Super-bright LED headlamps use 1-watt, 3-watt or 5-watt Luxeon LEDs to provide a spot beam that excels in throwing light into the distance. Switches let you dim these headlamps for task lighting, but their main strengths are brightness and beam throw. This can be important for cycling, trail running and any adventure sport that requires fast movement and long-range vision. For most users, however, reviews say the more powerful lights can be overkill because the bright light comes at the expense of extra weight and higher price.
For single-LED headlamps, a 1-watt LED can be bright enough. In the recent comparison review of ten headlamps, Backpacking Light gives top overall ranking to a 1-watt LED model, the Princeton Tec Eos (*Est. $40). Tests show the voltage regulator is excellent, keeping brightness consistent for 44 hours on the low setting, 9.5 hours on medium and 6.5 hours on high. Battery life is moderate, up to 60 hours on the lowest setting, but beam throw is excellent at 187 feet. Owners reviewing the Eos at REI.com say the lowest light setting is bright enough for most tasks.
Backpacker Magazine named the 3.7-ounce Eos a best buy in 2006, noting that it's so stable on the head that it's good for running. Like most single-LED headlamps, it's better for fast sports than for task lighting. One owner reviewing the Princeton Tec Eos at BackCountry.com wishes it had a diffuser, and Backpacking Light wishes the beam quality was better.
Reviews also like the slightly lighter 3.25-ounce Petzl Tikka XP LED (*Est. $50), which also uses a 1-watt LED. At the time of this report, it's the top-rated headlamp in owner-written reviews at REI.com, and in 2006 Backpacker Magazine gave the Tikka XP LED its Editor's Choice award. However, the maximum beam throw is 115 feet, quite a bit shorter than that of the Princeton Tec Eos, and batteries only last 46 hours on low - gradually dimming because of the lack of a voltage regulator. The Tikka XP LED headlamp does have a nice battery meter, but it can't use lithium-ion batteries.
Reviews say 3-watt LED headlamps are overkill for most uses, even when a distance spotlight is important. Nor do the top-ranked higher wattage models provide red light for night vision. But hikers say that in an emergency, projecting light a long distance can make the difference between finding trail markers and getting lost. And the top-ranked super-bright headlamps provide a separate array of smaller LEDs for task lighting.
The 6.1-ounce Princeton Tec Apex Pro (*Est. $90) uses a 3-watt Luxeon III LED to project light up to 279 feet. One owner reviewing this headlamp at REI.com says "I can spot a 12" x 12" flag from 100 yards while running with that beam." For task lighting, the Princeton Tec Apex adds four 5mm UltraBright LEDs to provide a wider beam. Both types of light have both a high and low setting for a total of four light settings plus a strobe, and a voltage regulator keeps the light consistent as the two lithium-ion CR123 batteries fade. Like other Princeton Tec headlamps, it's waterproof to a depth of one meter, and carries a lifetime warranty.
The Apex Pro has a battery meter so you know how much juice you have left. Reviews say it runs about 35 hours on the lower floodlight setting (with 12 lux at two meters). The super-bright spot beam (60 lumens or 452 lux) naturally uses batteries faster, with a runtime of only 1.5 hours on its higher setting and 15 hours on the lower setting.
The older Princeton Tec Apex (*Est. $85) weighs more at 9.8 ounces, but provides much longer battery life. Also, you can power it with four AA batteries (alkaline, lithium-ion or rechargeable NiMH). Batteries last about 72 hours on the higher of the two spotlight settings and 150 hours on the lower of the two floodlight settings. Despite the headlamp's weight, owners say it's still reasonably comfortable and well balanced. An extra strap goes over the head, and the battery pack is mounted at the back for balance. The roundup review at Backpacking Light praises the Apex for its output, beam quality and ease of use, with its weight the main drawback. Like most super-bright headlamps, neither Apex headlamp provides red light for improved night vision.
The 6.6-ounce Black Diamond Icon (*Est. $60) also combines a 3-watt LED with a 4-LED array, for both distance and task lighting. It has a regulator and battery meter, and battery life is excellent. However, this headlamp comes in for some criticism from owners reviewing it at REI.com; owners wish it had a blinker to help find it in the dark, and the 3-watt LED headlamp produces light that some find a little greenish.
Both Petzl and Brunton also make super-bright headlamps that fare better than the Icon in reviews, but use just a single bright LED. Since there's no added array of smaller LEDs for wide-beam task lighting, they can provide long battery life without too much weight. The Petzl Myo XP LED (*Est. $80) uses a single 3-watt LED that switches from spot to flood, using a hinged diffuser. The recent Backpacking Light review rates the beam quality as perfect, slightly better than that of the Princeton Tec Apex, and one owner says he loves the floodlight diffuser. He adds that the Myo XP LED headlamp provides plenty of light even on its low setting -- which REI staff measure as 72 lux at two meters.
The Petzl Myo XP weighs 6.2 ounces, about the same as the Apex Pro, but provides battery life that's even better than that of the heavier Apex. Batteries last about 80 hours on the higher brightness setting, 180 hours on low. You can even boost the light to five watts for 30 seconds at a time to throw light a whopping 318 feet ahead.
The Petzl Myo XP LED Belt (*est. $85) is similar, but comes with a battery pack that clips onto a belt or can be worn in a pocket. Since the Myo XP LED headlamps can't use lithium-ion batteries, this is a good choice for use in very cold weather, because you can keep the batteries warm in a pocket. The weight on the head is reduced to 2.7 ounces, with another five ounces carried on the belt or in the pocket.
Like other Petzl headlamps, neither Myo XP headlamp incorporates a voltage regulator to keep light consistent as batteries lose their charge. The more expensive Brunton L3 (*Est. $120) does have a voltage regulator that reviews say is even better than the one Princeton Tec uses on the Apex headlamp. The Brunton L3 keeps the light from its 3-watt Luxeon LED consistent till batteries drop to 15 percent of their charge - then dims the light to a power-save mode so you have plenty of time to change batteries.
Owners reviewing the Brunton L3 headlamp at both Cabelas.com and Trailspace.com give it high marks, especially for beam quality. One owner says a side-by-side comparison with the Apex gives the Brunton L3 the edge for better light. The Brunton L3 weighs eight ounces, but an optional runner's belt (*est. $20) lets you move the batteries to a belt.
The voltage regulator gets outstanding runtime from the four AA batteries - 140 hours on high, 160 hours on medium and 200 hours on low. Furthermore, you can triple the runtime by using the external battery pack provided with the headlamp, which holds four C batteries. Owners say this makes the pricey Brunton L3 especially useful for long cold-weather adventures, including dog sledding, backpacking and snowmobile racing.
The Brunton L5 (*Est. $195) uses a 5-watt Luxeon K2 LED powered by a 4.5-volt external battery pack that uses rechargeable NiMH batteries. (It comes with a charger.) The total weight is ten ounces, but only four of these ounces are worn on the head. Outside magazine calls the Brunton L5 the "brightest LED headlamp in the world," and praises its "smart" voltage regulator. It runs 50 hours on one charge, and provides four modes including a flash/strobe. We found few owner reviews of this expensive headlamp.