Fenix HL21 Headlamp
+ 8/10 Great Gear
+ Great thrower
+ Moderate price
+ Useful diffuser
+ Excellent runtime
– Fiddly operation
Just imagine you’ve travelled in a time machine to more than one hundred years ago when the best led flashlight was not yet on the market.
You land in the laboratory of a company which has just invented a battery-powered light. The possibilities are enormous. This is a light source, more powerful than a candle-powered lamp, which can be carried around everywhere. There are two schools of thought in the lab. The first argues that a light is meant to be held in the hand, as people have this done for centuries.
The more unconventional colleagues are in favour of strapping the light to the user’s head. They maintain this would be especially useful for those working in the dark, as they would then have both hands free. Police or army personnel would have both hands free for defensive or offensive purposes. Fishermen, whether at sea or on land, would also benefit. Those among the working classes who travel by bicycle could see all the dangerous potholes ahead. In fact, they argue, why should anyone hold a light, if the head-worn variety automatically points in the direction you want to illuminate? There’s not really much to think about, is there?
It is therefore rather surprising that hand-held flashlights prevailed for decades, and headlampers, until recently, were regarded as niche customers and had only a few specialist companies to choose from. Things have changed, however, and these days you can spend almost as much time looking for your ideal headlamp as you would for a conventional flashlight.
Some traditional torch makers have jumped on the bandwagon and now offer their own headlamps to compete with their specialist competitors. Fenix has been especially active in this regard, and their HL21 headlamp is their latest offering aimed at the general user.
Specifications/Features (taken from the Fenix website)
The Fenix HL21 headlamp can be powered by a single AA, a rechargeable Ni-MH equivalent or a lithium battery, but not by a 14500 lithium rechargeable battery.
- Length: 64.3mm / 2.53in
- Width: 50mm / 1.97in
- Height: 38.5mm / 1.51in
- Weight: 49.5g / 1.75oz (excluding battery)
The light also has the following features:
- LED: Cree XP-E LED (R2)
- Materials: lighting head made out of aircraft grade aluminium (this is material which use for tactical flashlight such as streamlight tlr-1 hl)
- Anodising: type III anti-abrasive finish
- Waterproof: IPX-8, submersible for up to 30 minutes at a depth of two metres
The Fenix Headlamp HL21 comes in a hard transparent plastic packaging with a Chinese and English manual, an adjustable headband and a diffuser lens.
The lamp makes a good impression overall. It is very easy to fit the headband and it feels comfortable to wear. There is no overhead strap.
The single AA battery is housed in a tube under the light. The battery cap is screwed on very tightly but once you have loosened this, it is not necessary to close it as tightly for the lamp to work.
The light also has a ratchet-like adjustment facility which enables you to focus it in six different positions. The easiest way to do this is to grip either side of the battery case between your thumb and forefinger and twist up or down until the desired position clicks into place. This worked very well – at least it did in my warm, well-lit living room.
The HL21 is operated from a switch at the side of the battery case. Press to switch on. The modes follow the order low, medium and high. To go to the next modes, press the switch for more than one second. The headlamp automatically memorises the last mode used.
The HL also has an SOS mode. To access this, you have to switch on the light in any mode and quickly press the switch twice. It is not possible to access the SOS function from off mode. I found it positive that the (hopefully) rarely-used SOS mode does not get in the way of the other light outputs.
Fenix Headlamp offers a replacement for faulty lamps within 15 days of purchase and a two-year free repair service.
HL 21 Output and Runtime:
- Maximum: 97 lumens (2h 3mins)
- Medium: 47 lumens (5h 43 mins)
- Low: 3 lumens (53h)
- SOS: no information available
I tried this on maximum mode with both an alkaline battery from Duracell and a refreshed and fully-charged 2500mAh rechargeable battery. The Fenix site puts the runtime at just over two hours.
My rechargeable battery managed 90 minutes before reverting to medium.
The head became hot to touch (you can hold it for 10 seconds). In real life this will not be a problem. The switch remains cool and you can still adjust the headlamp, however hot the head becomes. More importantly, the distance between the headband and the light means you will not be roasting your forehead.
Even if you allow for the fact that torch companies test the runtime under ‘ideal’ conditions, i.e. ideal for them, this runtime is excellent for a single AA battery.
