Bicycle Network: Bikes 'n' Bits
Lights test 2006
The Ride On magazine 2006 lights test turned the high beam on bike lights to find you the brightest buy. This article first appeared in Ride On April-May 2006 issue.
Check out the 2010 Ride On lights test results
Bike lights save lives. It’s a sobering thought that flashing white and red LEDs, which cost less than your average monthly mobile phone bill, could be the difference between a pleasant evening ride and a night in spent in casualty. Yet recent studies have suggested that high numbers of cyclists still don’t light up at night.
These days there’s really no excuse for riding in the dark. Leaps in LED technology have made reliable bike lights more affordable than ever, with models to suit even the tightest budgets. A quick trip into your local bike store should reveal just how many different bike lights there are on the ever-growing market.
But is there too much choice? How much should you spend? Do you have to cough up more than $50 or will a $15 model let other road users know you’re coming?
This issue Gear Guru lined up a panel of 11 cyclists to shine a light on some of the most commonly available bike lights to find you the best and the brightest buy for under $70.
Not only did the lights we tested have to cost less than $70, they also had to come as a single, simple light unit (with battery and globe, or LED, all part of a neat package). Low-cost lights were included as an option for those new to cycling or on a smaller income.
We did not include lights from the growing number of very bright front lights with external battery packs in our test. These lights, which use halogen, high intensity discharge (HID) or high-output light emitting diodes (LEDs), and nickel metal hydride (NiMH) or lithium ion (Li Ion) battery packs, are usually designed to cast a fixed beam in low or no-light situations – often for night-time endurance riding – and are generally quite expensive.
The bike lights we tested were all LED flashing-beam units, designed to be used in areas with ambient street lighting (two also had halogen steady beams). Their prime purpose is to make the rider visible to other road users, not to illuminate the road ahead. While the LED can be set to cast a steady beam, it will be nowhere near as effective as a medium power (5–20 watt) halogen light. The models tested also use replaceable and readily available batteries, which may or may not be rechargeable.
In the last few years, the light output and colour spectrum available in LEDs has improved exponentially, in line with advances in many other fields of electronics. This has made the low-output incandescent-globed lights (those under five watts or so) virtually obsolete.
LEDs, when combined with an electronic controller to govern flash speed and frequency, are much more noticeable to other road users and also require much less power to run, partly because the light is effectively off for half the time it is operating. Lower power requirement means smaller, lighter batteries and an easier-to-handle, compact unit. Reflector and lens technology have also become cheaper and more effective. This all adds up to much cheaper, better and brighter lights than those available 20 years ago.
We tested for:
- Visibility from 200m away*
- Side-on visibility from 50m away**
- Value for money
The lights we tested were from three suburban Melbourne bike shops: Terry Hammond Cycles in Port Melbourne, St Kilda Cycles in St Kilda and Beach Rd Cycles in Brighton.
The range of lights available at these stores is fairly representative of what you’ll find at most bike shops, with brands coming from the major light distributors. Lights from specialist suppliers, such as Busch & Muller and Trek, are usually only available in shops that deal in these brands.
There seems to be a lot of R&D going on in bike light manufacturing and, while some models have a long product life, others are updated quite often. For example, two weeks after our test, the first of the new generation Smart Polaris lights was released, with significantly increased side-on light output and some of the lights tested will be replaced with upgrades by the time you read this article.
Some of the lights we looked at were based on typical designs shared by a number of brands that each added their own refinements. More LEDs generally means a brighter light, but some models excelled with only a single LED, some with the help of an effective reflector/refractor lens element.
We set up a test station on a suburban street at dusk. Our testing panel (11 members drawn from a variety of occupations and interests within the cycling community) stood 200 metres away from the light mounting, which was raised to the height of an average bike.
Weather conditions were fine and dry. Batteries in all lights were brand new and made by the same company for consistency of power output, except where special types of batteries were needed.
We established ‘standard’ lights – those that had been available for some time, and were generally well-regarded by our testers: the Smart Polaris for the front and the Cateye TL-LD 600 for the rear. The testers rated these lights, and compared them with subsequent lights. All lights were given scores out of 10.
Each light was turned on for 10 seconds for direct front and rear exposure (from 200m away), then rotated 90 degrees, and shown again for the same amount of time (from 50m away). The average of the results given by the testers are listed in Tables 1 and 2.
