Hands-on Gear Review
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Pros: Bright, wide, spotlight, clear/smooth optics, long battery life, robust design
Cons: Heavy, bulky, and expensive
Best Uses: Any situation where a bright beam, durability, and long battery life is more important than weight
Manufacturer: Black Diamond
The Black Diamond Icon is the highest scoring headlamp in our tests and our Top Pick for Trail Finding due to its unique combination of a 80 meter beam distance and excellent battery life. It offers a bright wide beam that has excellent optics, providing an evenly lit light that was one of our favorites for trail finding, and also a favorite in low-setting for around the campsite. While heavy and bulky compared to most headlamps, and this limitation will rule it out for ultralight backpackers, it offers excellent battery life powered by 4 AA batteries in a durable waterproof package. The Black Diamond Icon is one of the most popular serious headlamps out there (in the category of headlamps that take 3 or 4 AA batteries and weigh 6-8 oz). The current version offers significant improvements over older generations, including a brighter and wider beam as well as a robust waterproof casing.
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OutdoorGearLab Editors' Hands-on Review
We tend to be optimists in our adventures, assuming that we are not going to get caught out after nightfall. But imagine yourself at sunset, miles from camp across a poorly defined trail, with a storm coming in, and with an injury or equipment failure that makes travel slow. These kinds of situations do happen, and are just the kind of pickle where you would be most grateful that you brought the Black Diamond Icon along.
Waterproof to 1 meter (tested in full submersion for 30 minutes), and boasting nearly the best trail finding performance of any headlamp we tested, the Icon is unique in also offering the battery run-time firepower to get you back to camp, with adequate lighting, even if it takes all night epic effort.
The Icon scored an impressive 9 of 10 in our trail finding tests. This score was excellent, and even though there were three headlamps scoring 10 of 10 in trail finding (the Petzl NAO, Petzl Ultra, and Fenix HP11), all three are heavier than the Icon, and all have high mode battery run-times less than 3 hours. The Icon lasted 8.3 hours in our high-mode battery life test. On the trail, we'd happily settle for 9 of 10 performance to gain a battery that can last all night.
In the beam comparison photo below, the Icon is compared to the Petzl NAO. The NAO's beam is significantly brighter, wider, and with perfect optics. But, this only lasts for about an hour; the photo shows both lights with fresh batteries. As can be seen in our battery life comparison, the NAO is finished in about 2 hours, yet the Icon continues to produce a reasonably bright beam all night (over 8 hours).
While it is interesting to look at trail finding performance independently from battery life, since in some cases a super-bright light for a few hours does the job nicely. But, in the final analysis for most users, battery life and brightness are best considered together, and we feel the Icon offers a smart and balanced approach on these two performance metrics.
The Icon ranked near the top with a 9 of 10 score for close-proximity use, such as around the campsite or reading. Used in its low-power mode that conserves battery life, it produces a very nice, evenly lit beam that we found ideal for close proximity use. Below, you can see a nearly perfectly even beam of the Icon in low-power mode compared to the Fenix HP11 which has a hot spot in the middle that decreases peripheral vision.
We rated the Icon 7 of 10 on battery life, which was near the top. While it did not have the absolute best battery life, but it was much better than the rest of the headlamps with high powered beams. Many headlamps gain long battery run time in their brightest mode by not having a very bright beam. Not so the Icon, which manages relatively long run-time and with a very bright beam.
When compared to a light with similar 9/10 trail finding score like the Solite 250, the Icon lasts about 3 times longer as shown in this battery life over beam distance graph. As you can see in the graph, the Solite starts strong but after 2.7 hours it poops out while the lasts almost 6 hours longer.
The same in can been seen when compared to the Black Diamond Spot. In this comparison graph we see the Spot never sees the same beam distance as the Icon, and ends 3 hours before the Icon.
This is key reason the Icon gets a top pick award, it is highest scoring headlamp that also gives a powerful beam all night long. Most other headlamps would require you to either swap out batteries midway through an epic all night hike or use a much lower beam brightness to conserve batteries.
Don't Believe the Hype
Please keep in mind as you read the specs on the Icon packaging, that their claimed high-mode beam distance and run time should not be interpreted as meaning you can see 100 meters for 80 hours (even though we think most people read the specs in exactly this spirit). In our tests we measured the beam distance at 80 meters (20% below claimed), and the high mode run-time at 8 hours (90% less than claimed).
You may wonder, why there is such a massive discrepancy between our measurement and the claimed number? Our test uses the ANSI standard which says the clock on battery life stops when the high-mode beam degrades 90% from the fresh battery brightness. We use the ANSI standard since we think it is more closely fits users expectations of high-mode run time.
The claimed High-mode run-time number is 3 days longer than the 8 hours we measured because the Icon is capable of producing a very dim light for about 3 days after the distance beam is largely degraded. Based on the ANSI standard, that long-tail of dim light does not qualify as "High" mode. But, in a move we feel is misleading, if not deceptive, most headlamp manufacturers, including Black Diamond, count that dim light. You can read more about ANSI standard, and why we used for battery life measurements in our Buying Advice guide.
Rechargeable Battery Option
One cool feature with the Icon is the optional $30 rechargeable battery pack called the Black Diamond NRG Rechargeable Battery Kit. This is a great feature for people who are always using there headlamps and want to stop burning through batteries (it's also better for the environment). The downside is that the rechargeable batteries do not last as long as standard AA's.
