Zipp 353 NSW wheelset evaluate: is consolation the brand new aero?
The world of high-end wheels is in a transition phase. While the industry has been obsessed with saving watts and yaw angles in recent years, the discussion is noticeably shifting to what is actually faster in the real world.
Zipp is synonymous with aerodynamics. The brand played a huge role in creating the aero wheel market and developing it further than most. But even Zipp is starting to change its mind, and the marketing for its latest line of 40-millimeter-deep wheels is getting lyrical of almost every performance attribute except aerodynamic superiority. Personally, I find this an interesting transition and one that is on its way to spreading further in the industry.
And this transition makes Zipps 353 NSW – its new flagship for all road or gravel races – an interesting product. At $ 4,000 for a pair, this tubeless and disc-only wheelset is almost a conversation starter in terms of price. And after spending some time on it, I can see that while these are exceptionally good-to-ride bikes, I am questioning the value proposition.
There are obviously a lot of interesting engineering and design decisions behind these expensive bikes, so I've decided that best of all I write a word for every dollar they cost (just kidding … but also not).
- What: Zipp's first-class all-round wheelset with disc brakes.
- Weight: 1,294 g, including tubeless tape and valves.
- Price: 4,000 USD / 6,027 AUD (pair)
- Heights: Undeniably smooth and controlled ride, stable, large warranty, impressively light, easy repair and maintenance.
- Lows: Price, not good for thinner rubber, have to use tubeless tires, not for the aero enthusiast, a rare spot of rotor wear on the front, price.
No thin rubber here
Conceived as a top product, the wave-shaped 353 NSW (New Speed Weaponry) offers an effective 45 mm deep rim and is an all-round performance racing bike in Zipp's wheel series. It's effectively the low-cost Halo version of the 5mm thinner 303 Firecrest ($ 1,939), a wheel that is even on par with the Zipp's 303 S ($ 1,327). All three are designed as versatile and modern wheels for use on the road and on gravel.
Like the mid-tier 303 Firecrest, the 353 NSW has a hookless (TSS) rim design with 25mm inside width that requires the use of compatible tubeless tires. With such a wide rim, according to Zipp, these tires must have a print width of at least 28 mm and be driven at no more than 72.5 psi. In reality, most 28mm tires sit on these rims over a measured width of 30mm. Schwalbe's Pro Ones in 28 mm size, for example, come to 31.3 mm, while Continental's new GP5000 S TL in 30 mm width comes to a full 32.5 mm.
Such a wide rim makes the tire wider than printed on it.
Those who want to ride 40-50mm wide gravel tires on these rims can easily do so, but I suspect most who prefer such a premium wheel will mainly try to keep them away from sharp rocks.
With such voluminous rubber, tailored to lower running pressures, the 353 NSW aims for lower rolling resistance, increased ride comfort and better grip – and this is the basis for many of the performance requirements of these wheels. Of course, the lower tire pressures (60 psi on average, according to Zipp) get a lot of it, but Zipp is confident that its wider rim will provide better tire support than a narrower rim at such low pressures.
Zipp claims these are the most efficient wheels for general riding on mixed road surfaces and perhaps with some dirt. Interestingly, the 353 NSW and 303 Firecrest share these advantages.
A large inner rim width and a hookless rim wall are not necessarily related. In a recent CyclingTips Nerd Alert Podcast, we sat down with Zipp's product manager Bastien Donzé to talk about everything to do with hookless rims and why Zipp decided to swap the open tire compatibility option. In short, Zipp believes hookless is the answer to creating a carbon rim that defies the old rule that things can't be stronger, lighter, or cheaper. One could argue that the 303 S and 303 Firecrest achieve all three, but "cheaper" is not seen on the 353 NSW.
Hookless rims are also known as Tubeless Straight Side (TSS).
Hookless rims certainly have advantages, but they also have two obvious disadvantages. First, you'll need to ride a compatible tubeless tire (but you can use a tube in it). Second, the industry is currently in a transition phase to manufacture hookless compatible tubeless road tires. Thankfully, there is evidence that this is a temporary transition. For example, Continental just updated its tubeless GP5000 tire to be compatible. No, currently not all popular tire options can be used with these rims, but I believe that this situation will completely improve in the near future.
