Photo: Two excellent lights (Icon left, NAO right), but only one true love.
The One Light: by Andy Dappen
If I had to live with just one headlight, the Petzl NAO would definitely be one of them.
The Short Story
If I lived in a world where monogamy among headlamps was the social norm, I would need to divorce my long standing mate – the Black Diamond Icon. The NAO is brighter (355 lumens vs. 200 lumens), lighter (by 1.5 ounces), eco-friendlier (comes with a built-in rechargeable battery), more convenient (uses a built-in USB port for charging), and delivers steadier more cold resistant light (benefits of a lithium-ion battery). Furthermore, the ‘reactive’ lighting sets a new standard for high-quality nighttime vision. For most outdoor uses, the sensors in this light automatically adjust brightness for the vision needs at hand — whether you’re looking at your feet or scanning the horizon, the headlamp dishes out the amount of light you need. For occasions that trick the sensor (there are some), you can use the light in a constant-supply mode.
Whether you’re hiking, running, mountain biking, rock climbing, backcountry skiing or mountaineering, this is one awesome partner for the job. The big drawback: Marriages (or divorces) are always expensive and this light will set you back $175. Furthermore, even with ‘the One Light’ you’re gonna two-time. On day trips where you don’t really expect to need a headlamp, you’re going to want a lightweight, svelt mistress (like the Petzl Zipka or the Black Diamond Storm) to accompany you.
Not long ago my heart belonged to the Black Diamond Icon. For many years, it was my primary love when I need considerable candlepower to hike, climb, run, ski, or even bike at night. Now the Petzl NAO (pictured right) has replaced the Icon.
Let me bullet the reasons:
- More candlepower (355 lumens vs. 200 lumens) for less weight (7 ounces with batteries vs. 8.5 ounce with batteries.)
- Better battery (lithium-ion rechargeable battery vs. AAs of your choice which will likely be nickel metal hydride batteries that don’t hold as much charge or have the cold-weather performance of the lithium-ion).
- More convenient to ‘top off.’You can plug the NAO right into a USB port without needing to remove the batteries.
- Better head strap and better balance. The NAO’s cord system looks funky but it adjusts faster, and holds the light more securely without any bounce. Furthermore its balance of weight is very even – the Icon is battery-pack heavy on the back of the head.
- Better quality of light. The NAO, depending on the mode you’re in, delivers strong light through a diffuser or strong light through both a diffuser and a spotlight burning together. For my dark activities (hiking, running, rock climbing, mountain biking, backcountry skiing) I really liked the diffused light forming a globe of light around me that didn’t have hot spots and that gave me much better peripheral vision. And when I needed to see far, the bright spotlight had real long-range penetration of the darkness. The Icon gives you either weak diffused light for camp and tent use, or a bright spotlight for travel. The Icon gives you functional light but it only takes a minute of use to realize the NAO delivers much better light that is particularly valuable for balance sports (nighttime mountain biking, skiing, or mountaineering).
Photo: The Icon has been knocked down a peg, but is still a good choice as a do-everything light.
Apart from these bullet points, the techie feature that differentiates the NAO from the Icon and almost every other light on the market is the ‘reactive’ lighting that can be used in either a high or a low power setting. In reactive mode, a sensor on the light determines how much light is needed. If you’re looking into the distance (and reflected light doesn’t return to the sensor), the light powers up to let you see far. If you’re looking at a map or your feet and reflected light comes back in high or medium doses, the light responds in kind to give you an appropriate amount of light that lets you see well without toasting your retinas. This keeps you from fiddling with different power settings, maximizes battery life, and quickly becomes the way you like your light delivered.
This is smart lighting compared to stupid lighting and most of the time the NAO immediately gave me the amount of light I liked. Rock climbing, for example, was quite remarkable in reactive mode. I could find hand and footholds next to me without frying my eyes; then look far up the cliff and see where the crack system (or line of bolts) was taking me. This made nighttime rock climbing almost as easy as daytime climbing. Speed sports like nighttime mountain bike or ski descents, were the exception to the rule: For these activities it’s hard to have too much light and I preferred putting the light on the high setting in ‘constant-supply’ mode and letting both bulbs (spotlight and diffuser bulb) burn together.
Where did this light fall short?
- Price. Suggested retail is $175 (ouch!). Even though the street price is about $150, you’ll pay about twice as much to own the NAO. If you’re cash shy, the Icon is an excellent light for $80.
- The NAO is still nowhere near as bright as heavier bike lights. Many of those lights disgorge 800 and 1500 lumens compared to the 355 lumens of the NAO. Mountain biking with NAO worked fine but it I needed to ride at about two-thirds speed not to overdrive my light – fine for some of us but not bright enough for a dedicated mountain biker who wants to charge.
- One question mark I can’t answer is the durability of the NAO. At the time of this writing I’ve given the light six months of use compared to the years of use my Icon has received. On the NAO I’ve already broken one plastic cap attaching the power cord to the battery pack. I was at fault for twisting the cap in the wrong direction, but the cap shattered easily. Duct tape has repaired the problem temporarily but easy failure of a critical connector shouldn’t occur in a $175 light. Given that failure, I torqued and pried on all other parts of the light and feel like it is solidly built save the connector I already destroyed.
In the final analysis, the NAO is the best do-it-all light I’ve found. All lights make compromises over matters of weight, bulk, cost, battery size, burn time, power usage, bulb types, light delivery, methods of attachment, and more. The NAO has found a sweet spot that may make it the best choice out there for some applications (mountaineering, rock climbing, Nordic skiing) and a good choice for many other applications (bicycling, mountain biking, downhill skiing) .
Of course no sensible red-blooded outdoor user can be completely fulfilled by the NAO. Even if the NAO is your One Love, you’ll want a lighter, compact mistress as an emergency light for those occasions when you don’t expect to need a light but want to be prepared for the unexpected.
First Published: January 2014
April 2015 Update — Since publishing this story the brightness and the battery life of the NAO-2 has been boosted, The new NAO delivers 575 lumens of light and gives you almost identical burn times. The price has also been boosted to $185.