After 20 hours researching dozens of LED light bulbs and testing 10 finalists, we found that the Cree 60W Equivalent Soft White A19 Dimmable LED is the all-around best option for most people. It was one of the most affordable and versatile bulbs we tried, and it outperformed most other bulbs in most of our tests.
Of all the bulbs we tested, this Cree 60-watt-equivalent bulb had the widest dimming range, spanning from 295 lux at its brightest to just 13 lux at its dimmest. It was also the second-brightest overall, just barely edged out by the twice-as-expensive GE Reveal’s 308-lux reading, despite consuming only 9.5 watts compared with the GE’s 11-watt draw. And this Cree bulb has a slightly higher-than-average color rendering index (CRI) of 85, which means colors should appear a bit more accurate. While the cost of all LED bulbs has dropped significantly in recent years, the Cree’s price of less than $5 per bulb is competitive, especially given its performance—but you can buy it only in a four-pack for now.
If our top pick is unavailable, the Philips 60W Equivalent Soft White A19 Dimmable LED with Warm Glow is a great backup choice. It meets all the same criteria as the Cree does, with only slightly inferior specs and a slightly higher price per bulb. It has a lower CRI (80), it doesn’t get quite as bright according to our lux meter (though we couldn’t tell the difference with the naked eye), and it has a narrower dimming range. However, it is available on a single-bulb basis if you need to get only one or two at a time.
For bedroom and reading lamps that require 40-watt bulbs, we like the Cree 40W Equivalent Soft White A19 Dimmable LED. Like our 60-watt-equivalent Cree pick, this 40-watt-equivalent bulb is both cheap and energy-efficient, bolstered by a relatively high CRI (85) and a dynamic dimming range. It produces a slight hum in some dimmers, but in our tests it proved quiet enough for us to overlook that effect. If you’d prefer to avoid such sounds, the Sylvania/Osram 40W Equivalent Dimmable Soft White A19 LED is a good backup option.
This review focuses only on bulbs meant to replace existing, cheap light bulbs around your home. If you’re looking for smart bulbs that you can control using your phone or voice, read our review of the best smart LED bulbs.
We spoke with Margery Conner, proprietor of Designing with LEDs, a site that documents the technical elements, evolutions, and upgrades across dozens of kinds of bulbs. Conner, who authored a previous version of this guide, studies LED bulbs as a business, and has performed many teardowns. We also interviewed Ry Crist, an associate editor at CNET who has filed many reviews of popular LED products. We spent hours researching bulb specs using resources such as Consumer Reports, which helped us determine how testers measure the quality and quantity of light. We shopped several bulb retailers for hours, after which we threw all we could find into a spreadsheet and compared specs, prices, and availability. Then we tested the finalists by measuring for noise, brightness, and dimming capabilities in a pitch-black room at night.
If you’re still using incandescent bulbs, note that LED bulbs have the potential to save you about $20 per year per bulb. A 60-watt-equivalent LED bulb uses between 8 and 11 watts, or roughly 13 percent of the energy of a 60-watt incandescent bulb.
If you’ve fully converted to compact fluorescent bulbs, you’ve already seen some savings—but switching to LEDs will save you even more. Compact fluorescent light bulbs use about a third to a quarter of the energy of incandescents, and two to three times as much energy as LED bulbs. LEDs also tend to work better with dimmers than CFLs do. When your CFLs die, upgrading to LEDs will definitely be a worthwhile investment.
And the cost keeps plummeting! When we last updated this guide in early 2015, the cost of a standard LED bulb hovered around $8 to $11. Now you can find 60-watt-equivalent LEDs from the likes of Cree, Philips, and Sylvania in the range of $3 to $6 per bulb. The category has reached a point where state and utility rebates (which once served to help incentivize the switch to LED) no longer matter much.
Consider their cost in use: A single incandescent bulb that you use for eight hours a day, every day, costs you about $22.78 per year (at the national average of about 13 cents per kilowatt hour). A 60-watt-equivalent LED costs you $3.80 per year. And that’s per bulb—if you use even five bulbs that much, you stand to save nearly $100 per year. LED bulbs cost a few dollars more per unit, but they more than pay for themselves within a year, and most have warranties promising that they’ll last at least three years with average daily use. Either way, you stand to save about a hundred dollars over the guaranteed lifetime of an LED bulb versus a comparably bright incandescent. It’s the perfect reason to switch.
