Review: 4 high-power LED headlights
By Adam Newman and Justin Steiner. Photos by Justin Steiner.
As the darkness of winter descends, it’s great having a high-powered light that can keep you riding year-round. There is no doubt LED lighting is now the standard, and the arms race of higher and higher lumen ratings seems to only be accelerating as prices fall and output rises.
Each of these lights falls into the 1,600-2,000 lumen range (with one significant outlier) and has more than enough power to light any trail. The benefit to the huge output isn’t that you NEED that much light, but you can operate them on medium or even low for far longer than previous generations of lights could run on high.
We gathered four of the latest at the higher end of the market for a group test. Here’s how they compared, in alphabetical order. The photos on the trail were taken with a bike placed at 15 yards for scale.
Cateye Sumo 3
The Sumo 3 light sits at the top of CatEye’s rechargeable LED range. As you might guess, it packs three LEDs in an aluminum housing with an external Lithium Ion battery.
Operation is handled with a simple button on the back of the headlight unit and has a simple menu to cycle through the settings (high, medium, low, flashing) as well as a colored light to indicate battery level.
Cateye lists its lights’ outputs in candlepower, instead of lumens, but they told us the Sumo 3 is about 1,600 lumens on high. The light pattern was in the middle of the wide/narrow range of the lights included here, a good all-purpose beam. Then again, these are all very powerful lights and I was able to ride on medium with no trouble.
One drawback to the Cateye system is the size of the head unit and the batteries. The batteries are a bit bulky—approximately 6x2x2 inches, though they have a curved, rubbery surface and with the included Velcro straps they attach to your frame easily and stay put. The head unit and batteries have taken a beating with no issues, and even an overnight rain soaking with no problems.
Included are mounts for handlebars and helmet—a nice touch. The handlebar mount is a very sturdy, quick release design.
In all, the Sumo 3 doesn’t jump out as having the most wiz-bang features or highest output, but it’s extremely well made and should be a solid performer for years of use.
Exposure Six Pack Mk2
Exposure has been building high quality bike lights in the UK since 2005 and the Six Pack is one of the biggest guns in its arsenal. Designed with battery life, as well as high output, in mind, it can keep you riding longer with fewer charges. The run-time is rated at anywhere from three to 24 hours depending on use.
Because all Exposure lights are designed as self-contained systems rather than with external batteries, building a light as big as the Six Pack is going to take up some serious handlebar real estate. The CNC-machined, weatherproof housing is almost the size of a beer can. It holds six Cree LEDs and the lithium-ion battery.
The Six Pack Mk2 does look a bit off-putting when mounted on your cockpit, but the aluminum, quick-release handlebar mount is more than up to the task of keeping it in place. In fact, it’s probably the nicest quick-release mount I’ve ever used.
That big body packs some serious technology as well. The patented Smart Port allows users to add rear lights, remote switches, backup power supplies, and can even charge other USB devices. Charging the unit’s own batteries is handled via an included AC adapter or from a USB source.
With nearly 2,000 lumens on tap, the Six Pack Mk2 has a condensed center beam area with a dimmer spread. Compared to the other lights in the test, it has more of a spotlight pattern. It would be great as a helmet light, but it’s simply too bulky, in my opinion. Running it on medium was more than enough to light the way, and preserve run times. The colored LED button on the rear of the unit also serves as a fuel gauge, letting you keep tabs on how much light you have left.
I’m especially impressed with the quality of not just the unit itself but the mounting bracket. You might even find one on sale now that the third generation Mk3 model is out with a slight bump in brightness and a drop in weight.
The Six Pack Mk2 earned some criticism for it’s looks and size, but not having an external battery makes it much easier to use. If you use your light for commuting or road riding as well as mountain biking, the Six Pack is worth a look.
Correction: The price listed in this review was incorrect. The correct MSRP is $599.
Light & Motion Seca 1700 Race
Designed and built on the Califorina coast, Light & Motion recently revamped its venerable Seca series with 1,700 lumens and two battery options. We tested the lighter Race version that ships with a battery with three Lithium Ion cells, rather than the Endurance version with six cells. Not surprisingly, the Seca was the lightest unit in our test, but we were surprised with its impressive output.
To keep the weight down, the head unit has a plastic housing and a simple rubber strap to attach it to the bars. Inside, it houses six LEDs that project a broad beam that can cover the sides of the trail or around turns well. Light & Motion believes that not all lumens are created equal, and though it lags slightly behind the Exposure in total output, the beam pattern is far more useful.
Like the other lights, the medium setting is more than enough for most riding conditions, and has a claimed runtime of 2:45. If you prefer running your light on your helmet, the Seca would be a great choice, but you would have to source your own universal mount. The battery unit is nice and small though—about half the size of the Niterider’s and CatEye’s.
The Seca 1,700 Race won us over with its simplicity, excellent light pattern, low weight, and competitive price.
Niterider Pro 3600
Niterider’s Pro 3600 is the undoubted flagship of the NiteRider lineup. It utilizes two symmetric beams, which are broadcast by three CREE XML LEDs each. The basic construction of light and charger carries over from the previous Pro lights, so I’ve been able to charge the new battery with my old Niterider charger and vise versa.
Despite putting out three times the output of the Niterider Pro 1200 I reviewed two years ago, run time on high is just 40 percent less—down from 2:30 on high to 1:30. On paper, I thought that decrease in burn time was a step backward, but soon found the light’s 1,800-lumen middle setting to provide a significant bump in usable light output while burning 3:30. More output + longer burn times = fewer worries about running out of battery life!
With the old 1200, I often found myself wanting to run both the spot and flood beam, but yearned for longer burn times. Using NiteRider’s in-house-designed DIY software (PC only) I was able to set both beams to come on at less than 100 percent power to achieve my desired settings. NiteRider listened to customer feedback with the 3600, however, which offers three settings in stock trim; 1,000-lumen “low,” 1,800-lumen “medium”, and 3,600-lumen “high” settings.
Cranked up to high I was able to descend at full speed with confidence similar to that of harnessing the sun’s power on your handlebar. In short, it’s overkill for slow sections of trail, but absolutely confidence inspiring at speed. For most of my riding, I found the 1,800-lumen setting to be more than sufficiently bright, only cranking full power for the downhills. Out on the roadway, even the 1,800-lumen setting caused drivers to flash their high beams and communicate via disapproving scowls.
Of course, if you desire settings that differ from the stock setup, you can utilize the aforementioned DIY software to devise up to four alternate programs, which you can select on the fly.
As NiteRider’s highest output light the Pro 3600 is clearly their pride and joy. As you might expect, this baby carries a flagship-worthy pricetag of $700. A more budget-friendly Pro 1800 Race offers half the light output (still plenty) and half the asking price.
|Light & Motion Seca 1700 Race||Exposure Six Pack Mk II||CatEye Sumo 3||NiteRider Pro 3600 LED|
|Claimed output (in lumens)||1,700||1,925||1,600||3,600|
|Modes||High, medium, low, flash||High, medium, low, flash||High, medium, low, flash||Custom, including flash|
|Claimed run time||
|1:30 to 36:00 based on custom settings|
|Included mounts||Handlebar||Handlebar||Handlebar, helmet||Handlebar, helmet|
|Number of LEDs||6||6||3||6|
|Battery type||External Li-Ion||Internal Li-Ion||External Li-Ion||External Li-Ion|
|Claimed recharge time||6:00||NA||5:00||5:00|
|Charger type||Wall outlet||Wall outlet, proprietary USB||Wall outlet||Wall outlet|
|Battery level indicator||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Country of Origin||USA||UK||Japan||USA|
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