12 April 2009

bikefix Exclusive Review: Light & Motion Seca 700 Race light

I love night riding. From pre-dawn commutes to cold winter trail rides with friends, there's something special about riding at night- somehow it just feels like flying. Back in 1993, at the Mount Snow NORBA National race, I purchased a 5w VistaLite non-rechargeable bicycle headlight. It was a bit frightening in to rely on in the woods, but I was hooked. In the fifteen years since, I progressed to brighter rechargable halogens (with which I completed my first couple of 24-hour races) and then on to staggeringly bright HID lamps. While LEDs have been around for a while, 2009 saw a widespread move by most bicycle lighting companies to the technology for their high end offerings.

LEDs have several advantages over the HIDs they are quickly making obsolescent. For mountain bikers, the biggest is durability. Pricey HID bulbs have a 500 hour or so lifespan. LEDs (light-emitting diodes), on the other hand, are actually solid state components and (like the flash drives in iPod Nanos) are far better suited to the rough and tumble world of after-dark cycling and service lives closer to 20,000 hours. They also require less complicated circuitry to fire and run than HIDs, can be throttled back more efficiently and be made to do cool things like flash. LEDs' output is a bit closer to natural light than the bluish cast of HIDs and is said to be easier on the eyes (if so, its a relatively minor improvement). LEDs are also slightly more energy efficient than HIDs- though don't expect dramatically better life from the same battery.

While I talked to a lot of different companies at Interbike last fall, I kept coming back to the idea of trying one of Light & Motion's new Seca 700 LED light (Lupine's Tesla was another standout). My experience with earlier (halogen & HID) L&M products had been great- the quality and reliability were excellent and the company's experience with underwater lighting gave them a focus on weather resistance, which is important for electronics that could easily see rain and snow during commuting and 24-hour race use. Besides, it would work with my existing charger and batteries, saving me a good deal of money in what was looking to be a fairly expensive transition. As a bonus, the company is very conservation-oriented and has been recognized by the State of California's Waste Reduction Awards Program for, well, reducing waste.

The Seca 700 uses 6 LED emitters to put out a total of 700 lumens of light on its highest setting, on which the battery is good for a bit over three hours in my experience. Lower settings last longer, though you'll want to take things easy on the lowest 175 Lumen (14 hour) setting. Seeing as I owned spare batteries, if there was any question about a ride running over three hours, I'd drop one in my pack- after all, what's the point of having all of that light if you're not going to use it? A flash mode makes the Seca 700 probably the most expensive blinking front light available and will have you mistaken for emergency personnel- I found it particularly useful for the occasional dusk commute and got admiring comments (shouts) from other commuters.

The majority of the Seca's light head is built of heat-dissipating aluminum (which can be seen in the red fins), which help to protect the LEDs and electronics from overheating. The top-mounted power button cycles through the light settings and has a (comparatively weak) status LED embedded in it. The six lighting LEDs are covered by a plastic lens, the lower half of which is textured to spread the lower three LEDs' light a bit. The whole affair is connected through a breakaway washer (replacements are included) to what is essentially a very thick watch band, which in turn wraps around the bar or the included helmet mount.

At Interbike, Light & Motion were quite proud of the way in which they'd tailored the Seca's beam to its application. As a result, I really expected to fire mine up and see a nicely distributed beam roughly the shape of a squashed guitar pick. Something along those lines would provide a good good breadth of beam without shooting so many expensive lumens skyward (or into the rider's eyes when standing on really steep climbs). What I saw when projecting the Seca's beam on a blank wall was disappointingly dirty- there was a moderately hot spot at the center and a large amount of light being sent out above level (though the beam it isn't quite round) and it was a bit uneven at the sides. Not encouraging, but the proof (as they say) is in the pudding. Another niggle was the cheap feeling of the outermost plastics and aluminum. A sharp contrast to my Light & Motion HID light's thermoplastic (I believe) enclosure, the Seca's plastics were hard and neither they nor the aluminum on top of the light head were particularly well-fitting. Seeing as those seem to be in place primarily to keep the rider from burning their hand on the heat sinks, L&M get a bit of a pass there. Less alright was the lens- also thin, I have little confidence in its ability to survive a crash (a theory I thankfully have yet to test) or emerging from a gear bag along with sharp tools unscratched. This is a pricey bit of kit, kids- take care of it. Needless to say, for $550, I was underwhelmed.

