Whether you’re trying to make your car unique or you’re looking for cost-effective repair parts for your car, the headlights aren’t as straightforward as you’d expect. Different styles, different colors, different brightnesses, different wattages – they may all play a factor into your decision.
How do you choose the right headlight kit for your car? What should you focus on when you’re searching for your new headlights? This guide should bring some clarity for you.
Types of Headlights
These are the headlights you find in your typical vehicle. Cars, trucks, vans, SUVs, big rigs, RVs – you’ll find halogen headlight bulbs in an overwhelming majority of on and off-road vehicles across the world. They have been the standard in automotive lighting for decades, and they’re not likely to be going anywhere anytime soon.
They operate much like a typical incandescent bulb. Electrical current passes through a tungsten filament in the bulb. The bulb is charged with halogen which aids the tungsten in glowing extremely bright.
The benefit to halogen headlight bulbs is clearly in the price. They are incredibly inexpensive to replace, and they are typically quite easy to install as well. It’s just a simple? clip in most cases, switch the bulb, and you’re no longer winking at oncoming traffic.
You’ll discover a couple downsides of halogen headlights. The first is their delicate nature. If you get a greasy fingerprint on the bulb when you’re installing it, you can expect to change it out again in just a short while. The oils on your fingers will cause the bulb to burn out prematurely. That’s especially upsetting when you discover that their operating life is just 200-400 hours in the first place. Also, their color usually leans more toward the yellow end of the spectrum although some super-bright halogen headlight bulbs do appear nearly white. It’s not as good at night, which is what headlights are all about.
In case you don’t already know, ‘HID’ stands for high intensity discharge. That’s a good sign, because high intensity headlights are the name of the game, right? You’ll normally be able to pick these out among the cars on the road. They are usually extremely bright, often a brilliant white or a bluish white color. If you look at the premium brands over the past decade or so, many will have HID headlights equipped from factory.
HID lights operate differently; they don’t use a filament in the bulb. Instead, electrical charge is conducted between electrodes inside the bulb, through Xenon gas. The gas itself glows extremely bright. The HID bulbs use an electrical ballast to achieve the right voltage to light the bulbs.
Over the typical halogen headlights, HID headlights are far superior in operation. A wide range of colors can be found, all the way from the warm yellowish light through to a very cool blue. HID headlights are exponentially brighter than halogen lights, so distance of illuminated road as well as visual clarity is dramatically improved. You can also expect HID headlights to last 2,500 operating hours, around 10 times that of normal halogen bulbs.
On the flip side, HID lights are much more expensive than standard headlight bulbs. While they last much longer, the initial purchase price is costly and a deterrent. In addition, since HID headlights deal with high-voltage ballasts, it’s best to have an electrical guru perform the installation or any service on them. Once they are installed, it takes a few uses before they brighten to their full potential. When turned on, HID lights take a few moments to get fully bright. Another problem with HID headlights is the ballast. While the bulb may last 2,500 hours, the ballast could fail sooner. If your kit is no longer available, you’ll be replacing the whole kit instead of the one serviceable part. Trust me, this is not an uncommon situation.
Like the halogen counterpart, the bulbs are very delicate. If they get dirty during installation, it could be just minutes before they burn out. When you are handling your HID bulbs, wear clean cotton gloves to protect your investment.
More recently, LED headlights have become mainstream. ‘LED’ stands for light-emitting diode, which isn’t really a light bulb at all. But, for the sake of this comparison, we’re going to treat it as such. Only in the past few years have LED lights been on the market but their low manufacturing cost and attractive appearance mean you’ll see them becoming quite popular.
LED headlights operate in a very different fashion than halogen and HID lights. They are low voltage lights, and are more of a science experiment than the others. A negative field is created at the LEDs, which creates photon activity. It occurs tens of thousands of times per second, which is why a constant light emission is evident.
The pros of LED headlights seem to far outweigh the cons at the moment. LED headlights are extremely bright and the light is very direct. It doesn’t seem to ‘wash out’ as much as halogen or HID lights. The color you choose for your headlights can vary among the whole gamut of headlight colors. It’s common to see pale blue lights, yellow lights, warm white, cool white, and the popular clear white.
