Main photo credit: adtapon duangnim via Shutterstock
Headlights are often not a part you think about when shopping for a brand new car – or even a used one – but headlights are very important to your safety. For decades, the vast majority of vehicles were equipped with halogen headlights. But now, some automakers outfit their vehicles with high-intensity discharge (HID) lights or even LED headlights.
It all might sound like marketing gobbledygook to you, but it’s important to pay attention to what type of headlights your vehicle is equipped with. Just to demonstrate how important headlight performance has become, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) now includes a headlight evaluation as part of its requirements to receive a safety award.
According to IIHS, about half of all fatal crashes in the U.S. occur in the dark, and more than a quarter happen on unlit roads. Differences in bulb type, headlight technology, and even how your headlights are aimed all have an effect on the amount of useful light your car emanates. In addition to the different types of headlights available today, automakers also have advanced features such as curve-adaptive headlights and high-beam assist.
Curve-adaptive headlights respond to steering control according to the direction of travel, automatically adjusting the aim of your headlights so the road ahead is more visible. High-beam assist meanwhile, can increase the use of high beams by automatically switching between low and high beams based on whether there are oncoming vehicles.
One of the major issues with headlights is how the government currently regulates them, at least in the U.S. There aren’t enough strict rules to guarantee consistency on performance, resulting in a wide range of performance. Ever since IIHS began evaluating headlights in 2016, it has found that many vehicles sold today have inadequate headlights, despite advancements in lighting technology.
Table of contents
- Does it really matter?
- Halogen, HID, and LED: What are the Differences?
- Can I Upgrade from Halogen Headlights?
- Halogen Headlight Bulbs Recommendation: Philips X-tremeVision
- What are Laser Headlights?
- Which Headlights are the Best?
- Should I Replace Both Headlights When Only One isn’t Working?
- Do I use my Headlights During the Day?
- When Should I use my High Beams?
- How to Clean Your Headlights
- Headlight Restoration Kit Recommendation: Sylvania Headlight Restoration Kit
- General Tips When It Comes to Headlights
- HID Headlights vs. LED Headlights
- Pros and Cons of HIDs
- HID Headlight Bulbs Recommendation: Philips Xenon Standard HID Bulbs
- Pros and Cons of LEDs
- LED Headlight Bulbs Recommendation: Cougar Motor LED Headlight Bulbs
- So Which is Better? HIDs or LEDs?
Does it really matter?
Like other components on your car, the importance of your headlights’ performance comes down to your personal needs. Do you drive often at night or in areas with poor lighting? Then you’ll likely want to pay a bit more attention to the types of headlights on your vehicle, and how well they perform on tests. If you plan on only driving during the day, standard halogen headlights might suffice.
Still, it’s important to know the differences between all the different headlight technologies that are currently available, so you can make a more informed purchasing decision. Sometimes dealerships will try to upsell you a package you don’t necessarily need, on the premise that more expensive headlights result in a safer driving experience.
Halogen, HID, and LED: What are the Differences?
Low cost, simple to replace, and basically universal, halogen bulbs have been used in vehicles for decades. Even today, they are the most common type of headlights you’ll find on vehicles even if they don’t offer the best performance. On average, halogen headlight bulbs will last around 800 hours, but the good news is replacing them is very affordable and easy to do.
Essentially, halogen headlights are often used because of their low cost, but they’re also easy to replace and are mostly universal. Compared to HIDs and LEDs however, halogen headlights are prone to more heat and use up more energy when compared to LEDs. For the most part, halogen headlights offer enough lighting for safe driving on highways and back roads, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there isn’t room for improvement.
Even today, halogen bulbs are the most universal headlight bulb used throughout the world and is still the most common headlight found in the U.S. But that is slowly changing, with more automakers using HIDs and LEDs as a selling point, especially since IIHS now has a headlight evaluation as part of its safety tests.
HID headlights began appearing on vehicles in the early 1990s and is widely considered the first real threat to the dominance of halogen headlights. They are also called “xenon” headlights, for the gas that is used in the startup process. The first vehicle application of HID headlights appeared on the 1991 BMW 7 Series, the German automaker’s flagship sedan. As a result, HIDs were considered high-end until more and more manufacturers began using the technology and it became more affordable.