The 353 NSW is easy to spot from a distance, as it has the Zipps “Sawtooth” rim profile, which allows the 353's rim depth to flow between 42.7 and 46.5 mm.
First introduced with the original (and deeper) 454 NSW, the undulating shape was first made public with conversations about biomimicry research and the role of tubercles found in humpback whales. The general idea was that the undulating shape creates an impeller that simulates the aerodynamic efficiency of a deeper rim with the crosswind stability of a shallower one. Zipp hasn't talked about whales since then, and I was surprised to hear Donzé say that the shape on an edge this depth offers only a marginal aerodynamic advantage.
“We actually believe that our sawtooth profile gives the 353 only a small stability advantage,” he said. “The reason is simple: Sawtooth offers the most aerodynamic and stability benefits in deep profile rims, which is why it was originally released on the 454 and 858. When the rim becomes flatter, the aerobalance benefits also decrease. ”So why the sawtooth profile at all? I'll get to that in the next section.
Further details on the rim are Zipp's complicated "Hyperfoil" nodes and "Hexfin" dimples, which are the successor to the golf ball-like dimples. According to Donzé, these help to keep the airflow on the rim longer and reduce the risk of stalling. And although no specific figures were given, Donzé said: "They play a role in reducing drag and stability."
On closer inspection, you can see many fine details in the rim surface.
Identical front and back, the rims of the 353 are covered in unique little aerodynamic details, but they may miss the big picture. Compare the tire widths measured above with the outer width of the rim of 30.65 mm and you can see immediately that these wheels do not meet the often cited 105% rule and therefore will not please the aero-obsessed. In fact, according to Donzé, the 353 NSW did not spend any construction time in a wind tunnel.
Those looking for an aerodynamically optimized Zipp branded wheel for use on smoother surfaces should check out the 404 Firecrest and 454 NSW wheels. These wheels have a 2 mm narrower inner rim width, which enables the use of a 25 mm tire and can therefore meet the 105% rule. And with the narrowest permitted tires, the 454 NSW should sit around 1.5 to 2 watts faster (at 45 km / h) compared to the 353 NSW. No data was shared on how the 353 NSW compares to the 303 Firecrest. And of course, Donzé points out that the 353 NSW's wider rim and required tire will win back time on rougher surfaces.
Even a 28 mm (printed) tire is wide enough to break the 105% rule.
Zipp is obviously no longer focused solely on aerodynamic excellence, especially when it comes to a medium-deep wheel like the 353 NSW. A skeptical view of this scenario is that advanced aerodynamic design isn't the golden ticket to sales that it once was. The potential for aerodynamic advantage has dwindled in recent years as brands have recognized the low hanging fruit and now often play within the margin of error of a wind tunnel. The days of being sold for nothing but dwindling earnings began to deteriorate as generic bike brands started copying such tried and tested profiles.
One bullish view (and the side of the fence I sit on most of the time) is that the market is maturing and many of the big names are now clearly looking over the wind tunnel and finally realizing that people are cycling outdoors. Brands are now addressing the obvious issues of handling and stability in stormy conditions and may realize that designing a wind tunnel is not the best way to go for many drivers.
Zipp has partnered with AeroLab, the expert in aerodynamic test machines, to conduct aerodynamic and rolling resistance tests outdoors instead of indoor tests. These field tests help provide more relevant data and inform (and confirm) new areas for performance improvement. Still, this technology is still in its infancy, and in the case of the 353 NSW, the company's previous test resulted in corrupted and unusable data. The test with the 353 NSW has yet to be repeated.
"Aero isn't everything – it's just one component of speed, contrary to what the bike industry (and, in fairness, Zipp) has been saying for many years," said Donzé. “There are conditions in the real world where it is faster to be less aerodynamic as long as you have higher rolling efficiency and vibration dampening. So it doesn't make sense to say which of the 353 or 454 is faster – it all depends on your driving style and the types of trips you make.
“For high-speed travel on flat to hilly terrain and on clean roads, the 454 is probably the one. For longer journeys, on rougher roads and with greater differences in altitude; 353 is the better option. "
And we focus on the weight again
Wider tires and the advent of disc brakes have increased the weight of racing bikes, and it seems that wheel brands are once again aiming for fewer grams.
