HID VS LED Headlights - Which Are Best For Your Vehicle

July 19, 2019 11 min read

hid vs led headlights

UPDATE: 03/04/2021

The world has changed - technology has found its way into nearly every aspect of modern life. Along with these changes, has come the improvement of previously existing technology.

Halogen bulbs were present in nearly every car for decades - but this has changed. HID headlights and LED headlights have both come a long, and changed the world of automobiles rather significantly.

HID lights can be purchased everywhere - including on big consumer websites like Amazon. Headlight bulbs, conversion kits, HID bulbs, fog lights - these are just some of the many products car enthusiasts are buying to upgrade their cars.

New headlights are a big purchase, so you should fully understand what each form of light does - and what might be the best fit for your car. In this piece, we specifically look at HID headlights compared to LED headlights.

HID Headlights

For nearly two decades, the halogen bulb went unchallenged as the global standard in automotive headlights. The first new light type to threaten that dominance was the HID headlight, which has somewhat remained a mystery to a lot of motorists, despite its growing popularity.

Origin. HID stands for high-intensity discharge. Since its launch in the early 1990s, the light has slowly gained favor as the superior choice when compared to halogen lights. HIDs — which are also referred to as xenon, in reference to the gas used in the startup process — are valued for their color temperature and high intensity of light. The xenon HID headlight first appeared on the 1991 BMW 7 Series, and it was initially viewed as a novelty feature. Since that time, other automakers have adopted HIDs. Few, however, have implemented HIDs across the board.

Function. HID headlights function similar to neon lights, where current (high voltage) passes through a gas-filled tube with electrodes at both ends. With HIDs, passing currents between opposite electrodes stimulate xenon gas and halide salts within a quartz enclosure. It all starts with a spark of high voltage, between 24-27Kv typically, which ionizes xenon and sends a current between the twin electrodes. As the temperature rises, metallic salts within the bulb are vaporized, and this brings resistance down between the electrical arc, which is sustained from there by the engine’s power supply.

Pros/cons. When it comes to the “xenon vs halogen headlights” debate, the lumens of each type reveals which of the two has the advantage. Today’s HID headlight generates over 3,000 lumens and 90 mcd/m2 powered by a typical 35w ballast – more than twice the amount of a halogen bulb, which produces 1,400 lumens and 30 mcd/m2. All in all, the pros and cons of xenon HID headlights can be summarized as follows:

Advantages: brighter light, longer lifespan, greater efficiency, farther reach, broader coverage, less power consumption than halogen.
Disadvantages: high costs relative to halogen, strong glare that can blind oncoming traffic.

Xenon HID headlights use more energy at startup, but much less once they hit performance temperature. As such, HIDs use less energy overall than halogen lights. This saved energy means a higher degree of efficiency on vehicles equipped with HIDs because there’s less pressure being placed on the alternator — and less engine torque is needed to keep HIDs running. These characteristics and resulting effect on vehicle performance mean xenon lights could be considered eco-friendly, even if the savings on fuel is minimal.

Range. On some cars, HIDs are installed to function as low-beam lights, while halogens are used for high-beam purposes since they provide a faster warm up time often necessary for use as a high beam. More advanced HIDs have a dual-beam function known as bi-xenon where the light can change from high to low and back with the flick of a mechanical shutter from within the projector. This provides a great deal of control when it comes to the amount of light a driver might want to project at a given time or place. Since xenon lights travel farther and cover broader areas than halogen bulbs, a low-beam could easily suffice in most situations.

Illumination. Overall, xenon HID headlights provide some of the best illumination of all light types. Not only do they offer the broadest range of coverage, they’re also the brightest of all lights in the headlight market. Moreover, HIDs are the can be considered the whitest of all headlights and provide a luminescence that’s closer to natural daylight. That last quality makes the HID driving experience more comforting to drivers, because, after all, you generally feel more comfortable driving in the daytime. To summarize, HIDs are the:

-Brightest of all headlights.
-Whitest of all headlights.
-Leader in ability to provide broad, even illumination

Efficiency. HID headlights use less power than halogen bulbs, and put less of a strain on the energy supply of a car, truck or van. As such, the energy within a given vehicle can be more healthily allocated to other functions. By extension, other functions that draw upon a car’s eclectic supply might also last longer in the presence of HIDs, because they don’t have to compete as intensely for their share of power. That said, HIDs do take a couple of seconds to reach full brightness.

