A Return to Inexpensive Chinese Van Lighting: LED Sealed Beams Update

Apr 27, 2017 by the chuxxor in mikuvan

Boy, I’m all up on that chinesium recently, what with Chinese machine spindle drivers, the inaugural Chinese ~120lb Middleweights tournament which I helped transcribe results for, my Chinese production run of RageBridge 2sChina China China China. I love China. China is where all kinds of interesting things spawn from, some of which make you wonder who approved the push to production.

A while back, I broadly sampled cheap automotive LED products in an effort to convert all of Mikuvan’s auxiliary lighting to LED. That writeup is here. I’ve been pretty successful on this front, only having to replace one of the dashboard lights and another running light since then…. so they definitely don’t not work, but I’ll probably do another round of upgrades to the next price tier soon and see how the Market Structure has changed.

What I want to go back to is LED headlights. When I made that post, LED headlights were still quite a novelty, and very expensive. What generic products existed then were limited to these kinds of things:

I discounted them pretty heavily because they looked simply too Harbor Freight flashlighty for me – there’s no way you can aim those things properly. Just like a cheap LED flashlight, they wouldn’t have any meaningful beam pattern, and instead just be a soft wad of light. I wasn’t in much of a hurry to get real GE Nighthawks obviously, so I let the matter fall aside.

Until a few weeks ago.

While campaigning for Vantruck parts on RockAuto, my automotive opioid dealer, I noticed these under the headlights section:

Hmm, well that’s interesting. They look exactly like the GE Nighthawk units. I’d not researched the 5×7 H6054 sealed beam size before since I never had to; the 4×6 H4656 type didn’t have any LED listings on RockAuto, probably because everything sucks.

Well, now I’m beginning to think there’s a pattern. I looked in some other palces for H6054-sized LED lights, and….

 

That one is from TruckLite, which carries them along with other annoying Brodozer lighting products. For the record, this is a GE Nighthawk 5×7:

The problem? They’re all expensive as hell. I’m really not in the mood to pay $180+ for a single headlight unit, especially if I don’t know if they’ll work well.

Well, now I see the pattern. One axiom of Chinesium product finding is a corollary to the Law of Chinese Product Packaging Inertia, which states that if the products look alike, they most likely function alike in all but the most trivial ways. This has been my guiding principle for finding Chinese motor controllers and mechanical products for years.

If you turn that around a little, it becomes if multiple U.S. vendors offer the same looking product, there is likely a generic Chinesium origin. It’s something like that old quote that goes Behind every great man is a woman, except made of phthalic acid plasticizers and artificially manipulated currencies.

So I went AliExpress hunting. That didn’t take very long:

 

Score! I had what appeared to be the same kind of units as the first hit. Even better, the top 3 hits were three different approaches.

This is what always pleases me about the wild world of Chinesium: Nobody knows what they’re actually selling, so unlike Western product development culture where everyone focuses on one or two strategic approaches, the Chinese philosophy (if there even is an organized one… I don’t think so) might be spam the SHIP IT button . Recall my post about finding a new coolant pump for Chibi-Mikuvan, and how I found 3 different styles of water pump on Amazon in a few minutes.

So we have the Nighthawk clone on the left, what appears to be some kind of optometry examination device in the middle, and the “compound fly-eye” LED grenade on the right. Pretty much all of these listings, by the way, have random images of American pickup trucks or heavy duty trucks in their descriptions. They know. Since I know the Nighthawk style exists in the US as a baseline, I decided to spring for a set to try out.

While on Aliexpress, though, I got curious about the state of the 4×6 market. The styles are much the same, with most products being the LED-spam approach and some of a hybrid projector design like the aforementioned middle 5×7 product. Which, by the way, seem to be rather trashy for aimability also based on Dane’s analyses, as his Jeep XJ also uses the 5×7 size.

There was a style which was different , a combination of the LED-spam and the Nighthawk style divided high-and-low beam reflectors. These things used significantly fewer LEDs, so there might be some hope of the beam pattern being reasonable. I found a set from the same seller as who I was planning on getting the 5×7 size from:

 

By the way, don’t be deceived by the suggested transit time for the shipment. Often, you can pull down a little menu under Shipping which might reveal a very cheap DHL or Fedex/UPS option. For $14 I had all 4 headlight units in one week. I can barely coerce a shipment across the US in that time!

Fast forward a few hazy days where I think I remember some Brushless Rage work, and….

Nondescript Chinese gift boxes! Hurray!

The boxes are completely blank – presumably, resellers will have their logo and other information printed on them.

Here’s the 4×6 unit. The front cover is an unknown clear plastic; while it was advertised as a UV-resistant anti-scratch-coated polycarbonate, who the hell knows. I didn’t feel like taking a torch to these to sniff them just yet.

The casing is a very solid feeling cast aluminum with heat dissipation fins. Cooling, for the longest time, was the biggest issue plagueing LEDs and preventing their use in high-powered lighting. There aren’t any provisions for forced air or active thermal management (some modern car LED headlights are maintained by a Peltier solid state device), and I think they’re just counting on sealed-beam sockets on older vehicles being pretty open air. It’ll be interesting to see how these fare in a hot environment.

Let’s power it up! This is Low beams mode:

You know, I was honestly surprised at the beam definition. I pointed it across the dark warehouse and it wasn’t bad at all.  While looser than a modern xenon setup, it was still defined.

High beam lights up the top row of 5 LEDs, and boy is it bright. The bottom 4 still stay lit, however, so the difference between the centers of the beams is not as defined as for my current set of high-brightness halogen lights.  You’ll see this pattern change in the installation photos later.

