Name a car component that can be modified, and you’re sure to find vigorous debate around the best way to do so. Headlights are no exception, with car buyers debating between HID vs. LED lights and which one is better.
Do these higher-priced bulbs help you see better on the road? Color temperature, beam alignment and headlight shape have a lot to do with the effectiveness of headlights. Still, nothing makes as big of a difference as the headlight bulb. Here’s the how, what and why on which bulb may be the best for driving.
Halogen vs. HID vs. LED
General Electric invented halogen bulbs in 1892, and Italian automobile manufacturers started using them in the 1960s. More durable than sealed incandescent beams, halogen bulbs produced a brighter, better quality of light. They were soon widely adopted across the globe, except in the United States where regulations required headlights to be sealed to keep out moisture.
Once American automakers learned how to inexpensively make halogen headlights, the bulbs appeared in more models. By the early 1990s, the sealed incandescent beam lost its place in new automotive production.
While halogen lights remained the most popular well into the 1990s, the decade saw the invention of both high-intensity discharge (HID) lights and light emitting diodes (LEDs). LEDs, which consist of charged, glowing electrons, came shortly after HID lights. As with HIDs, LED lights can last for periods that far exceed halogen lights in life expectancy and require far less energy consumption.
LED tail lights were introduced in the early 1990s on higher-priced European automobiles. By the early 2000s, LED lights became common in even the least expensive cars. They are as popular as ever now.
What are HID headlights?
High-Intensity Discharge (HID) lights work a lot like the neon signs you see outside a bar or gas station, the difference being that HIDs use xenon gas instead of neon. When electricity passes across electrodes through the sealed tube, xenon gas reacts with halide salts to produce light.
HID and projector lens headlamps first appeared on the $52,000 1991 BMW 7 series. In 2016, even the $17,000 Toyota Corolla was sold with standard HID headlamps and daytime running lights (DRL). HID lights are now on cars from every manufacturer.
The reflecting housings can make upgrading from halogen lights to HIDs a bit of a hassle. HID bulbs in housing designed for a halogen bulb replacement will have a bright light, but they’ll put the wrong amount of light in all the wrong places. To properly replace halogen lights, replace both the housing and the bulb.
HID pros and cons
Overall, HID lights are a fantastic upgrade over halogen lights, producing far more light with much more efficiency. But their longevity is questionable, and installation isn’t a simple plug-and-play operation.
More energy efficient: Newer HID lamps produce more visible light per unit of energy than halogen lights. Xenon gas uses very low voltage, reducing the alternator’s load. Compared to a halogen light, more of the energy emitted is in the visible light spectrum.
Brighter, more natural light: At a color temperature more closely related to midday sunshine, the HID light appears white. HID light is brighter and makes reflectors and signs highly visible to the driver. A typical halogen lamp emits up to 1,000 lumens, while an HID emits 3,000-5,000.
Customization: New, HID-equipped cars have a headlight-leveling control to drop and raise the light, depending on vehicle load and angle, to prevent glare to other road users.
Visible light inefficient: It’s not as high as incandescent or fluorescent bulbs, but 30% of the light from HID headlamps is in the infrared spectrum and invisible to humans. With consumers increasingly environmentally conscious, inefficiency receives scrutiny.
Short lifespan: HID lights can produce up to 70% less light after 10,000 hours of use. Although this wouldn’t necessarily be a problem for the first owner of a car, the second owner would need to replace the bulbs. HID lights also produce more material waste than more durable lights.
Omnidirectional: HID bulbs produce 360 degrees of light. Half of the light needs to be reflected to illuminate the road. Unlike directional lights, more complicated housings need to be made to make HID lights work well. That increases production and replacement costs and makes retrofitting the lights into an older vehicle more complicated than simply swapping lightbulbs.
What are LED headlights?
Automotive LED lights work just like the LED lightbulbs in your home: An electric current passes through a diode that produces bright light with less heat because it’s not burning a gas.
For automobiles, LEDs are quickly becoming the No. 1 replacement for halogens. As of 2019, LEDs were used in more than 86% of automobiles. LED lights are noticeably brighter than halogens and similar in brightness compared to HIDs. Brighter light, low energy usage and durability have helped them become the standard for projector beam headlights.
Long lifespan: New LED bulbs will last up to 50,000 hours. By comparison, the average lifespan of an HID bulb is 2,000 hours. Less frequent replacement also means less material waste.
Visible light efficient: LEDs emit very little infrared light, so more energy is used for visible light. They waste very little power in the form of infrared radiation, much different from most conventional lights, including HID. They’re also energy efficient, being up to 90% more efficient and lasting up to 10 times longer than halogen bulbs.
Directional light: LEDs shine light at 180 degrees. The headlamp case and design can be less complicated and less expensive to produce for manufacturers.
Expense: LEDs still cost more to put into cars than halogen and HID lights. However, their longevity compared to other lighting options may balance out the cost.
Heat: LED assemblies require space for a heat sink and, in some instances, a fan. Although LED lights themselves produce little heat, the power units produce plenty. Heat sinks used with LEDs are designed to absorb and disperse excess heat away from the diode. Air from the fan then circulates around the heat sink to cool it. This takes up space but is important for extending the life of the LED unit.
DIY installation difficulty: Every engine and lighting system is different, which means installing LEDs can be tricky. Most LED lighting systems come with a retro adapter to power the headlights. Still, you may also have to install additional components to be sure your headlights are functioning correctly. Any other components your headlights need to work correctly come at an added cost.
HID vs. LED: Which headlights are better?
It’s not an easy decision. While HID and LED headlights are both far superior to halogens, preference for color and headlight shape matter, too. It also depends on the space you have available for the replacements. Longevity, replacement costs and optional lighting tricks will need to be considered.
You may prefer HID lights if …
Cost is a concern. HIDs are typically less expensive to install. An LED lighting system will include a retro adapter to provide power.
You want brighter headlights than LEDs. This is a tough call and often depends on your eyes. However, an HID light pattern will generally cast light farther down the road depending on the optical system and reflector construction.
You want more aftermarket color bulb choices. For driving, you’ll want to stay in the 5000k-to-6000k color spectrum. These will have your whitest light. Anything lower, higher or more extreme would be used for style and wouldn’t be functional or legal for highway use.
You don’t plan to keep the car forever. Unlike LEDs, HIDs will degrade over time, and the light color will begin to take on a purple hue. If you keep your car for a long time, this might be an issue. But if you’re someone who likes to buy and sell cars often, it’s less of a concern.
LEDs may be better for you if …
You want the latest technology. HIDs aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, but they’re no longer the newest kid on the block. If being on the cutting edge matters to you, LEDs have the newer technology.
You want options for strobe lighting. Yes, you can do that. The kits can be pricey, but if you’re on the car show circuit or trying to attract attention, then it may be worth your money.
You want low maintenance costs. The longevity of LEDs is such that you may never need to replace your bulb. By design, they withstand heat and vibration better than any other light. Between their long lifespan and low maintenance, it’s easy to justify the higher initial cost.
You have space for the emitter. LEDs come with an emitter, and it puts out some heat. If you’re retrofitting, make sure you have the space for the emitter and a ventilation fan. Otherwise, you don’t really have a choice to make.