Projector headlights are a far cry from the sealed-beam headlights of a generation ago. Today, we can choose from high-intensity discharge (HID), halogen and light-emitting diode (LED) headlights, but the housing and the headlight reflector are big parts of any headlight’s performance. With that in mind, there are two types of headlights to think about: reflector or projector headlights. But what are projector headlights, and are they better than other options?
What are projector headlights?
Also referred to as projector beam headlights, this design first appeared on luxury vehicles in the late 1980s. Like other headlight designs, projector headlights use a mirror-like reflective steel bowl to intensify the amount of light emitted. The big difference, though, is the lens design is also an important part of these headlights.
Projector headlights feature a Fresnel-style lens—also known as a condenser lens—that concentrates and multiplies the amount of light being emitted while focusing and narrowing its beam.
Projector headlight components
Projector headlights consist of three main components that work together to provide bright, useful light.
The projector headlight design is so efficient that conventional HID lamps aren’t advisable—the design can concentrate light so much that it dazzles and blinds oncoming drivers. Xenon HIDs are instead recommended for projector headlights. Some projector headlights are designed around halogen or LED bulbs, but state laws can vary on that style—check to be sure what your state allows.
Older headlight designs featured either two filaments for high/low beams on sealed-beam headlights or two separate bulbs. Projector headlights, instead, use a mechanical shutter driven by a solenoid that comes up from the bottom of the housing, diverting and redirecting part of the light for low-beam driving. In addition, the shutter is a different design on the driver’s side, which helps to not blind oncoming drivers. When the driver switches to high beams, the shutter is lowered so the bulb can project its full brightness.
The different design enhances the amount of light the lamp can put down the road. The lens on projector headlights is also clear, and the whole package can give automotive stylists and designers leeway to come up with aesthetically-pleasing and aerodynamic designs.
What are reflector headlights?
An older design, reflector headlights are still common on today’s cars. They use a conventional concave reflector instead of the complicated geometry of projector headlights. They’re less expensive for the manufacturer and can be a lot more compact, plus they’re proven technology.
Reflector headlight components
A reflector headlight operates similar to how a projector headlight works, without the specially-designed lens.
LEDs have been shown to provide the best lighting performance for reflector headlight setups. HID headlights don’t perform as well and can also be more hazardous for oncoming drivers. Again, check your state laws for what’s legal.
One long-standing problem with reflector headlights is their tendency to oxidize and get hazy over long periods of exposure to UV rays and wear and tear. If your polycarbonate headlight lenses are starting to become cloudy, that can really cut down on the amount of light they can deliver. You can purchase kits that buff the lenses with a mild rubbing compound to restore their transparency and enhance performance.
The shape of the reflector and headlight bucket for this type of lens are more compact than the reflector found in projector lights and, in most cases, easier to replace.
Projector vs. reflector headlights
Like with most features, there are tradeoffs involved with each of these headlight designs. Each has its distinct pros and cons, and your decision might just come down to your budget, preferences and vehicle.
Projector headlights provide a brighter, more focused beam regardless of what style of bulb you use. Reflector headlights throw a broader, more diffuse pattern of light that some drivers prefer, but they can also be more annoying for oncoming drivers.
Reflector headlights take the prize. Projector setups and their housings can be pricey and might not even be available for your vehicle’s year, make and model. It’s also worth noting that for some vehicles, upgrading to an LED headlight can be complex, sometimes requiring a ballast to be installed in order to convert the car’s electric power to a form better suited to LEDs. LEDs also tend to put out colder light that isn’t everyone’s preference.
Without a doubt, projector headlights are safer. Their concentrated beam is designed to help you see down the road and not blast the retinas of oncoming drivers.
Ease of replacement
This is where reflector headlights excel. The bulb is accessible from the rear of the headlight bucket and usually doesn’t even require tools for replacement.
While reflector headlights put out a broader, more diffuse pattern of light, you will probably also notice some dim spots toward the edges of that field of light. The directness of projector headlights definitely adds up to better clarity.