Whether you’re buying them online or your local home improvement store, there are a lot of options for LED recessed lights. This guide covers the 6 specifications you should be familiar with when deciding on the best LED recessed lights to use.
Modern residential LED recessed lights range in size between 2-inches and 6-inches. Most homes use a combination of 4-inch and 6-inch lights, and you’ll find the best selection in these two sizes.
When comparing the size of recessed lights, it’s easy to assume that 6-inch lights are brighter than 4-inch lights. This was generally true with incandescent recessed lights, but not with LEDs. Many 4-inch LED recessed lights are equivalent to 6-inch lights in terms of brightness and beam spread. For this reason, choosing the best size LED recessed lights for a room is more of an aesthetic decision than a functional one. I recommend using the following approach.
Start with Consistency – If you already have recessed lighting in other parts of the house, consider matching their size for consistency. Just know that it is perfectly acceptable to mix sizes of lights throughout a home.
Visual Preference – Consider the scale of the room. For large rooms, or rooms with tall ceilings, I recommend using 6-inch lights for general lighting and 4-inch lights for task and accent lighting. For sloped ceilings, I prefer the appearance of 4-inch adjustable lights over 6-inch adjustable lights because they are less obtrusive.
One last note about recessed light sizes. When a label says it’s a “4-inch” or “6-inch” recessed light, that is the measurement across the inside of the housing (diameter) with the trim removed.
Primary Types of LED Lights
The two primary types of LED recessed lights are Fixed Recessed Lights and Adjustable Recessed Lights.
- Fixed Recessed Lights – These are your standard LED recessed lights where the lens sits recessed inside the trim and is not movable. When the aperture is smooth it is called a reflector trim. If it has ridges, it’s called a baffle trim.
- Adjustable Recessed Lights – With Adjustable recessed lights (aka Gimbal downlights), the lens sits slightly recessed and is attached to an axis that allows it to tilt inside the trim, typically up to 35-degrees.
Other Types of LED Recessed Lights
There are two other types of LED recessed lights I’d like to mention which can be used for more specialty applications. They are called thin or slim recessed lights, and fully-adjustable or elbow recessed lights. Technically speaking, neither one of these types are recessed lights. They’re actually surface lights.
- Ultra Thin or Slim Recessed Lights – These lights are the newest type to hit the market. Just like their name implies, the lights are ultra-thin and they don’t use a housing. These “canless” led lights have a remote junction box that houses the wiring and connections. Their advantage is that they can fit almost anywhere and you don’t have to worry about clearance from ceiling joists above. The downside to this type of LED light is they can produce unwanted glare because the lens sits flush with the ceiling surface.
- Fully Adjustable or Elbow Recessed Lights – Fully Adjustable (aka Elbow) recessed lights can adjust from flat to around 75-degrees and rotate 360-degrees. They give the greatest flexibility in aiming for accent and artwork, however they protrude from the ceiling making them much more noticeable than a standard adjustable recessed light. They should be reserved for situations where placement or ceiling angle requires more flexibility than a standard adjustable recessed light can provide.
Choosing the Best Type for a Room
The type of recessed light you use for a room should be based on the ceiling type (flat or sloped) and the purpose of the lighting.
- Flat Ceilings – Use fixed (aka non-adjustable) recessed lights for General Lighting and Task Lighting. Use adjustable recessed lights when you want to direct the light towards an object or wall for Accent Lighting. Reserve the use of ultra-thin recessed lights for rooms where you will be directly under the lights. If you use them in long-shaped rooms or open floor plans, the glare of the surface LED lights can be harsh as you look across the ceiling.
- Sloped Ceilings – Use adjustable recessed lights for General Lighting and Task Lighting. The reason to use adjustable lights is they can be directed downward, rather than following the angle of the ceiling like fixed lights would. Aiming them downward with the lens parallel to the floor will minimize glare, especially when the seating in the room is facing the slope of the ceiling. In most cases, I don’t recommend using recessed lights for Accent Lighting from sloped ceilings.
3. Color Temperature
Correlated color temperature (CCT) is the actual color appearance of the white light, measured in Kelvins (K). It’s often confused with brightness, but color temperature refers to the color tone of the light. The most common color temperatures are warm white (2700K), soft white (3000K), neutral white (3500K), bright white (4000K), and daylight (5000K).
Color Temperature and Dimming
If you’re accustomed to dimming incandescent bulbs, you may notice that LED lights do not behave the same way when dimmed. The difference is the color temperature of an incandescent light gets warmer as it is dimmed, typically changing from 2700K at full brightness to around 2200K when dimmed very low. LED lights do not naturally change color temperature as they are dimmed. They remain at the same color temperature throughout the dimming range. This is not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just different if you’re not used to it.
Warm Dim LEDs
In an effort to mimic the warm glow of incandescent light when dimmed, some manufacturers offer “Warm Dim” or “Warm Glow” LED recessed lights. These lights change color temperature from 2700K to 2200K as they are dimmed, just like an incandescent light. They’re a great option when you want to create a warm and cozy atmosphere at low light levels.
Selectable or Tunable White LEDs
One of my favorite innovations in LED recessed lighting is “Selectable” or “Tunable” White LED lights. These fixtures have an integrated switch on the trim or junction box that allow you to adjust them in steps between various color temperatures. This means that you no longer need to choose the CCT of the recessed light before you purchase it!
Choosing a Color Temperature
The color temperature of lighting has a big impact on a room. Warmer tones in the 2700K-3000K range will make a room feel cozy, whereas the cooler temperatures like 3500K-4000K will feel bright and energetic. For this reason, I recommend choosing LED recessed lights that are tunable white. Then you can actually install the lights and adjust the color temperature to your liking based on how it looks and feels in the room. It’s okay to vary the color temperature between rooms, but I would stay within one or two steps warmer or cooler.
The brightness of LED recessed lights is given in lumens, not watts like incandescent lamps of the past. Don’t make the mistake of comparing watts between LED lights to compare the brightness. Some LEDs are more efficient than others and therefore use less watts to produce the same or more lumens.
For general lighting, I recommend using lights that produce at least 600 lumens for standard height ceilings, and at least 900 lumens for tall ceilings. As long as you have a dimmer switch installed (which you always should), the higher the lumen output the better.
5. Quality of Light
Color rendering index (CRI) is the measurement of a light’s ability to display colors accurately in comparison to an ideal or natural light source. Using LEDs with a high CRI is important so that colors will appear as they were intended. The best LED lights have a CRI of 90 or higher.
6. Beam Angle
LED beam angle is where the concentration of light is 50% or greater. Most LED recessed lights (aka “Retrofit” LEDs) have a very wide beam angle, typically above 90-degrees. While this is great for spreading light, too wide of angle can cause excessive glare when looking across a ceiling. Currently there are not too many options for beam angles with LED recessed lights. Most manufacturers will simply label them “Flood” or “Spot” lights. For general lighting in a room, use the flood type.