Lights On for Practical Sailor Headlamp Round Up
Practical Sailor chooses versatile BD Icon in tough field of 17 LED headlamps
Even if we never sailed at night, we’d still need a flashlight—and often a third hand to hold it while we work with our standard-issue two: Enter the headband-held flashlight, or headlamp. It’s not a general-purpose tool—it complements rather than competes with the latest handheld flashlights—but dependable lighting of more than one kind is invaluable on any boat.
Previous Practical Sailor articles have dealt with lights of all sorts, but never such a defined test of headlamps. Relevant past articles include "Shine On," our most recent flashlight test (December 2007); "Battle of the Rechargeables," on AA batteries (July 15, 2004); and "Powerful LED Flashlights" (Oct. 15, 2003).
What We Tested
To limit the scope of this test, we decided to evaluate those headlamps chiefly using LEDs as they typically have longer life, lower weight, and smaller power needs. They also are superior to conventional filament-type bulbs when it comes to focusing a beam of light. LEDs, in our opinion, are on the cusp of a momentous technological paradigm shift as incandescent light is being phased out. Rates of technical improvement and efficiency mirror those of the computer industry, as LEDs are semiconductor devices.
To further minimize the test scope, we also selected lamps that claimed water-resistance, featured a cross-head strap for comfort, and did not require battery recharge. We tested 17 headlamps from six manufacturers, including the Icon from Black Diamond, a rock-climbing and skiing gear maker; the HeadsUp Recoil 2680 from Pelican, maker of all things watertight; and the Vizion from Underwater Kinetics, whose flashlights were among the top performers in our 2007 test. We also tested four headlamps from Petzl, well-known in the caving and climbing worlds for its headlamps, and five from Princeton Tec, maker of outdoor recreation gear. Rounding out the field were five lamps from Streamlight, a maker of lights for outdoor enthusiasts and law enforcement.
How We Tested
Testers rated products according to illuminance, beam quality, and features. Illuminance was measured using a meter that reads directly in lux. (See "Creating and Measuring Light: An Illuminating Experience," for a simplified explanation of lux and lumens.) Measurements were recorded at distances of 1.5 feet, 12 feet, and 30 feet.
Most manufacturers measure bulb/LED output in lumens. About half of those participating in this test use similar criteria to rate their products’ performance and capability. Rather than testing these headlamps to makers’ claims,
Practical Sailor editors decided a more applicable approach would be to rate them in terms of practical use aboard a sailboat. After some experimentation, testers arrived at an initial set of desirable ranges (expressed in lux) for basic sailing needs. Minimum requirements were agreed on for close-up use, mid-range use, and long-range use.
For close-range purposes—like reading a chart on your lap—testers posited a minimum of 50-70 lux. To do this confidently at 1.5 feet required 70 lux. We considered a light level greater than 230 lux more than sufficient at this distance.
Mid- and long-range levels were much harder to state a numerical standard for. Instead, testers used a graded system based on a rigging-check simulation to determine whether a headlamp would be useful at this range. On a moonless night, testers measured the maximum distance a lamp could "see" a piece of braided rigging wire against a dark background at its highest power setting.
The test also was used to evaluate combined illuminance and beam quality. Interestingly, testers found little correlation between the maker’s stated lumen rating and performance. For example, the Pelican 2680—with only a 30-lumen LED rating—outshined lamps with double the lumens in the maximum distance experiment.
If a light allowed testers to distinguish, from 30 feet away, the test-rigging against the night sky, the lamp was deemed useful at mid-range.Most of the lamps performed within our 50-230 lux close-range criterion; some exceeded it, two by an exaggerated margin. But we were surprised that almost all also passed our rigging-simulation test, some at much farther than 30 feet. Those that did well at 30 feet also did well at the 12-foot mid-range.
To evaluate beam patterns, we divided the lights into three categories: flood, flood with central spotlight, and spotlight.
