When seeking the best visibility for your daily drive, off-road vehicle or ATV, it pays to educate yourself on the latest LED technology, products and options. This comprehensive guide compares LEDs to other popular lighting technologies, tells you how they work and covers LED light bar applications.
You will learn how to compare quality LED light bars from cheaply made ones. Several informative LED light bar reviews are included also. After reading our ultimate guide, you’ll be able to make an informed purchase decision that matches your application and provides the best bang for your buck.
Best LED Light Bars For The Money
- 1 Best LED Light Bars For The Money
- 2 What is a LED Light Bar and Why Do You Need One?
- 3 LED Light Bar Applications
- 4 LED Light Bar Types
- 5 What Is a Cree LED Light Bar?
- 6 Flood, Spot or Combo – Which LED Light Bar Do I Need?
- 7 Factors to Consider When Evaluating the Best LED Light Bar
- 8 How to Distinguish a Quality LED Light Bar from Cheap Ones
- 9 LED Light Bar Brands – Who Makes the Best LED Light Bars?
- 10 Best LED Light Bars by Size
- 11 Tips on Choosing the Best LED Light Bar
- 12 How to Wire LED Light Bars?
- 13 LED Light Bar FAQ
- 14 Making Your Decision
What is a LED Light Bar and Why Do You Need One?
A light bar is a short or long array of high-luminosity LED lights. These supplement your vehicle’s stock headlamps. They provide a brighter, broader and penetrating beam of light ahead, behind or to the side. They provide a significant advantage for night driving or when illuminating trails, campsites or work areas.
Light Bar Applications
- Night Driving – Light bars can produce a dramatic difference in road visibility over the brightest stock headlights. By the way, you can check LED headlights for Jeep Wrangler. Those are not so powerful as light bars, but better than stock headlights!
- Emergency Lighting – A light bar is indispensable for lighting accident or breakdown scenes. Their brightness also alerts other drivers to trouble ahead.
- Backyards – A light bar will illuminate an entire yard for parties or cleanup activities. They make an excellent prowler deterrent.
- Boats – For increasing marine visibility and lighting landing sites or docks, light bars are ideal.
- Heavy equipment – Snow plows, graders and tractors find light bars essential in poorly lighted conditions.
- Off-Road – When taking your 4WD or ATV into the backcountry, a light bar is a must-have for hazard spotting or setting up campsites.
Different Types of Lamps
These are the most common automotive and commercial high intensity lamps:
- Tungsten-Vacuum Lights – A tungsten wire filament within a vacuum is heated by electricity causing the wire to emit light.
- Halogen Lights – A high-performance version of Tungsten-Vacuum lamps with a tungsten filament enclosed in halogen or iodine gas.
- HPS Lamps – High-Pressure and Low-Pressure Sodium lamps pass an electric arc through a gas mixture containing mostly sodium.
- HID Lamps – High Intensity Discharge lamps pass an electric arc through gas mixtures that also contain metal salts to form a high intensity plasma.
- LED Lamps – Light-Emitting Diodes are solid state devices that emit light when electrons pass to electron holes. Manufacturers double their efficiency about every 3 years.
Ordinary vacuum filament lamps were standard for cars from the 1930s until the 1990s, until more efficient lamps were developed. They are still used in directional signals and license plate lamps.
Pros / Cons
Halogen, or quartz-halogen, headlamps are the most common type of lamp found on cars today. They achieve a higher filament temperature than ordinary bulbs. They save fuel and manufacturing costs since wires, switches, and alternators can be smaller.
Pros / Cons
High-pressure sodium lamps are commonly used for street lighting. They are highly efficient because nearly all the light produced is within the human visual spectrum. Most lamps augment the sodium with mercury and use neon or argon for faster starting.
Pros / Cons
High-Intensity Discharge lamps improve on halogen lamps both in efficiency and life. Adjusting the mix of gas and salts produces different color temperatures. Since all the mixtures contain xenon gas, they are often referred to as xenon lamps. The xenon gas eliminates start-up flicker.
Pros / Cons
LEDs became practical for road illumination relatively recently but are now a highly efficient automotive lighting option. Modern cars use them extensively for road lights, direction signals and interior lighting.
