Projector vs. Reflector Headlights: What's the Difference?

LEDs are a bright idea for safely illuminating the way.

Car headlightShutterstock

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There's more to car safety than airbags and driving-assistance systems. Lights are such an important element of car safety that the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) now evaluates the lighting of new cars and factors their performance into the institute's safety ratings. Vehicle safety reports explain what advanced technology is available on a vehicle, including automatic high beams or curve-adaptive systems, while the institute also comments on excessive glare caused by the vehicle's headlights.

Headlights differ across the automotive industry, but more automakers are employing LEDs over the traditional halogen bulb or high-intensity discharge (HID) setups. LEDs are more energy efficient and emit more light that can look more natural compared to traditional bulbs.

If you want to upgrade your lights, you may have to choose between projector LED headlights or reflector-style LED headlights. Here's how they work.

Reflector Headlights are More Traditional

Reflector headlights use an array of mirrors to direct light toward the front of the vehicle. Traditionally, these headlamps are illuminated by a halogen light bulb, which uses a flow of electricity to light up a filament inside the bulb. The light from the bulb reflects off the mirrors in the housing to redirect the light.

Car owners may want to replace their current headlights with an LED setup, either for longevity (LED lights last longer than halogens) or brightness. Those with reflector headlights will want replacements with the LED in the same position as the halogen filament. There are reports that multi-diode replacements will reflect incorrectly and could be blinding to other motorists.

Projector Headlights Enable More Efficient Design

Projector headlights are similar, as they use a light source and a reflector, but they also use a special lens in the housing that magnifies the light and projects it ahead in a more focused beam in a consistent pattern. Projector headlights are said to have less glare and are less likely to blind oncoming drivers.

LED projector headlights are common on modern vehicles, as they're more energy-efficient than traditional bulbs and they can last a long time. The brightness of LEDs also helps make them ideal for illumination without as much impact to other drivers.

Consider, though, that retrofitting LEDs into headlight housings that aren't designed for them can be a challenge. LED lights typically need a heat sink or other items that might not be present on the vehicle. If you're thinking of installing LED projector headlights on a vehicle that doesn't use LEDs as stock or standard equipment, you may want to get a conversion kit that is specific to your vehicle so it includes all the necessary hardware.

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Sami Haj-Assaad
Sami Haj-Assaad is an award-winning automotive journalist who has contributed to several automotive, electric vehicle, luxury lifestyle, and technology publications. His work isn't just limited to the written word, as he's also hosted YouTube videos and podcasts. Having grown up in the '90s, he has a strong sense of attachment to that era's style, though he also loves to geek out about the modern, futuristic tech and powertrains rolling out today.