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Xenon Vs LED Headlights (Which Are Better?)

Matt Taylor
Written by Matt Taylor

Halogen headlights will be a thing of the past soon, with many cars today being fitted with LED headlights as standard.

LED headlights are better than halogen and xenon HID headlights because they last longer, are more energy efficient and can produce a brighter, better quality beam of light.

Until recently, xenon HID bulbs were a popular option when buying a new car or as an upgrade among car enthusiasts. But with LED upgrade kits dropping in price every year, soon they will be the best option if you want to upgrade your headlights.

What Are Xenon Hid Bulbs And How Do They Work?

Xenon headlight bulbs are an example of arc lamps, that are different to halogen bulbs in how they create a beam of light. 

Instead of using halogen gas with a heated tungsten filament, xenon bulbs use electrodes at either end of a glass tube that is filled with xenon gas. When a high voltage is applied to the electrodes the xenon gas becomes ionized, spiting into positive ions and negative electrodes. As these particles crash off each other, light is emitted, creating a beam of light.

In terms of structure, xenon HID bulbs are a bit more complicated than halogen or LED bulbs. They consist of a glass tube that contains xenon gas and they have electrodes at either end that produce the electrical current. 

xenon HID bulbs

Typical Xenon HID bulbs

The electrodes are usually only around 2mm apart, and there must be a ballast fitted to the back of the bulb to create the initial high voltage that is necessary to create the initial arc in the lamp.

Xenon HID bulbs generally have a longer lifespan than halogen bulbs but not as long a life as LED bulbs. They create a much brighter whiter light than halogen bulbs and are also available in different color temperatures, from blue to bright white. 

Over time, xenon bulbs will start to burn at lower temperatures as the xenon gas produces less electrodes. This is usually the first sign of the bulbs starting to wear out before they eventually fail.


What Are LED Headlights And How Do They Work?

LED bulbs are a more recent development in the world of automotive lighting. 

Until recently, they have really only been used in low beam car lighting such as  number plate lights, brake lights and turn signal lights. They are also now fitted as standard on many cars as daytime running lights.

daytime running lights

A typical daytime running light - Image Source

However, many premium car manufacturers are now starting to be use LED technology in their headlights, joining Audi who have offered them as an option on the A8 since 2010.

LED, or luminescence diode bulbs, produce light in an entirely different way to xenon and halogen bulbs. They don't use gas or high voltage to create light. Instead LED bulbs use multiple light emitting diodes to create a beam of light.

An LED chip that is used in an LED headlight bulb is made up of multiple layers of silicone based semi-conductive material. When an electrical current is passed through one layer to the other in a particular direction, a light particle is released. This process is then repeated on a larger scale to produce a headlight beam.

LED silicone board

An example of a basic LED cluster of diodes on a circuit board

LED bulbs are approximately 90% more energy efficient than traditional bulbs. They don't need much power to work and can in fact be damaged if they are exposed to a voltage that is too high.

When it comes to the use of LEDs in headlights, manufacturers generally use multiple LED bulbs to create the desired lighting effect, rather than using just one bulb. Multiple LEDs can be used within the headlight enclosure for side lights, high beam, low beam and daytime running lights.

Overall, LEDs are the best option when it comes to headlight technology. They are energy efficient, can produce very bright beams and last much longer than any other type of bulb.

LED vs Xenon HID Headlights - What's the difference?

LED Bulbs

  1. 1
    Very long service life, up to 50,000 hours 
  2. 2
    Can produce a very bright light, 8,000 to 10,000 lumens 
  3. 3
    Use very little power, up to 95% less than halogen and xenon bulbs
  4. 4
    Use solid state semiconductor material to create light
  5. 5
    Are still expensive to buy and upgrade kits are not suitable for most cars yet

Xenon HID Bulbs

  1. 1
    Medium service life, around 2000 hours 
  2. 2
    Produce a clear bright beam of around 3000 lumens
  3. 3
    Need a very high voltage to start
  4. 4
    Use xenon gas and electrodes to create light
  5. 5
    Suitable for most cars and can easily be fitted to most models

Can you retrofit Xenon HID headlight Bulbs?

If your car was fitted with halogen bulbs in the factory, then you can't just swap out the bulbs for Xenon bulbs. Instead you'll need a conversion kit or a new set of headlights.

Aftermarket Xenon HID conversion kits are widely available for many vehicles. They allow you to fit xenon bulbs to standard halogen headlights. 

Not all conversion kits are created equally, so you really need to do your homework before choosing one. I generally steer clear of these kits, as it can be a bit of a minefield trying to choose a good quality kit that will be reliable and won't mess up the electrics in your car. 

Also, remember xenon headlights are much brighter than halogen headlights, and if you live in Europe, must be fitted with self levelling systems so as not to blind other road users. HID conversion kits don't usually allow for self levelling, so depending on where you live, you may be breaking the law if you fit one of these kits to your car.

If xenon headlights were an option on your car from the factory, you may be able to retrofit the entire xenon headlight unit, with self levelling and headlight cleaning systems included. This can be a very expensive option is not usually worth it.

Can You Retrofit LED Headlight Bulbs?

You can fit LED bulbs to your car headlights, but I'd advise against it.

Just like with Xenon bulbs, there are lots of LED conversion kits appearing on the market. Most of these kit that I have looked at are not suitable replacements for halogen bulbs, and will not give you the same LED lights as those that are factory fitted.

LED headlight technology is totally different to halogen bulb technology with vast differences in the way the headlights are designed and shaped. It's simply not possible to create the same type of light beam by swapping out the bulbs for LED bulbs. 

Aftermarket LED Headlight Bulbs

Fitting aftermarket LED headlight bulbs will create the same safety problems as aftermarket HID kits.

Most vehicles use CANbus systems that detect if a headlight bulb has blown by monitoring the headlight voltage. LED bulbs use very little power and will either not work or create a permanent blown bulb error on the dashboard.

My preferred option is to upgrade the halogen bulbs for brighter xenon effect bulbs, that are safe, road legal and compatible with all vehicles. My favourite bulbs are the Philips CrystalVision range of headlight bulbs. They produce a very white, bright beam that is much brighter than factory fitted halogen bulbs. I also find that they last a bit longer too. 

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