LIGHT Emitting Diodes (LEDs) are the most popular choice for most 4x4ers looking to mount aftermarket lights to their vehicles. Sure, there are a splattering of HID and halogens still available, but, for better or worse, LEDs lead the way once the sun dips its rays below the horizon.
We’ve gathered the cream of the crop of large LED round driving lights to cast beams on our 350m test bed, to see which shine brightest, widest and farthest. We’ve each supplier for a pair of spot and spread (if available); although, some companies only offer a ‘combo’ or ‘combination’ beam rather than two separate beam patterns. Indeed, some only offer a pencil or a spread beam, or plastic diffuser covers; so, where needed, we’ve shone all alternatives of each light.
LED driving lights have well and truly come of age; they’re able to cast a wide and long beam of light to cater for any driving condition, and they’re no longer regarded as a ‘wide or spread beam only’ light source with little long-distance penetration, as some can outshine some HIDs.
Other than (potential) superb light outputs, there are a few other benefits of running with LED lighting. While they can excel in lower current draw, some light packages pack a punch with the amount of current they purge from the electrical system (that’s not really a problem with most vehicle electrical systems). LED lights also have no warm-up time, they have a massive life expectancy (around 50,000 hours) and they can offer a great spread in both horizontal and the vertical planes. Waterproof, vibration resistant and durability also sees the LED driving light as one of the better choices in the aftermarket.
TO KEEP this test fair we mounted each light to the same test stand, which was wired directly to the vehicle’s battery. The vehicle was running each time recordings were taken. Other than the different plugs to suit each light and a couple of inches of wiring difference, all else was even. We manually used the same camera settings for each photo, so all photos will be relative to each other to show the differences between each light.
A test bed comprises reflectors placed at 50m increments from the light source up to 350m. At the 350m mark there are five reflectors placed to the right-hand side at 5m, 10m, 15m, 20m and 25m marks. Also just beyond the 350m mark, a 25 to 30m-high wall of trees serves as a canvas backdrop. This arrangement shows the pattern of the light on the ground, as well as the depth, width and brightness of each beam.
LEDs are also making huge gains in technology. In time, their CRI numbers will climb to be equivalent (or close) to halogen lighting, essentially providing improved image quality in the complete colour spectrum.
WHY NOT LED?
COLOUR temperature and CRI (colour rendering index) of LEDs is often discussed; with supposed scientific claims that the bright white light of an LED is not ideal for human eyes and causes loss of image detail – browns, reds and similar darker colours – at night, which can partially compromise your vision. That’s not good, considering most of the animals involved in roadway accidents are in that colour range. Reflections from signs are terrible with LEDs, but so are reflections caused by bright HID and bright halogen lights.
LEDs also return less contrast of the scenery as compared to halogens, and any damaged LED driving light is essentially binned rather than repaired – unlike halogens, which generally only see blown bulbs and are easily replaced.
PRIOR to bagging or heaping praise on any of these lights, keep in mind each photo is with a single driving light and with no high or low beams switched on. Any light that seems patchy or lacks wide-angled vision in the short distance could well be made up for with your vehicle’s high beams, depending on how good they are. That said, the photos you see hereabouts allow you to compare all lights on equal grounds, without low or high beams detracting from the driving light itself.
There are a heap of great lights included in this test; in fact, every single light here is worthy of fitting to your 4x4 in one way or another. To take out top honours, though, a winning LED requires not just a good light output (spread for short- to mid-range, as well as a long-range useable spot beam) but also clever design features and be easy to use (fitment and aiming). Price and what’s included in the kit are also important considerations.
The lower-priced lights – Big Red and Thunder offerings – provide great performance for their thrifty cost, with Thunder getting the nod for being brighter with a great short-distance spread; even though the Big Red casts a slightly wider spread.
At the pointy end of both performance and dollars, the NARVA 215, Great White Attack, ARB Intensity AR32 V2, Ultra Vision Nitro 140 Maxx and Lightforce Genesis offer brilliant light outputs, with excellent spot and spread beam patterns. However, the Lightforce LED’s clip-on cover diffuses its outputs to lessen its brilliance; whereas the NARVA 215, Nitro 140 Maxx, Intensity and Great White offer different light bodies (spread, combo or pencil) without relying on separate covers. All these lights offer brilliant performance and it’s hard to separate them.
