Daylight-toned LED light bulbs: Which one should you buy?
You've got a lot of decent LED options if you like neutral-toned light. Here's how to pick the right one.
Ry CristSenior Editor / Reviews - Labs
Originally hailing from Troy, Ohio, Ry Crist is a writer, a text-based adventure connoisseur, a lover of terrible movies and an enthusiastic yet mediocre cook. A CNET editor since 2013, Ry's beats include smart home tech, lighting, appliances, broadband and home networking.
ExpertiseSmart home technology and wireless connectivityCredentials
10 years product testing experience with the CNET Home team
Give a kid some crayons and ask her to draw a light bulb, and the chances are good that she'll color it yellow. Not everyone's a fan of that low, yellowy color temperature, though -- some people like their light a little more neutral.
That's where "daylight" bulbs come in. With color temperatures jacked up to the 5,000 K neighborhood, the result is pure white light without the drowsy yellow tinge. And sure enough, LED manufacturers are jumping on board, with a growing number of daylight LED options joining their soft white siblings on the lighting aisle shelf. But which daylight bulb is the best?
That's exactly what I wanted to find out. So, I hopped in the car and headed out to my local retailers (Lowe's, Home Depot, Target, and Walmart) to scoop up every dimmable 60W replacement daylight LED I could find. I ended up testing six bulbs, and though none of them emerged as a clear favorite, the good news is that you've got a lot of decent options.
All six of these bulbs are very similar -- so much so that each one got a seven-point-something for an overall score. But dimming performance is a big differentiator for people with dimmer switches in their home -- the last thing you want is an LED that flickers when you try to dial the lights down low.
For that reason, the Cree 4Flow Daylight LED is an easy recommendation if you need a daylight bulb that dims. Along with the standard-shaped daylight LED from Philips, it was one of only two bulbs that dimmed without a noticeable flicker . Of the two of them, it's the cheapest at $6 each, and also the one that dims down the lowest, with an average minimum setting of 5 percent. Philips barely goes below 10 percent.
It's far from perfect, though. Despite claiming a light output of 815 lumens, the Cree bulb came in at a disappointing 625 lumens in our spectrometer and integrating sphere setup. That's almost 25 percent less light than advertised, and as close to a 40W level of brightness as it is a 60W level. If that dimmer-than-expected light output is a deal-breaker, then go ahead and spend the extra $2 on that standard-shaped Philips bulb, instead.
If you know you aren't ever going to use the light with a dimmer switch, then you should save some money and go with something that's explicitly nondimmable, like the daylight version of the GE Bright Stik LED, which you can get for about $3 per bulb. With dimming out of the equation, these daylight bulbs are all very, very similar, so the cheapest one will almost certainly be a good option.
But for the sake of argument, let's say that you might want to use the bulb with a dimmer switch at some point. Dimming performance isn't your top concern, but you'd still like to have the option of being able to dim your bulbs.
In that case, I'd recommend the Philips SlimStyle Daylight LED, which costs $5. To our eye, the SlimStyle bulb offered the best light quality, with a pure, neutral tone of light and noticeably strong color rendering capabilities. Plus, it's better than average on dimmer switches, with only an occasional light flicker at low settings.
Other choices worth considering
The GE 60W Replacement Daylight LED is right behind the SlimStyle bulb as a good budget pick for people who aren't too worried about dimming performance. It wasn't the best at anything, but it didn't have any notable weakness (outside of a noticeable flicker when I dimmed it). And, at $5 each, the price is right -- especially considering the fact that it comes with a category-leading 10-year warranty.
The Walmart Great Value 60W Replacement Daylight LED is another daylight option worth keeping in mind. At just $4 a piece, it's the cheapest dimmable daylight LED I could find from a major retailer -- and it beat out both the Cree 4Flow and Philips SlimStyle bulbs in both brightness and efficiency.
The Sylvania 60W Replacement Daylight LED did even better, though. No other bulb I tested was brighter or more efficient, and it offered a very high quality of light. It was also the clear standout in my heat tests, which makes it my top daylight pick for use in enclosed fixtures, where heat gets trapped. It isn't very good on dimmer switches, and it's pricier than I'd like at eight bucks each, but it's a solid bulb nonetheless.
After testing each bulb's specs in our integrating sphere, we took a good, hard look at light quality. Each bulb did a nice job, but there are some subtle differences to be aware of.
For instance, take a look at those lamp shots up above. As you can see, each bulb looks more or less the same under a lampshade, and each one does a nice job of casting out an omnidirectional field of light both above and below the bulb. If you squint, though, you'll see that some of the bulbs look slightly more whitish and less yellowy than others.
All of the bulbs aim for a color temperature of 5,000 K, so that's where we white balanced our camera. As a result, the bulbs that look the most like true white in these shots are the ones that come closest to that 5,000 K target. Specifically, the Sylvania and Philips SlimStyle bulbs look a little better than the rest, and sure enough, if you scroll back up to that chart from earlier, you'll see that they're the ones that come the closest to 5,000 K.
We also took a look at each bulb's color rendering capabilities. Aside from a good excuse to run out and buy M&Ms for my office mates, this is a good way to get a sense of how each bulb might illuminate the colors in your home.
All of the bulbs did pretty well, but again, if you squint, there are subtle differences. Focus on the orange M&Ms, and you'll have an easier time seeing them.
Again, the Philips SlimStyle and Sylvania LEDs seem to do the best job, with rich, saturated colors and a natural tone to the wooden table. The Philips, Walmart, and GE LEDs all produce colors that look slightly washed out. The table is even more of a giveaway -- you can see some of that yellow light you're trying to avoid creeping in and tinting things just a bit.
Finally, I made sure to take a look at how well each bulb held up to heat. Like most electronics, LED light bulbs will see their performance dip as things get hot, which is why they typically include heat sinks, convection vents, or some other form of thermal management. This means that there's a bit of a battle going on every time you turn an LED on -- it heats up, the brightness starts to dip, and then the thermal management kicks in to help hit an equilibrium known as the "steady state."
You can see the steady states pretty clearly in that graph up above -- they're the point at which each bulb flatlines and puts out a steady level of brightness (and also the point at which we rate their lumen outputs). A bulb with a higher steady state up in the green zone is a bulb that does a good job keeping heat at bay. Ones that finish down in the red zone are especially susceptible to heat.
The results are clear to see, too. The standard-shaped Philips bulb came in dead last there at the bottom, so I wouldn't recommend using it in an enclosed fixture, where heat gets trapped with the bulb. On the other hand, the Sylvania LED kicked butt, only losing about 10 percent of its initial brightness to heat. That's a great result, making it the best choice for enclosed fixtures.