To Consider Before You Purchase a Headlamp.
Many people shopping for a headlamp ask: “What’s the best headlamp?” There’s no global answer to this question, because the headlamp that’s right for you, depends almost entirely on your intended use. Answer each of the questions below, and you’ll get much better, targeted, customized answers from the CPF forum.
1. Beam angle: Do you need throw, flood, either, or both?
Throw: Are you moving quickly through dark spaces, like a kayaker, night skier, or bicyclist? Are you on a search and rescue team, where your hands are full but you need to be seeing into the distance? Are you a surgeon looking into a small space? Than you want a beam that throws a spot. Spot headlamps are a specialty need, since most enthusiasts want a headlamp to provide a floody beam or a mixed beam, preferring a handheld for throw.
Flood: Are you working with your hands? Setting up camp? Doing crawlspace, attic, or electrical work in dark places? Jogging at night, and don’t want the “bouncing ball” effect? Working as an emergency tech, or underneath your car? Reading in bed? Or any other activity that requires peripheral vision? Then you want a floody, wide, even beam of 60-120 degrees that gives you lots of peripheral vision, lit at the same level as the center of your vision. Many inexpensive lights are sold as “flood” that have narrow beams of 30 or 40 degrees, so beware the claim. A narrow flood can be a disadvantage, requiring you to swivel your neck a lot to illuminate a close-up view. But, depending on your task, a narrow flood can also be an advantage (for example, using the computer at night--narrow flood lights just the keyboard but not the screen. Trail hikers also seem to appreciate relatively narrow floods).
Do you want either flood OR throw? There are many inexpensive lights that will switch between beams, some better than others. Low-end lights that are both spot and flood usually employ compromises, compared to purpose-built lights. The manufacturer Spark has been innovating with interchangeable screw-on bezels that can change the light pattern from say, 115-degree flood, to an 18 spot/70 spill, giving you two “dedicated” lights with a bezel change. And then there are two-emitter high-end caver’s lights that do both tasks simply and brilliantly.
Do you want both flood AND throw, simultaneously? Variously called “directional flood,” or “spot with spill,” it’s a compromise between flood and throw. Lots of models provide this function. Many put a hotspot in the center of a spill beam, but some (Petzl Pixa 2, 3 & 4) place a hotspot at the top of a spill beam. Others just fade gradually from bright center to flood. A few actually throw an even but narrow flood beam. These directional flood or spot-with-spill beams are often preferred by people who walk trails at night. But don’t try to read with them...it’s a frustrating experience.
2. Battery type -- a majority of modern LED headlamps run on either AAA, AA, or CR123. (There are specialty cell sizes, too.) CR123 have the energy/size advantage, are getting easier to find in U.S. stores, and are pricier. If you weight performance over accessibility, then consider CR123s. If you’re traveling to out-of-the-way places, and not carrying cells with you, you probably want to stick to AAA and AA. Many enthusiasts seek 1xAA and 2xAA lights (which require more expensive circuitry to boost the voltage necessary to light the LED) because of the ubiquity and power of AA cells. In top quality lights, 1xAA cells are approaching the output of CR123 lights--the performance gap is closing. Others prefer AAA cells because of smaller size (although 3 are often called for) and the less expensive headlamps that can be built around them. Specialty rechargeable li-ion cells such as 18650s, 14500s, and others give high power options to enthusiasts willing to accept the additional care, risk, and hardware to run them. (Users of rechargeable li-ions are urged to thoroughly educate themselves in the ‘batteries’ subforum before purchasing.)
3. Battery placement -- do you want a small, minimalist headlamp that feels like you’re just wearing a hat? Want to be able to lie down while using the headlamp? Then you want an up-front battery placement, perhaps a 1xAA, 2xAA, 3xAAA, or 1xCR123 or 1x18650. Do you want powerful light and long runtimes? Wearing a helmet? Not lying down? Don’t mind the weight on your head? Then you should consider back-of-the-head battery placement, or a belt-mounted battery pack with a connecting cable. The latter is necessary if you are in cold climates and need to keep your batteries warm. Be aware that cables are the source of failures and frustration, however.
4. Beam tint & artifacts -- more and more enthusiasts are turning to neutral, warm, or high CRI tints in LEDs as top manufacturers make them available. They excel in the out-of-doors, where they allow the user to better distinguish shades of brown and green, and also for workers who must distinguish colors (of electrical wires, for example). They’re currently not as bright as cool-tints. Enthusiasts tend to shun green and purple tints which are frequently found in the cheap headlights available at the big box stores. Blue tints, a.k.a. ‘cool tint,’ are readily available and preferred by some for their brilliance. Beams with no discernible tint are highly sought after. Recently coming to the market, high-CRI lights (which come in a variety of tints from neutral to warm) attempt to more closely mimic the full spectrum of color that incans are blessed with, and do a better job of illuminating browns, oranges, aquas and reds; red emissions are particularly weak for traditional inexpensive white LEDs. Tint is very much an area of personal preference, as well as task. For example, does tint really matter when you’re using the light to read a book? But once you determine your tint preference, you may find tint preference becomes more important than a light’s brightness. It’s common to see enthusiasts giving up lumens for a preferred tint.
Specialty red and green LEDs are available for people (such as astronomers, soldiers, sailors, and hunters) who are trying to retain night vision. Some manufacturers build a red LED into multi-beam lights, promising an all-in-one solution. However there are ongoing discussions here on CPF that Night Vision Green (NVG) may be superior, or that really deep reds are superior to the common orange-reds found on expensive lights. It’s important that night vision lights go low enough, so look for sub-lumen options. It’s been stated here on CPF many times that once you can see color, your light’s too bright for night-vision use.
