Updated: May 10, 2020
Looking after corals at home requires dedication, profound knowledge, and having the right equipment.
A major part of the equation is picking the best possible LED lighting so that your coral reef aquariums can meet their photosynthetic requirements and grow. When it comes to LED lights, this includes having a fixture equipped with diodes that emit the right kind of light spectrum to stimulate photosynthesis and induce vigorous coral growth and color.
Also, when on a tighter budget, would you be able to achieve satisfactory growth if you purchase a relatively cheap LED light, compared to a more expensive, premium product?
How much illumination would a marine aquarium need and how many hours of photoperiod should its daily schedule include for both SPS and LPS species?
This beginner guide on reef lights should come in handy for answering all of those questions. If growing thriving coral colonies is the aim of your saltwater reef tank then what brand of LED light will work best for it?
Top-Rated LED Lighting Fixtures for Growing Corals in a Reef Aquarium
Have a look at this overview chart of LED lights that will produce the best coral growth for the money:
|LED Lights:||For Aquarium Depth:||Grows:||Price Bracket:|
|1. Mars Aqua 165/300W||Any tank that’s more than 21 inches deep||Demanding SPS coral species||$$|
|2. VIPARSPECTRA 165/300W||18 to 30-inch deep tanks||Mixed reef and SPS-dominant aquariums||$$|
|3. Current USA Orbit Marine LED||tanks with a depth of 12 to 21 inches||Mostly LPS corals and mixed reef tanks that have a few SPS towards the top||$$|
|4. ABI Tuna Blue||8 to 18-inch deep nano tanks||SPS & LPS Corals||$|
And here’s a comparison chart of the high-end, premium LED lights for reef tanks:
|LED Lights:||For Aquarium Depth:||Grows:||Price Bracket:|
|5. Kessil A80 Tuna Blue||nano saltwater aquariums with 8 to 12 inches of depth tanks||Mixed reef tanks with SPS corals towards the top||$$|
|6. AI Prime HD+||8 to 16-inch deep reef tanks||Mixed reef aquariums with an abundance of SPS corals||$$|
|7. AquaIllumination Hydra HD||tanks with a depth of 21 to 30 or more inches||Demanding SPS coral reef aquariums||$$$$$|
|8. Kessil A160WE/A360WE||21 to 28-inch deep tanks||Mixed reef aquariums that could be both SPS or LPS-dominant||$$$$|
|9. Radion XR15/30 W PRO||Tanks with a depth of at least 21 inches||High-light SPS corals||$$$$$$$$|
|10. Kessil AP700||21-inch or deeper reef tanks||Demanding SPS Corals||$$$$$$$$|
Beginner’s guide on LED lighting and its impact on a Coral reef aquarium
To supply the corals in your saltwater tank with an adequate choice of aquarium lighting you need to be familiar with how both worlds operate.
I recommend bookmarking this page, because there are quite a few things to be said, and you may find yourself coming back for future reference. Here are the beginner’s guidelines on LED lighting for saltwater aquariums with coral:
1. The aquarium’s dimensions influence the water penetration of light
Your reef aquarium’s dimensions will have a direct impact on how well your LED lights will work for the corals.
By dimensions, I mainly mean depth, because light has a limited water penetration.
You’ll want all of your corals to thrive, from top to bottom.
With freshwater aquariums, the gallon capacity of a tank can be a relatively effective benchmark for the depth of an aquarium.
In that part of the hobby, the most used tanks have standard aquarium dimensions. For example, in 99% of the cases, a 55-gallon tank would mean an aquarium depth of 21 inches (53.3 cm).
However, in the saltwater part of the hobby, most tanks have an unconventional form and their dimensions and depth can greatly vary.
For this reason, I think it would make a lot more sense to base my LED lighting recommendations on aquarium depth and not the gallon capacity of your reef tank.
2. Should you go for more Kelvins?
It’s really time to bust this myth up as I did in my guide on planted tank lighting.
Before deciding on how many Kelvins the LED lights for your new saltwater tank should employ, you first need to understand what Kelvins really are.
In reef keeping communities, it is often said that your lighting should be at least 7000 K where some say that it should go up as 10 000 or even 12 000 K.
However, the K-rating of a lighting fixture or a bulb has nothing to do with growing corals.
Kelvin ratings are essentially the color temperature of a black body that’s emitting light under heat.
So, our sun is a star that burns at 5700 K and because of our atmospheric layer, its light appears white.
A star that burns at 12 000 K will give off blue-ish light. If the burning temperature of a black body drops to anywhere between 3000 and 2700 K we get yellow “warm” light and so on.
Anyway, reef corals are known to best employ blue light for their growth. For this reason, in the past, it was assumed that the best candidate for aquarium lighting geared towards reef tanks would have high Kelvin ratings.
Makes sense so far, right?
Not so fast.
What not many know is that in grow lights designed for aquarium use the estimated Kelvin ratings are based on a metric called Color Correlated Temperature, or CCT for short.
CCT makes sure that manufacturers have a unified reference for their products which will mimic the color temperature of actual black bodies that emit light when burning.
This means that a lighting fixture that has an estimated K-rating of 5800 Kelvins will give off the same color of light as a body that burns at that temperature.
However, the light bulb or diode itself won’t literally burn at the staggering temperature of the surface of our Sun!
It all comes down to perceived color by the human eye.
With all that said, here’s how the Kelvin rating of aquarium lighting affects the growth of corals:
Kelvin ratings mimic how the human eye would perceive the color of black bodies burning at a given temperature. Therefore, in LED lighting the estimated Kelvin ratings play a role in chromatic aesthetics and how they appear to humans but do not impact the growth of corals in the aquarium.
Though light for most reef corals should have a great portion of the blue spectrum, Kelvin ratings do not adequately represent that.
The wavelength of the light does.
It’s time to expand on that in the next sections.
3. Making sense of PAR and PUR
Once LED lighting emerged as commercially available in the saltwater aquarium industry, quite a few people became skeptical over the advertised efficiency for growing corals.
Back then it was all about metal halides and T5s.
The ongoing “strategy” was blasting the photosynthesis out of our corals with super intense light and hoping for the best.
Right after the “watts per gallon” mania more sophisticated users (or perhaps the efforts of some savvy marketing department) introduced the PAR measurements.
The more PAR the bulb would produce, the better it would be for the corals beneath.
There is some truth to this claim but there’s more to be explored there.
Here’s what PAR means and how it’s defined:
PAR stands for Photosynthetically Active (or Available) Radiation. It represents the spectrum of wavelengths between 400 and 700 nanometers, which is utilized by organisms for their photosynthesis processes.
PAR is measured in Photosynthetic photon flux density or PPFD.
Essentially this means that PAR readings will measure the quantity of light that is being received by an area.
For corals, the PAR levels should be sufficient enough not to starve the photosynthetic algae and not too high to cause bleaching and damage.
Observations of marine reefs show that balance is key with PAR.
However, in a home environment quantity does not mean quality.
Different species of plant or coral algae will utilize different wavelengths in the PAR spectral range for their optimal growth.
These are defined by what’s called PUR.
Here’s a quick definition of PUR:
The specific set of wavelengths contained somewhere in the range of 400 to 700 nanometers that trigger photosynthesis in a particular photosynthetic organism are called PUR or Photosynthetic Usable (Utilizable) Radiation. These vary for different organisms.
You could have an LED lighting fixture that produces enough PAR, but if that’s in the wrong PAR-spectrum, say, yellow to orange, then it would not be beneficial to the growth and color of marine corals.
It then makes sense to say that PUR is the unique signature of necessary light received by a certain species of coral in regards to its healthy growth and development.
Efficient LED grow lights would provide the right PUR portion of the PAR they emit over a saltwater aquarium. This eliminates the need for pumping up PAR and is the reason why you could see LED lights that would actually grow corals better than the older metal halides which had immense power.
The beauty of LED lighting is that the manufacturers have control over what diodes they install on a fixture, which reflects the PUR spectrum better.
Logically, good models of reef lighting produce way more PUR per PAR, which keeps the costs down, while actually producing more growth and color than ever.
The LED lights that I’ve listed have been proven to grow marine corals like weeds by the thousands of people that use them.
This is because now they not only produce PAR, but also the efficient kind of blue-ish spectrum PUR that’s beneficial for the development of colorful and massive corals.
