The Best LED Lightbulb
The Cree Soft White LED light bulb was the first affordable, high-performing 60-watt-equivalent LED bulb made by a reputable company, so it was a shoo-in for best bulb when it came out. Over the past year, some tough competition has cropped up in the form of the Philips SlimStyle and Switch Infinia. They all generally cost about the same and perform well in most situations, but the Cree is still the best because of its superior dimming capabilities and slightly lower price (for now).
The major exception is if you live in California. In that case, drive to Home Depot and get the local-utility-subsidized Cree Soft White TW-series 13.5 W for $10 each (in-store only). If you don’t live in California, they cost $90 for a 6 pack, which may still be worth it if you care about having the most accurate colors possible with an LED bulb and need a lot of bulbs.
That said, we consider the Philips SlimStyle to be our main runner up if the Cree Soft White is sold out, or if you don’t live near a Home Depot. Cree says the company will only honor warranties if you have a Home Depot receipt, whereas Philips will honor its warranty if you buy from Amazon. When you’re paying ~$10 each for LED bulbs, the 6-year warranty from Philips may be worth it if you can’t get your hands on a Home-Depot-sold Cree.
What do I know about LED bulbs?
I started DesigningwithLEDs.com to cover innovations in LED technology with an eye towards new applications. And by “cover,” I mean tear brand new products apart, determine their innovations in components and design, and interview the technology experts with leading-edge semiconductor and lighting companies to get their views on the directions this fast-moving industry may take.
I’ve written about and analyzed the world of electronic design for the past fifteen years, working at publications like EDN and program managing live events like DesignCon. I have a BSEE and worked as a design engineer and engineering manager.
How we picked
When we made our last LED bulb choice in April 2013 there were far fewer Energy Star-compliant LED bulbs to choose from, so we considered bulbs that did not meet the standard. Things have changed since then, however, and there’s not a good reason to ignore Energy Star compliance unless a bulb is simply too new to have had time to pass the certification process. That was true of the Philips SlimStye, but as of April 2014 it’s Energy Star-certified, making it eligible for rebates in most states (with the exception of California).
This is important because in order to be eligible for utility rebates, most states require that bulbs meet Energy Star requirements2. This meant bulbs from popular budget white label sellers like Monoprice and Walmart were taken out of consideration early on. These rebates can be significant, often allowing a $10 bulb to sell for $5 or less.
As a reader has pointed out, Cree now makes a 100W-equivalent bulb. This article specifically focuses on 60W-equivalent bulbs, and there are very few 100W-equivalents out there. It’s not a big market as yet. But the Cree 100W-equivalent bulb is a good choice if you need a lot of light. It provides 1600 lm, twice the light of a 60W-equivalent bulb.
The Cree Soft White was the first reputable budget LED bulb, and it’s still the best. Other bulbs are now competitive in price, light quality, and coverage, but the Cree is still the best when it comes to handling dimmer switches. In my review of the Cree on DesigningWithLEDs.com, I noted that it dimmed without flickering or buzzing using both the older TRIAC switches (the ones with the round knob), as well as the newer Maestro programmable switches from Lutron. It was also completely noiseless, even with my ear only 12 inches away. I didn’t find a switch that the Cree couldn’t handle.
That’s enough to tip the scales in its favor, even if you’re not planning on using dimmers immediately. These things can last a decade or more, so you’ll want the bulb you buy today to be compatible for possible use with a dimmer switch in the future. Besides, you won’t pay any more for this dimming ability with the Cree SW since it recently lowered its price at Home Depot to $10, the same as the SlimStyle and $4 cheaper than the Infinia.
It’s also a solid performer in other respects, though so are the Philips Slimstyle and Infinia Switch.
One complaint that many people had about the last generation of LED bulbs was that they didn’t offer full light coverage in all directions. The Cree and its current crop of competitors don’t share this problem. As you can see in these pictures from DesigningWithLEDs.com, it provides full coverage comparable to that of an incandescent.
