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Halogen vs LED Headlights - What's Better?

By Jason Collins | May 18, 2022

All car owners will understand the importance of their car's headlights, especially when driving at night or through bad weather conditions. You may have noticed that certain cars have different types of headlight bulbs.

Two of the most common headlight bulbs found today are halogen lights and LED lights. Halogen headlights were the standard for the automotive industry for many years, but now LED lights are outshining them. In the battle of the bulbs, you may be left wondering which of the two is the better option for your vehicle? The answer comes down to your preference and how often you drive in low-light conditions and after dark.

If you turn to the automakers, they favor LED bulbs, with most modern vehicles offering LED headlights as a standard or optional feature. If you need a little more light at the end of the tunnel, then continue reading as we explore LED vs halogen headlights in more detail.

Halogen vs LED Headlights: Which is Better?

Now that we covered the base of what each headlight is in detail, what their pros and cons are, and how they function, we can try and answer the question of which one is the better choice.

First, what do the experts say?

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) experts note that in the organization's tests, LEDs are usually the top performers. Still, it also confesses that some of the halogen varieties tested outperformed some of the poorest-performing LEDs. Still, the overall best ratings went to LED bulbs that illuminated the side of the road by a minimum of 325 feet for the best bulbs and 220 feet for the lowest-ranking bulbs.

Consumer Report's testing noted that LED headlights didn't offer any more illumination than traditional halogen and/or high-intensity discharge (HID) headlights. Jennifer Stockburger, director of operations at the Consumer Reports Auto Test Center, explained: "Both LED and HID headlights can produce a brighter, whiter light than halogens, and they illuminate the sides of the road well. But how far a headlight illuminates straight ahead, in the direction a car is traveling, is what's most important."

The best answer?

While automakers favor LED headlights, it is up to you as the driver to decide which type of headlight is best for your driving needs. If you do not drive a lot and seldom drive at night, the added cost of a trim package that includes LED lights may not be worth it.

However, if you are the type of driver who drives a lot or travels quite frequently, particularly after 6 pm, then opting for a car with high-quality LED headlights may be a smart move for you.

Halogen vs Led Headlights -- What's the Difference?

The best way to put the two types of headlights up against each other is to break each one down in further detail with their own pros and cons.

Halogen Headlights

Halogen headlights were the standard for vehicles for many years, but now they are competing against LED headlights. They are incandescent lights with a tungsten filament inside the halogen bulb. When an electric current surges through the filament, it heats up and produces light. Halogen headlights have a dose of halogen gas instead of argon gas, which is found in regular incandescent bulbs. They burn brighter than regular incandescent bulbs, and they also last longer. You can identify halogen bulbs in a vehicle because they have a yellow color.

The Pros:

  • Replacing halogen bulbs is less expensive than replacing LED bulbs.

  • Replacing halogen bulbs is a more straightforward process than replacing LED bulbs.

  • The yellow light is softer and won't easily blind other drivers on the road.

  • They are brighter than regular incandescent bulbs.

They last longer than regular incandescent bulbs.

The Cons:

  • Halogen bulbs run hot quickly and require more energy than LED headlight bulbs, making them less energy efficient.

  • Halogen headlight bulbs don't last as long as LED bulbs.

  • Halogen bulbs are not as bright as LED headlight bulbs.

LED Headlights

The automobile industry has embraced light-emitting diodes (LEDs) in headlights, with their use becoming more widespread on new cars as they gain in popularity.

Consumer Reports provided the following statistics;

  • 55 percent of the 2018 models they tested had LED headlights.

  • 86 percent of the tested 2019 models had LEDs.

For more recent figures, we can turn to the latest market analysis by market intelligence company TrendForce which reveals; "The global penetration rate of LED vehicle headlights exceeds 60% in 2021 with penetration in new energy vehicles (NEV) exceeding 90%."

LED headlight bulbs are a far more advanced technology than halogen bulbs and high-intensity discharge (HID) headlights. They contain two semiconductors (or diodes) on a small chip with either a small number or a surplus of electrons. When an electrical charge reaches the two semiconductors, the atoms move toward each other and combine. The resulting energy created from this process releases light energy.

Compared to regular incandescent bulbs, LEDs operate approximately 90% more efficiently, and because they generate less heat, they offer superior durability.

The Pros:

  • LED bulbs use less energy than halogen and HID headlights because they run cooler and drain less power from the vehicle's electrical system.

  • LED headlight bulbs offer superior durability because they are energy efficient they last longer than most bulbs on the market.

  • LED headlights have a brighter light since they emit a white light instead of the yellow light produced by halogen light bulbs. LED bulbs measure between 3,000 to 4,000 lumens, while halogen bulbs measure between 1,000 and 1,500 lumens.

  • LED headlights cast a large light pattern on the roadway, so it is easier for you to get a more comprehensive look at where you're going and what's in your surroundings. Halogen headlights, by contrast, direct a small pool of yellow-hued light that hits right in front of your vehicle.

  • LED bulbs are small and can be used in a string of lights, which gives vehicle designers more opportunity and creativity in designing the look of headlights.

The Cons:

  • The very bright light produced by LED bulbs can be harder on other motorists' eyes when traveling at night. Many motorists mistakenly think an oncoming vehicle has its high beams on, but it is just the vehicle's LED lights.

