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Light Bulbs

Pick the best LED light bulb for every room in your house

The right light for the right room matters. Here are our top tips.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Light bulbs have an enormous, everyday impact on the way our homes look and feel, and with a flood of new LED bulbs filling the lighting aisle, you've got more options than ever. But how do you pick the right lights for the job? The trick is to think about how you typically put light to use in the different rooms in your home. That, more than anything, will dictate your lighting needs. 

For instance, you might benefit from an extra-bright bulb in your favorite reading lamp, but prefer a gentler, more candlelike glow from the lamp at your bedside.

To that end, here are some room-specific tips to help you zero in on the right lights for your living space. Where appropriate, I've also included links to buy some of the top bulbs from our tests -- please note that CNET may get a share of revenue from those purchases.

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If you have high ceilings, you'll want floodlights that shine nice and bright in a single direction.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Lots of height? Make it bright

If you have rooms with high ceilings -- an entryway, for instance, or maybe a staircase with overhead lights up above -- you'll want to prioritize brightness in your light bulbs. After all, the higher up your light bulbs are, the brighter they'll need to be in order to light up the room.

The most common bulbs for overhead lighting are BR30-shaped floodlights. The "BR" stands for "bulging reflector," and it means that the light inside the bulb sits above a reflective bowl, sort of like a little satellite dish. Screw a bulb like that up into your ceiling, and that bowl will catch all of the upward cast light, then reflect it back down and out the bottom, which bulges outward to cast the widest possible pool of light across the room. It's the same trick your car's headlights use to cast as much light as possible out in front of you as you drive.

You've got plenty of BR30-shaped LED options in the lighting aisle. The most common among them are 65-watt replacement bulbs that typically put out about 650 lumens of brightness each. That's a good, average number, and fine for average-height ceilings with at least a few bulbs shining overhead. Among the ones I've tested, 65-watt replacement floodlights from Cree and Philips are the two I'd recommend. They're good values, they're highly efficient (each draws less than 10 watts), they work well with dimmer switches and -- most important for overhead lighting -- they're both nice and bright, each putting out comfortably more than 700 lumens.

If your ceilings are higher than average, or if you've got fewer bulbs shining overhead than you'd like, then look for 100-watt replacement BR30 LEDs that bump the brightness up even further. 

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Dimmability means versatility for your living room and bedroom

Some rooms serve just one or two basic functions, but other rooms get used in all sorts of ways. For instance, you might use your living room for watching TV, reading books, playing board games with the kids, or any other number of activities. Rooms like that can really benefit from lights that can adapt to whatever's going on.

You can dim smart lights like this $15 Philips Hue White LED nice and low without any flicker or buzz.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

The old-fashioned way to do it is to use a mix of different lamps and fixtures that serve different purposes -- a reading lamp beside your favorite armchair, overhead lights for board game night, everything off when you're watching a movie, and so on. That's all well and good, but it limits you to a binary, "on/off" lighting mentality. 

The better approach? Give yourself a full spectrum of lighting possibilities by making sure all of those lights can dim.

Upgrading your light switches to dimmer switches is one way to do it (and not nearly as intimidating as you might be thinking if you've never switched one out before). There are also smart plugs from brands like Lutron that'll let you dim your lamps up and down.

The easiest way, however, is simply to upgrade your bulbs to smart bulbs. It's a great time to do it -- costs have come way down in recent years, and the advent of voice controls has given people a quick, easy way to jump to whatever setting they like, whenever they like. 

Best of all, just about every smart bulb on the market will dim without flickering or buzzing, eliminating a common headache that comes with in-wall dimmer switches. That also makes smart bulbs especially good picks for bedrooms, where strong dimming performance and things like prescheduled wake-up fades can do wonders for your mood in the morning.

On the left, a bowl of M&Ms lit by a standard GE LED. On the right, the same bowl lit by a GE Reveal LED, which does a much better job at making colors look vivid and true.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Consider colors in your kitchen and your closet

I'm not talking about color-changing smart lights (though if you want to jazz your home up with them, don't let me stop you). No, I'm talking about the colors that are already in your home -- artwork, furniture, the clothes in your closet, the fruits and veggies in your kitchen, you name it. 

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Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Whatever it is, if it's colorful, then it'll benefit from light bulbs with high color rendering scores -- bulbs that help colors look their best. This isn't always the easiest thing to shop for, as manufacturers aren't required to list their color rendering scores on the packaging, like they are with brightness and efficiency specs. Some bulbs that do claim to be great with colors are actually just so-so.

My tip: Just stick with GE Reveal bulbs, because after about five years of reviewing light bulbs for CNET, I've yet to test one that hasn't delivered on its promise of better-looking colors. That includes standard 60-watt replacement LEDs, floodlights, weird-looking stick-shaped LEDs and more. They tend to cost slightly more per bulb, and most are a little less bright than the average LED because they filter out some of excess yellow light -- but those compromises are worth it if you're using them to light up the spots in your home where you'll appreciate accurate, better-looking colors day in and day out.

And that's really the point -- despite regularly taking them for granted, we use light bulbs more than just about anything else in our homes. They're often the first things we turn on in the morning and the last things we turn off before going to bed. So don't let the lighting aisle overwhelm you -- finding the right lights for each room in your house is well worth it, and much easier than you might think.

Originally published April 13 at 4 a.m. PT.