Though manufacturers have gotten extremely good at nailing the right kind of diodes, most models will come with a customizable spectrum and settings.
This is done in order to provide reef keeping aquarists with more flexibility because there is a wide range of corals to be grown.
Which dictates my next section.
4. Discovering the best spectrum and LED light settings for healthy coral development
By now, it should be obvious that distinctive spectra affect corals differently, even at the same light intensity.
Since most top LED fixtures that would support a reef aquarium successfully come with a customizable spectrum we’ll need to discuss the settings further.
It’s an unpleasant feeling when you buy something just to discover that a vital feature requires more of your time for research.
To come up with the right settings of wavelength intensity for growing corals in a saltwater reef tank with LED lighting you first need to be aware of what the Photosynthetic Active Radiation portion of the spectrum looks like.
The electromagnetic spectrum that can generally trigger photosynthesis pretty much overlaps with visible light.
Here’s an illustration of that:
The shorter the wavelength is, the higher the frequency of the wave. Here’s a visual representation of that:
Now, higher frequency means higher energy when it comes to waves.
Generally, energy is correlated with the ability to penetrate a medium. In our case, we’re looking at water penetration.
Logically, the larger wavelengths such as red light (630 to 700 nanometers) get absorbed almost instantly and have the most limited reach in the water.
Of all the photosynthetically available radiation, blue light (435 to 495 nanometers) will have the highest water penetration capability.
The blue wavelength has roughly a 12 times deeper reach in ocean water than red light.
You can clearly see different spectra and their water depth penetration illustrated here:
As needed from an evolutionary standpoint, marine corals have developed great adaptive abilities when it comes to employing spectral light for their photosynthetic needs.
It has been scientifically proven that blue light has the biggest impact on coral growth.
This makes sense because corals are rarely found 2 meters (6’6.74″) or less from the water surface.
However, you can see reefs completely dominating areas at 5 to 6 meters deep (around 19’8″), and you can also see established reef colonies at more than 40 meters deep (over 131 feet).
Here are the 2 major takeaways:
- Corals are greatly adaptive to incoming light spectra.
- The coral’s location prior to collecting it matters for choosing the right LED settings in a reef aquarium.
This means that, in theory, there is no simple best solution for a perfect lighting setting on your reef’s LED lights.
For example, most hard stony corals with small polyps, also known as SPS corals, are found in the depth range of between 10 and 100 feet (3 to 30 meters).
Since their required PAR also decreases with water depth a silver-bullet LED settings should not really exist, considering intensity for either SPS or LPS corals.
In the aquarium practice, however, there are some general rules to be followed that would give you a very decent start in growing a reef under LEDs.
That being said, the best spectrum settings that would support vigorous coral growth and color should be:
If the corals you want to grow have been collected from shallower waters ( up to 6 meters or 19 feet) then set the LED lighting settings of your aquarium to a higher full-spectrum intensity. This would mean a 60% overall intensity and a 1:1 ratio of the blue to white light channels, respectively.
If the reef corals you’re looking after have been collected from deeper waters of 10 and more meters (33 feet or more) then set the spectrum of your LED lights at a 6:1 blue to cool white wavelengths at a medium intensity of around 40%.
As you can see, spectral quality is vital for the success of your reef aquarium.
Therefore, since you’ll be most likely buying aquarium-grown reef corals you should try to mimic the light settings of their current tank.
Note that though corals are super photoadaptive, each tweak of the settings would take weeks if not months for your reef tank’s full photosynthetic potential to get back on track.
Whatever settings you decide on – set them and forget them.
Regular tweaks in spectral quality will result in low survival rates of the corals, low algal density, and weak coloration patterns.
Only the intensity would be okay to play around with, and that’s still once or twice a month and in the ballpark of 2 to 5%.
Most corals that are sold in fish stores have not been collected from great depths.
Going deep down the ocean can be costly for both the seller and the buyer.
Which brings me to my next section.
5. Cost and how that translates to quality
Though the initial cost of an LED may be slightly higher than when buying a metal halide or a T5 it is greatly justified in the long run.
You may already know that, but LEDs are super cost-effective in the long run as aquarium lighting.
Since in my reviews below I’m picking the best possible fixtures for reef keeping I made sure I’ve covered both sides of the coin.
I’ve compiled a cost-efficient list with products that are somewhat budget-dictated.
However, I also listed some premium choices for when a reader is not limited by their pockets.
But what’s the difference in these LED lights when it comes to reef keeping?
I must say that all of the fixtures listed below (be it cheaper or more expensive) will be able to grow massive, dense and colorful corals. The cheaper ones may be somewhat limited in customization and visuals.
Buying an LED light, that’s designed for saltwater reefs, from the upper price bracket comes with perks such as:
- Independent research for the set of spectral quality and diodes on the fixture in regards to healthy coral growth.
- Pre-set modes that are specially designed to support photosynthesis in marine reef tanks.
- Natural shimmering that you only get in the ocean, which is very appealing.
- No disco-ball effect where the different colored light beams do not fully mix.
- An extreme level of control of output, which means you don’t have to worry when scaling as most will be really, really strong.
- Some brands like Kessil even feature built-in logic for photoperiods that locks the essential spectrum settings and only lets you play with white.
- Long-term durability and reef health.
I’ve always been a fan of getting the best bang for my buck.
I do think some of the premium choices are slightly overpriced since if your primary goal is growing coral you can pull it off with a less costly “black box” product.
However, none of the people I know that have owned or still own a high-end LED lighting fixture for their saltwater reef tank has ever complained from their product choice.
And if you end up buying one such light you won’t regret it either.
6. Build of the fixture and longevity
LED lights tend to outperform other known types of aquarium lighting in terms of longevity and depreciation.
Most manufacturers state a diode life of 50 000 hours while emitting.
That’s more than 15 years on a regular photoperiod. However, the parts that would go out earlier are things such as fans and adapters.
Most cheaper reef LEDs will last you between 2 and 4 years and they usually come with a warranty.
The high-end products, however, can last at least 5 with good maintenance, because they accent more on the secondary parts that tend to go out of service first.
7. External fixture appearance
Having a reef tank is all about the coolness and the looks.
For me, it’s very important that the lighting I end up with does not spoil the overall appearance of my marine aquarium.
Now, the ones I listed below come in different shapes and sizes.
You could either go for a sleek design or a futuristic look.
In my opinion, this should not have a super huge impact on your buying decision, unless you’re deciding between two products with similar specifications.
Appearance is important, but you should establish what comes before that in your wish list for the perfect saltwater aquarium grow lights.
8. Should there be cool features?
I won’t lie – I do enjoy having some bells and whistles for display purposes.
The extra features can be things such as a remote controller, and weather simulation patterns where the lighting dims as if clouds were passing in the sky.
However, they are mostly irrelevant for growing colorful corals, but if you’re like me you should probably not miss out on those.
Note that I don’t include the controllability of the spectrum here.
Though some LED fixtures will include it and some won’t, I don’t consider it to be something added for convenience, because it has an actual impact on your reef aquarium.
9. Flexibility and control
Though this sounds boring at first, it’s an important part of my choices when I want to find the best reef LEDs for my saltwater aquariums.
Having more control over intensity and spectrum allows me to be more flexible when it comes to livestock (both fish and coral) and upgrading.
Most of the time you’ll end up with a product that only works at 50% intensity because LEDs have monstrous output anyway.
When you decide to upgrade your marine aquariums or transition over to more demanding corals – you simply ramp up the intensity and tweak the spectrum.
You have an issue with algae?
Remove the unnecessary light and color and you’re good to go.
Most all of the LED fixtures I listed below allow control to at least some degree as the best ones on my personal list should.
Here’s an example of a control dashboard:
10. Color blending & Produced aesthetics
If the diodes on your LED have lenses that concentrate the beams more you’d get less overall color blending in the reef tank.
I made sure to only review models that have good color blending because there’s nothing more disappointing than having your saltwater aquarium look like a disco dance floor.
Another thing that’s worth mentioning is the shimmering effect.
A high-end product such as Kessil combined with the typical reef flow will produce a shimmering effect that appears very natural.
Though this is not needed for a reef tank full of blooming, colorful corals, it can be a deal-breaker for some reef keepers.
Here’s how a natural shimmer looks in a tank that is illuminated by a Kessil AP700:
What is the Best LED Aquarium Illumination for Flourishing Reef Corals?
