As winter descended here in Australia I found myself going through my seemingly-annual ritual of checking out the latest crop of bike lights available on the market. As a fussy buyer who often applies as much focus to the appearance of bike components as to function, lights are a constant bug-bear – usually consisting of bulbous units which sit proud for the world to see, and mostly using ugly clamps and awkward positioning to force-fit a reasonable solution. Ugh…
I first saw the Sparse lights via The Radavist, on an Icarus road bike, and really liked what I saw. The front light mounts in place of a headset spacer, and – with finish options available – makes it barely noticeable on most bikes.
The rear light mounts to the seatpost, and whilst it’s less ‘sleek’ in that respect it far exceeds the designs of other rear lights whilst offering a bit of ‘anti-theft’ security (not a problem for me, but useful all the same).
I was ready to buy, but Sparse weren’t stocked up to provide an Australian plug, and their overseas shipping rates at the time were quite high. Regardless, I dropped them a line and the ensuing email conversation lead to them offering to send me a set to review – on the basis that the international (non–US) shipping and plug choice is something they are resolving such that these issues wouldn’t exist in future (already taking action to resolve problems – that’s a good start in my book).
The lights arrived. Without hesitation they went straight onto my commuter bike, and I rode with them the very next day… but I didn’t get on with them at all – so much so that I sent Sparse an email detailing what I thought was wrong with them and why, and asking Sparse for their return address to send the lights back. Sparse were grateful for the feedback, but the email containing that return address didn’t arrive until nearly two weeks later.
By the time I had the return address I had done an about-turn, and I asked if I could keep the lights for a little while longer…
Why? Quite simply, because I had come to really (and I do mean really) value the main intent that the lights were originally designed by Sparse to fulfil: all-round visibility.
One thing that becomes immediately obvious with the front light is the spread of light to the sides. Whilst most lights project a beam forwards, that beam is usually focused on where you are going – and rightly so. What the Sparse lights achieve is visible, projected light to both sides of your front wheel, and visibility of the front light from both sides of the bike. I don’t know of another light on the market that achieves this.
To compare, I have included shots of my Light & Motion Urban 500 setup how I normally ride it Vs the Sparse light. Both images are in the same place at the same time on the same bike:
Light & Motion Urban 500:
Light & Motion Urban 500:
Quite compelling, I think.
At the moment the offset of this sideways spread is that the forward beam isn’t great, and this is essentially what my original issue was with them. Sparse are actually well aware of this, and they knew this at the point of production – their original intention was not necessarily for their lights to be used as a light ‘to see with’, but to enable the user ‘to be seen’. In their own words: “we are being stretched by the market”, by which they mean their audience is much larger than the ‘urban focus’ they originally expected.
I said “at the moment”, and that is because Sparse have now employed someone to help them maintain that sideways light spread and visibility whilst also improving the forward beam, and all within the current light size and format.
The rear light is a neat unit which offers a nice big wrap-around lens to maximise that ‘to be seen’ potential. The light output is perhaps less bright than some other brands, but I have never once felt that it is not bright enough – and to my mind the side-on visibility completely offsets any reduction in output. The method of attachment is fairly permanent as you have to remove your seatpost to mount it, and I think as many people will love that as those who might dislike it.
It’s difficult to ignore the security benefits if you are someone who doesn’t have secure bike parking, or occasionally need to leave your bike out in the open. Personally I would perhaps prefer the unit to be slightly smaller for a bit less visual impact in the daylight hours, but that’s a fussy point.
Functionality on both lights is really good. A neat, slightly recessed and soft-textured button makes locating the on/off switch easy – even whilst on the move, and even when reaching for the lights without looking. The lights both have a mini-USB charging port on the underside beneath a neat protective cover, and are supplied with a lead and a charger to keep them full of juice.
Of course, given that they’re not designed for speedy removal this does mean you need to be able to park your bike near a plug socket, but there’s worse problems to have (and at least the lead supplied is of a decent length).
With regard to the battery life, I’ll be honest in that I haven’t tested this fully – I value my life too much to risk a light dying on me mid-commute so I have always topped the lights up before they’ve gone completely flat. All I will say is that they saw me through 8-days of commuting (30-40 mins each way) without stuttering on their ‘flashing’ setting. Regardless, this is likely to differ by user, by setting and by the power output of any future versions.
The only other comment I would add is that I personally think the flash is a bit slow. To my mind the lights need a third mode with a faster flash option, or they need to stick with the current two modes but speed the flash up.
Are they perfect? For many they won’t be far off being absolutely spot-on – particularly for city use. As someone who would use them for faster road rides they’re not quite there, but then of course there’s the fact that Sparse are working to make the forward beam much better. What they do very well is looking good, being very well made and having a ‘Fit & Forget’ nature (charging aside). They happen to come in well-designed packaging too (hey, packaging is my day job – it matters!).
The original intent from Sparse was to produce high quality, good-looking and secure lights that offer much better visibility of cyclists to other road users – all of which they do very well. A broader audience has taken on the lights than they expected though, to which they have responded stating “we’ll adjust without losing our core values” – I consider this to be a very good thing, and based on the quality and design of these lights I would gladly spend my hard-earned folding stuff on future iterations.