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Best car headlight bulbs 2023

Our annual test has expanded to cover even more cars

The shrinking number of producers making the latest high-performance halogen bulbs has allowed us to also include HID gas discharge lamps in our annual test.

For the halogen lamps we returned to the double-filament dip and main-beam H4 - we tested the former - and sought out those promising 200 per cent more light somewhere in the beam. To ensure we test what’s in the stores, we bought bulbs from Philips, Twenty20, Osram and its subsidiary Ring, which also supplies the same lamps to Halfords for the store’s own-brand and exclusive Ring Pro lines.

Our last HID (high-intensity discharge) test was in 2018, when we assessed D1S lamps. Environmental concerns over the mercury they contained have seen the focus switch to D3S since then, making it the biggest seller in the aftermarket, with growing sales as cars fitted with them reach the end of the five-year life of the lamps. For our test, we assessed a mix of standard and performance versions.

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So which are the ones to see you safely through the dark days of winter? We headed to Ring’s light lab in Leeds to find out.

How we tested them

Instead of a conventional light tunnel, Ring uses a specially prepared wall and a high-definition camera originally designed to spot dead pixels in tablet screens. 

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Bulbs are placed in a headlamp - a reflector type from a Fiat 500X for halogen bulbs, projector from an Audi A3 for HID -  allowed to burn in to settle output, then an image is taken of the beam pattern on the wall. 

Software then measures the light at various points in the beam. It’s an unusual, if not unique, set-up, but the results have been corroborated by tests at parent company Osram’s conventional light tunnel in Germany, which we have used in the past.

The tests were the same for both types, despite the different light sources: filament for the halogen and an arc between electrodes for HID.

We measured the area of the beam at more than 30 lux, beam reach above three lux, plus the brightest spot. Our figure of merit (FOM) was also calculated using levels at 50 metres in front of the car on the kerb and in the centre of the road, plus twice the hard-to-reach 75-metre roadside mark. We also checked light output to ensure that the samples complied with ECE regulations. The prices quoted are for a pair of bulbs.

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The results were converted to percentages and added together to get our result, with the winner rated at 100 per cent and the others scored relative to that performance.

The best H4 car headlight bulbs

Philips RacingVision GT200

  • Price: around £20
  • Score: 100%
  • Rating: 5 stars
  • Contact: powerbulbs.com
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This makes two wins on the trot for the RacingVision GT200, following its single-filament H7 victory in our last test. As usual, the margins are small and Philips made things tough for itself, with a mixed bag of results. At the heart of this win is the huge area above 30 lux, which could be seen easily with the naked eye. It also delivered the brightest spot. It could only manage third in the FOM and distance test, but it was close enough to the leaders to take the win.

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Twenty20 Daylight +200%

Despite the website showing packaging, our sample arrived in bubble wrap – not ideal. Its performance also needs to be viewed in the knowledge it was achieved with bulbs made by the now-defunct Tungsram (formerly GE) in 2021. AutoBulbs Direct’s own brand is a previous winner and it came close again this time around, taking two test victories. It had a clear margin in the FOM test, plus it had the longest beam. But the size of its beam was no match for the remarkable Philips. 

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Osram Night Breaker 200

  • Price: around £20  
  • Score: 92.8%
  • Rating: 4 stars
  • Contact: osram.co.uk
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Osram won the internal battle with its subsidiary Ring. The pack promises a beam of up to 150 metres in length, and we saw 157 in the light lab, despite our three-lux cut-off, which was good enough for the runner-up spot. 

The Night Breaker also had the second-best Figure of Merit, although it was a step behind the Twenty20. It propped up
the results table in the other two tests, although only by small margins behind stablemate Ring. Two well matched samples underlined its original-equipment status.

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Ring Xenon200

The Xenon200 tracked the Night Breaker throughout the tests, so it is no surprise to see them finish close together. The Xenon200 had the edge in the peak brightness and FOM tests, but there was precious little between the two. 

Like the Osram, these were a well-matched pair delivering a decent all-round result. These bulbs also topped the 150-metre mark in the distance test, although they were an average of two metres shy of their stablemate. A sound performance overall, but some way behind our winner.

