ZIPP 303 NSW – THE NEW BEST PERFORMER ALL-AROUND ROAD BIKE WHEELS

With the 303 NSW, Zipp has outdone itself.  In this case, “itself” is Zipp’s 303 Firecrest which has been the all-around standard that carbon mid-depth wheelsets have been measured against and was the one I’d previously picked as the Best Performer among all-arounds.

Well, there is a new Best Performer and the 303 NSW is it.

The 303 NSW handles better, rolls better, climbs better, brakes better and deals with crosswinds better than the 303 Firecrest and every other all-around wheelset I and my fellow tester Nate have ridden.  It sustains your momentum like a much deeper wheelset, accelerates like a much lighter one and is stiffer and more responsive than its predecessor.

(Author drops the mike….)

Umm… (author clears throat; picks up the mike)… It costs more too.  Zipp reduced the Firecrest MSRP/RRP about 25% when the NSWs were introduced and the NSWs are priced about 10% more than the Firecrests were.  If I’ve done my math right, that puts the Firecrest now at about 2/3rd the full price of the NSW or the NSW about half again more the price of the Firecrest.

That said, the NSW (USD$3100, £2,370, €2,800) is in the same price range as the new ENVE SES 3.4, its perennial performance competitor.  It is more expensive than the other all-around wheels in this review but it also performs better.  (I’ve not reviewed the new ENVE yet).

These wheels handle remarkably well, providing you precise cornering at all speeds and a “glued to the ground” feel of total confidence.

Nate described being figuratively blown away by how well the 303 NSW’s crosswind performance prevented him from being literally being blown away.  These 46mm deep rims seem to have the cross-section of 25mm alloys, when you can feel the wind pushing your body sideways, but feel nothing torquing your handlebars.  You get the sensation that your wheels are actually compensating for the wind and keeping your line straight.

The NSW line brings dry braking on par with alloy wheels and wet braking close to it.  While the Firecrest braking is very good indeed, these are clearly a step forward and give you no shelter under the “alloy braking is better” excuse some use to pass on carbon wheels.

What I probably liked most among all the things I liked about these wheels is the way they roll, respond and climb.  Riding a lot of different wheelsets and a lot of distance over varying terrain during the year, I’ve gotten quite attuned to these three, often related factors.

These 303 NSWs roll very smoothly and give you the sensation that they aren’t holding you back when you freewheel.  Likewise, they feel like they maintain their speed when you ease off the cranks better than other mid-depth wheels.  As I often find myself working to hold on to the group I’m riding with, this saves me a bit of energy I can use when the group starts to turn the screws or when the road turns uphill.

That’s where the responsiveness of these wheels makes me smile.  They go when I want or need to stay with a move.  They are stiff, there is no lag when I spin up my cadence and they transmit energy from my legs to the road in an uncannily quick and efficient way.  I feel the same efficiency when the road pitches up and I need to get up out of the saddle or increase my power output while seated.

As the old saying goes: Oh what a feeling!

For those of you focused on specs, I measured the set I rode at 45.8 mm deep, 27.5mm wide about halfway up the brake track, and 28.5mm max width, each an average of measurements at a half dozen points on each wheel.  The front wheel’s inside width averaged 17.5mm and the rear 17.2mm.

The wheelset weighs 1479g with rim tape on my scale and the skewers add another 70g.  This is exactly 100 grams less than what the 303 Firecrest weighs though, from what I’ve read, most of the weight difference comes in the hubs.  Less weight in the hubs doesn’t contribute much to the improved climbing performance and overall responsiveness as much as the improved performance of the hubs them themselves.  And most won’t feel a 100g difference from wheelset to wheelset.

I could go on about the NSW’s new hub design and rim shape, revised dimple surface, upgraded brake track with their unique names and the other cool new design aspects of these wheels, all of which likely contribute to the performance I’ve described above.  I believe that how the wheels perform is far more important in choosing between them than their design features and prefer to spend most of my time (and yours) in reviews focused on the former than the later.

They aren’t tubeless ready, which I don’t think most people looking to ride a high-performance wheelset like this one will care about.  (The new ENVE 3.4 are.)  The do look pretty sweet to my eyes, which I think most people riding any wheelset do care about even though it doesn’t make them any faster, unless you ride harder because you feel good about what you are riding.

