Mixing delicate electronics, high operating temperatures, powerful batteries, mud, rain and regular crashes isn't easy. Yet reliability is absolutely vital, as light failure at speed on technical terrain is no joke. Happily most of the lights here have proved 100 per cent reliable on the trail (just don't go jet washing your bike with lights still attached).
Make sure you can position the light where you want it, and that it'll do the job. Spot lamps are no use solo on tight singletrack, and a badly placed helmet light will drag your lid down or wring your neck. Check that bigger lights will actually fit on the curve of your handlebar without sitting at a crazy angle. Tiny Li-Ion battery packs can strap under stems but curvy shaped modern frames (often without bottle cage mounts) can be a lot harder to attach batteries to. You may need an extended cable to reach batteries slung under the down tube.
Once you know which lights fit you and your bike, look at what power wattage suits you. Obviously budget is a big factor here, as is what level of light you find comfortable to ride with. A good 3W LED or 10W halogen light with a semi-focused beam is the minimum for safe riding on trails you know well. Double that power will mean you can get a move on in the middle ring, without being startled by unexpected obstacles. A normal HID lamp is so bright it pretty much gives you 'access all areas'. However, boosted HIDs or double sets can actually give too much light, and you'll be fighting to see through reflected glare and drowned detail, particularly in damp, muddy or misty conditions.
The longer you ride, the more battery run time you'll need. Most brands sell extra batteries (often at a discount if bought with the light) so you can always swap halfway. Check your batteries are properly prepared for maximum performance (this should be in the instructions) and take a back-up until you know you can rely on their run times. Also make sure the charger meets your needs. If you often need to re-juice in a hurry, get a fast charger; car chargers are great for 24-hour races.
How we tested them
At this time of year everyone suddenly becomes a lights expert. People selling them, people making their own 'that's odd, it normally works fine' bodges, and people who've just read a sales pamphlet start rattling on about lumens, candlepower, amp hours, wattages, over or under volting, diffusion, heat sinks and ballast circuitry.
This is all lovely, and so are the reams of figures that companies produce to show that their light is best, but there's one big problem: have this lot been out at night in all weathers since mid summer testing more than 50 light sets before selecting the final 14? Have they ridden with multiple sets every ride, for true head-to-head testing? Have they bar mounted them, head mounted them, ridden down steps with them, hosed them to check waterproofing, and then recharged them and started all over again? Have they heck!
The boffins can calculate whatever they want, but the only numbers that matter are those here in our scores. (The weight given is for the complete unit: light, battery, cables and mount.)
A measurement of battery capacity. The bigger the capacity the longer your lights will run.
Best of the conventional bulb types. Cheap and easy to replace, but power-hungry so needs big, heavy batteries.
High Intensity Discharge. A metal halide lamp that uses a tiny but extremely bright striplight bulb that only draws 10W but produces more light than a 40W halogen bulb. Gives that distinctive blue/white alien light of BMW headlamps.
Light Emitting Diode. A solid state 'lamp' that's far more durable than HID bulbs for a similar sort of efficiency and light colour. Still an emerging technology, so power outputs are limited to avoid meltdown as they have cooling issues.
Lithium Ion. The most expensive but lightest, most efficient battery available. Also the easiest to look after in terms of charging/recharging and therefore a very good thing.
A measurement of the amount of visible light a source emits. With no standard way to measure it for bike lights, most figures can't be usefully compared.
Nickel metal hydride. Cheaper battery type that's reasonably robust in a charge/recharge sense but heavier and bulkier than a Li-Ion for the same capacity.
Charger that senses how full/empty the battery is and adjusts its efforts accordingly rather than burning down your house.
A measurement of power. You'll often see bike light outputs quoted as 'equivalent to a 20W halogen bulb' for example.
HID lamp unit manufacturer. Almost universal.
