Should I Buy Cheap LED Lights for My Stage?

Should I Buy Cheap LED Lights for My Stage?

I often speak with people and organizations who are looking into buying LED lights to either add to the functionality of their lighting system, make maintenance easier, replace old gear, be more efficient, or any combination of the above.

But I also speak with a lot of venues and companies who have made bad choices in LED fixtures and been really disappointed…and are then looking for help.

While an LED salesperson will tell you that the light will last 50,000 hours or more, there are a LOT of “what-if’s” that can cause an LED to work for far less time – sometimes only hundreds of hours before it fails!

If you look out into the LED market these days, you will see that it is flooded with lights in all price ranges- literally from $10 to $10,000 and above! 

How Do You Make Good Choices When Buying LED Stage Lights?

The answer to that is many-faceted.

Yes, you can buy the cheapest thing you can find, but you will likely be disappointed. (Either today or a year from now!)

I have literally seen cheap Amazon or direct-from-China lights fail immediately, or within just a few hours of use, with many more failing within the first few months of use.

Cheaper LED lights are often poorly designed and allow heat to dim the LED’s early in their life, and poor electrical connections and design can cause units to fail prematurely. Even though LED’s don’t generate a lot of heat in their beam, they are VERY sensitive to heat on the LED itself.

If you bought them on Amazon, then you’ve got 30 days to return them. After that, any “warranty” that these lights may claim is likely to not be something that you can actually get action on!

What Lights Should I Buy, Then?

Moving past the negatives, I do advise folks who are looking to get into the entry-level to buy less expensive LED’s from reputable lighting companies who have been around for some time. Some of these names are ADJ, Elation, Chauvet, and Gamma LED Vision.

These companies have great fixtures in the lower price range.  They may not be as cheap as others you’ve seen, but you do get what you pay for!

Buying from a company that has been around for a number of years increases the chance that the lights will be reliable and consistent between units.

This also means that if you need to contact them about an issue, you can, often via phone or email, and someone will answer in English (and many of these brands work and speak other languages too, depending on which markets they serve!).

Lastly, the lights will have proper safety certifications – they’ll be CE and/or UL listed.

This means that they have been tested and certified to be safe. If there was ever an issue where a light caught fire (and this DOES happen with no-name lights), your insurance company adjuster can and will check to see if the light that started the fire was certified.

If it was NOT, they are able to deny covering your claim! (and they will!)

Alright, now that we’ve gone through the “doom and gloom”, let’s talk about what you need to know when buying different types of LED lights:

What To Consider When Buying LED Fixtures

Here are a few things you need to know and consider before buying LED fixtures from ANY brand.

1. Consider the quality of light coming out of a RGB-only fixture.

These only have red, green and blue LED’s inside.  (No Amber, White, UV, Lime, etc)

You may have seen some marketing material saying that these fixtures can put out “16 million colors”, and while that may be technically true, I bet you can only tell a reasonable amount of difference between about 20 or 30 colors at the very maximum.  

You’re also not going to get a good brown, amber, or white color out of these no matter how good they are.  They’ll make your flesh look pink if you try to use them as the front light.  However, you can get a bunch of good colors for a great price, and these are great for lighting set pieces, walls, or even backlight.

RGB-only lights often are aimed at a lower-cost, and therefore often feature lesser quality LED’s. These then don’t make as pleasing mixes of colors.

2. Non-“tri”, “quad”, “hex” or “homogenized” LED’s have individual red, green and blue LED’s that you can see when you look into the light.

With these types of lights, when you mix up a yellow, purple, aqua or anything that’s not pure red, green or blue, you’re going to see some of the multiple colors when you look at the light.  

This may be distracting if you’re using it as backlight, or anywhere that audience members can see the front of the light fixture.  

Homogenized LED’s make the colors mix a little bit better at very close ranges, such as when lighting a set or wall, whereas the lights with individual LED’s.

Most LED’s that you see today DO have homogenized LED’s, but there are still units on the low end that do not – and you probably don’t want them!

3. Cheaper fixtures will flicker when you videotape them or use IMAG to put the video on screen.

If you are shooting video, make sure that you buy fixtures that are guaranteed “flicker-free” because this will be very distracting.  It’s not just a slight flicker- I have seen it myself, and it will ruin a show on camera!  

Some units may look okay at full, but not when dimmed due to the way LED’s are dimmed in most fixtures.  If you have this problem with lights you already own, try running your units only at full.

Even if you’re not shooting video, people in your audience ARE on their phones, so this matters to everyone!

4. Always buy lighting products that have a warranty of at least 1 year.

If the company making it won’t stand behind it, I don’t feel safe doing so either!

Today lights are more reliable than they’ve ever been before. But the cheap stuff WILL let you down, and often do so quickly!

The reliability that we get today from the brands that I mentioned higher in this article are just another reason to buy the “good stuff”. Reliability from the major brands has never been higher, but the cheap stuff is just as un-reliable as ever!

5. Think about the construction of the fixture vs. actual light output...what do you actually need?

Often lighting designers will specify lights for a friend or a group that has a much lower budget than their usual clients, and when they do this they often sell them high-end, pro-grade lights.

You don’t need something built like a tank if it’s just going to be installed in your church and not move often.  And you also may not demand the color quality that these professional-grade units provide.

Those units are made for production companies.  There are less expensive units from many manufacturers that have similar LED’s in a cheaper, less durable unit than the flagship unit.

Are there differences in quality? Sure. Does the output look different? Sure. But if you can get 8 units from “brand B” for the same price as one light from “brand A”, a small difference in output quality is okay for a lot of situations.

6. Keep in mind that different manufacturers use different LED’s in their fixtures.

Different LED’s produce slightly different colors.  Fixtures may also vary in color by each run, or batch, of the fixture.  For the best color consistency, buy all of the LED fixtures you’ll use at once.

If this isn’t possible, buy in groups based on use- such as buying all of the units to light your backdrop at once, then later buying the ones you use for backlight, etc.  

It is best to stick with one manufacturer for all of your LED fixtures for color consistency, but if you have to change, it’s not the end of the world.

7. If you’re buying more than 4-6 units, be sure to get a product demo!

Local dealers can demo and/or let you borrow products for FREE!  Otherwise, many manufacturers will ship you a fixture for just a deposit and the cost of shipping it back to them so that you can try it out.

You want to see how the light works with your current setup, if is is bright enough, how it works of skin tones, etc.

My Recommended LED Fixtures

There is the right product for every application, and it sure doesn’t have to be the most expensive!

Keep in mind, that for every application there is probably a more value-priced unit that you can buy from a good manufacturer. Don’t buy the cheapest lights you find!

I cover my favorite LED fixtures in my Stage Lighting Gear Guide: sign up below to receive it! This gear guide is in a Google Spreadsheet so that it can stay updated as new lights come out and I update it!

About the author