Let me try to answer (or dodge) a couple questions I’d expect I’ll get if I don’t.  Yes, as I think I’ve explained, they are noticeably better than the Firecrests in most of the key performance areas.  No, I can’t tell you whether they are worth paying extra for than the Firecrest or the wheelset I picked as the Best Value.  (That was the dodge.)  It’s up to each us to decide how much you are willing to pay for added performance.

Also, know that somewhere around early 2016, SRAM, Zipp’s parent, instituted tighter pricing controls on their dealers where they can.  Specifically, they require their dealers to sell in countries and regions near their stores.  For example, US and Canadian dealers can ship to customers at US and Canadian addresses and UK and EU stores can ship to customers at UK and EU addresses but UK and EU stores can’t ship to US, Canadian, Australian, Japanese and other customers who live outside of the UK and EU.

Further, MAP or minimum advertised pricing laws in the US and other countries (but not UK and EU ones) allow Zipp to set an advertised price floor for these wheels in those countries where the law applies.  If an authorized dealer gets caught advertising below the MAP, Zipp can pull their distribution agreement.  So much for free market competition.

With that in mind, here are links to stores that I recommend based on their high customer satisfaction ratings and that have the 303 NSWs in stock at the best prices in several regions US/CA Competitive CyclisteBay, UK/EU WiggleTweeks CyclesTredzITK10, ProBikeKit UK ITK10.

37 comments

  • Good afternoon Steve,

    Another excellent review! Knowing that you live in the North East, I am very impressed that you have put on the miles to do this review so early in the season. You should definitely be setting in front of the fireplace with a warm beverage today though.

    All the Best!

    • Thanks Weldon, In truth, much of it was done last fall and early winter with a few finishing rides to confirm things on some of the nicer days we’ve had so far this year. Steve

  • Steve,
    After reading all your helpful comments I have narrowed it down to 2 wheelsets.
    Zipp 303 Firecrest rim brake or Shimano C40 alloy rim brake.
    I am leaning toward the Zipp’s ,but I am doing a bike vacation in the Rockies( Mt.Evans,and Pikes Peak ) are on the agenda, so I am wondering in your experience if you would have any reservations with the Zipp’s braking on long descents , rain or shine.
    I would love the new NSW’s , but they are out of my budget.
    Thanks for all your help, Dave

  • Steve,
    I agree that these are excellent wheels. I had some FC and used to take some C24s when I went to the mountains for the braking more than the weight. Since riding the NSW I’ve sold the C24s as I feel secure enough to ride the NSW all the time. Expensive they might be but that smile on my face tells me its worth it.

    Another great review.
    Thanks
    Nick

    • Hi Nick,
      Do you own FC 303 also? How do you feel the NSW 303 vs FC 303?
      I just bought the FC303…very good wheels, but I’m tempted for NSW

      • Isaac,
        I did own the FC and had an accident – I replaced them with the NSW. The NSW brakes better, seems to be less affected by cross winds. This is particularly noticeable when cornering- the FC would pull a bit when changing direction but the NSW seems to be more stable. You almost forget you have deepish rims. They just ride so well. They seem to roil better/faster but that might be my imagination.

        Of course this is just my opinion- it’s how they seem to me.

        I’m very very pleased with them. I’m riding with 23mm gp4000S II at 90psi front & 85 psi rear and I weigh 141lbs in case that alters anything.

        I love them.
        Nick

  • Hello,

    Just really curious about something. I think I’ve read somewhere around your site that previously, the ENVE 4.5s (2016) were your best “All Around” wheelset. How does that compare to this though.

    Thanks!

    • Hanz, Interesting you should ask. First world problem. I’d say if you tend to do more flat and hilly all-around riding than the average all-around rider, the ENVE would be faster. If you are doing more climbing than the average all-around rider, the Zipp would be a better choice. But you wouldn’t be unhappy with either wheelset in either situation. Steve

      • Given Zipp is located in flat Indiana, and ENVE at the base of mountains in Utah, would have thought the reverse ha ha.

        Interested to hear your review of the new ENVE 3.4 (2017) when you get a chance to ride those in the coming months. Both Zipp and ENVE offer top notch carbon clinchers at this price range, I’m guessing its mostly a draw between the ENVE 3.4, Zipp 303 NSW, and ENVE 4.5. Beyond subjective differences, there are some things to consider like ENVE’s 5 year warranty (vs Zipp 2 year), the 3.4 is offered in both rim and disc brake versions, is tubeless ready, and no rider weight limit on ENVE wheels (yup, I’m a big guy). The shallower 3.4 wheels likely handle better on fast 35-50mph descents, the other half of climbing steep hills. So depending on where you live and ride that could make the 3.4 a better all-arounder, say if you ride a mix of steep hills and flats. First world problems indeed!

