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The Best LED Lightbulb is the Cree Warm White

By Margery Conner, Wirecutter

LED light bulbs have come a long way in just a few years, but today, they're cost effective, provide quality lighting, and are less environmentally harmful than all other options. Here's the one you should buy.

I've been writing about the electronic design industry for over 15 years and I’ve never seen an LED light bulb with a better combination of features than the Cree. At $13, it’s dimmable, has high quality color, is long lasting, has a 10 year warranty and makes as much light as a 60-watt incandescent bulb. It’s my new favorite LED light bulb.

I started DesigningwithLEDs.com to cover innovations in LED technology with an eye towards new applications. And by “cover” I mean tear brand new products apart, determine their components and design innovations, and interview the technology experts with leading-edge semiconductor and lighting companies to get their views on the directions this fast-moving industry may take. I’ve written about and analyzed the world of electronic design for the past fifteen years, working at publications like EDN and as program manager at live events like DesignCon. I have a BSEE and worked as a design engineer and engineering manager.

Why Now is a Great Time to Buy LED Bulbs

David Pogue, veteran technology columnist for the NY Times puts it bluntly: “Start buying LED light bulbs.” A couple years ago, this wouldn't be the case, but nowadays, it just makes sense. They're cost effective, provide quality lighting, and are less environmentally harmful than all other options.

LED light bulbs have come a long way in just a few years: The first bulb I opened up in 2010 was a 40W-equivalent that produced 560 lumens from 7W which it cast over a 120-degree angle, compared to the almost 360-degree throw of an incandescent or CFL bulb. It was non-dimmable, retailed for about $25, and came with a 1-year warranty. (A similar bulb died in my home after two years due to a lousy solder joint.)

Just three years later, you can buy a Cree’s 60W-equivalent that produces 800 lumens from 9.5W with a light pattern similar to an incandescent bulb. It dims flawlessly and costs just $13, and Cree backs the bulb with a 10-year warranty. The company is a technology innovator in solid-state lighting, having developed one of the first practical white LEDs which opened the door to energy-efficient solid-state lighting. You may not be familiar with Cree’s name, but its LED components light up such modern lighting projects as San Francisco’s airport and the exterior skin of the Beijing Water Cube swim stadium. Other lighting manufacturers have tried to borrow some of Cree’s quality cachet by advertising their LED bulbs as using Cree LEDs: “Cree inside” instead of “Intel inside.”

Energy efficiency and the resulting cost savings are the reasons you should be considering switching to LED bulbs. Although the Cree bulb’s $13 initial cost seems pricey compared to an incandescent, its savings in energy costs over its lifetime of 23 years results in an energy savings of $139, assuming the bulb is on for 3 hrs/day and energy costs $.11/kWh. (And assuming it lasts that long.)

But let's start by talking about the technology in modern LED bulbs.

LEDs are Better Than CFLs

However, justifying the purchase of a bulb on how it stacks up next to an incandescent bulb’s energy efficiency is a bit of a straw-man: The real competition is CFLs due to the elimination in January 2014 of 60W incandescent lights which cannot meet the lighting efficiency standards of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. And CFLs do have some impressive numbers: A 60W-equivalent CFL can produce 800 lumens from 13W (vs. the Cree’s miserly 9.5W), can operate for as long as 10,000 hours, and you’ve probably seen them at big box stores for around $1.50. However, for a buck and a half you are not getting a light that compares favorably with either an old-style incandescent, or, more importantly, the Cree LED 60W-equivalent.

Low-end CFLs emit a warm white light and come on instantly. But they do not dim, nor will they operate in an enclosed fixture because the lack of air circulation causes their electronics to overheat and fail. In addition, “Instant-on” for such a CFL means it comes on quickly but not at full brightness, and dimming is often mediocre. They don’t like being turned on and off quickly (as happens in a closet or hallway), nor being operated upside down so that their heat cooks their power base. For an apples-to-apples comparison, a CFL with similar specs to the Cree–i.e. 800 lumen, 2700K–will run you $14. At which point, you might as well get the Cree.

