How To Choose LED Recessed Lights

Whether you buy them online or at your local home improvement store, there are many options for LED recessed lights. This guide covers 6 most important characteristics you should be aware of when choosing LED downlights.


Modern recessed LED fixtures for residential applications range in size from 3 to 6 inches. Most homes use a combination of 3″, 4″ and 6″ bulbs, and you’ll find the best choice in these three sizes.

When comparing recessed fixture sizes, it’s easy to assume that 6″ fixtures gives more light than 4″ fixtures. As a common rule, this is true, but not always for LEDs. Many 4″ LED recessed luminaires are equivalent to 6″ luminaires in terms of brightness and beam spread. For this reason, choosing the best-sized recessed LED fixtures for a room is more of an aesthetic decision than a functional one. We recommend using the following approach.

Start with sequence. If you already have built-in lighting in other parts of the house, consider matching their sizes and style. Just know that it is perfectly acceptable to mix sizes of light sources throughout the home.

Visual preferences. Consider the scale of the room. For large rooms or rooms with high ceilings, we recommend using 6″ lamps for general lighting and 4″ lamps for task and accent lighting. For sloped ceilings, I prefer 4″ adjustable lights over 6″ because they are less intrusive.

A final note about recessed fixture sizes. When the label says 3″, “4” or “6” recessed fixture, that is usually an approximate to the measurement inside the case (diameter) with the trim removed. When the label says 3″, “4” or “6” that does not mean the lamp is exactly that size – it’s kind of “type”. Trim diameter is usually bigger than that. For the exact lamp dimentions and for the recommended hole size – please refer to the lamp manual.

Ligt Direction Type

The two main types of LED recessed fixtures are fixed recessed fixtures and adjustable (rotatable) recessed fixtures.

Fixed recessed lights are the most common LED recessed lights – where the light-emitting surface is not movable, so the direction of the light cannot be changed. Usually this type of lamps provides 180 degree even light distribution.
Aperture. When the aperture is smooth, it is called a reflector finish. If it has ridges, it is called baffle trim.

With adjustable recessed lights (also known as gimbal or eyeball or rotatable downlights), the lens position is adjustable – attached to an axle that allows it to tilt inside the trim. With the LED gimbal downlight, the light direction can be changed downward to the area you want to illuminate. Sometimes this type of LED lights called “Spot Light”. Beam Angle could be 30-60 Degrees.

Construction type

Old non-LED recessed lights used to have housing. The housing is the actual light fixture. It sits above the ceiling and holds the trim and light bulb. Housing and insulation also help eliminate lamps from being a fire hazard. LED lights that can be installed in the old housing as a replacement of incandescent lamp – called “retrofit lights”. There are many types of retrofit lamps – so check your housing type and select retrofit that suites your housing type.

Modern LED recessed lights sometimes referred as “new construction” – does not require housing and are IC Rated (approved for direct contact with insulation).

That modern LED lights for “new construction” usually called slim or ultra-slim. As their name suggests, flashlights are ultra-thin and do not use a body. These “tubeless” LED lights have an external junction box that houses the wiring and connections. They have the advantage that they can be installed almost anywhere and you don’t have to worry about the gap from the ceiling beams above.

Common recommendations are:
Use 4″ – 6″ fixed recessed lights for general lighting.
Use 3″ gimbal downlights if you want to direct the light onto an object or wall for accent lighting.
Sloped Ceilings – Use 4″ adjustable recessed lights for general and task lighting.

CCT (Color temperature)

Correlated color temperature (CCT) is the actual color of white light, measured in kelvins (K). Often confused with brightness, color temperature refers to the color tone of light. The most common color temperatures are warm white (2700K), soft white (3000K), neutral white (3500K), bright white (4000K) and daylight (5000K).

Color temperature and shading
If you are used to dimming incandescent bulbs, you may notice that LED bulbs behave differently when dimmed. The difference is that the color temperature of an incandescent lamp gets warmer as it dims, typically ranging from 2700K at full brightness to about 2200K at very low dimming. LED lamps do not naturally change color temperature as they dim. They maintain the same color temperature over the entire dimming range. It’s not necessarily bad, it’s just different if you’re not used to it.

Warm dim LEDs
In an effort to mimic the warm glow of an incandescent bulb when dimmed, some manufacturers offer “Warm Dim” or “Warm Glow” recessed LED downlights. These bulbs change color temperature from 2700K to 2200K as they dim like incandescent bulbs. This is a great option if you want to create a warm and cozy atmosphere in low light.

Selectable or configurable white LEDs
Nora Lighting Tunable White
One of my favorite innovations in LED recessed fixtures is “selectable” or “tunable” white LEDs. These fixtures have a built-in switch on the escutcheon or junction box, allowing you to adjust them step by step between different color temperatures. This means you no longer need to select the CCT of a recessed luminaire before purchasing it!

Selecting a color temperature
LED color temperature options
The color temperature of the lighting has a big impact on the room. Warmer tones in the 2700-3000K range will make a room feel cozy, while cooler tones like 3500-4000K will make a room bright and energetic. For this reason, we recommend choosing LED recessed downlights with adjustable white light. You can then set the lighting and adjust the color temperature to your liking based on how it looks and feels in the room. It is possible to vary the color temperature between rooms, but I would settle for one or two steps warmer or colder.


The brightness of LED recessed downlights is specified in lumens, not in watts like incandescent lamps of the past. Don’t make the mistake of comparing the wattage of LED bulbs to compare their brightness. Some LEDs are more efficient than others and therefore require fewer watts to produce the same or more lumens.

For general lighting, we recommend at least 600 lumens for standard height ceilings and at least 900 lumens for high ceilings. Most LED recessed fixtures on the market are in this range. As long as you have a dimmer installed (which is always needed), the higher the light output, the better.


The Color Rendering Index (CRI) is a measure of a light source’s ability to accurately display colors when compared to an ideal or natural light source. The use of LEDs with a high color rendering index is important to ensure that colors appear as they are intended. The best LED lamps have a color rendering index of 90 or higher.

Beam angle/direction

The beam angle of an LED is when the light concentration is 50% or more. Most LED recessed fixtures (also called “modified” LEDs) have very wide beam angles, typically in excess of 90 degrees. While this is great for spreading light, too wide an angle can cause excessive glare when looking through the ceiling. Some manufacturers list the angle of the beam of light in degrees, while others refer to them simply as spotlights or spotlights. For general room lighting, use luminaires with a beam angle greater than 40 degrees or marked as spotlights.

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