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9 Different Types of Headlights

Headlights of a black car

Car headlights do not need an introduction. They are what keep the road illuminated for you while you are cruising on the streets late at night. It is your car headlights that keep you from bumping into a tree or running into someone after the sun has set.

All cars, old or new, have headlights installed. The law has made it mandatory to have both the headlights of your car in working condition. They not only ensure your safety while you are on the road but also the safety of pedestrians and animals crossing the road.

Back in the old days, all cars came with similar headlights, but today, where newer and more technologically advanced vehicles have been introduced, the types of headlights also vary. Newer models of cars have newer and cooler headlights installed.

You may think that all headlights are the same, but actually, they aren’t. And we don’t just mean different in terms of design only. They’re also different in terms of operational mechanisms.

If you ever have to get your headlights replaced, you should at least have sufficient knowledge about the type of headlights your car has and the types of headlights you can replace your existing lights with. Headlights are one of the most important parts of your vehicle, and they sure deserve some attention.

Types of Headlights

We will be dividing the types of headlights into three sections:

  • Types of headlights based on the headlight housing
  • Types of headlights based on the number of bulbs
  • Types of headlights based on bulb type

Types of Headlights Based on the Headlight Housing

Headlight Housing

The headlight housing is the ‘house’ where the bulb of the headlight resides. In simpler words, it is the case that accommodates the headlight bulb. The headlight housing is not the same in all cars. The way a bulb is mounted and where the bulb is situated varies.

1. Reflector Headlights

Reflector headlights were the standard headlights that were present in all vehicles till 1985. These are still the most common types of headlights that you will see. The bulb in a reflector headlight is encased in a bowl-like case. The bowl-like case has mirrors installed that reflect the light onto the road.

These headlights that were found in older cars had a fixed casing. This meant that in case the bulb burned out, it could not be replaced, and the entire headlight case had to be changed. These reflector headlights were also known as the sealed beam headlights. In sealed beam headlights, there was a lens in front of the headlight which determined the shape of the beam of the light that was produced by them.

However, newer reflector headlights come with mirrors inside the housing instead of a lens. These mirrors are used to guide the beam of light. With this technological improvement, there is no need to have a sealed headlight housing and bulb. It also means that the bulbs can be replaced easily when they burn out.

Pros of Reflector Headlights 

  • Reflector headlights are inexpensive.
  • These headlights are smaller in size, and therefore, take up less space within the vehicle.

Cons of Reflector Headlights

  • The light output in reflector headlights is less controlled, and therefore, high output light bulbs cannot be used with this type of headlight housing.
  • The low beam cutoff is less distinct for oncoming traffic.
  • The beam of light often has weak and intense spots.

2. Projector Headlights

With improvements in technology in the headlight industry, headlights got better. Projector headlights are a newer type of headlight that was first used in the 1980s in luxury cars only. However, today, projector headlights have become quite common, and most of the newer models of cars come equipped with these types of headlights.

Projector headlights are quite similar to reflector headlights in terms of assembly. These headlights also consist of a bulb that is enclosed in a steel case that has mirrors. These mirrors act as reflectors, just like they do in reflector headlights. The only difference is that projector headlights have a lens that works like a magnifying glass. It increases the brightness of the beam of light, and hence, projector headlights produce better illumination.

To make sure that the angle of the light beam produced by projector headlights is correct, they come with a cutoff shield. It is due to the presence of this cutoff shield that projector headlights have a very sharp cutoff.

Pros of Projector Headlights

  • Projector headlights are brighter than the old reflector headlights.
  • They do not shine into the eyes of the other drivers on the road. This is because the lens projects the beam of light downwards onto the road. The benefit of this is that projector headlights don’t blind other drivers or pedestrians who are crossing the road.
  • The beam of light produced by projector headlights is a lot more even, with no weak or intense spots.
  • Projector headlights can have HID bulbs, unlike reflector headlights, which can only house halogen bulbs.
  • Projector headlights look great.

Cons of Projector Headlights

  • The output of light with projector headlights is a lot different than reflector headlights. If you are too accustomed to the light output of reflector headlights, you may find it hard to get used to projector headlights.

3. H4 Conversions

If you wish to upgrade the headlight system of your car, H4 conversions are a cost-effective way of doing so.  It uses the standard reflector-type housing, but instead of a sealed case, they use an H4 dual filament type bulb that can be replaced. This means that if your bulb gets burned out, you don’t have to get the entire casing replaced. You can simply replace the bulb and be on the road again in no time (or as long as it takes your mechanic to replace the bulb). This also opens up the possibilities of using brighter bulbs like LEDs or HIDs.

Since H4 conversions are a standard reflector-type, the light beam they produce is uneven with hot-spotting, a scattered light output, and possible blinding of oncoming traffic.