For environment destroyers, the alkaline battery managed to power the light for just over an hour, at which point it reverted to medium. To be fair, Fenix recommends rechargeable AAs, and alkaline batteries should only be regarded as an emergency solution.
Fenix puts the lighting distance at 93 metres on max. Dream on! Some 18650 torches do not accomplish this in the real world!
I was, however, very surprised when testing the maximum mode. The Fenix HL21 headlamp is definitely a thrower and managed to light more than 55 metres – further than any 1AA light we have tested so far. In terms of beam distance, the 90 lumens quoted by Fenix actually out-performs other single AA lights boasting up to 200 lumens.
Furthermore, the light’s performance at longer distances does not mean that you will be making great sacrifices for close-up or medium work as the beam has a good mixture of spill and spot.
Admittedly, the HL does not illuminate every blade of grass at a distance of 10 metres away, unlike its floodier competitors, but you will see everything you need to.
On the medium mode of 43 lumens, I did not notice much difference in the lighting distance when comparing it with the maximum. There were perhaps a few metres difference and a little less light for closer distances, but it certainly did not feel like half the light output.
When you consider that the advertised runtime is not far off six hours, the medium mode would be a sensible option for those out in the field for longer periods.
Anybody who has a collection of flashlights will also probably have a whole host of accessories in the kitchen drawer saved for the rainy day which never comes: glow-in-the-dark caps, clips, lanyards etc.
The HL21’s diffuser should not be placed in this category. In fact, I have not removed it at all (except for testing purposes) since first attaching it several weeks ago.
The diffuser twists on to the head of the lamp and has a cap which you can flick open or close to alternate between a spill and spot beam. I cannot imagine the diffuser ever working itself loose. On the contrary, it is rather difficult to remove without a series of tugs and twists.
So why do you need it? Just to give one example, the HL21 on low non-diffuser mode could be used for searching in dark rooms. If you close the diffuser cap, the headlamp is easily converted into a read-in-the dark or work-under-the-car light.
One possible weakness is that it does appear rather fragile. It will survive a fall on soft ground, but a stony path could cause some damage, although I have not tested this.
Cycling / Jogging
When I’m cycling on unlit paths, I normally use my rather old Olight m20 Warrior on medium mode. This is more than adequate even on unfamiliar terrain.
I was therefore surprised that the HL21 on max has an almost identical beam (in length and width) to that of the m20 on medium.
When you consider that the m20 is a much bigger light powered by a far more powerful battery, this will perhaps give you an idea of how the flashlight world has progressed in the last couple of years.
I would recommend the HL21 for cycling and jogging with some reservations. The medium output is very good for both activities, and you could even use the low mode for jogging along a familiar path.
However, the ease of operation, performed in the comfort of my home, proved to be more complicated when I was on the move outside. While cycling with the HL21 I tried adjusting the beam wearing gloves and found it rather hit-and-miss.
I did, however, find this much easier when jogging without gloves.
In addition, the small switch made changing modes rather frustrating for both activities, especially when wearing gloves.
Admittedly, joggers would probably set the beam and light level before they start running, and would not need to adjust either of these while in motion.
I never fail to marvel at the ever-increasing output achieved by light manufacturers, but this headlamp surprised me more than most.
After comparing it with other lights, I was unsure whether Fenix had understated the number of lumens for the HL21 or whether other companies had overstated theirs. Whatever the case, a mere 90 lumens will give you more beam distance than a lot of other competitors with a lot more lumens.
In addition, a runtime of 90 minutes on maximum competes with lights running on 2 AA batteries. Moreover, although the light does get hot on maximum, the heat is never transferred to your head.
The diffuser supplied also increases the flexibility of the HL21, turning the hotspot beam into a floodier alternative, and its negligible size and weight make it a useful extra for those who travel light.
Nevertheless, the user interface could have been more user-friendly. Perhaps a bigger switch (or one which protruded more) or an infinitely adjustable beam facility would have been more beneficial, particularly for cyclists.
It has to be said, though, that Fenix particularly recommends the headlamp for hiking, camping and reading and I have to agree. For these activities, the flexibility of output when using the diffuser, and the modest price could make the Fenix HL21 headlamp a worthwhile choice.