Old-fashioned halogen, incandescent, and fluorescent lights aboard a cruising yacht often form a major part of her power usage, and making the change to LED lights – both for interior lighting and for navigation lights – has the potential to make an enormous difference to the cruiser’s lifestyle. Whilst many people have already made the change, there are still plenty of yachts with inefficient and power-hungry lights.
We have met several cruisers who sit in dimly-lit cabins or even use candles in order to save power. I once asked a French yachtsman why his cabin was so dimly lit. “We have to choose between light and music,” he replied. “So of course, we choose music.” After talking to us our friend replaced the 10W halogen bulb above his saloon table with a brighter, longer-lasting, and less power-hungry LED replacement bulb, and he is now able to enjoy light all night long – and music at the same time.
In our search for the perfect LED lights, we have tried many different products. Most of the commercially available marine lights are both tacky and incredibly expensive, whilst most of the (relatively) cheap Chinese household products are unreliable and short-lived. Although we still haven’t found anything we’d call perfect, there is one particular company with which we have only had good experience – Bebi Electronics. Some time ago we reviewed Bebi’s ‘Fautasi’; a handcrafted wooden LED cabin light intended as a replacement for fluorescent strip lights. Now we have been given the opportunity to test another new Bebi light; the ‘Vonu’. This one is intended to replace incandescent/halogen dome lights.
Bebi is a small business in Fiji, run by two American yachtsmen and one Fijian, producing products specifically designed for fellow cruisers. Their lights are all handmade by local employees, and they are built to a very high standard to cope with the rigours of marine life. Most of their lights will work one metre underwater – though as Bebi point out on their website, you may have other concerns if your cabin lights are actually one meter underwater!
More importantly, Bebi’s lights (unlike many supposedly marine products) are current-regulated so that the variations in the voltage of the boat’s battery bank won’t damage the incredibly sensitive LEDs; Bebi’s lights can take anything from 9V to 15V.
All of Bebi’s products have a lifetime warranty, covering all causes of failure other than voltages in excess of 15V. And – in stark contrast to some of the companies we’ve bought lights from – the company is a dream to deal with. They even go so far as to offer advice on any electrical problems you may have on your boat, regardless of whether they are related to LED lights.
The Bebi ‘Vonu’
Bebi’s latest light, the ‘Vonu’ (a Fijian word meaning turtle), is a beautiful product. Handcrafted from Fijian hardwood, it certainly looks nicer than most light fittings. Whilst most of Bebi’s lights are meant to be mounted inside an existing housing, this one is intended to be screwed straight onto the deckhead.
Peeking out from the wooden shell are 24 LEDs. 12 of these are arranged in a star pattern on the flat, downward-facing part of the light, whilst the remaining six pairs are on the bevelled edges, thus widening the angle of the light cone and illuminating a larger area.
Unlike many of Bebi’s lights, the Vonu has a built-in switch (and as a result, it is not submersible like most of the other lights, though this is unlikely to be a concern for an interior light…). The switch has three positions (including off): either the entire light can be illuminated, or just the outer ring of 12 LEDs. This creates a useful dimming function – whilst the light is normally used on it’s full brightness, when at sea we usually have it dimmed to protect the watchkeeper’s night vision.
We didn’t use the Vonu to directly replace one of our existing lights, instead installing it in a new position. Located above the inboard end of our aft saloon bench, approximately in the centre of the main cabin, the Vonu has become our primary saloon light whilst at sea. Alone, it doesn’t provide enough light to comfortably illuminate the whole cabin, but at sea this is not normally necessary and we usually use only the Vonu and one of our chart table lights (on our chart table we have two Bebi Rinorino 12-LED spot lights). Very often the Vonu is on its dim setting. This is more than adequate on a dark night for the watchkeeper to make a cup of tea or coffee in the galley, the other side of the cabin, without being bright enough to significantly damage the night vision of someone in the cockpit.
I also find the dim setting perfectly adequate to sit and read by – however, since there is a dark spot directly beneath the light (because only the outer ring of LEDs is illuminated when using the dim setting), it is more comfortable to read slightly to one side rather than directly below it. The older members of the crew prefer to use the full brightness when reading.
Warm vs Cool
There is an ongoing debate regarding the optimum ‘colour temperature’ for interior lights. Whilst we often think of ‘white’ as being a specific, pure colour, in reality the term covers a wide range of colours, just as ‘blue’ and ‘red’ are generic terms covering a range of colours. In lighting, the terms ‘cool’ and ‘warm’ are used to refer to different shades of white light. ‘Cool white’ refers to a very pure white, which often looks quite blue to the human eye, whilst ‘warm white’ refers to a yellower colour. Whilst incandescent and halogen bulbs, and to a greater extent kerosene lamps and candles, produce a warm white light; fluorescent lights, and very often LED lights, produce a very cold white light. The ‘best’ shade of white light is very subjective and largely a matter of personal preference, and one very quickly gets used to whatever lights one uses and feels that anything else is ‘wrong’.
