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LED Headlamp REVIEW SUMMARY 2003: Petzl, Princeton Tec, Black Diamond, and Photon

A comprehensive review of sub-6-ounce LED headlamps from Princeton Tec, Black Diamond, Petzl, and Photon.

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by the Product Review Staff | 2003-12-12 03:00:00-07

LED Headlamp REVIEW SUMMARY 2003: Petzl, Princeton Tec, Black Diamond, and Photon


In terms of volume of units, LED headlamps will be the #1 outdoor specialty consumer item purchased this December (Source: current purchasing trend info supplied by outdoor specialty retailers).

There are now dozens of LED lights on the market, with about two or three dozen in a headlamp style. The major U.S. market players are Princeton Tec, Black Diamond, and Petzl. Photon, Brinkmann, Lightwave, Streamlite, Tektite, and Pelican are all vying for the remainder of the pie, and overseas manufacturers such as FrontaLED and Speleo Technics offer high end (read: pricey) offerings for alpinists and cavers.

Gear Guide Index - Product Specifications

NOTE: For a comprehensive comparison of LED Headlamps (not including hybrid LED-halogen models) from around the world, ranging from the ultralight to the ultra-expensive, check out our new LED Headlamp Gear Guide. The Gear Guide also includes several LED headlamps that are not reviewed herein.

Review Index

In this review, we narrow the field down to LED headlamps that weigh less than six ounces (170 grams), and that distribute their lightware in U.S. markets (hey, you have to be able to get it in time for Christmas, right?).

You can click on "Review" to read a headlamp's performance review, and "Specifications" to view its Product Card in our LED Headlamp Gear Guide.

Trail's Best Award Winners

We are pleased to announce two headlamps as winners of our Trail's Best Awards for 2004:

Honorable Mention - Petzl Tikka Plus. The Tikka Plus competes very well on a performance basis with the Princeton Tec Aurora, but we gave the Aurora the Trail's Best designation due to slightly better usability in cold conditions.

Review Methodology

In this review, we focus primarily on cold weather usability and cold weather performance. Evaluation of headlamps in cold conditions is prudent because they are primarily used in the dark - when temperatures plummet. Thus, herein we test battery life and light output at 38 °F (3 °C). In addition, we evaluate headlamp usability and operation with cold, bare hands, and in cold conditions while wearing thin liner gloves, mid-weight windproof fleece gloves, shelled ski gloves, and shelled 300-weight fleece mitts - in the field - where at the end of the day, one is tired, hungry, and cold. Through this methodology, we are better able to evaluate the anticipated field performance of headlamps, rather than the typical industry standard of reviewing light performance at 70 °F (21 °C) and usability with bare fingers while typing the review at a keyboard in a warm cubicle.

Usability Assessment. For each headlamp, we evaluate weight (of course), headband design, changing the batteries, tilting the housing, operating the switch, and changing light modes (where applicable). We pay special attention to be able to perform these tasks with bare, cold hands, as well as gloved and mittened hands.

Cold Weather Performance. For each headlamp, we evaluate its initial performance with fresh batteries at room temperature (at both the beam center and the beam edge). More importantly, we take a look at the degradation of beam intensity over a 24 hour period when the lamp is left on continuously and incubated at 38 °F.

Performance Comparison Summary

TABLE 1. Measured Weights

ModelWeight w/o BatteriesWeight w/BatteriesWeight w/Lithium AA Batteries
Black Diamond Ion0.64 oz (18 g)0.97 oz (27 g)n/a
Black Diamond Moonlight2.88 oz (82 g)4.03 oz (114 g)n/a
Black Diamond Zenix3.37 oz (96 g)4.54 oz (129 g)n/a
Petzl Zipka0.92 oz (26 g)2.07 oz (59 g)n/a
Petzl Tikka Plus1.39 oz (39 g)2.54 oz (72 g)n/a
Princeton Tec Scout1.01 oz (29 g)1.41 oz (40 g)n/a
Princeton Tec Aurora1.49 oz (42 g)2.66 oz (75 g)n/a
Princeton Tec Matrix 23.74 oz (106 g)5.34 oz (151 g)4.69 oz (133 g)
Photon Fusion3.36 oz (95 g)5.78 oz (164 g)4.81 oz (136 g)

For a detailed assessment of the performance of each individual LED headlamp, the reader is referred to the individual reviews, accessible by clicking the link(s) above in the "Review Index" section.

