Buyer beware on those cheap “super bright” bicycle lights

I have always purchased bicycle lights from well-known, recognized brands, and over about the past decade I’ve favored American brands such as Nite Rider (based in San Diego) and Light and Motion (which does manufacturing outside of Monterey, California).

Made-In-America from an established brand with a reputation for quality translates into a premium price, and to be honest, I’ve been disappointed in the operational lifespan of these lights. Every light I’ve bought from Light & Motion and Nite Rider (and I’ve bought a couple of dozen) breaks or fails not long after the warranty period expires. Either the mounting hardware falls apart, or the the light itself just stops working. The only light on my bicycle that hasn’t fallen apart yet is the Bontrager Flare R, which still works great and which I still love.

If I pay $120 or more for a bike light, I would kind of like if it lasted more than a couple of years. I’ve always been suspicious of no-brand Chinese-designed lights, but they’re beginning to look a little more attractive. To see how these cheap lights compare against these lights from American companies, I bought this Super Bright L2 Bike Light USB Rechargeable Waterproof Bicycle Headlight.

L2 light

The Amazon product reviews are universally four and five star so I expect at least a thousand lumens from this light. I charge it up, go for a night ride, and it’s perhaps half the brightness of my Light & Motion Urban 800, which tests at 801 lumens. If I expect 1200 lumens, I’m extremely disappointed when I only see 400 lumens.

Check the specs.

The product description suggests the “10W CREE LED Light that can provide up to 1200 Lumen” of eye-searing brightness. One person told me this light “turns night into day.” The production specification doesn’t specifically mention the model, but it’s probably reasonable to infer that it’s the XM-L2.

If I bothered the read the product specs on Amazon, I should have suspected the 1200 lumen claim can’t be true. The light comes with a smallish 2000 mAH battery. For the Cree XM-L2 to generate a full 1198 lumens, you need to drive 3 amps into that sucker. That’s like telling me your 2016 Dodge Charger SXT with a 3.6 liter V6 can generate 300 horses even though you’ve blocked the fuel line and air intake.

It’s not a horrible light for the price, but it’s also not the light I expected. The handlebar quick-release mount seems reasonably robust, surviving six bus trips so far. It has a unique touch switch that can’t be accidentally activated as it jostles inside of a backpack. 400 lumens is certainly sufficient for use on dark paths and in city traffic. An light with equivalent brightness from the likes of Light & Motion retails for around $50. If it lasts at least two years, I’ll consider this cheap light a decent deal for the price in spite of the blatantly false advertising.

Why the great reviews?

I have a feeling most purchasers aren’t accustomed to using high-lumen lights. While I waited for my bus a few nights ago a random guy rolled up on his well-used bike. He had those cheap five-dollar gas station flash lights taped to the hubs of his wheels, so that the lights spun with the rotation of his wheels. I mentioned how clever I thought his solution was, and he proceeded to very enthusiastically talk about the awesome brightness of his flashlights.

I nodded and smiled, but those lights aren’t bright. I picture somebody who’s accustomed to using these flashlights or maybe the cheapest Cateye or Planet Bike blinkies will be blown away with a couple of hundred lumens.

I also ordered this “Comunite 1200 Lumens Super Bright CREE XML T6 LED Rechargeable Waterproof Mountain Bike Headlight Bicycle Headlamp Flashlight with 5200mah Battery Pack. It’s the same LED as the “Super Bright L2” etc bike light, but this Comunite comes with a larger 5200mAH battery, so I’ll try it out and let you know how it goes. I didn’t initially buy this lamp because I don’t like external battery packs that require their own, proprietary chargers but a person I trust suggested I try it out. I’ll let you know how it goes.

18 Comments

  1. I have bought a Light and Motion headlight and NiteRider headlight, both in the 600–700 lumen range, which has always been bright enough for me.

    We had one failure on the NiteRider light, but it was replaced under warranty.

    I like the ergonomics of the NiteRider light (which my son uses) better than of the Light and Motion light—particularly for helmet-mount use. It is easier to set the angle right, it is easier to recharge the light without taking it off the helmet, and it is harder to accidentally lock the light so that it doesn’t respond to the button.

  2. I’ve been a long time customer of DiNotte lights. Small company based in NH. Great products, great customer service.

  3. With all the exploding rechargeable battery stories I hear in the news, I’m not buying a rechargeable-battery powered device from an unknown vendor and I am kind of shocked that Amazon allows them to be sold.

  4. I hear from several people who say they have years of use from their lights, so it’s kind of reassuring to hear from others with experience similar to mine. I’m admittedly pretty hard on my lights, but I don’t think my usage is too awfully extreme.

  5. I have had nothing but good luck with my two L&M Urban lights. Very reliable, bright, with a good beam pattern. I’m sorry your experience has been different, Richard.

  6. Weird. My NiteRider 350 lumen light is still going strong after 5 years of daily commuting, including a lot of rain and drops to the ground and other bits of harsh treatment.