Besides, it's not just cost-savings that make LEDs a better choice, LEDs are less bad for the environment as well. All CFL bulbs contain mercury, which means disposal and any breakage is a concern. This can be a deal-breaker for many people since mercury is a toxic heavy metal that persists in the environment

What I Looked For

Some de facto standards have emerged for LED bulbs: The light output should be equivalent to a 60W incandescent bulb–both in amount of light produced (at least 800 lumens) and in area covered (it should emit light in all directions, not just cast a spotlight on one area); the light quality should be a warm white (2700K-3000K); it should be able to work in an enclosure such as a track light or fan light fixture without shortening its life; it should be dimmable (meaning no flickering, even at the lowest settings); it should preferably be silent (less common than you might think); it should have at least a 5-year guarantee (but the longer the better); and it should cost less than $15. (That last one is a groundbreaking new thing–last year’s best bulb that met that criteria cost over $25.)

Our Pick

I’ve seen all the major bulbs out there and the Cree light fulfills all these specifications and is the only bulb that meets the sub-$15 price point. It’s available in three versions: The 60W-equivalent version at a warm 2700K light that uses 9.5W and costs $12.97; a 40W-equivalent version, also at 2700K that uses 6W and costs $9.97; and a 60W-equivalent version that has a “daylight” white light at 5000K and uses 9W and costs $13.97; all from Home Depot, at present the exclusive seller.

It’s worth noting here that the “best” color temperature is often highly subjective. While most people seem to prefer the warm (redder) 2700K lights, which are a closer match to incandescent light, some prefer the (bluer) 5000K. Our preference for warm colors may date back to prehistoric times when firelight was the only available artificial illumination. During the day when the sun is high, blue light is more prevalent. Redder, warmer light can be a signal that the day is winding down and it’s time to relax. Consider 5000K bulbs for an application such as a study area.

As you can see in these pictures from DesigningWithLEDs.com, the Cree does a great job of providing full coverage comparable to that of an incandescent.

In my review of the Cree on DesigningWithLEDs.com, I noted that the Cree was easily dimmable with no visibile flickering effects across all ranges of light output when using a variety of different dimmer switches. This is uncanny for an LED bulb of this price. It was also completely noiseless, even with my ear only 12 inches away. I concluded my review saying, "The light is warm and pleasant, the dimming excellent, there is no annoying noise, and it costs less than $13. Go buy one – it’s a great value and supplants my previous favorite LED replacement bulb, the Best Buy Insignia."

If you want to know more about the specifics of what makes the Cree work from an engineering perspective, I'll point you to my review, where I go in depth into the guts and construction of the bulb. I also put up this subsequent Q&A with Cree that goes into even more detail about specific aspects like circuit design. But you don't necessarily need to know why or how it works to know that this is one seriously impressive bulb.

The only downside of the Cree is that it has a reported coloring rendering index (CRI) of 80, which is acceptable, but not great. For reference Popular Mechanics conducted extensive independent tests and found that incandescent bulbs score about 100, which means you see all the colors of the rainbow, and most CFLs and LEDs fall somewhere between the 80-90 range. It's similar to listening to music in lossless versus MP3 formats–the incandescent provides you with the uncompressed light spectrum, but it uses a lot of energy, whereas the LED will give you enough to to think you're seeing the full spectrum, but uses 1/6th of the power. Most people will be perfectly fine with the LED and the energy savings, but for some people the difference is noticeable and it's worth paying extra to get better colors (museums and art galleries, for example).

Every reviewer who's laid eyes on it has reported seeing light that looks much better than CFLs and similar to incandescents.

It's worth noting however, that the Cree's CRI is Cree's own reported figure and that independent testing may show it to be higher or lower. But if we're going off of independent reviews, I'd bet my money on the over. Every reviewer who's laid eyes on it has reported seeing light that looks much better than CFLs (CRI ~83) and similar to incandescents (CRI~99). Basically, even if it has a lower CRI, you're unlikely to notice the difference.

Who Else Likes It

The Cree bulb meets with near-universal acclaim from reviewers: Sal Cangeloso, managing editor at ExtremeTech, Geek.com, and the author of LED Lighting: A Primer to Lighting the Future, says, “I think it's the best choice overall, and it's a sure-thing at the three price points. Testing for the past few weeks has just reinforced my opinion that it's a nice bulb and something that is going to win a lot of people over.”