I would recommend getting an LED lighting fixture with a majority of blue diodes because more red light will suppress the coral’s photophysiology.
In this section you’ll only find reviews of brands and models that have proven themselves to me personally or someone else I know in real life.
Mind that at first I will only list budget-friendly options, and after that, I will discuss the premium ones.
1. Mars Aqua – Best LED for SPS Coral Tanks with Medium or Great Depth
The Mars Aqua Dimmable 160 / 300 W is easily my favorite option for reef LED lighting when it comes to growing healthy, robust, and vibrant corals in an aquarium.
I would debate that it’s the best on this review list and anyone who’s tried it probably has a blooming saltwater tank that can attest to that statement.
What makes it so valuable?
Well, first things first, its price point is on the budget-friendly side.
The Mars Aqua is probably your best bet on getting cost-efficient saltwater LED lighting for your new reef aquarium.
Secondly, the sheer amount of power that you get for the cost.
This product rivals the infamous Radion XR30 in PAR readings (reviewed later in this article) and many online sources suggest that it actually surpasses it.
However, as we all already know, PAR is not everything when it comes to aquarium lighting.
Evidently, the Mars Aqua fixtures have the PUR figured out as well, as there are hundreds of reports on coral reef tanks thriving under these grow lights.
Anyway, with these lights, I’m able to separately control the blue and white channels and their intensities.
I’ve run 4 of these over my 125-gallon reef and I’ve found the most success with keeping the blue to white ratio at roughly 3:1.
I used the 165W versions as the 300W is made for reef tanks that are over 28″ deep and mine was a standard 125-gallon one with 21 inches of depth.
I tuned the units at 80% blue and 30% white after the acclimatization.
It’s really important to mention that these lights are overwhelmingly powerful.
I keep mine at 12 inches off the water surface and would recommend that as the bare minimum.
This way I’d get very good coverage and color blending and the high-intensity LEDs compensated for the height with power.
If you’d want more light spread and better blending of colors, just raise the fixture 3 to 5 inches above my recommendation and tune up the intensity. If you don’t have space to rise then there’s another solution if you think the coverage is not enough.
The Mars Aqua is very modification-friendly and since it produces a very concentrated light and kind of gives off a beam light effect you can go ahead and remove the lenses on the outer perimeter of the units.
This is super easy to do even if you’ve never touched electronics before but here’s a video tutorial anyway.
This way you ensure more spread over the corals in the corners and better blending of the colors.
Speaking of corals I’ve had all my SPS ones thrive under these lights.
The 165W version crushes with its PAR readings, and that comes in a combination with the correct spectral quality.
You can literally grow SPS corals on the bottom of your aquarium given that it’s no more than 18″ in height.
I’d say that the horizontal effective coverage of the Mars Aqua 165W is roughly 24 inches.
Meaning for a 3 feet reef tank that’s 24 inches wide you’d need two.
The 300W version is 32 inches in length but is also twice as powerful as the 165 Watts one.
Only get the Mars Aqua 300W if your tank is at least 28″ inches deep and 45″ inches in length, while heavy on SPS coral colonies in the middle and top section.
The light doesn’t have extra bells and whistles and I recommend setting it on a timer and forgetting it.
There are no pre-set modes – just the blue and white channel turning off and on.
For this price, however, you get 3 full years of US warranty on a product that’s ETL listed.
The Mars Aqua would be the best option if you want to buy an LED-based aquarium lighting that would grow any kind of corals, up to the most demanding and beautiful ones.
And all of this while keeping inside a very reasonable budget.
Again, unless you have a very deep fish tank (28 inches and more) you should likely get 1 Mars Aqua 165W per 24 to 25″ inches of aquarium length.
I encourage you to mount each fixture at least 12 inches from the water surface and gradually acclimate your corals to it because the Mars Aqua lights have a serious output.
Here’s a photo collage of a 6-month growth progression of SPS corals under the Mars Aqua 300 Watts LED lighting mounted over a 27-inch deep fish tank:
Photo progression by: rgulrich
And here’s how a 75-gallon mixed-reef tank looks under 2x Mars Aqua 165W LED fixtures:
Photo by: TheRudeReefer
And one last shot of a standard-sized 180-gallon tank that’s heavy on coral and has 2 of the 300 Watt Mars Aqua LED lights:
Photo by: wijMAdvantages:
- Overall best on this list (in my opinion)
- Grows virtually anything in even the deepest aquariums
- Superb intensity and PAR
- Well-researched spectrum and diodes for optimal PUR
- Excellent for aquariums on a budget
- Separately dimmable light channels
- Durable with a 3 year ETL listed US warranty
- Upgrade-friendly for future DIY modifications
- Simple to use
- Quality lensing
- May produce a beam-light effect (just watch the video I linked you to and remove the lenses on the outer perimeter accordingly)
2. VIPARSPECTRA Dimmable 165/300 Watts – Best Reef LED for Medium-depth SPS coral tanks
When I first read about this LED fixture and its application to reef aquariums I had no choice but to be absolutely skeptical about it.
What I was seeing was obviously too good to be true.
This LED reef light is supposed to be pretty much cost-oriented, however, the best thing about it is that it provides tons of features alongside effective results.
It has a built-in timer for 2 distinctive light channels, puts up a tremendous output PAR, has the needed PUR to grow anything from soft corals to SPS demanding ones and has a wireless remote.
Being my fairly obsessive self I went ahead and read pretty much all reviews and reports about these particular LED lights, making sure that I only take into consideration opinions from people who actually own the fixtures.
А pretty objective statement would be that my research couldn’t find a person that was unhappy with their reef aquarium’s lighting choice if it was a VIPARSPECTRA.
Moreover, many people were actually regretting their purchase of more expensive high-end fixtures before trying this one.
Apparently you’ll be able to grow very high-light demanding SPS corals with this set of lighting.
The intensity seems to be not just satisfying but in some cases overwhelming.
To actually have good results and not bleach your coral colonies you’ll need to position this LED light at least 10″ off the water surface.
The effective coverage for each fixture is approximately 2 feet in any direction.
At this mounting height, there are still some hotspots, though, so if you want to go the extra mile you can remove much of the lensing to ensure a better and more even light spread.
This is fairly easy to be done, as the unit is not particularly complicated to open and play with and I don’t even consider myself a handy person.
There’s no ocean-like shimmering, but there’s also no disco-ball effect with these lights, which, I think, is a huge plus.
For maximum efficiency and healthy coral growth position the light high and dim the intensity.
Most users find extremely satisfying results with the blue channel running at twice the intensity of the white channel.
I would not recommend going above 70% intensity on the blue channel even with an SPS-dominant reef tank.
Anyway, I did end up getting these and confirmed the only flaw that a few reported.
The built-in timer does not stay consistent and if you’re running multiple fixtures they will go out of sync eventually.
However, it will not be by much – something like 10 minutes in a couple of months’ time.
Use the 165 Watt fixture for depths of up to 26 inches and 24 inches of spread.
A regular 4 feet long reef tank would need 2 fixtures, mounted at 10″ off the water surface.
If I had a coral reef tank with a decent depth (anything above 18 inches) I’d get 1 VIPARSPECTRA 165W LED light for every 24 inches of aquarium width and length.
Again, I recommend mounting the fixture at 10 inches off the water surface. With this saltwater lighting setup, it’s safe to assume that you’ll definitely be able to keep an SPS-dominant reef aquarium.
Here’s a series of photos of a mixed-reef aquarium that’s 24″x18″x18″ in dimensions and has a single VIPARSPECTRA 165 Watts LED light mounted at 9 inches off the water:
Here’s how his tank looked after 8 months of growth with the same VIPARSPECTRA:
And here’s how the produced coral growth looks 16 months (less than a year and a half) after the first photo was taken:
Photo collection by: Nicholas Dushynsky
Notice how well the SPS corals have developed after starting out as single small frags.
When this user started seeing the impressive growth his settings were 65% blue and 12% white.
He kept that schedule relatively unchanged as in the last photo he was running 68% blue between 2 PM and 11 PM with an addition of 25% white between 3 PM and 10 PM.
