Choosing a headlight
The first step is to decide what kind of light you need. Do you only get caught out at night every once in a while, or is a dark winding path part of your daily commute? Are you more worried about throwing a lot of light ahead of you to illuminate your track, or would you rather be more visible to cars approaching from the side?
Here are our top picks and what they're best for. Check out the full list of headlights if you're looking for something else to match your needs!
Note (9/6/2014): Most of the lights on this page have since been replaced by newer models from the same manufacturer. I'm currently working on reviews for about 8 new lights, and will be updating this page as soon as I've tested the new candidates. In the meantime, keep an eye on the recent reviews page to read about new lights as they're tested! When purchasing, make sure to check the headlights database to see if another light might be a better deal.
Table of contents
The best bike light for commuters and casual off-road riding: Light and Motion's Urban Series
Everything about the Urban lights is nice. The build quality, the easy-to-use and sturdy mount, the optics, the extra side-LEDs, and all the other little details add up. Despite its name, the Urban is well suited to any kind of riding. Of all the lights I tested, I liked its optics the best. The lens spreads light very evenly, without any over-powering hotspots or any dead zones. Thanks to the amber side LEDs it also makes an excellent be-seen light, with over 180 degrees of visibility.
In July 2014 L&M released the Urban 2.0 series, available in 800, 650, 500, and 350 lumen versions, all of which are IP67 waterproof. I haven't used them in person as they were just released, but the specifications and design of all the new lights, particularly the optics, are very similar to the Urban 700 I reviewed previously.
Out of all of these, I think the Urban 500 is the best deal. That's plenty of light for most users, costs $100, and will likely be for sale on Amazon and other third party retailers for an even lower price soon. The Urban 350 is also a compelling choice for those who don't need as much intensity, but still want a high-quality light that's sufficient to light up the road and be seen. With an MSRP of $70, it's plenty of light for commuters and road riders, and at a good price. The older Urban series lights are still for sale too, and will likely drop in price as they're replaced by the newer models.
There are a few more reasons to buy a light from Light and Motion. Their customer support is prompt, friendly, and helpful. Their lights are manufactured – with much of the assembly done by hand – in Marina, CA; one of the last light manufacturers to do all of their assembly in the USA. Additionally, they were the first bike light manufacturer to adopt the FL1 standard, an industry benchmark for flashlights that measures and verifies brightness, battery life, water resistance, and drop rating. L&M is advocating for wider adoption of the FL1 standard in the bike light market, so that consumers know that the lights they buy are truly as bright as the label claims.
2nd favorite: Cygolite Expilion Series
The Expilion 700 is another of my favorites. Aside from the frustrating mount, it's a very solidly built and easy to use light. The beam is slightly narrower than the Urban 550's, but the extra 150 lumens make up for it. The Expilion 700 has been superseded by Cygolite's 2014 lineup, featuring the Expilion 680 and 800. The 680 is a particularly good deal, often available for under $90 on Amazon, and retailing for about $120 at local bike shops. These are the brightest reliable lights you can get for this price.
One of the most appealing aspects of the Expilion lights is their removable battery. Lithium batteries last longer than NiMH rechargeables, but still wear out eventually. With a removable battery, it's possible to replace just the battery - not the whole light - and allows you to carry extras for longer rides. Unfortunately, even though the shape of the battery stick clearly indicates that it's a single 18650 cell, there's no way to use your own: you have to buy the battery from Cygolite. There's also no external charger, so you can only charge the battery when it is inside the light. If they're going to use a proprietary case for a standard battery, Cygolite would do well to put the charging circuit on the battery itself so it could be charged separately while still using the light.
Best value: Cygolite Metro series
The Cygolite Metro has the best value of all the lights I reviewed. For just $50, the Metro 300 (now replaced by the Metro 360) has one of the best battery runtimes (7:00 on full brightness for the Metro 300), a unique steady-flash mode that illuminates your path while intermittently pulsing to grab drivers' attention, USB charging, and plenty of light output for most rides on roads and even paths.
The Metro 360 is also available in a combination pack with the Cygolite Hotshot, the top pick from our original tail light review. At just $80 on Amazon for the pair, this is likely the best combination for the price if you're looking for reliable, high-quality lights that aren't too expensive.
Last year Cygolite introduced the Metro 500, which has the same features as its predecessors with a higher output. I haven't ridden with the Metro 500, but checked it out in my local bike shop, and it's every bit as good as the other Metro lights I've extensively tested. It's a great deal for $55.
Although the Metro series lights are slightly more expensive than the Streak 280 (recommended below), you get a lot more light output for not much more cost, making the Metro lights the best value lights we've found.
Best bike light under $50: Cygolite Streak 280
The new Cygolite Streak 280 is nearly identical to Cygolite's Metro lights, but in a smaller, lighter package. With a peak steady-burn intensity of 280 lumens, it's bright enough to light up the road even in places where street lighting is unavailable, and the new Day-Lightning mode can boost its output up to 500 lumens for daytime visibility. The Streak also includes Cygolite's steady-pulse mode to light up your path while still providing extra visibility at night. Retailing for just under $50, it's the most versatile light we've seen for such a good price.
Best light-weight light for visibility: Serfas Thunderbolt
The Serfas Thunderbolt's novel design is well suited to being used as a safety light. It's quite bright, but the light is spread everywhere, making it great for being seen but mediocre for seeing the road. If you almost always bike on lighted roads or are rarely caught out after dark, this is a good choice for increasing your visibility. I'm also a big fan of the strap-on design, and its light weight is attractive as well.