Without going into too much detail, HIDs are capable of generating more than twice the amount of lumens compared to a traditional halogen bulb. They emit a brighter light with greater efficiency and have a longer lifespan than a halogen bulb. The light it projects also has broader coverage, while using less power. But as you can imagine, HIDs are more expensive than halogen headlights, and they’re typically the lights that project a strong glare that could annoy oncoming traffic.
The first time you drive a vehicle with HIDs, you’ll likely notice the difference right away. Not only do they provide great illumination compared to halogen headlights, they’re considered the “whitest” of all the headlights, so its lighting is closer to natural daylight. It may not seem like it would make a difference, but driving at night with HIDs could result in less eye fatigue than halogen headlights.
Lastly, there are LED headlights, which are now used by various automakers including Audi, BMW, Hyundai, Nissan, Lexus, Mercedes-Benz, and more. If you’ve had to replace a household lightbulb in recent years, there’s a good chance you’ve come across LED bulbs. Since the lighting technology has become more popular in other applications besides automotive, it has also become more affordable for automotive use.
While they’re not as bright as HIDs, LED headlights are brighter and last longer than halogen bulbs. They’re also smaller and easier to fit inside headlight housings, which has allowed certain automakers to get really creative with their headlight designs. Another benefit of LEDs is that they don’t produce as much of a glare as HIDs, so they don’t have as strong of an impact towards oncoming traffic. Unlike HIDs, LEDs also are “instant on,” meaning they act like halogen bulbs and don’t need a small period of time to charge up. Finally, LEDs don’t have a filament that burns out or breaks, so they tend to last much longer than conventional halogen bulbs.
If you’re shopping for a new car, you’ll likely see LED headlights being offered as an option (or even standard) more frequently than HIDs. To the average driver, the difference between HIDs and LEDs may not even be noticeable, but at the end of the day, it comes down to your driving conditions.
Can I Upgrade from Halogen Headlights?
You can! If your car came from the factory with halogen headlights and you’re in need of something brighter with more coverage, the aftermarket offers both HID and LED retrofit kits for most applications. There is one important thing to note, however, as most of the kits being offered aren’t street legal. You will want to check with your local state laws before installing an HID or LED kit.
In addition, there are replacement halogen headlight bulbs available that emit a whiter, brighter light that would be a simple swap from your factory bulb. Oftentimes that’s a more cost-efficient method to slightly improve your lighting without having to install an aftermarket HID or LED kit.
Halogen Headlight Bulbs Recommendation: Philips X-tremeVision
Philips is one of the most well-known brands in the automotive lighting industry. The company claims that one in two cars in Europe, and one in three cars worldwide is equipped with Philips lighting. The brand offers numerous halogen replacement bulbs for cars, with the X-tremeVision being one of the best if you’re looking for an upgrade from the standard bulbs that your car came with.
Available in a wide selection of fitments and in both single and twin packs, the Philips X-tremeVision is advertised as offering over 100 percent more vision on the road compared to a bulb that meets standard minimum legal requirements, equating in a beam that’s up to 115 feet longer. The headlight bulbs are DOT compliant, so you won’t have run into any legal issues by using them. They’re ideal for nighttime drivers, or drivers who often drive in rural areas or dimly lit streets.
Since they are high-performance bulbs however, their advertised service life is lower than a standard halogen bulb. If you mostly drive for a long time with your headlights on each day, these bulbs may be expensive to own over the lifetime of your vehicle. If you want something that’s more cost-effective, Philips has other options in its lineup that sacrifices performance for longevity.
What are Laser Headlights?
If you follow closely to automotive news, you may have heard about laser headlights in recent years. It’s the latest innovation in headlight technology, with both Audi and BMW using it on select models. The thing is, laser headlights aren’t allowed in the U.S. so you won’t be seeing them anytime soon unless you live in Europe.
But if you’re curious about laser headlights, they are said to offer optimal brightness and a far range of coverage compared to traditional lights, and even HID and LED units. They are however, like most new technologies, very expensive and run much hotter than LED and HID headlights. Currently, it’s unclear if laser headlights will become popular worldwide.
Which Headlights are the Best?
Like we mentioned before, determining which headlights are the best depends on your everyday driving conditions. The general consensus is that both HIDs and LEDs are better than traditional halogen lights, since they’re brighter and illuminate more of the upcoming roadway. That doesn’t make them a necessity, however, especially if you don’t spend a lot of time driving in the dark.