Bloomberg’s Rich Jaraslovski says, “…unlike some compact fluorescents, the light is very comparable to what you’re used to. I replaced the bulb in the lamp on my nightstand with one of Cree’s warm-white 60-watt equivalents and couldn’t tell the difference. And unlike a conventional bulb, it stays cool enough to touch even when it’s been on.”

Sean Hollister of The Verge also tested the bulb and says, “Not only does Cree's bulb look like a traditional incandescent, with a nice warm glow, but it throws light in almost every direction as well. Many existing LED light bulbs have a fairly narrow configuration of diodes that can cast a rather uneven pattern, but Cree's is better than most, with an "LED filament tower" of LEDs that hits almost every spot evenly except the very top of the bulb. They turn on immediately with no perceivable delay.”

The Competition

The Cree bulb beats out The Wirecutter’s previous pick, the Philips L-Prize bulb, based primarily on price: Despite several price cuts since its introduction, the L-Prize bulb still sells for over $25. The L-Prize bulb bests the Cree in a couple areas. The first being light output. The L-Prize generates 940 lumens from 10W compared to the Cree’s 800 from 9.5W. If those extra 140 lumens are important, you may want to pay the higher price. The second is CRI. The Phillips has an exceptionally high CRI of 93, which means it's capable of showing almost all the colors of the rainbow. But keep in mind that the Cree bulb has a markedly better warranty: 10 years vs. Philips’ 6 years. In addition, the Philips has a slight but noticeable lag at turn-on. It then comes on at full brightness, with no warm-up like CFLs require. This lag annoys some people.

Philips has recently introduced two new bulbs that come in at a lower price than the L-Prize bulb, although neither matches the Cree’s price. The $20 Philips 11W dimmable bulb is slightly brighter than the Cree at 830 lumens but requires 11W of energy, making it slightly less efficient. If you want the Philips-shaped bulb but without the L-Prize bulb’s yellow-when-off bulb cover, this bulb may appeal to you.

The newest Philips bulb is the 10.5W 800 lumen non-dimmable bulb that sells for just $14.97, the first of these Philips bulbs to break the $15 price point. Philips cut costs by not including dimming — as Philips Lighting CEO Ed Crawford points out, only one in ten installed light bulbs are connected to a dimmer. However, the Cree bulb dims very well and still sells for $2 less.

The lack of dimming and the higher price meant that the Philips bulb was going to have to poop shiny gold coins for me to award it top marks, and sadly, this was not the case: In addition to those drawbacks, the Philips bulb has a “sno-cone” shape, which means that the bulb emits light only in a half-spherical pattern. However, this can be fine if you’ll use it in a spotlight fixture.

The rest of the bulbs that are in this price/performance range but are not worth considering are:

  • Best Buy’s Insignia bulb, 13W, 800 lumens; $18. A nice bulb, but the price is still too high.

  • The 3M bulb,13W, 850 lumens; $24.88. It dims poorly and is much larger and heavier than competing bulbs.

  • The 12W Zenaro, 810 lumens; $25. Another sno-cone shaped bulb.

It's also worth noting that all of these models are less efficient than the Cree, taking 12W or more to produce the same 800 Lumens of the 9.5W Cree.

What To Look Forward To

Have LED bulb prices gone as low as they can go? Not at all. Philips has already said it will come out with a sub-$10 60W bulb this year. Virtually all of the major CFL manufacturers have LED divisions, and competition has only just begun to heat up in the replacement bulb market.

However, pricing in this market is a race to the bottom. Lighting companies have been at pains to offer LED bulbs that replicate the performance of incandescent bulbs and are compatible with legacy fixtures and switches. Innovative designs and applications – with greater profit margins — will become the norm when lighting companies go beyond designing commodity incandescent replacement bulbs and begin to exploit the advantages of LEDs, such as color control, or integrated sensors and microcontrollers for room occupancy detection and daylight harvesting. As a preview of things to come, consider the Philips Hue system, where the LED bulbs’ color and brightness are controlled by your network router. ($200.)

In the meantime, at $13 with a 10-year warranty, the Cree bulb has emerged as the clear winner for LED 60W-replacement bulbs. For the first time, there’s little doubt you should consider these for all your home lighting needs.

This story originally appeared in The Wirecutter, published 4/08/2013 and reprinted with permission.