      • Steve, great review yet again – thanks.
        Pleased to read your above response – my riding (up in Southern Ontario) is certainly not more hilly than most.
        So apparently I may have resolved my First World challenge in a directionally correct manner by ordering a set of 4.5ARs to go with my dream (not-allowed-to-state-age) birthday bike

  • standninthefire

    Wondering if you’ve seen the latest blog post from November bicycles where they conducted an aerodynamic test of the Zipper 303s against the new and increasingly numerous aerodynamic aluminum rims. Their findings suggest that 30mm aero aluminum rims can be as aero as the leading carbon clinchers, like the Zipper 303, without all of the downsides that come with carbon rims. What are your thoughts on the results they presented?

    http://www.novemberbicycles.com/blog/2017/2/9/wind-tunnel-testing-the-al33-xr31tfsw3-and-other-alloys.html

    Thanks for all of the great, in depth content you provide. It’s insightful to read through.

    • standninthe fire, thanks for question. I regularly read blogs and periodic articles on this and related topics from November and other wheel makers, bike makers, tire makers, pump makers, bike magazines interviewing contract test labs, bike magazines interviewing wheel makers/bike makers/tire makers, bike magazines that do their own testing, etc. and a few independent souls who also do their own testing. You probably know who these folks are.

      All very good or at least interesting reads that sound valid (who am I to challenge their validity?). The problem I have is that very few look at interrelationships between the wheels, tires, bikes, etc. that they are testing. So tire maker Jan Henne shows definitively that wider tires have lower rolling resistance but doesn’t look at the offsetting aero effect that wider tires have when they are put on narrower rims. November looks at wheel aero performance and shows little difference at yaw angles <5 degrees but takes no account for the relationship of tire width to the rim width and the aero effect of the air coming off the tire onto the rim and vice versa. (See Tom Anhalt's blog for that). And let's not get started with different tires and yaw angle distribution or the relationship between the wheel/tire combo and the bike/fork, etc.

      I take all of this with huge grains of salt and that's why I don't focus on the design or specs and concern myself more with the performance factors I mention above. Sure, some of it is subjective but I know that a 45mm deep wheel with a torroid shape and a mounted, inflated tire width that is 1mm or so narrower than the brake track rim width is faster than a 25-30mm deep wheel that has a box shape and a tire wider than the rim and many depths, shapes and tire sizes in between. I can feel it definitively and I can see it in my times. And I also know that wheel aero performance doesn't matter a damn if you are an endurance rider that never gets in even the most basic of aero positions. I've written about this in my How to Ride Faster articles (see under My Take section at the bottom of the home page).

      My point is, don't get stuck in the analytical do do. I could poke holes in the value of November's tests if not in the validity of them with little difficulty but to what end? And so could they. They choose to focus on what they think is most helpful in selling what they sell (wheels built with their hubs) and I don't deny them that right. I just suggest you focus on the performance of the complete bike and rider in the real world. To the extent I can help with that, that's why I'm here.

      Steve

    • I don’t have experience with semi-aero carbon rims but i have experience with one semi-aero alum. wheelset that i am sure is on par with the vast majority of carbon aero wheels.
      That is Fulcrum quattro LG. 35mm depth, 17mm internal rim and 23.2 externat rim width. With conti 23mm, which measure 25mm mounted on the rim and latex inner tubes, i got 2km/h faster (32 to 34km) from my campangolo zonda 15c with 25mm vittoria rubino pro and butyl inner tubes.
      Power, weather, testing field were the same.

      The cost of the new set up (wheelset/tyres/tube) was 360aud.

      I challenge anybody who has a shallow rim wheelset and a carbon aero wheelset to make the comparison and post the difference.

      • I have a Wed night club ride, the warmup is about 3 miles, then a 10 mile push, and then we regroup. The next 11 miles – “the main event” – are ridden very hard and fast, and then a 3 mile cool down. My normalized power for the entire ride varies between 250-275W, depending on the ride.

        On group rides with alloy wheels I could hang on to the fast group for about 5 miles, both before and after the regroup. After about 5 miles riders start dropping off the fast group pace, and it usually breaks into a fast group (3-4 people), a middle group (6-8), and a back group (1-2). With alloy wheels I was always in the middle group. With mid-aero (ENVE 5.6) wheels I’m now in the fast group 100% of the ride.

