The best candelabra LED might not be on the market yet

If you're looking to upgrade the bulbs in your chandelier, you'll find a lot of LED options in the lighting aisle. Are any of them worth the extra cost?

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Chandeliers are annoying.

There. I said it.

All it takes is one little bulb burning out and the whole thing becomes an eyesore hanging in the center of your living room. And, if it's hanging as high as the chandelier in the front hall of the CNET Smart Home, you'll need to drag a ladder into your house to fix the problem. What's more, if you're using incandescents, it won't be long before another one burns out -- they're typically only rated to last about 1,000 hours.

See what I mean? Annoying.

The obvious answer here is to make the switch to LEDs. Along with the efficiency upgrade, most of them promise to last for tens of thousands of hours, letting you keep that ladder out in the garage where it belongs. But there are two problems. Firstly, unlike more common kinds of bulbs, candelabra LEDs are still more expensive than they ought to be.

Secondly, most of them aren't very good.

For those two reasons, my advice is to give the category some time to catch up by holding out with incandescents, fluorescents or halogens for another year or two. As appealing as it might be to upgrade today, the value just isn't there yet. And given that you use the lights in your home every day (and will presumably be living with any LEDs you buy for years, if not decades), it's worth waiting for the performance to improve, too.

The tests

I didn't come to my "don't upgrade to candelabra LEDs yet" position lightly. I went from store to store scooping up every 40W candelabra LED I could find, then retreated to the dark confines of our lighting lab. From there, I spent about 18 hours running tests and taking readings.

I measured each bulb's brightness, color temperature and color rendering score in our spectrometer and integrating sphere setup, and verified that each bulb was as efficient as claimed. I tested how heat build-up affected the performance of each bulb. I examined the direction and quality of each bulb's light spread. I tested out their dimming capabilities on three different dimmer switches.

Though none of the bulbs I tested were true standouts, a few of them did better than others, and might merit a look if you're itching to upgrade today.

The best of the bunch

Let's start with the assumption that you want your bulbs to dim. Nine of the bulbs I tested were dimmable, so you've got plenty of options -- but unfortunately, each and every one of them flickered at least a little bit when I tried dialing the light up and down. Not good.

The Cree TW Series 40W Equivalent Candelabra LED.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

The bulb that dimmed the best was the Cree TW Series 40W Equivalent Candelabra LED. It dimmed down all the way to zero percent on two of the three switches we test our bulbs on. One is a Lutron slider switch designed for LEDs, the other is an old rotary knob meant for incandescents. It didn't flicker on either one.

I wasn't quite able to get the Cree bulb down to zero on my third switch, a Leviton slider designed for dimmable LEDs. I also caught a very light amount of flicker. Your dimming mileage will definitely vary based on what hardware you're using.

The good news is that Cree's bulb sells in a $20 three-pack, putting the price per bulb below seven bucks. That essentially ties it with the EcoSmart 40W equivalent for the title of most affordable dimmable candelabra LED. I'd prefer a dimmable bulb that sold for less than $5 (especially since you'll probably want to buy several of them) but for now, it's the best value you'll find.

If you don't use dimmer switches, you can save some cash by going with the non-dimmable 40W equivalent candelabra LEDs from Philips. They sell in a $10 three-pack, putting the price per bulb just above $3. They didn't blow me away in any of my tests, but they held their own. They're the bulbs I'd probably get for that chandelier in the CNET Smart Home, which doesn't use a dimmer switch.

Honorable mentions

From left to right, the EcoSmart Vintage-Style Candelabra LED, the standard EcoSmart Candelabra LED, and the Philips Warm Glow Candelabra LED.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

EcoSmart's "vintage-style" candelabra LED arranges its LEDs into a fake filament to help disguise it as an incandescent. The design was hit and miss. It's a bit bulky, and there's ugly fine print stamped directly onto the glass for some reason -- but it also puts out light evenly in all directions better than any other bulb we tested. Plus, it's both the brightest and the most efficient of the bunch. Too bad it costs $10 a piece.

Ecosmart's standard candelabra LED is slightly more reasonable at just under $7, right in line with what you'll pay for the Cree bulb mentioned earlier. It was also the top performer in our thermal management tests, where we track how heat build-up affects each bulb's performance. If you need a candelabra LED for an enclosed fixture, where heat gets trapped, it's almost certainly the one you should go with.

On the other end of the spectrum was the Philips "Warm Glow" candelabra LED. It came in dead last in that thermal management test, but it isn't a bad pick for a fixture that isn't enclosed. The bulb dims down nice and low with only minimal flicker, and drops the color temperature towards the orange end of the spectrum as you dim it down. Cool trick.

The rest of the bunch

Here are the other bulbs I reviewed for this roundup, along with the main reasons I wouldn't recommend them.

Ry Crist/CNET

The bottom line

GE Reveal 40w Incandescents like this one would make a good holdover pick until LED prices come down.

Ry Crist/CNET

If you're itching for a more efficient chandelier with bulbs you won't need to change out again for a while, you have a couple of LED options that'll do the job. But there's room for improvement across the category, both in terms of performance, and in terms of price.

With respect to performance, I'm holding out for LEDs that offer flawless, flicker-free dimming, and also ones that do a better job of putting out light evenly in all directions, the way that incandescents do. Just compare the GE Reveal incandescent to the right with the motley crew of LEDs up above. Most of them don't cast nearly enough light downward, where you need it most. Only a few come close to the same sort of uniform light spread.

As for price, we've already seen LED costs fall dramatically in other categories -- most notably your common, household 60W bulb. Very decent, non-dimmable LED options are selling for well under $5 these days, while well-reviewed dimmable 60W replacements can be had for a few dollars more. I'd like to see candelabra LED prices fall a little closer to that level (if not lower) before I start switching out the bulbs in my home.

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