Should I upgrade my car’s headlights? Xenon, LED, HID Compared

Show us ya headlamps. No, not those ones. Headlights are one of the most important bits on your car, so is it worth upgrading them?

Every bloke in a ute these days seems to have an LED light bar attached, and every car seems to have white and bright headlights. So, what’s that all about? If you’re looking around at others on the road, and wondering what makes their headlights so good, here’s where to start.

What types of headlights are there?

There are quite a few types of headlights out there, including:

Standard: Probably what you think of when you think of ‘headlight’. The standard was developed more than 100 years ago. Simply put, they have a forward-facing bulb in a reflective box. They used to use incandescent bulbs, but now halogen bulbs are commonly used as they offer longer life and better brightness.

Projector Beam: While they sound cool, projector beam headlights are essentially a standard headlight with the addition of a rear-facing bulb. This bulb illuminates the reflective case, which can aid in enhanced visibility.

Halo: Think of an angel’s halo, and it’s basically that but on a lightbulb. Halo lights surround a projector beam, which can make the car look futuristic. However, form can trump function with these ones, as they may not be as bright as other variants. A 10/10 for aesthetics though.

HID: Stands for ‘high intensity discharge’. As the name suggests they provide the highest-level of visibility in a headlight, and if you’ve been annoyed by someone in your rear-view mirror, chances are they’re using HIDs. Also known as ‘xenon’ headlights, if fitted aftermarket, they could be illegal in some states, so do your homework.

LED: LEDs, like the same lights featured in TVs and other technology, are some of the more energy efficient lights available. LEDs are essentially tiny lights that can be bundled together. The end result is that they can be grouped into cool designs. They usually trend towards the brighter, and cooler end of the spectrum.

Laser: Laser headlights are one of the newer headlight technologies out there. They are able to put out a lot more light, yet remain very energy efficient. Due to the way the technology works, the reflected light is safe to be looked at directly, unlike other headlights. They can also shape around objects and selectively light up specific areas, and constantly adapt.

Audi Digital Matrix LED headlights: functions

Are upgraded headlights road legal?

Many newer and more fancy cars have brighter HID lights that look good, and illuminate the road like nothing else. However, upgrading to them aftermarket may might not be exactly road legal, depending on your state’s laws. For example, Queensland does not permit HID headlight conversions. Daytime running light conversions may be permitted.

However, if your vehicle comes in a higher trim with HIDs fitted as standard, a proper installation on your model could be okay. For HIDs to be road-legal, the lights will need to be compatible with the necessary self-levelling system, and any headlight washers.

Installing an LED light bar

Want to blind other motorists and act like you’re king of the Outback, even though you’re in downtown Toorak? The federal legislation, called the Australian Design Rules, stipulates that a car can have four additional lamps. An LED light bar is considered just one lamp, despite all the different LEDs on it. It’s generally required that LED light bars not protrude ‘dangerously’ – for example, on top of a bullbar. However, state legislation could differ, but it appears all states permit at least one additional light fitting. As always, legislation can change at the drop of a hat, so check in with your state’s regulations regularly.

The cost of new headlights

New headlight bulbs themselves can come pretty cheap. However, when upgrading, you’ll also have to consider the cost of potentially upgrading the housing in which they sit. This includes reflectors and also making sure the upgrades are compliant. Things are more labour-intensive if you have to remove the headlight assembly from the vehicle, and the costs can add up if you’re getting an auto electrician or the dealership to do it for you. The cost can be as varied as around $20 for a new headlight globe, to hundreds or even in the thousands for a premium vehicle for an entirely new assembly.

Should I upgrade my headlights?

If you’ve got an older car with dimmer globes that look yellowed and out of date, it’s tempting to upgrade. However, you’ll have to consider a couple things. First, is if it’s even legal in your state to upgrade to a type of headlight that did not come standard with your vehicle. Second, is to think about the potential increase in load on the battery more powerful headlights can cause. This can shorten the battery’s life, and also make operating other accessories a harder task.

If your headlights are looking a little dull, first consider putting in new globes, then cleaning the housing and headlight lenses. This can go a long way in fixing dim headlights without having to resort to costly replacements. If you have old headlight covers that have turned yellow, it’s also worth giving them a clean with toothpaste (seriously) – it gets them looking minty fresh in no time. As they say, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.