        On the 11 mile / 18km “main event” my *solo* riding time is now around 29:40 (about 35.9km/h) for ~240W effort. That solo effort is faster than 80% of my alloy wheel *group* rides where I had the benefit of a larger draft group (and less pulling).

        My group ride on aero wheels for the “main event” is now around 27:40 (38.5km/h), also for ~240W effort. With aero wheels I’ve gained a 1-3 minute advantage on this ~30 minute / 11 mile / 18km effort, in similar weather conditions and same power output. More importantly, I’m able to maintain 22+mph / 35+km/h over long distances and time.

        Hope that helps.

  • Hi Steve,

    Have you had a chance or are thinking about reviewing Zipp 454’s? I’m curious how these play into the all-around wheel set category.

    • John, I hope to test the 454s. These are more of a flat land aero wheel than an all arounder. Think of them as a 404 NSW (reviewed here) with an inside rim edge designed for very windy environments like Hawaii, coastal regions or the plains states. Steve

  • Any idea on if/when we’ll see a disc brake version?

  • Paul, no idea. They recently introduced a disc specific 303 FC version that I’m checking into for an update of the disc brake wheelset review for 2017. Steve

  • Steve, Speaking to 303 NSW and 303 FC. I have been looking hard at the 303 FC disc brake wheels for sometime as I have a set of HED Ardennes SL disc for my shallow wide rim of choice. The fact that they aren’t center lock hurts my soul a little bit, but I understand that SRAM own Zipp and they can’t give into Shimano’s CL patent.

    All that aside, I’m looking for an aero option for when I’m not using the Ardennes. The FC 303 Disc seemed like a clear winner because I LOVE the tire profile you get with a wider (21) internal width(just like Enve moved to in there new 2017 models). However, while I understand that wheels are being made wider at the brake track to marry better with the trend in wider tires, while not losing aero gains to the tire/rim meeting point. Why do they still put narrow internal widths on these wheels ?

    This was the same thing that turned me off to the new C40, wider rim, but still the same narrow internal width!. Help me understand what I’m missing in this equation. As this new 303 NSW seems great! but why did they do 17 on the internal with and 21mm internal on the FC model?

    • Jeffrey, To be clear, the 303 FC rim brake model has the same 17.25mm claimed internal width as the 303 NSW. The 303 FC disc brake has a 21mm internal width.

      I can only guess that the structural requirements on the brake track of the rim brake FC and NSW and the desire not to add rim weight keeps them from widening the internal dimension. That said, the wheel is comfortable, aero, rolls beautifully, etc. See review above for performance.

      The 303 FC DB, while formerly the same rim with a wider hub for disc brake bikes, is freed of the structural requirements at the “brake track”. Zipp designed the latest model 303 FC DB wheelset as a DB wheelset and took advantage of this freedom. Further, a lot of people go to disc-brake bikes because they ride on roughh roads or go off-road for cross, gravel, “alternative” in addition to riding smooth tarmac. For these situations, many riders prefer a tubeless tire so they can lower the pressure without worry about pinch flats. And a wider inside with makes for a better tubeless design. So a wider internal width is possible and preferable.

      I think the Shimano C40 is another story. To me, it just looks like they decided to invest in widening the DB wheelset and just relabel the C35 rim brake wheelset a C40 without changing it including keeping its 15C size. Hard to know why.

      The proof is in the performance. I stay away from recommending based on design and encourage readers not to decide on it either. You ride performance rather than design. Steve

  • Hi Steve,
    My new Zipp 303 Firecrests are on the way, thanks to you!
    I liked your review of the new NSW’s , but they are out of my price range for now.
    One more question?
    Do you think braking in the mountains , particuarly on wet mountain descents, would be better with the Swissstop Black Prince brake pads?
    I was thinking of their low profile Black Prince pads.
    Zipp semed to think they might be a bit better in the wet than the supplied pads.
    I am used to using carbon braking techniques, as I have ridden Zipp 303 tubulars , but not in the mountains .
    Thanks, Dave

  • Dave, I don’t have experience with those pads on those wheels but agree those are generally good pads. If Zipp are recommending them above their own, I’d definitely give them a try. Steve

