Types of Headlight Bulbs: 4 Bulbs on the Road Today

Types of Headlight Bulbs

Types of Headlight Bulbs: 4 Bulbs on the Road Today

Key Points

  • Car headlight bulbs have evolved from traditional halogen bulbs to Xenon bulbs and now to LED bulbs, which are the most efficient option available.
  • Halogen bulbs are still popular due to their affordability, but they are inefficient and have a short lifespan.
  • Xenon bulbs are brighter than halogen bulbs but require additional components and are more expensive to install.
  • LED bulbs are bright, energy-efficient, and have a longer lifespan than Xenon bulbs.
  • Laser headlights are a new technology that provides intense light and can redirect beams to avoid blinding other drivers.

Car headlight bulbs have gone through a large number of changes over the years. But, in the last decade, there has been a tremendous shift from traditional halogen bulbs to Xenon bulbs which are much brighter.

As quickly as Xenon bulbs came, they went away in favor of cheaper and more efficient LED technology. A new bulb type, known as laser, is on the horizon. More than just the bulbs has changed, as headlights themselves have gotten a major makeover over the last couple of decades.

Gone are multipiece headlights, which used a number of different bulbs, as larger single-piece headlights are now the norm. Let’s take a deep dive into the world of automotive headlights.

Types of Headlight Bulbs

The plastic headlight on a vehicle typically contains more than just the headlight bulb. In fact, there may even be more than one headlight bulb. But the first thing we need to look at are the different types of headlight bulbs, including halogen, Xenon, and LED.

These bulbs shine a light for very long distances to let you see down the road. There is also a new headlight type that may soon show up in new cars.

1. Halogen

Our Pick
SYLVANIA H11 SilverStar Ultra Halogen Headlight Bulb
$36.90 ($18.45 / Count)
  • 1345 lumen
  • White color
  • Brightest down-road headlight
  • Propriety halogen gas mixture
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11/26/2023 02:36 pm GMT

The first, and still the most common bulb on the road, is the halogen light bulb. Halogen bulbs were used in vehicles for decades, and despite most new vehicles changing to LED, halogen bulbs still remain popular. Part of the reason for their popularity is that they are cheap to make and, therefore, the most affordable option for consumers.

Halogen headlight bulbs often cost under $25, with some closer to the $15 range. The problem is that halogen bulbs are very similar to incandescent bulbs, relying on burning filaments.

This means that they are very inefficient, which isn’t that big of a deal in a car. However, they also have a short lifespan, so you will be changing them much more frequently.

But there are other factors to consider when looking at halogen headlight bulbs, such as how they perform. You can easily spot a car with halogen bulbs thanks to the warm, subtle yellow glow that they produce.

These bulbs are actually easier on your eyes than newer bulbs, like LED ones, but they produce a lot less light. If you need to see far in the distance, halogen won’t be the best option.

However, halogen bulbs are also used for other purposes like interior lighting, turn signals, brake lights, and fog lights. Because they’ve been around for so long, premature failure is very rare, especially compared to cheap LEDs. Additionally, halogen bulbs can support multiple filaments, so both high and low beams are in one bulb.

2. Xenon

Our Pick
SEALIGHT Xenon White Non-Polarity
  • 12 volts
  • 6 times brighter than halogen bulbs
  •  The lifetime is 60 times longer than the stock lamp
  • Anti-flicker, fanless design
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11/26/2023 02:37 pm GMT

Next up is the Xenon, or HID bulb, which gets much less recognition today than it did just a decade ago. Back then, Xenon bulbs were quickly taking over the headlight industry.

Many luxury cars were coming with these new headlights, and conversion kits were available for every vehicle imaginable. But there were many drawbacks to Xenon lighting technology that slowed its adoption.

The biggest problem is in the way that Xenon bulbs operate. Much like halogen bulbs, Xenon bulbs have two electrodes that power flows through.

The electrodes connect to a small tube filled with gas that illuminates when electricity passes through. Although the technology is slightly different, Xenon bulbs operate similarly to fluorescent or neon bulbs.

If you are familiar with fluorescent bulbs, then you know they require a ballast. Xenon bulbs in a car have the same requirement, as a ballast sends a large amount of electricity to the bulb on startup and then drops down to maintain the proper glow.

The extra requirements mean that you can’t simply plug a bulb into the wiring harness, and it will work. Instead, ballasts must be installed, which may require additional wires to be run back to the battery.

Conversions often require replacing the entire headlight assembly, which gets very expensive. The benefit is a much brighter headlight that lets you see far ahead. On average, a Xenon bulb lasts 5 times longer than a halogen headlight bulb.

3. LED

Our Pick
  • 12 volts
  • Increase 400% brightness and 100% view
  • The focus beam pattern illuminates reveal road signs without blinding other drivers
  • 650-feet high visibility
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11/26/2023 02:47 pm GMT

The LED bulb has gained a lot of traction in recent years. LED bulbs are the most efficient headlight option currently available. While they still aren’t as cheap as halogen, it is much easier to retrofit an LED bulb since it doesn’t require as much power as a Xenon bulb.

Another benefit of LED bulbs is that they produce very little heat, meaning the chance of starting a fire is much lower. Manufacturers also don’t have as many limitations since they don’t have to worry about the intense heat. LED bulbs do not require a ballast like Xenon, but they do require a driver to create the proper voltage.

LED drivers are either housed in a small box or can be attached to the bulb itself. On new cars, the electronic components are typically placed inside the plastic headlight housing.

You’ve likely noticed that these newer headlights come in all sorts of odd shapes. That is thanks to LED technology, which makes it possible for manufacturers to embed many small LED diodes for stylistic purposes.