And to not say that this is a single case, here’s another photo capture of a 225 gallon aquarium that’s heavy on SPS corals, having 3x VIPARSPECTRA LED lights over it:
Photo by: Mrx7899Advantages:
- Killer value for the price tag
- Very budget-friendly
- Very intense and can grow virtually any SPS coral in the book
- Has a built-in timer for 2 separate channels (blue and white)
- Has the right PUR spectrum
- Individual dimming on each lighting channel
- Wireless remote
- Solid 24×24 inches coverage
- Build allows for easy modification such as removing or changing lenses for better light spread
- Decent color blending
- No disco-ball effect on a white sand bottom
- The individual timers can go out of sync by a little each couple of months
- For longer tanks you’d need to get more than one and occasionally check on the timer synchronization
3. Current USA Orbit Marine LED – Excellent Spectrum For Mixed Reefs in Nano Tanks
The Current USA’s classic Orbit Marine LED lights, mostly recommended for nano reefs, can turn you into a fan of the brand for life.
Though they’re not recognized as premium aquarium lights the Orbit Marine has been part of some gorgeous nano reef tanks that I’ve seen.
Note that there is also the Orbit IC version of the Orbit Marine which essentially packs more punch.
The IC has dual LEDs under a single lens that’s more narrow than with the simple Orbit Marine version.
The Orbit Marine comes with a 120° lens, where the IC comes with 90° lenses, providing more intensity through the concentration of the beam.
At the beginning of this review, I mentioned that you will become a fan of the brand as a whole.
That’s because with a single app you can control the LED fixtures alongside Current USA’s wavemakers and also their return pump.
The side equipment is also impeccable in quality and works like a champ, in my opinion.
The combination of these factors makes for an easy overall control of your reef aquarium and not relying on multiple devices and apps.
My experience and observations show that The Current USA Orbit Marine is ideal for shallow reef tanks that house a majority of LPS corals and a few SPS towards the top of the fish tank.
I’ve found that it can be used over 15-inch deep LPS aquariums with great success.
It has a controllable spectrum and you can customize each of its light channels which not many of the budget reef LEDs can offer.
The spectrum itself is well-researched as Current USA seems to approach the matter seriously.
LPS corals, mushrooms, zoanthids, and low-demand SPS species such as the Monti Cap will thrive under the Current USA Orbit Marine fixture.
The shimmer is also spectacular and with the densely packed LEDs, you don’t really get a disco-ball effect on the aquarium’s bottom and other internal surfaces.
The corals definitely “pop”, especially if you tune the white at half the intensity of the blue.
If you ramp up the blue at 100% these LED lights will easily support an LPS-heavy coral reef at 21″ of depth with a couple of SPS near the water surface.
There’s also the Current USA Orbit Marine IC PRO Dual which is essentially a combo of 2 IC fixtures with 90° lensing and could definitely support a more SPS-heavy reef aquarium at a reasonable depth of 24″.
This one is only available at Amazon, but I should mention that whenever you want to get anything Current USA – Chewy.com is your friend.
It’s actually what the manufacturers recommend for such a setup and I find it to work as advertised.
The light spread on the width of these fixtures is roughly 24″, but half that if you aim for SPS coral growth.
The Current USA LED lights are more powerful than they seem to the human eye so make sure to use the acclimatization feature when introducing them to your aquarium.
They are one of the best budget LED lights and as a bonus, they have tons of extra “weather patterns” such as rolling clouds, thunderstorms, and whatnot.
The thunderstorm could be stressful for sensitive fish, but the passing clouds feature adds to a very realistically looking reef tank.
I recommend that you consider getting a Current USA Orbit Marine LED lighting if you aim for an LPS-dominant nano reef aquarium with a couple of SPS towards the top.
If you appreciate having a super cool show-off tank – this LED light and its “weather modes” is definitely the right choice for you.
Use it over aquariums with no more than 20 inches of depth and don’t ramp up the blues to 100% intensity unless you keep more SPS corals at the top.
Go with 70% intensity on the blues and 30% on the whites after the acclimatization period and gradually add up intensity while monitoring your coral (if needed).
If your tank is between 20 and 24 inches deep then go with an IC LED version.
If you plan to keep a mixed reef with more SPS species then get the IC LED PRO Dual package for outstanding results and growth.
Here are two photos showing the progressive growth of LPS, mushrooms and soft corals under a single IC LED fixture, that’s over a 10-inch deep, 10-gallon reef tank:
And here’s the second shot, taken 5 and a half months later:
Photo collection by: McArcher
Following with a photo capture of a 5-month growth progression in a 13.5 Nuvo tank (15.6 inches deep) with a single Current USA Orbit Marine LED:
Photo by: DSC reef
And here’s how a 55-gallon aquarium with a standard size looks like after 16 months of coral growth with a single LED fixture of the 48-inch long Current USA Orbit Marine:
Photo by: zeeGGeeAdvantages:
- Grows blooming LPS coral colonies
- Can support Non-demanding SPS corals at the top of the tank
- Customizable spectrum
- Superb coral coloration
- The best shimmer from the budget LED options listed here
- A ton of cool lighting effects
- Has a coral acclimatization feature
- Comes with remote control and a timer
- Can only be used on shallow to medium depth tanks (only the IC LED PRO Dual can adequately be used on a tank that is 21 to 24″ deep)
- Can get rusty with time, if not installed over a glass top
4. ABI Tuna Blue – Best Budget LEDs for Nano Coral Aquariums
If you’re on a budget, but you want to get the best for a thriving nano or pico reef that houses even SPS corals, then the ABI Tuna Blue is the right LED lighting option for it.
It’s a PAR38 bulb meaning it uses Parabolic Aluminized Reflector technology.
The ABI Tuna Blue comes with both 12 and 23 Watts of power.
The 12W version has a 30-degree angle lens (very concentrated beam) where the 23W one has 60-degree angle lensing (still concentrated but more spread).
Because of the narrow lensing and the PAR38 technology, the ABI Tuna Blue produces a very strong beam of light overall.
This allows for the bulb to be used over pico or nano aquariums that are at least 12″ deep.
The spectrum leans on the blue side, though on pictures it looks much bluer than it actually is to the human eye.
All of this makes sense because this LED lamp was designed to photosynthetically nourish coral and stimulate growth.
I’ve seen it over saltwater tanks that had SPS corals absolutely thriving under it.
And that’s not just Montipora but also Acropora which, though more demanding, still appeared very healthy.
Use the 12W bulb for every 10 inches of aquarium length and 12 inches of depth.
Positioning this nano reef LED light around 8 to 9 inches off the water surface should be more than enough to grow demanding corals at the top and even middle of the pico tank.
These lights are bright and they’re designed to shine over a small area, so if you’d want to use it over a longer aquarium, you’d definitely need to buy more than one.
Use the 23 Watt Tuna Blue LED for saltwater tanks that are around 16 inches deep and don’t compromise with the mounting height.
Because of the narrow lensing, the PAR of these lights multiplies with moving them closer to the surface, and I’ve personally bleached corals with it (in a matter of hours), thinking it would not be enough intensity.
Speaking of intensity, the only way to control it along with light spread is by how far off the aquarium’s water surface you mount your PAR38 LED lighting.
Though the PUR of these LEDs is spot on, the right PAR can be tricky to figure out, but if you follow my advice from above you should be fine.
These LED bulbs do get warm (not hot) to the touch and should not ever be covered while working over the aquarium.
The build of the fixture is designed like it is so that the internal fan ventilation remains effective.
The ABI Tuna Blue can be set on a timer, which will turn it on and off, without a gradual ramp up or fade out.
Overall it’s safe to conclude that this is the best LED bulb for pico and nano coral reef aquariums on a budget.
I recommend buying the ABI Tuna Blue 12W version for LED aquarium lighting over a pico reef with a depth of 8 to 10 inches that would ultimately house SPS corals.
Buy the 23W for a depth of 14 to 16″ and spread of 14 inches of length.
This way you’ll be perfectly able to grow SPS corals in the medium or near-top levels of the aquarium and LPS at the corner of the light cone.