Types of Headlights Based on the Number of Bulbs   

Headlights are divided into two types on the basis of the number of bulbs housed in the headlight housing.

  • Quad Headlights
  • Non-Quad Headlights

Quad Headlights

Quad headlights are the headlights that have two bulbs in each headlight.

Non-Quad Headlights

Non-Quad headlights have a single bulb in each headlight.

Quad headlights and non-quad headlights are not interchangeable because the wiring inside is specific to each type. If your vehicle has quad headlights, that’s what you can replace your headlights with. The same is the case with non-quad headlights.

Types of Headlights Based on Bulb Type  

There are four major types of headlights based on the type of bulb being used. They are:

  • Halogen Headlights
  • HID Headlights
  • LED Headlights
  • Laser Headlights

1. Halogen Headlights

Headlights with halogen bulbs are the most commonly found headlights in most cars on the road today. They are an improved version of the sealed-beam headlights. The older headlights used bulbs that were basically heavy-duty versions of the regular filament bulb you use at home.

Regular bulbs consist of a filament suspended in a vacuum. The filament lights up when electricity passes through the wire and heats it up. The vacuum inside the bulb ensures that the wire does not get oxidized and breaks. Although these bulbs worked well for several years, they were quite inefficient, always hot, and gave a yellowish beam of light.

Halogen bulbs, on the other hand, have halogen gases filled inside instead of a vacuum. The filament is almost the same size as the bulb of a sealed beam headlight, but the gas tube is smaller and houses a smaller volume of gas to contain the heat.

The halogen gases that these bulbs use are bromine and iodide (in combination). These gases ensure that the filament does not thin and break and also reduce the blackening that usually occurs inside the bulb. The filament burns much hotter as a result and produces a brighter light. The gases get heated up to 2500 degrees.

Pros of Halogen Bulbs

  • Halogen bulbs are cheap.
  • They produce a brighter light beam.
  • They last for a longer time.
  • Halogen bulbs are small in size, and therefore, take up less space within the vehicle.
  • They are easy to replace.
  • Headlights with halogen bulbs are definitely superior to sealed-beam, reflector-type headlights. Among the newer headlight options that are available today, halogen headlights are the most affordable.

Cons of Halogen Bulbs

  • The beam of light is slightly yellow in color and does not cast further ahead.

2. HID Headlights

Glowing xenon headlights.

HID stands for High-Intensity Discharge. They are also known as Xenon headlights. HID bulbs employ completely different technology to that of regular bulbs. These bulbs put HID headlights firmly in the category of headlights that provide the farthest visibility to the driver. They are getting popular by the day, and more and more people are switching to HID headlights for all the right reasons.

Unlike sealed-beam and halogen headlights, HID headlights do not contain the usual filament bulbs. They produce light when an arc of electric power passes across a pair of electrodes that are trapped inside a glass tube. This glass tube is filled with xenon gas. We said earlier that HID headlights are also known as xenon headlights; well, due to the arc of electricity that powers these headlights, they are also known as Arc headlights.

Along with the xenon gas, these bulbs also contain vaporized metals like metal halides and mercury. The passage of electric current through the arc melts the vapors of the metals and converts them into plasma. Hence, HID headlights also have another name (although, a less common one) – Plasma headlights.

It is the plasma that glows in a shade of white-blue that produces the brilliant light that these headlights are so famous for. A reflector is present within the headlight assembly that bounces the light onto the road. The light that is produced by HID headlights is extremely intense. It offers versatility, and you can adjust the focus as per your need. You can focus the beam of light into a narrow beam that extends far out in front of the car, or you can set it to a broad beam that fills the area that lies directly ahead.

Pros of HID Headlights

  • HID headlights produce extremely bright light in the spectrum of white-blue.
  • HID headlights offer greater vision well down the road due to the longer wavelengths they use, and lesser scatter as compared to yellow-lights (as in halogen and sealed-beam headlights).
  • As there is no filament to burn out in HID bulbs, these headlights are more likely to last longer.

Cons of HID Headlights

  • HID headlights are slow in turning on.
  • HID headlights take several seconds to warm up and come to their maximum brightness.
  • They can irritate drivers that are in oncoming traffic as the white-blue light that HID headlights produce is strikingly bright.
  • Light in the blue-white spectrum can significantly affect the night vision of a person. Light from HID headlights will not only blind other drivers but can also hamper their vision when it comes to seeing anything that is dimmer (including the tail lights of the vehicles ahead). This way, HID headlights can be a cause of accidents.
  • What’s worse is that it’s not just the night vision of other drivers that are affected; your vision will also be affected. You will be able to see everything ahead very clearly, but you will be almost blind to anything that is outside the spread of the light beam.

