The Best Christmas Lights

You might assume all Christmas lights are the same. In reality, there are a few specific types that all the experts agree are the best. And, no, they’re not the basic incandescent strands boxed up in your basementthese are LEDs. After nearly spending 40 hours researching products, interviewing experts, and testing 16 strands of lights side by side, we’ve found several products that offer excellent performance and efficiency with a warm light that looks almost identical to a classic incandescent.

Last Updated: 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.
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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.
Great Pick
These lights have a color quality that nearly matches traditional incandescent Christmas lights, but they’re more durable, safer, and should last at least ten years.

For indoor use, our favorites are the GE Colorite LED Christmas lights, available in multicolor ($12/50 bulbs or $20/100 bulbs) and warm white ($12/50 bulbs or $20/100 bulbs). Like all LEDs, these 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 Colorite’s hue, with white and especially multicolored lights, was the closest to that of a traditional incandescent—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, so draping them through a tree or storing them in the off-season is easy. They 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 greater benefits and fewer drawbacks than any other indoor lights we tested.

If they’re sold out, we recommend the Bethlehem Lights LEDs as a runner-up.

Also Great
These lights are bright, durable, and completely waterproof. They require so little electricity that you can link up to 43 strands together on a single outlet.

For outdoor use, we recommend 5-millimeter wide-angle conical LEDs from Christmas Designers, available in warm white, multicolor, or single color, averaging $15/50 bulbs, $20/70 bulbs, or $30/100 bulbs). These lights have all of the benefits of LEDs as well as a design that makes the bulb impervious to moisture for weeks in the snowy, sleety, rainy outdoors—and we confirmed that by leaving a lit set submerged in a bucket all day. We liked the warmth of the color, the bright 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 going up outdoors and likely to be exposed to at least some harsh conditions, these will have a shorter lifespan than the indoor LEDs, but you can still expect six or seven seasons out of them.

They’re 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.

If our outdoor pick is sold out, we recommend the wide-angle conical LEDs from Christmas Lights Etc as a runner-up.

Also Great
The incandescent lights from Christmas Designers give off a perfect twinkling glow and cost a fraction of the LEDs.

Last, if you’re not ready to give up the unique warm twinkle of incandescents on an indoor tree, our favorites are the ones from Christmas Designers, available in multicolored ($5/50 bulbs or $9/100 bulbs), clear ($5/50 bulbs or $9/100 bulbs), and solid colors ($5/50 bulbs or $9/100 bulbs). These emitted the warmest overall light, and, like our other picks, had an easy-to-handle 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.

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 (last year I had to throw out half my incandescent strands due to non-working bulbs). If these are sold out, we recommend GE’s incandescents.

It wasn’t easy to pick these specific, exact models out of 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, GM of North American Consumer Lighting at GE.

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

Table of contents

Our pick: the best lights for indoors

Great Pick
These lights have a color quality that nearly matches traditional incandescent Christmas lights, but they’re more durable, safer, and should last at least ten years.

For indoor use, we recommend the GE Energy Smart Colorite LEDs, available in multicolor ($12/50 bulbs or $20/100 bulbs) and warm white ($12/50 bulbs or $20/100 bulbs). These have all of the benefits of LED lights, like high durability, zero heat output, and a long life expectancy. But here’s what 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 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. So, to find the products that would satisfy the most people, we lined up 11 LED strands next to five high-quality incandescent products (both warm white and multicolor) from GE, Christmas Designers, and Brite Star. In examining all of the LED strands, the Colorites were the clear winner, giving off a warm tone of light that was closer to the look of an incandescent than any of the other LEDs we considered.

It’s not a 100% 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. In a more casual setting with the lights nestled in a tree, it’s difficult to tell them apart.

GEs incandescent (top) and LED (bottom)

GE’s incandescent (top) and LED (bottom) offerings.

The Colorite LEDs, in warm white, are very close to emulating the light that an incandescent gives off. They also don’t have that consistent pinpoint twinkle, but they’ve nailed the hue perfectly. Once you’re more than five or six 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.