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The best D3S HID car headlight bulbs

Philips Xenon X-tremeVision gen2

  • Price: around £166
  • Score: 100% 
  • Rating: 5 stars
  • Contact: powerbulbs.com
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It might claim ‘only’ 150 per cent ‘more vision’ compared with arch-rival Osram’s 220 (below), but Philips absolutely dominated this test, taking the win in every one of our assessments – and by a substantial margin. Rivals struggled to get within 10 per cent of the stellar X-tremeVision. 

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The margin might have been even wider because both bulbs topped the 200 metres we could measure in the distance tests. For HID, this is the standout performer.

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Ring XenonHID

It was a conventional lamp that finished as runner-up behind the top-performing Philips and it was in the
top three throughout the tests. The two lamps were consistent, showing none of the variations we saw with some of the other brands. 

This Ring was close to the 200-metre mark in the distance test and pipped the uprated Osram for maximum brightness. In the light lab there was a good spread of light, with a clear hot spot close to the 75-metre mark. A strong all-round performance.

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Osram Night Breaker Laser Xenarc

  • Price: around £160 
  • Score: 82%
  • Rating: 3 stars
  • Contact: osram.co.uk

This is not where we expected to see the uprated Osram and we can only conclude there must be build problems with our two samples. 

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It was a relatively distant runner-up to the Philips in the FOM and 30-lux area tests, and in the top three for peak brightness, but it struggled for distance. While the standard Ring was comfortably above 190 metres, the Night Breaker averaged close to 140. Light output matched the Ring, suggesting geometry problems.

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Osram Original Xenarc

  • Price: around £100  
  • Score: 64.6%
  • Rating: 1 star
  • Contact: osram.co.uk

This is not a great result for Osram’s standard bulb, but at least it complied with the ECE 99 light-output requirements. Just as with the performance version (below left), we suspect build problems with this pair, because their performance proved to be no match for not just the X-tremeVision, but also stablemate Ring’s standard bulb. 

While the halogen bulbs are built to the same design, the Osram had a different ballast to the Ring, which may be a factor in the performance gap. 

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Philips Xenon Vision

  • Price: around £150  
  • Score: not rated
  • Rating: not rated 
  • Contact: powerbulbs.com

Philips may have taken both wins here, but it has not all been plain sailing because a poor sample, which failed to meet the minimum ECE light output, meant we did not rate the Xenon Vision. 

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It’s a missed opportunity because the good bulb was on for a podium finish, topping 200 metres in the distance test and scoring close to its winning stablemate for maximum brightness. Even with the poor sample, the Xenon Vision would have finished just behind the Night Breaker, had it complied with the regulations.

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AutoBulbs Direct 550K 50% Brighter Bulb

At least we got some packaging, albeit a plain white box, with this own-brand HID from online retailer AutoBulbs Direct. But our samples didn’t start well, because the ballast lacked the required sticker providing its specification, warnings and crucial E-mark. 

We then had difficulty connecting one sample in our headlamp, thanks to an incorrectly placed pin that had to be bent to fit. And when we did get it working, both bulbs failed the test for minimum light output. 

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Adauris Super VisionXenon Light

  • Price: around £25  
  • Score: not rated
  • Rating: not rated
  • Contact: amazon.co.uk

When some producers’ prices top £160, it’s tempting to save some cash by going for an unbranded alternative. This is an Amazon best seller in faux-Osram packaging, but even at this super-low price, it’s too costly. 

It finished last in all our tests and delivered just 16 per cent of the area above 30 lux compared with our winner – easily visible to the naked eye. It came as no surprise that both samples failed to reach the minimum light levels by a significant margin. Avoid.

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Verdict

Running both tests at the same time, although in different headlamps, gave us a chance to see just how big an advance HID was over halogen when it was introduced over 20 years ago. 

The Figure of Merit for HID is close to double that of the halogen, with a beam that’s 30 or so metres longer.

There are no bad H4 bulbs here, but the RacingVision is our choice. For top D3S performance it has to be the Philips, and Ring is our standard choice. Don’t be tempted to save cash on unbranded alternatives.

H4 test results

  1. Philips RacingVision GT200 
  2. Twenty20 Daylight +200%
  3. Osram Night Breaker 200

D3S HID test results

  1. Philips Xenon X-tremeVision gen2
  2. Ring XenonHID
  3. Osram Night Breaker Laser Xenarc

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Products editor

Kim has worked for Auto Express for more than three decades and all but a year of that time in the Products section. His current role as products editor involves managing the section’s content and team of testers plus doing some of the tests himself. 

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