Welcome to my new 2013 CR123A Shoot-Out!

From left to right: Panasonic (USA), Rayovac (USA), Energizer (USA), Streamlight (USA), Duracell (USA), Titanium Innovations (China), Powerizer (China), and Olight (China)

Back in 2009, I did some direct round-up comparisons of the performance of a number of CR123A brands (see: 2009 Quick CR123A and AA Battery Shoot-out Comparison and 2009 CR123A Comparison Review). Those analyses led me to certain conclusions at the time, which I subsequently revised on further testing. But I thought the time was ripe to re-address the major issues, and see how a number of different brands currently compare in direct head-to-head testing. For this analysis, I have tested recent samples of the various brands presented above, in a couple of my flashlights. As you will see below, these results have led me to some new and (at least to me) surprising conclusions.

The Big Question: Are different brands of CR123A really different from each other, and has that relationship changed over time?

In order to begin to address this question, I need to get some preamble out of the way. And as before, I would like to start by making it clear that I am not a battery expert by any means. There are many here with a much greater understanding of battery design and testing – this is not my field. My goal in this thread is to just provide my direct testing experience, for what it is worth.

Testing Method:

Typically, all my output numbers are relative for my home-made light box setup, as described on my flashlightreviews.ca website. But in this case, I have plotted the results in estimated Lumens, based on a method I devised for converting my lightbox relative output values (ROV) to estimated Lumens. See my How to convert Selfbuilt's Lightbox values to Lumens thread for more info. All runtimes are done under a cooling fan.

For each of the graphs in this review, I have chosen a single "representative" runtime trace for any given cell and test. Generally, I have done repeated tests on different samples, and find relatively little variability between individual cells from the same batch.

Method Issue #1 – Testing comparability over time

The first technical issue to consider is can I consistently compare batteries over time, using the same flashlight testing bed? I don't have the proper setup for interrogating voltage/current/power relationships, and so instead rely on output/runtime performance in a couple of lights (my Thrunite Neutron 1C and Foursevens Quark Q123-X). I keep these lights out of rotation, and use them solely for battery testing. But how consistent are my results over time?

What you are looking at above is the runtime performance of two Panasonic cells purchased in one batch, tested in my Thrunite 1C. They were both manufactured in May 2010, and the first tested by me in November 2011 (pink trace). I have kept some samples of that batch on hand (stored at room temp), and retested this month (May 2013) in the same light in my lightbox (black trace). As you can see, those curves are so similar as to be indistinguishable. This suggests that I can indeed compare batteries tested at different times in my setup – at least over a period of a couple of years.

Method Issue #2 – Age effects of storage or changing manufacturing processes?

It's a well-known phenomenon that significantly older cells don't typically have the same capacity as recently manufactured cells. There are two possibilities at play here – do CR123As suffer from age effects of storage (i.e., loose capacity over time), or are there continual improvements in capacity due to revised manufacturing processes over time? The answer is likely both – but I suspect changing manufacturing is the key driver over relatively short time frames.

The reason I say that is that age effects seem negligible over the ~5 year time frame that most of us look at. The output/runtime example above shows that testing two Panasonic cells from the same batch 1.5 years and 3 years after manufacture shows no detectable difference.

As an aside, it's true that a lot of CR123As have an official "expiry date" (typically, 10 years post-manufacture) – but most primary lithium cells should still perform quite well past this point. The 10-year mark may just be some accepted industry norm for a certain level of performance degradation (e.g., I've seen the suggestion that it represents a guarantee of >90% initial capacity remaining). I've also seen testing results here on CPF over the years that show made-in-the-USA cells still perform at >95% capacity after 10 years. There is also the suggestion that 10 years is the estimated point where seals may begin fail, and degradation rates begin to increase. There are also concerns of passivation layers developing over time, etc. But all these concerns aside, it seems pretty clear that in the short term (i.e., ~5 years), any age-related degradation in performance is likely to be extremely minor.

BTW, if you are looking to figure out the date code on made-in-the-USA cells, CPF user LilKevin715 has compiled a number of them in this thread.

In any case, one thing that is clear is that manufacturing processes definitely change over time. I've heard from several people involved in the battery business that manufacturers are constantly adjusting and "tweaking" their battery formulations, trying to get better performance in modern devices. Obviously, this is going to be somewhat variable from one manufacturer to another, but it seems to be a general trend, as you will see below.

