The Best Christmas Lights

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After spending nearly 55 hours researching Christmas lights, interviewing experts, and testing 18 strands of lights side by side, we’ve found that the GE Energy Smart Colorite LED mini lights are the best all-around indoor Christmas lights (available in multicolor strands of 50 or 100 bulbs, and warm white strands of 50 or 100 bulbs). They were our pick in this guide’s 2014 version. After surveying the scene again this year and testing two additional strands of lights, the GEs are still the best we can find. We also have picks for outdoor lights as well as old-school incandescent lights for you traditionalists out there.

Last Updated: January 12, 2016
Through a reader, we discovered that nearly all Christmas lights have lead in them. Because lead is a toxic metal, we researched this and discovered that the dangers are very minimal. Still, there are steps that you can take to limit any exposure. See below for the results of our research.  
Expand Most Recent Updates
December 2, 2015: After researching new Christmas lights and testing two new sets for 2015, the GE Colorites remain our recommended lights for indoor use for the second straight year. We do have a new runner-up pick—the Christmas Designers T5 Smooth LED Lights—in case the GEs are unavailable, which happened last year in mid-December. If you want to find our pick this year, act fast.
November 11, 2015: After researching new Christmas lights and testing two new sets for 2015, the GE Colorites remain our recommended lights for indoor use for the second straight year. We do have a new runner-up pick--the Christmas Designers T5 Mini Lights--in case the GEs are unavailable, which happened last year in mid-December. Look for our updated guide soon. But if you want to find our pick this year, act fast.
May 28, 2015: Our main pick from GE is sold out most places. If you need lights right now, we recommend the Bethlehem Lights LEDs as our runner-up choice, which is in stock, and our alternate picks from Christmas Designers if you're buying for outdoor installations or you prefer incandescents.
December 11, 2014: Our main indoor pick from GE is currently sold out on Home Depot's website. Until they come back in stock, you might consider our runner-up choice, the Bethlehem 50 LED string. The light isn't as sharp and the wires tangle a little more easily than our main pick, but they're a decent back-up option.
December 2, 2014: We spent nearly 40 hours on research and tested 16 strands of lights side by side to find the best for a variety of uses. For indoor use, we recommend the GE Colorites. These LEDs are safer, more durable, longer lasting, and more efficient than incandescent lights, or any other LEDs we looked at. For outdoor use, we recommend the 5-mm wide-angle conical LEDs from Christmas Designers, which are bright, easy to work with, and impervious to moisture—confirmed after we left a set in a bucket all day. We also have an incandescent pick, for those of you who just have to stick to tradition.
December 10, 2012: Update December 2012: We messed up the original version of this post. I'm sorry.
GE Colorite LED Multi-Color (50 light)
These lights have a color quality that nearly matches that of traditional incandescents, but they’re more durable and safer, and should last at least 10 years.

Like all LEDs, the GEs are safer, more durable, and longer lasting than traditional incandescent lights, and they barely sip any electricity at all. Out of all the LEDs we looked at, we found that the GE’s hues of warm white and especially multicolored lights most closely matched those of a traditional incandescent—tested side by side at 4 or 5 feet away, it’s very difficult to tell them apart at all. These lights also have a tidy wire that doesn’t curl or twist, simplifying the task of draping them through a tree or storing them in the off-season. The bulbs should last for at least 10 holiday seasons, and individual bulbs are replaceable if they go out (or you can just leave it; the rest of the strand will stay lit). The price is average for LED bulbs, although these do cost more than comparable incandescents. They aren’t the best for outdoor use because their design isn’t totally watertight. Overall, though, these lights have better benefits and fewer drawbacks than any other indoor lights we tested.

Also Great
Christmas Designers T5 Smooth LED
The color quality of these lights (particularly the warm whites) isn’t as good as the GE’s, but they’re still better than the rest.

The GE lights sold out quickly last year, so if that happens again, we recommend the Christmas Designers T5 Smooth LED Lights (available in warm white, multicolor, or solid color). This is a new runner-up pick for this year. The multicolor lights look as good as the GEs, while the warm whites had a cooler tone that was a little further from the coziness of an incandescent.

Christmas Designers Wide Angle Conical (50 light)
These lights are bright, durable, and completely waterproof. They require so little electricity that you can link up to 43 strands on a single outlet.

For outdoor use, we recommend 5-mm wide-angle conical LEDs from Christmas Designers, available in warm white, multicolor, or single color in a variety of lengths and bulb spacings. These lights have all of the benefits of LEDs and a design that makes the bulb impervious to moisture for weeks in the snowy, sleety, rainy outdoors—we confirmed that by leaving a lit set submerged in a bucket all day. We liked the warmth of the color, the bright light output, and the manageable wires. Due to the unusual design of the wide-angle bulb, the brightness of each one changes dramatically depending on where you’re standing, giving them texture and depth when draped over a tree or twisting around a porch post. Because they’re likely to be exposed to harsh exterior conditions, these will have a shorter lifespan than the indoor LEDs, but you can still expect six or seven seasons out of them.

