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Should you update your headlights?

Victory Magnum head
LED headlights on a Victory Magnum

While car headlights are developing in technology, many motorcycles remain in the dark with sub-standard headlights.

BMW seems to be leading the way with headlights that swivel into a corner, or have LED headlights and, pretty soon, lasers.

Most motorcycle manufacturers use Halogen headlights, some use Xenon headlights, a couple use LEDs and Harley-Davidson offers an aftermarket Daymaker LED headlight.

You can also buy better non-factory aftermarket headlights and even an adaptive cornering LED headlight.

J.W. Speaker 8790 adaptive cornering headlights
J.W. Speaker 8790 adaptive cornering headlights

Mostly riders just want brighter headlights that have a smooth, long and wide coverage area.

However, be careful as there are Australian Design Rule limitations on size, shape and maximum glare from your headlight.

The ADR on headlight modifications is a complex and complicated document. It’s designed to not only assist motorists with quality light, but also protect other road users from glare.

If you do decide to update your headlight or even your globes, you should also be careful that they do not affect the warranty of your motorcycle or the demands of the electrical circuits.

Xenon bulbs won’t fit in a Halogen fitment as they have different bases.

I’ve known riders who have used a conversion kit to replace Halogen bulbs with Xenon bulbs only to have them frequently blow out.

So be careful that the conversion kit will work with your bike’s electrics.

Types of headlights:

  • Halogen lights are the most common. They have a tungsten filament like a normal household bulb, encased in a bubble of halogen gas for longevity. They have a yellowish light and draw around 55 watts of power which is mainly converted into heat, rather than light. They last about 1000 hours.
    Halogen (left) and Xenon blubs headlights
    Halogen (left) and Xenon bulbs
  • High intensity discharge (HID) or Xenon lights heat rare metals and gases including Xenon. They produce a three-times brighter and whiter light with a blue tinge around the edges. They are expensive, but draw low power and have double the life of a Halogen bulb. However, the ADRs require these lights to be self-levelling and have washers, which makes them difficult to fit to motorcycles. Manufacturers can get around this with Bi-xenon headlights that have halogen in the high beam and xenon in the low beam.
    2015 Ducati Diavel headlights
    Ducati Diavel LED headlights
  • Light emitting diodes (LEDs) are ultra-bright, last an extremely long time (about 15,000 hours) and draw less power. They also burn much cooler than Xenon or Halogen lights. Their small size allows them to be made into thinner and varied shapes so they are often used as daytime running lights, as well as brake and taillights. However, they are now being used as headlights in cars and motorcycles.
  • Laser lights focus a beams towards a cloud of yellow phosphorous gas. The beam excites the gas which emits a powerful white light. They are being fitted in the BMW i8 high beams and are being considered for other models and future motorcycles. Advantages are smaller headlights, brighter light, more energy efficiency and a beam up to 600m. How the ADRs will deal with these when they become available is not yet determined.
    BMW laser headlight revolution
    BMW laser headlights

If you just want a whiter and brighter light to replace your Halogen bulb, there are some cheaper options on the market such as Philips WhiteVision, OSRAM Cool Blue Intense and Philips Diamond Vision. However, be aware that some are not road legal.

  1. I’d just like to be able to change a globe without completely disassembling the front of the bike and contorting around the forks and removing most of my skin in the process!
    Owners of the wonderful FJR1300 will know what I mean.but at least it has two lights so you won’t be caught out.
    I have a car that would be worse if not for the fact that the designers used their heads and made the headlight removable from the front, two small screws to remove a blanking panel and then four large ones to remove the light, change the globe and put it all back five or so minutes and no graised knuckles.

  2. The one thing the article did not address is the replacement cost of each of the technologies.
    When you can get at a halgoen bulb it is fairly cheap to replace. However, if you are replacing a BMW laser headlamp, are you replacing the whole headlamp unit or just some insert? LED lights could have a similar issue.
    LED lamps do fail, whether it is the actual LED or the supporting components or the circiut board, I don’t know, but generally that means the whole unit is replaced at a cost way above a few incandescent bulbs.
    Replacement could be required through component failure, crash damage or just a stray rock.
    10 or 15 years from now, will you still be able to buy a uniquely styled exotic tech headlamp unit to fit your bike? Will some bikes be prematurely written off due to the unavailability of such parts? I suppose the aftermarket may fill such gaps but with questionable quality and performance.
    For people who keep their bike for only a year or two before trading for the latest and greatest this won’t be an issue, but it also raises the question of whether new tech lighting is covered by warranties of (hopefully) increasing duration. Warranties traditionally don’t cover some electrical parts such as bulbs.

    I’m not a big fan of plastic headlights although they help to make the bike lighter. The lenses look nice when they are new but eventually the lens will degrade from UV and pollution exposure to become opaque. I’ve seen plenty of cars with near-opaque plastic headlight lenses throwing glare everywhere. It is probably less of an issue on bikes which are garaged more and used less than cars. At least companies like 3M make repair kits to sand back and polish degraded lenses. Of course you are left with a thinner lens that could be more prone to rock damage.

    1. The led bulbs are coming down in price to be a reasonable replacement option for halogen bulbs as a 1 to 1 option, the exotic look around bends etc leds are too pricey for anyone but a BMW or HD fanatic and they only do a large round headlight unit nothing you could fit to most sportbikes.
      There is a protective film you can get that you apply to the headlight lens with a hair dryer it will help protect against rocks and hazing or plastic lenses at about $15 a roll it is cheap protection that can be easily peeled off and replaced
      Best do it to a new lens to avoid having to polish it first.

  3. I run two small LED spot lights on my crash bars, (Vulcan Nomad 1600). I’ve now just retro fitted a HID replacement kit and it couldn’t have been any simpler to do. The light output is a major improvement over the stock halogens.

    It may not be legal for the both types of lights I’ve fitted, but it sure makes me noticed to other road users, isn’t that the reason mandatory headlights always on where introduced to help us be seen and yet most of the OEM lights are absolutely pathetic.

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