Have you recently tried checking what your options are on a replacement LED headlight? Did you notice the options that are available? They are endless aren’t they? We agree that this can pose a problem and may confuse most that are new to car lighting.
How do you know what to look for and what should you use for your car? Well, we address the key factors too look for on a reliable replacement LED headlight bulb that performs correctly and does not distort visibility, create glare problems to oncoming traffic, is safe to use on the road, and does not crap out on you while you are driving.
In this article, we cover the key factors on what makes a quality replacement headlight. From the light sources, to the cooling mechanism and the circuitry involved. There are the obvious features that an LED replacement bulb should always have and then there are the 3 key factors we believe you should look for when shopping for a replacement LED headlight or any replacement LED bulb.
Welcome to LED headlights 101….
The LIGHT SOURCE Is Key!
This is where your light comes from and should never be overlooked. The diodes used on your headlight should be extremely small. So small, it should not be any larger than the original filament of the factory bulb you are replacing. The filament is the small piece of metal inside the bulb which is also the light source that glows when power is running to the bulbs. This pertains to headlamp lighting and any other lamp that utilizes a traditional halogen or incandescent bulb. Smaller exterior types of lamps (turns, brakes, backup, interior map lights, etc) rarely have a negative impact on results when changing the light source position or adding more light sources. Most smaller exterior lamp housings only need a bulb that shines in a 360° orientation to provide a bright running lamp. Also, these type of reflector housings are not meant to project a beam but rather just show the light and concentrate it in a small reflector housing in order to improve noticeability at longer distances. (The ability to see the light at a distance is referred to as ‘candela’ and you can find more details about this unit of measure on our blog article linked here https://jdmastarblog.com/2019/01/11/understanding-lumen-lux-and-candela)
Changing the physical size of the light source will always affect the beam pattern. Within the first 10ft in front of the vehicle, the changes to the pattern are minimal but once you pull out of the driveway and spread your pattern 200ft in front of the car, the changes will become extremely obvious and you will notice loss of focus, and light concentration.
The positioning of the light is also just as important as the physical size of the light source. The positioning will affect the beam angle or height. The deeper the light source is in the housing, the higher or ‘straighter’ the beam will project and will focus it to a smaller area making it look brighter to the human eye. The closer the light is to the lens, the more spread and wider lighting you will have and also reduces concentration thus making it appear dimmer than what it actually is. (This is also how those handheld LED flashlights work. The light source moves away or closer to the lens in order to change the focus of the beam when adjusting the lamp for more or less spread/focus)
If you noticed that your beam angle has changed completely, or the light pattern is choppy you are probably running a LED headlight that moved the light source (LED chips) to a different position and/or phyiscal size.
Light sources or LED chips that are branded by reputable sources such Samsung CSP chips, Lumileds (Phillips) ZES chips, or CREE XHP series chips are also more reliable compared to a generic type. These branded manufacturers provide some of the best LED chips that offer high thermal resistance, high light efficacy, and the highest efficiency automotive LED technology has ever seen.
You should also( and always) consider an adjustable LED headlight over one that does not provide an adjustable collar as this is what works directly with the LED headlights light source and positioning. Reasoning to this is because most aftermarket LED headlights are universal bulbs that work on any car that takes the same bulb size. They are not specific to any particular vehicle make or model so having an adjustable headlight allows for peace of mind at achieving optimal results with your LED headlights beam pattern and angle regardless of the housing its being installed into.
Lastly, the direction that the LED chips are facing is another important factor. This only affects aftermarket LED headlight replacement bulbs. Most LED headlights will offer more than 1 side where a light source is mounted. For optimal results, the LED headlight should only use two sides where a light source is mounted and they should both light up at the same time. The diodes should face from left to right as most reflectors work similarly in how light is distributed when comparing the right and left hand sides. The top and bottom portions of MOST lamp housing are always completely different.
Positioning the diodes to where they are facing left to right (or at 3 & 9 o’clock), provides symmetrical light disbursement which results in a wide beam pattern that is focused and similar to what your factory lamps project. The intensity results, however, will blow you away!
LED technology has always had a heat threshold
Like most computer components, LED has always had a heat threshold. Older technologies are built like tanks! This is why your factory halogen or incandescent bulbs can run over 325° just after 1 hour of use and still work fine. They are made of glass! LEDs, however, tend to use a form of silicon such as the chemical element germanium which is the same material you see on a variety of types of LEDs. This material offers thermal properties similarly to the plastic wedge connectors on a traditional 3057K amber incandescent bulb which we all know runs extremely hot after only a few minutes. The diodes (part that emits the light within the LED chip), however, cannot handle the same high operating temperatures. This is why you will always find a metal body, a large heat sink, or a high velocity mechanical fan which are all designed for the same purpose.