The 303 Firecrest has lost a whopping 300 grams from its predecessor, and at around 1,400 grams with tubeless tape and valves, it's now by no means a heavy option. The 353 NSW manages to save a further 100 grams and at the same time offers a deeper rim profile and a slightly higher lateral stiffness.
My front and rear trial bikes came in at 596g and well, those weights aren't the lowest, but they're certainly pretty tiny for a disc brake wheelset that has 24 Sapim CX-Ray steel leaf spokes front and rear and a decent rim depth and a big one Maintains inner width.
The Sawtooth rim profile, which also enables the use of slightly shorter spokes, has a large share of the lower grams. "The reason why we use this profile at a depth of 303 is that Sawtooth offers structural advantages for the rim: thanks to this shape, the rim is stronger and stiffer while being lighter," explains Donzé, who later called the design the best Combination of aerodynamics and lightweight. A 353 NSW rim weighs only 341 g.
Low wheelset weight is always the sum of all parts, but the rims certainly play the main role here.
Of course, such a detailed rim design is associated with increased costs. "Saw-tooth rims are more labor-intensive than Firecrest wheels – their profiles require significantly more time to apply and harden," says Donzé. Both the 353 and 303 Firecrest rims are produced in-house in the USA.
The graphics that are printed directly on the rim surface are also more expensive. In contrast to the stickers that are used on the cheaper bikes from Zipp, these should be lighter, lightfast and non-flaking.
A look inside the hub
Zipp's new Cognition V2 hubs also save a few grams and are designed to roll more freely than the ZR1 DB found in the Firecrest wheels. How much more free do you ask? I don't know, but the wheels turn for a damn long time.
Previous generation Zipp's cognition hub had an intricate array of magnets and magic to create engagement, and if something went wrong, it wasn't having any fun. In comparison, the Cognition V2 is much simpler in design, now offers a faster pickup (54T), should have less friction and of course have improved durability. With two interlocking drive rings, the design doesn't differ much from a heavily oversized version of DT Swiss's EXP hub design.
These "Axial Clutch" drive rings have an intricate shape that is made by metal injection molding. The collapse is a pretty unique Sylomer spring package, or more simply, the spring is made of lightweight foam and yet functions like a metal wave washer. Not used in your couch, this foam is widely used as a damper in power tools or medical imaging and is designed to maintain its mechanical properties over time.
The locking rings are lubricated with oil, not grease, and are protected by a large seal that is pressed into the hub shell (be careful when removing). Zipp recommends cleaning and re-oiling the drive mechanism every 100 hours of operation. This process should only take a few minutes and doesn't even require removing the cassette from the freewheel – simply pull the cassette with the wheel out of the bike and you'll be given access. The Sylomer spring soaks up some of the lubricant, and while I assumed this was intentionally used as a lubricating oil reservoir for the drive rings, it does not appear to be the intent of the design.
At high speed, the drives slide almost over each other, and the low-friction design ensures that the hub rolls more and more quietly with increasing speed. While not quiet, this is a hub devoid of obnoxious decibels.
Both front and rear hubs have simple push-on end caps that do not require tools to access the industrial bearings or the freewheel mechanism. The bearing preload is automatically taken over by a small corrugated spring in each hub. All in all, these are really an easy to maintain hub with full-size, full-length bearings.
Zipp doesn't give you ceramic bearings for the $ 4,000 wheel set price and I think that's a cheeky profit margin booster on your part. However, I cannot complain about the performance of the high-quality steel cartridge chambers supplied, which are equipped with low-contact seals. They roll really well. Such a free rolling only suggests a slight outer seal, exactly what you would expect from a performance-oriented product, but those who plan to use this in wet and sandy conditions should be prepared to open it up much more frequently.
The hub shells are made of aluminum and, interestingly, have rather normal flanges for use with J-Bend spokes. I've gotten used to seeing straight-pull spokes and matching hubs on any high-end performance wheel, so this was an interesting design choice. According to Donzé, the decision was made for practical reasons – almost every bike shop in the world can fix a J-Bend spoke wheel, while a straight spoke can be more difficult to find. These spokes are accompanied by external aluminum nipples. Zipp hasn't always prioritized easy maintenance and repairs, so kudos to them.
Bet you didn't expect to see J-bend spokes here?
