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Hands-on Gear Review
Petzl NAO Review
Cons: Abysmal battery life, reactive lighting can be as annoying as useful
The Petal NAO is the only headlamp to score perfect 10 for trail finding. The beam quality and power are all you can ask for in a light. That said, three things kept it from getting an award: it has abysmal battery life, the reactive lighting can be frustrating, and it is 3-5 times the cost of many products that scored higher and are much lighter weight. If you love reactive lighting, explained further below, we recommend the less expensive, lighter weight, and longer battery life of the Petzl Tikka RXP.
RELATED: Our complete review of headlamps
Analysis and Hands-on Test Findings
The Petzl NAO, with reactive lighting, is perhaps the most technologically advanced light to be marketed to the general public. Cavers and divers have even more elaborate lights, but they are not really appropriate for general recreational use.
This headlamp has a near perfect trail finding beam and scored a 10 of 10. The light is even over distance and powerful. In the beam comparison photo with the Coast HL7 below, you can see the difference between a beam that just goes far (Coast), and a beam that evenly and fully lights over the same distance (NAO).
The quality of the NAO's beam is excellent. However, Petzl's otherwise innovative reactive lighting technology is distracting. In the NAO and RXP lamps, Petzl uses a forward facing light sensor to adjust the beam strength in order to maintain even lighting. This, in theory, saves battery by avoiding excess lighting. However, with any other light source nearby (like a campfire, other headlamps, or even reflective surfaces), the instrumentation gets confused and the light flickers annoyingly. Even when the light doesn't flicker, the stepped changes in light prove to be distracting at close distances. The good news is that the reactive technology can be overridden to fix the brightness to a preselected level. In this configuration, both of Petzl's reactive lights cast wide, even flood beams for close proximity use. The reactive mode is the default, which means effective close proximity lighting requires extra steps initially. Also the reactive mode increases the price considerably. However, if the other attributes of the Nao work for you, realize that you can make the light work well in close proximity situations.
Note in the photo below the bright, wide, and even beam of the NAO when compared to the also very bright Black Diamond Icon,
The NAO was one of the lowest performers in our ANSI test. The fact that it throws a long beam and can be locked off in a backpack help justify and defend the low battery scores, but the fact remains that if you run this in high mode it will not last very long. In high beam mode, as shown in this battery life vs. beam distance graph, the NAO beam power falls off a cliff after an hour and is gone after 2. The Coast HL7, which only scores a 5 for battery life, is still dramatically better than the NAO. One hour of high beam, for such an expensive and heavy headlamp, is a bit hard to swallow. Yes it's cool that you can charge the NAO from any USB source, but if you only get a few hours of use between chargers, that power source better be handy!
With a measured max beam distance of 113 meters, the NAO is powerful but not particularly noteworthy. The Coast, costing over $100 less shined 131 meters.
At 190 grams (6.7 ounces) this is one of the heavier headlamps. The unique headband carries the weight well, but we still feel this headlamp is more weight than most people want to move around with, especially considering that a good trail finder like the Black Diamond Spot is less than half the weight.
Ease of Use
The reactive technology is very cool in theory and no other manufacturer in our test offered it. Turn on this mode, and the light chooses the best brightness for your needs: high beam for trail finding and low beam for close proximity and battery saving. In practice, this technology can be as annoying as it is useful. For starters, this and the Petzl Tikka RXP (which also uses reactive lighting) are some of the few headlamps where we felt we needed the manual in order to operate. Once through the learning curve, the reactive technology was frustrating around camp. As you mill around people, the kitchen, and campfire, the lighting mode is constantly changing and not always where you want it to be.
This is hard to recommend for trail running because it is so heavy. So many lights with almost as bright a beam are half the weight. With the short battery life, this is really for short excursions near a USB charging port.
This $185 light is one of the most expensive tested. You can buy one of every award winner for just a little bit more. If the reactive lighting worked a little more smoothly and there was some decent life in the rechargeable battery, the cost could be worthwhile. However, Petzl has some kinks still to resolve.
This is one of the most innovative headlamps ever designed. Everything about it is cool from the look, the headband, the built in USB plug for charging, and the reactive lighting. Unfortunately, its hard to recommend this headlamp because the battery life is so short and it is dramatically more expensive than many headlamps that scored higher. The Coast HL7 is much easier to use, lighter weight, has a longer beam distance, and is a 1/5 the price. For slightly lower performance and half the cost, the Black Diamond Icon has a decently bright beam that lasts about 10 times longer. If you do love the reactive technology, check out the Petzl Tikka RXP which is half the cost and weight but has triple the high beam battery life.
Other Versions and Accessories
Petzl Tikka Plus
Petzl Tikka XP
Petzl Tikka RXP
NAO Rechargeable Battery Pack
NAO Belt Kit
— Jediah Porter and RJ Spurrier
OutdoorGearLab Member Reviews
Most recent review: May 10, 2015
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