For this guide, we wanted to focus on bulbs designed to replace the vast majority of bulbs in typical home fixtures and lamps. That means they should be affordable and widely available, and they should come as close to mimicking the performance and appearance of an incandescent bulb as possible.
A note from our photo editor: White balance remained constant at 2,700 K for all the photos in the above gallery, so the differences in color cast are the actual differences you would see between the bulbs if you were to compare them side by side. But the differences are not visible to the naked eye unless two different bulbs are lighting the same space.
The above are the important things to look for in an LED bulb today. A number of other features were previously important but aren’t so relevant now.
Beyond evaluating those metrics, we cross-referenced our list of potential models with that of Consumer Reports, which examines bulbs’ CRI scores and ratings for warm-up time and light distribution in its efforts to thin the herd. Consumer Reports’s info seems a little outdated, though: The testing house’s top pick, a Samsung bulb, is no longer sold. CNET similarly has switched its focus away from regular bulbs to their smart counterparts. CNET’s top pick is a bulb from 2014.
After applying our criteria to more than a hundred bulbs, we narrowed the field to 18 bulbs for testing across the 60-watt-equivalent and 40-watt-equivalent categories. Then we put those bulbs through a bunch of observational tests to see which one was the best.
We tested bulbs for brightness, light spread, warm-up time, and performance in a dimmer. To measure warm-up time and brightness, we closed off a room to all incoming light (testing at night) and duct-taped a light meter to the ceiling and walls to measure lux readings from three points around the room (1 foot from the bulb, 6 feet from the bulb, and 6 feet from the bulb reflected off white drywall). For each bulb we measured lux at the dimmer’s highest and lowest setting; we then waited five minutes and repeated the same measurements.
We found in our testing that these bulbs no longer needed warm-up time to shine their brightest. In fact, they almost all started out at their brightest and then dimmed by a dozen or so lux before settling down. So we made our pick decisions using the post-warm-up readings, since it’s rare that you’d use a bulb for less than five minutes.
At the time of turning on the bulb and after five minutes, at both dimmer extremes, we listened for any humming or buzzing the bulb might make. We also tested for light spread in a more open nondimmer socket, and in that regard we found most of the bulbs to be beyond reproach, with a few exceptions as noted in The competition.
The Cree 60W Equivalent Soft White A19 Dimmable LED delivers the best balance of price, dimming performance, brightness, color accuracy (CRI), noise (or lack thereof), and energy usage. A four-pack is typically available for less than $20—sometimes much less, as I found the same four-pack on sale at Home Depot in-store for just $4. Even at the regular price, this bulb tops much of the competition on value alone. The fact that it’s also among the best-performing bulbs we tested made it an easy pick.
The Cree was among the brightest bulbs we tested, falling just behind the GE Reveal 60W Equivalent A19 Dimmable LED in overall brightness. At a distance of 1 foot at the highest setting, we measured a reading from the Cree bulb of 315 lux, which fell to 295 lux after five minutes. While this was the the second-highest reading we measured in our tests (the GE Reveal was a touch brighter at 308 lux), each bulb was bright enough to fully illuminate a 100-square-foot room without additional help, and we struggled to discern any qualitative difference between any of the bulbs at peak brightness. Backing up this result was our data in the other test, where we measured the brightness of each bulb’s reflection cast onto a wall 6 feet away. In this test, the brightest bulb, the GE Reveal, had virtually the same lux reading as the Cree (34 lux versus 33 lux) and both just barely edged out the 30-lux reading of our Philips runner-up, which registered a mere 197 lux at its brightest setting. This goes to show that brightness isn’t everything.
The Cree 60-watt-equivalent bulb was also able to get much dimmer than the competition, delivering a 282-lux dimming range (light spread), wider than any other bulb. At the lowest dimmer setting, our light meter picked up a reading of 13 lux, which held steady after five minutes. That’s dim enough that you’d probably have to squint to read a book; it’s also significantly dimmer than the GE Reveal got, as that bulb was too bright at its lowest setting (45 lux) for us to consider it truly dim.
For several days we tested and lived with the Cree 60-watt-equivalent LED installed in both an open light fixture and a living room lamp, reading and watching TV by its light in a dark room with hardly any incoming sunlight. We detected no humming at any dimmer setting, which couldn’t be said of the otherwise great Walmart bulbs we tested. The light from the Cree bulb felt warm and comfortable in our use, comparable to that of an incandescent. And this bulb, with its relatively low energy draw of just 9.5 watts, promises an even lighter impact on your utility bill than, say, the 11-watt GE Reveal 60W Equivalent A19 Dimmable LED or the 10-watt Walmart Great Value 60W Equivalent Omni Dimmable Soft White LED.
The Cree bulb also has a relatively high CRI of 85, ranking higher than all but one of our top contenders. But as Margery Conner told us, it’s almost impossible to see the difference between an 80 CRI bulb and and 85 CRI bulb, so when we say there was nothing of note regarding the bulb’s color accuracy, you should interpret that as a good thing. The GE Reveal 60W Equivalent A19 Dimmable LED has a CRI score of 90, but it costs twice as much per bulb and uses more energy. (If color accuracy is a high priority for you, the GE is probably the better choice so long as you can deal with a not-so-dim dim setting; if not, skip it.)
Given the similarities between the LED bulbs we tried, we were hard-pressed to find a reason to complain about this one in particular. Perhaps our biggest issue is the fact that the Cree 60-watt equivalent is currently sold only in a four-pack, so it doesn’t really lend itself to the one-off experience of purchasing a $5 bulb—something you’ll have to get used to if you’re more familiar with incandescent pricing. But if you’re trying to switch all the bulbs in your house, this four-pack pricing isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
The Philips 60W Equivalent Soft White A19 Dimmable LED with Warm Glow excels in most of the categories that made the Cree 60W Equivalent Soft White A19 Dimmable LED our top pick. Although it isn’t as bright as the competition and has a lower (but adequate) CRI of 80, it’s still a great value—and unlike our top pick, it’s sold in single-bulb packages, minimizing your cost and commitment. It stays completely silent at all dimmer settings (unlike the Walmart bulb we tested), it gets legitimately dim at the low settings (unlike the GE Reveal bulb we tried), and it merely sips power, drawing 9.5 watts like the Cree. At around $6 at this writing, it’s slightly more expensive (per bulb) than the Cree but about half the price of the $10 GE Reveal, making it a solid backup pick if the Cree is nowhere to be found or if you prefer not to buy in bulk.
At a distance of 1 foot at the highest dimmer setting, the Philips bulb recorded a reading of 234 lux. After five minutes that figure fell to 197 lux. Neither of those numbers screams “bright,” but we were hard-pressed to notice an obvious difference in brightness to the undiscerning eye. During the entire test, this bulb remained bright enough to fully illuminate a 100-square-foot room. At a distance of 6 feet, the Philips measured 57.3 lux, falling to 54 lux after five minutes. With the light reflected off the wall at 6 feet, the Philips bulb had a reading of 33 lux, falling to 30 lux after five minutes—just barely short of the Cree bulb’s 34-lux and 33-lux readings, respectively.
Apart from being affordable, the Philips bulb can get especially dim: At the lowest setting our light meter read it at 14 lux, and then 13 lux after five minutes. That put the Philips among the dimmest 60-watt equivalents we tested, only slightly brighter than the Cree, and certainly low enough light to render book text illegible. At a distance of 6 feet, the Philips measured 5 lux at the dimmest setting, holding constant after five minutes. Reflected off the wall at 6 feet, it registered 4 lux at the lowest, again holding steady after five minutes.
One cool feature that Philips packs into this model as well as most of its LED bulbs is Warm Glow, which emanates soft, diffused light at low dim settings, simulating the feel and appearance of an incandescent light. At this level the Philips bulb feels more like a candle than an LED, and it feels nice when you use it. Overall, however, the Cree provides better performance.
Like Cree’s 60-watt equivalent, the Cree 40W Equivalent Soft White A19 Dimmable LED offers the best blend of price, brightness dynamics, color accuracy (CRI), and energy efficiency. This bulb is also sold in a four-pack for less than $20, and again you can sometimes find it for far less; at my local Home Depot, I found this four-pack on sale for just $4. Even at the regular price, $5 per bulb remains quite a deal next to some 40-watt-equivalent competitors, and this bulb’s mix of other features and specs makes it the ideal pick for this category.
We registered a lux reading of 165.9 at the highest dim setting at a range of 1 foot from the Cree 40-watt equivalent. This figure fell to 163 lux after five minutes. While it was noticeably dimmer at this point than the 60-watt equivalents, it was still bright enough to fill a 100-square-foot room with warm, sunsetlike light. It was also significantly brighter than the 40-watt-equivalent competition. At a distance of 6 feet, the bulb had a reading of 34 lux at the highest setting, holding steady after five minutes. Reflected off a wall at 6 feet, the bulb had a reading of 20 lux (19 lux after five minutes).
At the lowest dimmer setting, we recorded a reading of 11 lux, and then 10 lux after five minutes; at this setting the bulb was very dim, about as bright as a single candle at full burn. At a distance of 6 feet, we measured a reading of 4 lux, which held steady after five minutes. With the bulb’s output reflected off a wall at 6 feet, our light meter could not detect any light.
This Cree bulb has a CRI of 85, which is relatively high for the 40-watt-equivalent category. At 5.5 watts, it also draws considerably less energy than competitors, most of which range in consumption from 6 to 7 watts per bulb.
We had one major beef with this bulb: All four of the bulbs in the package produced a subtle hum. It wasn’t so loud that you’d notice it over the general activity of a home, but it was certainly present. Also, as we explain in How we picked above, the presence of humming usually has more to do with the dimmer than the bulb, so your experience may vary in this regard, and in the end we didn’t find it a strong enough flaw to reject this Cree bulb as our 40-watt-equivalent pick.
However, if you are primarily concerned about noise—maybe you intend to install the bulb in a near-silent reading room—consider one of the competitors we tested, namely the (especially cheap) Sylvania/Osram 40W Equivalent Dimmable Soft White A19 LED or the Philips 40W Equivalent Soft White Clear A19 Dimmable LED with Warm Glow.
IKEA Ledare LED bulb E26 600 lumen: This dimmable IKEA bulb is cheap and readily available if you’re an avid IKEA shopper, but in our tests we noticed a good deal of humming and buzzing emanating from it. Also, at 600 lumens, it doesn’t quite meet the luminosity specs of a standard 60-watt-equivalent LED bulb.
Walmart Great Value 60W Equivalent Omni Dimmable Soft White LED: This bulb was our previous top pick for the 60-watt-equivalent category. Its main selling point is the notably low price, but now that the competition has caught up in price, that $1 difference (compared with the Cree and Philips bulbs we picked) is hardly enough to excuse this model’s cheap, flimsy build, its limited availability (Walmart only), and its slightly higher wattage (10 watts). We also noticed some buzzing in our tests.
Cree 60W Equivalent Soft White A19 Dimmable LED (9.5 watts): This bulb offered a nice light spread and a fine brightness spectrum across our dimmer’s range. Its price has come down significantly since we first tested it, but our top pick from Cree, which replaces this model, has a higher CRI and is slightly cheaper per bulb.
GE Reveal 60W Equivalent A19 Dimmable LED: The GE Reveal line’s selling point is its high CRI of 90, which means it offers compatibility with California standards for rebates and generally produces better light (if you accept CRI as a good measure of color accuracy). If you want the light from a high-CRI bulb for performing tasks, or if you need to meet California standards, this model is fine. We found it to be more dim overall than the standard GE Soft White, but that effect was possibly due to our dimmer. This bulb did not hum or take time to warm up, and its light spread was good.
