2006 LED Lights
By James Sharp
We cyclists are, as a rule, outdoors people. Whether we ride on road, off road, commute, race or run errands we are outside. This time of year, we can end up doing quite a bit of riding in the dark. Sometimes, in larger cities, you can rely on ambient light – streetlights and other light sources. Off-road the only light comes from what you bring with you. Back roads are a mixture of the two – there aren't any streetlights for miles, but the occasional car drives by and washes out your headlight. This breaks lights into two categories; lights to see by, and lights to help others see you. LED (Light Emitting Diode) based lights used to – until about a year ago – fall only in the "be seen" category and not in the "see" category. That is no longer the case. We've rounded up 11 lights that feature new, higher power Emitter technology. We've broken the lights down to the following classes: single 1 Watt LED, single 3 Watt LED, greater than 3W or multiple LEDs.
Single 1 Watt Emitters
Single 3 Watt Emitters
Greater than 3 Watt and 3 Watt Multiples
In order to simplify things, click on the comparison chart below and it'll open in a new page. Rather than rehash the specs over and over, I'll just refer you to this chart.
Since there are three basic light situations – city riding, or lots of ambient light; occasional ambient light; no ambient light – we'll be using them for comparison purposes. For example, a light that might be fine when there is no ambient light, i.e. off road, might not be adequate on a road that changes from no ambient light to having other light sources frequently, i.e. car headlights.
LEDs have a white light, very similar to the light a High Intensity Discharge (HID) light puts out. This makes them a good choice for those looking to add a secondary light to a HID. Since they are a different color than a halogen, combining halogens and LEDs, like combining halogens and HIDs can be distracting.
So, let's get started!
Single 1 Watt Emitters
Princeton Tec Eos
I reviewed the Eos in the beginning of 2005. At the time I said, "I would not use it off road for anything but an emergency light. This isn't the fault of the light; rather it is just a real limitation of any low power light. On the flip side, the Eos has a really long run time, and by using alkaline batteries it has a great shelf life—something to think about for an emergency light." This light provides the least illumination of any of the lights this time around, but it also costs the least, by far.
The Eos comes with both helmet and handlebar mounts. No charger is included, but the light comes with 3 AAA alkaline batteries. I wouldn't use this light alone. That being said, it makes for a convenient helmet light without wires. I have nearly wrenched my head off on numerous occasions by taking off my hydration pack without unplugging my helmet mounted light – having no wires means and end to this nuisance.
As a stand alone light for off road use, the lens doesn't gather and project the light well enough, even though it is the same Luxeon LED that is used in the other 1W lights. I would pair it with a handlebar light, however. At $40, it makes a great backup light, or a cheap way to get light where you are looking on tight single track. I tried the light with both the 1W and 3W LED lights, and found that the Eos worked better with the lower powered lights because your eyes are already adjusted to the lower light output.
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Nite Hawk Emitter helmet mount
Nite Hawk has had their Emitter line of lights for about a year. The line consists of the Emitter, Digital Emitter, Emitter helmet mount (tested) and Digital Emitter helmet mount. The bar mount versions of the light mount the light head to the battery case, which is then mounted to the bars. The helmet mount versions separate the battery case and light head, though the Emitter helmet mount still comes with both a handlebar mount and the helmet mount. I think that this is the one to get. I like the option of mounting on the helmet or on the bars. The light head can rotate 360 degrees, though it is a ratcheting type of adjustment so it is possible to get the beam almost straight, but not quite.
Nite Hawk uses solid-state optics, like the other lights in this review; however, they developed their own Total Internal Reflector (T.I.R.) rather than use an off-the-shelf lens – all of the lenses in this review are designed for T.I.R, but Nite Hawk's is unique. This helps Nite Hawk put more of the available light out in front of the rider. Like the other 1W lights, the Emitter is definitely a spot beam.
The helmet mount is easy to use, and allows for a good range of tilt adjustment. The spot beam is great up top, especially when paired with a flood handlebar light. On the bar, the cam mechanism enables the light to be quickly removed and replaced. The mount is designed to place the light head over the stem and is reversible.