The purpose of these parts are to provide a form of cooling down the diodes or transferring thermal energy away from the diodes. As the diodes are running, thermal energy that is emitted transfers to the metal surface of the LED headlight bulb and radiates through the shaft/collar and exits via the cooling mechanism. If it’s a fan, the fan will extract more thermal energy and cool the bulb faster. If it is a heat sink, a process referred to as ‘heat dissipation’ occurs and provides cooling but at a slower rate. Heat radiates through the body of the bulb and exits through the surface area provided on the heat sink. When the heat sink is penetrated by air flow, it will provide even faster cooling for the diodes.
An advantage on our heat sink type headlights are that they use branded or ‘high-end’ light sources that perform very well in extreme temperatures. Best part is that there is no mechanical parts for cooling thus allowing you to take them on dirt roads without a concern of a fan failure.
An advantage for a fan style headlight is that fans are also available in various sizes and types. Most fans use ball bearings to reduce friction and minimize heat generated by a rotating fan. They cool down the bulbs at a much faster rate over any other cooling mechanism. Heat sinks do not utilize the same system and tend to be bulky, or large in physical size compared to the fan style options available so its definitely something to consider if you have your mind set on a fan less LED headlight.
Both a fan and a passive thermal heat sink are equally as advantageous and we do not consider one is superior over the other as this depends on the driver, and the car you are working with.
If you plan to expose your LED headlights to typical road conditions, and weather conditions are normal (maybe rain at the most) then a heat sink lamp will perform very well, or even a fan! Of course, a heat sink will outlast the life of any mechanical fan so that would be the preferred investment to make.
If you plan to take your headlights off road, or reside in an area with a lot of dirt roads, a fan may not be the best idea. Debris can cause any miniature fan to cease! You have to understand that the fan will get wet and begin to collect dust. This can then affect the RPM rate of the fan, may lead to friction on the fan bearings which results in even more heat or reduced cooling so a heat sink would be better in this situation.
Commercial semi-truck drivers that take long road trips tend to use their headlights for hours and hours at a time should consider a fast cooling mechanism. A heat sink style lamp would most certainly be a good investment but being that the heat sink is limited on how much and how fast thermal energy will be removed, it may be better to have a faster cooling process so that the diodes remain low in operating temperatures and handle your longer than normal hours of usage in your night drives.
Costs are also lower with fan style headlights and heat sink style lamps tend to be higher in cost but with reasoning. Being that a fan is one of the first methods discovered, to cool down an LED headlight, the costs are usually competitive whereas a heat sink style lamp is something new to the industry. Heat sink type headlights are typically engineered with higher end or premium light sources (to handle higher operating temps) and this will certainly reflect on the total cost of the replacement headlight kit.
Again, a fan or heat sink both have their pros and cons and what dictates which option is the best one for you is both YOU, the driver, and the car you’re building (or just upgrading).
The Brains of your LED Headlights
Back when LED first hit the auto industry, the electronic circuitry involved in automotive LEDs was very minimal and/or limited. You have to understand that 10-20 years ago, the technology was nowhere near its peak and due to this type of product being something new to the industry, your options were never there. The knowledge we have about automotive LED chips today has allowed us to evolve this technology and make it to what it is today.
In the past, LED headlights had too much wiring going on and connections were not protected through a weather proof seal. You had to use your own automotive silicone grease and heat shrink to seal up exposed connections yourself. All the tedious wires involved had to be tucked or cable tied somehow. The drivers were not very efficient and would send too much power. This lead to a life expectancy that is nothing compared to what you find today.
The drivers are the brains of your LED lamps and are just as important as the light source and cooling mechanism. The driver is what dictates how long you can use the LED chips before a problem arises. A problem being a prematurely failure, overheating, flicker (like a fail safe feature from the driver to prevent a burn out to a diode) and sudden power spikes that lead to temperature increases.
A drivers purposes is to well…..drive power and maintain it steady. A driver helps control power to the diodes. They are the crowd controllers to a Disneyland ride line!
Without the driver, the diodes will simply receive whatever current is supplied by the car which we all know spikes up when you accelerate due to the alternator. Voltages run at 12V when the engine is off, and idles up to 14V when the engine is turned over. Temperatures will be all over the place for the diodes which can lead to a problem for the whole LED bulb.
