegal to install. If your vehicle did not come from the factory with LED bulbs in the headlight assemblies, you aren't supposed to install your own. However, that hasn't stopped companies from making them and people from buying and using them.
Why are they illegal? It's simply because aftermarket LED headlight bulbs are hard to regulate. Authorities can't ensure the recipient vehicle's headlight beams are directed toward the road safely and out of other motorists' eyes. If you do decide to buy and install LED headlights, it's imperative that you adjust the beams properly. Be smart, research the laws, and understand the risks before making a purchase.
While LEDs excel in brightness and energy efficiency, they are often criticized as being too bright for oncoming drivers, causing glare that can blind them temporarily. If you purchase LED headlights, you need to remain cognizant and considerate of your fellow motorists, and install them with the correct adjustment toward the road.
While many LED headlights are plug-and-play, you must first determine the correct bulb type for your vehicle. You can usually find this information through a simple online search, trusted retail websites like Advance Auto Parts, or your vehicle's owner's manual.
However, in the aftermarket world there are additional compatibility considerations, particularly with makes and models that have dust covers:
Before purchasing an LED headlight, assess your headlight assembly. If your assembly has a dust cover, check the clearance inside the dust cover, ensuring the heat sink or fan body is short enough to fit into the space.
If your housing is off-center, you may want to consider a model with a slimmer fan body or heat sinks.
You'll want to purchase an LED bulb similar in length to your original bulb. Otherwise, it may not fit in the housing.
LED headlights will emit different beam patterns depending on a few factors, such as headlamp assembly type (projector or reflector) and correct adjustments. Generally, it is recommended that the LED chips are pointed at nine and three to achieve optimum light distribution.
Most LED headlight bulbs are plug-and-play, but some headlights require hard-wiring. If you have reservations about electrical wiring, we recommend searching for easy-to-install headlights.
This isn't the brightness of the bulb but the color. Color temperature is referred to by a "K" rating, as in Kelvin. The higher the Kelvin rating, the bluer and "cooler" the light. The lower the Kelvin rating, the "warmer" the color appears. The highest Kelvin rating you can get in bright white before it starts turning blue is 6000K.
Make sure your LED lights have built-in fans or heat sinks. Otherwise, they're at risk of overheating—and you've just lost your money.
It is not uncommon for people to experience flickering with their LED headlights. This is because the Controller Area Network, or CAN bus, which measures the resistance in the electrical circuit, detects a different voltage with the new LED bulbs. If this is the case, you must install either a capacitor or resistor so the CAN bus reads the circuit correctly and the headlight ceases to flicker.
How We Evaluated LED Headlights
We wanted to be as objective as possible, so we chose to test LED headlight bulbs rated at or near 6000K from a variety of popular brands. To test these bulbs fairly through the same lens, we parked a 2004 Toyota Corolla in a dark parking lot, installed each LED headlight, and assessed the following parameters:
Light intensity (using a lux meter)
Here are the physical distance markers in the comparison photos below:
5 feet: beginning of tape measure
15 feet: end of tape measure
25 feet: shoe
50 feet: closest tester
100 feet: farthest tester
Ready to shop for LED headlight bulbs for your car or truck? Here are the results of our LED headlight test.
Stock Halogen Low-Beam
For a visual baseline, here is a view of the light distribution from the stock halogen low-beam headlight on our 2004 Toyota Corolla.
Stock Halogen High-Beam
For comparison, here's the light distribution from the stock halogen high-beam on our Corolla.
When it comes to headlights, few names are as widely recognized as Sylvania. Like the brand's halogen counterparts, Sylvania's LED headlights performed at the range you'd expect from a renowned brand. The lux readings landed squarely in the middle compared to the other units we tested, and the lights showed a brilliant white color. The beam pattern displayed a seamless and sharp quality, with a well-concentrated distribution and no noticeable dark spots.
A noteworthy aspect of Sylvania is its widespread availability; you can find its products at nearly every major automotive retailer and even at Amazon and Walmart. This is helpful for folks seeking precise or unusual dimensions to fit a specific headlight housing.
Ultimately, we felt that the Sylvania hit the balance with performance, color intensity, and ease of installation, so we named it our top pick.
If you're searching for raw, powerful LED headlights that provide unparalleled illumination to the forward path, Fahren has you covered.
In terms of installation, we found these, like most all the LED bulbs we tested, straightforward to install and easy to adjust with the set screw.
However, in our test we found these headlights push the boundaries of being too intense. Seriously, these bulbs can be blinding—but with the correct adjustments, you can take advantage of their outstanding luminescence without burning the corneas of oncoming motorists.
In the end, we know the Fahren is designed to excel as an LED headlight, but they do so with such effectiveness it's almost a double-edged sword. We recommend these headlights as long as this word of caution is heeded: Ensure you've adjusted the beams correctly, and never drive facing oncoming traffic with your brights on.
The Roylux was the most budget-friendly option we tested. It differed from the other LEDs in a variety of ways. First, it uses a fanless cooling system, which the manufacturer claims to be the "latest in intelligent cooling technology." The cooling mechanism is intended to prolong the bulb's life span, but it decidedly did not keep the unit cooler than the others in the short term. During our testing, we found that the Roylux was hands down the hottest to handle after use. However, it seems Roylux anticipated this, so its package includes a single white glove, bringing to mind a symphony of painfully predictable Michael Jackson jokes.
Mostly, we were neither overly enthusiastic nor underwhelmed with the Roylux bulbs. We reckon it's an excellent option for those looking for a budget-friendly LED headlight.
Mumasha is another excellent budget-friendly option. It's not only affordable but also straightforward to install and flaunts a modest color intensity, making it a great option for newcomers to the wave of LED headlight users.
In terms of design, the unit features a nice braided-wire sleeve. However, while connecting the headlight to the vehicle's electrical connector, we noted a lack of secure connection; the safety tab would not latch to the vehicle's connector. While this was likely due to vehicle compatibility, it's a notable observation.
Lastly, we should acknowledge that these particular headlights have remained in tester Collin Morgan's vehicle. He has since reported flickering of the daytime running lights. It's important to clarify this is unlikely a bulb issue but rather the interplay between CAN bus systems and the new low-voltage LED. He will likely have to install a resistor to solve the issue.
In our testing, the lux readings for the Cougar Motor bulbs registered on the low side. However, that's not to say they weren't effective, since these headlights were still far brighter than the original halogen bulbs. The Cougar Motor headlights could be a practical choice if you're concerned about excessively bright headlights.
However, a significant issue occurred during our testing regarding installation and removal. The design of these headlights lacks a mechanism that securely fastens the collar to the bulb and fan. Consequently, when trying to remove the headlights, both collars slipped from the bulb unit and remained inside the headlight housing of our test vehicle. While we were able to remove them after a few frustrating minutes, unfortunately that scene stands out as the most memorable aspect of this headlight test.
How We Tested LED Headlights
While preparing for this test, we ran through a gamut of options, but in the end, there was no way around it: Headlights must be tested outdoors at night, since that's where they'll be used.
We ordered all these sets in the 9006 (low-beam) and 9005 (high-beam) fittings to keep the test as consistent as possible. (As stated, these sets are specified to fit a 2004 Toyota Corolla.) Next, we met at a business park after sunset.
Our testing location faced a thicket of trees. We then measured distances of 5, 15, 25, 50, and 100 feet from the front of the car. After the distance marks were set using a tape measure, a random sneaker, and a couple of our testers, we took measurements of the light from the stock halogen bulbs at each distance.
Next, we installed each LED headlight bulb, taking extensive notes on installation; then we used a lux meter to determine the light intensity at each distance. Next, we took note of the beam pattern by standing at the same place for each picture at 50 feet and 100 feet for both high- and low-beam settings.
What are LED headlights?
LED headlights use a technology called Light Emitting Diodes. They have gained popularity due to several advantages including superior vision, energy efficiency, and longevity.
Are LED headlights Safe?
LED headlights are safe for those driving but can be a hazard for other motorists on the road. If you decide to purchase LEDs, they must shine down toward the road, and the LED chips should face toward nine and three (side to side, not up and down) inside the housing.
My LEDs are causing a bulb warning light. Why?
Yes, a bulb warning light can be triggered by an LED. This is because the CAN bus constantly monitors the electrical current that runs through your vehicle. Since the LED pulls much less voltage than your standard halogen bulb, the CAN bus sees the voltage drop and registers your bulb inoperable. To remedy this, install a resistor or capacitor.
What's the difference between lumens and lux?
Lumens are determined in the production and design stages and measured in a controlled environment. This number is used by manufacturers in advertisements and spec sheets. Lux is used to measure the amount of light output in a given area. In other words, lumens measure the total amount of visible light emitted by a light source (in this case, a headlight), while lux measures the intensity of light on a given surface (in this case, a lux measurement tool).
How do you know what size headlights to buy?
Research what size you require. You can find your vehicle's headlight information in your owner's manual, in an online search, or at an automotive retailer.
What is the difference between halogen, HID, and LED headlights?
Halogen, HID, and LED each have distinctive features.
Halogen are the traditional light bulbs that use tungsten filament and halogen-filled glass bulbs. They are generally considered less bright than HID and LED but produce a pleasing, warm, yellowish light.
HID (High-Intensity Discharge) lights use gas to produce light. An electrical charge ignites the gas and creates a high-intensity light. HIDs are brighter than halogen and produce white or blue light.
LED (Light Emitting Diode) lights use semiconductors that emit light when an electrical current runs through them. They are energy efficient, long-lasting, and produce a spectrum of light colors, including blue. However, they can be overly bright for oncoming traffic unless they're adjusted properly.
Why Trust Us?
Hearst Autos combines the talent, resources, and expertise of three of the largest, most influential automotive publications in the world. The Gear Team has tested a wide variety of automotive products, parts, accessories, and gear, such as car battery chargers, catalytic converter anti-theft devices, and foam cannons. We get our hands on each and every product we test. Most are purchased; some are supplied by manufacturers.
Hearst Autos doesn't need to game algorithms for traffic or promote lousy products to earn a buck. Instead, we're more concerned with our legacy, our reputation, and the trust that our readers have in Autoweek, Car and Driver, and Road & Track to deliver honest opinions and expert evaluations.
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