My sample pair arrived slightly used and I can therefore not say whether there was an acclimatization phase or whether the spoke tension of the new one has dropped. What I can say is that the spokes were tight all around and lined up with constant numbers. For the stern, I measured the spokes on the non-drive side at 56% of the tension on the drive side. This is pretty common on many wheels and shouldn't pose long term problems, but I'm sure wheel builders all over the world will be talking about such things.
The wheels are supplied as standard for standard 100 x 12 mm forks and 142 x 12 mm thru-axle frames. The wheels can be ordered with either Shimano HG freewheel or SRAM XDR. The Campagnolo 10-12-speed freehub body is only available separately. The hubs have centerlock rotor mounts.
Extras? What extras. For $ 4,000, you can get wheels with tubeless tape and aluminum valves, and then a couple of disc brake retaining rings. Would you like a pair of Quarq TyreWizs, matching wheel bags or a Zipp brand valve core tool to be included in the price? Yes, I was too.
A generous guarantee
Zipp covers all of its new wheels with a fairly generous lifetime warranty.
This lifetime warranty covers all problems that arise during normal driving, such as: B. slamming the rim into a huge pothole. “If you ride a bike and have a problem, we'll take care of you for free,” said Donzé. "Potholes are part of regular use, they are everywhere."
Zipp also offers a 50% discount on a spare wheel if damage occurs outside of regular use, e.g.
Setting up the 353 NSWs is a fairly straightforward affair. How difficult tubeless tire installation is can vary, and I've experienced a range from “easy with two thumbs” to “requires a tire lever”. In the scheme of things, these rims are roughly average for mounting tires.
From there, ventilation was easy and quite possible with a floor pump. And it is impressive how securely the tires lock into place on the hookless rim and effectively lock into place. To release a flat tire, you must physically detach the bead from the rim.
Tires will still snap into place when they reach their maximum diameter. Inflation with the recently tested Topeak JoeBlow Tubi Pump.
A wide wheel like this will almost certainly require a rethinking of what pressures you're using, and it's worth experimenting with. Zipps' online pressure calculator recommended that my 70kg body and I should only use 53psi in the front and 56.5psi in the rear with a 28mm tire. Meanwhile, Silca's calculator, asking various questions, has returned suggested pressures closer to 65 and 66.5 psi. My preference ended up somewhere between the two suggestions.
No matter how stiff a modern wheel is, you can easily make it comfortable by lowering the tire pressure. That was exactly what I realized with Cadex's carbon spoked 36 disc wheels, which were almost unforgiving, but it hardly mattered if you had the correct tire pressure with these tubeless rims. In comparison, the 353 NSW is a more forgiving wheel and even if the rim width and tire pressure were kept constant, you would still ride noticeably smoother than this Cadex. On top of that, the Zipp rims are actually about 2.5mm wider and these wheels are sure to bring a new level of smoothness and comfort to any bike they're mounted on.
Interestingly, I found that the wider rim and associated larger tire volume also played a small and subtle role in how reactive the bike felt. I did some back-to-back testing between the 353 NSWs and a pair of Scribe Aero Wide 42+ wheels that were literally a quarter the cost.
These Scribes offer 21 mm inner rim width and thus keep a 28 mm tire a bit narrower and rounder. What I found out was that when the Scribe was vented based on the respective recommendations from Silca's pressure calculator, it assisted with more reactive handling that caused the bike to tip over with greater urgency, basically as if the bike's trail figure was reduced . In contrast, the 353 NSW felt a little more subdued for a certain speed. One isn't necessarily better than the other, but my theory is that it just comes down to the Zipp's wider rims and how it affects tire molding.
That wide rim will inevitably square or flatten the shape of a tire more than a narrower rim, and I think Zipp is right to suggest a minimum of 28mm here. And while the 28mm tires in question ran great on these bikes, I personally would have preferred a slightly narrower rim with such a tire width. Choose a tire with a printed width of 30, 32 or more and the 25mm inner rim width of the Zipp will gradually become more advantageous.
This is the rim width I choose for gravel tires. Personally, I think a slightly narrower rim is ideal when you are on the road and only want to use 28 mm tires.