Our review light didn't come with a charger but, rather, 4 AA alkaline batteries. Rechargeable batteries can be used, and they would make the discharge curve a little flatter. According to Nite Hawk, the run time wouldn't change appreciably with the use of rechargeable batteries – they list the same burn times.
I found the light output to be very good considering the low power consumption. That is really the strength of this light. It puts out enough to ride by, and it lasts over 14 hrs before dropping to 20%! I mean, there is enough light, if you were to get lost mountain biking, to get you through the entire night, in the winter! The light head itself is light enough to not be a bother on the helmet, though it does protrude a bit up top – take care riding under branches.
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Single 1 Watt Emitter summary:
The real strength in these lights is the low weight, long burn times and adequate light. As a group, these lights are good in city conditions where you aren't worried about seeing the road as much as being seen. The color and brightness makes these lights stand out in a sea of headlights, taillights, streetlights and lighted signs. They fair well when all the lights go out, too. Once your eyes adjust, there is enough light to ride by, whether on the road or off. Off road, I would use them helmet mounted, or combined with a helmet mounted light. There isn't enough peripheral light for tight single track when used on the bars alone. Unfortunately, they don't do so well on roads with intermittent lighting. The problem is that most other lights outshine them. This causes the beam to wash out, your eyes to adjust to the new light, then leaves you in the dark momentarily while your eyes adjust back to the dimmer light from the LED. Not good.
The price spread among these two 1W LED lights is $40, and the difference in the amount of light produced is even greater. The spot beam on the Nite Hawk is almost as bright – and, in some cases brighter at the spot – as the 3W lights. It also comes with both helmet and handlebar mounts, but bring your own batteries. The Princeton Tec Eos is a carry over from Princeton Tec's hiking lineup. It's fine for walking, but doesn't put out enough light for serious riding. Nevertheless, it is only $40 and works fine as a complimentary light to another, more powerful, headlight. So, who wins? I have to give the prize to NiteHawk. It's not the cheapest, but it has a decent spot and is considerably brighter than the Eos, with a killer run time to boot. Hopefully you have a drawer full of AA rechargeable batteries like I do.
Single 3 Watt Emitters
CygoLite HiFlux 200
CygoLite has long been known for its inexpensive halogen lights; quality lights that put out enough illumination without breaking the bank. Their LED lineup features the HiFlux 100, HiFlux 200 (tested) and Dual Cross 300.
The HiFlux 200 arrives with the water bottle shaped battery, charger, light head and handlebar mount in the box. A helmet mount is available separately. The handlebar mount is easy to use and doesn't require the use of tools. The light is mounted ahead of the handlebars, rather than on top of it, and has 10 degrees of horizontal adjustment. The bezel surrounding the light extends forward a little on the top to keep the light out of the riders' eyes when standing. A clip-on lens will spread out the beam, making it more of a flood than a spot, at the cost of spot intensity.
The bottle shaped battery is nice if you have bottle cages on your bike. The length of cord is adjustable as well – loosen the nut where the cord enters the battery and either stuff the cord in to shorten it, or pull it out to lengthen it. Tighten the nut back up and you are set to go. Should you opt for the helmet mount and wish to carry the battery in your pack, or if you don't have a bottle cage then the shape is less than ideal.
I really liked the handlebar mount. It isn't a cam type, rather it requires that you loosen the thumbscrew all the way. Normally I don't like this, but the CygoLite mount is so easy and lightweight, I didn't mind at all. The thumbscrew is small enough that it doesn't interfere with surrounding cables and the mount itself is made of flexible enough plastic that it isn't a chore to open it up to fit around the bars.
Overall, I found that spot was not only bright, but that the light as a package was easy to use. There are two drawbacks, other than the shape of the battery if it doesn't fit your bike or pack. First, the charger is the slowest of the bunch. I would have liked to see a smart charger, even if it was overnight. This one does not give you any indication that the battery is charged. The other charging quirk is since the charge current goes through the switch; you'll get the fastest charge if the switch in left in the "On - High" position. There is no visual way of determining the switch position, other than plugging in the light head and seeing how much light it puts out. Second, The beam is really tight. This gives the spot more light, but doesn't light up the rest of the road as well as the other 3W LEDs. The removable flood lens helps, but at the expense of shining light far down the road or trail.
