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What's the Difference Between Xenon and LED Headlights?

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author photo by Doug DeMuro August 2015

If you're thinking about buying a new or used car, you may have noticed that some models offer a choice between Xenon and LED headlights. While Xenons have been around for a while, LEDs are relatively new -- but they're quickly sweeping the automotive industry, with several manufacturers adding the lights to their product lineups. So what's the difference between them? Which one is best? And which one should you get? Our latest article answers all your questions.

Xenons vs. LEDs: What's the Difference?

Although we'll spare you the technical details, a simplified explanation of the main difference between LED headlights and Xenons (sometimes called high-intensity discharge lights, or HIDs) is this: Xenon headlights are essentially very bright, ultraintense versions of normal light blubs, while LEDs use an entirely different process to create light -- one that relies on diodes and electrons rather than a filament and gas.

Because of their differences, the two types of lights have some advantages and disadvantages compared to one another. LEDs hold almost all the advantages, including size (they're smaller, which allows them to be fitted more easily in car designs), lifespan (they last longer) and energy consumption (they use very little). Not surprisingly, however, LEDs are a lot more expensive to make than Xenons -- and that's why many automakers have been holding off on using the technology until recently.

Which Is Best?

If you're looking for the best possible illumination, we think LEDs usually outshine their Xenon headlight rivals. Of course, it depends on exactly how many LEDs are present -- but most modern cars with LED lighting technology seem to offer better illumination, a warmer light and an illuminated area that's a little larger than it is in most cars with Xenons.

With that said, Xenon lighting technology has come very far over the years -- and Xenons aren't exactly low on light. In most popular cars using Xenons today, the overall illumination would probably fall just short of LEDs -- if you can tell the difference at all. And while LEDs will last longer than Xenons, both will last for many years -- likely longer than most drivers will own their vehicles.

Which Should You Get?

If you have the opportunity to buy a car with LED headlights at roughly the same price as a model with Xenon lights, we suggest going for the LEDs. They use less energy, they offer slightly better illumination, and they'll last longer. But if the cost is dramatically more, we'd probably skip it. That's because Xenon headlights are also excellent -- and we'd have a hard time justifying a big price increase to get LEDs, given their relatively few benefits. As LEDs become cheaper to make, however, expect to see them in a wider range of vehicles.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
What's the Difference Between Xenon and LED Headlights? - Autotrader