We also liked that the GE wire strands are very easy to manage. They’re neat and 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 rectified1, 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.

The GE LEDs are also durable, and they should withstand the annual boxing and unboxing process without a hitch.

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 LED lights, 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.

If something does go wrong with a single bulb, GEs lights have a feature called Constant On, which means that if a 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, which is more than enough for even the most ambitious indoor displays.

The GE Colorites have an excellent feedback rating at Home Depot with 4.9 stars. We found that Christmas lights don’t generally have a lot of customer feedback, and while these have only 14 reviews, the percentage of positives is much higher than other Christmas lights.

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

Flaws but not dealbreakers

One downside to the Colorites is that they don’t have stackable plugs. This is when the male plug has a female outlet on the backside of it. With stackable plugs, you can piggy-back multiple strands 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.

Runner-up

If the GE Colorites aren’t available, we also really liked Bethlehem’s multicolored LEDs. The light wasn’t as sharp and sparkly as on the GE Colorites, but it was close. On the downside, the wires are messy and a lot of the lights had to be twisted in order to unravel the strand enough to lay flat. These lights are also on the expensive side. At $20 for 50 bulbs, they’re a steep 40 cents per bulb. It’s a lot, especially when the GEs have a better wire and a nicer color, and are almost half the price.

Our pick for outdoor lights

Also Great
These lights are bright, durable, and completely waterproof. They require so little electricity that you can link up to 43 strands together on a single outlet.

The best lights for most outdoor displays are the 5-mm wide-angle conical LED lights from Christmas Designers, a specialty Christmas light retailer that caters to professional lighting installers as well as non-pros. They are available in warm white, multicolor, or solid colors (averaging $15/50 bulbs, $20/70 bulbs, or $30/100 bulbs—the company runs a lot of sales and prices fluctuate). These lights give off a bright, warm color that is perfect for lighting up 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.

This particular kind of light—the 5-mm wide-angle conical size—was consistently called out by our experts as the best one to get for exterior use. We were surprised to find such a specific answer to this question in our research. But Ben Orr, who specializes in exterior displays, says 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.”

The bulb of a wide-angle LED is a stubby little thing and doesn’t have the homespun look of the small glass candle found on other mini lights. The unique shape of the bulb actually adds depth and complexity to the lights’ appearance. As Orr told us, this shape allows the strand of lights 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.” Moriarty picked up on this trait and liked it quite a bit saying that it, “gives the light strand a lot of different textures.”

Christmas Designers’ 5 mm wide angle conical LED (top) and GE’s 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

Christmas Designers’ 5-mm wide-angle conical LED (top) and GE’s 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.

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.

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, this kind of moisture intrusion will “significantly reduce the life of a light set.” We tested this out by submerging the Christmas Designers’ multicolor strand in a bucket of water for an entire day. At no point did the lights show any ill effects from the test.

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 seasons2 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.

Christmas Designers’ wide angle multi colored lights at some point during hour six of being fully submerged in a bucket of water.

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

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 their popularity with professional installers, Christmas Designers offers bulk pricing on their wide-angle lights.

Flaws

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

If the Christmas Designers lights are sold out, we recommend the 5-mm wide-angle LEDs from Christmas Lights Etc ($18/50 bulbs or $25/70 bulbs). 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

Also Great
The incandescent lights from Christmas Designers give off a perfect twinkling glow and cost a fraction of the LEDs.

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 ($5/50 bulbs or $9/100 bulbs) and their white incandescents ($5/50 bulbs or $9/100 bulbs). 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.

Moriarty picked them out for having the best twinkle of the bunch.

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 their premium grade. They do sell other incandescents that don’t carry that label, like a 400-count mini light roll for only $8 (2 cents a bulb!). These we can’t vouch for.

Flaws

”Incandescent bulbs are essentially designed to self-destruct.” -Jason Woodward, Christmas Designers

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 together only three to six strands, depending on the length.