In addition, nearly every type of bulb your car currently uses can be changed out for an LED light. And that’s not just headlights – that’s marker lights, brake lights, dash lights, radio lights, and so on. Even HID bulbs can be changed out for LED ones if the correct conversion bulb is used. They are incredibly versatile, no question. What’s more, LED headlights are going to last a very long time. They don’t ‘burn out’ per se, but can eventually fail and require replacement, roughly every 2,500 hours.
Availability is the main concern with LED lights. Although there are LED lights available for virtually every application, finding the suitable kit for your vehicle may be a little tricky. You need to know what color exactly you’re looking for or you could be quite displeased with the result. And although there may be a listing for a particular LED light or kit, it may be limited stock because of the young age of the style.
Cost-wise, LED lights are less expensive to manufacture but since this is still considered fairly new technology, the prices have remained high for a few years but are slowly starting to come down. The purchase price of LED headlight kits may be prohibitive right now, but they won’t be for long.
The Future of Headlights
If you’re holding out for new technology, you may not have to wait very long. Laser headlights have been in development for some time now. If you’re thinking red-dot sight-type laser lights, think again. These are different.
Lasers will be contained within the headlight assembly. The beam will reflect from a lens inside the headlight into an inert gas, which will create a bright light. The light will be focused or refracted to achieve the best lighting possible in the most precise pattern yet. And because bulbs aren’t going to be used, the lifespan increases quite a lot once again, up to 25,000 operating hours or beyond.
You’re not going to see laser headlights on anything but ultra-luxury cars initially. That means it’s going to be several years until common folk will have the chance to equip their cars with aftermarket laser headlights.
Which Headlight Color is Right for My Car?
The yellowish color from traditional headlights wasn’t by choice. The yellow color occurs simply because the light isn’t bright enough to be white instead. While the yellow tinge isn’t a desired effect, it’s not a bad thing. Like many streetlights, yellow headlights seem to cut through fog and other difficult viewing conditions on the road.
Blue lights also do a decent job of cutting through difficult road conditions. The bluish color seems to be a popular choice among aftermarket enthusiasts simply for the different color. The benefits and affects aren’t considered by these enthusiasts who are interested only in the color option..
By far, the most common option to choose is the bright white or clear white headlights. These are typically LED or HID headlight kits. They look classy and are incredibly bright. They do a great job of lighting the road ahead, however in rain, snow, and fog, they can produce a glare off the precipitation that shortens the visible range.
Which Headlight Kit is Best for My Budget?
If you’re looking for the most cost-effective option for headlights on your car, halogen headlights are the way to go. It’s what you probably have in your car right now, and the cost of replacement bulbs is miniscule compared to an upgrade in systems.
If you’re looking for a low-cost upgrade for your halogen headlights and you have a bit of skill with electrical systems, look at an HID headlight kit. These will include everything you need to install HID headlights into your vehicle, minus the tools. You can find inexpensive HID kits on Amazon as well as other online retailers. Beware, though – you get what you pay for. Step up to a recognized name brand if you want some form of guarantee they will last. Otherwise, you might have to get a headlight restoration kit eventually.
If you’re looking to upgrade your lighting and want the brightest option and the easiest installation, choose an LED headlight kit. They’re stupid easy to install; often they simply plug right into your existing light socket. It’s also your best choice if you want a different color of headlight, or if you’re replacing more than just your headlight bulbs.
If you have factory HID headlights that need repair and you want an inexpensive option instead of paying a fortune for the matching bulb at the dealership, there are LED bulbs you can use. Like a typical light bulb, you can just replace the bulbs without needing to rewire anything at all. Just make sure you replace the bulbs in pairs, otherwise you’ll get that odd Frankenstein look.
As a guideline, HID headlights are still the most sought-after headlight kits on the market. They offer the best lighting solution and color options. If the lowest price is your motivating factor, stick with the standard halogen bulbs. If you’re after the latest technology and best lighting available, you’ll want to look towards the LED headlight options.
If you’re looking to fight alongside James Bond, wait for the laser headlights to come out.
Replacement Halogen, HID and LED headlights for some popular makes/ models: