With the passing of the Fall equinox last weekend, cyclists are gearing up for another season of dark rides. Here in the Bay Area it has already started getting dark around 7:30PM, meaning any post work rides are cut short or I’m stuck riding in the dark. The obvious solution is to charge your handlebar mounted lights during work and bring them with you, but the gear savvy cyclist may opt for a more refined option – dynamo powered headlights. For a debrief on what these are, I recommend this article by Momentum Magazine.
I started riding with dynamo lights in maybe 2014. That was a pretty mid-level B&M Cyo light and Shimano hub. That system is still running flawlessly on my Univega. I got experience with other products from SON, Supernova, Shutter Precision, and B&M through the cargobike shop I was working in and bike tours with other folks who had those. When you rely on your bicycle as heavily as most people do their cars, you may want the best, brightest, most reliable lighting systems available. For me, I like the convenience, the security, and the reliability of bolting a high quality light to the bicycle and generating your own power.
This post was inspired by my recent search for a new light for my mountain bike. I do enjoy riding at night, but I do not like being limited by daylight and I do not like having to remember to bring my light to work or charge it or moving it from my other bikes. I know that is something that won’t happen. I like to have something always there, always ready. This is especially important for touring, which I have used my mountain bike for in the past. A dynamo system is indispensable on a commuter bike and certainly can be had for a reasonable price.
The lights I am looking at here are some of the higher end options available so don’t be discouraged by sticker shock. I would recommend any of the lower end Busch and Muller front and rear kits for a budget or commuting minded rider. The Shimano DH-3N72 is what I use on my Univega, and it is extremely durable and can be found under 90 USD. I’m sure other options are fine, but mine has stood the test of time.
I am literally in the process of “shopping for a new light” so this post helps me rearrange my thoughts and directly compare products. My thoughts on the following lamps are arranged in order of my level of familiarity and experience with that item, from greatest to least.
Busch & Muller IQ-X
This was the light I used on the Ogre, meaning it survived thousands of miles of heavy use. I have also used it on my tandem. It comes out of the box with a compact, finely machined aluminum casing, meaning durability. There is one button on the back, basically an on-off switch. I did find that the light would randomly turn itself on during the daytime, but that isn’t really an issue. It seems “on” is technically a Senso mode where daytime beams would activate in the daytime and the full light at night, but I wouldn’t complain about that modus operandi. For some, it is worth noting that this light can be mounted upside down, but you need to twist the lens (easy process). B&M is the one brand advertising their lamps in lux making it hard to compare features between brands. This one offers 100 lux of light.
The beam pattern itself is excellent. B&M puts a lot of research into the lenses they put on their lights, meaning all of the light is where you want it, and none where you don’t. The upper edge is full and bright which serves you well on fast descents. The light is strong enough that even though I mounted it on my handlebars, the light that actually hit the ground was bright enough to ride confidently. It is phenomenal on-road, and worked pretty well off-road, though I definitely see the appeal of symmetrical round beams without a cutoff. Some of the lights down this list have that, most notably the Supernova E3 Triple 2, and I will go into more detail there.
One thing I experienced that may or may not be a feature of Busch&Muller lights, or dynamo hubs, is under heavy impact the light turns off for a split second. The bike this light was on was rigid so that could be why this happens but it became a big deal on tight singletrack or slow technical rocky things. Half the time my wheels left the ground I would lose light for a second upon landing. Not a great feeling, and it will take a bit more research to find out why this happens.
[update 7/7/2019 – the light flickers when jumping or descending rough terrain because the front wheel momentarily stops upon contact with the ground. At speed, not noticeable, but on technical descents or anywhere you’re holding the front brake while descending, the front wheel will slow its rotation or even stop and skid, meaning a change in power to the lamp, meaning flickering.]
Busch & Muller Luxos U/B
I have known several people with this light and have ridden alongside it. The beam is impressively wide, and probably as bright as the IQ-X I have used. Remember that cool lens I mentioned in the IQ-X? The Luxos lights also have similar technology, at 70-80 lux depending on the model. The B&M website is a good resource for comparing headlight beams. The Luxos U model has integrated USB charging with a dongle that extends up to your handlebars. This is a cool feature and is becoming more ubiquitous in the small selection of high-end dynamo accessories.
My take – the plastic body is very unattractive for mountain biking. For road use, I have known people to love this lamp and I have also known people to break the body, or bulb, or internals. I have seen many broken Luxos lamps.
Supernova E3 Triple 2
Supernova is another German manufacturer on this list who has a reputation for durable, lightweight dynamo lights. I have ridden an E3 Pro 2, the small brother of the Triple, and I did not like the beam pattern. I also felt like there was a lot more flickering than other lights. That said, at one time this was the only light with a durable aluminum casing, great visibility from the side for oncoming traffic, all in a lightweight, race-ready package. The E3 Pro 2 has a horizontal cut off and is intended for road use.
The internals are accessible if you needed to do some servicing, which you should NOT need to do and would void the warranty. I have had to do this once and was successful. Basically the light had fallen off and bounced around on the ground. The energy input cable had been pulled and the connections torn. We had to resolder the cable to the LED chip, and it worked! I think it is good to know you can do this.
