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Projector Headlights vs. Reflector Headlights: What’s The Difference?

Projector Headlights vs. Reflector Headlights

If you are looking to upgrade your car in the near future, you might come across two terms you might not have heard before: projector and reflector headlights. These two families of headlamps are the dominant technology when it comes to how vehicles light up dark roads at night. If you did not know that there are two types of headlights competing in the market today, you are not alone. For a long time, reflector headlights were so prevalent that most people didn’t know that there was a completely different option. Now, due to new technology and modern design sensibilities, more and more cars are shipping with projector headlights instead of reflectors.

So, what is the difference between projector and reflector headlights? Is one better than the other? Which type is right for you? Let’s dig in.

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Overview of Projector Headlights:

Projector headlights are a specific type of headlamp technology. Projector headlights use a combination of a small, curved lens and minimal reflectors to create intense beams of light that are fairly narrow in size and shape. Projector headlights have been gaining popularity in recent years, and high-intensity discharge (HID) bulbs are being used in projector headlamp assemblies. HID lights are the bright blue beams that are created by electrifying xenon gas and give off a bright light. Projector headlights use a focusing point to force all of the light through a smaller area which is what creates the tighter beams of light.

Projector headlights are smaller and more recessed than reflector headlights. Many people like the look of projector headlights over reflector headlights. They are more modern looking and have more versatility in their design by the car and part manufacturers.

However, projector headlights are more complicated than reflector headlights. This makes them more expensive to build, more difficult to service, and less common than reflector headlights. Most older vehicles still use reflector headlights and finding parts and bulbs for projector systems can be harder than finding typical halogen bulbs.

projector headlight
Image Credit: BLKstudio, Shutterstock

How To Identify Projector Headlights

Projector headlights are distinguishable by their exterior lens. The front of a projector bulb has a bulbous lens that sits on the outside of the light. The result is a light that looks similar to an eye with a lens over the top. These headlights are often small, circular, and recessed into the front of the car.

What Bulbs Go Well With Projector Headlights?

The best types of lights for projector headlights are HID bulbs. These modern lights use xenon gas to produce intense blue light. Many projector headlight assemblies are designed to be used with modern HID lighting fixtures. Certain types of modern halogen bulbs can also be used in projector headlights, but they won’t produce as much light as HID bulbs. Some people put LED lights into their projector headlamps but LED headlights were largely designed to be used with old reflector housing rather than projector headlights.

Pros
  • Modern aesthetic
  • Bright confined beams
  • Latest technology
Cons
  • More complicated
  • Harder to service
  • More expensive

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Overview of Reflector Headlights:

Reflector headlights are considered to be the old technology by many car enthusiasts today. Reflector headlights use a very basic bowl to reflect the light of the bulb onto the road. Reflector headlights have been in use for decades, and they are the easier and more well-known technology when it comes to headlamps.

Reflector headlamps have a much wider dispersion of light compared to projector headlights. This bathes the road in a dimmer light but gives a larger field of view. Due to the nature of an uncontrolled reflective dome, reflector headlights have more waste than projector headlights. The light is reflected in a more chaotic pattern. This creates a wider field, but it also dilutes the light a lot more than projector headlights.

Since reflector headlights are older and clunkier in their design, they are falling out of favor with many designers and car enthusiasts. The reflector headlight assemblies have a larger and uglier footprint than the more confined projector headlamps. From Jeeps to motorcycles to sports cars, people are moving away from reflectors to projectors based on the aesthetic alone. But looks aren’t everything. Reflectors have a long and reliable history of illuminating roadways all over the world.

mechanic holding a reflector headlight
Image Credit: DiPres, Shutterstock

How To Identify Reflector Headlights

Reflector headlights are what many people would consider standard or normal headlights. These fixtures can be identified by their large shallow surface that is coated in a mirror-like material. Reflector headlights are the most common type of headlights, and they are found on most vehicles, especially older vehicles. The reflector headlight has a single bulb at the back of the unit that shines into this shallow bowl which produces the light needed to illuminate the road.

These headlights are larger and more pronounced than projector headlights. Chances are if you did not know there was a difference between projector and reflector headlights, reflectors are the ones that will first come to mind.

What Bulbs Go Well With Reflector Headlights?

Typical halogen bulbs are usually your best bet for reflector headlights. These bulbs aren’t as bright as some of the other options, but they are the cheapest and easiest to find and replace. LED bulbs are often designed with reflector headlights in mind but in some cases, LED lights can be too bright and wide for use on typical roads. If you are looking to get more light out of an old reflector headlight unit, then LED lights can be considered as an alternative to dimmer halogen bulbs.

Pros
  • Easy to service
  • Tried and true technology
  • Cheap
Cons
  • More light waste
  • Generally dimmer
  • Not as stylish

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FAQs

Are Projector or Reflector Headlights Better?

Modern projector headlights are the latest technology. Reflector headlights are now being seen as the older version of headlamps. However, one is not necessarily better than the other. Reflector headlights are cheap, easy to work on, and have a long track record of success. Reflector headlights do not generally blind oncoming drivers, and they provide a very wide field of light when driving.

Projector headlights produce a narrower and more intense beam of light. They often give off that bluish hue that is associated with modern vehicles. The projector headlights do not give off intense light in as wide of a field as reflector headlights, but they are generally brighter. The newest variable light technology that allows for adaptive dimming and brightening are based on projector headlight technology.

The bottom line is if you think your headlights are bright enough for your daily use, you likely don’t have to change them. Most people don’t even know if they have reflector or projector lights which means the differences can’t be all that pronounced. Both types of technology are good enough to pass federal standards, and both are being used in the design of new vehicles.

Car headlights
Image Credit: Pexels, Pixabay

Are Projector Headlights Better Than LEDs?

Some people believe projector headlights are better than LED headlights because projector headlights are designed to produce a bright, confined beam of light. LED headlights are striving to replicate the projector headlight system in a reflector harness. Reflector headlights were never designed with the intention of having LEDs inserted in them. For that reason, some people prefer projectors because they were designed to naturally produce the type of light LEDs are trying to replicate.

However, some people still prefer LEDs. LED headlights are extremely bright, but the reflector base makes it so this light is widely dispersed and creates a lot of “light waste” as well as potentially dangerous brightness for oncoming drivers.

Can You Change Reflector Headlights To Projector Headlights?

Technically, yes. But the swap from old reflector headlights to projector headlights is not an easy one. It is not a change that an average driver will be able to make at home on their own. Electrical and mechanical expertise is needed in order to replace reflector lights with projector headlights. Some aftermarket body shops or custom car electricians will be able to do the job, but it is not without risks.

Going from reflector headlights to projector headlights is not as simple as swapping out a bulb. The entire headlamp assembly with all to be removed and replaced. That is not a job that average drivers should attempt to undertake on their own without the proper background.

Headlights are an important safety feature of all vehicles, and having something go wrong with your headlights can be dangerous. In almost every case, it is better to stick with the native headlight system that your vehicle came with than try to replace the entire headlamp assembly.

car and road divider

Conclusion

When it comes to safety and functionality, neither projectors nor reflectors are necessarily better than one another. The main differences lie in their design and the way they output light rather than one being strictly better than the other. In most cases, if you have one type of headlight on your vehicle, that is the one you should stick with. However, there might be cases when you are shopping for a new vehicle where you might want to know the difference between these two things and know how to spot them at first glance.


Featured Image Credit: DiPres, Shutterstock

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