    I also live in NYC so I rarely use it any higher than on low.

  7. I remember when those high end (Night Sun/NiteRider. L&M wasn’t around back then.) NiCd lights would last just a little over a season. But, yeah, you’d think they would have solved the problems with the mounts by now.

    After that came a five year time span where the technology was improving so much that you’d want to upgrade after a season anyway.

    Okay, now things have stabilized.

    I bought a similar external battery light as your last link (MagicShine clone) a few years ago for about twice the current price. It has worked well for me, but it isn’t my sole light because I’m a (figurative) belt and suspenders kind of guy. By now it’s a tried and true technology.

    The battery may be hit or miss, but luckily usually it’s because of a lower capacity battery and not one that overheats. That cell form factor has been around forever and I guess it’s easy enough to err on the safe side.

    There are few other places to cut costs on the light besides the actual labor. The charging circuit is relatively simple and the driver is a commodity item. After three+ years most of the tooling has already paid for itself- any changes would just cost more.

    So, where you’ll see problems is related to worksmanship- poor soldering, assembly problems, QC issues, etc.

    It may not be optimal- an external battery setup has its pros and cons, the waterproofing is… lacking, the mounting could be better (and more expensive and complicated), but that’s a personal preference thing anyway.

    Yes, it is buyer beware, but even after all these tradeoffs, so long as it’s relatively reliable (and mine has been), it certainly seems to be a good deal.

    I’ll note that I’m using it as a light to be seen by, and not to actually illuminate my path, so actual light quantity/quality above a certain- low- threshold doesn’t matter much.

  8. I have a CygoLite 850 that hasn’t broken yet. Seems like a good deal, and is bright enough on it’s not-brightest setting to commute in total darkness. I’ve purchased a few cheapish Chinese lights and have had battery problems with them. I also started to worry about charging safety.

  9. I’ve used a Cygolite Metro 550 since I started commuting 2 years ago. It’s as good as new from my perspective. Since I’m in a cold climate (today’s high is in the upper 20’s), it’s had a couple of winters to live through too, something that isn’t necessarily easy on the battery.

  10. My best experience has been with a Chinese light that I got back in 2010 and which is still going strong. At http://dfwptp.blogspot.com/search?q=p7+light I found it to be much brighter than the headlights of a 1998 Volkswagen Jetta. The only problem that I ever ran into was the velcro failed that held it onto the frame. I found a replacement for $5 that is absolutely reliable. Do NOT run the light in blinky mode, however. It can trigger wooziness in those not otherwise susceptible to strobe lights. It lasts about three hours on the bright setting.

  11. Serious question: why would cyclists need anywhere close to 1000 lumens? As a cyclist I’m always aggravated by oncoming cyclists with blindingly bright lights.

    What’s the nominal lumen rating of automobile headlights?

  12. Volar: why would cyclists need 1000 lumens… maybe to see? There are many conditions under which I would prefer more than that, most of them offroad but some on. Personally, I use a 400 lumen lamp on the handlebar and an 800 lumen on the helmet, at full power when descending rough terrain offroad, and cut by half or more when conditions don’t demand so much illumination. The lensing in front of the LED matters a lot more than the absolute light output, though, as better lights have significantly better lenses to put the light where you want it instead of an essentially unlensed circular beam.

    Car headlights vary a lot (look up the definition of a lumen and you will understand why) with HID headlights outputing up to 3000 lumens per lamp, but maybe 1200 to 1500 per lamp being more common. Brighter car headlights have to be properly lensed to limit the output above a certain level, to avoid blinding oncoming drivers. Again, the lensing tends to matter more than the output.

  13. Check out https://www.bikelightdatabase.com.

    I wish the industry would standardize mounts; particularly I’d love to be able to use the GoPro mount under my Garmin on my K-Edge. I could also easily put a light on my helmet using my GoPro vent strapped mount. The L&Ms I use don’t seem to separate from their rubber band mount, which will likely fail before the lights do, and I have to remove the NiteRider mount to switch to them (my wife and I share lighting).

    @Volar: may depend on the beamforming. Another benefit you get with established companies are lights designed to illuminate the road (or trail) in front of you… when aimed properly of course. NiteRider and L&M spend money on R&D so that their lights create useful lighting patterns (beamshots) for bicyclists, and I suspect these cheaper lights lack 1) quality optics, 2) heavy duty current driver electronics, and 3) proper heat dissipation. (Richard’s observation seems to reinforce #2, as what the LED being able to produce is different than how it’s actually driven).

    When I was younger we used to have to have our cars inspected, which included measuring both headlight beamshot and aim.

  14. I have two white and two red Serfas Thunderbolts, and they’ve worked very well for the last two years. I also have a Cygolite, the one recommended by Sweethome, and it has also worked well.

  15. Agreed on the frustration of a $120 light breaking right after the warranty period. That’s what happened to my L&M Vis 360 – the switch broke, rendering it useless. The company acknowledged it was a common problem but still wanted $25 to fix it.

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