Everything You Need to Know About Projector Headlights
Headlights have been in use on roads for many years. But where did they come from, who invented such a widely used product? Believe it or not, the first type of lighting was used for horse and carriage drivers. In older days, carriage attendants used lamps that proved to be completely unusable at normal traveling speeds. The earliest automotive headlights used on a vehicle were similar to this style of lamp. They used acetylene gas or oil to produce light. Now, this was back in the 1880s and acetylene gas lamps continued to be popular through the 1900s due to the flame being resistant to wind and rain. Within the headlight, or headlamp, there were thick concave mirrors combined with magnifying lenses to project light onto the road. This technology has been improved over the years and to this day there are many vehicles that still use projector lights in modern headlights. These projectors don’t contain any acetylene gas but instead use a halogen, HID, or LED to produce light. Today we’ll go into depth on what a projector is, where they came from, and how they can be useful for your vehicle.
What Are Projector Headlights and Where Did They Come From?
In 1911, over 3 decades after the introduction of acetylene gas headlamps, the first projector beam lighting system was designed. It wasn’t until 1969 that we saw this system used in a road car produced by Chrysler. Projector headlights became more popular in the early 1980s and were widely used for luxury vehicles. Since then, projectors have been adapted to be useful for all types of vehicles. Alongside projector headlights, the other most common type of headlights is called reflector headlights. Reflectors use halogen bulbs to reflect the light back onto the road. Projectors are different in many ways, and we will explain the 3 types of projectors you’ll see available today.
This will be the same type of bulb that is used in a reflector-type headlight housing. In a projector, a halogen bulb will produce more useable light than it will in a reflector. Because of this upgrade in light output, halogen projectors are the most common type of headlight you’ll see on cars produced in the later 2000s.
HID bulbs are considered an upgrade over halogen bulbs because of their longer lifespan and brighter light output. It is very common to see HID projectors used in luxury or modern cars. It is worth noting – we do not recommend putting HIDs in a halogen reflector. HIDs should only be installed into a bi-xenon, or HID, projector. Because HIDs are brighter and more intense, installing them into the wrong headlight housing can cause massive amounts of glare for oncoming drivers.
Next to HID projectors, this is the second most common type of projector. LED projectors will only be found on luxury or newer more modern vehicles. LEDs are a popular option because they are incredibly bright, have a long life span, and are more energy efficient than other bulbs. LED projectors do not require a bulb, instead, the LED chip will be built into the projector itself which emits light to be projected onto the road.
The fishbowl-like object in the photo above is a projector. Specifically, this one is the LED projector from Morimoto. Now we already explained that LED projectors do not require an additional bulb to work. However, the way that light is refracted all works the same. Projectors contain a light source; this could be a bulb or an LED chip. Also located inside the projector, you’ll find mirrors that act as reflectors. The most important part of the projector is the lens that acts as a magnifying glass, effectively increasing the intensity and brightness of the light emitted. Because projectors are capable of producing so much intense light, each projector is designed with a cut-off shield behind the lens to help direct light down toward the road. Due to this shield, projectors also have a very sharp cut-off line.
Thanks to this crisp and clear cut-off line, you can have incredibly bright headlights without blinding other drivers in front of you. All of the components within a projector are designed to focus intense light in an evenly distributed and tightly organized beam pattern. But how do they all work together to create that beam pattern?
Bulbs or LEDs
Every projector needs a light source. As explained in earlier paragraphs, this can be a halogen, HID, or LED.
Not to be confused with a reflector headlight. A projector will contain a reflector component on the inside, usually, this is an elliptical-shaped reflector versus the parabolic-shaped one found in reflector headlights. The differences in shapes will affect how the light is emitted through the projector. Using the elliptical-shaped reflector will focus light on a narrow point near the front of the reflector, where it will meet the cut-off shield.
Cut-off Shield / Shutter
The cut-off shield can also be referred to as a shutter. This shield will cut-off part of the beam pattern which prevents glare to oncoming traffic. This shield is also the reason for the projector to have such a sharp cut-off line. In some projectors, this shutter can be moved between high-beam and low-beam functions. The shutter will be activated in low-beam to provide the crisp cut-off but will lower in high-beam to allow all the useable light to be projected through.
|Low-Beam / Shield Activated||High-Beam / Shield Deactivated|
The lens is designed to evenly distribute light across a beam pattern. This beam has already been shaped and aimed by the reflector; the job of the lens is to make sure this light gets evenly spread out across the road.
What is a Projector Retrofit?
By definition, this is the act of installing projectors into a headlight. This could be adding projectors to a reflector-based headlight or even doing a projector upgrade. If you have a reflector headlight and are searching for ways to get more light, a retrofit with a projector might just be the perfect answer for you. Retrofitting projectors into headlights can provide many great benefits.
- With the ability to aim light where you need it to go, you’ll be able to project more light forward. Projectors provide increased visibility while also reducing glare for oncoming drivers.
- Adding projectors into an old and outdated headlight unit can provide a major facelift for any vehicle. You’ll have a much sleeker and more modern look to your headlights.