The Value Guide lists the power requirements for each headlamp tested. Some of these headlamps have computer-like devices that maintain voltage to prolong light brightness at a given level, even at the cost of rapid fall-off when forced to "give up" as the cells run down.
Testers also took into consideration a product’s user-friendliness, weight, comfort, warranty, features, and cost. We obtained three street prices for each headlamp and listed the price range in the Value Guide.
Weight is a significant factor: Lamps under 5 ounces were easy to forget you were wearing; and 6- to 8-ounce lamps felt fairly light, if the batteries were in a back compartment. If a lamp’s heavier than 8 ounces, you’ll be looking for excuses to remove it.
Because there are so many products included in this test, we’ve refrained from lengthy product descriptions, and instead offer only a Bottom Line-style summation for each headlamp.
Black Diamond Icon
Small, lightweight, and comfortable to wear, this all-LED headlamp features advanced single-button control over all modes, a rear battery holder, a battery indicator, and long burn times. Light levels can be adjusted by depressing the switch halfway; light modes change with a full click. The four-LED mode has a good flood light with a strong central spot. Its central spot is stronger than most, and the one-LED mode did well at mid- and long-range tests. Its one drawback is that it has no red filter.
A rugged NRG Rechargeable Battery Kit, which includes a convenient NiMH pack, is available for the Icon. It comes with AC adaptor plugs for use worldwide.
The Pelican HeadsUp Lite 2680 Recoil is a large, heavy lamp most notable in two areas: It was the brightest at all distances, and it claims to be waterproof to 150 meters.
Using only a 30-lumen LED, Pelican achieves an intense and concentrated beam by shining the LED backward into a reflector that collimates the light very effectively into an intense, narrow, white, true-spotlight beam.
While not too versatile—one brightness level, not focusable for distance, and no filters—it’s the light you’ll want to spot things at your masthead and well beyond the length of your boat.
Petzl Duobelt LED 14
While the Duobelt LED 14 is light, its battery pack, which comes with a clip so it can be worn on a waistbelt, is heavy. (The Duo LED 14 is virtually the same light sans the belt battery pack.) Changing the batteries is counter-intuitive, and difficult in the dark. With its four-C cell power, the Duobelt has the longest burn time, and it proved powerful at all three distances.
Petzl e LITE
The E Lite is an ultra-lightweight emergency back-up lamp. This tiny, five-function LED headlamp runs on two photo-coin lithium cells. Easily carried in a pocket or on a belt, the E Lite has a 10-year shelf life and so would make a good addition to an emergency kit. With its two levels, water resistance, two lamp colors, and surprisingly long burn time, this pee-wee can be taken seriously at short- and medium-distances.
Petzl Saxo Aqua
Designed for underwater use, the Saxo Aqua is basically a lightweight, handheld flashlight attached to a head strap. Testers found its red and ground-glass filters easy to install and useful in controlling the light level. One significant drawback of using the flashlight as a headlamp is its lack of tilt: You have to move the entire setup to achieve any tilt.
Petzl Tactikka XP Adapt
Combining a brief (20 seconds) burst mode, battery-power indicator, multi-surface mountability, and rotatability in two planes, the Petzl Tactikka XP Adapt is the most versatile headlamp within its series. It’s also light and comfortable with easy-to-deploy color filters, which are a plus for the mariner. The beam focus can be changed with the flip of a hand, a handy feature going from deck to chart table. Testers found the lamp’s buttons less than ergonomic, and changing the batteries for the first time requires concentrated study of the instructions.
The Tactikka performed well at the mid- and long-range tests.
Princeton Tec Apex
Like the BD Icon, the Princeton Tec Apex is a top-of-line headlamp, and the two are quite similar in configuration and bulb placement, light modes, rear battery pack, and battery-power indicator. Light and beam control is from underneath the housing via two buttons.
The Apex differs by featuring regulated LEDs with a heat sink and optical collimator, one more AA cell, and one fewer light level in each mode. It weighs about 50 percent more than the Icon, but performance was comparable.