The USA-sourced KC HiLiTES LED’s very narrow pencillike beam draws little amperage, but the useable light of this style of beam is of little use on highways, byways, dirt tracks and low range off-road trails. Unless you’re off-road racing or travelling at warp speed all the time, it’s simply wasted when trying to see more than 1200m (claimed) in a concentrated straight line. Let’s delve deeper and take a closer look at the individual lights.
RRP: $786 per light
THE Intensity V2 lights have greatly improved light outputs compared to the V1. There are spot (six degrees) and spread beams (7.5 degrees) available, and the lights utilise stainless steel multi-position mounting points. Dual Allen keys are used for side-mount tightening, while (up to) three bolts can be used to mount lights to your bar and horizontal adjustment. The spot beam returns a great concentrated circle of light, with average short- to mid-distance spread. The spread beam loses light at distance (as can be expected) but improves for mid-distance lighting, but it’s still not as wide as some others over a short distance.
RRP: $399 per light
THE Big Red LEDs pack a mighty bang for buck, being one of the cheapest on test and outperforming some of the pricier contenders. The skeletal stainless steel frame and mount system uses dual Allen key bolts to adjust and secure the tilt, while (up to) three bolts are used for the bar mount and horizontal adjustment. While not the brightest in the field, the Big Reds offered a huge short-distance spread.
RAIN, DUST and smoke lay dormant over our paddock, playing havoc with our endeavours to properly test the 10 LED light systems. On top of this there was the coastal salt air, stirring up a slight hazy smog. These obstacles will bugger the effects of any decent driving light system, so when running your peepers over these pages keep in mind that any particles floating in the air can change the look and performance of any light.
RRP: $599 per light
THE Great Whites offer a unique combination within each light housing of iris reflectors (for distance) and elliptical optics (for spread and body). They perform brilliantly, with an incredibly good concentrated spot at distance and the widest and brightest combined short distance. Zero shadows or patches within the short- to mid-range spread beam make for a great overall light. Twin Allen-headed bolts for adjusting and holding the vertical position combine with (up to) three bolts for fitting and horizontal alignment.
RRP: $669 per light
THE Lightforce Genesis LEDs utilise a very slim body design, enabling easy fitment to most bars. Single horizontal and vertical bolts with Nyloc nuts are used for fitting and adjusting, ensuring a nice change from the ever-increasing overly fancy skeletal frames. Without any polycarbonate cover the Genesis was brilliant, offering excellent spot distance and very wide short distance, combined with great mid-distance light. Clipping on the combo or spot covers returned less than spectacular results, and it seemed to dissipate large amounts of light. Using them without the covers is by far the better bet if you’re after the most amount of light.
RRP: $447.50 per light
EVERYTHING from the 10-sided shape to the VLI (Variable Light Intensity) loom and flow-through ventilation cooling ducts are unique to the Bushranger Night Hawk. Dual Allen-key-headed bolts allow for vertical adjustment, while there are eight holes for the fitment to your bar and horizontal adjustment. During testing each light was fitted to a stationary stand, and the Night Hawk was the only light that became warm to the touch during the short run times. Given its 175 Wattage and the highest draw of 14.3amp, incorporating the flow-through cooling characteristics is pertinent for extended use. The spot beam was one the brightest and most useable, casting a concentrated beam at distance and very good short- to mid-distance illumination devoid of shadows. Clipping the spread beam cover on totally transformed the light output by providing an incredible spread at most distances. Driving with one of each light beam (spot and spread) may well return the ideal combination of light.
RRP: $299 per light
THE Thunder LEDs offer dual Allen-key-headed bolts for vertical setting and adjustment, combined with a single bolt for horizontal fitting and adjusting. The very shallow body design helps with fitment to restricted spaces. There is nothing overly fancy with these lights but, combined with being the lowest price on test, they offer great light for the price, with a combination beam offering a good spot and excellent short-distance spread.