I also put up this subsequent Q&A with Cree that goes into even more detail about specific aspects like circuit design and how the bulb fares in enclosures: as long as there is some opportunity for the air to circulate, the bulb will be fine. If it’s a totally enclosed fixture in an environment with a high ambient temperature, the bulb could have problems. In addition, while it’s suitable for use in a damp environment (such as a steamy bathroom), it’s not a good fit where it’s exposed directly to water or weather.
Our pick for Californians
In order to meet this standard, Cree uses a combination of optical engineering and extra energy. The problem with most LED lighting is that red is underrepresented. To get around this, Cree adds neodymium to the TW bulbs’ glass covers, which gives the bulbs their blue tinge and filters out some of the yellow wavelengths while letting all the red ones through.
The result is that the bulb renders reds better than a conventional LED light, important because reds are very flattering colors for both people and food—the things that make socializing fun. The problem with this approach is that the power used to generate those yellow wavelengths is effectively wasted. This means that the TW bulb requires more watts to create the same amount of light as the SW version and its less-attractive CRI of 80. This sounds like wasted power, but if you compare the 13.5 W of the TW to the 60 W used by the incandescent bulb that was previously your only option to get a high-CRI bulb (and which is no longer legal to sell in the US), 13.5 W isn’t so bad.
Who else likes it?
The Cree bulb meets with near-universal acclaim from reviewers: Sal Cangeloso, managing editor at ExtremeTech, Geek.com, and the author of LED Lighting: A Primer to Lighting the Future, says, “I think it’s the best choice overall, and it’s a sure-thing at the three price points. Testing for the past few weeks has just reinforced my opinion that it’s a nice bulb and something that is going to win a lot of people over.”
Sean Hollister of The Verge also tested the bulb. He says, “Not only does Cree’s bulb look like a traditional incandescent, with a nice warm glow, but it throws light in almost every direction as well. Many existing LED light bulbs have a fairly narrow configuration of diodes that can cast a rather uneven pattern, but Cree’s is better than most, with an “LED filament tower” of LEDs that hits almost every spot evenly except the very top of the bulb. They turn on immediately with no perceivable delay.”
Andrew Tarantola at Gizmodo agrees: “The Cree LED goes out of its way to ape the look and feel of a traditional A19 incandescent. The ‘Cree LED Filament Tower’ (read: the light source) emulates the concentrated light source that filament bulbs produce and covers it in a real glass dome to distribute light evenly. Unlike, say, the turtle-necked Philps dimmable LED or the Samsung LED, with its go-fast fins, the Cree bulb actually looks like a lightbulb.”
Flaws but not dealbreakers
Instapaper creator Marco Arment installed several Cree LED 60 W-replacement bulbs in his home. After 3 months of running them for about an hour a day, one of the bulb covers became loose to the point he thought it would fall completely off. Marco is happy with his Cree bulbs overall, but he suggests you keep an eye on them.
So what should someone do if there’s an issue with their Cree bulbs? (And is there a quality control problem with them?) To find out more, I got in touch with Mike Watson, Cree VP of corporate marketing. His response: Home Depot has sold more Cree LED bulbs than all other LED bulbs combined, so anecdotally, Cree failures may seem to be more noticeable. He claims that their failure rates for the Cree bulb are less than half the rate of any other light within its category sold by Home Depot. However, if any buyer experiences a problem of any kind with their Cree bulb, they should take it back to Home Depot for a no-questions-asked replacement. If the buyer prefers, he or she can send it back to Cree. Click here for more information about Cree’s warranty.
On a side note, Marco mentioned that that he had swapped the Cree bulb with the missing bulb cover with an intact Cree bulb that was previously being used in a fixture with a light enclosure. This is a bad idea. The electronics in the Cree bulb are non-isolated; the cover serves to keep consumers away from the 120 V AC line voltage. If you touch the electronics portion of the bulb with the cover off and the power on you risk electrocution. (I’ve gone into more details about non-isolated LED bulb design here.) Basically, don’t risk it if your bulb cover has an issue. Just get a replacement.
If you happen to have a problem getting Cree or Home Depot to notice your claim, email us.
Dimming performance is the only thing that sets the bulb apart. Although it dimmed nicely with all switches in terms of brightness adjustment, during our tests it emitted a loud humming that was clearly audible from several feet away — even when the switch was on full brightness.