Here’s a photo shot of an 11 inch deep and 13-inch wide 5-gallon aquarium that grows zoas, some SPS and LPS corals under 2x ABI Tuna Blue for LED lighting:
Photo by: DarkMagic
And here’s a capture of the legendary Maritza the Vase Reef that’s 10 inches high and 10 inches in its widest place while housing SPS and LPS alike under a single ABI Tuna Blue 12 Watt LED lighting (12″ off the water surface):
Photo by: Mary ArroyoAdvantages:
- Very good bang for the buck
- Narrow lensing which allows for deep water penetration (both 30 and 60-degree lensing on the 12W and 23W bulbs respectively)
- Grows demanding SPS and LPS alike
- Durable, despite being cheaper than other options of LED lighting over small aquariums
- Makes fluorescent corals “pop” nicely
- Can be set on a timer
- Top choice for professional-looking pico saltwater tanks
- Is not dimmable
- The light spread can only be controlled by the mounting height
- Because of the narrow lensing, you need more than one for wider tanks (anything above 12″ in length)
- Leans on the blue side, which may be irritating for some (others prefer it this way, because of the “pop”)
- It’s rather heavy, so it needs a well-built lamp gooseneck (I recommend checking this one here)
What are the Best LED Reef Aquarium Lights from the High-End Bracket?
Though (as you’ve seen from the illustrated photos) reef LED lights on a budget will work, there are also the ones that may be more suitable for your needs if money is not a factor.
These LED fixtures come with enhanced controllability, inner aquarium aesthetics, and shimmer, customization, and durability.
1. Kessil A80 – Best for Natural Shimmer in Nano SPS-Dominant Tanks
The Kessil A80 is a fantastic high-end LED lighting choice for a 5-gallon reef tank with a depth of up to 12 inches.
When I first encountered this unit, I was kind of surprised that it only consumes 15 Watts of power.
However, this makes the presence of cooling fans unnecessary.
In my opinion that’s more than welcome, because I can totally eliminate any buzzing noises from the equation.
The sleek build comes with 2 manual adjusters – one for color and one for intensity.
Though I’m listing it in my “financially liberated” section I think it’s important to note that if you want more controllability you do have to buy Kessil’s spectral controller on the side. Here’s a link to the stuff on Amazon.
Aside from that the A80 grows hard SPS corals without hesitation, as long as the other parameters such as flow and coral food are in the norm.
To grow SPS coral you should run it at 40 to 50% “Color” and 80% “Intensity” in its peak time, which should be roughly 4 hours of the daily photoperiod.
For LPS and softies, you should probably tune it down to 50% or so of intensity.
It gives a dominantly blue-ish hue to the aquarium, which in turn makes the corals pop out nicely.
It produces the same high quality of natural shimmering as other more expensive Kessil models.
The simmer, along with their ability to grow coral, may be the second most valued advantage of the brand.
The fixture itself looks futuristic, and in my observation, it actually adds up to the external aesthetics of a reef tank.
Note that in a regularly-built 5-gallon tank that’s 16″ in length you might get shadowing in the corners.
This LED light works best for cube-type of tanks (12″ x 12″).
If you have a wider aquarium, I suggest getting 2 x A80 to cover all edges.
I can recommend buying the Kessil A80 if you’d like to enjoy ocean-like shimmering in your 5 or 5.5-gallon nano reef with mixed SPS and LPS corals, which is no more than 12 inches deep.
Here are some shots of a 5.5-gallon saltwater aquarium that has mainly SPS corals grown by a Kessil A80 (4 inches from the water surface):
Photo collection by: HirshAdvantages:
- Fantastic shimmering effects
- Very low power consumption
- Grows SPS coral very well
- Virtually silent
- Futuristic design
- You need to get the branded spectral controller separately
2. AI Prime HD Plus – Top performer for nano cube reef tanks
The AI Prime HD+ is an LED aquarium grow light that simply has tremendous potential for coral reef tanks.
It’s been gaining popularity among many reefers in recent years.
Forum users praise it and so do a couple of my buddies in our local community that happen to own it.
Multiple positive feedback aside, the AI Prime HD+ has high-quality diodes stuck under a single diffuse lense.
This helps for better shimmer, superb color blending and (my favorite) evening out the output intensity.
This combined with a more expensive set of diode emitters gives an aquarium an even coverage and the possibility to own an SPS dominant coral reef.
Speaking of light spread, one thing that’s worth mentioning is that this unit only provides good coverage for about 15″.
You’ll have extremely good results with more demanding corals if you mount it over a 12″ high x 12″ long cube fish tank.
For anything that’s more than 12″ inches in length which needs to have SPS corals in it, you should get a second AI Prime HD+ unit.
You can definitely mount it over an aquarium that’s 20″ in length, but should probably keep less-demanding LPS corals and softies in the corners.
Anyhow this reef LED is not at all heavy, it’s got a modern design and also is very, very quiet when running.
I think having a silent unit removes the pressure from having to place your new aquarium in rooms that people don’t sleep in.
Last but not least pro of the AI Prime HD Plus is the built-in controller that comes with a native app.
Connectivity is huge with this product, as you can tweak it from the comfort of your couch, which makes things way easier with the display efforts.
You also have control over 7 channels of light spectrum and the overall intensity.
You should buy the AI Prime HD+ if you have a tank that’s 12 to 15 inches deep and want to be able to grow any LPS or SPS coral at this depth.
If you value decent controllability and the possibility to operate the unit from a distance then this LED light is for your saltwater tank.
Here’s a photo of a 10-gallon reef tank that’s housing some SPS corals and some pretty zoas that grow under an AI Prime HD Plus fixture:
Photo by: schgr.cube
And here’s another shot of an aged, more developed, saltwater fish tank that has 2 x AI Prime HD fixtures while housing 6 varieties of SPS corals and 6 varieties of LPS:
Photo by: CannedfishAdvantages:
- Excellent controllability and customization
- Bright and it will grow demanding corals in shallow to medium depth saltwater tanks
- Quiet fans
- A built-in controller that doesn’t require buying an extra module
- Native app
- Built-in diffuser
- Great customer support
- The shimmer is good but not natural-looking
- Its ability to capture WiFi signals is not always great
3. AquaIllumination Hydra 26 & 52 HD – Premium Quality for all Saltwater Aquarium Depths
The AI Hydra series are the tough cousin of the AI Prime LEDs and I’ve been very happy with their performance.
The AquaIllumination TwentySix HD has 26 high-quality diodes packed in 2 nests, where the FiftyTwo has 52 diodes that come in 4 groups of 13.
These fixtures are among my favorites in the high-end lighting bracket for coral-rich saltwater aquariums.
Both fixtures provide a super even spread of light and intensity.
The shimmer is not top-notch as with a Kessil, but it’s still visually appealing and pretty.
The built-in controller and the app are huge on their own as these lights provide the best customization in the hobby, in my opinion.
The Hydra HD is a very well-thought all-in-one solution for every reefer who would like to have full hands-on control over their marine display tank.
It’s worth mentioning that for longer aquariums it would probably be more cost-efficient to get a couple of Hydra 26, than a 52.
The effective coverage of each Hydra 26 HD+ is close to 20 inches of aquarium length.
You can easily cover a medium-stacked 48″ long saltwater tank with 2 x Hydra 26 HD+ LED fixtures.
The same length aquarium that’s very heavy on coral would probably need 3 x 26s for maximum efficiency and coverage.
I’ve run the numbers and in most cases, where you don’t own a super deep reef tank of 28″ with high-light demanding SPS corals, the Hydra 26 HD+ wins over the 52 series.
The coverage thing is because these fixtures have a concentrated lense of 80° that allows for deeper water penetration.
Speaking of depth, these fixtures will be more than enough to grow demanding coral at anything in the range of 18″ to 24″ of depth.
Position them at around 10 or 12 inches off the water surface and ramp up the intensity to around 70% (but not to 100% as these LED lights are strong).
This way you’ll have an even enough spread to grow SPS corals with LPS and other low-light ones in the corners where the beam fades.
Another thing you’re buying with these reef LEDs is multiple pre-set modes, that actually work as advertised.
I find the Acclimatization feature extremely helpful.
It helps corals immensely in avoiding lighting stress and getting bleached soon after the LED grow lights have been installed.
I’d purchase an AI Hydra HD+ if I had a medium depth aquarium (18 to 25 inches) that’s housing SPS-dominant corals and I wanted to have extensive control over everything that’s going on with my tank’s LED fixtures.
Have a look at this photo of a 120-gallon mixed reef tank (SPS and LPS) that has 2x Hydra 26 HD LEDs as an aquarium lighting choice:
Photo by: FLSharkvictim
And here you can see another 120-gallon aquarium that has won an Acropora (SPS coral) grow-out contest with 5x Hydra 26 HD LED lights:
Photo by: hart24601
The user has probably used so many LED fixtures because the 120-gallon tank has a width of almost 25 inches and a length of 48 inches.