Pros / Cons
Why We Recommend LEDs for Light Bars
If you can pardon the pun, LED lighting outshines its competition in many ways except for initial cost. For road and outdoor lighting, it offers long life and efficient light production, but there are additional advantages.
|Type||Lifespan Hrs.||Eff. lm/W||Color Temp||Color Render||Notes|
|LED||>20000||20-160||1100-9000||20-95||Higher initial cost|
What the Table above Measures
- The efficiency of a particular lamp technology is measured in lumens per watt, which tells you how much light you get for a given amount of electricity.
- Color temperature specifies where in the human visible light spectrum the light falls. A lower number indicates a warmer, yellowish light, whereas higher temperature produces a whiter or bluish light.
- Color render refers to the ability of a lamp to recreate natural colors at night.
As the table above demonstrates, LEDs, despite higher initial cost, are most cost-effective over their lifetime. They compare well in efficiency with HID lights and, depending on the color temperature chosen, can create nearly perfect rendering of colors. For better understanding, see some comparisons of light bulbs in household.
Other Advantages of LED Lights
- Instead of depending on a single bulb, a headlight or light bar consists of separate high-intensity lamps, which increases reliability.
- LEDs do not require a ballast or voltage conversion, since they run well at the normal 13.8 volts of most automotive systems. You can run them from portable generators too.
- They project their heat rearward, so the lenses are cool to the touch.
- LED headlamps and light bars, unlike filament lamps, stand up well to vibration and shocks.
LED Light Bar Applications
LED Light Bar Types
LED light bars may contain one LED or dozens. The LEDs within a single bar are usually the same size but power sizes and colors can be mixed. For example, a police vehicle light bar may contain white, amber, red and blue LEDs of various strengths. Some or all of these may flash.
Mini Light Bars
The smallest light bars are often referred to as light pods. They are used as side lights, work lights or portable spotlights. Cubes of 4 LEDs are regularly used as fog lamps.
Full-size Light Bars
The best LED light bar used for road or job site illumination has LEDs with a color temperature of 5000K, which simulates sunlight on a clear day. Custom reflectors or lenses spread, focus or diffuse the beam. Two or more beam angles are created in combo bars.
These light bars contain a single row of LEDs and are usually under 20 inches long. Their low profile makes them ideal for vehicle grill mounting.
The range of colors available for LEDs runs from deep red to hot blue. There are even LEDs that emit UV and IR light, which often find application at your dentist’s office or for trail cams, respectively.
In your search for the best LED light bar, you will come across the term Cree light bar. Cree refers to the LEDs in the light bar, not to the brand of light bar. All the light bars in this guide’s LED light bar reviews use a version of Cree LEDs.
Cree, Inc., located in North Carolina, manufactures these powerful, highly efficient LEDs. They are the highest quality, longest lasting, and most efficient LED lighting for homes, businesses and roadways.
The finest Cree LED light bars have an efficiency at the top end of the scale for LEDs approaching 120 raw lm/W. With proper current control, they have a lifespan over 50,000 hours. Unlike cheaply made LEDs, Cree LEDs do not fade early. Despite higher initial cost compared to other LEDs, in the long run they cost less to operate.
As an example, a popular light bar choice is a 20″ Cree LED light bar that contains 40 3-WCree LEDs. This runs at 120 watts and produces 9600 effective lumens.
Flood, Spot or Combo – Which LED Light Bar Do I Need?
Unlike standard screw-in home bulbs, which throw light out in all directions, LED light bars concentrate their light in one direction.
The way the light beam is formed depends on each LED’s reflector and the shape of the lens. Modern light bars use computer-aided designs to achieve specific lighting patterns.
The lighting pattern trade-off for light bars is between distance and beam width. For the same luminosity, more distance requires less beam width and vice versa. When a design favors a wider beam width, you have a flood light. More distance is achieved by narrowing the light beam into a spot pattern.
A flood LED light bar typically has between 40 and 120 degrees of beam width. Spots are around 10 to 30 degrees. Keep in mind that flood and spot degrees vary between different models of led light bars.
