Car Headlight: Different Types of Headlights or Bulbs

Car Headlight

Car Headlights are one of the most essential parts of the car when driving down a dark and dingy road. Headlights help you navigate the road at night and improve visibility in bad weather conditions. Suffice it to say, having properly functioning headlights is vital to your safety on the road. A failing headlight should be fixed as soon as possible to keep your vehicle both legal and safe.

Headlight technology has come a long way from Carbide lamps used in the early days of cars to laser lights of the modern era. If you’re looking for a replacement or an upgrade, in this article we discuss the different types of headlights available on the market today.

Types of Car Headlights or Headlight Bulbs

There are seven different types of headlight and headlight bulbs are used:

  • Reflector Headlights
  • Projector Beam Headlights
  • H4 Conversions
  • Halogen Headlights
  • HID Headlights
  • LED Headlights
  • Laser Headlights

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.

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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.

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 Headlights

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 possibility 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.

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

  • 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.

4. Halogen Headlights

Halogen lights contain a filament or a pair of filaments on single bulbs that provide both bright and dim headlamp function, but there is pressurized gas rather than a vacuum within the bulb.

The bulb filaments are tungsten and the glass envelope is pressurized with inert gas and a small amount of chemically reactive halogen gas, usually, iodine or bromine, which allows halogen bulbs to burn brighter and longer without blackening the inside of the bulb. Some halogen bulbs have a blue coating to make them appear brighter than they are.

Most modern headlights use halogen bulbs. Some sealed beam replacements for older vehicles with glass even have halogen capsules built into the glass sealed beam casing rather than the original type of filament.

If one of those earlier sealed beam units gets breached by a rock, the vacuum within the sealed beam lamp will be lost and those old-style filaments will oxidize and burn out almost immediately. With the halogen capsule providing the light, a small rock hole in the lens facing doesn’t matter.

  • Pros: Halogen bulbs don’t cost much to manufacture and are usually less than $20 per bulb to replace, but you need to buy a good name brand – some brands may burn out within a month. They’re pretty easily replaced on most vehicles. Some vehicles may require removing parts from the engine compartment area or perhaps the splash shield.
  • Cons: Standard halogen headlights burn with a slight yellowish hue that measures at roughly 3,000 Kelvin on the color temperature scale. There are some bulb manufacturers that make 3,400 to 4200 Kelvin Halogen bulbs, but those aren’t street legal in most places.
  • Typical lifespan: These bulbs burn hot, giving them a somewhat shorter service life (450 to 1,000 hours) than other headlight bulbs.
  • Average cost: $10 to $20 for a bulb, and as low as $100 for a pair of headlight assemblies.

5. LED Headlights

LED (Light-Emitting Diode) headlight bulbs illuminate by a long fancy term called electroluminescence, which basically means electrons are fired towards positively charged holes in a semiconductor, thus they release energy as photons, which are particles of light.

The same technology is now prevalent on dashboard lights and screen consoles. LED lights have also been used for indicator lights on appliances, bright flashlights, as well as a growing number of vehicle stop lamps, tail lamps, interior lamps, and home lighting. In other words, LED lights are used just about everywhere these days.

  • Pros: LED bulbs are basically small semiconductors that can be arranged to fit tight spaces. This makes it possible for manufacturers to come up with sleeker headlight designs and allows more flexibility in styling other assembly components, such as turn signal lights. LEDs can be designed to emit any color of the spectrum. They can produce a bright, white light that illuminates up to a mile ahead without blinding oncoming traffic. LED lights usually range from 4,000 to 6,000 Kelvin on the color scale.
  • Cons: The cost of LED headlights is typically higher than their halogen counterparts. This is because the structure of their assembly is a little bit different due to the heat sink that must be built into the lights to prevent the base-emitter from overheating.
  • Typical lifespan: 10,000 to 30,000 hours (some sources put the life at 5,000 hours). Compared to halogen headlights, LED bulbs run cool and don’t produce as much heat. This gives them longer hours of illumination which, in some cases, could span the entire service life of a vehicle.
  • Average cost: $100 for a bulb, and $600 to $1,300 for a pair of headlight assemblies.
car headlight bulbs effects

6. Xenon/HID Headlights

Xenon, otherwise known as High-Intensity Discharge or HID lights, is a type of headlight that is commonly installed on higher-end vehicles. These headlights contain a combination of xenon and argon gases mixed with vaporized metals that emit an extremely bright light. There are conversion kits available from some aftermarket sources to upgrade to Xenon/HID headlights.

  • Pros: HID headlights emit light in a bluish-white hue (4,000-6,000 Kelvin) which typically provides a greater (farther) range of illumination.
  • Cons: Xenon or HID headlights have a delay of several seconds before reaching maximum output. Also, they can be too bright and may blind oncoming drivers. Another possible issue is that the bluish-white glare can impair the other driver’s vision in the dark. Since their light is so focused, you may not see anything else outside the headlights’ field of illumination. This can make it harder to park, switch lanes, or cross intersections.
  • Typical lifespan: 2,000 to 10,000 hours. HID headlights can last for years because they have no filament that can burn out.
  • Average cost: $100 per bulb, and $350 to $1,400 for a pair of headlight assemblies.

7. Laser headlights

Laser headlights are a recent innovation in automotive lighting technology. These lights illuminate through the process of chemiluminescence, which means they produce light by triggering a chemical reaction.

Laser beams are shot through a chamber which causes the phosphorus gas inside to glow. What you see in front of your vehicle is the light coming from the gas, and not the laser beams themselves.

In other words, within the headlight unit, the lasers shine onto mirrors that reflect onto a lens filled with a special gas to create a strong light beam.

  • Pros: Laser headlights are more efficient than LED bulbs. They can produce 1,000x the amount of light for half the amount of energy that LEDs consume. They are also 10x smaller than the latter, which allows manufacturers to design a shallower assembly. They are far-reaching, have good adaptability, and can easily be switched on/off as well.
  • Cons: While they can produce lighter, they also produce more heat than LEDs. This means the assembly requires more sophisticated built-in cooling systems. Also, they are only currently available for use in high beams, which means they must be paired with regular halogen, LED, or HID headlights. While BMW and Audi have started using these in select models, they were only approved for use in the U.S. recently. Compared to other headlight types, these lights are very expensive and could set you back thousands of dollars.
  • Typical lifespan: 50,000 hours. Laser headlights require very low energy input which allows them to work for a very long time.
  • Average cost: $8,000 to 12,000.