I am very attracted to the E3 Triple. It is a round, symmetrical beam like most traditional battery powered bicycle lights. This is touted as the preferred option for off-road riding because the even, conical projection of light goes farther down the trail. The advantage of an asymmetric light with horizontal cutoff (as is on all B&M lights, the E3 Pro, and the Schmidt) is twofold: 1) the cutoff prevents you from blinding oncoming traffic, making it suitable for commuting or “road legal in Germany” as Supernova puts it, and 2) distributes that extra light to the side, giving you a significantly wider field of vision, or a brighter beam depending on how it is distributed. A wide field is great for riding on road, where you may want to change your line or you have fast, sweeping curvy turns. Mountain biking is a little different, and singletrack even more so. Generally, riding off-road you are more concerned with seeing as far ahead as possible and do not need to see the full 4 meters width of the travel lane. Your field of vision can be narrower.
Brightness is also a concern – too bright and you get a lot of glare and the image is washed out. Too dim and you struggle to see the details of the road. Brightness and mounting position also play a role in reducing shadows, which I know I have struggled with on variable terrain. I think have a very bright light mounted high up (like on your handlebars) is the best way to reduce shadows.
Of course, you could also run a second light on your helmet or handlebars for more reliability. This is probably good for enduro races, or really, really fast riding. For the occasional evening ride and touring, I think a single dynamo light is still the best option. I was chatting with a friend recently about how his new dynamo light didn’t seem as bright as things he was used to. I think that is true, I think most USB rechargeable lights are going to be way brighter, especially when companies and consumers rely on quantification of the products to compare them. Lumens are a measure of brightness, but they don’t tell you how efficiently that light is distributed or where it is. The benefits of some dynamo lights are the lenses that put the light where you want it. Of course you also get convenience, sustainability, ease of use, as well as basic front-rear-side visibility.
Schmidt Edelux II
A perennial favorite among randonneusses, this classic lamp offers top-notch optics and supreme reliability. Hand built to exacting specifications in Tübingen, Germany, the Edelux II offers superior optics and reliability for a dynamo. The beam is bright and very wide with a finely tuned distribution of light. The light uses a standard 10mm mount and is available in a bunch of different configurations and colors to fit most bikes. Rando guru Jan Heine is a big fan of these lights.
This light is often touted as “the best” and I think it is for road use. They company also produces hubs with a similar level of technical proficiency and compatibility. The hub has notably lower rolling resistance than many and is among the lightest available. Alongside Shutter Precision, SON hubs are also the only dynamo available in thru axle versions.
I am unsure of the light’s performance off-road, though the brightness is promising. Keep in mind, I’m thinking mountain bike trails, often singletrack, not just gravel roads.
This is a newer and very attractive option. Sinewave Cycles gained popularity for their reliable and efficient USB charging products. In 2017 they released the Sinewave Beacon, a purpose-built bikepacking dynamo light with USB charging built in. It can also be run off of a battery. This thing is a game changer. At 115 grams, it is lighter than most existing options yet with built-in charging. If that wasn’t enough, it even has a rear light output and fits on standard 10mm light mounts, meaning any existing mount from Schmidt, B&M, Supernova, and more.
There are a lot of controls and inputs on the backside of the lamp. To the left is the battery input. In the middle in the good ol’ USB input. To the right is a 3-position switch that toggles between on, off, and charger-priority modes.
My hesitation on using this light for myself – do I really need all these features? The way I tour, I don’t need USB charging. Until a few weeks ago, I had never owned an external battery pack. This light is the option for the gear-savvy, tech-heavy (tech is heavy) bike tourer. I just don’t know if I need all those features.
KLite Bikepacker Pro & Ultra
KLite makes some high quality dynamo lamps, mostly oriented toward racing and bikepacking. At the beginning of this month they released a new model, the Bikepacker Ultra. Check out the article on bikepacking.com to learn more about it. I have seen the original Bikepacker Pro v2 in real life, and it is an impressive light. It is very bright, incredibly small, and super durable. I think the design is pretty minimalist in form and function, which I appreciate. The standlight lasts an incredibly long time and is decently bright. I have heard it produces noticeably more drag on the hub than other lights, but I don’t know how much that would matter – in theory, I’m already pulling a heavy bike with some amount of resistance from any light.
One thing I don’t like about these lights is the mounting. I often move my dynamo lights from one bike to another, or for example put the brightest one of my tandem which I don’t use very often. The Klite lights do not use standard mounting hardware, and are instead zip tied to the handlebars or attached via a 3d-printed structure that also holds your GPS. KLite also makes a cool switch to alternate power between your light and a USB charger, and is finalizing production of their own USB charger for that system. Well, I don’t use a Garmin GPS right now and I don’t want to have to cut zip ties all the time. For a dedicated bikepacking setup, these lights could be great options. For racing, these mounts and switches and electronics from KLite are pretty cool.
So, which one will I get?
I am leaning towards the Supernova E3 Triple 2. It is a mountain specific beam and this is a mountain bike. The standardized mounting is what separates it from something like the KLite but I am not ruling out the KLite because it is a lot brighter. I mean, I do want to do some racing and I know I like riding fast. The Ultra, with 3 LED bulbs, may be the ticket. The Sinewave has kind of a little too many features, though it is very attractive. The IQ-X was okay, but I think the options from Schmidt and B&M will be my go-to for road applications. I know the horizontal cut off will be annoying off-road.
Indecision. TBD. Putting this together has helped me sort out my thoughts a lot though.