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Best Downlights in 2021: Buying Guide & Reviews

Looking for the best downlight for your property in 2020? We’ve put together our buying guide for anyone to understand, for you to find the right lighting for your project. Downlighters are an incredible lighting tool and we have selected our most recommended ones together with all you need to know to select the right ones for you. 

Table of Contents

How to Choose an LED Downlight: A Buyers Guide.

What is a LED Downlight?

The recessed downlight or sometimes called pot light or can light, has become an indispensable tool for anyone choosing lighting. The appeal is their simplicity as most of the light fixture is hidden behind the ceiling with the LED source of light set deep within the body of the fitting at the base of a reflector. The light is focused forwards and delivered into the room through a round or square aperture in the ceiling. 

When To Use a Downlight

How to Use Downlights

The downlight provides a strong source of light which is effective and efficient. However, LED Downlights should be used carefully and not just everywhere you want light to be. How to Use Recessed Downlights explores how they can be used including for accent lighting, task lighting and ambient lighting.

How Far Apart Do You Put LED Downlights walks you through the process of estimating how many downlighters you may need to install.

Downlighting Over Tables

Types of Downlight

To simplify but not dumb down your choices, downlighting can be basically split into three types. 

The best downlight for you will probably start with what you can afford to buy, but you can mix and match types in the same project and use the right type of fixture where you will see the most value. For example, lesser important bedrooms and bathrooms could work well with the lower cost options but use the professional choices for the rooms where you spend the most time in where the results are more important.

You can only make those choices once you know what each type of downlight offers and then match it with the type of light you need to create.

Size

The diameter of the downlight is the measurement of the front plate that sits onto the face of the ceiling. This is the part you actually see. Ideally the smaller the better.

The Cut Out of a downlight is the size of the hole each manufacturer recommends to be able to push the fixture through the plasterboard and not drop out. 

Trim

The trim of a downlight is the front plate or bezel, and it covers the cut out hole. The trim is primarily all you see of the downlight so it’s choice is important.

For minimal visual impact in the room, choose a thin depth trim with a narrow clean finished front.

For maximum discretion, choose a trimless downlight where the trim is hidden within the final skim of plaster on the ceiling, leaving just an aperture for the light to emit from.

Reducing Glare

All light sources create some form of glare, so the deeper the LED source of light is within the body of the downlight and therefore deeper set into the ceiling, the better. Darklights or baffled downlights, have an inner ring that insets the lens, reflector and source. By pushing them back a user has to be more directly under the fitting to see the light source. Downlight baffles are usually black as the least reflective colour.

Lower cost downlights will push the LED source towards the front to maximise the output of an inferior source, whereas baffled downlights are engineered to invest some of the output losses to create a more comfortable delivery of light. 

We recommend a baffled downlight in all circumstances budget allowing.

Fixed vs Adjustable Downlights

The recommendation is to generally use a fixed downlight where you can as they look a little neater in the ceiling. They also create a little less glare as the light is sent straight downwards and cannot be angled into a users eyes. However, use an adjustable downlight wherever you need to build in the flexibility to move the light. 

For example, use recessed LED downlighters near all counter tops, kitchen islands, over furniture or when highlighting objects. You cannot always be sure that a downlight position on a drawing is physically possible once being installed, so an adjustable downlight will allow some tolerance in redirecting the light back to where it should be if indeed it has to move due to pipes of joists being in the way.

Beam Angle

Each downlight or LED lamp has a beam angle. A beam angle is the degree at which the light leaves the fixture or lamp spreading at that angle until it illuminates a surface. The further the light has to travel the wider the beam angle will be spreading the light and thinning the light too. The wider the angle and longer the distance, the weaker the illumination will be on that surface.

Standard LED lamps have a medium beam width of approximately 36 degrees. Higher quality LED lamps and dedicated LED downlights will allow some choice in narrow, medium and wide or flood beam widths.

Lighting Tip: For more visually interesting environments, use tighter beam widths to contain the light and allow the lit space to have contrast between lights and darks. Only use wide beam widths for washing light onto walls or where you have no choice but use them as general purpose lighting.

Color Temperature

There is a choice to the warmth of white light created from the LED source as it passes through its phosphor coating and into the room. This definition of white light is classed as a colour temperature and every manufacturer chooses what to create by demand.

In the home generally 2700K is extra warm white for lounges and relaxed living areas and 3000K for kitchens and bathrooms. 

For more on this read: How to Choose Color Temperatures

Quality of Light

There is more to just choosing the color of white light though. All LED lighting has a quality that can be measured by how well it renders colours regardless of colour temperature. There are various methods of measurement but still widely used is the CRI index or Color rendering index.  LED lamps and dedicated LEDs can offer high CRI levels and it must be over 80 with 90+ the standard to opt for.

High quality professional LED sources will correct LED lights natural tendency to not render reds very well, by boosting the R9 channel to enrich the vibrancy of anything warm in colour. Best quality LED light is at least 95 RA.