Princeton Tec Corona
The Princeton Tec Corona offers multiple variations of light strength and delivery. Users can select the number of LEDs turned on, and then choose between normal, dim, and flash. It performed acceptably at all distances.
Princeton Tec EOS
The EOS offers more output and a more concentrated beam—at the cost of a shorter burn time—than the Quad Tactical, and it proved suitable at all three distances tested. It lacks the convenient filter, but offers easy, in-the-dark battery changing, lightness, and comfort.
Princeton Tec Quad Tactical
The Princeton Tec Quad Tactical uses a four-LED array, and it has a clever red filter that can be moved quickly into position with the lamp on your head. This lamp is adequate for close work, but it was diffused at 12 feet and failed the 30-foot wire test.
Princeton Tec Yukon HL
This easy-to-use one-button, two-function headlamp comes with a rear battery pack. It turned in a good performance at close and long range. One click of the single button turns on three LEDs for close-up performance. A second click activates a single more-powerful LED for long range use.
Streamlight Argo, Argo HP
These models share a name but have different LEDs and power sources. The Argo offers more brightness modes, cheaper batteries, and a power indicator—but excess close-range power and much shorter burn time—whereas the Argo HP, with its regulated LED, runs longer and weighs 0.7 ounces less.
The Haz-Lo is certified for use around propane, gasoline, naphtha, benzene, butane, ethyl alcohol, acetone, and methane. It was included since working on a fuel tank or stove belowdecks could expose you to an explosive environment. Its single light level limits its versatility. However, it is light weight, offers a hybrid floodlight with strong central spotlight beam, and has a long burn time.
The Haz-Lo’s 7,890-lux light was excessive at 1.5 feet, but it was more than competent at other distances.
With the exception of the color of their middle LED, the Trident White and Green look and perform similarly. Their simple controls afford them a short learning curve. Both performed well at all three distances, but we prefer the green model, which offers sufficient light while preserving your and your crew’s night vision.
Underwater Kinetics Vizion
A relatively new product, the UK Vizion is lightweight, especially with lithium batteries, which the company recommends using for best performance. It differs in design and operation from the other test lamps as its assembly—lamp, battery, reflector, diffuser, and switch component—is cylindrical and fits within the carrier attached to the head strap. Instead of using the usual hinged lamp housing, the Vizion beam angles up and down by turning the lamp assembly via an adjustment knob on the housing.
The Vizion’s performance in lighting tests was excellent. One feature testers particularly liked was the Vizion’s rotating red filter that slides over the bulb like an eyelid, making the light infinitely variable from diffused white to diffused red. On the negative side, they noted that changing the filter also inadvertently moved the beam angle.
There are numerous factors besides LED lumens that affect lamp performance. This test showed that the lumen rating alone is not a sufficient predictor of a lamp’s long-range performance. A better (but not perfect) predictor for long-range performance is lux performance at 30 feet. The top five headlamps, in terms of lux, were (in ascending order) the Petzl Saxo Aqua (20 lumens), Streamlight Haz-Lo (34 lumens), UK Vizion (29 lumens), Petzl Duobelt (60 lumens), and Pelican HeadsUp Recoil (30 lumens).
The Pelican offers the strongest spotlight, at a price to match. For a little less, but still with excellent longest-distance performance, are the Trident, Argo HP, UK Vizion, and Pelican. All units met our 50-lux close-range minimum, with only one—the Petzl E Lite—coming in under the 70–lux level.
Our top picks were based on wearing, testing, and using these headlamps for months. Best Choice honors go to the Black Diamond Icon, a lightweight, top-performing lamp that’s versatile and loaded with features. In a perfect world, it would have a red filter, but for those who want the night-vision-saving filter, check out the UK Vizion, the Practical Sailor Budget Buy. It gave the Icon a run for its money, and it costs less, offers adjustable filtration, has a lifetime warranty, and seems more durable, at least on the water.