Longevity. Another great advantage to xenon headlights is their longevity. For starters, HIDs have a much longer lifespan than halogen bulbs. By most accounts, HID headlights last at least 2,000 hours, and in some cases, they can last as long as 8,000 hours. Compared to the 1,000-hour peak life of halogens, HIDs keep lighting and lighting — to paraphrase a famous battery tagline. Essentially, HIDs:

-Last twice as long as halogens at the bare minimum lifespan.
-Last eight times as long as halogens at maximum lifespan.

In fact, when two vehicles of the same make and model are placed side by side, the car with halogen lights could end by needing two or more replacements in the time it would take for the HID-equipped vehicle to need one new set of lights

Mileage. The lifespan of the average halogen light can be translated as follows — if you spend an average of 90 minutes driving after dark within a typical 24-hour timeframe, you’re only liable to rack up 500 to 540 hours of use on your HIDs in the span of a year. Even at this relative high-usage rate, HID headlights are likely to last for nearly four years — and that’s only when you factor in the shortest life expectancy of xenon lights.

Cost. Despite the long list of pluses, there are a few disadvantages to choosing xenon headlights. For one, HIDs are expensive…or at least, they used to be. As such, HIDs are best for people who are serious about their cars and aren’t just looking to skimp by on car expenses. Due to their high price, HID headlights are most useful for people who normally drive at high frequencies after dark on most nights of the week. If you only make fleeting, twice or thrice-weekly usage of your vehicle, HID headlights are probably not worth the extra cost.

Glare. Also, keep in mind that if not installed properly, xenon lights can inflict intense amounts of glare toward oncoming motorists, as well as through the rearview mirrors of cars ahead. For this reason, aftermarket HID kits are illegal in certain states. Before you purchase HIDs, check the laws in your area. Furthermore, xenon headlights should only be purchased from a reputed source, and all installation work should be handled by a licensed specialist.

LED Headlights

Out of all the headlights on the market, the LED undergoes the most unusual process to generate light. In the LED headlamp, negative electrons run against holes in a semiconductor to produce a light-emitting diode, hence the light’s name. When an electron enters a low-energy hole, a photon is released. The process is also known as electroluminescence. The frequency at which this process occurs — thousands of times per second — is what produces LED light.

Pros/cons. Though the LED light made its first appearance in 1993, it gained little market traction before the 2000s. LEDs have since been used on many vehicles from Toyota, Lexus, Audi, BMW, Nissan, and Mercedes. Though we believe that they are more so a trend that could be put in the advertising pamphlet for a car, we’ll summarize the real pros and cons here.

* Advantages: small size, energy efficient, brighter than halogen, doesn’t glare like HID
* Disadvantages: expensive, heats up neighboring assemblies, difficult to fit, needs cooling, sub-par in inclement weather due to higher Kelvin ratings.

Function. The light emitted from an LED is approximately two millimeters wide. In terms of brightness and coverage, LED headlights cover stretches of ground ahead with an intensity of whiteness that rivals HIDs and surpasses halogens. When driving up dark, twisty hills during graveyard hours, LED headlights will alert you to dangers in time enough to slow or stop your vehicle, such as when a deer or opossum crosses the road. As such, many drivers consider the LED headlight to be the perfect option because it provides white brightness that’s both far reaching and widespread — without emitting brightness at an overbearing level.

Powerful. As with HIDs, LED headlights require little power to function. The light within an LED bulb will instantly power on at its full brightness without flickering or any warm up time. Unlike HIDs, LED lights don’t need to work up to their maximal state, either. Once you hit the road in a LED-equipped vehicle, you can have the lights fully beaming the second you need them, whether you’re driving through a tunnel in the middle of the day or cruising a road across the countryside late at night. Basically, the three foremost reason why LEDs have become popular is that they:

-Utilize only a minimum amount of power.
-Power to full brightness instantly.
-Provide broad illumination in dark routes

With LED lights, no driving situation could ever be too dark or misty for clear navigation. In short, the HID vs. LED headlights debate favors the latter when it comes to brightness safety levels.

Focused. Another difference between HID and LED is that the LEDs offer focused rays that can be shaped in a variety of ways. LED lights are small in size, and this is convenient for automakers because it makes each unit lightweight and more easily applicable to various designs. Since the light can be designed in different ways, auto manufacturers aren’t just limited to one idea when it comes to the shape of LED headlights. That means automakers are able to tailor LED lights to suit the designs of particular vehicle models.

Efficient. LED lights consume little energy throughout the course of a given drive, so they’re like HIDs when it comes to energy efficiency. As such, LEDs are easy on a vehicle’s motor because the lights don’t drain power that might be needed by other engine assemblies. This helps the engine as a whole stay healthy since it requires very little of the vehicle’s overall power resources. Due to the lack of drainage on the engine itself and the fuel usage such activity entails, LED headlights could even reward you with minor savings on fuel costs.