The Icon is quite bright, but far from the brightest headlamp in our tests, and only scored 6 of 10, placing 9th in our tests (you can see the lights all sorted by brightness here). We measured the beam distance (the metric directly related to brightness) at 80 meters which is significantly lower than the claimed distance of 100 meters. In comparison, the Fenix HP11 cast a beam more than twice as far, a whopp'in 178 meters.
By modern standards, the Icon is heavy at 230 grams or 8.1 ounces. It scored 2 of 10, one of the five worst scoring lights on weight. It is almost twice the weight of the Coast (4.4 ounces) and 2.5x heavier than the Spot (3.3 ounces). If you choose the Icon, you are trading weight for higher beam power, battery run-time, and increased durability.
Ease of Use
The Icon landed in 10th place on ease of use with a solid 8 of 10 score. It is easy to switch between spotlight and close proximity/LED mode. You just click one button that is easy to operate even with gloves on. By comparison, the similarly configured Princeton Tec Apex has buttons that are harder to press and more confusing about what mode you are in. You do get more lighting modes with the Apex, but we like the simplicity of choices you get with the Icon.
Even though the Icon is heavy, we found it surprisingly comfortable to wear. The headband is 1" wide and is complimented by a removable 3/4" wide top band. The battery sits at the back of the head and seems balanced nicely with the light in front. Even for active use, it sits comfortably and is stable.
Star gazers and hunters will appreciate the red light mode, which provides an evenly lit light from two red LEDs, and is also dimmable to get to just the right lighting level you desire.
One ease-of-use negative is that the maximum downward angle on the Icon leaves the close-proximity light pointing further ahead than we prefer for most low-light situations like working around the campsite. Most competing lights either allow more of a downward angle, or (better) tweak the optics of the low-setting lights to change their focus to point at a downward angle by default. With the Icon we find the low-proximity light points at the same angle as the beam, and we can't tilt the light enough to put the focus at our hands like we prefer in most campsite situations (cooking, eating, hanging out). We need to tilt our head down to get the light where we want it, which is a little thing but kind of annoying, or pull the headband down to our eyebrows (which is even more annoying). While a little thing, we consider it a design flaw that mars a light we consider to be otherwise very thoughtfully engineered.
The Icon scored 7 of 10 for gloved use, with only three lights scoring higher. We found it easy to operate with gloves, and it would be a good choice for backcountry ski use or other activities where gloves are often worn.
The Icon's combination of trail finding, battery life, and durability make it the ultimate light for those who need a heavy-duty, high performance, headlamp. Many climbing and mountaineering guides love this light for the long battery life, easy use and durability. But, it also shines around the campsite, due to a very capable low-light mode with exceptional battery run-time.
It is heavy and bulky, making it a very poor choice for ultralight backpacking, and a dubious choice for most backpacking situations.
But, if the weight doesn't put you off, it is a very solid choice.
At $80, this is the most expensive award winning light in our tests. There are some lights that cost more such as the impressive Petzl NAO ($175), but there are also many that costs less such as the Coast HL7, often half as much. This headlamp really only offers great value if you can benefit from its unique combination of capabilities; given the robust design, you can be confident it will last a long time.
For many people, we think the expense of the Icon will prove a barrier. Why not buy Editors' Choice Coast HL7 instead at a street price less than $40? The Coast offers a brighter beam, that can see a longer distance as shown in the beam comparison photo below, the Icon edges out the Editors' Choice Coast HL7. On the other hand, due to superior optics in high-mode, we felt the Icon offered slightly better performance for Trail Finding. On the other hand, the Coast outperformed the Icon slightly in close-proximity tests. Unless you needed the additional waterproof capability of the Icon, or its longer battery life, then Coast would see a better choice overall.
The other key competitor to consider in our opinion is the Black Diamond Storm which half the weight, nearly 40% lower cost, and yet delivers performance in the same ballpark. The Storm is robust, with a waterproof (IPX 7) design like the Icon, and shines a solid 60 meters in our tests compared to the 80 meter beam of the Icon. Battery life is pretty good too at 6.1 hours versus the Icon's 8.2, putting 4 AAA batteries and a less bright light against the 4 AA batteries in the Icon.
For a cheaper alternative, consider the Black Diamond Spot, $36 or Black Diamond ReVolt, $60. The Spot wins our Editor's Choice Award because it had the best beam performance and battery life for a compact headlamp that only costs $40. Many headlamps that cost more than $80 couldn't match its brightness and close proximity scores. No headlamp tested had a better trail finding score while still delivering a long battery life and weighing less than 100 grams. The Revolt can charge off just about anything with a USB adapter and wins our Top Pick award as the best rechargeable headlamp.
For those on a tight budget, you may want to consider the Black Diamond Gizmo for $20. If weight and price are key considerations, then the Black Diamond Gizmo may be just the ticket. It's not bright, but has a low price and great battery life.
Overall, the Icon is a strong performer in the "serious headlamp" category. While it wasn't the absolute best in any of our testing metrics, it was near the top across the board, which resulted in the highest overall score of any headlamp in our review. We recommend it for those looking for a bright, quality, beam, durability, and battery life that can last a full night at the high-setting.
We awarded the Icon our Top Pick Award for Trail Finding due to its unique combination of beam distance, quality, and battery life.
— RJ Spurrier and Chris McNamara
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Most recent review: March 1, 2015
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