More importantly, just having HIDs or LEDs doesn’t guarantee your headlights perform well. For example, IIHS evaluated the Kia Sorento with curve-adaptive HID projector headlights in 2017. The agency found that they failed to provide adequate visibility on the straightaway, left curves, and the gradual right curve. Meanwhile, the Volvo XC60, which offers a similar curve-adaptive HID projector headlight, performed much better in testing. The Volvo XC60 illuminated 315 feet on the right side of the straightaway, compared to the Kia Sorento’s 148 feet.
In another evaluation involving the Ford Edge, IIHS found that both the base halogen projector and optional HID projector low beam headlights provided inadequate visibility in all test scenarios. Although the average driver likely notices the difference between the halogen and HID headlights on the Ford Edge, their performance in testing didn’t result in different ratings.
Things can get even more complicated when vehicles are offered with multiple headlight variants. IIHS is a great resource to check if paying the extra money for HIDs or LEDs on your next car will make actually a difference in your driving experience.
Should I Replace Both Headlights When Only One isn’t Working?
There’s no general rule on whether you should replace both headlights if one bulb goes out. In fact, you’ll likely find half the Internet arguing to replace both at once, and the other half to only replace the bulb that has gone out – if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. But we recommend replacing both headlights bulbs at the same time for a couple reasons.
There’s no guarantee that because one headlight bulb has gone out, the other will follow. You’ve probably experienced it with light bulbs in your own household, with some lasting much longer than others despite changing them all out at the same time. But swapping out just one light bulb could have a noticeable difference in brightness compared to the older unit, which could be bothersome to some, or worse, affect visibility while driving.
Another thing to take in account is how difficult it is to change the bulbs in your specific vehicle, since some are easier than others. You’ll likely save yourself some time by swapping out both bulbs at once, rather than having to repeat the same process later, when the other bulb decides to burn out.
If you’re absolutely inclined to just replace the single burnt out bulb, we recommend to at least keep a spare in your glovebox. This way when the other bulb burns out, you already have a replacement ready.
Do I use my Headlights During the Day?
More modern vehicles these days are equipped with “auto” headlights, which automatically turn your headlights on and off. That likely means most vehicle owners who have the feature will set it and forget it, allowing the car to determine when the headlights should be used. Some vehicles also feature daytime running lights (DRLs), which offers lighting without having to turn on the actual headlights.
Despite driving in broad daylight, having headlights on during the day can improve visibility and safety. Oncoming traffic can see you more easily if your lights on are, helping reduce the risk of daytime frontal collisions. You should also use your headlights if there are adverse weather conditions, such as rain, snow, sleet, fog, or smoke. Other situations where daytime headlights could prove helpful include driving on rural and mountain roads, or on narrow two-lane highways.
Keep in mind, turning on your headlights also illuminates your tail lights, which could help reduce the chances of a rear-end collision, especially after sunrise or just before sunset.
When Should I use my High Beams?
It may seem like common sense when you should use your high beams, but there are some general guidelines to ensure you’re not affecting other drivers. High beams are designed to make it easier to see the road ahead of you, but at the expense of potentially making it more difficult for oncoming drivers to see the road ahead of them.
You should always use your high beams according to your state headlight laws and be sure to switch off your high beams if you see an approaching vehicle. High beams are best used on poorly lit roads when you see no oncoming traffic, allowing you to see further down the path and helping prevent potential accidents.
How to Clean Your Headlights
It doesn’t happen overnight, but after several years of use, your headlights could become foggy, dull, yellowed, or cloudy. In a report to Congress by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in 2007, NHTSA revealed a two-fold problem related to dirty or damaged headlights.
One, the faded headlights produced a decreased level of light on the roadway while improperly diffusing needed light from the perspective of the driver, resulting in reduced forward visibility. The other issue is those headlights projected higher light levels toward oncoming vehicles, which can momentarily cause glare and impede the visibility of an oncoming driver.
If you notice your headlights aren’t as clear as they should be, there are a few methods of cleaning them up. You can use baking soda and vinegar, along with a microfiber cloth or toothbrush on the headlight lens. Simply rinse and repeat as needed, and then a coat of car wax could be used on the plastic to polish the headlight.