Sylvania/Osram 60W Equivalent Dimmable Soft White A19 LED (8.5 watts): This bulb performed fine and neither hummed nor required warm-up time. Its price has also come down in recent months. Its availability is somewhat limited, however, and it has a slightly lower CRI than our main picks.
Sylvania/Osram 60W Equivalent Dimmable Soft White A19 LED (10 watts): This bulb contains a free-moving plastic piece just as Sylvania’s 40-watt equivalent does. That element aside, this bulb did not buzz, though it did have a minor warm-up time. It also costs a bit more and consumes more energy than the competition.
Philips 60W Equivalent Soft White A19 LED (8.5 watts): This bulb is not dimmable, so technically it did not qualify for our tests, but because it received a lot of attention for its low price and it met the rest of our criteria, we called one in for testing. It’s a perfectly serviceable bulb for an excellent price, save that it does not dim; if you are certain you won’t need a dimming bulb, this is a great alternative.
Philips 40W Equivalent Soft White Clear A19 Dimmable LED with Warm Glow: This is a great bulb that came very close to besting our top 40-watt-equivalent pick, but you may want to hold off on buying it for now. Philips lent us a version of this bulb for testing, but we quickly learned that this version will not be released until December. In our tests, the older model that this one is meant to replace proved weak at the highest dim settings; it also hummed a bit at the brightest setting. Although we might end up recommending the brighter, more powerful version being released this December (it will retail at about $11 for a two-pack), the current iteration isn’t worth buying. We’ll update this story when the new one becomes available.
Sylvania/Osram 40W Equivalent Dimmable Soft White A19 LED (6 watts): One of the cheapest bulbs available, this is an excellent pick if you can find it. We had trouble tracking one down, but as of this writing it appears to be in stock at Lowe’s. In brightness dynamics, it proved less impressive than our main pick from Cree but superior to the Philips 40-watt-equivalent bulb. Still, this is a great option if you’re looking to go as cheap as possible.
Walmart Great Value 40W Equivalent Dimmable Soft White LED (7 watts): Another notably cheap LED bulb from Walmart, this model was our previous pick for the 40-watt-equivalent category. As with the 60-watt category, the price of competing bulbs has come down enough to warrant looking elsewhere. Furthermore, this bulb is currently unavailable—whether Walmart has any plans to stock up in the near future is unclear.
IKEA Ledare, LED bulb E26 400 lumen: Offering more evidence that LED bulbs are now completely affordable, IKEA’s dimmable 40-watt-equivalent bulb is just $4 at this writing. Although it’s quite a steal, that low price was not enough for us to overlook the obvious humming we detected. Your experience may vary, but even putting the noise aside, this bulb’s IKEA-only availability and middling dimmer range weren’t enough to sway us.
Cree TW Series 40W Equivalent Soft White A19 Dimmable LED (8.5 watts): Cree bulbs have the longest warranty at 10 years, and the TW series is notable for its high CRI rating of 93. These bulbs are a good deal if you live in California, but outside that state they’re not worth the cost for most people. In 2016, this model’s price is just too much to spend on a single LED bulb.
Cree 40W Equivalent Soft White A19 Dimmable LED with 4Flow Filament Design (6 watts): One of Cree’s older designs, this bulb has vents near the base and at the top of the bulb, so light emitted in those directions is somewhat brighter and uneven. This bulb’s price is also higher than that of our pick and our runner-up.
Feit Electric 40 Watt Replacement LED Dimmable A15 Soft White (4.8 watts): This bulb is expensive and it took a bit to warm up in our tests. Its availability is also fairly limited.
Philips 7-Watt (40-Watt) A19 LED Soft White Dimmable: This bulb had a warm-up period in our tests; it’s also pricey for a single bulb.
Philips SlimStyle 40 Watt Equivalent Soft White A19 LED Dimmable:: This bulb is one of the few to take advantage of how tiny light-emitting diodes actually are. It has a flat shape, but the light spread is still solid, and the bulb has Energy Star certification. However, though this model is approved to work with dimmers, it did not work in ours. And even if it had worked, it costs more than our pick and is somewhat difficult to find.
(Photos by Michael Hession.)
Originally published: October 31, 2016