Electron Nano 1 Watt
Ultimate PursuitsType: 1W LED Weight: 156g Run time: 30hrs+
This little light is typical of the large number of small LED torch style lights available now, but it's one of the nicest made we've seen. The beam isn't powerful enough to ride off-road with, but it'll get you along the road/path on the way to and from the serious stuff. It lasts pretty well too and its compact size leaves your bar uncluttered.
It's had some horrible weather chucked at it and handled it fine - and the big button on the back can't be missed, however cold your fingers are. The thumbwheel tightened mount has a QR slot to speed up fitting, too. The only downside is its reliance on CR123A batteries, which are expensive, and not as easy to find as AAs, but with run times this long things could be worse.
Verdict:Decent emergency/commuter light but not powerful enough for off-road use
BLT Ozone 21ne
Windwave Tel: 02392 521912 Type: 4W LED Weight: 168g Run time: 4.25hrs
Torch-style like the Electron, but with a more powerful LED. The beam is far too focused for off-road handlebar use on its own because the illuminated pool is tiny. But, if you stick it on your head with the supplied helmet mount, it's got a great long distance punch for picking out detail. It's great for winter training on tarmac and the rubber strap with clip lock clamp is easy to attach.
Run time is good and it's great initial value compared to competitors like the USE Joystick. Using two CR123A batteries makes long term running costs very high though, and there's no dimmer beam option. There's also a 1W version with 17hr burn time for £44.95.
Verdict:Tidy helmet spotlight but long term value suffers due to battery costs
Ultimate PursuitsType: 2 x 5W LED Weight: 874g Run time: 2.8-17hrs
If there was a prize for indulgent design Blackburn would win by a finned, fancy plastic mile. The twin 5W LED system comes with a spot and flood head to give a reasonable depth and breadth of illumination with both LEDs running, and a long reach for road or a short spread for slow singletrack. With three levels of dimming you can juggle output and run time, while locking battery connectors stop your leads pulling out.
The giant NiMH battery has an expanding Gore-Tex lining for total waterproofing and the whole set comes with a lifetime defect warranty. It's hugely bulky though and you'll struggle to fit it on a lot of frames, which seems to negate all the natural advantages of compact LEDs.
Verdict: Thoughtful detailing and decent light performance but bulky and heavy battery
Dinotte Lithium Ultra 3W
On OneTel: 0796 767 3709 Type: 3W LED Weight: 290g Run time: 6.8-11hrs
The smallest light on test, the Lithium Ultra still pumps out just enough power for proper off-roading. Dinotte gives plenty of light options: 3W and 5W singles, doubles (triples due soon) plus a choice of Li-Ion or AA battery packs. The 3W Ultra tested here gives the cleanest beam, with just enough light to go at decent speeds on trails you know. Run times are amazing - especially if you dim it on climbs or simple sections.
The little battery bag can be stowed anywhere and, judging by what the phenomenally bright matching back light has been through on our tests, all Dinottes are super tough and weatherproof. O-ring bar mounting is simple but totally secure and a helmet mount is included too.
Verdict: Ultra compact, minimalist but long-running light with loads of options
Cateye Triple Shot Pro
Tel: 01845 521700 ZyroType: 3 x 3W LED Weight: 510g Run time: 3.3hrs
Another three-lamp header, this is as good as LED units get. The beam is fairly focused but has enough spread to weave through trees, outshining the Solidlight. The little Li-Ion battery nugget gives impressive run times, with two lower power options for extending burn times when cruising. The light's Flex Tight bracket will fit anything and the remote switch is a nice touch too.
However, for comparable cash you can buy HID lamps that'll still (literally) overshadow it for depth and sheer power. The dinky Double Shot Pro (£259.99) packs an impressively rangy punch, but the beam is too focused for anything but road or helmet use.
