Reflector Vs. Projector: Should I Upgrade My Headlights?

Do you want brighter headlights on your car or truck? Upgrading to an HID or LED bulb is a great way to do it, but they’re not interchangeable. Before you buy a new bulb, it’s important to first figure out what kind of headlight housing your car uses. 

There are two housing styles you’ll find on modern headlights: projector and reflector. In this article we’ll compare the differences of projector vs. reflector headlights to answer all your questions about their pros and cons, what makes them different, and which kind of bulb is best in each.  

Reflector Vs. Projector: What makes them different?

There are two primary differences between a projector vs. reflector headlight: the lens design, and the kinds of bulbs that can be used with them. Let’s break each of these down so you can see how that impacts their use and brightness. 

Projector vs. Reflector Headlights Comparison Chart

ReflectorProjector
GenerationOld technology (first developed in 1898)New technology (first wide-spread use in 1986)
Source of LightBulb mounted in reflector cupBulb light focused by fishbowl lens
Main parts* Reflector bowl
* Bulb
* Reflector bowl
* Bulb
* Lens
Typical SizeSmall and shallowDeeper, takes up more space
Lighting angleWide, but with dark spotsNarrower with no dark spots
Best Bulb TypesLEDHID
Lens makes reflector different from projector headlight housing

How Do Lens Make Projector Headlights Different from Reflector?

Projector headlights use what’s known as a condenser lens. This focuses the light better than the lens on a reflector headlight, producing a more intense, narrower beam. It’s the same way the curved glass of a magnifying glass can concentrate sunlight into a beam intense enough to light a fire. 

Reflector headlights don’t use a lens to focus the light. As a result, they give you a wider coverage angle, but that light won’t be as bright and they’re more prone to light waste than projector headlights. 

Do I Have Projector or Reflector Headlights?

If you’re not sure, the odds are good you have reflector headlights. This is the stock headlight design for most vehicles on the road. 

A quick look at your headlights can confirm what style you have. Projector headlights have a visible lens over the bulb. In reflector headlights, you’ll be able to see the reflective bowl around the bulb, with no lens in between. If you’re still not sure, or just want to make sure, check your vehicle’s repair manual. 

LED vs HID: Which Is the Best for Projector/Reflector Headlights?

Comparing them side by side, LED is the newer technology, and is more efficient than HID. More importantly, each one is designed to work in a specific style of housing.

Are HIDs the best for projector headlights?

If you want to upgrade from the stock halogen bulb, HIDs are your best option for projector headlights. These bulbs have a higher light output than halogens, making it easier to see the road at night. 

Are LEDs the best for reflector headlights?

LED bulbs are brighter when they’re installed in reflector headlights, making them a better choice than HIDs. They’re also easier to install in this kind of housing than HID lights. If you upgrade directly from a halogen bulb to an LED, you’ll likely also need to upgrade the reflector bowl. The bowl used for halogen bulbs may make LED bulbs look too bright, blinding oncoming traffic. 

Can LEDs be used in projector headlights?

They can, in the sense that it’s possible to install LEDs and they will light up. They’ll be very dim in a projector headlight, though, putting out even less light than a halogen bulb. You’ll get much better performance out of HIDs.

Why shouldn’t I put HIDs in reflector housings?

HID bulbs produce about twice as much light than halogens. If these are set in the standard reflecting bulb used for halogens, the light will be too scattered and very distracting for other drivers on the road. 

Even if you upgrade the reflecting bowl, HID lights have another issue. They take around 5 seconds to warm up and reach their full brightness, as opposed to halogens or LEDs that come on immediately. Initiating an HID light requires a pulse of high voltage, as well, which the electrical system of a standard reflecting headlight fixture may not be able to handle. 