What you are looking at above is a comparison of a new batch of cells to my previous results in my Thrunite 1C and Foursevens Q123-X, on Turbo. In pretty much every case, the newer batch cells (which were 1-7 years newer than the old batch) performed better. Over these time frames, I expect the contribution of age effects is minimal to negligible. What you are really looking at above is how manufacturers constantly strive to improved performance.

Method Issue #3 – Are different "brands" really from different manufacturers?

This is an interesting question, and it relates somewhat to the issue of geographical point of origin.

For made-in-the-USA cells, it is generally believed here on CPF that all USA-brand lithium CR123A cells are currently made by Panasonic in one plant in Georgia. I don't have any inside information to know if that is true or not, but it does seem to be the consensus view around here (i.e., every USA-brand is actually a re-badged Panasonic cell, in some form).

Note however that even if this is true, it does NOT mean that all made-in-the-USA cells are the same. It is quite common for contract-manufacturers to customize production of a common product to the needs of a variety of clients. So for example, USA brand A could want a lower price point than USA brand B, so specifies lower grade components and/or a cheaper manufacturing process in order to achieve that. It you read through the battery threads here, you will certainly find a lot of views that some USA brands are better than others.

Interestingly, my own results from 2009 supported what was a common view here at the time - I noticed what appeared to be two "tiers" of made-in-the-USA cells. The "top tier" of consistently best performance was composed of Duracell, Surefire, and Panasonic, with a second tier of Energizer, Rayovac, and Battery Station. Note the difference between these two tiers was not great – at sub-maximal drive levels, I got completely equivalent performance between all brands. But at max drive levels, I typically found ~4% lower capacity in the second tier group compared to the first (matching for age, as best I could).

In terms of the made-in-China cells, I notice two tiers again – a "top tier" of Titanium Innovations and Foursevens-branded cells, and a second tier of Tenergy and Powerizer cells. The difference in these cases was far more striking – the second tier China brands had consistently ~20-40% lower capacity than the top-tier ones at all levels. And at best, the top-tier China ones were equivalent to the made-in-the-USA cells - although that was highly variable, and depended on both the light and the drive level (i.e., while equivalent at one drive level, the same brand could underperform at another level).

Enough with the preamble … let's see what the current data look like:

Output/Runtime Comparisons:

Note: To help you compare capacities, I am including an "area under the curve" estimate (AUC), in arbitrary units, rounded to the nearest half-integer. Also, the made-in-China cells don't have date codes, so I identify them by the date I received them.

Starting with Turbo modes, you can see some interesting patterns above.

The first point that I would make is that based on cells manufactured in the last two years, there no longer seems to be any difference between the made-in-the-USA cells in my testing setup. The former "second tier" Rayovac/Energizer cells show significantly improved performance in 2013 compared to 2009. Indeed, they show a more significant improvement over the last few years, and have now "caught up" to the Panasonic cells (which have also improved over time, of course). In fact, on the Thrunite 1C, the Rayovac/Energizer cells lead the pack of USA-brands.

Based on these current testing results, I think you'll find equivalent performance of any of these USA-brands, manufactured in the last couple of years. Of course, that could change in the future, if customized manufacturing is really the case for some of these (or other) brands.

The second major observation is that all the made-in-China brands tested here show even greater improvements over the 2009 to 2013 time frame. On the Foursevens Q123-X in Turbo, all three brands do as well – or better – in runtime than the USA-brands. But again, there is some variability depending on the light circuit in question - on the Thrunite 1C in Turbo, the Powerizer CR123A shows lower performance than the USA-brands, Titanium Innovations shows comparable performance, and Olight exceeds the USA-brands.

These results are quite striking to me – the playing field has definitely become a lot more level, at least in terms of apparent capacity in high-drain situations. But keep in mind that most of the "top tier" made-in-China cells always did fairly well at the higher drain levels – where many previously underperformed was at lower drive levels. Let's see how they do at a lower drive level:

A comment to start – I haven't bothered to include most USA brands in the graph above, since they never showed much of a difference at lower drive levels (i.e., even back in 2009, there was no real difference between the USA brands at this drive level). The Rayovac example above shows that performance has continued to improve, but the effect is not dramatic.

