Headlights help you navigate the road at night and improve visibility in bad weather conditions. Suffice it to say, having properly functioning headlights is vital to your safety on the road. A failing headlight should be fixed as soon as possible to keep your vehicle both legal and safe.
If you’re looking for a replacement or an upgrade, in this article we discuss the different types of headlights available on the market today.
4 Types of Headlights
There are four common types of automotive headlights: halogen, LED, Xenon/HID, and laser. If you’ve ever wondered what type of headlight bulb you need, here’s a quick and easy guide that can help you choose the right one for your vehicle:
Composite/halogen headlights are the most common type of light source used in modern headlights. They are an improved version of the sealed-beam incandescent lights used in older vehicles.
Like their predecessor, these bulbs contain a filament that burns and emits light. What makes them different is the mix of gases that surround the filament, which allows them to burn brighter and longer without blackening the inside of the bulb.
The manufacturing cost for these bulbs is lower than other alternatives. This means that replacements can be purchased at a competitive price. They are small, dimmable, easy to source, and can be replaced without putting your car out of commission for too long.
The light that halogen headlights cast has a yellowish hue. This may be an advantage in foggy conditions, but if you prefer bright white lights, you may want to consider another type of headlight bulb.
Moreover, halogen headlights illuminate a shorter distance in front of the vehicle compared to LED, HID, and laser headlights.
Typical lifespan: 450 to 1,000 hours. These bulbs burn hot, giving them a shorter service life compared to some other headlight bulbs.
Average cost: $10 to $20 for a bulb, and as low as $100 for a pair of headlight assemblies.
Light-Emitting Diode or LED headlight bulbs illuminate by undergoing the process of electroluminescence. This happens when electrons are shot towards positively charged holes in a semiconductor, causing them to release energy as photons and emit light.
The same technology is seen on most dashboard lights or LED-screen consoles.
LED bulbs are equipped with small semiconductors that can be arranged to fit tight spaces. This makes it possible for manufacturers to come up with sleeker headlight designs and allows more flexibility in styling other assembly components, such as turn signal lights.
Another advantage of choosing LEDs is that they can be designed to emit any color of the spectrum. They can produce a bright, white light that illuminates up to a mile ahead without blinding oncoming traffic.
Lastly, they are energy-efficient and can be switched on or off quickly.
The cost of LED headlights is typically higher than their halogen counterparts. This is because the structure of their assembly is a little bit different due to the heat sink that must be built into the lights to prevent the base-emitter from overheating.
Typical lifespan: 10,000 to 30,000 hours. Compared to halogen headlights, LED bulbs run cool and don’t produce much heat. This gives them longer hours of illumination which, in some cases, could span the entire service life of a vehicle.
Average cost: $100 for a bulb, and $600 to $1,300 for a pair of headlight assemblies.
Xenon, otherwise known as High-Intensity Discharge or HID lights, is a type of headlight that is commonly installed on higher-end vehicles. These headlights contain a combination of xenon and argon gases mixed with vaporized metals that emit an extremely bright light.
HID headlights emit light in a bluish-white hue which allows it to illuminate for longer distances. Compared to yellow lights, the light these bulbs produce scatter less, so they greatly improve visibility down the road.
Xenon or HID headlights have a delay of several seconds before reaching maximum output. Also, they can be too bright and may blind oncoming drivers.
Another possible issue is that the bluish-white glare can impair the other driver’s vision in the dark. Since their light is so focused, you may not see anything else outside the headlights’ field of illumination. This can make it harder to park, switch lanes, or cross intersections.
Typical lifespan: 2,000 to 10,000 hours. HID headlights can last for years because they have no filament that can burn out.
Average cost: $100 per bulb, and $350 to $1,400 for a pair of headlight assemblies.
Laser headlights are a recent innovation in automotive lighting technology. These lights illuminate through the process of chemiluminescence, which means they produce light by triggering a chemical reaction.
Laser beams are shot through a chamber which causes the phosphorus gas inside to glow. What you see in front of your vehicle is the light coming from the gas, and not the laser beams themselves.
Laser headlights are more efficient than LED bulbs. They can produce 1,000x the amount of light for half the amount of energy that LEDs consume. They are also 10x smaller than the latter, which allows manufacturers to design a shallower assembly.
They are far-reaching, have good adaptability, and can easily be switched on/off as well.
While they can produce more light, they also produce more heat than LEDs. This means the assembly requires more sophisticated built-in cooling systems.
Also, they are only currently available for use in high beams, which means they must be paired with regular halogen, LED, or HID headlights.
While BMW and Audi have started using these in select models, they were only approved for use in the U.S. recently. Compared to other headlight types, these lights are very expensive and could set you back thousands of dollars.
Typical lifespan: 50,000 hours. Laser headlights require very low energy input which allows them to work for a very long time.
Average cost: $8,000 to 12,000.
2 Types of Headlight Systems
Projector vs Reflector Headlights
Projector and reflector headlights have their own sets of pros and cons. In terms of price, a reflector headlight system typically costs less than projector headlights. Design-wise, they also take up less space and come in a more compact style. One disadvantage of reflector systems is that their output can be uneven and may produce dark spots.
On the other hand, projector headlights produce a brighter and even light output. At the same time, they are equipped with a cutoff shield that directs the light beam towards the road, preventing oncoming drivers from being blinded by the glare. HID headlights are only designed for projector systems because of this feature.
Reflector headlight systems
Reflector headlight systems are basically bulbs encased in a metal bowl. Early headlights were sealed-beam assemblies that relied on the design of the headlight lens to direct the light beam towards the road.
Bulbs in sealed-beam headlights cannot be replaced without replacing the entire assembly.
Today, reflector headlight systems rely on mirrors strategically placed inside the housing. This means the assemblies no longer need to be sealed and bulbs can be replaced on their own.
Projector headlight systems
Similar to reflector headlights, projector headlights also come with an encased bulb surrounded by mirrors. What makes them different, however, is that they come with a lens that magnifies the brightness of the headlight.
Projector headlights were first used in luxury vehicles in the ‘80s and have since become a popular choice in modern vehicles.