While this effect may not occur for everyone (Wirecutter editor Jacqui Cheng does not observe a buzzing noise with the SlimStyle bulbs when they’re on her kitchen’s dimmer switch), it’s something to keep in mind if you’re debating between several LED options.
The packaging says that the bulb can be used in any orientation and in a completely enclosed fixture—even damp locations—and specifies a temperature range from -20 °C to 45 °C. Not only does it claim an operating lifetime of 25,000 hours, it warranties the bulb for the lifetime of the owner “that shall be free from defects in material and workmanship for as long as the original purchaser owns the Product.”
However, what is a dealbreaker is that, as mentioned above, the bulb has a problem with dimmer switch compatibility. With a standard old-fashioned TRIAC dimmer switch as well as the more modern Maestro dimmer, the bulb flickers during dimming. When a bulb such as the Cree is available without the drawback of weight and poor dimming, why settle for less?
However, if your bulb needs to go into a totally enclosed fixture and if temperature is a concern but dimming isn’t, you may want to consider the Switch.
We briefly considered many cheap, white label options from places like Monoprice and Walmart, but passed on them because they’re not Energy Star Certified. If you found a bulb and are wondering why we didn’t test or address it specifically, it’s probably because it’s not certified. There’s no reason to consider them when other options that are just as cheap perform better and are both certified and available.
The 13 W Best Buy Insignia bulb did receive Energy Star certification, and its price dropped down to $12.99. The bulb performs well. However, its price and 13 W power requirement are both too high.
Philips still sells its 11 W Energy Star certified 60 W-equivalent bulb which dims nicely, but you won’t get any performance improvement for the $2-$4 you’ll pay extra for it.
Keep in mind as well that the Cree bulb has a markedly better warranty: 10 years vs. Philips’ 6 years for this particular bulb.
GE’s entry in this category is mostly unremarkable. The Energy Smart LED 60W equivalent bulb, which sells for about the same as the Cree ($10-$15 apiece), has a shorter lifespan than our pick, a shorter warranty, is not as efficient, weighs a bit more, and uses more power for the same number of lumens. (CNET has a helpful chart visualizing this.) There’s nothing here that makes this a better pick than the Cree.
Why now is a great time to buy LED bulbs
David Pogue, former technology columnist for The New York Times, puts it bluntly: “Start buying LED light bulbs.” A couple years ago, this wouldn’t be the case, but nowadays, it just makes sense. They’re cost-effective, provide quality lighting, and are less environmentally harmful than all other options.
LED light bulbs have come a long way in just a few years: The first bulb I opened up in 2010 was a 40 W-equivalent that produced 560 lumens from 7 W which it cast over a 120-degree angle, compared to the almost 360-degree throw of an incandescent or CFL bulb. It was non-dimmable, retailed for about $25, and came with a 1-year warranty. (A similar bulb died in my home after two years due to a lousy solder joint.)
Now in 2014, you can buy Cree’s Soft White 60 W-equivalent that produces 800 lumens from 9.5 W with a light pattern similar to an incandescent bulb. It dims flawlessly and costs just $13, and Cree backs the bulb with a 10-year warranty. The company is a technology innovator in solid-state lighting, having developed one of the first practical white LEDs which opened the door to energy-efficient solid-state lighting. You may not be familiar with Cree’s name, but its LED components light up modern lighting projects such as San Francisco’s airport and the exterior skin of the Beijing Water Cube swim stadium. Other lighting manufacturers have tried to borrow some of Cree’s quality cachet by advertising their LED bulbs as using Cree LEDs: think “Cree inside” instead of “Intel inside.”
Energy efficiency and the resulting cost savings are the reasons you should be considering switching to LED bulbs. Although the Cree bulb’s $10 initial cost seems pricey compared to an incandescent, its savings in energy costs over its 23-year lifetime results in an energy savings of $139, assuming the bulb is on for 3 hrs/day and energy costs $.11/kWh.
