A Guide To Deciding Between Track or Recessed Lighting

Ginny Bartolone
Written by Ginny Bartolone
Updated November 17, 2021
Bright modern living room with track lighting
FollowTheFlow / iStock / Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

Recessed lighting may hide neatly out of sight, but track lighting offers far more opportunities for unique fixtures

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When designing your home, it’s essential to consider how the lighting will impact the overall look and feel of each room. Overhead lighting can be restrictive, but track lighting and recessed lighting can revamp the look of a room, either by making it seem larger or by redirecting light to areas you'd like to showcase. 

If you're on the fence between recessed lighting and track lighting, don’t worry, we've put them head to head so you can determine the winner for your unique home.

The Pros and Cons of Track Lighting

Track lighting is exactly as it sounds. A single bar connects to a series of light fixtures that  attach directly to the track or hang down as pendants. Track lighting is one of the forms of task lighting—or lamps that direct light to a specific spot. Homeowners use them to highlight artwork, dining areas, or a kitchen island.

You'll typically find track lights in the larger rooms of your home, such as the living room, kitchen, and bedroom, but you can also find track lighting used in a bathroom. In some cases, they're a great option for lighting an expansive bathroom or a wide hallway.

Pros

Track lighting works well in open spaces with high ceilings. While they are rarely used as the only light source in a space, they can fill the shadowy corners of a room or adjust the ambiance with the flip of a dimmer switch.

Here are some additional perks of choosing track lighting:

  • Relatively easy to install and flexible in all home designs

  • Each fixture costs between $100 to $250 to install, which is less than recessed lighting

  • Lamps can illuminate a specific spot in a room

  • There are plenty of design options, including suspended bar or pendant lamps

Cons

On the other hand, track lighting is not ideal for all spaces, particularly smaller ones. If you try to squeeze track lighting into a small bedroom, bathroom, or kitchen, you could end up with too much directly angled light that doesn't properly fill the space. Low-hanging pendant lights can also be a burden in a small kitchen, especially if you end up nearly bumping your head on a misplaced fixture.

Some downsides of track light include:

  • Not ideal for smaller spaces or low ceilings

  • Not all track lighting styles blend with each room design (modern fixtures in a historic  home, for example)

  • Does not fill a room with enough light to stand on its own

  • The lamps and track collect dust and they require frequent cleaning

The Pros and Cons of Recessed Lighting

Open concept room with recessed lighting throughout
Javani LLC - stock.adobe.com

Recessed lighting—also known as canned lighting—sits snugly inside your ceiling. You'll likely only be able to see the rim of the fixture or perhaps a bit of the bulb from the ground, depending on the type.

Installing this type of lighting is a bit more complicated than track lighting as you have to cut a hole in the drywall and attach the lamps and the power box to a joist. However, recessed lighting tends to be brighter than track lighting, plus it can fill a whole room with a flood of light, even though it is still considered task lighting. 

So, while you can't adjust the lamp to point at your favorite painting, you can light up a small space without adding a clunky ceiling lamp.

Pros

Recessed lighting comes in various styles, including LED canless lights that don't require a joist or as large of an electrical connection. This option should also be your lighting of choice if you have a small space, such as a walk-in closet, a small bathroom, or a kitchen that needs an extra flush of light.

In this case, the pros of recessed lighting include:

  • Ideal for small spaces

  • Easier to keep clean

  • Larger coverage area than track lighting

  • Far more subtle and does not affect the design of a room

Cons

Recessed lighting is typically not as easy to install as track lighting. In some cases, it's too complicated to be a DIY project. 

Keep these cons in mind when weighing your options for recessed lighting:

  • Recessed lighting fixture installation can cost up to $400 per light if you need to work around ductwork or add wiring

  • There are fewer available design options

  • You cannot adjust the direction or placement of the lights once they’re installed

  • Downlighting—another common name for recessed lights—can cause excessive shadows in some spaces

  • Lamps are not as easy to replace (though LED lights rarely require replacement)

Track Lighting vs. Recessed Lighting

Closeup of track lighting in house
Denis Rozhnovsky - stock.adobe.com

Let's compare the two types of lights side by side to decide if and when they're appropriate for your home. As is the case with most home design decisions, your home’s age, structure, and general aesthetic will likely determine your decision.

Appearance​

The most significant difference between track and recessed lighting is how they look. Track lighting attaches to the outside of your ceiling, which means that the whole fixture becomes part of the room and must match the space.

Recessed lighting is a bit more flexible for home design because the fixture primarily lives beyond the ceiling drywall. You can change your home design whenever you want, and the fixtures will still pair well with the aesthetic.

The light itself also differs. Recessed lighting offers a broader cone of illumination, while track lighting either provides a sharp beam of light or the glow of ambient lighting from hanging pendants.

Options and Customizations​

Hands down, track lighting is far more customizable than recessed lighting. With track lighting, you can choose from minimalistic fixtures, an eye-catching brass track to match your kitchen appliances, or even a colorful glass globe pendant.

Recessed lighting may come in both can or canless varieties, but for the most part, the customization only comes down to where you place them.

Price​

You'll find a wide range of prices for both track and recessed lighting. On a broad scale, track lighting edges are more affordable in most cases. With minimal installation or alterations to the surrounding ceiling, it's easier to attach the track lighting directly to the wiring that’s already present from another fixture. This cuts down on the time you'll need to use an electrician and a lamp installation team, lowering the cost overall.

​Maintenance​

Switching out your bulbs for either variety of lighting can range from easy to tricky, depending on the height of your ceiling. Either way, we have a tie here. Both track and recessed lighting are relatively easy to maintain once installed.

Recessed lighting only edges ahead in the race because the fixtures collect less dust and grit than track lighting.

Which Type of Lighting Should I Choose?

So, which lighting design takes the lead? When it comes to small rooms with low ceilings, recessed lighting is your best bet. Do you have a large space that needs a little extra shine? Opt for track lighting.

But remember, nothing is set in stone. In the end, the choice comes down to your unique vision. Whenever in doubt, we recommend chatting with an interior lighting designer about a major installation.

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