This is a method you could routinely use to maintain your headlights over time. However, it may not work on severely oxidized headlights. For more extreme cases, there are headlight restoration kits available online and at your local auto parts store.
Alternatively, professional car detailing shops likely offer services to restore your headlights, but this is normally the most expensive option.
Headlight Restoration Kit Recommendation: Sylvania Headlight Restoration Kit
There’s a real good chance you’ve heard of Sylvania if you’ve ever had to shop for replacement headlight or tail light bulbs. It’s one of the most reputable brands for bulbs, so it’s not surprising the company also offers one of the best headlight restoration kits available. In fact, it’s our Editor’s Pick with plenty of positive reviews on Amazon.
The easy-to-use comes with enough product to restore two headlight assemblies back to a nice, clear finish. Best of all, it should take you about 30 minutes to do the job, which consists of a 3-step process. First, you’ll use the “Surface Activator,” which is a proprietary formula that will soften the plastic, making it easier to sand smooth. Then, you’ll do the actual sanding and polishing before sealing the headlight lenses with a UV Block Clear Coat applicator.
Designed to restore original clarity and vision to sun damaged plastic headlight lenses, this product will result in clearer lenses, allowing your headlights to shine brighter. Best of all, this product comes with a lifetime warranty.
General Tips When It Comes to Headlights
To sum it all up, headlights are an integral part of ensuring a safe driving experience. Here are a few more tips to make sure they’re helping keep you safe:
- If your car’s headlights are pointing in different directions, or one is higher than the other, you may want to have them serviced or adjusted.
- If you notice an approaching vehicle is using its high beams, keep your eyes to the right edge of your lane.
- Clean your headlights often, so they aren’t affected by harsh weather as quickly.
- Know what type of headlights your car has so purchasing a replacement bulb is easy.
HID Headlights vs. LED Headlights
If you’ve shopped for a brand new car in recent years, there’s a good chance you’ve come across high intensity discharge (HID) or LED headlights. And if you were unaware that there are different types of headlight technologies now available, you were probably wondering what was wrong with standard halogen headlights in the first place. For decades, vehicles performed just fine using halogen bulbs, but HIDs and LEDs provide much better lighting, making for a safer driving experience.
Nowadays, the more important comparison is between HID vs LED headlights, and which one you should choose if you’re given the option when buying a new car. Also, if your vehicle is currently outfitted with halogen headlights, there are upgrade kits available from the aftermarket, allowing you to upgrade your factory lighting. Before you do that, however, you may want to check to make sure the kits are legal in your state.
Pros and Cons of HIDs
HIDs arrived on the market before LEDs, first debuting on the 1991 BMW 7 Series. They’re also referred to as Xenon headlights, for the gas they use to illuminate. Essentially, HID headlights pass xenon over an electrical charge, so the bulb burns brighter than traditional filaments found in halogen bulbs.
In today’s market, HID headlights are brighter than both LEDs and halogen headlights. But HIDs require more parts to work, including a ballast, which makes them more fragile over time. While HID bulbs tend to last much longer than halogen bulbs, with a typical life expectancy of around 2,000 hours compared to 800 hours from a halogen, they don’t even come close to the 30,000- to 50,000-hour life of an LED bulb. In addition, HID bulbs can start to burn at lower or higher temperatures over time, changing the quality of their performance and the light they emit.
Compared to LEDs, HIDs could be more expensive, whether you’re shopping for a kit or replacement bulbs. HIDs are also notorious for producing a lot of glare for oncoming traffic, or through a rearview mirror of a car that’s ahead of you. That’s often the reason why HID kits are illegal in certain states if your vehicle wasn’t equipped with them as standard. If you do intend to upgrade your factory headlights with an aftermarket HID kit, it’s recommended to have a professional installation done, as they do require ballasts being added to your car.
It may sound like there aren’t many benefits to having HIDs, but they are the brightest lights you can have on your car. If you often drive at night or on dimly lit roads, it may be the option for you.