There are 3 main types of headlight retrofitting –
Projector Retrofit in a Reflector Housing
This can be the most involved type of retrofit. This process includes opening the headlight to remove the reflector internals. It is likely that you will have to do some cutting or trimming to make the projectors fit. In a case like this, you would benefit most from using a universal retrofit kit. These kits come with everything you’ll need to get the job done – projectors, bulbs, shrouds, etc. It is also a possibility you would need to cut or solder wires to install new electrical components.
Vehicle-Specific Retrofit Kits
A vehicle-specific retrofit kit will be a lot easier to install than most universal kits. Vehicle-specific kits have been designed specifically for the application, meaning there should be no excess modification needed. These kits typically come with plug-and-play components. Note that you will still need to bake the headlight open to access the internals of the headlight.
If you already have a headlight that has a projector in it, you can swap this projector for a better one. The most common swap is with halogen projector headlights. Many owners with halogen projectors will opt to swap their projectors for an HID or LED instead. This swap will provide the driver with much more useable light on the road.
While installing a projector into a headlight might seem like a big task, it can actually be much simpler than you think. There are many companies, like Morimoto, that make universal and vehicle-specific retrofit kits. These kits come with everything you’ll need to get the job done – projectors, bulbs, shrouds, etc.
You may be asking yourself whom the heck thought of even doing this? Who thought of taking a projector and putting it into a reflector-based housing? Believe it or not, like most great ideas and inventions, it started in a garage. Matt Kossoff, the founder of Morimoto, was only 18 at the time he started modifying headlights on his Dodge Stratus. He spent a lot of time at the local Porsche/Audi dealership, which is where the idea of the retrofit started. Matt took home a pair of Audi A6 headlights and immediately got to work. He ripped open the headlights, took out the projectors, and transferred them inside the Dodge Stratus headlights. As he describes it, it was very, very barbaric – but it worked. Matt shared his modifications on the Stratus online forums and soon enough, everyone wanted a pair. Matt started his business retrofitting Audi projectors into Stratus headlights, and each time the work became more and more refined. Eventually, he started experimenting with other headlight units which led to him creating DIY guides for other users to follow. The work that Matt and his team did over the next few years helped shape and lead the automotive lighting industry. With the formation of Morimoto, high-quality aftermarket projectors now existed. These aftermarket projectors provided better performance than the OEM units. Now, Morimoto and retrofitting have grown exponentially in popularity for good reason.
What Are THE BEST Projector Headlights?
There are many companies that make aftermarket projector headlight units. Unfortunately, a lot of these companies don’t put quality and performance first. Buying from brands like Spec-D and Spyder can cause even worse light output than stock. If you’re replacing your headlight unit, you need to make sure to pick a quality option that will last for years to come. Avoid aftermarket units that use halogen projectors. Instead, consider brands like Morimoto, GTR Lighting, or Alpharex.
Morimoto is the leader when it comes to aftermarket headlight replacements. They focus on bringing high-quality and high-performance LED projector headlights to many vehicles. Their XB LED and XB LED Hybrid headlights are the highest quality plug-and-play unit you’ll find backed by a 5-year warranty. While they may not make headlights for every vehicle on the market, they do also make retrofit kits. Regardless of the application, Morimoto will be able to help you find an upgrade for your vehicle. They have been the benchmark in the aftermarket lighting world for years and we don’t see this changing anytime soon.
GTR Lighting is new in the headlight game, but they bring some serious options to the table. Like Morimoto, GTR Lighting also offers LED projector headlight upgrades. These units are also plug-and-play and backed by GTR’s 2-year warranty. When it comes to performance and light output, they are a close 2nd to Morimoto. GTR Lighting does have different styling than the Morimoto units. The GTR headlight units tend to be a bit edgier in design. Depending on which style you like more might sway your opinion on which brand to go with.
Alpharex is a good middle ground for a budget-friendly upgrade. If the budget-friendly Morimoto XB Hybrid unit isn’t your cup of tea, consider Alpharex instead. Alpharex offers 3 styles of headlights – Pro, Luxx, and Nova. We do not recommend the Pro series. The Pro series utilizes a halogen projector and halogen bulbs which does not provide the best upgrade. The Luxx and Nova series will be the better options. When it comes to performance and light output, Alpharex falls into 3rd place. While these units are bright, they tend to produce more foreground lighting which ultimately negatively affects your long-distance lighting.
All 3 brands are great options to shop from when considering your next headlight upgrade. If you want top-of-the-line, best available then visit Morimoto. If you would like to stand out a little bit while still getting a quality upgrade, check out GTR Lighting. If you just want better headlights, Alpharex is the place to go. No matter which brand you decide on, you can have confidence your headlights will be a major upgrade.
We hope this article better explains projectors and all their benefits. Our team here at Better Automotive Lighting is dedicated to helping you find the best automotive lighting upgrades for your vehicle. The next time you consider upgrading, make sure to check out the top three brands we recommend: Morimoto, Alpharex, or GTR Lighting.
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