After researching more than 70 LED bulb options, selecting 18 finalists, and testing them in an alcove with a light meter and a dimmer switch, we found that Walmart’s Great Value LED 60 Watt Equivalent (10 Watts) Dimmable Soft White hits all the marks that make a bulb great. And for the price, investing in these LED bulbs makes way more financial sense than buying another set of fluorescent bulbs. Walmart’s bulb spreads light in all directions, lights well and dims evenly, turns on instantly at full brightness, and emits a warm, bright light spectrum that shows colors accurately enough (or, more technically, has a color-rendering index of at least 80). We also had one more key criterion: We wanted a modest price tag. At $6 per bulb, our pick was the least expensive dimmable bulb we tried. This price makes converting to LEDs a reasonable expense—and with regular use, each bulb can pay for itself in the first year.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $6.
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 the previous version of this guide, studies LED bulbs as a business, and has performed many product 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 like Consumer Reports, which helped us determine how testers measure the quality and quantity of light. We shopped several bulb retailers for hours, and then tested the finalists by climbing up and down to a ceiling socket in an alcove dozens of times to confirm whether they met our criteria.
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 only 8 watts, or 13 percent of the energy of a 60-watt incandescent bulb. Saving power equates not only to immediate savings for your household but also to an overall smaller impact on the environment. Many homes, even in these modern times, still get their power from coal plants, particularly in Texas, the Midwest, and the Southeastern United States. Anything you can do to reduce your carbon footprint, pollute less, and slow down climate change is a dandy idea.
Generally speaking, LED bulbs are still expensive compared with four-for-a-dollar incandescents in their heyday. That said, they have come down significantly in price even since our last major iteration of this guide, to the point that the rebates (varying by state and energy provider) that used to play such a big role no longer matter so much. Generally, rebates covered about $10 of the cost of a single bulb. Now, you can easily find a bulb for less than $10, and the cheapest, made by Philips, is available for less than $5.
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 using an incandescent. It’s the perfect reason to switch.
Choosing an LED bulb comes down to personal preference in two metrics: brightness and color temperature. According to Conner and several other resources we consulted, 60-watt equivalent (800 lumens) is the standard brightness for most rooms in a home. Bulbs also come in a range of color temperatures measured in kelvin, where lower temperatures run red/yellow while higher temps run white/blue; a warm candlelight, for example, is about 1,500 K and a daytime blue sky is at least 15,000 K. We found that 2,700 K, which manufacturers typically call “warm” or “soft” white, is the most popular color temperature, so that became a key detail in determining our pick. So-called “daylight” bulbs, which measure at 5,000 K, are also common, but they have more specialized uses (such as lighting a garage), and they tend to be a bit more expensive than soft-white 2,700 K models.
The most common bulb base shape is A19, the pear shape typical of incandescents. And the most common type of bulb in this shape is the 60-watt bulb, so we made that our primary area of exploration. We also looked at some 40-watt-equivalent bulbs; according to Conner, those are the second-most-popular kind, often used in cozier settings like bedrooms or dens. The brighter daylight-spectrum bulbs, at 75 watts or 100 watts, typically work best in more specialized or task-oriented settings, such as on a desk, so we decided not to include this range in our testing.
Choosing bulbs on their specs used to be pretty crucial in order to get rebates—it involves making sure that they’re Energy Star–certified, and in the the case of California residents, confirming that they meet the California Quality specs (here’s a more digestible summary). The most difficult requirement is the standard that the bulbs have a CRI, or color rendering index, greater than 90. However, LED bulbs have come down in price significantly since the last time we wrote about them, and many cost less than $10, which is about the rebate amount. Philips is releasing a type of non-dimmable bulb that sells at about $4, and Walmart now offers non-dimmable house-brand bulbs that are about the same price.
To return to the matter of CRI for a minute: The color rendering index of a bulb is a measurement of how accurate colors appear in its light compared with a “reference” light source that has perfect color accuracy, with 100 being the perfect score. In the same way that a set of colored pencils, for example, will look different in broad daylight versus in candlelight or under a blacklight, any colored objects will look different under different bulbs. It’s important for a bulb to have a reasonably high CRI, because you don’t want colors to appear distorted as a result of your light source.