So which one is best? It depends on the application. Both are useful and a common choice is to buy one of each or purchase a combo bar that has spot and flood functions combined.
A combo works by assigning the jobs of the spot and the flood light to different sections of the light bar. It can do this by dividing flood and spot reflectors along the bar’s length or by splitting the functions between rows. The best LED light bar of one manufacturer allows you to custom design your flood to spot ratio with swappable reflectors.
Factors to Consider When Evaluating the Best LED Light Bar
Light Bar Length
Enclosed LED light bars typically come in the following lengths: 4 inch led light pod, 6 inch led light bar, 10 inch led light bar, 20 inch led light bar, 24 inch led light bar, 30 inch led light bar, 36 inch led light bar, 40 inch led light bar, 50 inch led light bar.
Light bars can be round, rectangular or square. Round ones are able to fit more LEDs in a smaller area and may complement your vehicle’s design better than square lights.
As discussed previously, the beam angle dictates the width and depth of the area of illumination. For driving, deeper penetration is usually better and to light up work sites a wide angle works well.
Two types of waterproof connectors are used on quality LED light bars, which are referred to as ATP or DT connectors. Both types are made from thermoplastic and have IP ratings of IP67 or above. They operate within a wide temperature range and use corrosion-resistant contacts and silicone seals. They accommodate several wire sizes.
Lumens per watt, or lm/W, measures the efficiency of a single LED or an entire LED light bar. This is a good, though not perfect, indicator as to the quality of the LEDs in the light bar. Higher efficiency LEDs have a longer life and resist fading. Manufacturers can fudge this number by measuring lumens at a voltage lower than the normal 13.8 VDC found in most vehicles.
For LED light bars, brightness is expressed in lumens. Measuring lamps in watts became obsolete when different lighting technologies came to market. The lumen indicates how much human visible light a device outputs. However, some light bar makers list their lights in raw lumens, which is the theoretical maximum, instead of effective lumens, which is a true measure of light output. A rule of thumb is to convert raw lumens to effective lumens by multiplying the former by 0.8.
LED Color Temperature
Correlated Color Temperature, or CCT, specifies where a lamp’s output falls in the visible light spectrum. The unit of measurement is on the Kelvin temperature scale. Thus, a particular lamp’s temperature is a number followed by a K, such as 5000K.
Cooler light temperatures are at the red end of the spectrum but are perceived by humans as “warm,” whereas higher temperatures are seen as “cool.” LEDs can produce light all over this scale, from about 1000K to 9000K, but only a small range is useful for an LED light bar.
Since the sun on a clear day produces light in the range of 5000K to 5400K, that range is excellent for night driving because human eyes evolved to work well in that range. Above that, around 6000K, the light may appear brighter, but your eyes work harder to recognize terrain, which induces eye fatigue. However, LEDs running at higher CCT are more energy efficient than at lower color temperatures.
Color temperatures in the yellow part of the spectrum are ideal for fog lights because of significantly reduced backscatter from the water droplets. Other temperatures that produce blue, amber, red or green are important for LED lights being used for alert signals.
Water and Dust Resistance
Manufacturers have adopted an IEC standard known as the IP Code, where IP stands for Ingress Protection. Good LED light bars carry an IP rating to indicate resistance to dust and water entering the light.
All you need to be concerned with regarding IP ratings are two numbers. The first, on a scale of 0 to 6, indicates the light bar’s resistance to dust penetration and the second number indicates resistance to water intrusion on a scale of 0 to 8, plus a special 9K rating. You see these numbers preceded by “IP.” For example, a light bar may have a rating of IP67, meaning it is completely sealed against dust and can stand immersion in one meter of water for 30 minutes.
These are typical IP ratings found on LED light bars:
Light Bar Operating Voltage
Most, not all, LED light bars are made to run within the 13.8 DC voltage supplied by most cars or trucks without modification to the light bar or your vehicle’s electrical system.
For instance, it is common to see “9–30 VDC” or “10-70 VDC” as the bar’s input voltage range. These mean that you can operate the LEDs in a 12V, 24V or 48V system as long as that voltage falls within the specified range for the light bar.
