Should you choose LED Headlights or HID Headlights?

When it comes to car modifications, there is bound to be a heated debate around exactly which component to use. Therefore, people also never stop arguing whether they should choose LED Headlights or HID Headlights.

Will these more expensive bulbs help you see better on the road? Color temperature, beam alignment and headlight shape have a lot to do with how effective headlights are. That said, nothing is more important than headlight bulbs. Here's the how, what and why of LED Headlights or HID Headlights are best for driving.

Comparison of Halogen vs. HID vs. LED

Comparison of Halogen vs. HID vs. LED

General Electric invented the halogen bulb in 1892, and Italian automakers began using them in the 1960s. Halogen bulbs are more durable than sealed incandescent lamps and produce brighter, better quality light. They are widely adopted worldwide, except in the United States, where regulations require sealed headlights to protect against moisture.

When American automakers learned how to make halogen headlights cheaply, bulbs appeared in more models. By the early 1990s, sealed incandescent beams lost their place in the production of new automobiles.

While halogen lights remained the most popular in the 1990s, High-Intensity Discharge (HID) lamps and light-emitting diodes (LEDs) were both invented during this decade. LEDs, which consist of electrically charged light-emitting electrons, appeared shortly after HID lamps. Like HIDs, LED lamps can last far longer than the life expectancy of halogen lamps and require much less energy, making them more energy efficient.

LED taillights used on luxury cars in Europe in the early 1990s. However, by the early 2000s, LED lights were becoming commonplace in even the cheapest cars. They are as popular now as they ever were.

What are LED headlights?

What are LED headlights?

Automotive LED lights work like the LED bulbs in your home: an electric current is passed through a diode which produces a bright light with less heat because it does not burn gas.

LEDs are fast becoming the number one alternative to halogen for cars. By 2019, more than 86% of cars will use LEDs. LED lamps are significantly brighter than halogen lamps and are similarly bright compared to HIDs. Brighter light, low energy consumption and durability have helped them become the standard for projector beam headlights.

LED pros

  • Long lifespan: the new LED bulbs have a lifespan of up to 50,000 hours. This compares to an average of 2,000 hours for HID bulbs. Less frequent replacement also means less material waste.
  • Visible light efficiency: LEDs emit very little infrared light, so more energy is use for visible light. They waste very little energy in the form of infrared radiation, which is very different from most conventional lamps, including HIDs. They are also very energy efficient, being 90% more efficient than halogen bulbs and lasting 10 times longer.
  • Directional light: LEDs emit light at an angle of 180 degrees. For manufacturers, the headlight housing and design can be less complex and cheaper to produce.

LED cons

  • Expense: LEDs are still more costly to install than halogen and HID lamps. However, their longevity may offset the cost when compared to other lighting options.
  • Heat: LED components require space for heat sinks and in some cases fans. Although the LED lamp itself generates very little heat, the power unit generates a lot of heat. The heat sink used with the LED is designed to absorb and dissipate the excess heat from the diode. Air from the fan is then circulated around the heat sink to cool it. This takes up space, but is important to extend the life of the LED units.
  • DIY installation difficulty: Every engine and lighting system is different, which means that installing LEDs can be tricky. Most LED lighting systems come with a vintage adapter to power the headlights. Nevertheless, you may have to install other components to ensure your headlights work properly. Any other components that your headlights need to work properly will require additional costs.

What are HID headlights?

What are HID headlights?

High Intensity Discharge (HID) lights work much like the neon signs you see outside bars or petrol stations, with the difference that HIDs use xenon gas rather than neon. When an electric current is passed through a sealed tube through the electrodes, the xenon gas reacts with a halide salt to produce light.

HID and projector lens headlights first appeared on the $52,000 1991 BMW 7 Series. In 2016, even the $17,000 Toyota Corolla was equipped with standard HID headlights and daytime running lights (DRLs). HID lights are now available on every manufacturer's car.

Reflective housings can make upgrading from halogen to HID a bit of a hassle. HID bulbs in housings designed to replace halogen bulbs will give a bright light, but they will put the wrong amount of light in all the wrong places. To replace a halogen lamp correctly, replace both the housing and the bulb.

HID pros and cons

Overall, HID lights are an excellent upgrade to halogen lights, producing more light and being more efficient. However, their longevity is questionable and installation is not a simple plug-and-play operation.

HID pros

  • More energy efficient: the newer HID lamps produce more visible light per unit of energy than halogen lamps. Xenon uses a very low voltage, which reduces the load on the alternator. It emits more energy in the visible spectrum than halogen lamps.
  • Brighter, more natural light: HID lamps appear white at a colour temperature more closely related to the midday sun. HID lamps are brighter, making reflectors and signs highly visible to the driver. Typical halogen lamps emit up to 1,000 lumens of light, while HIDs emit between 3,000 and 5,000 lumens.
  • Customised: New vehicles equipped with HID have headlight levelling controls that lower and raise the lights depending on the vehicle load and angle to prevent glare to other road users.

HID cons

  • Visible light is inefficient: it is not as efficient as incandescent or fluorescent lamps, but 30% of the light emitted by HID headlamps is in the infrared spectrum and not visible to humans. The inefficiency has come under scrutiny as consumers have become more environmentally conscious.
  • Short lifespan: HID lights can reduce light by up to 70% after 10,000 hours of use. While this is not necessarily a problem for the first owner, the second owner will need to replace the bulb. HID lights also produce more material waste than more durable lights.
  • Omnidirectional: HID bulbs produce 360 degrees of light. Half of the light needs reflect to illuminate the road. Unlike directional lamps, more complex housings need to be made to make HID lights work properly. This increases production and replacement costs and makes retrofitting lights to an old car more complicated than simply replacing the light bulb.

LED Headlights or HID Headlights: Which Headlights are better?

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This is not an easy decision. LED Headlights or HID Headlights are far superior to halogen lamps, preference for colour and headlamp shape is also important. It also depends on the space available to you for replacement. Longevity, replacement costs and optional lighting tricks need to be consider.

You may prefer HID lights if …

  • 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 can use 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.

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