Conner noted that one way of assessing a bulb’s build quality is its weight. And counterintuitively, lighter generally means better. Many inferior bulbs use hunks of metal as heat sinks, which experts regard as a sort of shoddy, shortcut construction. “It’s a cheating way to do it,” Conner said. “Anyone who designs that way has probably cut some other corners.” Among the bulbs we tested, we didn’t find overall weight or heavy heat sinks to be an issue, but it’s something you should be wary of when shopping. For context, the Cree TW series 60-watt-equivalent bulb was among the heaviest we tested at 6.1 ounces, while our Walmart 60-watt-equivalent pick weighed 2.75 ounces.
An even light distribution is an attribute that most, but not all, bulbs have. A bulb that casts light across a wider field is better—a narrow beam of light, like that of a flashlight, doesn’t cover a room as well as a bulb with an ambient glow does. LED bulbs tend to have an opaque section between the base and the translucent portion that sheds the LED light. The larger the translucent section, the wider the light distribution. We sought bulbs that exposed as much of this area as possible, and as a result we disqualified some bulbs, such as those with a top-half omni design.
Dimmer compatibility is a particular matter of concern for LEDs—either the bulbs can be incompatible, they can dim unevenly, or they can hum in the socket. According to Energy Star specs, compatible bulbs must output no less than 80 percent brightness at the top setting of a dimmer, and no more than 20 percent at the bottom setting (10 percent in California). Basically, they must have a brightness spread greater than 60 percent (greater than 70 percent in California). Some bulbs cheat at this with an uneven brightness distribution along the spectrum—for instance, a bulb might dim only 5 percent as you slide the dimmer from 100 to 5, but as you slide the dimmer from 5 to 0, the bulb brightness drops 80 percent. On top of that, not all bulbs are compatible with all dimmers. But dimmer companies test with lightbulb companies and put out compatibility sheets (here’s an example).
The major brand of dimmer we used for testing was a Lutron Skylark, one of the most popular dimmers available from hardware stores and a model that is compatible with many bulbs. In our experience testing bulbs, we did not find the Lutron compatibility chart to be 100 percent accurate—some bulbs that were supposed to work did not, and some that weren’t supposed to work functioned just fine, without even making noise. So unfortunately, the only way to be sure a bulb will work, dim sufficiently, and not hum in your dimmer is to try it. We avoided bulbs that were not marked as dimmable; however, among LEDs, these types of bulbs are not as different as, say, dimmable and non-dimmable CFLs. The cost difference in most product lines between dimmable and non-dimmable bulbs is $1 or $2.
We eliminated bulbs that had no warranty or a warranty less than three years, but we did not seek out warranties any longer than that. Warranties used to matter a great deal for LED bulbs, as a way to earn buyers’ trust and to bring new technology into homes. When the first such bulbs appeared, a 10-year warranty wasn’t uncommon; now, coverage longer than three years is rare. The change in cost is likely a factor in shrinking warranties, as individual bulbs used to cost tens of dollars and were genuine investment pieces. Now they’re cheaper and more disposable. Frankly, it’s impressive to see companies provide any sort of multiyear warranty on something that costs between $3 and $10, but as most purchases are in bulk, it’s fair to expect some insurance.
On our previous guide, we received several commenter requests for consideration of IKEA bulbs. We researched the brand and found that some of the company’s bulbs are not dimmable, and that they all lack a warranty. That meant we couldn’t consider them this time around.
Beyond those metrics, we cross-referenced our list of potential products with that of Consumer Reports, which examines bulbs’ CRIs and ratings for warm-up time and light distribution in its efforts to thin the herd. CR’s info seems a little outdated though: The testing house’s top pick, a Samsung bulb, is no longer sold.
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. Our method for warm-up time and brightness involved climbing up onto a shelf in an alcove over and over again, reaching to the ceiling, screwing each bulb into a dimmer socket, pointing a light meter at it and measuring the brightness off the wall behind the bulb at the dimmer’s highest and lowest setting, waiting five minutes, and measuring the brightness at the highest and lowest settings again and noting any changes. We then climbed up to unscrew that bulb and try another one.
