20 February 2008

bikefix Exclusive Review: 2008 Ay Up LED bike lights

We first became aware of Australian company Ay Up's LED bike lights several months ago when (formerly) local ultra-distance freak McTurge told me that he had some new lights that I might be interested in. Unfortunately, our night riding schedules never quite meshed and he left a cush job sunny Albuquerque for a (hopefully) cush job in cold, snowy Durango. We did fire off an e-mail to Ay Up's US distributor Darren and learn that they would be at 24HitOP. We arranged for a demo and met up on Saturday afternoon to go over the lights.

The first thing that one notices is that these are some tiny little lights. Check out the pictures (right). Each lamp contains one LED in an anodized aluminum enclosure about the length of an egg, but skinnier. They're about the same volume as my wireless Cateye computer (see picture) and are paired in lightsets which weigh at an amazing 58g. Throw in a minimalist helmet or handlebar mount and 3 hour battery (enough for two 16 mile laps) and you're up to 150g- probably no more than your stem. As an industrial designer, I was impressed by the functionality of all of the components. Calling them minimalist would be misleading, as nothing seemed to be missing or compromised. The slender handlebar mount straddles the stem and mounts with zip ties. The helmet mount has several sets of holes, which similarly allows zip ties to be run through helmet vents (and even through the bug mesh of our test Uvex Supersonic without any problems). The zip tie mounts, while harder to remove than many companies' mounts, are unobtrusive enough to be left on the bike/helmet for the duration of the night riding season without getting in the way. While under-built for heavier lights, they seemed more than capable of handling the well-balanced Ay Up lightsets. The batteries are available in 3- and 6-hour Lithium Polymer varieties and are as small as the system weight implies. Velcroed to my already light helmet, they balance the lightset well (much like a Petzl headlamp would) and were all but un-noticable. The 6 hour battery was a snug fit under my 100mm stem (along with a bike computer), but movement wasn't a problem. I could see shorter riders' 60mm stems posing challenges, though. The little orange bulbs are waterproof switches and do a good job of turning the lights both on and off, though their single-click operation won't save you from yourself if you throw them in a bag still connected to the lightset.

Per Darren's recommendation, we mounted a broad beam to the bars and a far-reaching spot to my helmet. My normal night riding combo consists of a Light & Motion ARC HID light on the bars and Solo 15W halogen on my helmet. This combination gives plenty of light for fast riding, with the bar mount casting shadows (good- without them it's really hard to tell how deep holes & dips are) and the yellower halogen helps in looking around corners and telling me what's lurking in those shadowy holes. For the race, I'd even borrowed a second HID for my helmet, as much for the improved battery life as increased light. While the Ay Up LEDs certainly put out less light than the L&M HID, it's hard to tell exactly how much. My best guess would put them equivalent to a 25-30W halogen lamp (the HIDs are closer to 40W equivalent). Despite the reduced output, I never felt limited by the LED's power disadvantage, even at 30mph. What I did notice, though, was that the helmet-mounted spots had the ability to overpower the bar-mounted lights, rendering the trail somewhat two-dimensional. While others may not have the same problem, it made waterbar and g-out depth a bit hard to read. Also, the spot may not have been the best choice for my riding style. While it was very useful for following where the next corner take the trail, as soon as I lost the plot, it didn't illuminate a large enough area for me to find it again. Happily, the lights can be ordered in quite a wide variety of beam patterns and housing colo(u)rs, and can be tailored to your riding style. Despite a having ton of candlepower in reserve, I was very impressed with the little LEDs' performance and decided to run them for all 6 hours of night riding- I simply couldn't out-ride them.

While Ay Up call their lights and batteries waterproof, the connector between the lightset and battery certainly isn't. They recon that a bit of Vaseline around the connector in wet conditions will prevent problems. While it comes across as a bit of a hack workaround, they had a set of (still functional) lights fresh from some night kayaking (in the rain) on hand to prove the point. While I wasn't brave enough to run the batteries down to dead, each 3-hour battery ran a solid 3 hours or so without any dimming, and Ay Up claim that they'll run for another hour at low intensity to get you out of the woods after getting lost or a couple of inevitable group ride mechanicals.
Because I only had 6 hours with the lights, I can't really report on durability- either mechanically or of the batteries themselves. The lights are independently adjustable within the lightset but seem to held in place by friction alone- while there really isn't much mass there to shake things around or wear them out, the lack of any apparent tightening mechanism is a little worrying. Sadly, like most HIDs, they interfered with the function of my Cateye wireless bike computer, turning it into little more than a (conveniently located) clock. While a smart charger should help to prevent the kind of runaway that can cause Lithium Ion batteries to burst into flames, Ay Up's recommendation that, "if charging in your home, workshop or office always fit a smoke alarm and check the functionality of the alarm regularly" is a little scary but good advice nonetheless.

Of course, I've saved the best for last. As of this writing, their 08 MTB kit (with two lightsets, two 3 hour batteries,1 6 hour battery, and all the fixin's) sells for a very reasonable $440 and is enough to run two lights simultaneously for 6 hours straight. Want enough light to do a 24-hour race solo? 08 Enduro for $580. Single Roadie sets come in at under $250. As someone who already owns a quite nice HID lamp (as many of us do), I'd be tempted to go for the single set in the intermediate beam pattern for a helmet mount to augment the bar-mounted flamethrower. It's light enough to be nearly unnoticeable, with fantastic battery life and spares that are light enough to throw in a jersey pocket. They're bright enough to stand out in traffic, and would make an excellent helmet-mounted commuting light (allowing the rider to single out oncoming left-turners and take their expensive gear in to work while the bike sits outside). If I were starting over, though, the MTB kit would be very hard to beat. Coming into this review, I wasn't sure what all the LED fuss was about, but not having to deal with being tethered to a bulky Camelbak-mounted battery or worry about having enough juice to head go out for a couple more hours is pretty damn cool. They're far from the brightest lights available, but at 1/3 the price (for two) and with more than enough light to ride well by, I can imagine that we'll be seeing quite a few around over the next couple of years.



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