 

The funny part was powering on what I called the “goat lights“. There’s a cute little LED strip in the middle behind a angular diffusing lens which is separately powered. They’re present as running lights. The extra wire emanating from the connector is so you can tap them into an existing DRL circuit.

So, overall I’m so far impressed. They don’t seem to be shitty. Let’s move onto the 5×7:

So this thing is interesting. Low beams shoot out the top half of the assembly, while high beam turns on the lower half while keeping the upper half lit.

It took me a minute to accept that yeah, this is also legitimate. The reflector on the top half is tilted slightly downwards, and the lower reflector is more straight-on. Actually desirable behavior for headlights. It seems like this one had some more R&D or engineering put into it. The beam pattern was even more concentrated than the 4×6 model since there is only 1 giant emitter per side, and there was more discernable shift between the high and low beam levels. I like it a lot actually! Unlike the 4×6, this type does not have a running light or accent. However, that style is also available in 5×7.

Alright, it’s install time. Since Vantruck is still mechanically indeterminate, I pitched the 5×7 units at Dane, so you might see them on his website soon. For now, I was going to install the 4×6 onto Mikuvan to see what the difference is like.

I set up the test in a parking garage, center-aligned with a spot marker line pointing at a wall about 25 feet away. I set up my camera on a tripod in the middle, immediately in front of the bumper aligned with the marker. I then tried to not move the camera for the entire test, including installation and aiming. The shutter and aperture speed were changed to a setting I liked and then they were not touched for the testing.

First, my regular old low beams. These are Wagner Britelite increased-brightness H4656 bulb modules. I’m not sure I can recommend them – as much as I like the light spam, I get maybe a little over a year to about 18 months out of them consistently. They’re advertised as having less lifetime, though, so I’m not even mad, just a little Disappointed Asian Dad.

Two defined spots, slightly biased low and to the right. The left light was recently replaced and I couldn’t be arsed to aim it properly, so it’s sitting a little higher and not quite as right any more.

Stock high beam halogens, unified spot high and a little to the right. Mikuvan’s 4-headlight setup means in high beam operation, they’re ALL on – it has two dual-filament H4656 type bulbs for standard low beam operation (which the LED units will replace) and two H4651 dedicate high beams.

Install was simple. I modified the marker light wiring harness on each side to plug in the “goat lights”, and here they are. Very goaty.

The main power connector, though, is actually an H4 type, not a H4656. This is some stupid automotive U.S. vs. The World standard I don’t understand, but it just involves a fast pin change on the connector to be compatible. Seriously, people, this is stupid.

After a few attempts at aiming, here’s what I came up with.

Damn. This was, again, taken with the camera in the same spot using the same shutter speed and aperture. I’d describe this as a curtain of light. The beam is so broad that I could barely aim it enough rightwards – I just about bottomed out the adjustment screw on the left headlight. However, it has a fairly sharp vertical cutoff, so that’s good for not glaring people.

Now with all 4 lights working in hi-beams mode, you can see how far rightwards the left headlight has been moved. This was all in an attempt to get it vaguely centered on the halogen lamp’s spot. I had to compromise here, as the difference in level between high and low wasn’t as drastic. I erred on the side of keeping the low beams lower to the ground, rather than broadcasting my lane change clearance to Mars.

I went on a run around the block to test everything out, and I must say it’s an immense improvment. My only concern was if it was significantly glare-inducing to someone oncoming because of the sheer width of the beams. I just vaguely tested this by squatting in the street at roughly the driver’s head height of the Honda Civic next to me. Result: Not any worse than what I get daily from people with modern HID setups, or even worse, from those HID retrofit kits that never aim correctly.

Here’s a test video I took shortly thereafter on a deserted road in Mexico showing the beam appearance. The scatter means it lights up distant road signs ridiculously well, much better than the halogen units.

So what to do after I have 2 of them? Now my headlight colors are mismatched, so I gotta…

Upgrade! See, now that the Chinesium base product has been hunted down and interrogated, I grabbed this set from a US seller instead. The box was exactly the same, just printed with some fancy letters and numbers and whatnot. The product? Also exactly the same!

DOUBLE GOAT MODE ACTIVATE. This photo is retro-futuristic as hell. EXPERIENCE THE AESTHETIC

You know how I can tell these were the same product by different manufacturers? My headlights are still slightly different colors. The color temperature of the two purchases is barely not the same.

Alright, so what have I learned here? The current low-cost aftermarket for LED headlights seems to have some viable products now. I did not crack open any of the units to inspect the components inside – maybe I’ll do that down the line if one dies, or I pick up another one. The units, both 4×6 and 5×7 type, seemed to be built well. My only concern is really longevity and ambient temperature tolerance. That’s something only operating these for a while will reveal.

Here’s a caveat though. With all 4 units running in high beams mode, it’s a ridiculous amount of light. I light up highway signs from like a quarter mile away easily because of the beam spread. I actually am concerned about it being unsafely bright when I use high beams to signal someone, like acknowledging a turn. It’s like a camera flash, but even worse. I’ve worked into the habit of briefly blinking the running lights on and off instead of flicking high beams to counteract this. A little bit of a damper on something otherwise very great so far.

If you go for a set, the general trend based on my own tests and reading reviews and discussions is aim them lower than you think you should. The light spread counteracts the lower spot with standard halogen lights, so aiming lower covers more of the road in front, and also makes sure you don’t glare people.