These numbers are most valuable for quantifying any warm-up a bulb needs to do in its first few minutes—if a bulb needs no warm-up time, its light-meter readings will remain constant after five minutes—and don’t have a ton of meaning in comparing one bulb to another. But for posterity, in making our picks, we converted the light meter’s stats to a measure of luminance (a measure of a light’s intensity per unit area in a given direction) using the reflected-light exposure equation for each bulb so that you can get a sense of its light spread. Again, your results may vary depending on your dimmer.
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 non-dimmer socket, and we found most bulbs to be beyond reproach with a couple of exceptions noted in The competition.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $6.
The Walmart Great Value LED 60 Watt Equivalent (10 Watts) Dimmable Soft White (about $6) was as good as the other models we tested and was the least expensive bulb that hit all our criteria: It didn’t buzz in a dimmer or take time to warm up in our tests, and it has a CRI of 82, higher than our minimum requirement of 80. In the dimmer we used to test, the bulb could go from very bright to very dim, per the Energy Star mandate, with a luminance of 48.8 (candelas per square meter) at top brightness in the dimmer and 1.2 at the dim end. Similar to all of the finalists we checked out, this Walmart bulb also offers an omnidirectional spread of light, so it diffuses its brightness over a wide area. As it meets all our requirements and has the lowest price we found, this bulb represents the most affordable way to transition to an all-LED house.
One general point in favor of LED bulbs over CFLs is that their housing is almost never made of glass. LED bulbs have a plastic shell, sometimes combined with metal, that imitates the glass-bulb shape of incandescents. This Walmart bulb is no exception, which gives it huge durability points over an incandescent or CFL. Most of the LED bulbs we tried, our pick included, are tough enough to survive a short drop to a floor, usually.
Next to our runner-up from GE, this Walmart bulb has a slightly cheaper-feeling plastic and a white plastic base that’s lighter in weight. Overall, though, either bulb’s size and weight are easy to manage with one hand when you’re screwing it into a socket. At any rate, if you’re looking to get an ASMR charge out of the tactile feeling of LED bulbs instead of screwing them into a socket to shed light within your dark home, you’re reading the wrong guide.
These bulbs come with a five-year warranty, and GE says to expect them to last that long with everyday use of three hours per day. Walmart claims that its bulbs will last 25,000 hours, which is 22 years at three hours per day or 8½ years at eight hours per day. We’d love it if the bulbs did last this long—we can’t say either way—but even by the time you’ve exhausted the five-year warranty, the bulbs will have paid for themselves many times over.
The GE bulb has a nearly opaque translucent plastic shell, and the base is a light metal, so it’s easy to support and screw in one-handed. It has a bit more heft than the Walmart bulb but is no more difficult to handle.
After we finished this round of tests, Cree contacted us to let us know that it would be releasing an updated version of its 60-watt-equivalent 4Flow bulb that will have a CRI of 83, up from 80 in the previous version. In September 2016, Cree announced a new line of LED bulbs that have reportedly superior lifetimes (they’re projected to last for 22-plus years), improved color rendition (Cree claims that all of its new bulbs have CRI scores in the high eighties or low nineties), and a 10-year warranty. Cree told CNET that it would start to phase out its 4Flow LEDs as its new bulbs—which have built-in heat sinks in their bases instead of the 4Flow’s convection vents—begin to ship. We look forward to checking out Cree’s new line when it becomes available.
We will also be looking into Home Depot’s EcoSmart A19 Energy Star + Dimmable LED Light Bulbs, made by Lighting Science Group. These bulbs currently cost $20 for a pack of four, are dimmable, and have a CRI of 80, which means they meet our initial criteria. Previous versions of these bulbs were recalled due to overheating, but if that is no longer an issue, we plan to test the new ones along with the new Cree bulbs during our next guide update.
