It’s never been less expensive to get into riding bikes in the dark. Before LED’s made their dramatic evolution from blinking commuter lights to nighttime powerhouses of luminosity, our only real option for hauling ass in the dark was an HID light. The problem was that HID bulbs were expensive— just single bulb could set you back $100. Fortunately for us, technology moved forward, and LED models became refined and output increased to the point where they became viable options, offering the same amount of visibility with the bonus of additional durabilty. The prices initially were the same as manufacturers attempted to maintain their current margins. However, it was just a matter of time before someone would start to import generic models straight from the source in China, and I recall thinking that as soon as that happened, it would represent a major paradign shift.
Budget lights meant a lot more of the homies were joining us on rides in the dark. The first model that became available at a wallet friendly price came directly from China called MagicShine; you could pick one up for under $100. The light output was competitive with branded options that cost over three times as much, and it was only $85 shipped to your door. Although the quality of light was a bit lousy compared to clearly better name brand models, it was only a fraction of the price of the NightRider light I already had, so I picked up a second one as a spare. What would have previously been an investment totally around $1000 for three lights now only set me back two bills.
Although there were reports and recalls of the MagicShine batteries, mine continued to work without any issues, and I never got around to sending mine back for replacement. Although the quality of light wasn’t as good as my quickly out dated NightRider TriNewt, it had a much lighter battery, was easier to turn on and off, featured cables that were easier to connect (and would stay connected) and had a very accessible on/off switch. It was also significantly brighter than my $400 retail light.
Fast forward a few years, and MagicShine now has a legitimate looking internet presence and almost everyone I ride with has at least one, either as their backup to a nicer quality branded light, or as their primary light. Except now, the Chinese brand has been out done, and under priced. Instead of listing for $85, the price had halved, and was available shipped for under $40. So I bought two more, and now my girl friend could run one to complement the handed down TriNewt lamp I gave her. The newer model wasn’t branded as a MagicShine, but utilized the same Cree XM-L T6 LED bulb, and looks identical. (my first one even had the same packaging, but additional models I received were simply wrapped in plastic) Although it cost less, it actually seemed to be an improved model, with the headlamp no longer heating up as much as the MJ-808 model I was also running. The light modes were also improved, with “rapid flashing seizure causing mode” no longer one of the options.
My current night setup consists of a unit mounted on my helmet, (with the battery in my pack, or jersey pocket) with two lamps mounted on my bars, powered by a single battery. (mounted on my top tube) I use a Y-cable to split the power cable and power both bar mounted lights, and have ridden up to four hours before needing to swap out the battery with the spare I carry. Although the current models claim an output of 1200 Lumens, I doubt it’s that much, but they put out a solid chuck of visibility. Although the lumen claim has consistantly been proven wrong by various testers online, it’s still pretty f*ing bright. The downside remains the quality of the light. The beam is a bright spot, focused in one area. Compared to higher quality lights, it’s harder to make out shadow details at speed, as the hard light can make focusing one’s eyes difficult. A wide angle aftermarket lens is available though, found on Amazon.com for an additional $5.00 or so, by an outfit called Action LED Lights. I have the lens in two of my lamps and I find it to improve the light a bit, and spread out the beam horizontally. I set the one on my helmet to diffuse my beam vertically, and found it to be preferable on narrow single track, with one of my bar mounted units set horizontal.
The second downside I’ve found is the mounting. Although the rubber band mount is extremely quick and easy to install, it’s not as solid as I’d prefer. With the amount of light I have, I’m able to attack trails pretty aggressively, and the beam bounces around a bit on rough trails when I’m pinning them on my shorter travel trail bike at close to day time speeds. I’ve seen a number of custom mods other riders have posted online, and at some point I’ll probably do the same for at least one of the bar mounted lamps.
A dramatic price drop
Interestingly enough, the price has dropped even more on these units. From an industry perspective, it brings up some interesting points. I would imagine other lighting companies hate these lights with a passion, and your local shops do as well. (while probably running a few on their bikes on the DL, cause “damn son, they’re cheep”) I have been running a USB rechargable blinker from Knog that lists for about $40 on my commuter as a “see me” light. Now that the model sold as the Cree XM-L can be found online for as little as $25, I’m tempted to buy a few more to replace my other “commuter” blikys. Why bother with a low powered blinker when you can have a light emitting powerhouse for a few bucks more. In an urban commuter environment, having a light nearly as bright as a motorcycle light makes sure you’re seen. (my favorite thing to do is to shine them into the review mirrors of asshole drivers that pass me with inches to spare and watch them shade their eyes with their hands)
I’m a bit torn on how I feel about uber-cheap lights as someone that works for a manufacturer that is constantly challenged by low margins, but I can’t imagine the margins are very sustainable at these price points. But as a rider and consumer, the bottom line is that I can ride more and pay less. I’d still love to get my hands on a nice Lupine Pica model for my helmet (I demo’d one a few years ago and it was amazing in how light it was, and the quality of the beam) but since my rep friend hasn’t gotten back to me, I’ll be rocking my Chinese made lights for now.
If you’re looking to pick one up, Amazon.com is the easiest way to do it. Here’s a handy link: CREE XML Bicycle Headlight LED
Oh damn. I might need to get a red one. CREE XML XM-L T6 LED Red
<update> I changed my mind. This looks to be the new hotness for budget night riding:
SecurityIng® 3X CREE XM-L T6 LED 3800Lm LED Headlight Headlamp and Bicycle Light
Disclaimer: I just signed up as an Amazon afflliate to help cover my hosting costs for this site. (Purchasing a light using these links will help support this site. Although I’ll probably just buy more cool bike and camera stuff with any possible dough kickbacks)