  • Hey Steve, I’m deciding between the 303 NSWs or the new Enve 3.4 with the DT Swiss 240. I’m 6′ 2″ and 225 and do both flats and climbing and just looking for the best fit to go fast and make my F8 Dogma perform. I am concerned about Hub noise and braking on the Enves and Lack of a track record on the new Zipp hub and the lower warranty/weight limit on the Zipps. I know you haven’t reviewed the new Enves yet but since I can’t find any demos to sample of either I’m trying to decide. I ride about 4 times a week and do 40 miles a day in North Carolina. Thanks for the great review and hopefully some additional input. Steve M

    • Steve, Here’s what I can say in answer to your concerns. No hub noise from DT240 on ENVEs. Braking “noise” from ENVE and Zipp textured brake tracks are both quite mild and IMHO quite acceptable considering the improved braking performance you get. True, Zipp hub is relatively new but has performed quite well on two different wheelsets (303 and 404 NSW) I’ve ridden it on over many months. Correct, ENVE has superior length warranty (5yrs vs. 2yrs). Weight limit is 250lbs on 303NSW and I don’t believe there is one on 3.4 as it has molded rather than drilled spoke holes. I’ve had my tester Moose ride other ENVEs (2.2, 4.5) when he was 220 lbs with no stiffness issue. I’m confident 303 NSW would be great fit for your riding. Haven’t ridden the new 3.4 yet but have been impressed with other ENVEs. Steve

      • Thanks Steve for all the great detail! Did Moose ride the 303’s? Being that I am close to the max limit of the 303’s I was concerned about their stiffness. I think the 303’s are the my leading candidate and they are absolutely the best looking. Thanks for all you do for your fellow riders!

        Sent from my iPhone

        >

  • Steve: Thank you for some very detailed and interesting reviews1
    Im looking to purchase a set of CCC´s, that i will also be using for flat and rolling hill rides. I have narrowed it down to the ENVE SES 3.4 or the ZIPP 303 NSW, and I would love to hear your comments on one vs the other, as it looks like you have tested them both?
    I used to have the 303 FC which I loved, but wouldnt want to do fast mountain decents on (breaking). I have tested the 3.4´s (ENVE Hub) for a week in hills/mountains, and love them for climbing as well as breaking, but I havent had the opportunity to test the 303 NSWs.
    One thing that I have noticed with the 3.4s i have tried is that the free-hub seems to slow you down noticebly when running free-wheel. If I take my feet off the pedals the free-hub will “grab” somewhat, and the crank will keep turning. Is that something you have seen as well?

    • Henrik, never seen or heard what you describe. My experience with the ENVE hub was silky smooth; no resistance. Sounds like an issue with the wheelset you were demoing. Was your experience with the recently announced, new, wider 3.4 or the previous original rim shape/size 3.4 one with the textured or NBT (new brake track) and ENVE ceramic hub? Switch over to my Best All-Around Carbon Rim Brake Road Bike Wheels for some review and discussion of the 303 NSW and/vs. SES 3.4 in the body of the post and comments section. Steve

  • Hi Steve,

    Firstly, great write up – really enjoyed reading your review! I’m currently contemplating a new wheelset to upgrade from my Mavic Ksyrium Pro Exalith that came stock on my bike and have been considering the NSW 303/404’s. My biggest concern and the one thing holding me back at the moment is whether these wheels are a good option if they’re going to be used as my sole wheelset? I tend to do around 200-250ish km p/week of varied riding and will shortly be getting more involved in racing.

    I was wondering what your recommendations would be? I don’t necessarily have anything against my current wheelset, however would like something that will potentially be more suited to the racing environment whilst not holding me back on the climbs (not to mention the aesthetic boost these will make to my Canyon!). Having read your review I’m thinking that the 303’s would probably be the better option between the two.

    Cheers,
    Tom

    • Tom, Thanks for the feedback. The 303 NSW would be a significant performance upgrade over the Ksyrium Pro and would be more versatile for different road terrain and road racing than the 404s. The 404s are great wheels too but better for flat and rolling hill racing than for ones that included any type of real climbing. I’d see no reason to not use the 303 NSW 8 days a week. Steve

  • Great review, I ordered these wheels from my local shop and hope to have them early next week… after a car ran over my MAVIC cosmic SLE rims I was hesitant to go for ZIPPs after horror stories concerning hubs, but my bike shop assured me those days are gone and these wheels are top of the pops.
    I was very close to opting for DURAACE 9100s but the weight of those wheels put them to bed.. the ZIPPS seem to tick all the boxes for me even though they are the most expensive wheels ive considered, looking forward to getting them on the SWORKS and hitting the road. Thanks again for the great review, it really pushed me over the line in selecting these wheels! Damien.

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