These lights are ideal for larger displays: Because of their low electricity usage, a stunning 43 strands can be connected together and run off a single outlet (with incandescents, you can connect only five or six, depending on the manufacturer). The only major drawback with these lights is that they’re a bit too bright for indoor use. Pro lighting designers and other product experts consistently named this particular type of bulb as the ideal product for outdoor holiday lighting displays.

Also Great
Christmas Lights Etc Wide Angle 5mm LED
These lights are very similar to the ones from Christmas Designers, but they are not as bright and generally cost more.

If our outdoor pick is sold out, we recommend the Wide-Angle 5-mm Conical LEDs from Christmas Lights Etc as a runner-up. In most ways, they’re identical to the Christmas Designers lights, but they are just not as bright. They also tend to be more expensive.

Christmas Designers Mini Lite Multi (50 light)
These warm incandescents cost less than our pick, but they're not as durable, they’re less efficient, and they won’t last as long.

Last, if you’re not ready to give up the unique warm twinkle of incandescents for an indoor tree, our favorites are the Mini Light Sets from Christmas Designers. These emit the warmest overall light, and, like our other picks, have an easy-handling wire. These also cost less than half as much as an LED strand, but they’re not as durable, they’re less efficient, and they won’t last as long.

Also Great
GE Pro-Line Connect 6 (150 light)
Other than the slightly washed-out orange bulb, these are nice lights with a neat and organized strand of wires. Also available in multi-color.

If these are unavailable, we recommend the GE Pro-Line incandescents. These are very close to the Christmas Designers lights, but the orange color appears a little washed out. Otherwise, these are nice, widely available lights.

Incandescent lights are typically rated for 2,000 to 3,000 hours of use, while our main recommendation, the GE Colorites, have an average life of 20,000 hours. Keep in mind that this is just the bulb life. It doesn’t even take into account how fragile and easily breakable an incandescent filament is (two years ago, I had to throw out half my incandescent strands due to non-working bulbs).

Table of contents

Why you should trust us

It wasn’t easy to pick out these specific models from the seemingly infinite selection of Christmas lights in the world. But we reached this consensus with the input of several folks who live and breathe lights: Ben Orr, owner of Northern Seasonal, who has been professionally installing holiday lighting in the Chicago area since 2005; Jason Woodward, the director of ecommerce at Christmas Designers, a retailer specializing in holiday lighting; and John Strainic, GE’s GM of North American consumer lighting.1

Those experts helped us identify the best products, which we then assessed for color quality, using the traditional incandescents as benchmarks. For that portion of the testing, we consulted Susan Moriarty, executive creative director and founder of the Boston-based creative agency, The Soapbox Studio, with 20 years of experience as an art director, designer, and photographer.

How we picked and tested

We concentrated our research and testing strictly on non-blinking mini lights. These are the traditional, small stranded Christmas lights with a clear or semi-clear bulb and a candle shape.2 An article at DIY Network says that even though larger bulbs are growing in popularity, “mini lights have been the most popular during the past decade.” They’re the standard, and we wanted to focus on the lights that most people will be using, rather than ones with a lesser following. Still, we do have some thoughts on the larger bulb lights, and other bulb sizes that didn’t make the cut. During our research, we found that blinking lights are a very small minority of available lights, so we stayed with ones that remain lit at all times.

Also, none of our recommended lights blink. During our research, we discovered that that style of light is few and far between.

Once we dug into our possible options, we soon realized that our recommended lights would be fully rectified LEDs and not traditional incandescents. As Orr, the lighting installer, told us, “LED lights allow you to do more with less.” They’re more durable, they’re safer, and a much higher number of strands can be connected together without any risk of tripping a breaker or a GFCI outlet. They also just plain ol’ last longer and use a fraction of the electricity as incandescents.3 In an article at Christmas Designers, Woodward says, “The benefits offered by LEDs are almost as significant as the benefits that incandescents provided over candles.” There is no question that they’re more expensive than incandescents (at least twice the price), but we feel that the long-term benefits are worth the added cost.