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DiNotte Lighting Ultra 3
DiNotte Lighting is a relative newcomer to the lighting scene. Where other companies cut their teeth with halogen and HID lights, DiNotte's first product was a single 5W emitter. The Ultra 3 is their helmet-mounted light. Simply put, this is the most diminutive helmet light I have ever seen. The total system weight is low, but even more amazing is the fact that the 1-inch diameter light head only weighs 95 grams. You simply cannot feel the added weight on your head.
The battery pack is simply 4 AA NiMH rechargeable batteries. This means that you have to remove the individual batteries from the pack to charge them. This is a nuisance but keeps the cost down. I got pretty good at swapping the batteries, but never liked it. On the plus side, AA batteries are plentiful and the technology is constantly improving. The lights ship with 2300 mAh batteries, but as capacities increase you can purchase new batteries for little money and increase the run time of the lights.
The run times aren't anything to write home about, though. As you can see, the light holds its output constant for about 2 hours, and then cuts down the power. The saving grace is that the light will not turn off. Once the power is reduced, the light is locked on until the batteries are dead. The up side is you won't be left in the dark, the downside is you can deep discharge the batteries, reducing their life substantially.
As a bonus, the back of the light head has two small red, "normal" 5mm LEDs, effectively giving you a headlight and a taillight in one unit, provided the light is not mounted on the handlebars.
The light mounts to the helmet mount using the same silicon O-ring that DiNotte's other lights use to mount to the handlebars. This means that the Ultra 3 can be mounted to either right out of the box – and that every other DiNotte light head can use the Utra 3's helmet mount.
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Blackburn System X3
Blackburn is known more for their pumps and blinking LED taillights than headlights. The System X series brings them to the cutting edge of lighting technology; and they jump in with both feet. The X3 light comes with both helmet and handlebar mounts. The light head ratchets for horizontal adjustment and the handlebar mount does not require that the thumbscrew be taken out for removal.
The helmet mount… I like and dislike the helmet mount. I like how easy it is to put on the helmet, I like that it doesn't move once on the helmet. I like that it isn't too heavy but I hate that you can't adjust the tilt on the fly. It requires you remove the light head (easy), loosen a screw (again, easy), adjust the tilt (easy) and put the light head back on (very easy). The problem isn't any one of the steps, but that there are steps at all. I like to reach up, tug the light head into place, and be on my way, not adjust the light head check to see if it is where I want it and if not, go through the whole process again. On the plus side, once it's set – if you don't swap helmets – it is set every time.
The light itself projects a spot beam with little spillage. The light head is fairly compact -- I'd say small if DiNotte wasn't in this review -- and not very heavy. The switch is a "soft touch" variety that works well, but doesn't give very much tactile feedback to the user, something that cuts down on the ease of use a bit with gloves.
The battery, on the other hand, is the light's downfall. The run time is good, almost great actually – it'll run over 3 hrs before dimming on high. The problem isn't even the size or weight. It's not that big and it's not that heavy. The problem is that it is the wrong shape. If it were thinner, no problem. If it didn't have angles and connections sticking out all over, no problem. But the large square shape with points all over it doesn't work well anywhere really. It'll fit in a bottle cage, if you try really hard, and it'll strap anywhere you have room on a frame. But if the frame is odd shaped, like Marin's line of full suspension bikes, or if your frame is particularly small, good luck. In their defense, Blackburn placed all of the electronics in the battery case, away from the heat of the light head. This enables them to have a lifetime warranty on the light head, something that is nearly unheard of. Nevertheless, I feel the battery ruins an otherwise great design.
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Light and Motion Vega
Like the Princeton Tec Eos, I reviewed the Vega early in 2005. This was one of the first high power LED lights to hit the market. Light and Motion's approach was different than most of the other light manufacturers. Rather than take the place of halogens and HIDs, they sought to fill a gap in the line. Like the DiNotte lights, the Vega is meant to be easily carried when not in use. It is small, lacks an external battery pack and has a moderate run time.