HID Headlight Bulbs Recommendation: Philips Xenon Standard HID Bulbs
Philips is arguably the most well-known brand when it comes to HID headlights. In fact, Philips is the inventor of Xenon HID technology and various automakers use the company’s HIDs as standard equipment on their vehicle. That’s also a reason why Philips Xenon Standard bulbs are one of the most popular available on the market. Each Philips Xenon Standard HID headlight bulb comes with an original equipment quality seal for the most reliable performance and is DOT compliant.
Each Philips Xenon Standard bulb is rated differently depending on the application. For example, the D1S and D2R bulbs are rated at 85 volts and 35 watts, with the D1S offering 3350 (± 300) lumens at a 4200K color temperature. The D2R meanwhile is rated at 3000 (± 250) lumens with the same color temperature. Make sure when you’re comparing different products that you refer to the manufacturer’s websites for specifications, rather than relying on the retailer’s website for accurate information.
The company offers its replacement bulb in a variety of fitments, so it’s almost guaranteed there’s a product that fits your car. When purchasing a Philips Xenon Standard replacement bulb, make sure there is a Philips Certificate of Authenticity (COA) on the box. You can verify the authenticity of the product by scanning the QR code or going to a website.
Pros and Cons of LEDs
The cost of LED bulbs has gone down significantly in recent years, due to more widespread use even in markets and industries outside of automotive. Household lighting, for example, has transitioned to LED bulbs due to their longevity and low power consumption. The same holds true for cars, as LED bulbs can last anywhere from 30,000 hours to 50,000 hours.
As we mentioned before, LED headlights aren’t as bright as HIDs, but they are more affordable. You can also easily upgrade your standard halogen headlight bulbs to LEDs without the installation of a full kit, as most LED bulbs come with a plug-and-play harness. And since there are more options available, the market is more competitive when it comes to pricing and customer support.
LEDs offer several other advantages compared to HIDs, such as using less energy and are less complex since they don’t require separate ballast to be installed. LEDs are also much smaller, which has made it possible for automakers to get creative with the design of their headlights. The bulbs offer focused rays that can be shaped in a variety of ways, which is also why you often see LEDs being used on daytime running lights (DRLs) and fog lights.
Although LEDs use less energy than HIDs, they do run much hotter. That is why most LED bulbs come with built-in fans for heat dissipation. As a result, they produce a bit of noise that could be bothersome to sensitive ears.
There’s also the chance that there’s a great variance in performance when it comes to LEDs since there are so many different manufacturers. You may find that the light from certain LED headlight bulbs may not project as far as HIDs. That isn’t always the case, but it’s something to keep in mind when purchasing an LED bulb for your headlights.
LED Headlight Bulbs Recommendation: Cougar Motor LED Headlight Bulbs
The ideal balance of price, performance, and longevity, Cougar Motor’s LED headlight bulbs offer 7200 lumens per pair, which is 200 percent brighter than stock halogen headlights. They run at a cool white 6000K temperature and offer a great beam pattern without any dark spots or foggy light.
Cougar Motor opts to use an aluminum housing with a 10,000 RPM TurboCool fan to ensure the LED headlight bulbs can operate for over 50,000 hours. The company says its bulbs are plug-and-play and are CanBUS-Ready with most vehicles. They are also IP67 waterproof and each bulb comes with a three-year warranty and lifetime support. Each bulb is rated at 30 watts and uses Cree LED chips. Installation is easy thanks to the bulbs being CanBUS-Ready, working with most vehicles without issues. It is recommended to contact the manufacturer to verify they will be compatible with your vehicle.
There are brighter options available than Cougar Motor’s LED bulbs, so if you often drive at night or on dimly lit roads, you may want something brighter. But if you’re looking for an all-around performer that is competitively priced, these bulbs should be at the top of your list. Cougar Motor is also the only company on this list that offers a three-year warranty on its products.
So Which is Better? HIDs or LEDs?
As the cost of LEDs continue to drop, expect to see more automakers adopting the technology and preferring it over HIDs. LED headlights don’t require a special ballast or projector lens, and are safer to use on the road since they don’t cause significant glare to oncoming traffic. If your next car offers you the choice of HIDs or LEDs, our recommendation is to choose LEDs. If you’re looking to upgrade your halogen headlights for better performance, start by shopping for LED bulbs, unless brighter lighting is a necessity.
We are committed to finding, researching, and recommending the best products. We earn commissions from purchases you make using the retail links in our product reviews. Learn more about how this works.