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 for a room, it’s easy to assume that 6-inch lights are brighter than 4-inch lights. This was generally true with legacy 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, these 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 that they can produce a lot of 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 parallel to the floor minimizes glare, especially when the seating 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
Not to be confused with brightness, correlated color temperature (CCT) is the actual color appearance of the white light, measured in Kelvins (K). The most common color temperatures are warm white (2700K), soft white (3000K), bright white (4000K), and daylight (5000K).
When choosing a color temperature, start with what is currently being used in the home. If there is lighting that you already find comfortable, I suggest matching it as close as possible for consistency. If not, I recommend 2700K or 3000K color temperature for inside the home.
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 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.
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 because it means that when the light illuminates a room or an object, the colors will appear as they were intended.
The LED lights you choose should have a CRI of 90 or higher.
6. Beam Angle
A light’s beam angle is where it’s concentration is 50% or greater. Most LED recessed lights (aka “Retrofit” LEDs) have a very wide beam angle, especially the style where the lens is not very recessed into the fixture. While this is great for spreading light, just remember that too wide of angle can cause excessive glare when looking across a ceiling.