A website touting the Sylvania SilverStar headlight bulb says it provides “up to 30 percent” greater visibility down the road. That sounds impressive until you read the fine print: “compared with worn standard halogen” bulbs. Still, such claims are making premium-priced halogen bulbs an alluring choice for drivers.
To see how those premium bulbs stack up against one another, we put eight of them, costing $20 to $80, through a range of tests in our labs and at our test track. We tested the low-beam performance of single-filament (9003) and dual-filament (H7) bulbs from GE, Hella, Philips, and Sylvania, and PIAA’s dual-filament bulb. We also compared their performance with that of two standard bulbs from GE and Helio, costing $20 and $10, respectively, and to the original-equipment (OE) bulbs that came in our 2012 Hyundai Accent and Volkswagen Passat test cars.
We found that the premium bulbs, as a group, deliver a whiter light and up to 19 percent more output than the standard or OE bulbs, and that can be more pleasing for drivers. But none of the premium bulbs allowed us to see farther on our headlight test course than the standard or OE bulbs. That’s because distance is determined more by the size and shape of the lamp’s reflector or lens than by the bulb. We also found little difference in light output among the premium bulbs; no more than the differences normally experienced from power fluctuations while driving.
Bottom line. Premium bulbs might be a good choice if you prefer a more intense or whiter light, but don’t expect big changes in the distance you can see compared with standard or new OE bulbs. For the premium bulbs we tested, shop by price.
The illumination of any bulb fades with time, so we suggest replacing your bulbs every few years, not waiting until one burns out. We don’t advise mixing premium and standard bulbs. Output can also decrease if lamp lenses become hazy or dirty. Have them cleaned by a professional or do it yourself with a product such as the Sylvania Headlight Restoration Kit, which costs about $20. Check out our buying guide to headlight-restoration kits for more information.