In that case, the user likely wanted to provide illumination from every possible angle and eliminate any internal shadowing.Advantages:
- Connectivity with a built-in controller
- Almost unlimited customization
- Hands-on controllability over each aspect of the lights
- Definitely grows demanding SPS corals such as Acropora species
- Silent ventilation systems
- Native app
- Built-in diffuser
- Excellent customer support
- Very even intensity (PAR) distribution across the aquarium
- Setting it up can be time-consuming because of all the customization but YouTube is your friend
- The shimmer looks pretty, but you can’t compare it to a Kessil
4. Kessil A160WE, A360WE & A360X – Undisputed Shimmer & Pre-set settings that work
Kessil have almost dominated the aquarium industry with their LED lighting and are a preferred choice by many reefers.
There are 3 upper-end Kessil LEDs that have widely proven good results for coral growth:
I’ve included links to their most reputable sellers on Amazon as they usually have the best prices online. Visit each link to check their price and some more user reviews.
As with every Kessil fixture on this list you’ll have unmatched color blending and a fantastic natural shimmer galore in your reef tank.
This is my opinion and it appears that many experienced reef coral keepers agree.
So how about intensity and coverage?
To be honest, I would not get an A360WE unless my saltwater tank is more than 25″ deep.
I’ve personally seen tremendous SPS coral growth with a couple of A160WE Tuna Blue fixtures over aquariums that are between 20 and 24 inches in height.
Each Kessil A160WE covers about 15 inches in diameter effectively (in regards to SPS growth support) if positioned perpendicular to the water surface.
The same goes for the A360 models.
Simply put, the 360s are twice as powerful as the A160.
Again, you won’t be able to program the thing right out of the box, unless you obtain the separate Kessil spectral controller (visit the link to Amazon to see that).
When eyeballing one of these models you should know that this brand conducts its own scientific research and based on that they pre-program the light settings.
This is what’s called Kessil Logic and it’s basically locking up the viable wavelengths that support coral growth the best, and letting you only tune the rest according to your visual preference.
I think this is part of what you pay for in a Kessil LED reef light, as they are more of a set it and forget product.
In fact, I wouldn’t recommend you to buy a more customizable fixture if you won’t be able to resist the urge to tinker with spectral quality once you’ve set your mind on the initial settings.
A spectrum that’s often changed will result in poor coral health and high mortalities.
The guys from Kessil know that, so they made it easier for everyone involved by just locking out the shorter wavelengths with their data-tested results and calling it Kessil Logic.
For this reason, I think that the Kessil Logic technology suit beginner reefers ideally.
You can safely set the lighting schedule to 50 or 60% “color” and start with a 30% “intensity” in the peak of the photoperiod.
You can slowly increase the intensity with around 5% every week and a half and see how your corals react.
Going over 50% intensity with a Kessil is a sure way to bleach or significantly slow down your corals.
Side note: A couple of other experienced reefers and I think that this is the secret behind the initial success of T5s and Metal Halides – not having the opportunity to tinker with spectrum while letting your corals adjust and simply grow.
As you may have guessed Kessil lights are extremely good at growing any kind of coral, zoa, mushrooms, and anemones.
Some users online do report a slow growth, but in my experience, this is likely attributed to one of the other major factors for a healthy coral reef (read, adequate flow, proper regular dosing of coral food and stable water chemistry).
Some of the people with the prettiest reef aquariums that I know grow their coral under (primarily) Kessil LED lighting.
SPS corals thrive like there’s no tomorrow and there’s an overall “pop” and shimmer that realistically rivals what you see when you do reef diving.
You should definitely buy your corals a Kessil if you have a reef tank that’s 20 to 30 inches deep and you want the top of the industry internal aesthetics.
Go for the A160WE Tuna Blue and spread one unit per 15 to 16 inches of aquarium length if you want an SPS dominated saltwater tank with the same depth.
Here’s how the growth in a 48″-long mixed-reef aquarium with lots of SPS and LPS looks like under 3 x Kessil A360WE LED lights:
Photo by: Eckolancer
And here’s a photo of how a 47.5-inch long 92-gallon reef tank looks like under 5 fixtures of Kessil A160WE Tuna Blue:
Photo by: HB ALAdvantages:
- Stupendous durability
- A rather set it and forget it solution
- Fantastic realistic shimmer
- Undisputed color-blending
- Silent ventilation, yet the fixtures don’t ever get hot, just warm
- Kessil Logic feature that ensures the vital for coral growth wavelengths are in the right spectral proportion (great if you’re a beginner)
- Definitely grows SPS high-light demanding corals and anemones
- Stylish build
- Top-notch customer support
- One of the best money value per diode from the premium bracket
- The manufacturers have over 20 years of experience in the LED industry, thus conducting their own scientific research on which they base their products
- If you want extra controllability you should buy the spectral controller separately
- You need to buy the mount separately
5. Ecotech Marine Radion LED XR15/30 W PRO GEN 4 – Most powerful & No shadowing
What I like about the Radion XR Series is that these LED lights have the potential to provide the best coverage in combination with what’s probably the most powerful output.
Both aspects are important for a deep SPS-heavy reef tank that’s wide on area.
Some PAR readings online claim that the Radion XR Series have the strongest intensity among all other high-end LED reef lighting products.
These lights definitely grow SPS corals and by having a Radion you can probably pull off an aquarium that is dominated by the highest-demand species.
However, noticed how I said “potential” in the beginning and did not make it a definitive statement?
Here’s the tricky part – when they were first released the Radion XR15 and Radion XR30 came with a very pronounced and somewhat ugly disco-ball effect.
Soon after the manufacturers released a piece of additional equipment in the form of a diffuser.
Though this is in the “budget independent” section I must say that the diffuser is a pretty expensive piece of paper.
By installing it your Ecotech Marine LED lighting system will lose approximately 25% of its intensity but the coverage will be greatly enhanced and it will become very even, eliminating any shadowing issues.
The disco-ball effect will also disappear almost completely and will start to look like an actual shimmer.
Point being, the diffuser is a must with any of the Radion XR fixtures.
However, you also need a Reeflink device.
This is essentially a router that allows you to control them from a distance.
It can be interlinked with their software called EcoSmart Live, which truly allows for one of the most customizable environments in the industry of LED lighting for aquariums (right behind the Hydra HDs).
The software allows for pre-set templates for coral growth, including one specially designed for SPS corals, called “SPS AB+”.
From what I’ve seen in real life the AB+ works as advertised and really does support SPS growth as long as you nail the intensity right and avoid bleaching your reef.
In my observation, you should aim for around 70% intensity in the peak of the photoperiod, but that’s after full acclimatization.
Go for almost half that if you have a mixed reef to not obliterate your corals.
Speaking of bleaching, one of the most valuable features of these models of LED lighting, in my opinion, would be the Acclimate Timer, which allows for programmatic scaling of intensity over a period of a couple of weeks.
This immensely helps with avoiding coral bleaching and photoinhibition (hindering growth caused by too much light) when introducing these very very powerful LED lights.
If you buy the diffuser for, say, the XR15W PRO you’ll be able to illuminate an effective coverage of almost 20″ for SPS corals, which is more than most point lights on this premium list.
The difference between Ecotech’s XR15W PRO and XR30W PRO is literally the number of diodes, and therefore the available intensity.
Though the XR30W PRO would be twice the power of an XR15W PRO, it may turn out more cost-efficient to actually run 2x XR15W PROs rather than one XR30 over a larger reef tank.
Because of how the diodes are positioned in the nests, with the XR15W PRO version you get much more spread and even reach.
Place one XR15W PRO Gen 4 fixture per 18 inches of aquarium width and length for SPS dominant reef fish tanks.
In my opinion, it’s only worth getting the XR30W PRO Gen 4 if the depth of your saltwater tank goes beyond 25 inches.
I recommend buying the Ecotech Marine’s Radion XR15W PRO Gen 4 or the XR30 version if you’re budget-independent and want to run a very heavily SPS-stocked reef aquarium with very few LPS corals.
It will definitely be the right purchase for you if you want to completely eliminate the possibility of shadowing and your tank is at least 24 inches deep and wide.
If natural shimmer is not your ultimate goal, you will enjoy this reef LED lighting the most.
Here’s a photo of an SPS dominant fish tank that’s 23 inches deep and has 2x Radion XR30W PRO as LED lighting:
Photo by: david p.