Do not get the idea that if you apply more voltage that the LEDs should give off more light. The amount of light an LED gives off is determined by current, not voltage. The current at each LED is maintained within a narrow range by a device known as an LED Driver.
Without an LED driver, your light bar’s color temperature and brightness would vary considerably. Sometimes, you see in LED light bar reviews owners who apply higher voltage to brighten their lights. Unfortunately, this is an indication that cheap LED drivers were used and this will shorten light bar lifespan.
The most sophisticated LED light bars have LED drivers that use Pulse Width Modulation to control LED current. There are also available external PWM units that effectively do the same thing for LED light bars without built-in PWM.
A PWM adjusts the energy frequency applied to the LED. It turns the LED off and on at a high, controlled rate within milliseconds. The rate is well above what the human eye can detect, so there is no flickering effect. This technology offers several benefits:
There are additional features you should keep in mind when evaluating LED light bar products:
How to Distinguish a Quality LED Light Bar from Cheap Ones
With so many manufacturers of LED light bars, evaluating your options can be confusing. Hopefully, through reading this guide, you will come to understand the various electronic, mechanical and operating features common to most light bars. The next question is how to determine which LED light bars will give you the best service over their lifetime.
The following characteristics may be difficult to discern if you cannot physically handle a light bar, but often LED light bar reviews from owners can help determine them:
- The number one enemy of LEDs is heat. A quality light bar will have oversize heat sinks and tight current control.
- If possible, check the operation of a light bar you are considering under different voltage inputs. If the LEDs brighten noticeably as voltage rises, this is a sign of poor LED drivers.
- Look closely at mounting points and brackets. The best LED light bar has sturdy, corrosion-proof mounting hardware and provide options for mounting the bar in different locations.
- Check the IP rating. At a minimum, it must be IP65. IP69K is the highest rating, but few light bars achieve that. Make sure the electrical connectors are IP-rated.
- A wide product line from 3″ light pods up to 50″ bars and plenty of accessories are signs of a quality light bar manufacturer.
- Most importantly, check the warranty. Top LED light bar makers back their products with lifetime or near-lifetime guarantees. Be sure to check the fine print for exclusions.
LED Light Bar Brands – Who Makes the Best LED Light Bars?
That is a question without a definitive answer due to the multitude of customer preferences for specific price points, features and applications. This guide has selected seven well-known makers of quality LED light bars to help you decide who makes the best LED product for you.
Black Oak LED
Black Oak LED is challenging the status quo in the high-end LED light bar industry to the benefit of consumers. They are proving to everyone that building a top quality, durable, reliable LED light bar with exceptional performance can be done without charging sky-high prices.
Black Oak’s high standards in build and performance come at prices half what competitors charge for equivalent products.
Every Black Oak lighting product comes with a turnkey, IP69K wiring harness that includes cable, relay, fuse and switch. No other maker of LED light bars makes a better product at the value prices that Black Oak offers. Most products receive a further 15 percent discount for military, police and fire organizations.
Rigid Industries began producing LED light bars in 2006 and have since become an industry leader with top-rated lighting products made in the USA at their Arizona plant. Their lights are well-rated among off-road enthusiasts. With their acquisition by Penske, they have entered the heavy-duty equipment and commercial vehicle market segments as well.
Rigid also offers Hi/Lo function light bars, infrared lights and dual color light bars in their ever-expanding catalog.
Vision X LED light bar products are produced in two locations. Design and engineering takes place in the USA, while manufacturing is done at their Asian headquarters. They have built a reputation for the high-quality lights that have been tested by NASA and are in use by military organizations due to their uncompromising solutions. They also make HID and halogen lighting products.
Based in San Marcos, CA, Baja Designs has made a name for itself as the “scientists of lighting.”
Pros / Cons
KC HiLiTES Light Bars
KC HiLiTES has been offering high-performance lighting for off-road vehicles since 1974 and are one of the better known brands for halogen, HID and LED lighting.
They operate out of California and offer a full-range of light bar sizes including many made specifically for Jeeps.