RRP: $695 per light
THE Nitro 140 Maxx contains combo and spread lights, as well as optional 5700K or 4000K light outputs. Then there are the optional coloured rims, with the pièce de résistance a gold-plated rim which bumps the price to $805 each. The lights returned excellent results, with the combo and wide beams offering similar spots at distance. The wide beam returned a wider short- to mid-distance beam, with no shadows or patches within the light output. While the spot beam is tight, it still returned a very useable width at the end of our test bed. Twin Allen-headed bolts for adjusting and holding the vertical position combine with (up to) three bolts for fitment and horizontal alignment. The slimline body makes for easy fitment to most vehicles.
RRP: $899 per light
The Narva 215 blows its lower amperage 225 cousin away – don’t confuse the two, as they are totally different lights in every way. The 215 is a combo light that returns a brilliant overall light pattern with a great useable beam at distance, combined with a bright, even and wide spread at short- to mid-range distances. Vertical adjustment is one of the best via an Allen head and thumb screw adjustment system that can be done sans tools. Four holes (two round and two slotted) feature on the cast alloy foot for mounting and vertical adjustment. The Ultima 215 is also sold via TJM.
RRP: $692.50 per light WEBSITE: www.tva4x4.com.au
THE KC carbon-fibre pod’s pencil beam is far reaching, tight and bright, but unfortunately lacks any decent spread. What small spread it has in the shorter distance is slightly patchy with shadows. You’d need four of these pods to form a decent ‘wall’ of light, and this is exactly what they have been designed for: off-road racing with four or even six fitted. The very low amperage draw allows for multiple fitment options. The deep-dished carbon-fibre body, while unique, doesn’t fit easily to some compact bullbars. Vertical adjustment is via four screws on the ‘rally ring’, while the single-bolt mount is simple to fit and adjust. The LEDs emit light via a freeform reflector and, if length is your thing, it’s one of the best in the business.
RRP: $485 per light
THE combination beam of an AFN LED light casts an average long-distance spot combined with a pretty good short- to mid-range spread devoid of shadows or patches. Dual Allen-headed bolts allow for vertical adjustment, while there are two mounting holes for fitment and adjustment. The two-holed base forces you to use both holes, whereas with three-holed setups you can opt to just use a single hole.
LUX is the International System unit of luminance (brightness), defined as the amount of light on a one-squaremetre surface, all points of which are one metre from a uniform source of one candela of light. The higher the lux, the brighter the light is on the subject; whereas lumen (which is more often quoted by the manufacturer) is the total amount of light that can be generated by that light source. So, a 10,000-lumen light may throw a light which is measured at 500-lux 20m away, but that same light may fall to 10-lux at 600m away.
Raw lumens is the ‘theoretical brightness’ an LED chip will output in controlled laboratory conditions, while effective (or actual) lumens is what the driver is left with once the LED chip has been packaged into a light housing, covered by a lens and filtered down by a wiring loom as well as other thermal and optical losses.
Generally, high-powered LED driving lights have three factors that cause the effective output to differ from the raw output: thermal efficiency (the hotter the LED, the less light produced), electrical efficiency (wiring loom effectiveness) and optic efficiency (the amount of light lost with the addition of optics – covers, lenses and reflectors).
Kelvin is a temperature scale used to measure the colour of light: the lower the temperature, the more yellow the light is; the higher the temperature, the more blue the light appears. LEDs are generally up around the 5000 to 6000K. Keep in mind the colour (or Kelvin) has no correlation to brightness.
The 50,000-hour lifetime that is bandied about by most manufacturers comes from the LED manufacturing companies and not the driving light manufacturing company. The lighting engineers have accumulated data to prove an LED will last at least 50,000 hours of use and still produce at least 70 per cent of its original lumen (brightness) or 30 per cent depreciation; although, the actual LED never actually burns out.
High-powered LEDs don’t generate too much heat, but they are susceptible to light degeneration if subject to high working temperatures of (about) 30 to 40°C, which is why nearly all high-powered LED driving lights feature so many fins (or flutes) or heat syncs to help dissipate heat.
As far as dissipating that heat via heat syncs (an easy way of increasing surface area to let heat ‘soak’ out), the other way is via use of an aluminium housing. Aluminium, being a better conductor of heat than plastic, is why almost all high-powered LED driving lights are manufactured from aluminium (either cast or extruded) casings.