Take a look at this 20-gallon aquarium that grows high-demand corals with the SPS AB+ settings on a single Radion XR15W PRO Gen 4 LED lighting fixture:
Photo by: Andrey
And one photo image of a 6 feet long tank proving that with the right schedule you can sustain a very SPS-heavy coral reef aquarium with just 2x Radion XR30W PRO fixtures:
Photo by: zup33rAdvantages:
- Probably the most powerful LED lighting for a coral-colony in a home reef tank
- Grows any corals at virtually any commercially available aquarium depth
- Undisputed coverage and lack of shadowing
- Deeply customizable
- Has scientifically tested pre-set spectral templates that definitely grow healthy corals
- Has the very useful Acclimate Timer feature
- Stylish design of the fixtures
- Extremely long-lasting
- Severe disco-ball effect if you don’t buy the separate diffuser
- You need to separately buy the controller if you want deep customization and pre-set modes
- Is actually expensive even by reef keeping standards
- Mediocre (in my opinion) shimmer
6. Kessil AP700 – My least favorite of the best ones
Though I love Kessil as a brand, I must say that at first, I was a bit reluctant to include their “top model” in this list.
Reason being that the “premium” pricing did not really match my expectations in value.
However, since it’s on the high end and I don’t aim to do completely positive reviews only (I can’t if I want to keep it honest) I decided to do a quick summary on this LED fixture and its application as a reef aquarium’s lighting.
Before we start I should mention that I still consider this unit as one of the best ones.
Anyway, as far as intensity and quality of light go, this reef lighting fixture has it all.
The Kessil AP700 grows SPS very well as I’ve seen from some very experienced reef keepers.
It can either be mounted at the suggested 7 inches off the water surface or you can go higher, and ramp up the intensity a little to compensate for the PAR while having great coverage.
All of this would be sufficient for saltwater fish tanks with no less than 24″ of depth.
Though there are only two “pucks” (nests) of LEDs the coverage is more than enough for mixed-reef tanks with 3 feet of length.
Proper coral positioning should still be taken under consideration to avoid larger species casting shadows over the ones beneath.
Always use the acclimatization feature when switching to this LED or you’ll lose some color and cause stress, because of how intense the output is.
The spectrum has the vital for coral growth wavelengths locked under the Kessil Logic technology and you’re left to play with the rest.
The AP700 is a full-spectrum reef LED light, which provides enough of each wavelength for the best coloration and growth of healthy corals.
However, the good stops here.
I won’t really discuss the fact that the people from Kessil did not even include a mounting kit for this price point.
A rather significant disappointment is the whole connectivity game of these LED lights.
This product comes with its own WiFi which is honestly not often great.
Connecting to the Internet can be hard, so you’re pretty much obligated to connect to the separate Kessil WiFi.
This means you can only adjust settings when at home.
The app had numerous updates since it first came out (it was full of glitches back then) and it still is far from perfect.
I, personally, do not find it user-friendly at all and it does not allow to have multiple groups of AP700 connected.
Effectively connecting a single group can also be quite difficult and you’d probably find yourself calling customer support for aid.
Though promised, you do not have the opportunity to manipulate this light fixture from a separate controller (such as the popular Apex).
There are also numerous reports of people experiencing random on and off switches during night time or complete refusal of the light to go by the set schedule.
This can put a lot of stress on coral reef aquariums.
My final evaluation is that though the hardware is outstanding, the software is nowhere near what it should be for this price tag.
Here’s a 36″-long, 21″-deep saltwater tank with healthy-looking corals lit by a single Kessil AP700 LED fixture:
Photo by: sixpackgarage
And here’s a photo of a large mixed-reef tank with a lot of SPS corals, that has a LED lighting combo of two Kessil AP700 fixtures:
Photo by: Blenny KravitzAdvantages:
- Supports SPS dominant reef aquariums well
- Has great light spread
- Top-notch color blending
- The typical, unique for the Kessil LEDs, shimmer
- Beautiful exterior that adds to the overall aesthetics of the aquarium
- Covers a very wide range of spectral wavelengths
- Splendid coloration and “pop” of corals
- Has the important Acclimation lighting template
- The app for control comes with a few glitches and it’s not very intuitive
- You should buy the mounting/hanging kit separately
- Connection with the Internet is somewhat inconsistent
- You’re pretty much forced to use the built-in WiFi connection which means that you can only control the fixtures from your home
- A considerable amount of reports where the fixture fails to follow a schedule and randomly turns off and on
- Power outage resets the settings
- No way to control via a separate controller (such as the Apex one)
- Difficult to sync multiple lights to work under the same mother settings
- You can’t have multiple groups of lights
- Can’t be synced with other Kessil aquarium lighting models
Which LED lights would grow corals best according to your aquarium’s dimensions?
Since reef aquariums are often far from the standard gallon count and size I think that it will make more sense to base my recommendations on dimensions.
All of my advice here will also be based on real-life reports or personal experience and observations with the current fixture and the depth at which it produced the best results.
I’ve discussed the motivation behind my cost-oriented unit suggestions in my general article on the best LED aquarium lighting, which would be relevant to you if you’re the owner of a standard-size aquarium.
In that case, visit the link to quickly find a table at the beginning of the post with each possible marine setup. Look up the one that matches your saltwater tank’s gallon count and click on that link.
That being said, the best budget LED lighting for your coral reef aquarium according to the tank’s depth would be:
- 8-inch deep tank with plenty of SPS corals: Abi Tuna Blue 12W
- 8-inch deep tank with mostly LPS corals: Abi Tuna Blue 12W
- 10-inch deep tank with plenty of SPS corals: Abi Tuna Blue 12W
- 10-inch deep tank with mostly LPS corals: Abi Tuna Blue 12W
- 12-inch deep tank with plenty of SPS corals: Abi Tuna Blue 23W / Current USA Orbit Marine LED
- 12-inch deep tank with mostly LPS corals: Abi Tuna Blue 12W
- 16-inch deep tank with plenty of SPS corals: Abi Tuna Blue 23W / Current USA Orbit Marine LED
- 16-inch deep tank with mostly LPS corals: Current USA Orbit Marine LED
- 18-inch deep tank with plenty of SPS corals: VIPARSPECTRA 165W / Current USA Orbit Marine IC LED
- 18-inch deep tank with mostly LPS corals: Current USA Orbit Marine LED / VIPARSPECTRA 165W / Abi Tuna Blue 23W
- 20 to 21-inch deep tank with plenty of SPS corals: MarsAqua 165W / VIPARSPECTRA 165W / Current USA Orbit Marine IC LED
- 20 to 21-inch deep tank with mostly LPS corals: MarsAqua 165W / VIPARSPECTRA 165W / Current USA Orbit Marine LED
- 22-inch deep tank with plenty of SPS corals: MarsAqua 165W / VIPARSPECTRA 165W / Current USA Orbit Marine IC LED PRO Dual
- 22-inch deep tank with mostly LPS corals: MarsAqua 165W / VIPARSPECTRA 165W / Current USA Orbit Marine IC LED
- 24-inch deep tank with plenty of SPS corals: MarsAqua 165W / VIPARSPECTRA 165W / Current USA Orbit Marine IC LED PRO Dual
- 24-inch deep tank with mostly LPS corals: Current USA Orbit Marine IC LED / VIPARSPECTRA 165W / MarsAqua 165W
- 26-inch deep tank with plenty of SPS corals: MarsAqua 165W / VIPARSPECTRA 300W
- 26-inch deep tank with mostly LPS corals: MarsAqua 165W / VIPARSPECTRA 165W / Current USA Orbit Marine IC LED PRO Dual
- 28-inch deep tank with plenty of SPS corals: MarsAqua 300W / VIPARSPECTRA 300W
- 28-inch deep tank with mostly LPS corals: MarsAqua 165W / VIPARSPECTRA 165W
- 30-inch+ deep tank with plenty of SPS corals: MarsAqua 300W / VIPARSPECTRA 300W
- 30-inch+ deep tank with mostly LPS corals: MarsAqua 165W / VIPARSPECTRA 165W
And here are the best LED lights from the premium price bracket according to tank depth in inches:
- 8-inch deep tank with plenty of SPS corals: Kessil A80 / AI Prime HD+
- 8-inch deep tank with mostly LPS corals: Kessil A80 / AI Prime HD+
- 10-inch deep tank with plenty of SPS corals: Kessil A80 / AI Prime HD+
- 10-inch deep tank with mostly LPS corals: Kessil A80 / AI Prime HD+
- 12-inch deep tank with plenty of SPS corals: AI Prime HD+ / Kessil A80
- 12-inch deep tank with mostly LPS corals: Kessil A80 / AI Prime HD+
- 16-inch deep tank with plenty of SPS corals: AI Prime HD+
