- by Michael Bachman
- Published: 15 July 2013
With a full time job, a family, and the winter solstice, making decent riding time means that the weekday rides are scheduled when the traffic dies down a bit and the daily chores are done. This inevitably means that it’s dark when I ride, so a bright and dependable light is of vital importance to me – not only to see with, but to be easily seen by all other users on or near the roads. My MagicShine light set has been serving me well for a few years now, so I relished the opportunity to compare it to a new light set in the same price range, to see what improvements have been made.
ES501 Gamma Ray Headlight
The ES501 front light is a slim black/silver torpedo shaped unit. At 105mm long and 40mm wide, it has a pretty small footprint, but within this small package is a very bright and well focused beam to light the way. My rides are usually well lit, but on our unlit city and country roads, good light output is paramount.
The Gamma Ray has 4 ‘continuous on’ modes, with the brightest aptly named “Overdrive”. After that, in order of decreasing brightness (in increments of ~ 25%) is a high, medium and low, with a flashing mode that appears to be the same intensity as overdrive/high with a flash rate around the 100 Hz level. The light output is generated by a CREE XP-G (R5) high brightness LED. When a brand wants to demonstrate quality and reliability they use CREE brand LEDs and I can say that it is bright.
For the majority of my riding on lit roads, the ‘medium’ continuous illumination level worked well to provide suitable illumination of the road ahead, as well as providing a more than reasonable warning for approaching road users. In the ‘medium’ setting, the ‘low battery level’ indicator housed in the switch turned from steady blue to flashing red indicating that it was starting to run out of charge after about 3 hours of use. It lasted a further 2 hours before completely running out of puff, but in the last hour the light output was more akin to the light intensity seen from a VW beetle with a 6V system. The battery is a single Li-Ion cell that is rated at 3.7V and 2300mAh. It’s removable from the light itself which is actually quite handy as rechargeable batteries have a limited lifespan; you can replace this one.
ES501 Gamma Ray Low Beam (top right with blue light)
ES501 Gamma Ray High Beam (top right with blue light)
The ‘overdrive’ setting (rated at 500 Lumens from the literature) proved to be more than adequate when descending unlit hills that I was familiar with. It provided good penetration and reasonable side illumination. The downside of using this mode was that the indicator started to flash red within about 90 minutes, before finally extinguishing after another hour. The flashing mode had a similar life to the steady beam on ‘medium’ mode, but was only really practical for daylight usage; the brightness of the flash and, in particular the blink rate, was too distracting. Casting a passing thought for oncoming traffic, if the light is poorly aimed, it would also be very disconcerting. I’d like to see a dual flashing mode combining steady low/flashing high rather than 4 different ‘steady’ settings. I really appreciated the single extended push to turn off, regardless of the mode you are in at the time.
Modern roads bikes increasingly incorporate the gear & brake cables under the handlebar tape, which makes the handlebar mount that the Gamma Ray uses difficult to mount effectively or easily. Coupled with ovalised handlebars, the available mounting positions are indeed restricted. In order to fit the typical 31.8mm diameter handlebars, the supplied rubber pads needed to be removed which can lead to unsightly cosmetic damage to the paint or surface finish of the bars. Additionally, the over-center locking mechanism used in the light, whilst providing adequate clamping force, didn’t actually function as such. Another gripe I had with the mount was that the locking lever had to be fully unscrewed to fit over the bars, and then screwed back up again. Way too fiddly, especially compared to many of the silicone strap based systems that are much simpler and just as robust.
The Gamma Ray is chargeable via the supplied USB cable from a computer outlet, or with the supplied 240V plug adapter Time to recharge from either source is the same, about 4 – 5 hours from empty to fully charged.
ES501 Gamma Ray Presentation Package
ES601 Beacon rear light
The Beacon rear tail light is a neat package with a centered high power LED which is VERY bright and focused. It has substantial side visibility, which is always a bonus.
The light features 3 ‘constant on’ (steady) modes with various intensities, from pretty bright to retina scorching, and two flash modes (at the almost retina burning level) with a frequency of 180Hz and about 120 Hz. In viewing the fast flash mode from a drivers perspective, it is unpleasant to be behind – it’s almost as if the flash rate is too fast, and with the brightness of the light it’s even worse.
This is where the mounting angle of such rear lights is very important, and it’s where the supplied mount works very well. It is fastened to the rear seat post via a silicone strap arrangement, and has a quick release clamp for the light unit itself. The key feature of the mount is an indexed angle adjustment with very positive detents so that the light can be aimed to enhance its visibility, but also so that it won’t dazzle/annoy those coming up behind you. A side bonus is that due to the brightness and spread of the light generated, the rear of the bike is lit up well.
The silicone based strap works well, but may struggle on some of the bigger diameter (31.6mm+ for example) seat tubes. Another issue common with many tail light mounts is that cycles with the aero profile seat tubes are not catered for in the design of the mounts. This can cause the light to be skewed to one side with the consequence that the light is not angled optimally for rearward visibility. The ES601 overcomes this with a simple V-shaped rubber insert that comes with the light to ensure that it always faces rearwards. My only gripe with the rear light is with the thickness of the plastic clip that allows the light to be removed for recharging; it is a bit thin, so is susceptible to breaking if you are not careful when removing the unit for charging.
In terms of run time, there doesn’t seem to be much of a difference when running the light in different modes; it runs empty after ~ 5 hrs on slow and fast flash mode, and slightly sooner on the steady light modes. The rear light does not seem to provide a warning that impending ‘flatness’ is approaching. There is a low battery LED indicator in the light, however I often found that while it didn’t indicate a low battery at the start of a ride, by the end of it there would be no light, which is very undesirable.
The unit charges quickly from USB (only a USB cable is supplied in pack, no 240V charger) in 2 – 3 hrs, with an indicator LED flashing during charging , and then constantly on when fully charged. As with the Gamma Ray front light, the single extended push to turn off is a nice feature and lets you avoid endlessly cycling through the modes when you accidentally press it one too many times at the end of a long wet ride.
The output of these lights was more than adequate for the majority of the riding that I do, with the exception of descending unfamiliar hills at night. That’s where the MagicShine lights I normally use have the upper hand.
The beam spread of the Gamma Ray is quite sufficient, and the output is quite bright and impressive for its size. The lights are well made and easy to use, and the ability to charge via USB quickly and without fuss is a definite feature. As with the head light, the rear light is impressive with its output and brightness being a standout.
The mount for the front light is clunky and awkward to use, especially with dual control cables running under the handlebar, but the mount for the rear light is, by comparison, very good and easy to install.
Battery life is predictably shorter than some others lights, given the bright light output and compact size, so it’s a compromise made by the ES lights to favour brightness over run time.
While these lights are not cheap, they are well made and provide quality light spread and more than average brightness that makes night riding a lot less scary. I’d prefer lights that have a bit longer run time at the expense of a bigger/heavier battery as I do longer rides at night (up to 2 hours). In light of this I feel that these bicycle lights are better suited to the cycle commuters (with smaller diameter handlebars) for shorter rides, some in the dark, or cyclists that have shorter rides in their weekly ritual and appreciate the convenience of quickly recharging them while at their work desk from a computer USB port.
The Up Side :
• BRIGHT! (especially the Beacon)
• Good beam spread
• Quality construction
The Down Side :
• Fiddly and poorly designed bracket for the Gamma Ray
• Battery life not as good as expected for cost