But some LEDs are better than others. All LED Christmas lights blink on and off many times per second, like a fluorescent light. The ones that are fully rectified, or full-wave, light up at a rate of 120 times per second, which is faster than the eye can detect. Lights that are known as half-wave, sometimes called non-rectified, blink 60 times per second, which can create a dizzying flickering effect. Orr told us that when a non-rectified strand is moving, the flickering becomes more apparent, and we confirmed this during our testing. Just by giving a non-rectified strand a slight jiggle, the lights take on a strobe effect that is very unpleasant to look at. In our tests, even when they were not moving, they seemed to have a harshness to them, an electronic feel, that the rectified lights didn’t have.4

LEDs, especially fully rectified ones, definitely cost more than incandescents. Most of the incandescents that we looked at sell for 5 to 9 cents per bulb, while the LEDs were in the 20-cent range, putting them at just over twice the price. Still, with all of the benefits that LEDs provide (durability, safety, greater design flexibility), they’re gaining popularity. According to an Associated Press article from late 2013, “Walmart is devoting half its shelf space for Christmas lights to LEDs,” and also that, “Costco isn’t selling any incandescent lights at all, while General Electric—a player in the Christmas light market for more than a century—expects two out of every five strands of lights it sells this year will be LEDs.” Christmas Designers also does lighting installations, and Woodward told us that each year they use, on average, 60,000 sets of lights, all LEDs. Given the fact that LEDs are roughly two to three times the cost of incandescents, that’s a strong endorsement.

For outdoor lights, our experts directed us toward a specific style of LED, the 5-mm wide-angle conicals. The bulbs on these lights are stubby and don’t have the homespun look of the small glass candle found on other mini lights. They are much brighter than regular mini lights (both LED and incandescent), and the unique shape of the bulb actually adds depth and complexity to the lights’ appearance. As Orr told us, this shape allows the strand to, “refract the light and create a cool look depending on the angle of view. It appears that some are brighter than others and it adds contrast.” Orr, who specializes in exterior displays, added that wide-angle 5-mm lights are generally his favorite light. And Christmas Designers, in a video dedicated to the bulbs, says these lights are “by far the most popular set we sell.”

But as with regular LED bulbs, the color of the light is a concern. We figure that if you’re reading this guide, you’re probably replacing an old set of incandescent lights—but even if you want something more efficient and durable, you don’t want to give up the traditional lights’ familiar warm glow. Unfortunately, that is a big issue with LEDs.

Both Orr and Woodward warned us that LEDs simply do not look like incandescents. Due to improvements in the technology, many companies manufacture a “warm white” color that, depending on the quality of the LED, can closely mimic, but not fully achieve, the pinpoint sparkle of an incandescent. Orr stressed that “LED technology varies throughout the industry, and a warm white from one supplier can vary in hues and color drastically from another.” He even suggested buying strands from a couple of different manufacturers, to compare them and see which hue you like best before making a large purchase. Once you find something you like, he said, buy from only that manufacturer. Our testing confirmed that there is a tremendous variety in color hues, from the fantastic to the terrible.

In selecting the strands we wanted to test, we searched all of the larger online retailers (Amazon, Home Depot, Target, Walmart, Lowe’s). Orr told us that he purchases his lights from a specialty retailer, so we also looked at lights from Christmas Designers, Christmas Lights Etc, and Christmas Light Source. These specialty retailers deal only in Christmas lights and are focused on the needs of the professional, although there are certainly no problems with a regular consumer purchasing from them. Each store seems to have its own in-house brand of lights, so you’re not going to see them selling Martha Stewart or GE lights. We’ve found that these companies are extremely knowledgeable about lighting and, in general, their products are very nice.

We dismissed companies based on overall poor reviews (Holiday Time), strange or incomplete bulb selections (EcoSmart, Martha Stewart), or suspiciously low pricing (Home Accents). Other companies, like Hometown Evolution, AGPtek, and Deneve sell lights, but they fall more into general exterior decor and don’t have a very good selection of Christmas lights. AGPtek specializes only in solar-powered or battery lights, which are more of a specialty item, and we wanted to concentrate on general tree and exterior lighting.

In the end, we settled on a total of 16 sets, including colored and white mini lights, both LED and incandescent. We also tested a number of 5-mm wide-angle conical LEDs, since our experts recommended them for exterior use.

For the 2015 update, we also tested two new sets from Christmas Designers. This year, the company introduced a line of T5 mini lights, so we looked at these in warm white and multicolor. We also tested the company’s C9 empty socket lines and have more info on that below.

christmas lights test group

Ready to begin testing.

To evaluate the lights, we wound and unwound them, draped them over and into Christmas trees and rhododendrons, and in and out of deck railings. Basically, we tried to use the lights how they’re intended to be used. We tested the weather impermeability of the exterior lights by plugging them in and sinking the strands of lights into a 3-gallon bucket of water. While this test was a bit extreme, it’s certainly possible that any set of exterior lights is going to end up in a puddle or draped into a gutter.

Overall, we found that the wire quality has a lot to do with the success of a strand of lights. Some of the lights had very tidy, close-knit strands of wire, while others were loose and messy. Some wires needed to be untwisted before use, like an old phone cord, and still others continued to accordion back on themselves, no matter how we tried to stretch them out and lay them flat.