- 16-inch deep tank with mostly LPS corals: AI Prime HD+ / Kessil A80
- 18-inch deep tank with plenty of SPS corals: AquaIllumination Hydra 26 +HD LED Light
- 18-inch deep tank with mostly LPS corals: AI Prime HD+
- 20 to 21-inch deep tank with plenty of SPS corals: AquaIllumination Hydra 26 +HD LED Light / Kessil A160WE Tuna Blue / Ecotech Marine Radion LED XR15W PRO Gen 4 / Kessil AP700
- 20 to 21-inch deep tank with mostly LPS corals: AI Prime HD+ / Kessil A160WE Tuna Blue
- 22-inch deep tank with plenty of SPS corals: AquaIllumination Hydra 26 +HD LED Light / Kessil A160WE Tuna Blue / Ecotech Marine Radion LED XR15W PRO Gen 4 / Kessil AP700
- 22-inch deep tank with mostly LPS corals: Kessil A160WE Tuna Blue
- 24-inch deep tank with plenty of SPS corals: Kessil AP700 / Ecotech Marine Radion XR15W PRO Gen 4 / Kessil A160WE / AquaIllumination Hydra 26 +HD LED Light
- 24-inch deep tank with mostly LPS corals: Kessil A160WE Tuna Blue
- 26-inch deep tank with plenty of SPS corals: Kessil A360WE Tuna Blue / Ecotech Marine Radion XR30W PRO Gen 4 / Kessil AP700
- 26-inch deep tank with mostly LPS corals: Ecotech Marine Radion XR15W PRO Gen 4 / Kessil A160WE / AquaIllumination Hydra 26 +HD LED Light
- 28-inch deep tank with plenty of SPS corals: Aquaillumination Hydra 52 +HD LED Light / Ecotech Marine Radion XR30W PRO Gen 4 / Kessil A360WE Tuna Blue / Kessil AP700
- 28-inch deep tank with mostly LPS corals: Ecotech Marine Radion XR15W PRO Gen 4 / Kessil A160WE / AquaIllumination Hydra 26 +HD LED Light
- 30-inch+ deep tank with plenty of SPS corals: AquaIllumination Hydra 52 +HD LED Light / Ecotech Marine Radion XR30W PRO Gen 4 / Kessil AP700
- 30-inch+ deep tank with mostly LPS corals: Ecotech Marine Radion XR15W PRO Gen 4 / Kessil A360WE Tuna Blue
As you can see there are many options for each aquarium size.
If you can’t decide on a single LED system then I recommend that you read the summary descriptions that I included towards the end of each model review.
Combine the summaries with the product’s advantages and disadvantages and compare that to your personal values.
Is it Okay to go for a Cheap LED Fixture if Your Reef Tank is On a Budget?
It’s time to address the elephant in the room.
If your budget has the majority of the impact on your purchase, but you’d still want to benefit from explosive coral growth then you can safely go for a cheaper LED fixture.
Most cheap LEDs and particularly the ones I listed here are more than capable of sustaining a thriving reef tank.
The more expensive, premium choices of saltwater reef lighting do provide lots of bells and whistles and you will get a better experience with them.
Buying a highly-priced fixture means that you’re investing in better aesthetics, customization, controllability, and convenience. However, coral health and growth are not things you’ll be compromising with when buying one of the less costly units.
As you can see from the multiple cases I’ve included, both cheaper and more expensive LED reef lights will produce excellent results under the right conditions.
Of course, not all low-budget lighting will deliver, so you have to make sure you’re getting something that has been thoroughly tested by someone else.
There are cheap aquarium lights that are also cheaply built, costing you more in the long run.
This is where I come in. I made sure to list the top products, from both world’s perspective.
How much light does a reef aquarium need and how many hours should you keep the units on?
As we already learned in the spectrum settings section of the buyer’s guide above in this article, marine corals possess the ability to adapt.
This is, of course, true as long as their minimum photosynthetic requirements are met.
If you ask around in your reefing community you’ll probably find that each reefer’s LED light schedule is unique and they all vary greatly.
In nature, during daytime, calcium growth is fueled by the energy received through light, thanks to photosynthesis.
When the sun sets most corals will continue feeding at night because that’s when the majority of planktonic food becomes readily available in the ocean.
When at home, we prefer to feed our corals during daytime (while the lights are on).
Luckily aquarium coral reefs manage to adapt to these schedules of feeding, getting nutrients from both incoming light and nutrition in the water column.
However, this means that either light or coral food will not be utilized at 100%, because a coral can only use so much metabolic energy.
Eventually, during the night the algae polyps will most likely “go hungry” and waste growth potential.
This way 100% of the light used during the day will be employed for growth, while 100% of the coral food you feed will be utilized during night time.
This has been the case with many reef aquariums and there are many users reporting that shorter photoperiods combined with after-lights feeding yields the best results.
It has also been my experience that my corals would ultimately produce better colors with such lighting and feeding schedule.
Moreover, research suggests that prolonging the photoperiod part, that has the most intensity to it, is not only NOT beneficial, but actually harmful to zooxanthellae (the photosynthetic algae that have a symbiotic relationship with the coral).
That being said, here’s how many hours should LED lights be kept on over a reef tank:
Since in the wild corals only get intense sunlight for about 4 to 5 hours a day it is safe to assume that at home aquariums the peak intensity period should mimic that. Have your LED lights set at 5 hours of both white and blue at their chosen peak intensity. Additionally having a ramp up and ramp down photoperiods of 1 to 1.5 hours before and after the peak period respectively has shown to produce exclusive growth in coral reef aquariums.
Usually, the ramp periods are composed of only blue light and sometimes very little white light, where peak intensity periods introduce white light that’s at least 40% the intensity of the blue spectrum.
Therefore the total LED lighting photoperiod for corals in reef aquariums should ideally be no longer than 8 hours.
Note that corals will spread their photosynthetic efficiency through time in accordance with their environment.
Meaning that a 16-hour photoperiod will not yield more mass growth than an 8-hour one.
Additional tricks to Enhance the Growth of Aquarium Corals
Though choosing the right kind of LED lighting is very important for a successful reef aquarium there are other factors that can further boost the growth rate of your corals.
Stability in a saltwater aquarium comes when, with time, the ecosystem establishes itself.
However, by being a closed system, external intervention may be needed to enforce balance.
Basically – do your research on what the test kit results should show.
Perform regular water tests and if something seems off – do more research and find out the possible cause.
On the other hand, not all natural processes are welcome.
You’ll want to make sure that the aquarium doesn’t house excess nutrients which could have an adverse effect on a coral reef’s health.
Usually, reef keepers achieve this by different filtration systems such as a refugium, the best media reactors, and protein skimmers. In refugiums, for example, users would grow Chaetomorpha (a form of macroalgae), which will, in turn, suck up any excess nitrates or phosphates from the display tank. In the spirit of this article, I should probably mention that Chaeto needs a different kind of lighting settings than your display tank to thrive. I’ve created a quick list of the best LED refugium light fixtures, which you can skim through for further info.
Last but not least, the energy produced through photosynthetic processes doesn’t meet all of the coral’s nutritional requirements.
Providing it with additional energy sources such as coral foods can improve the growth rates with a visual difference within days.
This is something I’ve found to really move the needle if you’re aiming for a contest-worthy display coral reef aquarium. For optimal results, you are to provide your SPS and LPS species with the best coral food for maximizing nutritional potential. Visit the link to check out a few options that I’ve found to do the trick.
Over to You
Achieving beautiful growth in a reef tank at home is more than doable as long as you have the right equipment and you know how to apply it correctly.
In the case of LED lighting, you should definitely know what you’re doing and what’s best for your corals and aquarium.
That being said, it took me a month to compile this guide and the reviews in it, making sure I back up everything I say.
I wish someone could’ve told me everything I needed to know when I was starting out.
You should now be confident enough to make an educated decision for your purchase.
Drop me a comment below if there’s anything unclear or you just want to share your experience.