LEDs > CFLs
However, justifying the purchase of a bulb on how it stacks up next to an incandescent bulb’s energy efficiency is a bit of a straw-man: the real competition is CFLs, thanks to the January 2014 elimination of 60 W incandescent lights since they cannot meet the lighting efficiency standards of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. And CFLs do have some impressive numbers: A 60 W-equivalent CFL can produce 800 lumens from 13 W (vs. the Cree’s miserly 9.5 W), can operate for as long as 10,000 hours, and you’ve probably seen them at big box stores for around $1.50. However, for a buck and a half you are not getting a light that compares favorably with either an old-style incandescent, or a Cree LED 60 W-equivalent.
Besides, it’s not just costs that make LEDs a better choice; LEDs are much better for the environment as well. All CFL bulbs contain mercury, which means disposal and any breakage is a concern. You probably don’t need to be told that mercury is a toxic heavy metal that persists in the environment.
Cree offers an impressive 10-year warranty on its bulbs, with the technicality that they should be purchased from Home Depot (Home Depot is the only authorized reseller of Cree bulbs at the moment). However, Cree VP of corporate marketing Mike Watson confirmed to us in March 2014 that the company would still honor this warranty even if the bulbs were purchased from Amazon.
Update for May 2014: Cree PR has now informed us that the company will only honor warranties for bulbs bought from Amazon resellers if you have a Home Depot receipt to go with it—that is to say, the Amazon seller must have included a Home Depot receipt in the box when they sent it to you.
“Cree will honor warranties for bulbs purchased from The Home Depot as well as Amazon. You can find more information on the warranties here, but basically consumers must return the bulb with a UPC code proof of purchase, and register their receipt and their name directly through Cree to get a replacement bulb,” a Cree spokesperson told Wirecutter.
Send proof of purchase, register receipt and your name and address to Cree, Inc. (Consumer Warranty), 4600 Silicon Drive, Durham, N.C. 27703 USA.
Your best bet if you don’t have your receipt is to walk into a Home Depot, though.
Cree’s intent in offering the 10-year warranty—the industry’s best—is to ease buyers’ concerns about going with a new technology, especially after the problems that CFL purchasers experienced initially.
Wrapping it up
If you’re looking to replace your CFLs and incandescents with LEDs, go with Cree. Whether it’s the regular soft white style or the TW series with more accurate colors, you’re getting a great light bulb for not much money. And their dimming performance is unparalleled.
Cree 60W LED replacement bulb review and tear down, Designing With LEDs, March 12, 2013,"The color temperature of 2700K – a standard color temperature for LED replacement bulbs –is warm and pleasant. Cree does offer the bulb in a much cooler 5000K temperature and prices it a bit higher, most likely because at the cooler temperatures the bulb is more efficient at producing light. The 5000K bulb requires only 9W to produce 800 lumens compared to the 9.5W of the 2700K tested. In addition, people tend to think of the cooler temperature light as being inherently brighter because of the stark contrast with shadows. However, to live with on a daily basis, stick with the 2700K version."
New Reasons to Change Light Bulbs, The New York Times, March 20, 2013,"You know how hot incandescent bulbs become. That’s because they convert only 5 to 10 percent of your electricity into light; they waste the rest as heat. LED bulbs are far more efficient. They convert 60 percent of their electricity into light, so they consume far less electricity. You pay less, you pollute less."
Cree’s LED bulb looks like an incandescent and lights like one, for under $10, Geek.com, March 5, 2013,"The bulb is lightweight, starts up quickly, is responsible about power (my meter put it at 8W), and it runs at a cozy, incandescent-like 2700K. The light pattern seems right on target for an omnidirectional design. The bulb, which is able to run in an enclosure and in any orientation — just like an incandescent — remains cool to the touch (very much unlike an incandescent)."
Cree's $13 LED light bulb is the best yet, looks and feels incandescent (hands-on), The Verge, March 5, 2013,"Today, LED manufacturer Cree has announced a series of light bulbs that start at just $10, cutting the going rate in half with one fell swoop. What's more, these LEDs don't seem to have a catch. They're as bright, efficient, and long-lasting as practically anything on the market, and they look like incandescent light bulbs to boot."