As of a few years ago, 2.75 years to be exact, I started riding in the wee hours of the morning, when most sane people are asleep. The by-product of this level of insanity is you end up spending a lot of time in the dark and, as a result, I have played around with different lights to try and find the right blend of seeing and being seen.
First up, there’s a lot of hype around lights, as there is with most things bike related these days. The fundamentals though are pretty basic, all lights sit in one of two camps – lights that let you see (‘throwers’) and lights that let you be seen (‘spreaders’). Generally a light that’s good at one is not that great at the other, for nothing more than the simple reason of physics i.e., a light that’s focused to a point up ahead, as in the case of a ‘thrower’, can’t have a good close proximity spread. The sort of light you use really depends on the sort of riding you do.
I started off with a Smart ‘Egg White’ LED light, paired with a Smart Lunar R2 LED. Small, light, out of the way and on lit night streets, all I really needed. If you are riding lit or semi lit bike paths in the dark, I’d say this sort of set up is all anyone needs, as it creates enough of a ground light to illuminate the dark spots and are just bright enough to make attentive others aware you are there… somewhere. What I found though riding on roads (as opposed to bike paths), was while the wee lights were enough for me, they were nowhere near enough for the idiots in cars a.k.a. the vast majority with little or no attention span. While the lights let me ‘see’ well enough, on the road they were not even close to being up to the task of letting me be seen.
Enter the ‘bitumen melter’.
After some time I decided it was time to up the ante; obviously me ‘seeing’ was not the problem but being seen seemed to be. So I bought an 850 Lumen (approx. 500W) ‘bitumen melter’, otherwise known as the FYXO ‘King Bright. Without a doubt it was, and still is, a mental light, especially after the little 2W Smart Light I had been using. The ‘King Bright’ throws light so far down the road that even at half tilt, any street sign at least 50m away is lit up like a Christmas tree. What I found though after a year of using it was:
1. While far ahead people saw me coming, drivers closer in didn’t, especially if they were not directly in front of me.
2. The light on half strength flash mode was still bight enough to annoy those in front of it and I even copped some abuse from iders coming the other way.
3. In flash mode, I started to develop ‘flash spots’ in my eyes from the light bouncing off the cable housing.
So while I loved the ‘King Bright’, and still do in certain applications (such as off road), I really wanted, no, needed, something that offered more all round visibility and was ‘easier’ on my own eyes.
Here cometh the Orfos Bike Light.
Orfos lights started as one of those Kickstarter campaigns that did rather well. The pitch was that Orfos lights were to be the ultimate commuting light (more on at bit later). With the front rated to 500 lumens and the rear to 300, brightness-wise they were on par with a lot of other lights on the market. What set the idea behind them apart was, unlike all other lights, they had been engineered from the ground up to to rethink the way a light should work and in doing so aimed to provide a 360º field, or ‘bubble’, of illumination. Orfos was claiming this diffusion when combined with the claimed output, would provide an automobile-like presence on the road. All this was then to be packaged in a fully waterproof, mil-spec (military specification) package with an enclosed rechargeable battery and a magnetic mounting system.
Suffice to say, I plopped down for a set and hoped for the best.
Fast forward a few months and the box turns up and, like a kiddy, I unpacked them and promptly Instagrammed the arrival.
Unboxing is always fun
In the box…
What arrived was, as promised, a front and a rear light. Four ‘death’ magnets (two bikes or whatever), 2 usb cables and a raft of very high quality zip ties.
First hand impression was the design was exactly as promised. Unlike any light on the market, the LED system, battery and switch are fully encased in a crystal clear, resin/silicone case. This patent pending design is also the lens so “…rather than being diffused, light is guided through the optical system to spread out more efficiently. This effectively matches the appearance of a car at night with similar lumens and the extremely wide angle light distribution.” Located on the top is the on/off/mode selection switch and next to that is the micro USB charging port. In all, a very tidy package with a somewhat military design feel to it – that is, form follows function.
The magnets supplied as the fitting system are of the rare earth variety. If you don’t know what those are, basically rare earth magnets could be used for scaling a bridge – no shit. Being the strongest form of magnets available, once attached they are very difficult to un-attach. The magnets packaged with the Orfos are enclosed in a rubbery covering to prevent slippage or scratching and each has three holes passing through them, allowing for a firm attachment to post or head tube via the supplied zip ties. Overall, once attached, the lights are clean and unobtrusive with the enviable ability of having the simplest attachment and removal of any light on the market – simply twist/lift off to remove or place on the magnet to attach; nothing to tie, snap or break. And if you’re wondering, once on the lights do not budge. At all. Rich even found it was possible to use one magnet on the inside of his integrated seat post and still attach the light securely without using the zip ties (although this did need a second magnet on the outside of the ISP to ensure the inner magnet didn’t drop when the light was removed). He also has used the rear light mounted to the back of his helmet with no noticeable difference in how this makes the helmet feel.
This sums it up! (gif credit: Orfos Bike)
But enough of that boring stuff, how do they work out on the open road?
In the real world, Orfos lights redefine the concept of bike lights – and I do not say this lightly. Like most lights on the market there are three brightness modes, a variety of light patterns from solid through to strobe which, along with the top brightest setting, is advised for day use only; I generally settle for the middle brightness and slow pulse. As soon as you turn on the Orfos you notice the immediate effect – I have never had a rear light that not only casts light rearwards but also manages to light up the back of my legs and hence the entire rear of the bike. In the case of the rear light, it not only creates a 180º light bubble but also makes the rear of the bike and your legs (or your back, when helmet-mounted) part of the light by virtue of the fact that everything is bathed in a red glow.