These back-to-back tests extended to other areas as well. In a straight line roll test, neither the Scribe nor the Zipp wheels gave a measurably different result. Both reached a top speed of 74 km / h with repeatable results. But here, too, the Zipp wheels made a subtly smoother ride that made me think it was slower at first. Of the two, the Zipp wheels certainly encourage you to go faster.
Likewise, I can't say that I felt a huge difference in crosswind stability between the Scribe wheels and the Zipps. The zips are ahead by a nose, and that's pretty impressive given the deeper and lighter rim. Both wheels are what I would consider stable, however, and both are just deep enough to be talkative in extremely strong gusts. Those who come from flatter wheels may notice it, while those who are used to deeper wheels or older V-shaped tread rims say they are not affected by cross winds at all.
These Scribes are by no means heavy (1,400g) bikes, and I'll admit I can't tell the 100-gram difference between them and the 353s. I've been actively looking for a difference by jumping from low speeds, and yet both of them felt similarly reactive and alive to me.
Continuing this swap has only cemented my opinion that modern disc brake wheels are darn good and that the differences between low-cost and ultra-premium wheels can be subtle at best – especially since there is no comparable brake track.
Disc brakes have made it possible to reduce the price of carbon wheels without fear of safety. And that gives fewer reasons to spend top dollars on such a bike.
I really preferred the general quietness of the zips when rolling (those Scribes are annoyingly loud) and also, if I'm just driving poorly maintained asphalt and well-kept dirt, I'm sure the 353 NSWs would stand above it, but that's not that Reality of my local road trip. If I only ride poorly maintained asphalt and dirt, I would be more comfortable with a cheaper wheel like the 303 Firecrest.
These wheels were almost completely problem-free during my tests and the only annoyance I experienced was the slightest noise from the front disc brake discs when you really pulled the handlebars. My theory is that the shaft washer based bearing preload allows the hub axle to move the smallest amount.
The 353 NSW is a soulful impeller – thanks to its low mass it reacts quickly to acceleration. It's stiff enough to keep track of where you want it and not twist as you sprint. It seems to hold up its speed well for a rim about 45mm deep and feels stable while doing so too. Perhaps most noticeable is how quiet and controlled the ride is on these bikes, and these benefits only become more apparent the worse your roads get. What I can't definitely say, however, is that the 353 NSW is actually a faster or measurably better impeller than others. And Zipp can't do that at the moment.
"The subjective feedback we get from field testers is that 353 is noticeably faster than 303 Firecrest," said Donzé. "However, we cannot quantify it at this point (Ed. Based on previous tests that resulted in corrupted data)." Interestingly, Zipp has data showing that the 303 Firecrest is measurably faster than the 23mm wide 303 S, at least on dirt roads.
Worth the price?
Okay, let me sum it up. According to Zipp, the slightly deeper rim profile of the 353 NSW compared to the 303 Firecrest should be subtly more aerodynamic without compromising on stability. With the same inner rim width of 25 mm, rolling resistance, ride comfort and tire support are the same. The side stiffness is higher on the 353 NSW, but you will need a template to see this. From a tangible point of view, you do not forego anything and save 100 grams.You also get hubs that rotate more freely. And the end result is a feather-light wheelset that offers a healthy dose of ride comfort that matches the speed of riding on smooth surfaces.
Is it all worth paying twice now? It's a big fat no from me.
While it is certainly a more expensive product to manufacture, the reality is that Zipp's NSW wheels are priced so that the company's high research and development costs that go into those wheels, future wheels, and the cheaper wheels that go straight from them profit, investment is covered.
Zip's transparency about the actual advantages of the 353 NSW over its cheaper bikes was a refreshing breeze for me. The 353 NSW remains a product that exists for those who simply want the best, regardless of price, even when the laws of diminishing returns shine brighter than a fresh neon sign. But even then, I'm still not convinced that these justify the astronomical asking price, and I'd probably have to see a price drop of $ 500 before that change.
Perhaps the most important takeaway from this review is that Zipp's three-tier wheel hierarchy plays out like a textbook sales tactic and inevitably leaves you looking for the middle option like it's a golden goose.
Clever marketing or not, the cheaper 303 Firecrest wheels actually have a lot to offer and I would seriously consider buying a pair myself if I were in the market for an all-rounder that could get it across the street and fast can mix gravel. After all, we're talking about a bike that is literally half the price and at least 95% as good.