TABLE 2. Measurement of beam intensity (Lux) at room temperature with fresh batteries

BATTERIES USED: Energizer Photo lithium AA's were used for evaluating the performance of the Photon Fusion and Princeton Tec Matrix 2. Energizer Titanium E2 AAA's were used for all AAA headlamps. Energizer 2032 coin cell lithium batteries were used for the Princeton Tec Scout. The stock Black Diamond 6V battery was used for the Ion.

Beam Quality Index is a measure of the ratio of beam intensity at its edge (1-foot off center at a distance of 2 feet) to beam intensity at the beam center. Higher values of the Beam Quality Index indicate a beam pattern that is more like a floodlight, while lower values of the Beam Quality Index indicate a beam pattern that is more like a spotlight. Scale: 0 to 100.

ModelLux @ CenterLux @ EdgeBeam Quality Index
Black Diamond Ion11886.8
Black Diamond Moonlight113119.7
Black Diamond Zenix (Hyperbright)43871.6
Black Diamond Zenix (Normal)12597.2
Petzl Zipka1651810.9
Petzl Tikka Plus259135.0
Princeton Tec Scout11121.8
Princeton Tec Aurora203136.4
Princeton Tec Matrix 279281.0
Photon Fusion255228.6

TABLE 3. Comparison of lux at cold vs. warm temperatures with fresh batteries

Values for warm temperatures are repeated from table above. Values for cold temperatures were collected by incubating headlamps at 38 °F overnight (turned off) before light intensity measurements were taken.

ModelLux @ 68 °FLux @ 38 °FQuality of Cold Light Beam
Black Diamond Ion1184236%
Black Diamond Moonlight11310795%
Black Diamond Zenix (Hyperbright)43839791%
Black Diamond Zenix (Normal)12511592%
Petzl Zipka16515292%
Petzl Tikka Plus25925297%
Princeton Tec Scout1118173%
Princeton Tec Aurora20317285%
Princeton Tec Matrix 279260476%
Photon Fusion25522086%

TABLE 4. Lux decay at 38 °F

Measurement of headlamp beam intensity decay in response to incubation at 38 °F. Light is turned 'on' at time zero. Time zero values are reproduced from table above.

ModelLux @ 0 hoursLux @ 8 hoursLux at 24 hours
Black Diamond Ion4231
Black Diamond Moonlight1074113
Black Diamond Zenix (Hyperbright)39722344
Black Diamond Zenix (Normal)115146
Petzl Zipka1526025
Petzl Tikka Plus (High)2527512
Petzl Tikka Plus (Medium)1105726
Princeton Tec Scout (High)81149
Princeton Tec Scout (Medium)51106
Princeton Tec Aurora (High)1726414
Princeton Tec Aurora (Medium)883824
Princeton Tec Matrix 26045520
Photon Fusion (Hyperbright)2202050
Photon Fusion (Brilliant)1551430

Comparisons to Consider...

2-LED Headlamps

  • Black Diamond Ion
  • Princeton Tec Scout

3-4 LED Headlamps

  • Princeton Tec Scout Aurora
  • Petzl Zipka
  • Petzl Tikka Plus
  • Black Diamond Moonlight

Hyperbright LED Headlamps

  • Black Diamond Zenix
  • Princeton Tec Matrix 2

Headlamps that can accept AA Lithium Batteries

  • Princeton Tec Matrix 2
  • Photon Fusion

Headlamps that are easy to operate and change batteries in cold weather and/or with gloves or mittens

  • Princeton Tec Matrix 2
  • Black Diamond Zenix


"LED Headlamp REVIEW SUMMARY 2003: Petzl, Princeton Tec, Black Diamond, and Photon," by the Product Review Staff. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2003-12-12 03:00:00-07.