What was impressive, on the other hand, was the sheer volume and intensity of light coming from the Seca. On the road or trail, the 'dirty' beam wasn't really noticeable and it readily sent light from the bars to where it was needed (though it also illuminated my road bike's front caliper- probably not the best use of energy). It wasn't a dramatic improvement over my L&M HID, but impressive nonetheless. On the road, I was able to maintain daytime-like speeds without fear of potholes or debris (broken glass lights up like a constellation in the road). Off road, when paired with a lower-power helmet-mounted light (15W halogen or 150 Lumen LED), it cast easy-to-read shadows that gave a great impression of trail texture. Alone on the helmet, it was (for me) just too much light, washing away definition and flattening dips and bumps- though I know plenty of people who prefer to run their high-powered lights on the helmet. The other reason that the Seca is less than ideal as a helmet-mounted light is the mount itself. The light head sits prouder of the bars than I'd like to begin with- the helmet mount is effectively a fake handlebar that straps to the helmet. While we don't really have trees out here, the light sits quite a ways off of the rider's head- right where (if my memory of East Coast riding is correct) branches live. Even if it means a separate mount for the helmet, it seems that L&M could do a better job of sitting the Seca down on the helmet, less in harm's way, with less cantilevering of its mass for a less floppy lid. On the helmet, the flush-mounted button is also very difficult to find (especially when wearing winter gloves). Despite a lack of tactile feedback, there is little question as to whether its been toggled- the massive column of light coming from above is feedback enough.

The watch strap-type mountain band is easy to use, though securing it on oversized bars takes a bit of a tug. There is a lot of cable to be dealt with- I tend to wrap it around my top tube five or six times (under the cables) en route to the battery on the seat tube or seatpost. A shorter cable would allow battery mounting under the top tube and an extension would allow flexibility- sure its one more point to leak or otherwise go wrong, but other manufacturers are doing the same without problems and it will improve flexibility for those with unusually-shaped seatposts and seat tubes (the battery pack really likes round tubes and holds on to those very well). On cold morning and mountain rides (especially those just around freezing), I found that the Seca would rotate around the bars a bit- not a ton, but enough to require adjustment and something its predecessor never did. Worse, within a few weeks, I noticed some cracking in the rubber strap, which worsened with time. L&M technical support sounded surprised over the phone, though and their response was immediate- a new strap was at my door within a few days. Hopefully, mine was just an odd defect, as I've not heard of anyone else's doing the same.

Given my previously excellent experience with Light & Motion products, it hurts me to say that the Seca probably isn't quite ready for prime time. The technology is certainly fantastic and the light impressive, but a number of details make the (already steep) price hard to swallow. For riders with perfectly functioning HIDs, the improvement simply does not justify the expense ($350, assuming that a used HID will fetch $200). For everyone else, if Light & Motion could rethink its mounting system (particularly for the helmet) to reduce the light's profile and prevent slipping, put a break in the cable, a bump on the switch and build an enclosure befitting the price tag, they'd be on to something. Until then, I'd personally have to recommend either looking elsewhere (it seems like the competition have all or most of these points nailed) or holding off for a year or two. Sorry.




Mitch the Masher said...

I too have a Seca 700. The rubber strap failed after two months of use. I didn't want another strap as I think this is a flawed design, so I removed the hard mount from my Arc and it fits perfectly on the Seca. This eliminates the unwanted movement of the light on the bars.

I agree the light works best on the bars, but would guess that the older Arc helmet mount could also be retrofitted on the Seca.

One plus for the light that I wanted to add to your review is the brillant "race mode" the light can be switched to. Holding the on/off button fires up the led light into a mode which only toggles between the Hi and Low. The standard mode toggles Hi, Med, Low and flash. I like to conserve battery life in 24 hour races by switching the light to low on longer climbs without having to switch past the other settings.

Nice review! I won't be selling mine, but would look at other systems before buying.

bikefix said...

Mitch, Thanks for the feedback... With all of the glowing reviews out there, I was beginning to wonder if I was being a bit harsh... I waited a week before publishing mine and for $550, I just expect more. If only I still had my Arc, I'd pull the mount. Good to know, though. Take care, marc

Brad said...

Have you looked at DiNotte Lighting?

bikefix said...

Brad, I haven't looked at the DiNotte stuff, though I have seen it around. For the money, they look very nice- though I can't speak from personal experience (the devil is, of course, in the details)...