We also assessed each strand for color quality, using the incandescent strands as a benchmark, with Susan Moriarty, executive creative director and founder of The Soapbox Studio. She’s a die-hard fan of the warmth emitted by incandescent Christmas lights, so we had her compare the classics against new LEDs. Moriarty consistently chose along brand lines, even though her evaluations were done in a blind fashion, which confirms Orr’s suggestion to select a single manufacturer and stick with it.

Our pick: the best lights for indoors

GE Colorite LED Multi-Color (50 light)
These lights have a color quality that nearly matches that of traditional incandescents, but they’re more durable and safer, and should last at least 10 years.

For indoor use, we recommend the GE Energy Smart Colorite LEDs, available in multicolor (50 bulbs or 100 bulbs) and warm white (50 bulbs or 100 bulbs). These have all of the benefits of LED lights, like high durability, zero heat output, and a long life expectancy. But one attribute set the Colorites apart: Of everything we tested, they came the closest to replicating the glow of an incandescent. This was particularly true with the warm white bulbs, which are really impressive in their color quality. They also have a very nice wire that’s easy to handle and drape through a tree or railing. And, unlike some other LEDs, they won’t flicker.

We measured these against incandescents because in examining all of the LED strands, the Colorites were the clear winner, giving off a warm tone that was closer to the look of an incandescent than any of the other LEDs that we considered.

christmas lights GE incandescent LED

GEs incandescent (top) and LED (bottom).

It’s not a 100 percent perfect match though. Viewing the GE LEDs next to GE’s incandescent lights, they do appear brighter because, at some viewing angles, the diode illuminates the entire colored bulb. With the incandescents, only the pinpoint of the filament is lit up, giving it that unique twinkly, sparkly look. This is a distinction made while specifically looking for differences between the bulbs. Once you’re about 5 feet away from them, it becomes extremely difficult to tell them apart from a strand of incandescents. Like a lot of people, we were resistant to LED Christmas lights. But we were really impressed with the look of the GE Colorites and would be happy to put them on a tree at home.

christmas lights test

From left: the Christmas Designers warm white incandescents, the GE Colorite warm white LEDs, and the Christmas Designers warm white T5 Smooth LEDs. Notice how the GEs match the color of the incandescents, but not the unique and even sparkle. The Christmas Designers LEDs have a cooler color and are a little brighter.

We also liked that the GE wire strands are very easy to manage. They’re tidy and have nice flex to them. Out of the box, the lights unravel nicely. And, unlike a lot of the others, no twisting is needed in order to stretch and flatten them out.

The GE LEDs are rectified, also known as full-wave, so there won’t be any flickering issues like there are with lesser quality LEDs. It also means that the lights can be used with a dimmer or a lighting controller.

christmas lights test

From left: the Christmas Designers incandescents, the GE Colorite LEDs, and the Christmas Designers T5 LED mini lights. Again, the incandescents have the most consistent sparkle. The GEs match the color (other than the purple), and the Christmas Designers LEDs are brighter than the others.

The GE LEDs are also durable, and they should withstand the annual boxing and unboxing process without a hitch. On an LED, the light emitting diode is encased in a block of plastic, so, unlike a delicate incandescent filament, it’s going to take quite a bit to knock a bulb out of commission. While we’re not suggesting that you jump rope with your strands of LED lights, they’ll be able to handle a drop. When asked about the lifespan of indoor LEDs, Woodward told us, “High-grade LEDs haven’t been around long enough to really know how long they will last on an indoor application, but it should be at least 10 years.” This longevity should be good news for anyone who has ever gotten out their incandescent lights from the previous year, found a bunch of them mysteriously half-working or with too many blown bulbs, and had to throw a bunch of them away.

GEs lights have a feature called Constant On, which means that if a single light becomes loose or damaged, the rest of the strand will stay lit. The bulbs are also replaceable; you just pop one out and put a new one in.

Like other LEDs, the GEs emit zero heat when lit, so you can sleep easy when they’re lighting up your dessicated tree in mid-January. Incandescents, on the other hand, produce heat and can get quite hot. While it’s highly unlikely that newer incandescents would ever start a tree fire, they could give an unsuspecting toddler quite a jolt.

Because of their low energy usage, up to 25 sets can be stranded together, more than enough for even the most ambitious indoor displays.

The GEs cost roughly 20 cents per bulb, which is right where most good-quality LEDs land.

Flaws but not dealbreakers

While the quality and overall color of the GEs impressed us more than the others, we did discover a few downsides to them.

