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Light Bulbs

What to know before you buy vintage-style LED light bulbs

A new crop of LED light bulbs wants to combine modern technology with old-school looks. Here's what to look for as you pick one out.

You'll find all sorts of light bulbs in your local lighting aisle, but more and more, we're seeing bulbs that fall under labels like "vintage-style." The pitch for lights like these is pretty simple: new-age LED efficiency paired with old-school incandescent looks, right down to the fake LED "filaments" inside of the bulb.

Vintage-style bulbs started out as a nostalgic novelty for folks who weren't ready to say goodbye to the incandescent bulbs getting phased out by rising energy standards, but with big names like GE, Philips, Feit and others jumping in with the trend, they've become a legitimate category of their own. These days, most lighting aisles afford them their own, dedicated section.

That means that you've got plenty of choices if you're planning to pick one out. Here's what you need to know before doing so:  

It's all about aesthetics

Soon, Philips will release a new, king-size lineup of vintage-style LEDs.

Philips

Gone are the days when light bulbs were only made to last you a year or so. These days, a typical LED bulb that costs $5 will last you decades. As more and more people start using bulbs like those, people will start swapping out their light bulbs less and less.

That's why manufacturers have been so quick to embrace the vintage-style trend -- the new designs give people who might not need new light bulbs a reason to want new light bulbs all the same.

To that end, you don't need bulbs like these. They aren't any brighter, better or more efficient than standard LED light bulbs, at least not as far as specs are concerned. All that their distinctive designs offer is an aesthetics upgrade for setups where the bulb itself is visible. You know the look well if you've spent much time at trendy bars or restaurants, where bulbs like these are so popular that they border on cliche.

The good news is that if you're looking to jump in with the trend yourself, you've got lots of options. Shop around, and you'll find vintage-style bulbs in all sorts of shapes, sizes and designs, including globe-shaped bulbs, elongated bulbs and candelabra bulbs. Philips is even soon to release a super-size lineup of vintage-style bulbs as big as your head,

Many -- but not all -- vintage-style bulbs will cast noticeable shadows.

Ry Crist/CNET

The designs can make a difference

The twisted filaments inside of the Feit Original line of vintage-style LED bulbs look terrific, and they also eliminate most of those shadows since each diode shines straight out of the bulb.

Ry Crist/CNET

Most vintage-style LEDs achieve their looks by stringing the light-emitting diodes together into fake filaments inside of the bulb. The way those filaments are arranged can make a big impact on the way the light actually looks when you turn it on. 

For instance, vintage-style bulbs that arrange the filaments into tidy columns can lead to a more industrial look, whereas bulbs like the Feit vintage line that twist the filaments into decorative double helices can make for a more artistic appearance. Those twisty Feit bulbs are also good at dispersing light evenly and without shadows, since the design leaves each diode shining straight outward. Other vintage-style bulbs with multiple filaments can cast ugly-looking shadows when those filaments get in the way of each other.

Dimming is another design concern. Most of the options I found at retail were dimmable, but most of them also still showed at least some light flickering and buzz on the dimmer switches I tested them with. Issues like that are often caused by electromagnetic interference from the dimmer switch, and judging by my tests, decorative LEDs like these aren't any less susceptible to that sort of interference than standard LEDs. In fact, I wasn't able to find a single vintage-style LED that dimmed without issues in my tests.

Dimming performance will vary based on the switch you're using and a whole lot of other factors, too, so as always, if you're buying an LED with the intention of dimming it, make sure you hang onto the receipt. Fortunately, most major retailers make it easy to return a bulb if it doesn't dim to your liking, and most bulbs come with multi-year warranties, too.

Look out for misleading claims about brightness from vintage-style LED bulbs. In this case, a "60W replacement" should put out at least 800 lumens of brightness. 300 lumens isn't even close.

Ry Crist/CNET
walmart-great-value-100w-replacement-vintage-led

With nearly 1,600 lumens, this Walmart Great Value 100W Replacement LED was the brightest vintage-style bulb I could find.

Ry Crist/CNET

Many aren't as bright as advertised

Vintage-style LED light bulbs are often intended for exposed bulb setups -- they're made to be looked at. For that reason, a lot of them are intentionally less bright than bulbs that are meant to stay hidden under a lampshade.