Incandescent runner-up

GE’s incandescents (warm white: $19/150 bulbs or $30/300 bulbs; multicolor: $19/150 bulbs or $30/300 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 a shade more expensive than the Christmas Designers at 10 to 13 cents per bulb.

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.

How we picked and tested

Once we dug into our research, it didn’t take long to realize that our main recommendations would be LEDs. 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.” While everyone knows that LEDs are good for the electrical bill3, that’s really only one reason to choose them over 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 old last longer.

The one area where incandescents are preferable is price. Most of the incandescents that we looked at sell for 5 to 9 cents per bulb, while the LEDs were in the 20-cent rage. Still, with all of the benefits that LEDs provide, 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 Electrica player in the Christmas light market for more than a centuryexpects 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 three times the cost of incandescents, that’s a strong endorsement.

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.

And finally, there’s the LED color quality issue. 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 suggests buying strands from a couple of different manufacturers, to compare and see which hue you like best before making a large purchase, and that once you find something you like, buy only from 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, Wal-Mart, Lowes). 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 them to be extremely knowledgeable about lighting and, in general, their products are very nice.

We dismissed companies due to 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 décor and don’t have a very good selection of Christmas lights. AGPTek only specializes 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 chose what seemed to be the best general purpose shapes for most people, and focused on a few 5-mm wide-angle conical LEDs, since so many experts recommended them for exterior use.

Ready to begin testing

Ready to begin testing.

We concentrated our research and testing strictly on mini-lights. These are the traditional, small, stranded Christmas light with a clear or semi-clear bulb and a candle shape. 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, later in the guide.

To evaluate the lights, we wound and unwound them, draped them over and into rhododendrons, and in and out of deck railings. We tested in mid-November and didn’t have access to a proper tree, but used rhododendrons that had branch spacings and an overall shape similar to a Christmas tree. Basically, we tried to use the lights how they’re intended to be used. As for the molded 5-mm lights, we tested the weather impermeability of those 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. (They are indeed impermeable. No problems in the bucket.)

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.

One last interesting note from the evaluations. We 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 (who also happens to be my wife). 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. This confirms Orr’s suggestion to select a single manufacturer and stick with them.

The competition

The multicolor LED sold by Noma (aka Holiday Wonderland in the US) has a nice color hue, but they’re non-rectified, so there is a potential for flicker, and if the light is even jiggled, they have a dizzying strobelike effect. Amazon has them for the very inflated price of $17 for 50 bulbs, but True Value sells them for $10, which seems more normal.

We also tested Noma’s 5-mm wide-angle multicolored LEDs ($14/70 bulbs). Like the other Noma lights, they are non-rectified. They also employ a 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 ($25/50 bulbs) have an easy-to-handle 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. They’re also $25 for 50 bulbs, which is a very expensive 50 cents per bulb.

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.

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 nicely organized wires like the ones from Christmas Designers.

The wide-angle LEDs from Christmas Light Source ($13 for 50 bulbs) 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 ($15/200 bulbs) were very nice and, as far as the light quality goes, on par with the strands from Christmas Designers and GE. The reason they didn’t make the recommendation is that they have 2.5-inch spacing, which likely will be a little tight for most people. As we said above, 4 inches is the standard (GE is 3.5). These are a little cheaper than the others at 7 cents per bulb, but they’ll make for a busier tree than normal.

While the Brite Star incandescents were a success, their warm white LEDs ($15/50 bulbs) 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 bag of Fritos.

Other bulb sizes

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 helpful comparative image to give a sense of the common sizes.

For this guide, we looked only at mini lights, but there are many other styles available, 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 sufficient selection.

For this research, we tested mini lights, which 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.

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. A hundred 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 about this 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.)

