It's been nearly five years since Zipp released their 454 wheels, the groundbreaking wheelset that was the first to showcase their polarizing and controversial jagged edge rim profile. In the world of bike technology, five years is quite an eternity, and many of us have long wondered when we'd see any follow-up or evolution to the design. Well, today, we finally see the next step in the form of the Zipp 353 NSW wheelset.
The Zipp 353s take the proven, albeit unusual shape of Zipp’s 454 wheels and applies it to a shallower, more versatile depth - in essence, making the 353 akin to the 303 line up, as the 454 was to the 404. However, in the five years since the 454, Zipp has made some pretty huge strides in design and technology. As we saw in last year's 303 Firecrest release, Zipp has put an enormous focus on tuning ride quality and dropping weight, and all of those gains are put to work in the 353 NSW.
Zipp 353 Tech specs
Obviously, the rim shape is the star of the show. Originally inspired by the jagged edges of the dorsal fins on humpback whales, Zipp's Sawtooth Hyperfoil design has proven to boost aerodynamics and improve crosswind stability. At its deepest, the 353 NSW has a 45mm profile, and just like the 454, shares the 404's max depth. But unlike the 454, the 353 is significantly lighter than its more standard-shaped counterpart.
When the latest 303 Firecrests came out, they weighed in at an eyebrow-raising 1352g - an impressive feat for a mid-depth disc wheel. But the 353 NSW knocks that out of the park with a claimed weight of 1,255g. Our test set came in at 1,280g. Considering that we left the supplied rim tape on, that's a pretty damn accurate claim. That ~100g weight reduction is quite the feat considering the 454s are 160g heavier than the 404s.
So, the wheels are light. Very light. But like we mentioned, they've got all the latest tech and amenities found in the latest 303 Firecrests.
There's no denying the arms race to accommodate wider tires, as well as the versatility to meet the needs of both road and gravel riders. The 353s have a 25mm internal width, giving a wide range of tire sizes optimal sidewall support. Due to the Zipp 353s hookless design, part of that width is both a pro and a con. Pros are that it helps reduce the weight, allows for better manufacturing to build the rim stronger, and provides a smoother, more aerodynamic transition from rim to tire. Cons are that the Zipp 353s wheels are only compatible with tubeless-ready tires, a potential turn off for the rider who prefers the uber supple casings of classic clincher tires.
Zipp has mated the 353's rims are to their Cognition hubs, signature to all wheels bearing NSW designation. But the 353 sets itself apart from other Zipp NSW wheels with an updated clutch mechanism. Zipp's V2 system drops the previous magnetic spring system for a plastic one that reduces drag, improves engagement, and goes the extra mile with enhanced durability.
With all of these specs and features, Zipps' 353 NSWs set the bar high. But it all comes at a cost: a pair of Zipps 353s will set you back $4000. While we're no strangers to uber-expensive bike parts, that is a pretty staggering figure when you consider they're more than twice as expensive as the already phenomenal 303 Firecrests, a cost that primarily comes down to the labor-intensive process of the Sawtooth shape.
While we applaud the 353 NSW's specs, all that on-paper goodness doesn't mean much if it doesn't translate to performance on the road. Thankfully we've gotten to spend some quality time on them in the past days and weeks, both on the road and the dirt. Spoiler alert, they ride freaking great! Not that any longtime AC observers would be surprised, as we've loved the ride of Zipp rims for quite some time now. And if you've ridden the latest 303 Firecrests then you'll find the 353s to be quite familiar, only better. How much better?
100g is a notable weight drop, and you certainly feel it when heading up the hill. Whether it's due to the new rim shape or the improved cognition hubs, they have a bit more snap too. Their cross-wind performance is actually rather impressive. Coastal Highway One can be a wind vortex, and our outings left us very pleased with how little fuss they gave us when gusts came at us. Certainly not as nonchalant as a box section rim, but for an aero wheel, rather impressive.
We won't lie - hopping from a set of 303s to these new sawtooth hoops isn't going to be a life-altering experience, but by no means is that meant to be a knock. Zipp set the standard so high with the 303 Firecrest last year, especially compared to the preceding version, that you'd be foolish to think they could be easily outdone. The fact that these wheels provide any discernible improvement at all is worthy of some serious praise.
How do they stack up?
The ~45mm aero wheel market is ripe with competition. For many riders, it’s the sweet spot for aero, weight, and overall performance, and it’s easily the most popular depth of aero wheel we sell. Our top choices in the arena have been the aforementioned Zipp 303 Firecrest, the Enve 3.4 AR, Campagnolo Bora 45 WTO, and Lightweight Meilenstein Evos. All are phenomenal wheels but do have rather differing specs.
In terms of weight, the Zipp 353 NSWs handily take the cake. 1255g is light - 97g lighter than the 303 Firecrests, 144g lighter than the Enves built on I9 hubs, 125g lighter than the (not so)Lightweights, and a rather significant 265g lighter than the Bora 45s.
There’s no question that the Lightweights are far stiffer and more responsive than the rest, but that’s what they’re famous for. While that may be true, both the Zipp and Enve wheels have a much more comfortable ride, especially for gravel riders, not to mention being far more serviceable should something break. The Bora WTOs ride sensationally smooth, but they're a fair bit heavier. Furthermore, both Zipp rims and the Enve 3.4 ARs have 25mm internal rim width, while the Lightweights only offer a mere 18mm internal and Campagnolo a 19mm internal.
There’s quite a span in price point across all of these options. The Meilenstein Evos, with their exotic full carbon construction, are the most luxurious at a steep $7590. The 303 Firecrest are a very affordable $1900, where the Enve 3.4 ARs and Bora WTOs sit closely at $2550 and $2449 respectively. The Zipp 353 NSWs hit between the Enves and Lightweights at $4000.
In so many ways, the new Zipp 353 NSW wheels top the charts and are sure to send other makers chasing to keep up, offering featherlight weight combined with the outstanding ride quality and aero performance Zipp has been lauded for. Are the Zipp 353 NSW wheels worth the tall sticker price? Zipp may have shot themselves in the foot when they packed so much performance and value into the 303 Firecrest at a very approachable $1900. Those wheels certainly make it tough to justify the spendy $4000 353s, especially if the bold shape doesn’t suit your tastes. But when you want the best of the best and love riding something different than what’s on all the other bikes on the road, then there’s no denying the 353 NSW is the wheel to beat. Like we said before, the improvements compared to the Firecrest aren’t massive, but in the world of cycling, marginal gains have always been the name of the game.
It should come as no surprise, but these wheels are available in incredibly short supply. As of the time of publication, we have only six sets available, so grab yourself a pair while you can! If you want to get in line for the next batch, reach out, and we’ll happily get you on the list!
For a full list of specs and to order you own, check them out here.
Need some extra eye candy? Check out the gallery for a deep photo set of the wheels alone as well as our first few builds.