The "top tier" Titanium Innovations and Olight CR123As again managed to keep up with the USA brands, at least to their performance of a few years ago (i.e., the older Rayovac). This finding is significant for the Olight cells, as the early Foursevens-branded CR123As showed a significant lower performance at this level in the Thrunite 1C. I don't know if the Olight-branded cells are the same as the current Foursevens cells, but I note that the two companies have officially joined and perform common R&D.

The "second-tier" Powerizer – which showed admirable capacity on the Thrunite 1C Turbo mode test – shows reduced runtime at this level in that light.

Again, these results are not meant to be indicative of all possible situations – but they do suggest that both Titanium Innovation and Olight CR123As have improved to the point where they offer comparable runtimes, at least at the drive levels tested here.

Again, a reminder to use caution in interpreting all these runtime results - I am simply showing a single "representative" trace for each battery above. But where I have done duplicates or triplicates, the results have been very consistent.

Final issue – what about safety?

This is a hard issue to address, as there is relatively little data on primary CR123A safety by specific brand. As always, I recommend people buy batteries from reputable vendors (with a proven track history), and stick with batteries that have a testing history here on CPF. My personal yardstick is to assume that the made-in-the-USA cells have the highest quality control and safety verification – but I have no way to directly assess that.

Interestingly, I do have some data about one key issue for safety – the PTC that is incorporated into every primary CR123A. A PTC (Positive Temperature Coefficient) functions kind of like a resistor or circuit breaker. Technically, they are thermistors – circuit devices whose resistance varies with temperature (in this case, resistance increases with temperature, aka a "posistor"). Battery PTCs are of the "switching" type, which means their resistance rises suddenly once a certain critical temperature is reached.

I have previously observed in my testing that there are marked differences in the speed in which made-in-the-USA cells will trip compared to made-in-China cells. As you might expect, the made-in-the-USA cells trip earlier.

It took me awhile to figure this out. In the early days of my review testing – when I used made-in-the-USA cells exclusively (mainly Duracell and Surefire) – I would sometimes see strange runtime patterns on heavily-driven lights on 4x and 2xCR123A cells. After a few mins runtime, the lights dropped-off rapidly to <50% output, remained there for awhile, started to recover output rapidly, only to then fall out of regulation. This pattern was far less likely to see after I switched to using the lower-cost, made-in-China Titanium Innovations cells (which I did in 2009, after having found they had pretty equivalent performance to made-in-the-USA cells). What can I tell you … even with donations, my annual battery costs still exceed my resources.

I now believe this runtime pattern on the made-in-the-USA cells was due to PTC engagement and current limitation, based on a measurable rapid increase in temperature in these cells (in a light that was known not to have any circuit-limiting features for temperature). You will see an extensive discussion of the issue in this thread that I started on the subject. Basically, the point is that once the battery temperature reaches a certain threshold (which varies according to the battery manufacturer), the PTC resistance rises and current limitation kicks in, causing a rapid drop in output. Over time, the temperature drops and the cells recover, showing an uptick in output.

Those early tests reported on in that thread were done with just two brands of made-in-the-USA cells and one made-in-China, but I've noticed similar patterns in other brands since then. Based on my continued testing, my general conclusion still holds that the PTCs of made-in-the-USA cells are more likely to trip earlier than made-in-China cells, when placed under a very high drive current.

If you want to see a recent example of this PTC limitation, check out my Olight M3X (XM-L2) review.

As an aside, this is part of the reason why I argue for circuit-controlled, timed- or thermal-step-down safety features in all lights with high drive levels that use primary CR123As (especially 2x or higher)

Preliminary Discussion

Although the results presented here are only a limited "snapshot" of a handful of cells, my preliminary conclusions are different from my earlier 2009 testing.

First, I am happy to report that I am no longer able to discern any significant difference in the output/runtime performance of any of the made-in-the-USA brands tested here, of comparable age. Further, performance continues to improve over time, with cells manufactured in the last few years showing measurable improvements in my testing setup.

Secondly, the performance of the made-in-China cells tested here is even more striking. In some cases, these cells provided comparable (or better) runtime performance to the made-in-the-USA cells – although these effects are variable, and dependent on the specific drive level. That said, there is more to a CR123A than raw capacity, and I recommend you review my comments above around PTC safety engagement between brands.

Hope you found that useful. Again, I am not an expert on batteries, and just wanted to share some direct testing experience. As always, I am happy to defer to the true battery experts here for any discussion of the specifics of chemistries, formulations and applications.