What’s the Difference Between Performance vs Budget Lighting Fixtures

People will devote meticulous attention to detail when picking finishes, furniture, color palettes and artwork to achieve the perfect ambiance. Many will spend hours making the perfect selections but spend minimal time on the lighting fixtures that have a significant impact on how everything looks.

Lighting has a transformative role in the aesthetics and ambiance of a space. The lighting fixtures you pick will ensure that all the other finishes and colors in your home look their best. While budget lighting fixtures may appear alluring with their low cost price tags, crucial qualities that detract from your home’s design can be lacking or missing altogether.

Glare: Cutoff-Angle

What a shame it would be to walk through your beautiful home and be bombarded by glary light fixtures. That would give me a headache! This is due to light fixtures with a poor cutoff angle. The cutoff angle is how far outward the light beam spreads from the fixture. Our eyes are naturally drawn to brighter objects and are more sensitive to things towards the center of our vision. When the cutoff angle is too wide, it drifts into your main viewport, causing you to start seeing the light source. Because the source is so much brighter than the rest of your home, your eyes are drawn to it, emphasizing the glare.

The general rule of thumb is that light fixtures with a cutoff angle lower than 45 degrees are unlikely to cause glare. The further you are from a light source where the light source is visible, the more likely it is to fall into your line of sight and the more likely you are to experience glare. Our eyes are naturally drawn to brighter objects and are more sensitive to things towards the center of our vision. Even under the worst conditions for glare, a 45-degree cutoff angle keeps the light source in your peripheral vision to prevent glare while providing a good beam spread. This ensures that the light sources remain hidden, allowing you to see the light itself rather than the lamp.

Example of a person standing under a 45-degree cutoff fixture, with the fixture source in their outer peripheral to minimize glare. Exaggerated for illustrative purposes.

When the cutoff angle is too high, the light from the fixture extends further and risks becoming at eye level. By choosing fixtures with low cutoff angles, we can create a beautifully-lit space free of unwanted glare.

Ability to Aim Fixtures

Performance light fixtures can be aimed to focus light in specific directions. These are great for decorative lighting to highlight artwork and architectural features. Alternatively, they allow us to direct the lights to be effective for work surfaces. Good fixtures rotate 360 degrees for effortless installation and easy adjustability. They also have up to or over 35 degrees of light angle adjustability, and they adjust with no visible change to the fixture. That last part is key, as we want the downlights and adjustable lights to look the same on the ceiling.

This is where budget fixtures fall short. They don’t all rotate 360 degrees, requiring extra attention to detail when installing the enclosures to ensure they face the right direction. And while many will adjust the angle to 35 degrees, they often have other undesirable side effects. Some budget fixtures pivot the light baffle with the light fixture, leaving the baffle protruding down from the ceiling. If you angle a bunch of budget lights, you will have a few unsightly bulges on your ceiling. To make matters worse, these bulges will be really bright right by the light source, creating more glare. Because the glaring source is not recessed in the ceiling, the cutoff angle becomes irrelevant as it can always be seen regardless of where you are. 

Because performance fixtures can aim internally, you can aim your fixtures without sacrificing the aesthetics of ceiling bulges and additional glare.

Trim Options

One of the ways performance fixtures differentiate themselves is their customizability. A fixture can be square or round, white or black, and flangeless or flanged. This is because the fixture itself is separate from the ceiling trim. The installation takes a few more steps but allows broad customizability to match any aesthetic. If you want to, a flangeless lighting fixture with a low cutoff angle will give the illusion that light falls in your space without a fixture in sight.

While budget options may offer trim options, they are generally more limited. Sometimes the trim and the fixture are one piece. Other times, they don’t make custom trim pieces for angled fixtures. This means your light is partially aimed at the trim itself, costing you light output and creating a glaring hotspot. Other times, the fixture and trim move together when aiming. This means the fixture now protrudes from your ceiling. Additionally, this means the light source is mounted lower, making it more likely to be visible and create glare.

Light Quality

Budget fixtures often have inconsistencies in color temperature, brightness and dimming linearity. This means at full or partial brightness, some lights will be brighter than others and have inconsistent color. If you have a series of wall washing lights, the inconsistency in brightness and color will be off-putting and look awkward.

Low cost lights can also have inconsistent dimming rates. When you lower your lights to 30% dim, you may witness a larger disparity in brightness than at full brightness! Some may be at 25%, some may be at 40% and others may actually be at 30%. However, this unevenness will stand out in an otherwise beautifully finished home. Meanwhile, performance light fixtures will have consistent dimming and color throughout your home.

Making The Best Choice For You

You may have decided a performance fixture is for you, but you don’t even know what that is! If you want quality lighting for your home at a reasonable price, Lighting By Design can work with you to build a lighting plan to perfectly complement your home and ensure all your lighting fixtures complement your design. If you want to learn more about working with us, call us at 415-883-7700.

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