Recessed lighting in the form of can lights, downlights, and pot lights has been around since the 1940s. It’s a great way to light up a room because the fountain is directly above, largely hidden in the ceiling. Cheap Recessed lighting, however, can be industrially unsightly. Look up and you will see not just a bare bulb in a hole, but the springs that hold the trim ring to the can. Cree Connected Max Retrofit Downlight not only fixes that, but offers tunable white and full color dimmable smart lighting. And if you’ve been using incandescent bulbs in those fixtures, you’ll save some money on your electricity bill because Cree recessed lights use energy efficient LEDs.
Cree’s downlight is a 75 watt equivalent reflector that produces up to 850 lumens of brightness while consuming just 11 watts of electricity at full power. It’s part of a family that includes a dimmable white (but not tunable white) A19 bulb, a tunable white and color A19 bulb (which we reviewed in late 2020), and color bulbs in the A21, BR30, and PAR38 form factors. They all connect to your Wi-Fi network, so they don’t require a hub, and you configure and control them from within the Cree app. They can also be controlled with voice commands (using Alexa, Google Assistant, or Siri Shortcuts) or with a Samsung SmartThings hub. However, the family does not support the Apple HomeKit ecosystem.
This review is part of TechHive’s coverage of the best smart bulbs, where you will find reviews of competing offerings, as well as a buyer’s guide on the features to consider when purchasing this type of product.
Tunable full color white
The can’s white light can be adjusted from a warm 2200 Kelvin to a very cool 6500K, or you can choose from 16 million colors. The downlights fit 5 or 6 inch cans, but before you run out and buy one, check your existing cans to make sure they have medium E26 screw bases, rather than ballast fluorescent lamps. Cree’s product is not compatible with Cree (CFLs with E26 bases are fine).
The California home I tested them in had a combination of both, due to a well-intentioned state building code that requires 50 percent of permanently installed lighting in a home to be high-efficiency fixtures. When we built the house in 2007, fluorescent cans were the only affordable set in town, so they were in the bathrooms and in my kitchen.
The room where I had my pool table, however, had five cans suitable for modernization and I replaced all five with accessories from Cree. This gave me a chance to see how various smart downlights would perform (more on this later).
Cree downlights are incredibly easy to install. The first step is to remove the bulbs and spring-mounted trim rings from the existing cans, a step that took more time than installing the modifications. If your cans are mounted to a drywall ceiling, expect some dust and debris to fall while you do this.
The next step is to screw a flexible cord that has an E26 base on one end into the can receptacle. This pigtail has a bayonet connector on the other end that will connect to the Cree downlight. Once you’ve done that, push the downlight up into the can, compressing three spring steel ears in the process. The resulting stress holds the reconditioning cans in place, and a built-in trim ring covers the rough edges around the hole in the ceiling. Now when you look at the can, you will only see the trim ring and the glass lens that covers the LED.
You can install and configure the downlights in the Cree mobile app one at a time, or you can install them all at once and then configure each light individually. The downlights have onboard Bluetooth and Wi-Fi radios, and the first step after physical installation is to pair the cans with the app via Bluetooth. The app will display all the cans it finds.
Tapping on one of the app icons will select that can for further settings, and this will cause the corresponding can to slowly turn on and off, so you know which one you are working with. The Cree app will display the Wi-Fi network your phone is connected to and then connect the can to that network. You can give the can a unique name right now.
However, note that Cree Connected Max products can only connect to 2.4 GHz networks. If you have a dual-band router that uses the same SSID for both networks, you may need to temporarily turn off your 5 GHz network. or assign to the two networks different SSIDs. I used the above technique with a Linksys Velop mesh network installed in the home and the installation proceeded smoothly from there.
Once the cans are installed and added to your Wi-Fi network, you can control them individually or organize them into groups and control all the lights in the group simultaneously. You can also define a house, rooms within the house, and assign lights or groups of lights to those rooms.
The Cree app has a robust collection of scheduling options, including a sun tracking setting that will adjust the white color temperature of the LEDs according to the position of the sun. The LEDs will slowly glow with a cool, energizing light in the morning, slowly change to a warmer relaxing hue as the sun moves across the sky, and then dim and turn off when it’s time for bed. This feature can be adjusted for each day of the week, and the cans can be programmed to behave differently on days you work and on days off. While monitoring multiple cans at once, I noticed very little lag – they all switched in close sync with each other.
You can also create other types of schedules, as well as create custom lighting scenes or use the predefined ones (“Relax”, “Night light” and “Fireplace” are the available presets). You can sync lights to music too, but this last feature is the weakest as it relies on your smartphone’s microphone to hear the beat.
Cree Connected Max Retrofit downlight – a great value
You can install smart LED bulbs in your ceiling cans and finish it, but they won’t make the cans look any more attractive. Cree Connected Max Retrofit downlights don’t cost much more than smart bulbs and will also look prettier on the ceiling. In addition to not being HomeKit compatible, these cans are widely compatible with other smart home ecosystems, and the Cree Connected app is reliable and easy to use. Most importantly, these LEDs produce high-quality color and tunable white light that can be dimmed over a very wide range.