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LED Lights
Discussion of light-emitting diode (L.E.D.)-based flashlights and headlamps. The reader is referred to the following articles as basis for this discussion:
In addition, to provide context for the lightware that is currently available on the market, the reader is also referred to:
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Richard Sullivan
(richard.s) - MLife

Locale: Supernatural BC
Re: AAA battery choices on 01/11/2004 18:10:14 MST Print View

Happy New Year to all because...

Energizer Introduces World's First AAA Lithium Battery

ST. LOUIS, Jan. 7 /PRNewswire-FirstCall/ -- Energizer Holdings, Inc. (NYSE: ENR), today unveiled its Energizer(R) e2(R) Lithium AAA battery, adding to its exclusive line of lithium 1.5 volt cells. It also announced performance improvements to its AA lithium line, now lasting up to 7x longer in digital cameras.* These two announcements put Energizer at the forefront of round cell lithium technology. And better yet, they arm consumers with the world's longest-lasting AA* and AAA batteries in high-tech devices at a time when the use of digital cameras, electronic games, PDA's, audio players and other high- tech devices is exploding. (*Versus ordinary alkaline in proposed ANSI testing. Results may vary by camera.)

The new Energizer e2 Lithium AAA batteries are now the world's longest- lasting AAA batteries in high-tech devices providing more memories, more songs and more messaging than any other battery available. For the consumer, for example, that can mean 160 more hours of paging messages or 400 more flashes. The product is built on the lithium technology Energizer pioneered in 1992. Energizer remains the only battery manufacturer to harness the power of lithium in a 1.5 volt cell.

"As today's high-tech handhelds like digital cameras and MP3 players get faster computing chips and higher-speed digital processing, their thirst for battery power goes through the roof. Energizer recognizes this, and has been extremely aggressive in providing high performance batteries to meet these demands," says Corey Greenberg, NBC Today Show's Tech Editor.

According to ACNielsen Panel Data (June 2003), the dollar sales of lithium AA batteries grew 25 percent versus a year ago and is helping to drive growth in the battery category.

In addition to the power advantages, Energizer e2 Lithium batteries are lightweight, 33 percent lighter than an alkaline battery. They operate well in extreme temperatures. In conditions where alkaline batteries would fail, lithium continues to operate in temperatures ranging from -40 degrees F to 140 degrees F. The batteries have a 15-year shelf life. The Energizer e2 Lithium AA and AAA batteries come in recloseable packaging for convenient storage and travel. The new AAA battery will be available later in 2004 just in time for the holidays when picture taking is at its highest and shoppers are selecting high-tech gadgets.

Energizer, headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri, is one of the world's largest manufacturers of primary batteries and flashlights and a global leader in the dynamic business of providing portable power.

SOURCE Energizer Holdings, Inc. 01/07/2004

CONTACT: Jackie Burwitz, +1-314-985-2169, or Harriet Blickenstaff, +1-314-995-3939 x103, both for Energizer Holdings, Inc.

Edited by richard.s on 01/11/2004 19:02:19 MST.

Richard Sullivan
(richard.s) - MLife

Locale: Supernatural BC
Re: Aurora criticisms, etc. on 01/11/2004 18:21:37 MST Print View

Further to my previous post, I was able to speak with the manager of the retail store which I mentioned. He noted that he had returned about 75% of the Auroras they had sold, less than 1% of the Tikkas, and no Tikka Plus models.

Aurora problems included "just about everything":
-switch button falling off
-switch contact failure
-electronics failure
-housing failure (cracking)
-pivot failure
-internal corrosion (due to the sealed construction, corrosive battery off-gases cannot vent)

They are continuing to sell the PT Yukon and Pulsar.

