2016 Light Roundup

It’s no secret that bicycle light technology has improved by leaps and bounds. The current crop of lights have more power, run longer, and cost less than last year’s offerings. Whether you’re a hardcore commuter or avid recreational rider, there’s bound to be a light that fits your budget and requirements.

Lights generally fall into one of two categories–see by, and be seen lights. The former are brighter, and enable the rider ride safely in areas without ambient light sources (e.g streetlights). The latter, on the other hand, are mostly used for improving cyclists’ visibility in low-light conditions (think urban riding).

Manufacturers specify light output in lumens. Generally, the more lumens, the brighter the light. For my testing, I separated the lights by output. Those lights with a rating of less than 100 lumens were considered be seen lights, while lights rated over 100 lumens were classified as see by lights. This article covers the lights with 100+ lumens.

Model Max Output
(lumens)
Weight
(grams)
Price
(USD)
Bontrager Ion 700 RT 700 142 $139.99
CatEye Volt 800 800 152 $130.00
CatEye Volt 1200 1200 235 $220.00
Knog Blinder Arc 640 640 150 $119.95
Knog Blinder Road 250 250 75 $79.95
Planet Bike Blaze 650 XLR 650 128 $94.99

I tested the six lights over a period of several months in a variety of conditions including rain and snow. Approximately 25% of the testing took place at freezing, or sub-freezing temperatures. It was in those conditions where I really came to appreciate controls that could be operated easily when wearing heavy gloves. Beam photos were taken with an Apple iPhone 5s (flash turned off, light on highest setting). Aside from being reduced in overall size, I left the photos as-is. Each light was mounted at a height of 30 inches (parallel to the ground). Reflective markers were positioned at 28 feet, 65 feet, and 105 feet. The beam photos were taken on a nearby multi-use path measuring eight feet wide.

light test markers
Reflective markers positioned at 28′, 65′, and 105′ The red marker in the middle was much less visible than the two silver markers.

Each of the lights tested feature rechargeable, self-contained batteries, and charge via USB ports using the included mini- or micro-USB cables. Knog’s lights are equipped integrated USB plugs, which connect directly to USB ports or adapters. Thanks to adjustable handlebar mounts, all of lights can be installed or removed without tools. For additional mounting options, Knog includes helmet mounts with the 250 and 640, and CatEye offers optional helmet and fork mounts.


Bontrager Ion 700 RT
Bontrager
The Bontrager Ion 700 RT proves that good things do come in small packages. Despite the light’s compact form factor, it boasts five different modes and support for an optional wireless ANT+ remote. The 142 gram weight belies the Bontrager’s sturdy construction, and the adjustable Sync bracket is both secure and user friendly (with one of the best quick-release latches on the market).

Whether you’re running in low, medium, or high mode, the Ion 700 RT’s beam is well-shaped and efficient. Unlike some lights that use completely circular optics, the Bontrager’s focused optics doesn’t waste a large portion of its output by lighting up the sky or trees. The end result is more light where you actually need it, and less likelihood of blinding oncoming motorists or cyclists. For improved side visibility, the Ion 700 features twin amber ports which operate in all five modes.

If you position your light in a hard-to-reach spot, Bontrager’s Transmitr wireless remote is an absolute godsend. My commuter is equipped with a Pass and Stow front rack which features an integrated mounting tab. The tab positions the light out of the way, but operating it while riding can be tricky. Thanks to the Transmitr remote, however, I was able to safely toggle through the Ion 700’s modes without taking my hands off the bars.

Mode Output
(lumens)
Runtime
(hours)
High 700 1.75
Medium 450 3.00
Low 200 6.75
Flash 50 22.0
Strobe N/A 40.0

CatEye Volt 800
CatEye-2
CatEye‘s lights may not have the catchiest names, but the company has earned a solid reputation by offering durable, reliable products, and the Volt 800 is definitely no exception. Used alone or as a secondary light, the 800 is one of more versatile units that I tested. Although the CatEye’s mounting bracket looks a bit dated, it’s extremely secure, and easily accommodated my MTB’s 35 mm diameter RaceFace bars, as well as the oval Zipp drops on my commuter.

The Volt 800’s beam provides excellent near-field illumination via the bright, cone-shaped concentration of light. As with the more powerful Volt 1200, finding the 800’s optimal mounting height required some experimentation. The sweet spot turned to be right above the front tire using CatEye’s optional fork crown mount. Attaching the Volt 800 to the Pass and Stow rack’s mounting point worked almost as well, but my commuter’s mid-fork braze-on mount positioned the light too low, focusing much of the beam directly in front of the wheel.