Many enthusiasts are intolerant of beam artifacts of any sort. Most manufacturers have figured out how to eliminate them. Mild artifacts are of little consequence if you’re hiking at night, but can be annoying if you’re trying to read with them, or check paint coverage on a wall, etc. Artifacts become worse at closer distances & on even surfaces.
5. Brightness required (often discussed as lumens) depends on usage. Newbies think that brighter is always better, and sometimes, that’s true. Bicyclists, joggers, search-and-rescue, and cavers generally can’t get enough light, and crave multi-hundred (or even thousand) lumen headlamps. Newbies also tend to chase small increases in lumens between one light and another, relying on “brightest is best” as a judgment shortcut. But it’s a misleading rule of thumb, because the eye does not perceive brightness in a linear fashion (some say it’s a logarithmic relationship, other say it’s a 2nd power relationship, others say the relationship depends on the amount of ambient light, etc). Long story short: don’t chase small percentage increases in brightness. A 10-20% increase in intensity may be marginally detectable, if you’re concentrating on seeing a difference in a side-by-side or sequential test between two identical tints and beams in a controlled experiment. All else held equivalent, it takes around 100% increase in lumens before a beam looks significantly brighter (appearing about one-quarter brighter to the eye); this is a practical threshold at which you may wish to consider an upgrade on brightness alone. Intensity needs to be 300% to 400% to look twice as bright. And yes, a light can be too bright. If you are working in a crawlspace or attic, you may find anything above 50 lumens is too bright. If you’re reading in the dark, 10 lumens can be too bright. If you’re on a sailboat at night, observing stars, checking on your sleeping kids, or otherwise trying to preserve your night vision, you’ll probably find 1 lumen too bright. So make sure your light goes as low as you need it, not just as high as you need it. Enthusiasts value lights that will go to “sub-lumen” levels.
6. Runtime & Regulation. Everybody wants the longest runtime possible, but it’s a compromise with brightness and your battery choice. If you work with your light from 8 to noon, then a 4-hour runtime would be important. If you’re caving all day long, then you’ll want a much longer runtime (and larger battery pack). If you can stop at any time to change a battery, then you’re fortunate, and can purchase a lightweight headlamp. 18650 cells give some of the longest runtimes available for headlamps. Enthusiasts tend to value regulated lights, where the brightness is kept at a constant output until the cells are exhausted. Regulation combats the “starts out too bright and then gets too dim” issue with yesteryear’s lights. But beware that some regulated lights suddenly extinguish, rather than dim gradually, which can be irritating or downright dangerous for some tasks. Unregulated lights are generally cheaper.
7. Do you need a waterproof headlamp? If there’s a chance your lamp will get wet, or immersed, better look for a high IP rating. IP stands for either “International Protection” or “Ingress Protection,” depending on your source. Following IP, the first digit rates protection against dust (X = not measured, 0 = no protection, up to 5 = protected against dust, highest 6 = completely protected). The second measures protection against liquids (0 = not protected, 3 = rain, 4 = spray from any direction, 5 = water jets, 6 = forceful hose-projected water, 7 = 30 min immersion <1 meter, highest 8 = prolonged immersion deeper than 1 meter as defined by mfgr). So the highest possible rating would be IP68, but headlamp ratings often skip the dust rating, so IPX8 would be a good rating for a waterproof headlamp.
8. Headband Attachment & Comfort. Your ability to move the headlamp up and down to illuminate your work becomes a vital issue, particularly if the beam is narrow. Narrow-beam headlamps (say, 40 and less) require constant adjustment for close tasks. Some lights use a click-stop adjustment, with plastic against plastic. Be suspect of these if you plan heavy use. Other headlamp mounts encircle the round body with rings of silicone, rubber, or plastic, allowing simple and long-lasting up/down adjustment from friction fit alone. Still others allow you to remove the light from its mount to use as a handheld, clip in a pocket, or set on the ground. Attachment adjustment and versatility is an important consideration, so don’t ignore it. You’ll understand when you get a loose adjustment that’s always dropping the light to illuminate the tip of your nose. Regarding the headstrap band itself, you want an adjustable, flexible strap that nonetheless holds firmly, but without giving you a headache. If your lamp is on the heavy side you’ll want an additional strap over the top of the head. The point of contact with the forehead is critical. Whether silicone, closed-cell-foam, open-cell foam, or other, try the strap before you buy, remembering that it will get more uncomfortable with long-term use. An uncomfortable strap gets old...quickly.
9. User Interface. This is a minor issue to some, and a major issue to others. A frustrating user interface will, for example, require you to click through all modes to find the one you want...perhaps starting at the highest and blasting your night adapted vision in the process. Human-friendly interfaces get you to the mode you want with speed and ease. Many enthusiasts like the knob-style dials that are starting to appear on lights: they’re simple and easy to dial in the precise illumination wanted; yet they can inadvertently move the focus of the light in the process.
10. Price & Reliability. These two factors are highly correlated. The least expensive but still functional lights will typically use 3xAAA to get voltage above the magic 4 volts needed to light an LED. Lights become more expensive as regulation and boost circuits are added (which allow an LED to be lit by a singe AA cell, for example). Quality multifunction lights are often pricier, as are lights with desirable beam tints, high-CRI, made in U.S.A., high brightness, and so on. The more expensive lights are generally thought to be brighter, more robust, with better seals, precision threads, sturdy electronics, larger heat-sinks, more aluminum and less plastic, O-rings, better tint, better warranty service, etc. Some lights have a known pedigree of quality. You have a wide range of quality lights to choose from in the $50-$120 range, although some lights provide remarkable value for as little as $20. In the range of $100 to $1000 are fabulously bright, sturdy lights that appeal to professionals, cavers, and others form whom performance is mission-critical. And of course you can have a custom light made to suit your particular needs, by contacting one of CPF’s custom builders.