Since the light combines the battery and light head in one, it's no big deal to remove and attach – no wires! The run time is lower than I'd like, but had to be sacrificed to keep the weight and size down. This light doesn't take up much space on the bike, or in the pack.
When I first reviewed the light, I said "With the Vega, you get the bright center, then a nice gradual fade to the edges without any lines or other aberrations. Unfortunately, what you don't get is a wide beam. Instead you get a fairly narrow beam with a nice pattern and no dark spots." I feel the same today, after quite a bit of use. The spot is bright enough for faster riding, though not bright enough for all out bombing down steep roads or trails. For singletrack the light is best used in conjunction with a helmet light, even a low powered one like the Eos.
The odd thing about the run time is that the light seems to be getting brighter until it is cut off. I ran this light twice to make sure I didn't have erroneous data, but the light is really doing that. I've never noticed it on the road or trail, and I'm not sure our eyes would since they constantly adjust, but at least the light won't be dimming on you the entire time.
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Single 3 Watt Emitter summary:
Unlike the 1W category, these lights are all very similar. There are two that can be mounted on either the handlebar or helmet, though the DiNotte is really meant as a helmet light. The Vega and HiFlux 200 are really only a handlebar lights – though there is a helmet mount for available for the CygoLite, it doesn't come with it. The prices are all very similar, with only $46 separating the group. The light output is all about the same, with some variance in the beam pattern. The HiFlux 200 has the brightest spot and it is also the cheapest.
Frankly, the winner depends on the intended use. If you are looking for a helmet light I'd go with the DiNotte. It is by far the lightest weight. It is easy to affix to the helmet and stays put. You don't even notice the Ultra 3; it is that light. The run time isn't the best, but the battery pack is so small and light, you could carry an extra set of AA's without too much trouble. If you aren't sure what your intended use is, or need long run times, then the Blackburn is your light, provided you can fit the battery in your pack or on your frame. It isn't heavy enough to be a bother on the helmet and it is easy to put on and take off, once the tilt is adjusted. The CygoLite has a brighter spot and has a very long run time as well. It is also the cheapest and has a nicely shaped battery, if you aren't intending to use it on your helmet. If you are looking for a compact handlebar light that charges fast without too much fuss, just plug it in and go, then go with the Vega. For the sake of this review, however, I have to give the nod to the DiNotte Ultra 3. Why? Even though it doesn't have the longest run time, the Ultra 3 is so small it makes the best helmet light, and that is where these lights work the best. There isn't enough light to replace halogen bar lights, but there is enough light for serious riding if you can point it where you are looking. The DiNotte Ultra 3 fully realizes the potential to make helmet lights small and light utilizing the latest LED technology.
Sidebar - DiNotte Taillight
As a bonus, DiNotte Lighting sent along their taillight. I think that this is the brightest taillight ever made. It uses a red Luxeon 3 Watt LED with a flood lens. Forget everything you think you know about how bright a blinking LED can be. This will trump it. Need daylight brightness? Here you go. Heck, throw a spot lens on this, and you could use it to see by!
The only concern that I had with this light is that it might be too bright. Turns out, it's not. It's very, very bright compared to other bike taillights, but not compared to the other lights that cars have to deal with. Not one driver I talked to said it was too bright, and that was with it pointed straight back. The only people it causes difficulty to are other cyclists who might like to draft behind you. It is bright enough that at that close range, it doesn't let the tailing cyclist see anything else, effectively ruining their night vision. But if you want to get that one guy out of your draft…
There are three downsides. The first is the cost; it costs the same as their Ultra 3 headlight. Second, this is the only blinking light I know that measures its battery life in hours and not days. Third, the light angle isn't very adjustable. It is meant to be attached to the side of the seatpost, which would point it down. I don't like anything, and I mean anything, that sticks out from the seatpost where my legs can brush against it. This light does, if it is mounted to its intended location. It takes some creativity to get around this mounting issue.
If the price isn't a hold up, get the light. It's that bright, and you will be that much more visible no matter the time of day or night and regardless of the weather. The DiNotte Taillight is like nothing else out there.