Pros / Cons
Lazer Star Lights
Lazer Star Lights is a division of Weekend Concepts, Inc. They have made LED light bars since 1992 for automotive and power sports enthusiasts.
Pros / Cons
Cosmoblaze is an Australian light manufacturer and distributor that develops extremely tough LED light bars. They are one of two manufacturers reviewed here who have lights that achieve IP69K.
Pros / Cons
Best LED Light Bars by Size
This dual-row 10 inch LED light bar from Black Oak LED is the most energetic, assertive illumination you can buy anywhere. The build quality matches or exceeds that from any other manufacturer on the planet. If you want the brightest, toughest LED light bar that is budget-friendly, this is it.
This D-Series 10-inch light offers three beam patterns: Spot, Flood or Combo. You control flight output by choosing either ultra-bright 3W or ludicrous-bright 5W OSRAM LEDs. The latter delivers an industry-leading 11,000 raw lumens of night-to-day 6000K illumination.
Regardless of how you mount this power-packed light bar and the jolts and environmental conditions to which you subject it, it keeps on shining. It owns the highest moisture and dust intrusion rating of IP69K.
The nearly indestructible aluminum housing withstand harsh impacts, while the optically clear, scratch-resistant, polycarbonate lens is virtually unbreakable. A custom neoprene seal and generous application of stainless steel fasteners ensure no moisture penetrates even during submersion.
Black Oak is making an enormous impact in the LED light bar market with lights built to the highest standards with competition-busting pricing.
This 10-inch D-Series light bar features the finest circuitry, highest-efficiency optics, brightest and longest-lasting LEDs plus a torture-proof housing. These lights are crazy bright and designed to stay that way for the life of your vehicle. This light bar also comes as a 10-inch curved light bar and a 10-inch linear marine light bar.
Black Oak is the new LED light bar market leader with top-quality builds, super-bright, long-lasting LEDs and hugely competitive pricing.
The Black Oak LED 10-inch light bar fits all vehicle types in dozens of applications. It absolutely provides the highest value in LED illumination and durability bar none.
This pair of Rigid Dually Floodlights feature patented hybrid optics, an unbreakable polycarbonate lens, and Rigid’s well-known rugged housing and coatings.
These will outshine your normal headlights with a broad beam. They come with Rigid’s 3-year warranty and an expected lifespan of 50,000 hours plus.
This single, 8-LED 6″ light bar features a 15 degree, medium range beam suitable for on or off-road driving. A pair of these draws 4 amps and puts out 100 lumens more than a 35 W HID lamp.
You can order the housing in black, chrome or white. At 3″ tall, it mounts in spaces that other lights of comparable luminosity cannot.
This 10-inch light bar is powerful enough to stand by itself on the hood, bumper or grill of your vehicle. It features a rugged enclosure rated at IP67. With the option of either white or amber LEDs, this light bar is an excellent choice for mid-range illumination of the road ahead.
This Australian LED light is a premium light for trucks, off-road vehicles and heavy equipment. It features 40 US-Made 3-W Cree LEDS arranged in two rows.
Low current draw is achieved with high-efficiency LED drivers and 97 percent input power to the LEDs. The heat sinks are double-sized to ensure the LEDs exceed their expected 50,000 hours of operation.
This bar comes in spot, flood or combo configurations with a single row of 12 10-watt Cree SM-L LEDs. It is encased in an aluminum housing with a polycarbonate lens. Each bar has dual power inputs that allow daisy-chaining multiple light bars.
Rigid’s single row product line consists of 3-watt Cree LEDs in a low-profile extruded aluminum case.
It includes their patented hybrid optics that utilize computer-designed reflectors and front lenses that shape the combo beam.
It draws under 9 amps and just under 120 watts to produce 2200 lux at 10 meters.
Eyourlife makes LED light bars for the budget buyer. Their 36″ combo light bar features a quartz lens with high light transmission.
They use a channel mount, which allows positioning the mounting brackets anywhere along the length of the bar.
These clamp to the bar with two bolts each. Like their other lights, these feature a cool white 6000K temperature and an IP68 intrusion rating.