Wrapping it up

There are different considerations for indoor and outdoor Christmas lighting. For indoor, we recommend the GE Colorite LEDs for their nearly incandescent color quality, durability, and easy-to-manage wire. (And if you’re not willing to give up your incandescents, we really like the ones from Christmas Designers.) For outdoor use, go with 5-mm wide-angle conical LEDs from Christmas Designers, which have the best combination of light quality, easy handling, and weather impermeability.

Footnotes:

1. RECTIFIED LIGHTS

All LED Christmas lights blink on and off many times per second, like a fluorescent light. Lights that are fully rectified (aka full wave) light up at a rate of 120 times per second. Lights that are known as half wave, sometimes called non-rectified, blink 60 times per second. You want to buy a full-wave rectified light.

The rate that a half-wave LED blinks at is slow enough that, sometimes, a human eye can detect a slight flicker. 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. Even when they’re not moving, we thought that they had a harshness to them, an electronic feel, that the rectified lights didn’t have.

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 GEs 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.

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2. BULB LIFESPAN

When comparing brands of LED lights, don’t get caught up in the advertised hour ratings. Christmas Designers’ 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 noted 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.”

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3. COSTS

We want to be careful not to overstate the financial savings of LED. There is a major upfront cost difference (remember: 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. They calculate their number strictly based on purchasing cost and energy usage and don’t take into account the attrition that seems to befall incandescent strands.

But say you purchased eight strands of the GE LEDs ($20 each, $160 total) and eight strands of the Christmas Designers incandescents ($8.50 each, $68 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 $17 per year. So you’d start breaking even in the sixth year. This second line of thought 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.”

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Sources

  1. Ben Orr, Owner, Northern Seasonal, Interview
  2. The Art of Christmas Tree Lighting, Real Simple, http://www.realsimple.com/holidays-entertaining/holidays/christmas/art-christmas-tree-lighting

Originally published: December 2, 2014

  • eaadams

    Any tips on how to pack them up and avoid ball of wire syndrome? I’m waiting for some sort of miracle device on shark tank to fix this perenial issue.

    • Travis Aaron Rogers

      I’ve always used the Paper Towel (or Christmas paper) method. Cut a notch at the end of cardboard from a paper towel/Christmas paper roll. Insert the plug end where the notch is cut, then start wrapping. For a visual aide, my quick google image returned this example. http://www.milwaukeeinteriordesigncoach.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Christmas-Light-Storage.jpg

      • http://thesweethome.com/ Harry Sawyers

        Excellent tip, thank you! I’ve also had success wrapping mine up around a flat cardboard panel about the size of a paperback.

        To the original commenter, one thing we definitely wanted with our pick was a wire that was easy to manage and reshape. We found the wires on these picks could stretch out flat without much trouble, so as long as you can store them neatly, they should be fine when you unpack them next season.

      • moiraeve1

        Just as I had gotten to the end of the paper towel supply, hubby went and threw the cardboard away!

    • doughboy52

      One 1-gallon ziploc bag per set and then put them in a bin. Worked so well unpacking them this year after storing them that way last year for the first time!

  • R Jones

    I’m not convinced I should throw out my $1.50/150 incandescent lights. I usually get two to three years out of them, sometimes more and can find them for super cheap in the days after Christmas.

    • http://thesweethome.com/ Harry Sawyers

      If they’re still working, then by all means keep using them! We just figured you’d eventually need to replace them anyway, and that you’d probably want that familiar incandescent light—so that’s why we tested these against incandescents. The LED picks in this guide are basically indistinguishable from the classics.

  • Travis Aaron Rogers

    Thanks for taking my article suggestion :)

    • Travis Aaron Rogers

      P.S. – I just went to Christmas Designers and ordered 16 strands of the 70-bulb 5mm Conical lights & clips. Boy, that total sure added up quickly, but should hopefully result in something spectacular.

  • Scott Kelley

    I’d like to see a review on battery powered lights!

  • Guest

    I’m confused. If you can strand 25 sets of the GE Colorites together, how are they not stackable? The only Colorites available to me are online, so I’m just trying to figure this out before I commit. Thanks!