Most commonly used LED chips, not limited to the automotive industry, cannot even handle more than 5V so can you imagine what the LED chips in your digital cameras, iPhone camera flashes or LED home lighting fixtures would be like today if drivers did not exist. (Say good-bye to your iPhone X flashlight!)
If you are using any high powered LED replacement bulb, always ensure that there is a driver included with the LED bulb or at least has a driver built-in it.
Drivers that are away from the body of the bulb or not built-in work best as the heat generated by the diodes will not impact the efficiency of the driver and thus allow your LEDs a substantially longer operating times and an even longer life expectancy.
Another factor to consider are resistors. And no, we do not mean the same resistors you run in a car to bypass a hyper-flashing turn signal as those are bit too hot to use in ANY LED circuit. We are referring to an even smaller resistor. Resistors that are present in various home appliances, computing machines in commercial warehouses, every electrical circuit in your car, and just about any complex computing circuit you’ve ever heard of.
The main purpose of a resistor is to limit the current in an electrical circuit. In the automotive lighting industry, a resistor built-in to an LED lamp helps simulate a larger load (draw more power or wattage), or can also help limit current in order to reduce voltage. With less voltage means less heat stress to a driver.
Less heat stress means longer operating times and of course a happy LED!
Small types of resistors should be used in ALL LED replacement bulbs whether it’s a headlight or a smaller type bulb for your interior lamps. The resistors will limit the current to the driver which benefits the efficiency of the driver and allows it to maintain optimal performance. With current being reduced to the driver, heat generated by the diodes is also minimized thus improving efficiency even more.
Larger valued resistors are also used on ‘Error Free’ type LED bulbs. Error free bulbs are replacement LED bulbs that offer the capability of remedying a lamp out code without needing to introduce extra parts to the car. The same bulbs you see most advertise as ‘CAN bus’ type LED bulbs use those larger valued resistors. These resistors range between 1W-8W in value which allow an LED replacement bulb to achieve a load that is up to 10W. This is substantially higher compared to a standard ‘non-CAN bus LED bulb’ and offers a chance at bypassing a lamp out indicator without the need to install a decoder or wire an even larger resistor in an attempt to ‘trick-the-circuit’.
What makes them a ‘CAN bus LED bulb’ is the fact that they draw more power which is achieved through the use of a built-in resistor.
Nothing more is added to a “CAN bus LED” and does not make it any different aside from having a large draw of power.
Other benefits can be tied to the driver as well such as a temperature control feature. As the driver or diodes reach a high temperature, the driver will begin to limit the current to the diodes which results in a flicker and minor light intensity reduction.
You are probably wondering, “Wait, are you saying my lights are going to dim and flicker?!”
Well, if you have the night vision eyes of a carnivorous animal, then you will see how the driver affects the light but due to how the human eye works, it’s virtually impossible to see this. Only way for the human eye to capture this is through the use of light measuring tools or a video camera with specific settings.
When you get a chance, try to hold up a smartphone video camera to the light emitted from any dim LED (that has a driver built-in), you will notice the flicker behavior on the video camera which is essentially the driver doing its job. Now hold up the camera to your incandescent map lights and see how the light has no flickering behavior.
Again, the impact to the light from the driver is impossible to see with the human eye.
EMC-jamming or RFI(Radio Frequency Interference) protection is another benefit that your LEDs should always have as it protects the vehicle circuit from any annoying static or feedback on your FM radio which is commonly generated by a driver or a motorized fan. It’s normal for these components to generate some form of radio frequency as that is just how the technology works, but not common for the frequency to affect your FM radio when using an LED replacement bulb on your vehicle whether its a smaller exterior bulb or a headlight type. Always look for an LED product that is “FCC Certified” or offers some form of RFI protection. Most of our core products will offer these benefits. More budget friendly options tend to lack these essential features.
We Can Help You
Aftermarket LED headlight can come off as a bit of challenge with the various sources, and options available. Do not struggle to try and research every option available. (Believe us, we have tried it!) and let us guide you and we will find you the best lighting solutions for your vehicle.
Whether it would to be finalize that build project car you are working on, needing better lighting for a work vehicle, or just want a slick mod on your car to restore and modernize the lighting for the added convenience of seeing better at night and having a safer driving experience at night…JDM ASTAR will always have YOU covered!
We have solutions for both YOU, THE DRIVER, and THE CAR!
“LED JDM Astar light your way down the road!”
- Best LED headlights
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- Heat sinks
- Heat threshold
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- The light source is key