The Vision X Xtreme LED puts out almost 100 raw lumens per inch from 5-watt Cree LEDs. The build quality is excellent, rugged, dustproof and waterproof.
Their Prime Drive integrated electronic thermal management, a PWM system, provides tight current management and long LED life. The PX7240 is the 40-degree flood version, whereas the PX7210 is a 10-degree spotlight bar.
With 26,000 effective lumens from 30 Cree XM-L2 LEDs, there is nothing in the darkness out of its reach. A racer at 100 MPH will not outrun the spotlight.
It is one of a few light bars with an impressive IP69K rating. It features Baja Design’s uService® replaceable lenses and optics, CopperDrive thermal management and a 5000K natural daylight color.
Tips on Choosing the Best LED Light Bar
Obviously, LED light bars are not created equally. Their differences include available options, brightness, light color, beam width, heat management, and mounting technology, just to name a few. To reduce potential confusion, start with determining your specific light bar needs.
How Much Light Do You Need?
Most 20″ LED light bars provide more than enough light for good or inclement weather when driving on paved roads. Consider starting with a couple of low-mounted 4″ or 6″ floodlight bars, which will dramatically increase road visibility. If you do a lot of off-road night driving, then larger light bars, up to 50 inches, are useful.
On most cars, your mounting options are somewhat limited, so low-profile light bars make sense especially for grill mounting. Trucks can mount light bars on the roof, rack, hood or grill, so size and profile are less important.
How to Wire LED Light Bars?
Here are a few important tips on how to wire your LED light bar yourself:
- First, disconnect your vehicle’s or equipment’s battery. Remove the negative/ground clamp first to avoid shorting to the vehicle’s chassis.
- Use automotive grade wire designated as GPT, GXL or TXL. GPT is the most common.
- Use the correct wire gauge. Too large a gauge wastes money but an AWG too small risks overheating the wire, which might lead to a panic-inducing fire. Google a gauge-to-amperes table, which includes how many feet you can run before you need a thicker wire.
- For big draw light bars, you need large gauge wires, e.g., 6 or 8 AWG. To avoid long runs of thick cable, use a relay between battery and switch. Then you can run lighter gauge to the relay and heavier wires from there to the light.
- Keep wire lengths short as possible and utilize standard wire colors: black for negative, red for positive and yellow from a relay to a switch.
It is true that you could buy 2 or more less expensive light bars for the price of a quality one. However, do you really want to risk light bar failure when you need it the most? Reliability and performance come at a cost.
That said, you can make a rough assessment of a manufacturer’s or distributor’s product quality by looking at three things:
- Length of warranty and warranty terms
- The breadth of their product line including accessories
- Reviews from people who actually use their products
Where Can I Buy an LED Light Bar?
There is probably no better way to make a personal assessment of LED light bars than to get your hands on several of them and judge for yourself their build quality and performance attributes. Do this by visiting local shops that carry the brands in which you are interested. Most shops have cutaway demo models so you can examine the insides, especially the heat sink and current limiting technology.
Before you buy a light bar at your local shop, however, be sure to check the manufacturer’s web site or online outlets such as Amazon or large automotive accessory distributors. These often have specials or large discounts that local shops cannot meet.
LED Light Bar FAQ
Making Your Decision
Hopefully, this guide has answered all or most of your questions about how LED light bars work, what kinds of features to look for and how to judge which model is best for your application. The LED light bar reviews here are good examples of the variety of products you can expect to find.
The good news is that if you are shopping for an LED light bar that there are plenty of manufacturers, styles, and capabilities to suit any need. The bad news is that too much choice can lead to decision paralysis.
If you are new to LED light bars and cannot take advantage of the advice of friends who already have them, then the best route is to start with smaller, less expensive light bars to get a feel for their capabilities. Also, study LED light bar reviews carefully. Finding manufacturers who offer 30-day hassle-free returns will minimize your risk.
More confident consumers, with this guide and some additional personal research, will be able to find the qualities and capabilities that fit within their budget more easily on the first try.
Whichever type of consumer you are, do your research and take advantage of the many online reviews available to make an informed decision.