CatEye’s interchangeable handlebar, fork, and helmet mounts proved to be extremely versatile and convenient. I could use the Volt 800 for the paved portions of my commute (where I rarely needed anything brighter than the middle setting), and then swap it to my helmet for the off-road sections (using the Volt 1200 as my main light). And when I didn’t feel like switching lights (or I’d forgotten the 1200), the Volt 800’s highest setting was adequate for off-road use at speeds under 15 mph.

Mode Output
(lumens)
Runtime
(hours)
High 800 2.00
Medium 400 3.50
Low 200 8.00
Hyper-Constant 800/200 7.00
Flash 200 80.0

CatEye Volt 1200
CatEye-3
The Volt 1200 is the largest and heaviest light that I tested, but the extra bulk translates into higher power and longer run times. Twin LEDs pump out a trail-worthy 1200 lumens, and the 6200mAh Li-ion battery yields run times as long as 17.5 hours (150 lumen setting). The Volt 1200’s additional 80 grams (compared to the 800) make it a little heavy for helmet use, but the CatEye FlexTight™ bracket never slipped under the 1200’s weight.

CatEye’s 1200 is one of the few self-contained light that’s at home on the road or the trail. The light’s lowest setting is ideal for urban use or riding at dawn or dusk. On the middle setting there’s enough light for fast-paced road riding in remote areas, and on high the 1200 lumens proved worthy for non-technical off-road use. Like the Volt 800, the 1200’s beam was best when the light was mounted just above the front tire.

Compare the 1200 and 800 beam photos and you’ll see that the two lights’ beam shapes and coverage are very similar. I would like to see CatEye take advantage of the 1200’s extra output and tweak the optics for a slightly wider beam pattern. This would improve coverage when navigating tight corners and switchbacks, making the Volt 1200 even more capable for off-road use.

Mode Output
(lumens)
Runtime
(hours)
High 1200 2.00
Medium 450 5.00
Low 150 17.5
Hyper-Constant 1200/150 14.5
Flash 150 100

Knog Blinder Arc 640
Knog-3
When you hear the name Knog you probably think of the small, brightly colored Frog lights that were popular with urban riders a few years ago. Knog still offers those little be-seen lights, but the Australian company’s Blinder models are light years ahead of their amphibian predecessors. With its silicone and hard-anodized aluminum construction, the Arc 640’s fit and finish is excellent. Color-coded LEDs indicate mode and charge/battery status, and the magnetic quick-release clasp is convenient and secure.

The Blinder Arc 640’s elliptical beam does an outstanding job of evenly distributing light where it’s needed. While Knog’s beam may not have the sharp cutoff found on StVZO-compliant lights, it’s a huge improvement over those that use perfectly circular optics/reflectors. And because of the 640’s efficient beam, I was able to comfortably ride using the low and medium settings, reserving the brightest setting for only the worst conditions.

Knog’s integrated USB plug offered convenient charging–with, or without the included cable–and it certainly lived up to the company’s waterproof claims. Although I came to appreciate the 640’s top-mounted LED charge and battery indicators, the unit’s small button was difficult to operate with gloved hands.The included helmet mount was compatible with the helmets I tested (Bell, Lazer, Louis Garneau), but the Blinder Arc worked best as a primary light source when mounted on the handlebars or a front rack.

Mode Output
(lumens)
Runtime
(hours)
High 640 1.70
Medium N/A 3.30
Low N/A 7.30
Flash N/A 15.0

Knog Blinder Road 250
Knog-1
Knog’s Blinder Road 250 may be the smallest and lightest of the bunch, but it boasts more operating modes than any other light that I tested. Want a wide, flood beam? Check. How about a narrow spot? Got it. Maybe a combination beam? Yup. Flash? No problem. While the Road 250 shares the same mount as the larger Arc 650, the 250’s ultra-compact form factor makes it an excellent choice for helmet use with the included helmet mount.

With a maximum output of 250 lumens, the Blinder Road obviously can’t compete with the company’s more powerful Arc 640. That said, the 250 was surprisingly capable in the wide/high and narrow/high settings. Where the Blinder Road really excels, though, is helmet use. The light’s ultra-compact size and feathery 75 gram weight make it virtually unnoticeable, and when combined with the infinitely adjustable mount, all but eliminates neck strain.

Knog also offers a more powerful Blinder Road, the 400. It’s 30 grams heavier, and a few millimeters larger, but the 400 has longer run times, and the highest settings are 160% brighter. I wasn’t able to test the Blinder Road 400, but unless you absolutely must have the smallest and lightest lamp, the 400 is probably a better option.