Some new LED bulbs allow you to do things like turn them on remotely, change their colors, or make them part of a scene—you could set up fixtures as entryway lighting for your arrival home, for example. We did not consider such products for this guide, as they cost significantly more than regular bulbs and really belong in their own product category. PCMag has a guide dedicated to this category that recommends the Philips Hue system ($199 starting price) above all, with the company’s less expensive starter kit as an alternative. Crist likes this kit, but also recommends the TCP LED Lighting Control System ($86) as a budget alternative for someone who’d like to get started with connected LEDs.
Cree Soft White LED 40W Replacement (6 Watts) with 4Flow Filament Design, Dimmable ($8): 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.
Cree TW Series Soft White LED 40W Replacement (8.5 Watts) Dimmable ($3 in California with rebate, $13 elsewhere): 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.
Feit Electric LED Dimmable A15 40 Watt Replacement (4.8 Watts) Soft White ($13): This bulb is expensive, and it took a bit to warm up in our tests.
Osram Sylvania Ultra LED 40W Replacement (6 Watts) Soft White Dimmable ($7): In our tests, this bulb took time to warm up, though the light spread was satisfactory.
Osram Sylvania 6-Watt (40W Equivalent) A19 Dimmable Soft White LED ($12): This bulb has a weird freely moving plastic piece inside that you have to kind of jiggle into place. The piece is meant to help spread the light, but if you screw in the bulb and the plastic piece is off-center, the light spread will be uneven. We also found that this bulb buzzed lightly with our dimmer.
Philips 7-Watt (40-Watt) A19 LED Soft White Dimmable ($13): This bulb had a warm-up period and is also pricy for a single bulb.
Philips SlimStyle 40 Watt Equivalent (8 Watts) Soft White Dimmable ($9): 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 good, and the bulb has Energy Star certification. However, though this bulb is approved to work with dimmers, it did not work in ours. And even if it had worked, it costs more than our pick.
Cree Soft White LED 60W Replacement (9.5 Watts) Dimmable ($6 in Utah, $10 in most other locations): This bulb offered a nice light spread and a fine brightness spectrum across our dimmer’s range, but it’s too expensive for most people.
Cree TW Series Soft White LED 60W Replacement (13.5 Watts) Dimmable ($2 to $4 in California, $15 elsewhere): This bulb emitted a faint hum when we tested it with our dimmer, but that was the only mark against it. We want to highlight this bulb because it’s one of the least expensive models that California residents can get through utility subsidies, which reduce its price to $2 to $4. If you don’t live in California, Cree bulbs remain somewhat expensive, so they are hard to justify as a purchase. These bulbs have a CRI of 93, and are slightly less yellow than our picks, as their TW (for “True White”) name suggests. They are still of the warm type for lighting a home, as opposed to the daylight-spectrum bulbs designed for more task-oriented uses.
Feit Electric LED Dimmable A19 60 Watt Replacement (9.5 Watts) Soft White ($13): This bulb performed fine, with no buzz and no warm-up time. Its price is high, though, and we can find nothing about it that makes it worth that extra money.
GE Reveal 60W equivalent 11W Soft White LED ($15): The GE Reveal line’s selling point is its high CRI of 90, which means it’s compatible with California standards for rebates and generally produces better light (if you accept CRI as a good measure of color accuracy). If you need a high-CRI bulb for performing tasks or meeting California standards, this model is fine; we found it to be more dim overall than the standard GE Soft White we chose as our runner-up, 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.
Osram Sylvania 8.5-Watt (60W Equivalent) A19 Dimmable Soft White LED ($9): This bulb performed fine and neither hummed nor required warm-up time; it’s simply more expensive than our pick.
Osram Sylvania 10-Watt (60W Equivalent) A19 Dimmable Soft White LED ($15): 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.
Philips LED 9.5W A19 60 Watt Equivalent Soft White Dimmable ($10): As this bulb dims, it turns a warmer color for a sunset effect, which means in a dimmer it’s quite a bit warmer than a normal 60-watt, which can throw colors off. We also found that it had a faint hum in our dimmer.
Philips LED A19 60W Replacement (8.5W) Soft White ($4): This bulb is not dimmable, so technically it did not qualify for our tests, but because it has received a lot of attention over the past few months for its low price and it meets 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.
Originally published: September 18, 2015