Verdict: Powerful multi LED, multi feature lamp but still outshone by similarly priced HIDsHID Lights
Hope Vision HID
HopeType: 10W HID Weight: 548g Run time: 2.9hrs
Hope's HID combines innovative stem mounting with decent performance and a low price. The Welch Allyn 10W unit throws out easily enough depth and breadth of bluey white light for uncompromised riding. There's no low power option or low battery warning, but extra batteries are a bargain at £41.
It bolts to a special Hope stem plate (choose oversize or normal) but other plates are available for different brands of stem. The small metal Li-Ion battery box slots underneath for perfectly aligned lighting. The really neat new CNC alloy 'universal' bar mount/bag battery version is even cheaper at £265. Screw-up waterproof connectors and the well protected bulb enhance practicality. This a great light for the money.
Verdict: Simple, straightforward HID power with great mounting options equals top value
Smart HID Alloy
Fisher Tel: 01727 798345 Type: 10W HID Weight: 416g Run time: 2.6-3.7hrs
Smart have normally followed, not led, the lights market, but that's changed with this fully integrated HID light - the first we've seen. It uses the same Welch Allyn lamp unit as most other HIDs, but it's the weakest output here and power fades noticeably as the battery drains. A lower power setting adds an hour of run time, and spare batteries are £69.99.
The alloy Thermos flask style body is neatly made with O-ring seals all round, a soft rubber switch, and an impressively light weight - it's the lightest HID here. Despite initial worries, it was rock solid on the bar with no movement or bouncing even on long downhills or stepped descents. Price is reasonable and while the unit is bulky, there are no cables to worry about.
Verdict: Innovative integrated HID. Slightly dim but lightweight and decent value
Lumicycle Halide 2006 Plus
Lumicycle Tel: 0870 757 2229 Type: 2 x 10W HID Weight: 1,094g Run time: 3.5-7hrs
Lumicycle's twin HID range-topper offers a 12-degree flood beam and a 6-degree spot, giving masses of breadth and depth in typically blue white, high definition halide colour. Run times are healthy with both lights running off the big Endurance bottle battery. A bagged version or lighter Pro and Elite batteries are available. Lumicycle also do single HID units starting from £269.99.
The actual CNC lamps are robust and the quick release cam mounts are reasonably secure if you check the screws regularly, but they run very hot. Also, it's easy to knock the toggle switch or pull the plugs out accidentally, which is a real drawback.
Verdict: Robust and long running double whammy HID, but connector and switch quibbles
Lupine Edison 5
Tel: 01845 521700 ZyroType: 10W HID Weight: 520g Run time: 3.6-6hrs
Our reigning ber light, the Edison's performance is boosted even further for 2007. The neat, cool-running unit uses a standard 10W Welch Allyn head with smart circuitry boosting output to a whopping 65W halogen equivalent. The lightweight, fit-anywhere bag battery has increased capacity for seriously long run times on the low power setting that's still as bright as most HID lights.
The beautifully simple O-ring mount is secure and foolproof, while battery indicators grace both the programmable remote switch and smart Charger One recharger, making it a very user-friendly system. Reliability is excellent, and a head mount, connector grease and car charger are included as standard, which makes the price easier to swallow.
Verdict: Huge power, long life and easy use make this our favourite, if money's no object
SuperNova Xenon P99-D
WiggleType: 2 x 14W HID Weight: 822g Run time: 2.1-4.3hrs
Another German maker, the SuperNova is the ultimate in metal halide power. Our 2007 X9 sample lights were nicked in transit, so we had to substitute the spectacular P99-D. Two boosted HID lights (one spot, one flood) in a double-headed mount are equivalent to 120W of halogen light. This car headlamp intensity will illuminate the woods as far as your eyes can usefully see.
The insane price buys military grade hardware and software for controlling battery life for optimum longevity, although reliability wasn't always 100 per cent. The big headlamp is awkward to fit on high riser bars too, and they only come with a bottle battery option. We'll have improved 2007 sets on test as soon as we can get them.
Verdict: Insane lighting power but bulky, restrictive fitting and equally crazy price