Hot. If LED lights have an Achilles heel, it’s the issue of temperature. Simply put, LEDs need more cooling to operate than do halogen and xenon headlights. This is one of the few differences between HID and LED headlights that favors HIDs, which don’t have cooling or heating issues. LED headlights, on the other hand, have a strange and somewhat troublesome relationship with heat. While the LEDs themselves don’t heat up, they can trigger heat in surrounding assemblies and along connected wiring harnesses. Therefore, it’s somewhat arguable as to whether LEDs could truly be considered a heat-free headlight option.

Complications. A closely related downside to the LED is the cooling system that accompanies the light. Simply put, LED lights are difficult to fit into a car because the cooling system is meant to be placed in the engine bay. For the most part, this is a contradiction because the engine bay is the part of a vehicle where temperatures typically rise. When an LED headlight has been awkwardly retrofitted, the cooling system could face challenges trying to stay cool when the lights are on and the motor runs. This is another one of the big differences between HID and LED headlights, which line up as follows:

-LEDs require more cooling than HIDs.
-LEDs trigger heat in neighboring engine parts, unlike HIDs.
-LEDs are accompanied by complicated cooling systems.

Limitations. The trouble surrounding heat triggers and cooling systems is the reason why LEDs were originally only used as tail lights — lights at the back of an automobile don’t require such complex measures to operate. Tail lights, for example, are passive lights that merely mark a vehicle’s presence to all drivers that follow from behind. Tail lights aren’t used as a driving aid, so they don’t require the energy or complex processes that are necessary to light up the road ahead.

Cost As with HIDs, LED lights are expensive compared to the low-cost halogen bulb. So, the choice of LED lights should factor in for your practical needs as a driver. Do you frequently drive at night, or rarely? Do you spend many hours per day in your car, even in times of rain, or do you seldom use your vehicle more than twice weekly? If you’re the kind of person who keeps their fuel costs safely within the two-figure range each month, LED lights might be somewhat of an overindulgence. When it comes to the “xenon vs. LED headlights” slugfest over price, neither is a bargain.

By contrast, LED headlights could be one of the best investments you’ll ever make in your car if you’re the kind of person who drives and travels by car a great deal. If you spend 12 or more hours per week driving between the hours of 6:00 pm and 6:00 am, LED headlights could actually be the way to go due to their virtually unlimited lifespan. This is another big difference between halogen and LED lights — halogens aren’t nearly as helpful during nighttime driving.

Can HID Lights Harm Your Car?

No, although fake lights may be a problem. Another common concern is that there will be too much heat produced by HID lights.

This is a common misconception. Many people notice that the upgrades produce more light than standard bulbs, meaning that they'll run at a higher wattage and therefore produce more heat. The worry is that this heat could potentially melt your headlights or pose a safety risk.

However, this is not the case. Standard and upgrade bulbs usually run at the same wattage, and so there won't be any extra heat produced. Halogen bulbs produce more light by mixing the halogen gas inside the bulb with xenon gas, which gives the upgrades their powerful beam. 

Xenon HIDs produce a brighter light due to the optimised position of the light tube inside the bulb itself, which produces an increased light output on the road.

Can You Get Pulled Over For HID Lights?

Yes, an officer can pull you over if they think your lights are blinding. However, this is subjective, and has become less common over time.

If your car isn't not fitted for HID lights, this could become a problem, as you've replaced OEM equipment with non-OEM. If you don't want to worry about the risk, simply do not put HID headlights on your vehicle.

The Bottom Line On HID Headlights And LED Headlights

Light bulbs on your car may not seem like a big deal, but the truth is these bulbs make a big difference both in terms of performance, as well as in visibility of the road ahead. Elements like the overall electrical charge of each type of headlight will vary, as will the color temperature (like tungsten).

Bright light can be a little distraction while driving, and some drivers have complained that white light particularly can be blinding. However, new cars continue to be made with brighter lights, and car manufacturers have noticed that consumers are buying LED kits, to make incandescent changes to their headlights.

Consumers even retrofit their headlights to be brighter, which in some cases voids their warranties. LED headlights and HID headlights are definitely here to stay, no matter which way you look at it.

If you’re looking for the best-LED headlights kit, go here. Enter the year, make, and model of your car in the search boxes and get the best LEDs fuss-free

If you want HID conversion kits, go here

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