First, the GEs don’t have stackable plugs. This is when the male plug has a female outlet on the back side of it. With stackable plugs, you can piggyback multiple strands directly off of the same outlet—a useful feature for outdoor displays where you might be lighting bushes in opposite directions on either side of a single outlet, but it’s something less likely to be needed indoors. The lack of it here could make for a crowded wall outlet, but a small power strip will solve the problem. The GEs can still be attached end to end, just like any other set of Christmas lights.

chirstmas lights ge colorite

The GE Colorites have a regular plug (left), while many others, including our runner-up pick, the Christmas Designers T5 Smooth LED Lights (right), have a stackable plug. This allows you to have multiple strands coming off a single outlet.

Christmas light purists may also be a little dismayed at how the purple GE bulb looks. On the incandescent strands, the purple bulb is a deep reddish/pink color, but on these, it’s a bright, vivid purple, and almost a little “cartoony.” We don’t think that most people will pick up on this, but if you’re color sensitive, it’s something to be aware of.

Last, we’ve discovered that Christmas lights are manufactured on a seasonal basis, so when they’re gone, they’re gone. Last year, these GEs sold out in mid-December and remained unavailable for the remainder of the season.

Long-term test notes

After one season of having the GEs on my tree, I have no complaints. I’ve taken them out of storage for this holiday, and all of the bulbs work fine. After one season’s use, I’ve noticed that the wire stranding has loosened a little, but they’re still fairly well organized and I don’t foresee any issues with putting them around a tree.

Runner-up

Also Great
Christmas Designers T5 Smooth LED
The color quality of these lights (particularly the warm whites) isn’t as good as the GE’s, but they’re still better than the rest.

If the GE Colorites are unavailable, we also like the Christmas Designers T5 Smooth LED Lights, available in 50-light and 70-light strands (in warm while, multicolor, and solid color). On the multicolor lights, the color was very similar to the GEs. The Christmas Designers warm whites lacked the overall warmth of the GEs, but were still better than the rest. The wires of the Christmas Designers lights are tightly wound and easy to unravel and maneuver around a tree.

The multicolor Christmas Designers lights don’t have a purple bulb, so they sidestep the potential issue that some may have with the GEs. These lights stick to blue, green, orange, and red.

On average, the Christmas Designers lights are more expensive than the GEs, but the company does offer bulk discounts, which can start to even things up, or even make them less expensive depending on the size of the order.

These lights are available in solid color strands, so they may be a better option for those looking to really customize a display. In addition to the standard warm white and multicolor, strands are available in green, red, blue, or pure white.

Given that the GEs ran out of stock in mid-December last year, we’re hopeful that the Christmas Designers lights will remain available.

Our pick for outdoor lights

Christmas Designers Wide Angle Conical (50 light)
These lights are bright, durable, and completely waterproof. They require so little electricity that you can link up to 43 strands on a single outlet.

The best lights for most outdoor displays are the 5-mm wide-angle conical LED lights from Christmas Designers. They are available in warm white, multicolor, or solid colors in a variety of lengths and bulb spacings. These lights give off a bright, warm color that is perfect for just about anywhere outdoors—a window box, tree, wreath, or roofline. Like other LEDs, these cost more than incandescents, but they’re specifically designed to withstand long-term exposure to moisture, so your investment will be protected if these end up drooping into a puddle or a wet gutter. They also have a very clean and tight wire, which made handling and hanging and storing them very easy. Last, because their electrical requirements are so low, a whopping 43 strands can be connected together and run off a single outlet before having to worry about tripping a breaker. This reduces the need for extension cords, which can be a big hidden cost with larger exterior displays.

The odd shape of the 5-mm bulb gives these lights a unique appearance. Depending on how the bulb is viewed, the light emits a different level of brightness. Moriarty picked up on this trait and liked it quite a bit, saying that it “gives the light strand a lot of different textures.” This, combined with their brightness (much brighter than the regular LED mini lights), makes them perfectly suited for outdoor displays.

christmas lights ge conical LED

The Christmas Designers 5-mm wide-angle conical LED (top) and the GE regular LED (bottom). Notice the unusual shape of the wide-angle bulb and also how the bulb and socket are molded into a single piece, making them ideal for exterior use.

The wide-angle lights from Christmas Designers have what are called molded bulbs. This means that each bulb is a completely sealed, one-piece unit. There is no separating the bulb from the wire and thus, no way for moisture or grime to work its way into the socket. According to Woodward, that kind of moisture intrusion would “significantly reduce the life of a light set.” We tested this out by submerging the Christmas Designers multicolor strand into a bucket of water for an entire day. At no point did the lights show any ill effects from the test.

christmas lights christmas designers bucket test

The Christmas Designers wide-angle multicolored lights at some point during hour six of being fully submerged in a bucket of water.

