LED vs. HID Headlights Showdown: Which Is Better?

LED vs HID Headlights

When you want to trick your ride to look like the most chill driver on the block, you’ll need to install a great set of headlights. If you’re new to the headlight market, however, you will quickly find that there are a plethora of choices.

Headlights have three main types: LED, HID, and halogen. Each of these types has a set of advantages and disadvantages. Between these three types, halogen headlights are the oldest and most established within the market.

If you’re looking to upgrade your vehicle, halogen lights are probably too obsolete for your needs. In other words, you should probably look at HID and LED lights as your options for headlights. In this article, we’ll explain which is better between the two mainstream choices.

The Advantages of LED Headlights

LED headlights are the rising star within the headlight space. LED stands for “light-emitting diode,” which refers to the technology that makes LED lights work.

LED headlights have the following advantages:

  • Very durable
  • Energy efficient
  • Runs cool
  • No warmup time
  • Long lifetime

Each of these advantages stems from the way that LED lights work. Traditional halogen headlights work by passing an electric current through the interior of the headlight which is filled with halogen.

When an electric current passes through the halogen, the halogen molecules become excited and emit light. This light is then focused forward using mirrors inside of the headlight, emitting a warm yellow halogen glow.

In contrast to traditional halogen headlamps, LED headlights do not use gaseous media to create light. Instead, the LED headlights emit light directly from a diode which transforms electrical energy into light instantly.

The advantage of making light via a diode rather than a gas is that the headlight’s light-making interior does not need to be a vacuum. Because there is no vacuum surrounding the diode, the costs are much lower than with a traditional halogen headlight.

Furthermore, the fact that there is no vacuum ensures that LED lights are more durable than gas-containing lights. With a halogen light, if the chamber containing the halogen is damaged, the halogen will flow out, and the headlight will be inoperable.

In contrast, LED lights are difficult to destroy because the diode itself will continue to emit light if it is damaged. As long as the diode continues to get electricity, it will continue to emit light, albeit less than if it were pristine.

LED lights also run cooler than halogen lights. When electricity passes through the gas in the headlight, the gas must warm before it reaches the point at which it will emit light.

As a result, halogen lights have a short ramp-up period when the gases are warming to their maximum temperature. LED lights work in the opposite way; when the diode becomes too warm, its ability to turn electricity into light drops slightly.

Critically, LED lights never warm up very much, nor does the amount of light they emit decrease by a noticeable amount throughout a single drive — the fact that LED headlights decrease in intensity when they heat up is mostly an academic concern that drivers won’t notice.

Finally, LED headlights are highly energy efficient because the energy required to emit a fixed amount of light does not change with the ambient temperature.

With halogen lights, the colder the headlight is, the longer it will take them to reach their maximum brightness, so they expend more energy.

The Advantages of HID Headlights

HID headlights are the main competitor to LED headlights. HID stands for “high-intensity discharge.” For the most part, HID headlights work similarly to halogen headlights wherein the gas is excited by electricity until it creates light.

The difference between halogen and HID headlights is that HID headlights use xenon instead of halogen as their light-emitting gas. In contrast to halogen, xenon is a better gas because it is capable of emitting more light at a lower temperature.

HID headlights are very different from LED headlights, and they have the following advantages over LEDs:

  • Very bright
  • May be less expensive than LEDs
  • Runs cooler than LEDs
  • Performance doesn’t degrade with time
  • More color options
  • More prestigious

In principle, if you have to pick between a halogen headlight and an HID headlight, you should always choose the HID because it is better in every dimension except cost.

HID headlights have a similar durability profile to halogen lights, and they both are sensitive to mechanical damage caused by accidents.

Between halogen lights and HID headlights, HID headlights are marginally more energy efficient, but you shouldn’t place much weight on this factor because both are less energy-efficient than LEDs.

Between HID headlights and LEDs, however, the question of cost is somewhat different.

HID headlights may be cheaper than some LED headlights, but this price difference will probably not exist for much longer as LEDs become mass-manufactured in more extensive numbers.

Thus, the features of HID headlights which eclipse those of the LED headlights should be your primary concern if you are trying to choose between the two.

The primary advantage of HID headlights is that they are the brightest on the market. Xenon glows with ferocious intensity when it is excited by an electrical current.