The front light has the same effect, and while it can be cranked up to 500 Lumens, the middle 300 setting is more than enough for lit streets; in fact, when comparing the 300 and 500 settings from the rider’s perspective, there is very little difference in the dark. While the reflected light effect of the rear is not quite replicated for obvious reasons i.e. the light sits on the head tube, so the 180º arc does not extend back to the rider (unless out of the saddle in which case one’s knees light up!), the overall lighting effect is the same. Riding alongside cars or walls demonstrates clearly the 180º effect – it’s quite amazing to see that almost exactly at 90º to one’s right and left, you can see the transition from the rear red, to the front white. A bonus to mention here is as the front is designed to be mounted to the head tube, the stem makes it all but invisible from the rider’s perspective.
Brightness-wise, even on the middle setting the effect of the lens is enough to give you the presence of a car from the front, rear AND sides. More importantly, the light quality is so vastly different than any current bicycle light on the market that, despite the brightness, the lights are soft to look at; again achieving that same automotive light quality effect. This quality of light is an important key feature as it prevents light dazzle, both from the rider’s point of view as well as those looking at it. This ‘prevention’ stops eyes blowing out with the dreaded dazzle black spots, allowing for the retention of a good degree of darkness sensitivity and adding to the overall effectiveness of night vision, for the rider and those around them.
In practical use I have found the lights very easy to ride with, both on lit and unlit streets. Unlike any light I have used before, cars approaching from the rear now give me a noticeably wider berth, not only while they are passing but also BEFORE, indicating that the rear light is doing a brilliant job of making me a ‘seen object’ on the road with a presence, at any given angle. The front light though has required a little more getting used to.
Being a spreader rather than a thrower, the forward projection of the front light is a lot less than what I have been used to from my bitumen melting King Bright, even at the (not recommended at night) brightest setting. In exchange for a light spot projected lots of meters ahead, I now have a soft 180º spread, 2-3 meters in front of me, mostly perfect for anything other than fast descents. The light quality and wide spread feels far more like sitting behind the wheel of my car. A key point here that needs to be remembered is that the Orfos lights are designed primarily as ‘commuting’ lights, i.e. for riding on lit streets, at night and in traffic – thus are designed to make you be seen, rather than focusing on helping you ‘see’, or at least ‘see’ in terms of going way too fast, down hills in the pitch dark.
When I quizzed Peter from Orfos about this he said:
“The Flares are primarily for urban commuting and our goal was to make it the best “be seen” light out there. To do this, we really really needed to focus on what we needed the light to do. To keep lighting systems small and lightweight, they have to be tuned for the primary use. If you need it to shine forward to light your path, it will not be very visible from all angles. If you want light to shine from all angles, it will not shine very far forward. The Flares do throw enough light forward urban settings and city lights, but for those who are riding very fast or in completely unlit areas, we would recommend a throwing lamp in addition to the “be seen” Flares.”
Fair enough and totally valid! On my typical 2 hour ride, there is only one very short descent that’s dark enough for me to outpace the Orfos front light and to be honest, considering the condition of the road and the speed controls on it, I really should not try to fly down it like I do!
Rich noted that he has never used lights during the day because generally most are never strong enough to be worthwhile. With the Orfos in strobe mode, on the brightest setting, they absolutely are bright enough for daytime use – and as someone who previously thought doing so was stupid, he is now leaving his Orfos lights running, and cranked up on full to make use of this.
Buttons and bits…
But is it all perfect? One of my gripes is the current switch. Under the silicone it actually took me a little while to work out it’s a switch as the activation is quite subtle. Overall I find the tactility a little lacking especially with a full finger glove, so unless I am really concentrating, it takes a bit of effort to set the brightness and select the pattern mode. Again, from Peter when asked:
“The button is a high reliability switch often used in aircraft cockpit dashboards. They are rated for close to 5 million presses. I do completely get that issue though, and we are working with the switch manufacturer to increase the tactile response for the future though to make the feedback a little more pronounced in future versions.”
In the wet, the Orfos was not phased, nor was I until I got home and found that road grit kicked up by the tyres got into the open USB ports (probably not an issue if you are sensible and have fenders). Again though, when this was put to Peter:
“The microUSB port is a waterproof port with heavy gold plating to prevent corrosion. The product is sealed with silicone so that water can’t enter through the port. If water/dirt get in the port itself then you can rinse it out with tap water to clean it. The only thing we would warn against would be salt water, which can cause corrosion more quickly.”
And probably a big one for any system with an enclosed, unreplaceable battery – battery life. Do the batteries require full drain before recharge or can they be topped up without damaging the memory of the battery?
“The internal lithium ion batteries are LiFePO4 chemistry. This chemistry offers significantly longer lifetimes than traditional lithium ion and is inherently much safer and more reliable in harsh conditions. The chemistry is rated for a few thousand charges and there is no memory effect, so you can charge it as often as you like, whenever you like.”
Some battery stats:
Full Charge time: ~1.5 hours (usb wall charger)
Battery life: (depending on the pattern)
HIGH: 1.5-5 hours (FOR DAY USE ONLY)
MED: 4-10 hours
LOW: up to 24 Hours
At US$229 for a set (they can also be bought as a single front or rear), Orfos lights are at the premium end of the spectrum and are designed, built and marketed as such. Unlike any other light on the market though, I feel totally confident in saying that they, without a doubt, make a quantifiable difference to riding at night by transforming any rider using them from an object on the road with a pinpoint bright spot, to a fully seen one with an actual presence. Rich is the aesthete and isn’t convinced by the look of the lights or the mounting method, but even he can see beyond that because the performance and functionality far exceeds anything else!
Being designed for the demands of commuting amongst traffic, they may not be ideal for everyone in every condition, such as very fast night riding in complete darkness or off road riding, but for everyone else and dare I say it, that would be the vast majority of riders, they are more than a light, they should be a prerequisite safety device.
See more at orfos.bike