Monday, February 29, 2016

Let there be light - B&M Ixon IQ Premium review

Something tells me that winter is not coming back this season. This something is a swarm of seasonal cyclists, who normally show up back on the Minuteman Bikeway in early April. This year's abnormally warm temperatures made them pour out onto the bike path realizing - "Hey, it's warm enough to ride a bike again!".

Let's admit it - bicycling is seasonal for majority of the population. Most people don't ride their bikes in winter, or when it's dark. But those who do, may find the next few paragraphs useful.

About a year ago, I wrote about the new problem I encountered while riding my bike on Minuteman Bikeway, in later fall and winter season. The Bikeway is not illuminated and runs through a forested area, which means that it's really dark in places. If you find yourself there late evening in December, you will want to have a decent headlight on your bicycle. Otherwise, I can't picture how you would navigate in pitch black, provided you're not a bat.

Fortunately, many bicyclists I encounter on the road over there use decent lights. Unfortunately, most of those are either too bright, aimed too high or simply said - illuminating everything around, including tree tops. This means - you get blinded every time you pass such cyclists.

For the last several years I have been using a small Planet Bike Blaze 2-Watt headlight. It's small, simple, runs on 2 AA batteries (a feature I like a lot) and is powerful just enough to brighten up the path at night - as long as you're not racing. However, it does have some shortcomings. The beam is quite narrow, the reflector is lacking and too much light gets focused (or actually, not focused at all) not on the path in front of bicycle but everything above it.
Planet Bike Blaze 2-Watt light mounted on my Schwinn's handlebars (Yes, it's mounted upside-down as this was the only way it could be done).

Also, like most headlights, Blaze comes with a standard handlebar mount, which presents a major problem in my situation. Not only the swept-back handlebars on my Schwinn have nearly no space for the light to be mounted on (due to the bar's curved shape) but I also use a front-mounted basket now, which completely blocks any bar-mounted lights.

For these reasons, last November I started looking for another solution. I knew that I wanted to get one that would check the following marks on my list:
  • Should be ideally fork-crown mounted and stay away from the handlebars
  • Should be more powerful than my current light
  • Should have a wider beam pattern
  • Should have a well-designed reflector with horizontal cut-off to limit blinding of other cyclists
  • Should be powered with AA batteries (Because I have a stash of the always-excellent, rechargeable Sanyo Eneloops at home)
There are hundreds of bike headlights with more light power, many with wider beam patterns, some that are powered by AA batteries and not dedicated packs and only a few that come with dedicated fork crown mounts. But if you add to this list a reflector with a horizontal cut-off, you won't have many options to choose from. Most manufacturers (and notably American ones) design their headlights mainly for the maximum power output. That's why you can easily find 1000-lumen death rays that illuminate path in front of your bike up to the next village, both sides of the road and the starry sky above. This may be useful if you are riding to work through a remote countryside of Oklahoma or deep forests of Oregon. But in urban Boston, it makes little sense.

Because of my requirements, I quickly realized that I will have the best chance of success buying a German-made light. That's because of Stra├čenverkehrszulassungsordnung or simply said: StVZO (Let's hope this one won't break your tongue). StVZO is the German road traffic permit regulation that established guidelines what a legal bicycle headlight (and many other things as well) should be like. This is why German-made headlights are designed to be bright-enough to see and be seen while not blinding other road users. Those 1000+ lumen Death Star rays you can buy in USA are therefore illegal in German urban traffic.

To get to the point (finally), I bought a Busch & Muller Ixon IQ Premium headlight to replace my old Blaze and in general, I'm very happy with it.
Ixon IQ comes in two versions. The Premium  offers double the light output (80lux vs. 40lux) for double the price ($110 vs. $55). But it also provides a much wider beam pattern that I was looking for. You can learn more about the differences between both lights from this video:
The best news (at least for me) is that the Premium ticks all the boxes on my list, provided you purchase the additional fork crown mount ($12), which I did. Interestingly, I found out that my old Blaze 2-Watt light fits in this mount as well, which makes it a perfect backup light should my Ixon run our of power.

Ixon IQ Premium is a fairly compact and lightweight headlamp outputting 80lux of light for 5hrs or 15lux for 20hrs (per manufacturer's website). I'm not going to describe in great detail how the beam pattern and light output compare to other lights on market because this would not only require making lots of measurements  on a special test rig, but also owning a bunch of different headlights that I don't have. Instead, I'm going to share some of my observations from the first 3 months of use.

Ixon IQ is made entirely out of plastics but it actually feels pretty solid in hand. One of the first things you may notice is that looking at the reflector, you won't see any LED there. While most bicycle headlights place a powerful LED in the center, Ixon IQ uses a very different approach. The small LED is hidden in the upper side of the reflector and faced down. This means the Ixon IQ relies on the reflector to do the job and direct the beam onto road. This is why light from this lamp lands where is supposed to. You won't be illuminating tree tops anymore.
The Ixon IQ light features a swing-open compartment for 4 standard AA batteries. You can buy it in a more expensive version with NiMH rechargeable batteries and a dedicated charger. Should you go this way, there is a port at the underside of the lamp where you can plug in the charger directly. No need to remove the batteries from the lamp at all.
There is only 1 button on the top of the light. Holding it for a while turns the light on/off, while pressing it quickly switches between low and high beam modes. The diode next to the switch blinks either red/green in low mode or green only in high. You will also get a warning (blinking red) when batteries run low. You won't find any blinking light modes in Ixon IQ - these are illegal according to StVZO.

In terms of the light output, Ixon IQ Premium is simply fantastic. I can't picture needing more light in the city, however, for those in rural Oklahoma, 80 lux isn't going be enough. My first impression after turning the light on was very positive but it took me a while to get used to its beam. It's clearly different than most bike headlights. Unlike most lamps that feature a center-mounted LED and a torch-like beam pattern, Ixon IQ's beam is shaped by the reflector so it ends abruptly at a set distance in front of you. There is not much of a gradual fade out - something you would be familiar with while riding with traditional headlights. It's good and bad at the same time. Good, because you get a much more defined beam and you're not blinding others. Bad, because if you angle the light too low and ride too fast in pitch black conditions, you won't have any indication about unlit objects suddenly showing up in front of you, and you may (nearly) crash into them. Ask me how I know.

Regarding the run time on four AA batteries, I typically get around close to 6 hours of riding on higher beam output. This is well in spec with manufacturer-listed 5 hours and perfectly acceptable for urban riding. In fact, I usually recharge the batteries every weekend, after using the high beam for 1 hour on every workday.

To sum up, if you are looking for a decent headlight for urban riding with well-defined beam shape, that can be fork crown-mounted and will run on standard AA batteries - give Ixon IQ Premium a chance. Just keep in mind that for mountain biking in a deep, dark forest you will still need to pack your death ray.

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