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Greater Than 3W and 3W Multiples
DiNotte Ultralight 5W
As I mentioned above, the Ultralight 5W was DiNotte's first product. At 120 lumens, it's the brightest single LED light in this shootout. At 1 inch diameter and 2 inches long, it's also the smallest, other than DiNotte's other lights. The light attaches to the bars via a silicon O-ring – simple, light and effective. The cable that attaches to the battery is about 12 inches long. Long enough to attach the battery to the underside of the stem, but not long enough for anything else.
The battery is the same 4 AA setup as the Ultra 3. This means that the batteries need to be removed from the holder in order to recharge. This also means that it isn't difficult to find and carry spare sets. The batteries are pretty inexpensive to replace too. Like all of the DiNotte lights that use the AA batteries, however, there is an optional C cell kit ($79) that just about doubles the run time.
Though the batteries aren't integrated like the Vega, the Ultralight 5W still manages to squeak in under the Vega's weight.
I really like the O-ring attachment system. At first I bemoaned it's lack of adjustability, but in use, the system is reliable, fast and simple. The light head stays put – mostly because it doesn't weigh anything – and it takes just a second to put the light on and take it off. The O-rings don't interfere with other things, like cables, that might be on the bar and, as you'll see when we get to the Dual 3 Watt, you can mount two DiNotte's over/under like a shotgun.
The one problem, other than short burn time, is the hole in the light pattern. This is the same spot lens that is used in the Ultra 3, but the LED die causes this shadow in the middle of the beam. It's a little annoying, but seems to be inherent in the 5W LED.
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Blackburn System X6
Blackburn's X6 picks up where the X3 left off. Where the X3 is only a spot beam, the X6 adds a flood. The result is nice fill near the rider, while still illuminating farther down the trail with the spot light head. The X6 has two separate light heads that connect to the same battery. The X6 also adds a remote dimmer switch into the equation.
By keeping the light head separate, the end user can adjust the flood and spot beams to their liking. In practice this works out pretty well. Should you decide that you don't need both lights for whatever reason, an individual light head can be plugged into the battery. For this reason, Blackburn includes the same helmet mount that the X6 has.
The battery is the same size and shape as the X3, but has higher capacity cells inside so it is slightly heavier. Like the X3, then, the battery is the wrong shape.
I really like the features of the X6. The dimmer works as it is supposed to, and the light pattern is clean. The flood does a nice job of filling in right in front of the bike, though there is still too little light spillage to the sides for tight singletrack.
The mounts are identical to the X3, so they have the same benefits and drawbacks. Overall, they are really pretty good. You do end up with quite a few wires, but the connections are really solid and it isn't too hard to route the wires out of the way. The cables themselves are a mix of straight and coiled wire. Though it takes a bit of time to install and remove the X6 due to the extra wires and dimmer switch, the split perches and thumbscrews were easy to use – CatEye could learn a thing or two from them.
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DiNotte Dual 3 Watt
The DiNotte Dual 3 Watt has quite a bit in common with its siblings, and one very big difference. The light heads are the same 1 inch diameter cylinder and use the silicon O-rings to attach to the handlebars. The two light heads are connected by a short cable and act in concert with both of them on at the same time, and dimming one dims the other. The difference is the battery. Rather than use the AA pack that the others use, the Dual 3 Watt uses a proprietary Li-Ion battery, complete with its own charger. It's not much bigger than the AA pack, but the run time is vastly improved, as is the ease of charging.
Like the Blackburn X6, the Dual 3 Watt's light heads are independently adjustable. Also like the X6, one light head is a flood and the other a spot. As I mentioned above, the lights can be mounted over/under, so they take up the least amount of dashboard space of any of the multi LED lights. In fact, they use the same amount as the DiNotte single light heads.
I found the lights able to put out enough light for nearly any kind of riding, though even with the flood I liked having a helmet light for tight singletrack – I know, I'm sounding like a broken record about the singletrack, but it's true.
It seems, though, like the size of the lens is hobbling the lights somewhat. Even though the light source is the same, the DiNotte's Dual doesn't seem to light the road as well as the X6. A fair tradeoff, though, to get something as small as the Dual 3 Watt, the Dual 3 Watt weighs less than half of what the X6 weighs, but it is $40 more.
