Ultimately, no matter what the numbers say, quality of light comes down to personal preference. You might want some reddish warmth in your bedroom for a romantic glow, while opting for a colder, harsher light in your kitchen or workspace. Your best bet is to visit a lighting store where you can observe how lit bulbs differ side by side—checking out how they illuminate your skin, or a piece of white paper. See what you like.
That said, here are one man’s findings, ordered from my least favorite to my top choice:
Insteon A19 LED Bulb
9 watts, 713 lumens
Insteon claims this bulb’s color temperature is comparable to an incandescent’s, but I found it threw off an almost greenish light. The pea soup hue repulsed me. The Insteon’s physical design—dominated by a big, crenelated podium at its base to disperse heat—leaves the illuminated part of the bulb as only a half globe, meaning it casts light in just one direction. (If the bulb is oriented upright in a lamp socket, light will rise up toward the ceiling and not down toward, say, the pages of the book you’re trying to read.) Insteon’s marketing push has more to do with the ancillary features made possible by LED technology, such as controlling the bulb remotely or hooking it into an automated home system. But bulb qua bulb, I found this entry lacking.
Cree Soft White LED 60-watt Replacement
9.5 watts, 800 lumens
The Cree wasn’t as greenish as the Insteon, but was still not my cup of tea, color-wise. Too harsh. It might be OK for your cubicle. Or, like, your abattoir. Just keep it out of your living space, where its cold light will instantly kill the mood.
10 watts, 800 lumens
This TCP bulb had the warmest, reddest tone of all the LEDs I tried. Its physical shape is attractive and functional. No complaints. A totally solid choice.
10.5 watts, 800 lumens
The SlimStyle has a radically different physical shape. Imagine if you could press a classic light bulb between the pages of a book to make it flatter. A bit like a Frisbee with a socket-fitting screw at its base. Made of tough plastic, the Philips felt almost impossible to break. I threw it across a room with no effect. It’s not as red and warm as the TCP, but its bright white light was clear, pleasing, and free of greenish undertones. Put this one in your kitchen, put the TCP in your living room, and call it a well-lit day.
But wait! There’s one more intriguing option coming soon. It’s not a CFL or an LED:
14.5 watts, 800 lumens
John Goscha is a 30-year-old who struck it rich a few years back with a dorm-room invention called IdeaPaint, which turns any wall into a whiteboard. Now he wants to conquer the wide open light bulb market. Goscha’s Finally bulb uses induction—a technology that traces its roots back to Nikola Tesla. (You can read about how it works here.) Using induction to produce light is nothing new, but in the past it tended to require an apparatus too large to fit inside a standard light bulb form. Goscha’s team, composed of lighting science veterans, says it has managed to shrink the induction unit down.
Though the Finally bulb is very energy efficient when compared to an incandescent, it’s a bit less efficient than an LED. At 14.5 watts, and a lumens-to-watt ratio of 55, it’s more in line with a CFL. It also contains traces of mercury, while LEDs don’t. (Which may or may not be important to you. A scientist on the Finally team answers questions about it here.)
Given these drawbacks, why am I bothering to mention the Finally bulb? Because its light quality is superb. Rosy pink. Toasty enough to warm even Ron Rosenbaum’s heart. To my untrained eyes, it’s nearly indistinguishable from an incandescent. When I set up two light fixtures side by side in the Slate office and asked people to compare the Finally to these LED bulbs, the Finally won every time. “It makes my skin look radiant,” enthused one colleague.
You won’t go wrong buying one of my recommended LED bulbs now. But the Finally bulb is scheduled to hit shelves this October. You might wait to see if your stock of precious incandescents can hold out until then.