Lots more on this: Color Rendering Index 101: How to Make Your Home Look Great

LED Colour Accuracy

The colour temperature between identical fixtures can be the same but the light created can look slightly different. The human eye is incredible but there are limits to how far it can differentiate between these differences, and each definable variation is given a category or color bin. These variations are scaled on a MacAdams Elipse and anything more than 3 starts to become discernible. 

The reason we want a tight binning of LED sources is to ensure consistency of white light colouring especially when reflected on surfaces. 

Not many manufacturer’s will readily publish the colour accuracy of their LED sources so be mindful of this potential pitfall.

Wattage

Do not use the wattage of an LED lamp or downlight to measure it’s output.

Historically with tungsten filament lamps, the brightness or output of light was created by the amount of power it consumed. The higher the wattage used to mean more light. 

Now, LED technology has revolutionised the creation of light with a more efficient conversion of power used to light created.

Lumens: Considering the Brightness

So now the brightness of an LED lamp or fixture is measured by the actual light it creates, defined in lumens. LED Lamps range between 350 to 600 lumens in output. Dedicated LED downlights for a residential property range from 600 to over 1000 lumens. 

If you are still familiar with older technology, a 50W low voltage lamp equates to around 900 lumens and a 50W GU10 mains halogen lamp was approx 400-500 lumens.

Be careful to watch out for misleading information on lumen outputs.

Cunning manufacturer’s can publish the lumen output of the LED source and not the actual lumen level of the light as it’s delivered from the fixture.

A good percentage of the light can be lost in the fixture itself, there are losses through the filtering and lenses the light may pass through and light can even go in the wrong direction.

Professional downlight specifications should tell you the difference between initial lumens created and delivered lumens.

Output: How Much Light is Needed?

How far does the light have to travel – ie. how high is your ceiling?

Rooms with ceilings over 3m or 10ft should not rely upon LED lamped downlights but opt for the professional source of LED that can focus the light where it is needed and create more light. An LED lamped downlight in a high ceiling room will still of course provide light, but the illumination will be weaker because the lower amount of light it creates is spread wider across the whole space, loosing the sense of three dimensions you should always aim for by retaining lights and darks. 

Dimming

LED lamps and downlights can be dimmed and you must ensure compatibility between the dimming system and the downlight. 

Lifetime

LED sources of light depreciate and reduce their output over time. An LED lamp will not last as long as a dedicated LED downlight, but they are lower in cost so does that really matter? 

Professional LED downlighters create more light than the LED lamp housed within a downlight body. LED light creates very little heat, but any heat that is created must be dissipated quickly away from the LED chip to provide a long lifetime with limited noticeable shifts in the colour of white light that it creates. 

LED lamps are not as efficient at dissipating heat and the size they have to be to fit into standardised downlights limits how well they perform. The higher the output of light from the pro downlight creates more heat, so large heat sinks are positioned at the back of the fixture hidden behind the ceiling. Excellent thermal management is essential for an LEDs longevity.

LED lifetime is measured by how many hours the manufacturer has calculated before the useful output of the fitting degrades by 30% of it’s original output. 

For example, L70 at 50,000 hours means the L or Life of the LED is at 70% of it’s original output at 50,000 hours running time.

Power Supply

The lifetime of a downlight or lamp is also linked to how well the power it uses is managed. LED power supply’s or PSU’s are called drivers.

Cheaper products will push as much light out of the LED by driving them as hard as they can but limiting their life to sprint finish. A professional downlight will use a power supply that under runs the potential of the LED chip, ensuring a reliable source of power over a very long period of time.

Good quality LED drivers will in themselves last longer too, as the power supply is often the weakest link in the LED lighting chain.

Good quality dimmable LED drivers will ensure a wide range of dimming with the best range going from less than 1% to 100%.

Compliance & Regulations

Watch out for potential regulations that must be considered for the country you are specifying for:

FIRE: Recessed downlights can compromise the fire compartment that the room they are in may create. Downlights can be upgraded to provide a degree of fire protection by delaying the time they will drop out of the cut out hole they are installed into, if a fire were in the room.

WATER: You will need to consider the function of the downlight ie are you using it in or over a wet area? Exterior downlights should be rated for wet use and in Europe the degree of IP rating is defined as IP44 for splash proof and IP65 as jettable.

Color & Finish

Last but not least – what colour do you want it! White is by far the most popular choice to help blend the downlight into the ceiling, but not all lighting schemes have white ceilings or want to hide this clever powerful source of light.

Andrew Orange , the owner of Orange Lighting qualified and worked as an interior designer in 1993 before specialising in lighting working on high profile projects based in London. Since starting Orange Lighting Ltd in 2003 he has been sharing his knowledge and unique teaching style mostly to his designer clients, offering practical real life advice born from running a busy consultancy and lighting supply business. Launching in 2020, his blog has evolved into Quick & Easy Lighting, curating some 25 years design experience into making the lighting choice and design process achievable and easy to understand for all.