Molded lights also means that there is no way to replace a bulb once it fails. Given the huge 75,000-hour rating on these LEDs, Woodward told us, “it’s very, very rare for one to go out.” If, for some reason, one does get damaged, the others will still operate, and for exterior use, it’s likely to be a little easier to disguise an unlit bulb. In terms of overall lifespan, Woodward has written that “you can reasonably expect to get at least six or eight seasons5 of trouble-free service from a well-cared for string of [exterior] LED Christmas Lights.”

Like the other lights from Christmas Designers, the wide-angle LEDs have a great wire—it’s easy to unravel and requires no twisting. The neat organization of the wires gives the strands a very high-quality feel.

These lights are also full-wave rectified, so there won’t be any issues with flickering. They can be dimmed and, as Woodard told us, this also “gives you the advantage of being able to hook up to animation controllers such as Light-O-Rama. This is not possible with [non-rectified].”

It’s worth noting that due to the company’s popularity with professional installers, Christmas Designers offers bulk pricing on its wide-angle lights.

Flaws but not dealbreakers

Aesthetically, they’re limited. Because they’re so bright, we found the wide-angle conical lights to be too overpowering for indoor use. Moriarty bristled at the idea of using them inside. “I don’t want to have to wear sunglasses while I’m looking at my Christmas tree,” she said. If you like your tree lights to be very bright, these are going to be a great option, but we recommend that you purchase a single strand first and see for yourself before you take the plunge.

Outdoor runner-up

Also Great
Christmas Lights Etc Wide Angle 5mm LED
These lights are very similar to the ones from Christmas Designers, but they are not as bright and generally cost more.

If the Christmas Designers lights are sold out, we recommend the 5-mm wide-angle LEDs from Christmas Lights Etc (50-bulb strand or 70-bulb strand). In most ways, these are identical to the ones from Christmas Designers, with the molded bulb and nice wire, but they’re just not as bright. But if it’s color that you’re after, these are a nice, warm light.

Our incandescent pick

Christmas Designers Mini Lite Multi (50 light)
These warm incandescents cost less than our pick, but they're not as durable, they’re less efficient, and they won’t last as long.

If you’re just not ready to let go of the unique and traditional look of your incandescents for indoor use, we recommend Christmas Designers for both their multicolored (50-bulb strand or 100-bulb strand) and their white incandescents (50-bulb strand or 100-bulb strand). They have great color quality, which is noticeable, particularly with their multicolor strand. The wires are tight and organized, and once we stretched them out, they lay flat and straight with no issues.

The rich hues of the multicolor strand stood out against the competition, especially the yellow-orange bulb. Because of a thick tint on the bulb, the color of the light is consistent for the entire length of the bulb. On the GE incandescents, by comparison, the tinting isn’t as strong, so the yellow color is washed out by the brightness of the filament, and it looks like a regular bulb with a yellowish upper half. It wasn’t quite so apparent with the darker colors, but Moriarty immediately zeroed in on the yellow-orange as a high point of the Christmas Designers strand.

The white lights were harder to tell apart from the competition, but Moriarty picked them out for having the best twinkle of the bunch. The difference here though is extremely slight, and in a non-evaluation setting, it would be nearly impossible for anyone to tell the difference.

For cost, these lights are 8 to 9 cents a bulb, which is right in the middle of the incandescents that we tested.

Christmas Designers has a wide variety of colors and configurations here. Please note that the lights we tested are the company’s premium grade. It does sell other incandescents that don’t carry that label, like a 400-count mini light roll for less than $10. These, we can’t vouch for.

Flaws but not dealbreakers

If there is a flaw to these lights, it’s simply that they’re incandescents. As Woodward wrote in an article at Christmas Designers, “Incandescent bulbs are essentially designed to self-destruct. Running an electrical current through a filament eventually degrades the filament to the point of destruction.” Yes, the warm color and sparkle are wonderful and old-fashioned, but for only a slight compromise in these departments, LEDs are going to be a much better choice for overall durability.

Incandescents also draw much, much more power than LEDs, so Christmas Designers recommends connecting only three to six strands, depending on the length.

Incandescent runner-up

Also Great
GE Pro-Line Connect 6 (150 light)
Other than the slightly washed-out orange bulb, these are nice lights with a neat and organized strand of wires. Also available in multi-color.

GE’s incandescents (warm white: 150 bulbs or 300 bulbs; multicolor: 150 bulbs or 300 bulbs) are nearly identical to the ones from Christmas Designers. Moriarty thought that the light of the GEs was just a little hazier than the Christmas Designers lights, but if someone wasn’t directly comparing the two strands side by side, there is no way they could ever tell the difference.

As described above, yellow-orange bulbs on the multicolor strand have a washed-out look, but otherwise, the colors are all nice and vibrant. The overall color quality on the warm white is great and nearly indistinguishable from the Christmas Designers lights.

