Ever since I got into this whole adventure thing, I've always sort of turned my nose up at aftermarket lighting. Looking back on it, I think there are three reasons for my prejudice:
- I'm not a fan of the "Instalighters." We all know these folks - they are the ones that install several light bars - on the roof, behind the grill, maybe one in the rear, as well as pod lights, ditch lights, fog lights, and any other lights they can possibly fit on their vehicle. Then, whenever they take a photo - boom! - all the lights are on. In the middle of the day. Around the campfire. Don't get me wrong - some task lights, turned on and off as appropriate are fine - it's the look at me lights that I can do without.
- Price. The top-tier lights are expensive, I never really understood why. I mean, there are plenty of cheap LED lights on amazon and eBay - what could possibly make Baja Designs or Rigid or Diode Dynamics worth orders of magnitude more money? It's just light, right? To some extent, I thought they were being greedy.
- Performance. The "more affordable" lights on amazon and eBay never really seemed to perform that well when I saw them on other people's vehicles. Sure, they would look bright and shiny on the truck, but the beam patterns were generally scattered, and didn't really put that much light in a place that I felt like was all that useful - though, without fail, they seemed to be an annoyance in the rear-view mirrors! Turn that crap off, was what I would often find myself thinking.
About a year ago however, I realized that I needed to do something about my lighting situation. It was my headlights that were really bothering me - on the long drives south to places like Death Valley, I'd often spend 12+ hours driving in the dark, and my 20+ year old headlights just weren't cutting it.
My original headlights. Sometimes, I wondered if only my parking lights were on.
I started by "upgrading" my headlights to LEDs and Hella 700's to HID, The light was great - if a little blue for my tastes - but I soon realized that the LED headlights produced so much radio frequency interference (RFI) that I couldn't use them and my radio at the same time. Within a month, I'd pulled the LEDs and performed the ultimate headlight upgrade, beefing up the headlight wiring so I could add some high-powered halogen headlights that properly threw gobs of warm light down the road with absolutely no RFI to mess up my electronics.
After doing all that, I felt like I was done. I had light in front of the truck, I hadn't broken the bank, and my truck didn't look like a Christmas tree when I turned all my lights on. And then, the unthinkable happened - I won a raffle for a set of Diode Dynamics SS3 light pods. Seeing as how I never really win anything, I was caught completely off guard, but ultimately ended up receiving a set of SS3 Pro Fog lights that I proceeded to install in the fog light mounts of my bumper.
Oh. My. Goodness.
My mind was blown with how fantastic these Diode Dynamics lights really were.
All I could think about on that first trip with the fog lights was what I'd been missing for the last five years. Suddenly, I understood that the premium price that one pays for top-tier lights was totally worth it. The driving experience - especially in inclement weather - was so much more pleasant. The secret isn't in the LED technology or emitters, it's in the optics. The research and design that goes into the reflectors and lenses is what sets these lights apart, and Diode Dynamics is - in my opinion - at the top of the game in those regards today.
As part of working with John ▮▮▮▮▮▮▮ and Craig ▮▮▮▮▮▮▮ over at Diode Dynamics on the SS3 Pro fog lights, they'd hinted at something special coming later in the year. They couldn't tell me much, but there was enough to enlighten even the slowest of us that it was going to be a significantly higher-powered pod than they currently had on the market. Needless to say, I was intrigued.
Fast forward several months, and Diode Dynamics announced the SS5 series of lights. With gobs of output, the pro versions of these lights with a spot beam pattern can throw usable light more than a mile down the road. I knew immediately that - even with the high price tag - these were the perfect light to replace the HID-upgraded Hella 700s I had on my bumper.
That was a big step for me, because I am a big fan of the look of Hella-style lights. The round light housing looks right to me, compared to the square housings that are so common to LED pods, and of course I paid about 1/7th the price for the Hellas, even taking into account the upgrade to HID. On the flip side, I'd been having some issues with the Hellas that made it easier to set them aside.
- Like the LED headlights, the Hellas produced RFI - primarily when they were initially switched on. As the ballast was energized, it would send an unbearably loud crackle over my stereo speakers, to the point where I'd think twice before flipping them on, often opting to just forego the additional light on the road.
- The beam pattern of the HIDs was good but not great - they seemed to have T-shaped hot spots. That wasn't the end of the world - and perhaps was to be expected with retrofitted bulbs - but it could certainly be better.
- I'd been having issues with them not turning on all the time. In the end, this turned out to be a problem with my Bussmann relay box, but at the time, I was sure the issue was in the HID system somewhere.
At any rate, I placed a pre-order for a pair of SS5 Pro pods with yellow (4000K) emitters - I knew that the 6000K would be much too blue for me - and some clear spot lenses. And then I waited - attempting to present a patient façade - for 4 months.
The SS5 Pros arrived mid-afternoon on the day I was set to leave at 9:00pm for the Bradshaw Trail in southern California. Given that I'd be driving through the night, I made the decision to swap in the new lights before I left so I could give them a test - and hopefully take full advantage of them - over the next several days.
With a pluggable wiring harness already in place for the Hella's, the installation was relatively straight forward. The first order of business was swapping the lenses. To get the warmer (4000K) emitters, my lights had come with selective yellow lenses, which were easily swapped to clear using a T10 Torx wrench.
4000K emitters with clear lenses is the perfect combo for "white" in my opinion. Also, please ignore the Allen wrench shown, I quickly realized my mistake and swapped over to the right tool!
Then, it was a simple matter of unbolting the old lights from the bumper and bolting the new SS5 Pros in place, plugging the supplied pigtails into my existing 12ga harness that allowed them to be switched on directly or automatically when the high beams were illuminated.
It was a nice feeling to use the existing harness with no modifications!
Literally within hours, I was flipped on the new pods in real-world use. To say I was blown away by the light output and beam pattern would be an understatement. I'm sure the word "wow" escaped my lips the first time these miniature suns illuminated the road before me. I'd felt like the Hellas threw a lot of light forward, but these things were in a class of their own. Seriously, I don't even really know how to describe it.
Knowing that I'd need to adjust their positioning a bit, I'd brought along the requisite Allen wrench, and soon found a rest stop along the side of the highway where I was able to aim the pods so that they illuminated a mile of highway in front of me, while being splayed slightly left and right to also illuminate the shoulders, where those pesky deer tend to jump out at the last minute!
This photo doesn't really do the lights justice.
It was, perhaps, the most pleasant night drive I've ever had in the Tacoma - at least, when there was no oncoming traffic, since I was quick to extinguish my suns for fear of blinding oncoming drivers when I'd see their headlights in the distance.
And so, here I am, a convert. Aftermarket lighting is a good thing, as long as it'd done tastefully and with drivability as the motivating factor. That means spending a good deal of money for the secret sauce - reflectors and optics that have been engineered for performance - rather than going for something that's just for looks. And speaking of looks - I still like the look of round Hella-style lights, but man, these SS5 Pros look pretty great as well. Understated, even.
A reasonable look.
Let there be light.
I figure I also ought to show a comparison of the SS5s as compared to the previously installed Hella 700s. The comparison isn't really fair, as the location I'd taken the photos previously didn't allow for significant distance of light, but here they are for comparison.
Stock headlight bulbs, lo beam.
High-powered OSRAM headlight bulbs, after ultimate headlight upgrade, lo beam.
High-powered OSRAM headlight bulbs, after ultimate headlight upgrade, hi beam.
Diode Dynamics SS5 Spots, with 4000K emitters and clear lenses.
Left: Hella 700FF w/HID upgrade; Right: Diode Dynamics SS5 Spots, with 4000K emitters and clear lenses.