To get an overall visibility rating, the scores for front or rear visibility were combined and averaged with the side-on visibility scores (see Tables 1 and 2). As you can see, some lights fared very well in the back or front visibility scores, but fell short in their side-on visibility.
|Light element type/ number||Head-on visibility rating x/10||Side-on/ angle visibility rating
|Overall rating||Battery type/ number||Comments||RRP|
|Cateye LD260||White LED/1||4.5||3.6||4.05||AAA/3||$29|
|S-Sun SS-L 130W||White LED/5||8.3||2.2||5.25||AA/2||$59|
|Bike Essentials||White LED/4||7||4.45||5.73||AA/4||$25|
|Smart 301-WW||White LED/1||1.5||1.15||1.33||N/2||Batteries not universally available||$25|
|Trek Northern Light Compact LED||White LED/1||6.3||1.55||3.93||AAA/3||$39|
|Zefal HF 635||Halogen + LED||5.25||3||4.13||AA/4||Hybrid light, 2 emitter types||$69|
|Topeak Whitelite DX||White LED/3||7.5||0||3.75||AAA/3||Alloy body model||$69|
|Powerbeam Super Mini Bike Light PL-1(W)||White LED/1||5.85||3.3||4.58||CR2032/2||Small format ‘backup’ light||$22|
|Smart 2-beam||Halogen + LED/3||6.1||0.5||3.3||AA/4||Hybrid light, 2 emitter types||$42|
|Light element type/number||Tail-on visibility rating||Side-on visibility rating||Overall rating||Battery type/number||Comments||RRP|
|Cateye TL-LD 600||Red LED/5||8.7||4.55||6.63||AAA/2||Standard||$39.95|
|Pioneer 2005R||Red LED/5||5.8||4.5||5.15||AAA/2||$15|
|Smart RL307||Red LED/7||5.95||7.9||6.93||AAA/2||$25|
|Bike Essentials||Red LED/5||6.55||2.35||4.45||AA/2||$15|
|Knightlite Ultrabright LS575||Red LED/1||5.1||3.5||4.3||AAA/2||$35|
|Trek Discotech Rear||Red LED/3||5.5||4.5||5||AAA/2||$25|
|Cateye TL-LD260R||Red LED/1||6.35||3.25||4.8||AAA/3||$29|
|Knog Bar end||Red LED/1, White LED/1||3.3||2.5||2.9||LR44/2||Handlebar-end-mounted combination||$25|
|Busch & Muller Topfire||Red LED/4||2.2||0||1.1||CR2032/1||Helmet-mounted light array||$29.95|
|S-Sun EagleFly 310RL||Red LED/9||8.6||4.9||6.75||AA/2||$39|
The lack of side-on visibility in some lights is a concern. For maximum safety, side on visibility from both front and rear lights would be ideal. At least one light that has been released after the test has bright amber side LEDs (a recent innovation), which is the statutory side reflector colour for bikes in Australia (although there is no law governing side lights).
Although it wasn’t part of our original test plan, another concern raised by the testers was the flash rate of each light. Too slow a flash rate allows the cyclist to travel further between each flash, leading to a less accurate ‘fix’ on their position by an observer. Too fast a rate produces a stroboscopic effect, which can also disturb perception of the cyclist’s location.
The Bike Essentials front light, while one of the brightest, had a flash rate that four testers felt was too slow. It is best to test any light you intend on buying in the shop, or by comparing friends or riding partners’ lights.
Another issue is reliability. This factor is largely out of the scope of a one-off test; however, the collective background knowledge of the testers suggests that manufacturers that have been around longer – such as Cateye, Smart and Zefal – tend to have reasonable levels of reliability, with some exceptions.
Mounting brackets are often a failure point, with breakage or sudden unexpected release of the unit, causing expensive tarmac-induced failure. Test the ones you see (with the owner’s permission) to find one you are happy with. LED units are remarkably long lived, and very effective.
There were several very good performers, but here are the hands-down winners:
Best all-round visibility and best buy: Bike Essentials 4 LED light
Dollars and all-round visibility make this light the stand-out. At $25, it outperformed lights costing twice as much (although, as mentioned earlier, the testers did find the flash rate too slow).
Pic: [PIC TO BE TAKEN]
Best front visibility: S-Sun SS-L 130W
Five LEDs make this light the brightest front on, although it is a little more battery-hungry than others.
Best all-round visibility and best buy: Smart RL307 7 LED
A tried and tested design that is very popular. Two different bracket sizes included with the light make mounting easier.
Best rear visibility: Cateye TL-LD600 and S-Sun EagleFly 310RL
The well-spaced vertical array and high-quality electronics make the Cateye a bright light. The S-Sun Eaglefly’s 9 LEDs are a little power-hungry.
Pic: LD600 and Pic: SSL 310R
So, what to buy?
Well, you’ve seen our test results. But despite the stand-out winners, all the lights we tested have something to recommend them, and each will suit some people better than others. If you are strapped for cash, check out the Pioneer brand lights. They are simple, cheap and moderately effective. The Cateye TL-LD600 has its fans, because, although relatively expensive, it is very bright, has a robust and adaptable mounting bracket, and due to its elongated shape, fits well behind seatposts and alongside seatstays or under rack top plates. We did not test the fixed beams of the two Halogen/LED lights on the test, but if you wanted to travel away from streetlights, they are worth a look.