Mode Output
(lumens)
Runtime
(hours)
Narrow (high) 250 1.20
Narrow (low) N/A 2.00
Wide (high) N/A 1.20
Wide (low) N/A 2.00
Dual (high) N/A 1.00
Dual (low) N/A 2.50
Eco flash N/A 5.00
Flash constant N/A 3.00

Planet Bike Blaze 650 XLR
PlanetBike
Designing bicycle lights is all about compromise. You need to balance output/power, battery life, weight, and price. Planet Bike‘s Blaze 650 XLR reflects the company’s years of lighting experience with a headlight that’s well-suited for a range of disciplines and terrain. The Blaze 650 XLR may not be the brightest light in the test, but it offers a well-balanced mix of power and runtime.

The Blaze 650’s beam has a noticeable, fan-shaped hot spot, but the LED’s mild yellow tint helps reduce the spot’s harshness. In actual use, the hot spot was much less noticeable than in the beam photo. Near-field visibility was excellent thanks to the light’s wide, even light distribution. The translucent section on the underside of the light’s body helps improve side visibility, but I’d like to see Planet Bike use amber-colored material for more contrast.

The Blaze 650 XLR is a huge step up from Planet Bike’s original 1W and 2W Blaze headlights. With more power, and the convenience of rechargeable Li-ion batteries, the 650 XLR is welcome upgrade over the company’s older models. The 650 comes with the company’s QuickCam™ mounting bracket, and while it can be installed or removed without tools, resizing the sliding band is somewhat finicky due to its ratcheting, ziptie-like design.

Mode Output
(lumens)
Runtime
(hours)
High 650 2.50
Medium 350 6.00
Low 220 10.5
Flash N/A 40.0

Disclosure: Bontrager, CatEye, Knog, and Planet Bike provided review samples for this article, but offered no other form of compensation in exchange for editorial coverage.

8 thoughts on “2016 Light Roundup

  1. Really nice roundup. Hard to believe how the technology has improved and the prices have come down. Back when I was doing some solo 24 hr. racing in the early to mid ’00s I was paying out a crap ton for heavier lights that weren’t nearly as bright. The Bontrager one looks super interesting to me.

    1. Yeah, it’s amazing how much power/run-time you can get for $100 now. I have some expensive five-year-old lights that were considered to be state of the art at the time, and the CatEye 1200 is brighter, smaller/lighter, and about one-third the price. I have a Gemini Olympia under test, and it’s unbelievably bright, has a good run time, and costs a fraction of what comparable lights sold for a couple of years ago.

      Bontrager’s wireless remote is really handy. No more stopping to switch modes or turn on a light.

  2. I’m hoping you have the Light and Motion Urban series in test now. They also are fabulous lights. I run the 350 on low (about 75 lumens) and it is fine for riding on almost any surface.

    1. Unfortunately, I don’t have anything from L&M. Part-II will include rear and see-me lights from Bontrager, CatEye, Knog, and Planet Bike.

  3. Are you aware of any available StVZO-compliant battery lights since Philips went away? Dyno, sure, but battery?

    1. I have a pair of B&M (Busch and Muller) Ixon Core lights, which are StVZO compliant (about $80 from Harris Cyclery, or Peter White Cycles). This model has a Li-ion battery with a USB charge port.

      I mount the pair on the handlebars either side of the stem, slightly pigeon-toed to get a wider overall beam but still overlapped and brighter in the center. The output of these German lights is stated completely differently than most lights sold in the U.S. – the Ixon Core on high power is 70 Lux (lumens per square meter) at the distance specified in the German road laws (I vaguely recall it to be 10 meters). High output (i.e. hundreds of lumens) doesn’t help if much of it is aimed in directions you don’t need.

      The sharp cutoff at the top of the beam is exactly like a car’s low beam headlight, and greatly minimizes the glare to oncoming cars, cyclists, or runners. It’s perfect for road riding. Off road, you actually do need a flood type beam (i.e. most bike lights sold in the U.S.) in order to illuminate branches and other overhead hazards.

  4. Had the Knog and liked it save for:
    1). Bracket slipped on rough roads; and
    2). Battery would stick at one end of the barrel it was contained in and not charge.
    Screwed the light to an early NiteRider bracket which solved the first problem but the sticking gradually became worse until I retired the light. Sha,e as I really liked the beam shape. Unfortunately, I could not return it as I had lost the receipt.

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