I first heard of WLED as an alternative firmware for ESP8266 boards after I was already well into ESPHome and its many components. However, the project has been around since early 2018 and has been continually updated since then, excluding a couple of longer breaks. You might be thinking that WLED is comparable to ESPHome, as they are both used to create maker-friendly, open-source firmware for ESP8266 and ESP32-powered boards.
However, WLED and ESPHome don't compete in most cases and both fulfil their own unique role. ESPHome can be used to control and read a wide array of devices, ranging from displays all the way to fans and sensors and, of course, addressable LED strips and panels. WLED on the other hand only does one thing: It controls NeoPixel LEDs (WS2812B, WS2811, SK6812) and SPI based chipsets like the WS2801 and APA102. And it is class leading at what it does. If ESPHome is the jack of all trades, WLED is the master of one.
What makes WLED so special?
WLED is the brainchild of developer Aircoookie and is a fast and feature-rich implementation of an ESP8266/ESP32 web server to control individually addressable LED strips such as the ever-popular WS2812B, WS2815, and SK6812. It uses WS2812FX library, allowing you to choose from over 100 special effects. When compared to ESPHome, you will quickly find out, why many prefer WLED for their lighting needs.
Visual examples of these effects can be found on the WLED wiki on GitHub or in the video linked above. These range from rainbows, to colour loops, to fireworks, any many more. With most effects, you also get to choose the intensity using a slider.
WLED is easy to set up
When compared to ESPHome, WLED is a walk in the park to set up. You flash the ESP8266/ESP32 using the ESPHome-Flasher, hook up the LED strip, power it on, connect to the access point it creates, and enter your Wi-Fi details. You don't need to edit any files, as the LEDs can only be connected to one pin. Your LED strip can then be configured using the graphical interface, and no text files ever have to be touched.
There is no option to add any sensors to WLED because that would unnecessarily complicate things. Until recently, there wasn't even the option of adding a button. Though optional, there are now also options to add a relay an IR remote.
WLED is a standalone product
By providing an open and documented API, WLED can be integrated with any other application, for example Home Assistant. But besides the previously mentioned ESPHome, WLED doesn't need Home Assistant to be controlled. There is a fully-featured web interface and even a highly rated app for Android and iOS, iPadOS, and Mac.
Not being reliant on other applications has the added benefit that you could potentially build nodes using WLED for others to use in their home. The setup is simple enough, and the app allows even novices to easily control them. The same can't be said for ESPHome.