The problem with all of this new technology is that if an LED or driver fails, then the entire headlight will likely need replacing. Despite the high costs, LED headlight bulbs are a great option because they are super bright, letting you light up even the darkest roadways. Plus, LED headlight bulbs are estimated to last 3 times longer than Xenon bulbs.

4. Laser

Our Pick
OSRAM XENARC Night Breaker Laser D3S
  • 3200 lumen
  • Operating life: ‎2000 hours
  • 220% more light intensity 
  • Color temperature: 66340 Kelvin
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11/26/2023 02:56 pm GMT

Laser technology is used in everything from medical equipment to high-end projectors, but its use is growing in the automotive world. These headlights are very rare, and you probably won’t see any on the road. However, there are a number of manufacturers testing the technology to see how they can adopt it into their vehicles.

The most notable company is BMW which is already using laser headlight bulbs in some of its high-end cars. Like LED, laser headlights are another major step toward efficiency and more intense light.

However, laser headlights do much more than just shine brighter. They actually fix one of the biggest problems with LEDs, and that is shining into a driver’s eyes.

If you’ve ever driven toward someone with Xenon or LED headlights, then you know that it is almost blinding. Laser headlights fix this by actually directing beams of light in specific directions.

In the case of an oncoming driver, the headlight will actually redirect the lights around the vehicle. But things go even further with the use of mirrors that help direct and boost the light into a beam.

BMW boasts that its laser headlight can actually reach 600 meters, or one-third of a mile. It is very likely that more vehicles will get this impressive lighting as the technology becomes cheaper.

Similarly, the fact that the entire headlight would need replacing if the laser failed is also problematic. This is particularly the case as autonomous vehicle technology improves and vehicles rely more heavily on cameras.

Changes in Headlights

As plastic became more advanced, manufacturers started using it to build better-looking headlights. This trend really caught on in the 1990s, when headlights were no longer restricted to the shape of a round or square bulb.

Instead, a small halogen bulb went inside a plastic housing. There were a few benefits to this, including less waste, bulbs were easier to ship, and headlights could take on more unique designs.

With the adoption of Xenon and LED bulbs, headlights have only gotten better. Instead of every headlight looking the same, manufacturers can now seamlessly integrate the headlights into the shape of the car.

Types of Headlight Bulb Connectors

Not only do headlights vary widely by manufacturer, but the connectors do as well. Fortunately, headlight bulbs themselves often work with numerous different vehicles rather than being specific to one manufacturer.

However, the connectors themselves can vary slightly. Automotive connectors come in a few different varieties, but headlight connectors are usually insulated. An insulated connector has a seal on it to prevent water from getting to the metal pins and causing rust or corrosion.

Older vehicles often did not use insulated connectors. You can also differentiate headlight sockets from other bulb connectors by the number of pins. If your headlights have both high and low beams in one bulb, then it will have a three-pin connector; otherwise, each bulb will have two.

Other Light Bulbs in Your Headlights

Besides the actual headlight bulbs that are your high and low beams, there are also other bulbs that go into the headlight assembly. Most notable is the turn signal, which is an orange color, but often uses a clear bulb with a yellow lens to get the proper color.

Headlights also have a running or marker light that lets oncoming drivers see you, even if a headlight bulb is burnt out. Both the running light and turn signal operate with either a halogen bulb or an LED.

They aren’t nearly as bright as the headlight, and they also get little use, so they typically don’t come in the Xenon option. The reason is that the benefit isn’t there compared to the cost. Newer headlights are also using LEDs or Xenon bulbs for added style.

Changing Your Headlight Bulb

Changing a light bulb in your car has always been a pain in the neck, but it has gotten much more challenging over the years. Even worse is the fact that every car is a little different, with some being much easier than others.

But with so much technology packed under the hood, it is often difficult to even get to the headlight bulb. In older cars, you could often reach down and pop the bulb out of the socket and disconnect it from the harness.

But newer vehicles may require you to remove the entire headlight assembly just to change a burnt-out bulb. Even worse is that some newer vehicles with LED lights require replacing the entire assembly if just one bulb goes out.

Wrapping Up

Headlight bulbs have seen a lot of changes in recent years, and that doesn’t seem to be slowing anytime soon. It is interesting to see how one part of a vehicle stayed largely the same for decades and now sees regular improvements.

The good news is that laser headlight bulbs look to be a real force in the industry as soon as pricing goes down. But for drivers, the real benefit is seeing better than ever before.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can you replace a halogen bulb with a Xenon bulb?

Yes, it is possible to replace a halogen bulb with a Xenon one. However, you will need to purchase a retrofit kit for your vehicle that includes all the necessary components, such as the ballasts.

Is there a fuel savings associated with more energy efficient bulbs?

Because electricity in a gas-powered car is generated directly from the alternator, you won’t see any sort of savings. But an EV will definitely benefit from LED because you are paying for the electricity that those bulbs use.

Do all new cars come with LED headlights?

No, even though LED bulbs are now the standard for many manufacturers, some are still holding out. There is currently no requirement that manufacturers switch and many low-end vehicles are sticking with the cheapest thing possible.

Can you replace an LED bulb with a halogen bulb?

Because LED bulbs are so expensive, it is understandable to try and swap them with a halogen bulb. However, you should not do this unless the vehicle originally came with a halogen bulb. If you are replacing a retrofit LED, then it is fine; otherwise, the car is not designed to take a halogen bulb.

What is the difference between HID and Xenon?

HID and Xenon bulbs are two terms that often get thrown around by marketing departments, but they typically refer to the same thing. Xenon is a common gas inside an HID bulb, but some HID bulbs use other gasses like Mercury.

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