When it comes to a light being water- and dust-proof, the IP ratings are pretty straightforward. The letters IP stand for ‘Ingress Protection’ or ‘International Protection’ rating, while the numbers are split into two sections. The first is a numerical digit from 0 to 6, with 6 being the highest (or best) for rating against the ingress of solid objects like fingers, rocks, sand and dust. The second numerical digit from 0 to 9 is the rating against ingress by liquids for a certain amount of time to a certain depth or pressure. The higher the number, the longer and deeper the light can stay submerged.
In the below panel are the top ten IP ratings 4x4ers and campers would expect to see in advertising blurbs.
WINNER, Bushranger WINNER The light pattern with the standard spot cover is superbly bright over long distances, and it combines with one of the better (not the overall best) wide-angle spread over short and medium distances. Plus it’s devoid of annoying, patchy shadows.
The clip-on cover (as much as they often tend to reduce light output) transforms this light into something akin to an LED light bar with an incredibly wide, strong beam. There are still no patches or shadows, and it casts a decent distance beam – not as concentrated or bright as the spot, but totally useable in its own right and potentially perfect when combining one spot and one spread beam.
Using a pair with the standard spot beam covers would return adequate vision all around, while slipping one spread beam cover on for high-speed antics would improve peripheral vision for spotting wildlife. Plus, using both wide-beam covers for low range crawling would maximise the vision required closer to your vehicle. Given we could still see plenty of detail at the extremities of our 350m test bed, there is also the likelihood that using the two flood beam covers during high-speed on-road driving may be practical.
The flow-through ventilation via inbuilt air ducts is another unique aspect of the Night Hawks; given they chew at 175W and measured 14.3amp on test, the engineers must’ve ‘turned up’ the LED’s outputs to maximise the safe light generation. Cleverly, Bushranger has incorporated an Active Temperature Control system to ensure this high power and light production isn’t detrimental to the workings or longevity of the LEDs.
The simplistic yet rugged design of the fitting bracket is impressive. The Night Hawks should easily fit a majority of vehicles, especially given their overall lower height which allows for a lower than normal fitting space. However, perhaps one of the dual Allen keys for the vertical adjusters could be swapped for a hand-operated system to easier align the lights.
We didn’t wire up the VLI (Variable Light Intensity) loom, which allows for light dimming via a dash control. This adds $89 to the price and its overall usefulness isn’t conclusive.
WHY DID we test these lights over 350m and not 500m or 1000m and beyond?
While there’s plenty of personal opinion involved, some folk may disagree with what I reckon a good light should do. I want two things from my driving lights. Firstly, to cast a wide angle of uninhibited light without shadows and beam imperfections over the first 50 to 100m; this should show good vision along both sides of the road, to aid in track directions and to alert for the potential dangers of kamikaze animals. Secondly, I want the light to cast a longer beam of 300 to 400m but still maintain a decent wide angle that has sufficient lux (brightness) out wide and in the centre. This second part is where most manufacturers, suppliers and sales people will argue you need to see up to 1km ahead. That’s a bloody long way, and only on very rare occasions will you find a road that long and dead straight with no undulations or blockages. Also, upon my reckoning of overall braking-distance research figures, 366m is required.
Lights casting a narrow pencil beam up to 1000m are a waste. Imagine how much road info you’ll be missing in the important short- to mid-length distances as that beam swooshes about. They’re good for searchand-rescue applications, but little else.
The Night Hawks are priced in the middle of this pack, making this formidable driving light near unbeatable when combining specifications, inclusions and potential pairing with spot and wide beams.
A second zoomed photo provides a good view of the wall of trees at the end of the test bed. Noting each photo is of a single light only, using two lights should double the effects. Also noting the width of beam at the end of the reflectors, the centre of a small-diameter beam compared to the centre of a wider beam is easily identified via counting the reflectors out to the side, then doubled for both left and right sides, and then doubled again for using two lights.
Keep in mind that no high- or lowbeam lights were used for testing, so vehicle lights will add to the beams you see here.