The GE wire was also neat and flexible, like all of the other high-end strands. As for price, they’re generally a shade more expensive than the Christmas Designers.

Another difference with the GEs is that they have a bulb spacing of 3.5 inches, slightly smaller than the standard 4 inches. So, with these lights, it will be easier to make a tighter pattern of lights, if that’s the look you’re going for.

The competition

GKI/Bethlehem’s LEDs were last year’s runner-up to our main pick. They are nice lights, but after testing the new T5 lights this year, it’s clear that the color and wire quality of the new Christmas Designers product (our runner-up) was just a little higher. For pricing, they’re about the same, but Christmas Designers offers bulk discounts if you order more than six strands.

The multicolor LED lights sold by Noma (known as Holiday Wonderland in the US) have a nice hue, but they’re non-rectified, so there is a potential for flicker and if the light is even jiggled, they have a dizzying strobe effect.

We also tested Noma’s 5-mm wide-angle multicolored LEDs. Like the other Noma lights, they are non-rectified. They also employ two piece bulb and socket design, so there is a chance of water infiltration, making them less than ideal for exterior applications.

Bethlehem wide-angle LEDs have a tidy wire, but lack the color quality of the wide-angle LEDs from the specialty stores. The whites have a far whiter hue. Even though it’s sold as warm white, Moriarty didn’t see a whole lot of warmth to it.

christmas designers conical

Wide-angle conical lights from Christmas Designers (top) and Christmas Light Source (bottom). Notice what a disaster the wiring is on the CLS lights. The best of the tested lights had nice organized wires like the ones from Christmas Designers.

The wide-angle LEDs from Christmas Light Source had the most frustrating wire of all the lights tested. Each bulb needed to be twisted and turned in order for the strand to lay flat and even then, it kept trying to spring back to how it was. The individual wires were loose from one another and had uneven loops in them. It was a nightmare to feed them through a tight spot like a railing or even between two branches.

The Brite Star clear incandescents were very nice, and as far as the light quality goes, they were on a par with the strands from Christmas Designers and GE. They didn’t make the recommendation because they have a 2.5-inch spacing, which is likely a little tight for most people. As we said above, 4 inches is the standard (GE is 3.5).

While the Brite Star incandescents were a success, their warm white LEDs were a total failure. Everything bad about LEDs is on display with these lights. When we plugged them in, it was like having 50 small computer screens lit up on a wire strand. It was just awful. They’re non rectified and the effect is not a positive one. The light that these LEDs emit is about as natural as the ingredient list on a Twinkie.

Larger bulbs (C7s and C9s)

For this guide, we only dug deep into mini lights, but there are many other styles available, both in LED and incandescent, most notably the larger C7 and C9 bulbs. Judging from the consistently good products that we discovered at Christmas Designers, if we were to purchase a few strands of these larger bulbs, we would start with these—the larger bulbs you see there are updated with LED technology.

However, it’s worth noting that on the larger bulbs, the LEDs are dimmer than incandescents and not brighter like they are with mini lights. So, as Orr told us, “for the people who like the look of the bigger bulbs along their roofline to really accent their home’s architecture, there is no comparing the light output of the traditional [incandescent] C9s to the LED C9s.” For these, Christmas Lights Etc has a nice selection.

For someone looking for full customization of their displays, some specialty retailers, like Christmas Designers and Christmas Lights Etc have what are called empty socket lines. With these, you purchase a long roll of stranded sockets and your C7 or C9 lightbulbs separately. The strand can be cut to length and plug ends easily attached. Then simply screw in the LED bulbs in whatever color pattern you like. Christmas Designers also sells its line by the foot.

We tested out the Christmas Designers empty socket line and were surprised at how easy it was to work with. Because you can cut the strand to whatever length you want, it’s a great choice for running lights along the eave of a roofline or a picket fence. We liked that there is never any excess length left over that has to be dealt with. Also, because the bulbs are purchased separately, the color patterns are entirely up to you. This is certainly a more advanced and time-consuming way to set up your lights, but those working on larger displays will likely appreciate the flexibility that it provides.

If you just need to know what typical bulb sizes look like and what they’re called, try this: Christmas USA, another specialty retailer, has a nice comparative image to give a sense of the common sizes.

Lead in Christmas lights

Through a reader, we discovered that nearly all Christmas lights have lead in them. Because lead is a toxic metal, we researched this and discovered that the dangers are very minimal. Still, there are steps that you can take to limit any exposure.