There isn't anything wrong with that, but the problem is the packaging. In many cases, the bulbs are advertised using terms like "60W replacement" that make it sound like they're as bright as a normal 60-watt incandescent. And, in a lot of cases, these bulbs don't even come close.

As always, you should all but ignore those kinds of vague wattage replacement claims and instead, focus on the lumen count, which serves as a concrete, apples-to-apples indication of how bright a given bulb actually is.


EcoSmart 60W Replacement Classic Glass LED Feit Original 6.5W Clear Vintage Style LED Philips 60W Replacement Vintage Style LED Sylvania Ultra 60W Replacement Filament LED Walmart Great Value 60W Replacement Vintage Edison LED
Brightness (in lumens) 856 (800 stated) 300 (250 stated) 363 (350 stated) 832 (800 stated) 398 (350 stated)
Energy Usage (in watts) 7 6.5 4.5 6.5 4.5
Efficiency (lumens per watt, higher is better) 122.3 46.2 80.7 128.0 88.4
Color Temperature 2,805 K 2,211 K 2,080 K 2,751 K 2,155 K
Average Dimmable Range 7.9 - 100% 0.0 - 87.6% 7.8 - 93.5% 11.8 - 94.8% 12.9 - 97.4%
Lifespan 13.7 years 13.7 years 13.7 years 13.7 years 13.7 years
Warranty 5-year 2-year 3-year 3-year 2-year
Price $10.77 (4-pack) $9.46 $8.82 $8.98 $4.44

If you can't find the lumens printed on the front of the packaging, then flip the box over and read the "Lighting Facts" label. Anything less than 450 lumens won't be any brighter than an accent light. If you want a more practical level of brightness for something like a reading light, look for bulbs with at least 800 lumens.

One other note: the true 60W replacements that I tested -- the bulbs that put out at least 800 lumens of brightness -- tended to be much better bulbs overall. Specifically, I'm talking about the vintage-style LEDs from EcoSmart and Sylvania. Both were easily the most efficient of the bunch, and EcoSmart's was the best value, too, selling in a four-pack at Home Depot for about $10. Like the rest of the bulbs, they weren't great on dimmer switches, but if that isn't a concern they're both decent picks.

Just want the brightest bulb available? Head to Walmart, where you'll find a 100W replacement version of the "Great Value" store brand vintage-style bulb. With over 1,500 lumens to its name, it's the brightest vintage-style bulb I was able to find at retail.

Vintage style LED bulbs are hit and miss when it comes to color quality.

Ry Crist/CNET

Tinted bulbs like this vintage-style LED from Philips can compromise color quality.

Ry Crist/CNET

Consider color quality

Most vintage-style bulbs dial the color temperature way down in order to crank up the old-school aesthetic. That means that the light they put out will often be extra yellowy or even orange in appearance.

Some bulbs double down on this approach by taking the extra step of tinting the glass. This will typically give the light an artificially warm tone, and cast a candle-like, orange-tinted hue over everything.

That might be the exact effect you're going for, but if you'd rather have light that looks a little more natural -- and that doesn't distort colors quite so much -- then consider sticking with non-tinted bulbs.

sylvania-smart-filament-led-homekit-siri

You can control this Bluetooth-enabled filament LED from Sylvania using Siri voice commands.

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You can automate them

If you're worried about adding vintage-style light bulbs into a newfangled smart lighting setup, don't be. All of these LEDs will work with smart switches from names like Belkin WeMo and Lutron Caseta. You could also use one in a fixture that's plugged into a smart plug, then automate the plug to turn the fixture on and off at specific times, or control it using voice commands.

There's even a vintage-style smart bulb from Sylvania that syncs with Apple HomeKit, letting you control it from your iOS device, or by using spoken Siri commands. It's especially interesting given the lackluster results from my dimming tests -- a vintage-style LED bulb with its own, built-in dimming mechanism, and no need to use a dimming switch at all, might be just what the category needs. 

At any rate, that'll be one of the next bulbs I review, so stay tuned. Keep an eye on this space, too -- as I find new vintage-style bulbs to test out, I'll add any notable results to this post. And, like I said, there are lots more coming.