  • Nicole

    Question: if 25 sets of the GE Colorites can be strung together, how are they not stackable? The only Colorites available to me are online, so I’m just trying to figure this out before I commit. Thanks!

    • Doug Mahoney

      Hi Nicole, Sorry for any confusion. The GEs can be connected end to end, like all other Christmas lights. A stackable plug is a little different. It’s when the actual male plug on a strand has a female outlet directly on the back side of it. So you put the plug in the outlet and then you can plug directly into the back side of that plug with another strand. So if you do it with, say, three strands, you now have three strands coming directly from your outlet (and you still have two available sockets in the outlet).

      These are stackable plugs:
      http://www.aachristmas.com/Images/stackplug2.jpg

      Hope this helps. If not, let me know.

      • Nicole

        Thank you! Totally helps.

  • Maple Hohnstein

    Wow what a great article packed full of useful information. Thanks!

  • Jenny

    I would like to replace my C9 lights with LED C9’s. My question is can I just replace the bulbs and use the existing strand or do I need to get strands specifically for LED lights?

    • Doug Mahoney

      Hi Jenny, it appears that Christmas Designers sells LED bulbs just for this purpose. At their site, they say, “LED replacement bulbs, also called retrofit bulbs fit into a standard C7
      or C9 socket and can be used anywhere that a traditional incandescent
      bulb was used.” Their selection is here:

      http://store.christmasdesigners.com/Replacement-Bulbs/LED-Replacement-Bulbs/

      And also at Christmas Lights Etc.:

      http://www.christmaslightsetc.com/pages/RetroLED.htm

      It’s worth noting that the lighting installer I spoke with told me that LED C9s are dimmer than the incandescents, which is opposite of what happens with mini-lights.

      • Jenny

        Thank you so much!!!

  • Vivek Krishnamurthy

    Did you consider whether the lights contain lead in your testing and reviewing process? Concerns were raised last year about the amount of lead that can leach out of the PVC wiring that most manufacturers use in Christmas lights. See http://www.medicaldaily.com/theres-lead-your-christmas-tree-lights-it-enough-be-serious-holiday-health-concern-265735

  • ciparis

    I’d love to see a mention of how these lights blink (meaning actual blinking — you could call the non-rectified effect flicker for clarity there).

    I’m nostalgic for old strands of singly-blinking lamps, where individual lights (and not necessarily all of them) have their own blink rate, and it’s nice and slow, giving a twinkling effect and helping set the mood without evoking a concert prop.

  • http://movie.geek.nz/ Michael Cannon Miller

    Hey! I know this is an odd one but any chance these support 220-240 voltage? We can’t get christmas lights with orange and purple bulbs here (everything is RGBY). Nostalgia makes me want those American style colours and it’d be great to have a great LED option. My glimmer of hope is that LED things sometimes support international current.

    • http://thesweethome.com/ Harry Sawyers

      Ours are designed for standard North American voltage, but that’s an interesting question. You might try asking Christmas Designers. They’ve been reliable sources for a lot of our questions on lights, and I bet this one has come up for them before. Good luck!

  • Chris

    Hi guys,

    I tried to buy your recommended Christmas lights last year, and again this year, and every time I’ve gone to Home Depot they’ve been thoroughly and utterly sold out. homedepot.com doesn’t have them in stock for online purchase, and doesn’t even allow you to check stores. Any idea whether anyone else sells them? The only place I can find them on the web (which I found by looking up the model number) is some sketchy-looking site called thechristmaslights.net, which appears to be a recently-registered site operating out of France (hm…).

  • Guest

    It’s not entirely true that all lights flicker. An LED system with a capacitor to smooth the rectified AC would not have the flicker.

    It is possible they do not having a smoothing capacitor, for safety reasons. But worth keeping in mind that LED lights do not have to flicker with a lighting system like, the 12V of an RV or boat. Same applies for incandescents, actually (but not flourescents.)