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CatEye Double Shot
CatEye has a history of bringing new light technology to the market. They were the first with a HID light – the Stadium. Now they are among the first with truly bright LED based lights. The Double Shot is intended as a helmet light, but comes with a handlebar mount as well, though it is a combination of a cam and a thumb screw… and failed to be as easy to use as either.
The two 3W LEDs are mounted in a single light head, with custom CatEye optics joining the beams. This is brightest light in this roundup. Nothing comes close to the intensity of this light at the spot. However, this is very much a spot light. There is little to no spillage to the sides. What light there is around the spot isn't very clean, with a large dark ring right around the spot.
CatEye went with a 12 V battery in order to get longer run times. With over 5 hrs, the Double Shot makes a nice companion to a HID handlebar light.
The switch is inline on the cable just behind the light head. At first this seemed an odd location, but in practice, it was easy to find and simple to use. The light is only on/off, no low setting or flashing or dimming whatsoever. If you want the light on, hit the switch, want it off, hit the switch again, that's it.
The helmet mount is easy to use, but places the light high enough to snag on low branches overhead. If it were even ½ inch lower, the problem would largely be alleviated. The light head is also a little on the portly side, for an LED, but in the range of a helmet mounted halogen or HID. The battery is at home on the bikes frame, or stashed in a pack or jersey pocket. The Double Shot comes with an extension cable for helmet use.
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CatEye Triple Shot
CatEye has the costliest, most powerful light in this roundup with the Triple Shot. It has three 3W LEDs and a 4 hour run time. Two of the LEDs are floods while the center LED is a spot. This gives the light a nice even beam pattern, though the center spot isn't nearly as bright as the Double Shot.
The battery is the same as the Double Shot's, as is the charger – the second fastest in the review. The Triple Shot comes with handlebar mounts for standard and oversize bars. The mount is a combination of a thumbscrew and cam. It's fairly easy to use, but not the fastest to take on and off… at all. Like the Double Shot, the light is merely on/off. No other settings. Unlike the Double Shot, the switch is remotely mounted to the bars for easy access.
Really, the only problem with the problem with the Triple Shot is its price. Once you cross over the $300 barrier, the light will be compared to a HID. The beam color is the same, the price is pretty close, the burn times are the same, with the Triple Shot having a minor edge for the dollars. What the Triple Shot doesn't have is shear amount of light. It doesn't light up the road nearly as well as a HID, as the picture below can attest. So you have to ask yourself, is durability the most important factor? That is the Triple Shot's ace in the hole.
Make no mistake, the Triple Shot is a serious light, and compares well with halogen systems. It isn't HID-level output yet though.
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Greater than 3W and Multiple 3W Summary;
This is the level of light you need to go to replace halogen systems in all environments – from city to off road to changing ambient light. These lights are bright, they have good run times, for the most part, and they aren't very big. The light color, as with all the LED systems, is white. The cost is beginning to climb, from the low $200's to over $300. There is even a Li-Ion system in the mix.
The winner should be a cakewalk. CatEye's Double Shot would walk away with the grand prize if brightness were the only ruler. It is incredibly bright, and can send the beam very far down the trail. This is the ideal helmet light for someone with a HID flood beam on the bars. This will out shine it, distance wise, enabling the rider to go very fast without "out riding" his headlight. However, there is very little light spillage to the side with the Double Shot, making it a less versatile light. The handlebar and helmet mounts aren't perfect and the price is rather high. All of the lights in this category are really good, and if money were a primary concern, the X6 is a great light with an odd shaped battery. But the intense beam of the Double Shot, coupled with the 5+ hour run time cinched the contest for CatEye. It is a fantastic light.
One final note, these lights worked very, very well when put together as bar and helmet systems. For example, I'd take the Double/Triple Shot combo over a single HID, but not the Triple Shot alone. I really liked the way the X3 and X6 worked together. DiNotte's Ultra 3 filled in the gap on the beam pattern of the Ultralight 5W. If you have the means, these light systems are the way to go.
James Sharp is a contributing editor for GearReview.com; more of his ramblings and a look at upcoming reviews can be found at his blog--Lactic Acid Threshold.