HID headlights are subsequently much brighter than halogen headlights and significantly more brilliant than the best-LED headlights. They also run very cold because of how little electricity is required to make the gas emit light.

Because the gas doesn’t wear out over time, HID headlights don’t experience any drops in their performance the longer that they are used, nor throughout their lifetime. They also ramp up to their maximum brightness much faster than halogen lights.

HID headlights also have a significantly flashier reputation than LED headlights.

While it is technically possible to make LED headlights in any color, the color options for LED headlights are akin to changing the lampshade on a lamp. In other words, the light emitted by an LED will always start to lose its coloration, the brighter it gets.

With HID headlights, the color options vary as a result of mixing in small quantities of other gases. These neutral gases emit light that is a different color than the light emitted by the xenon, making for a more consistent coloration which does not change with the brightness of the light.

This attribute has made HID headlights have a higher standing in the minds of the public, who associate the HID headlights with sports cars and other high-end applications.

Which Headlights Are Better?

Now that you know all about HID headlights and LED headlights, it’s time for the verdict regarding which technology is the better choice for your needs.

For most purposes, LED headlamps are a better choice. LEDs are superior to HIDs in several dimensions, including:

  • The average cost
  • The average lifetime
  • The average durability
  • The average performance over one drive
  • The average amount of degradation of performance over the lifetime of the headlight

While there will be exceptions to each of these factors, most people will be better served by LED headlights because they are less expensive while still getting the job done.

LED headlights won’t illuminate the road as brightly as HID headlights, but they also won’t break as easily. Furthermore, LED headlights to reach their maximum brightness immediately, whereas on the coldest days HID headlights may take a few minutes to warm up.

While it’s true that LED lights degrade in their maximum output over their lifetime of usage, the amount of degradation is not very significant over realistic timescales.

In other words, if you use a pair of LED headlights for five years, they will only lose about 15% of their brightness. While HID headlights won’t miss any brightness in the same period, the loss of performance in the LED headlights will not make the road too dark to see.

Similarly, while HID headlights may be as much as 30% more bright than LED headlights and 60% brighter than halogen headlights, the difference is not as relevant as you may think.

For driving in the countryside at night, you’ll be relying on your high-beams to illuminate the area in front of your vehicle. The amount of high-beam illumination your vehicle projects when using HID headlights will not let you see much further than LED lights under realistic conditions.

For driving in the city at night, the low beams of halogen lights are more than sufficient to illuminate the road, which means that LEDs and HIDs are excessive.

Of course, if you want a flashy pair of headlights that will impress people who are car fanatics, the only real choice is HID — at least for now.

The brightness and purity of coloration in the HID headlights can’t be found with any other style of headlight. On the other hand, you should keep these two points in perspective: most people who are not headlight hobbyists will not appreciate the fact that your headlights are HID.

HID headlights may be too bright or attention-grabbing for some people, however. If you want a car that blends in rather than stands out as a result of its headlight aesthetics and brightness, LED headlights are probably a better option.

LED headlights are also standard in most new vehicles, which means that you will have an easier time finding mechanics who understand how to service them in comparison to HID lights.

While HID headlights are standard enough that it won’t be too difficult to find a mechanic, the issue of procuring spare parts will probably be much larger, so the overall costs of any repairs will likely be higher, not to mention the higher startup costs involved.

Driving Away

Now that you understand why most people will have a better experience with LED headlights than HID headlights, you’re ready to make an intelligent purchasing decision for your next vehicle.

If aesthetics are something you care a lot about, you should still consider HID lights. The cost difference between most LEDs and most HIDs is not very high, though HIDs are nearly always slightly more expensive.

Similarly, if you are like most consumers who do not particularly care about the brightness or the technical merits of your headlights, you should stick with LEDs because they’re lower cost and you’ll have an easier time getting them serviced.

Finally, don’t get taken for a ride when you’re getting your headlights installed or serviced. No matter whether you have LEDs or HIDs, there’s no such thing as headlighter fluid — so don’t trust anyone who tells you that the fluid needs to be replaced.

Brett Gordon

The engine behind editing at DigMyRide and the brains behind its build. During the day, Brett is a thirty-something dude from SoCal climbing the corporate ladder, but by night, he spends his time contributing to the online world of automotive tech & trends.