A video about the differences between projector and reflector

Projector vs. Reflector Headlights: Detailed Clarification

projector vs reflector

Reflector headlight technology was the first to be developed. The very first electric headlights installed on a vehicle, all the way back in 1898, used a reflector design. Reflector headlights remain the standard, and are what you’ll find on most cars and trucks when they’re shipped from the factory.

reflector headlight design
Reflector headlight structure

Today’s reflector headlights aren’t drastically different than the ones that have been in use for decades. The main change happened in the 1980s, with the addition of mirrors to the bulb housing. Before that, headlights had to be sealed, forcing drivers to replace the whole housing if the bulb failed. In today’s reflector headlights, it’s easy to access and swap out the bulb or the reflector bowl as needed. 

Projector headlights are a more recent invention, and have become increasingly popular in recent years on high-end luxury cars and trucks. They were first used on mass-produced cars in 1986, when they appeared on the BMW 7 Series vehicles

projector headlight design
Lens is the key differences between projector and reflector.

Early projector headlights used the same halogen bulbs as reflector designs. The 1991 BMW 7 Series was the first to use xenon (HID) lights to expand the brightness potential of the projector headlight. It was after this development the use of projector headlights became more widespread. 

Design differences

In a reflector headlight, the bulb is mounted into a bowl-shaped housing covered in a reflective paint or chrome covering. Light from the bulb is reflected by the bowl over a large area, lighting up the road in front of the car. Since this design is relatively simple, reflector headlights don’t need as much space within the car, and are smaller across the board than projector designs. 

The reflective surface in the bowl around the bulb in a reflector headlight directs the beam down toward the road instead of up into oncoming traffic. There’s no light shield in place to limit how the light disperses. Instead, an additional filament in the bulb is used to activate the high beams. 

The exterior design of projector headlights is sleeker and more aesthetically pleasing, one reason they’re often used on high-end vehicles. They’re also a bit larger, primarily when it comes to their depth.

Like reflector headlights, they use a bulb mounted in a bowl-shaped reflector, which usually has an elliptical shape. The difference is, in a projector headlight the reflected light is focused by a condenser lens before it hits the road in front of your car. 

Between the lens and bulb is a cutoff shield connected to a solenoid. This creates a light barrier, directing it down at the road instead of up at oncoming traffic. When you engage the high beams, the solenoid drops the cutoff shield out of the way.

How do reflector and projector headlights work?

Some vehicles come installed with hybrid reflector/projector headlights. You’ll most likely see this on vehicles with separate high beam and low beam systems. The low beam uses a reflector headlight, with a projector for the high beam.

In a certain sense, these systems give you the best of both worlds. The dimmer light of a reflector headlight is plenty in most city and suburban environments, where the wider illumination angle is helpful for seeing things like pedestrians and bikers on the side of the road. When you need a brighter beam, you can switch to the more focused light of the projector headlight. 

Pros and Cons

Reflector Pros:

  • Wider light angle
  • More affordable to make
  • Simpler design is easier to repair and maintain

Projector Pros:

  • Brighter, more focused light
  • Consistent light with no dark spots
  • Less light waste
  • Sleek, modern look

Reflector Cons:

  • Not as bright
  • May be prone to dark spots
  • Prone to light waste

Projector Cons:

  • Cost more
  • Narrower light angle

Projector vs. Reflector: Which Is The Best For My Car?

If you’re asking which technology is better, projector headlights are the preferred choice for most. They’ll produce a brighter beam that’s consistent across the entire field and are more efficient, wasting less light than reflector designs. 

Bear in mind most cars and trucks are made with reflector headlights. Replacing a reflector with projector headlights typically costs around $200 to $300. If you’re on a budget, upgrading your halogen headlights to LED bulbs will only set you back $20-$40, on average—a much more affordable prospect. 

The Final Word

For those with reflector headlights, LED bulbs are an excellent way to increase their brightness at a low cost. While you might to make some minor modifications prior to the upgrade, it’s still a more affordable choice than installing projector headlights. 

If you want the absolute best and brightest headlights you can get, a projector housing with an HID bulb is the way you want to go. The high illumination and sophisticated design will keep your visibility high even on the darkest roads. 

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