  • LED headlights are more expensive and complicated to repair or replace. Drivers may need a mechanic to assist with replacement or repairs instead of the ease of doing it themselves at home.

  • LED headlight bulbs are generally more expensive than halogen and HID bulbs. For example, a headlight assembly minus the LED bulb runs around $985 for a BMW, and that's before labor is factored in.

Conversion Kits

If you are not ready to trade your old vehicle in for a fancy new upgrade equipped with OEM halogen headlights, then the aftermarket wizards can help you without taking the plunge and buying a new car.

Conversion kits for LED headlamps can be a brilliant addition to your car, making for safer driving and added efficiency. Be aware that not all states allow aftermarket headlight conversions, so check first before you invest in a lighting upgrade.

What About Xenon Bulbs?

When discussing LED headlights, it is important not to confuse them with Xenon headlights, which are different, although reasonably similar.

Xenon lights are also called HID (high-intensity discharge) headlights. HID lights are the brightest and whitest of all headlights on the market, providing broad illumination of the roadway ahead. HID bulbs are expensive, so they are geared more toward drivers who are out after dark frequently.

One thing that separates LED, halogen, and Xenon/HID lights from one another is their color temperature. LEDs are the coolest, at approximately 6,000 Kelvin, giving them their bright whiteness. Xenon gas bulbs are around 4,500 Kelvin, and halogens are generally in the 3,200 Kelvin range.

Xenon options produce more light than LEDs and halogen lights; however, HID bulbs often have more glare than LEDs, although they provide intense light.

Why Do Manufacturers Love LEDs?

Manufacturers looking to achieve sleeker-looking, modish profiles on their models love the fact that LED lights can be small and unobtrusive. Audi, BMW, and Toyota have developed cars that use high-quality LED headlight systems. From a design standpoint, the small size allows for amazing manipulation. Automakers can create a bevy of assemblies and shapes to go well with the cars they produce. They essentially eliminate those not-so-pretty dome reflectors associated with halogen headlight bulbs.

"Headlight styling helps win over consumers. The different-looking headlights and design are attractive to the buyer because the headlights are the eyes of the car," says Steffen Pietzonka, head of marketing at Hella, a headlight manufacturer.

However, all that beauty and grace is not without at least one drawback for the manufacturer. Although LED lamps do not emit the heat you experience with halogen light bulbs, they generate heat from their emission base, particularly in the region of the chip in the emitter, so when the electricity comes through, there is some possibility of problems with connection cables and assembles.

This means LED lamps require their own cooling systems to prevent them from melting. For this reason, fans or heat sinks are usually part of the LED lamp setup, which is an added cost for automakers. Because the cooling systems used for LED lights are situated in the engine's bay (which is already experiencing higher temperatures), designing and implementing LEDs into a car is no small feat. Automakers pass all these additional costs onto the buyer, so LEDs are generally an upgrade or available with particular trim packages only.

If you are just interested in having LED taillamps or running lights added to your vehicle, you're lucky. These do not require heat sinks. These lights are not relied upon for nighttime navigation, so they do not need to have as much power as headlamps; ergo, they do not experience the level of current running through their chips that pose a heat problem on headlamps.

The History Lesson

Headlights are crucial to your safety on the road and affect the safety of other motorists too. They illuminate the road ahead and help you see your surroundings, signs, and unexpected obstacles, especially at night or during low-light situations. They also ensure that others see your vehicle on the roadway.

Properly adjusted and cared-for headlights can make the difference between life and death. Today's driver has many choices when it comes to headlights, including two of the most popular options, halogen headlamps (which have been popular for decades) and LED (light-emitting diode) varieties (which are starting to become more mainstream).

All headlights illuminate the road in two ways. The first is the traditional use of a reflector to bounce the light from the bulb forward. The second way uses a projector method, where the headlights use a lens that directs and focuses the light outwards. There are several ways for headlights to create illumination.

Headlight technology has evolved since the late 19th century when nearly every vehicle of the scarce number on the roadway was equipped with simplistic acetylene lamps. These headlamps overcame the challenges of carriage lamps (fueled by candles) because they were resistant to rain and wind.

The Electric Vehicle Company of Hartford introduced the first electric headlamps back in 1898. Still, they were limited in mainstream use due to the short lifespan of the filaments incorporated in their design.

The true origins of today's headlight system did not come about until 1912 when Delco's electrical lighting and ignition system was put to use in the 1912 Cadillac. Flash forward a half-century and several technology leaps later (including electromagnetically shifted reflectors and steering-linked lighting), and we arrived at the halogen lamp in 1962. Halogen bulbs were first only used in Europe but later became street-legal in the U.S. at the start of 1978.

The chances are good that most of the vehicles you have ever owned were equipped with standard halogen lights, which are still common on today's roads. However, the brighter, whiter appeal of the LED headlight is starting to dim the popularity of halogen bulbs, and more drivers are seeking out vehicles equipped with LED headlamps.

LED headlights first appeared in the U.S. in 2007 on the Lexus LS 600h sedan and were originally found on only high-end vehicles. Now, LED headlights are more common than HID headlights (xenon lights) in the same way LED lights have bypassed traditional compact fluorescent lamps in the home. They are popping up more frequently on mainstream cars, SUVs, and pickup trucks, offering far more advanced technology. The 2015 Cadillac Escalade was the first SUV sold in America with all-LED headlights.