Bebi produces two shades of light, ‘natural’ and ‘warm’. Their ‘natural’ white is somewhere between the normal ‘cool’ and ‘warm’ lights, and seems to be a reasonable compromise between the more comfortable ‘warm’ shade and the harsher but brighter-seeming ‘cool’ shade. In the past the Bebi lights we have bought have all been their ‘natural’ variety, whilst our other LED lights have all been cool white. For this review, however, Bebi chose to send us a warm white light, which gave us a chance to compare the different colours.
Being used to cool and ‘natural’ white lights, our first reaction upon turning the warm white Vonu on was “Yuck! That’s very yellow!” The yellow colour also gives the appearance of being dimmer than an equivalent cool white light.
However, in testing, all of us found it easier to read under the warm white Vonu than under the cool white Chinese LED light, despite the fact that the latter was brighter. Furthermore, after using both lights for a while, we all now prefer the Vonu’s warm colour to the cool white lights – which just goes to show how subjective the colour preference is!
Though we did not eventually use it as a replacement for the existing Chinese LED lights above our saloon table, we did temporarily install the Vonu alongside one of the existing lights in order to make a comparison between the two products. While we were about it, we also compared the lights to a 25W halogen light. This is a somewhat unrealistic test, as few cruisers have enough power to use 25W interior lights, and it is much more common to use 10W halogen bulbs. However, we didn’t have one of the latter, and thought the 25W bulb would still make an interesting comparison.
The comparison between the Vonu and the Chinese light is complicated by the fact that the Vonu we were testing is a very warm white, whilst the Chinese light is a fairly cold white. This makes the difference in brightness appear more significant than it really is, since warmer lights look dimmer, though in reality it is actually more comfortable and easier to read under the warmer light.
As can be seen from the photos below, the Vonu is not as bright as the Chinese light. This is not unexpected, since the Vonu is rated as having an output of just 12 lumens, whilst the Chinese light has a rated output of 120 lumens! I don’t totally understand the way lights are rated, but the difference in light output appears to the eye to be nowhere near this ten-fold difference; the Vonu appears perhaps half as bright as the Chinese light.
However, it should also be noted that the Vonu’s power consumption of 96mA (1.15W @ 12V) is less than half the 200mA (2.4W @ 12V) used by the Chinese light, so it would hardly be fair to expect both to have the same brightness.
As I commented in our last review; don’t assume that the light which produces the most glare is the best at lighting the surface below. In fact, the opposite is often the case – and furthermore, the glare from the white Chinese light is rather unpleasant and distracting.
The following photos show a closeup of the area directly beneath the two lights, showing that the difference is less than it appears when looking at the glare around the light itself – and in fact, the Vonu seems brighter.
I don’t think the Vonu would be bright enough to directly replace the Chinese lights above our saloon table – not because the light beneath them isn’t bright enough, but because these lights have to light up the whole cabin, which the Vonu doesn’t really do. I think if we wanted to light our saloon entirely with Vonus we would probably need four.
That said, the Vonu makes a very valuable addition to our cabin lighting, because whilst at sea the other lights are simply too bright to use, blinding the watchkeeper. The Vonu’s more diffused light and it’s dimming function make it much less distracting. Even in harbour we often use the Vonu instead of one of the other lights, because it produces a much less harsh light than the Chinese lights.
Price and Quality
Like most of Bebi’s lights, the Vonu’s only drawback is it’s price. At US$64.25 (around £42 or €52) for the switched version, or US$57.25 (around £37 or €46) for the unswitched version without the dimming function, it would be rather expensive to kit the whole boat out with these lights. That said, the quality of the lights is excellent and they are built to withstand the harsh marine environment – and they have a lifetime warranty to back that up. The cheap-and-cheerful Chinese lights might only cost a third of the price of Bebi’s lights, but they certainly don’t last – so in the long run, they’ll probably end up costing us the same or more.
We have 11 Bebi lights inside our boat – in addition to our bicolour, stern, and anchor lights – and we are very happy with all of them. The Vonu is the best yet.
We also have a few Chinese lights, some of which aren’t working properly and will need to be replaced soon. Unfortunately Bebi still don’t produce a light bright enough for our primary saloon lights – or we’d certainly be buying more Bebi lights. As it is, the search is still on for a light which matches Bebi’s quality and customer service, but produces more light. If we find something, we’ll be reviewing it here – and if you know of something, please let us know! In the meantime, Bebi certainly produces the best lights we’ve come across, with the friendliest staff.