Edited by richard.s on 01/11/2004 18:23:00 MST.

Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
Re: Re: AAA battery choices on 01/11/2004 18:25:53 MST Print View

FYI: will be carrying the new AAA lithium cells as soon as they are released to us for distribution. Next week, we should also receive our first shipments of other lithium round cell batteries, including the AA lithiums already on the market, and for you Black Diamond Ion fans, the lithium L544 BP.

Richard Sullivan
(richard.s) - MLife

Locale: Supernatural BC
Re: Headlamp Failure Modes on 01/11/2004 20:36:35 MST Print View

Well you've pretty well nailed it!

When Tekna came out with it's revolutionary lights in the early 80's, I thought we might have finally arrived. Their designs featured a sealed! switchless! polycarbonate! housing with halogen! bulb options, and one unit with a lithium! battery. Wow! (These design elements are still common to this day.) Ultimately though I ended up throwing them all away. One reason was the sealed design did not vent the battery off-gases and the contact surfaces degraded. You could even smell the gases when you opened up the lithium-cell unit, the MicroLith. Tekna upgraded the springs from phosphor-bronze to nickel-plated PB, but this was not a total cure. The bulb mounts were low precision which added to the problems. And the whole circuit was dependent on a spring pushing on batteries pushing on a bulb with a lead (Pb) contact point. This whole experience clearly evidenced that low voltage circuits are very susceptible to degradation caused by small increases in circuit resistance due to poor contact.

Now 20 years hence from the first Tekna lights, we have a lot more reliability due to LEDs, nickel-plated contacts, weather-resistant housings which will vent battery gases (BD, Petzl), and independent mounting and contacts for the supply and load. But new failure modes include cables and multi-mode or power management electronics. And our age-old nemesis The Switch is still lurking and looking to cause trouble. I am however highly impressed with quality of the current BD switches. And if electronics modules can attain high-reliability, then the switch might no longer be a point-of-failure since ideally it will not carry any current.

I'd like to see manufacturers eliminate single-points-of-failure as much as possible. For example:
-use two cables from the battery pack to the lamp head
-independent switches for flood and nav modes
-implement a bypass switch around the electronics module and multi-mode switch(es) i.e. a crowbar or switch-of-last-resort

In the meantime, I'll be carrying two lights on all trips. For example if you need a nav light then a Matrix 2 and a Tikka have a combined weight which is approximately equal to the Yukon HL, but with no SPOFs! And if the primary light is a Tikka or an Ion, then the backup can be a Photon or Pulsar.

David Spellman
(dspellman) - F
Headlamps and Green lights on 04/22/2004 18:19:00 MDT Print View

While aircraft and navy ships have, for years, used red as an optimum interior light to prevent night blindness, it seems that green is the new color on the block (as noted in the above article). I'm seeing more pilot chart lights with both red and green LED's, and even some tri-color (white is the third) units with a white lockout to prevent it accidentally being turned on.

One more thing -- I have a problem with headlamps in that they're at once in the best and the worst spot for illuminating trail. While it's handy to have them on your head and pointing the same direction you're looking (and they keep your hands free for other things), their flat lighting perspective does absolutely nothing for giving you a good idea of the "texture" of the upcoming terrain. I've found that I "see" the trail a whole lot better if I take off the headlamp and hold it by my side or even away from my body. That gives upcoming terrain features a certain amount of crosslighting and depth. Anyone else tried that?

Arapiles .
(Arapiles) - M

Locale: Melbourne
Re: Re: Aurora criticisms, etc. on 05/27/2004 07:10:29 MDT Print View

I bought a Princeton Tec Aurora last year and it is probably the worst piece of gear I've ever used. Mine was replaced under warranty but I threw the replacement into a corner and don't use it.