As far as the performance is concerned, HID lights remain unbeaten. However, they do come with a set of some nasty side effects, including an increased risk of accidents.

3. LED Headlights

LED headlights of a yellow car.

The bright, white light and longer lifespan have made LED bulbs quite popular to be used in car headlights. LED stands for Light Emitting Diodes. The potential of LEDs as car headlights is massive. LED bulbs are highly efficient, compact, and can turn on and off instantly, which gives them an edge over HID headlights. The tiny semiconductors of LED light bulbs can produce a wide array of focuses and light levels at an exceptional speed (within nanoseconds).

LED lights, like HID bulbs, do not work on the principle of a filament. They convert electricity into light via the diodes that are present inside the headlights. The process by which LED lights convert electricity into the light is called electroluminescence. The process is highly energy efficient as compared to the process that is employed in halogen headlights. Little or no heat is produced, and this improves the lifespan of these bulbs incredibly!

The LED technology is still quite new, and therefore, not all cars using LED headlights have all the features. For example, the high and low beam settings of LED light are only available in high-end and hybrid vehicles.

Although LED lights do not get heated up, there are certain heating issues that LED headlights are associated with. The resistance inside the bulb is quite high, as a result of which, the emitter chip base gets very hot. The LED light needs a sink where it can release the heat. Otherwise, the diode would melt. This makes the system complicated and expensive.

Pros of LED Headlights

  • They are small and compact. LED lights take up a very small space within the vehicle. They are so small that they don’t even need a headlight house. But, of course, that would change the entire look of the vehicle.
  • LED headlights can be turned on and off instantly.
  • They do not blind other drivers.
  • These headlights don’t only focus on what’s directly ahead but also offer a wider area of vision as well.
  • LED lights can use any color spectrum. They aren’t limited to the bright, white-blue spectrum.

Cons of LED Headlights

  • They are more expensive as compared to HID headlights.

4. Laser Headlights

Laser headlights of BMW.

If you think laser headlights involve two piercing lasers that can melt the eyes of an oncoming driver, you can relax because laser headlights are anything but blinding. Laser headlights are the new hot thing in the automotive industry. They can produce light that is a thousand times brighter than LED lights without requiring as much power as LED lights need.

The laser system uses three blue-colored laser beams that are directed into a chamber that contains yellow-colored phosphorus gas, which is phosphorescent (glow-in-the-dark). Phosphorus does not store light to release later but produces light as a result of a chemical reaction that occurs within the chamber. This chemical reaction is sustained by the laser beams and is captured inside the chamber. Therefore, what you see is not actually the light from the laser beams but the glowing that is produced by the phosphorus.

Pros of Laser Headlights

  • Laser headlights can produce about 1000 times brighter light in almost half the power that LED headlights use.
  • The beam of light can focus up to an incredible 2000 feet.
  • Laser lights burn in the range of 6500 Kelvin, which is about same as the natural daylight and LED lights.
  • They can flash on and off instantly.
  • Laser lights are very versatile and can be made into different shapes and designs.

Cons of Laser Headlights

  • Laser headlights are way too expensive (being offered by BMW as an add-on for $10,000).
  • Laser lights are not expected to replace LED lights in ancillary applications like brake lights and turn signals.
  • Laser lights produce a lot more heat as compared to LED lights, and thus, they’ll need more cooling.

After looking at all the types of headlights thoroughly, we can say that LED lights are the current leader in the automotive lighting industry. Laser headlights cannot be beaten when it comes to performance, but they are not yet commercially available, and the whopping cost makes it almost unapproachable for mass production. LED headlights, on the other hand, not only offer the brightness that is needed but also ensures that the other drivers on the road are not irritated. Although they come at a higher cost than other types of headlights, LED headlights are surely the best option that most people are turning to.

Tips for Choosing Headlights for Your Car

Now that you are well aware of all the types of headlights, you can decide which headlights are the best for your vehicle. Before you leap into replacing your car headlights, ensure that you check the pros and cons to see if the replacement is worth it. Below are a few tips that may help in making the selection.

  • Select the headlights that produce a beam type that you want – spot, flood-wide, or flood spotlight.
  • Headlights are available in numerous designs. When choosing new headlights for your car, make sure that you select a design that not only looks good alone but also looks good on your car.
  • If you are planning on getting new LED headlights for your car, the color selection should be made as per your wishes. White light is an ideal option.
  • One of the most important considerations when getting the headlights of your car replaced is the cost. You will find car headlights in different price ranges. Select the one that falls within your budget. Selecting the cheapest option is not recommended.

To ensure the road safety of yourself and others, having the right headlights is very important. The headlights of your car have an impact on how well and how far you can see around. The wider the spread of light, the safer you and others are.

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