According to an article at WebMD, lead is a relatively common ingredient in the PVC plastic sheathing that encases wires. They state that it “makes the plastic more flexible and reduces the risk of fire.” It turns out that this goes far beyond Christmas lights as they also point out that “nearly all appliance cords are covered in PVC that contains lead.” Woodward, of Christmas Designers, writes in a blog post that trace amounts of lead can also be found in things such as extension cords, computer cords, batteries, and even some toys. This isn’t to justify its existence in Christmas lights, but rather to add some context to its prevalence in many common household items (and ones that are handled far more than Christmas lights).

OSHA says lead is only harmful if inhaled or ingested. It is not absorbed through the skin, so merely touching or holding Christmas lights doesn’t pose a risk. But, as Woodward writes, trace amounts of lead can be transferred to the hands, so “the primary risk of absorbing lead after handling Christmas lights is through eating after handling the lights.”

The solution is an easy one. Simply wash your hands after stringing up the lights or wear gloves while putting them on. It’s also important to minimize any exposure that toddlers and young children might have with the lights. The wee folk absorb lead at a higher rate than adults and they’re more likely to put their hands in their mouths, thus ingesting the lead.

Still, if you feel the need to go fully lead free with your lights, we found an article at SafBaby.com indicating that lead-free Christmas lights are sold at both Ikea and EnvironmentalLights.com.

How to light a tree

There are some varying opinions on how many lights to use for your tree. GE’s Strainic told us 100 lights per vertical foot, which is backed up by most of the commenters at this Cafemom forum. But 100 lights per foot strikes us as a lot, and we imagine that would be a very festive tree.

The box that the Brite Star lights came in goes a little lower, with a number of 600 lights for an 8-foot tree (75 per foot). This lighting calculator at Christmas Light Source tells us that 250 to 400 mini lights will light an 8-foot tree.

There are a couple of different ways to apply the lights, but one method in particular gets a lot of praise. It involves putting the lights on from bottom to top, but doing it vertically, going in and out as you go up. This puts lights deep in the tree and creates depth and a warm interior to the tree. More information on it is at Real Simple and The Sparkle Queen. (If that sounds too radical, you can just do it the traditional way by circling the tree, working from bottom to top.)

(Photos by Doug Mahoney)

Footnotes:

1. We tested products from two specialty retailers (Christmas Light Source and Christmas Lights Etc) as well as Christmas Designers, but our blind testing (which included the input of a third party) resulted in the picks for Christmas Designers. We’re aware that the guide may seem skewed toward Christmas Designers; we assure you that it’s a coincidence that the company’s Jason Woodward also proved to be one of the most qualified expert sources for our reporting. Jump back.

2. These are not to be confused with M5 lights. M5s are slightly bigger and have a texture to them, but they still do have the general candle shape of a mini light. When they’re on, the entire bulb is lit, which gives them a very different look than the twinkling pinpoint of the mini lights. Christmas Light Source has an image comparing the two styles here. EcoSmart and Martha Stewart only sell the M5s, which is why we didn’t test those known brands. Jump back.

3. We want to be careful not to overstate the financial savings of LED. There is a major up-front cost difference (quality LEDs are two to three times more expensive than incandescents), and, according to this piece at wecheckenergy.com, a company specializing in energy efficiency, it will take about 12 years to recoup the initial investment. This calculation was based strictly on purchasing cost and energy usage and didn’t take into account the attrition that seems to befall incandescent strands.

But, say you purchased eight strands of the GE LEDs (about $20 each, $160 total) and eight strands of the Christmas Designers incandescents (about $9 each, or $70 total) and each year you had to replace two incandescent strands (just picking a number out of a hat). Then, you would need to shell out an additional $18 per year. So you’d start breaking even in the sixth year. This doesn’t take into account any energy savings, but the basic point is the same as from the wecheckenergy article: LEDs “may not necessarily save you any real money, but will indeed save some energy when using them.” Jump back.

4. While shopping, it’s difficult to tell if a light is rectified or non-rectified. Many companies refer to them as “flicker-free” in their packaging, but others don’t mention it at all, even if their lights are rectified. Nowhere on the packaging for GE’s Energy Smart Colorite LEDs does it mention that they’re rectified. Most of the specialty retailers, like Christmas Designers, are much clearer in their distinction between the two, often selling half-wave under a retail banner and full-wave under a commercial one. Jump back.

5. When comparing brands of LED lights, don’t get caught up in the advertised hour ratings. Christmas Designers’s wide-angle LEDs are rated for 75,000 hours. So even if you’re manic about your lights and keep them lit for 12 hours each day from December 1 to March 1, they’ll theoretically last you around 70 years. Woodward notes that these LED hour ratings are recorded under perfect factory conditions and that “even though there are a number of factors that can shorten the life of a LED light set, if taken care of and not left up for extended periods of time, LEDs will last for many years and will offer reliability and longevity that far surpasses traditional incandescent Christmas lights.” Jump back.

 

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Originally published: December 2, 2015

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