Problems included:

- the pivot ...] coming loose so that the headlamp hung down and shone into my forehead; the only way to fix this is to carry a micro-screwdriver (I wrapped a rubber band around it until I got home). Petzl's ratchet is a much better design;
- the rubber cover on the switch coming off in the pocket of my day pack, I got the cover back on and then realised that there was a tiny spacer (less than a centimetre long) between the actual switch (buried in the body of the light) and the rubber cover - this took ages to find, even though I knew it was somewhere in the back pocket of my day pack; an appalling, cheap and stupid piece of design;
- the light is advertised as water-proof - not water resistant, water-proof: I stuck it under a running tap and it immediately stopped working. I then spent several minutes cleaning and drying this "water-proof" light;
- the brightness dropped off spectacularly quickly: I have a number of torches and head-lamps and this was the worst I've seen.

The local importer replaced the light quickly once I complained but the point is that this light was out there, on sale, with a number of very serious design flaws. Yes, they addressed the flaws eventually - but not before I spent my hard-earned cash on one. Given the above, and the rock-solid reliability of Petzl torches you can imagine my surprise that the Aurora won your award as the best headlight out there.

P.S. you need to reset your "profanity detector" so it doesn't object to normal technical words

Edited by Arapiles on 05/27/2004 07:12:45 MDT.

Kevin Sawchuk
(ksawchuk) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Northern California
Re: Headlamps and Green lights on 09/08/2004 17:35:04 MDT Print View

Please see comments on my 12/1 posting and Gary Lewis'12/16 posting about holding headlamps in hand while hiking/running. Yes it works much better.

Jeremy Best
(xtrem3djer) - F
Why these big lights? on 09/10/2004 22:04:58 MDT Print View

It seems no surprise that most people have overweight packs, because they can't give up the kitchen sink!
I carry two Photon II white led's that combined weigh 2/5 oz., and have never had a problem. Give up the straps, the tiny bit of convenience and save you back! If you do this, You will make it to your next destination before sun down and will not need to walk with a light. If you stick a piece of velcro to the light and then to your beany it becomes hands free!
Shoot, carry 5 Proton II's and you will still be lighter than those 5,6,7 oz. head lamps!

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Battery Choices - single AAA on 10/09/2004 02:56:13 MDT Print View

The reason many headlights use 3 * AAA is to get enough volts to power a white LED, which needs between 3.0 and 3.6 volts.
I use a single AA or AAA battery and a micro switch-mode power converter (a few grams). I find about 50 mW of power is enough around the tent. A single AA lasted eight weeks continuous this way.
Roger Caffin

Mike Storesund
(mikes) - F
LED Choices on 01/17/2005 23:23:05 MST Print View

I really like the Petzl TacTikka with 3 ‘AAA’ Eveready Lithium batteries (2.3 oz. total). It has a red lens, so night vision is not impacted, that can be flipped down to offer white light when needed.

I also carry the Princeton Tech Eclipse (.4 oz.) as a backup. This 5-position light comes with both a hat visor clip and small key ring clip which are interchangeable. I use the key ring clip to clip it to the drawstring on top of the backpack for ready use when looking for gear.

Now the Lithium triple ‘A’ batteries are readily available at Wal-Mart, Target, Walgreens, Best Buy, Circuit City and many others. I found Target or Wal-Mart offer a better buy than the specialty stores. They may be here, but I have not seen them here yet.

Kevin Shuster
(drshuster) - F

Locale: Northern Arizona Alpine
LED lights on 10/07/2008 23:50:07 MDT Print View

I used the Princeton TEC that uses 2 lithium CR123, for over a year. I recognize that this is a relatively heavy peice of gear BUT.. It seems all thorns need to be removed after dark, and fun reading happen in the middle of the night.

I have numberous items that use the Li CR123 and though expensive... they are relatively light for the amount of charge they store (charge density). So I carry a couple extra CR123 batteries to replenish one or more items that might get extra use.

I am in the process of re-evaluating all my gear with an eye toward weight saving but this headlight keeps making "the cut" trip after trip. Especially in winter months, having such reliable, adjustable, infalable light... means something to me in the way of problem solving.