ENVE SES 4.5 – STILL STANDS ABOVE

The second-generation ENVE SES 4.5, born the SES 4.5 AR, continues to stand above all other all-around wheelsets in the performance carbon wheelset price category (US$2000/£1600/€2000 to $3000/£2300/€3000).

In my on-the-road testing, I’ve found the SES 4.5 performs as good or better on the combination of factors I think matter most to your speed and enjoyment of road cycling wheels. It’s fast, stable, stiff, comfortable, responsive, and versatile. It’s got it all.

Related: Compare my review of the ENVE SES 4.5 with other all-around wheelsets in my review The Best Carbon Disc Wheelset.

And, it’s just a hell of a lot of fun to ride. The ENVE SES 4.5 seems to glide along the road with no drama as you accelerate from a start, transition from flats to hills, and take corners at high speed. It’s unbothered by crosswinds and coasts with nary a sound from the freehub.

To be clear, the ENVE 4.5 is no recreational stroller. Rather, it’s seriously fast, deceptively so with its relatively modest looks and quiet demeanor.

I rode the new 4.5 for the first time on a recovery ride day at the end of a week of training full of hard anaerobic and VO2 max intervals. “Let’s just ease into it” I told myself, never wanting to judge a wheelset I’m testing for the first time on a hard day in the saddle.

Despite being physically and mentally tired, riding the ENVE SES 4.5 re-energized me. It responded quickly and easily to my efforts, flowed through corners, and smoothed hills and rough roads.

As I put it through harder efforts in the days that followed – VO2 intervals, 7% climbs, and on-my-limit group rides – the 4.5’s performance helped me be at my best, or at least better than on other days with other wheels rolling beneath me.

Regardless of the specs, which I’ll get to in a minute, the ENVE SES 4.5 feels light and lively and maintains my momentum in the 20mph/32mph to 25mph/40mph speed range incredibly well.

ENVE SES 4.5

Stiff, efficient, comfortable, quiet, fast. Total confidence and total pleasure regardless of terrain, surface, effort, or speed.

It’s somewhat surprising that a second-generation wheelset, little changed from one introduced 6 years before could still be the Best Performer among its peers. While others have certainly improved on individual performance criteria I use in evaluating wheels, none have reached the same level as the ENVE 4.5 across all of them.

If performance balance is a measure of an all-around wheelset, and great performance across all criteria is the mark of the best, the ENVE 4.5 still stands atop the rest.

My spec-obsessed evil twin always wants to get in the way of my performance-focused good twin and influence you, my fellow cycling enthusiasts. Well, I’ll give him some space to speak up here.

For years one of the key differences between the original 4.5 AR and most other road wheelsets was its 25mm inside width. That continues with the new 4.5 (25.3mm per my measurement) and is why I can run my tire pressure low to get the comfort I enjoy even on rough paved and dirt road surfaces. Other wheelmakers, notably Zipp and Bontrager now make rims with 23mm inside widths for wheels of similar depth while most still make road disc rims with a 21mm inside width.

On the outside, the 4.5 rim has widened a couple of millimeters per my measurements from the 4.5 AR to 32.8mm for the front wheel and 32.4mm for the rear. The rim has also gotten about 1.5 mm deeper, now 51.8mm front and 56.5mm rear.

The wider, deeper rims, says ENVE, come from adding their anti pinch-flat design to the 4.5, something the SES 3.4 AR (now the SES 3.4) has had since it was introduced. Whatever, I’ll take the added width and height if it improves the performance.

It seems so. With the slightly wider rims, more models of 28mm labeled tires can be used on the 4.5 at lower pressures to give you optimal aero drag and rolling resistance performance along with better comfort across rough roads. I get into all the details of that in my tubeless tire review.

Note also that the front and rear wheels have different dimensions and also different shapes. The front wheel has a U-shaped profile designed to improve its stability in crosswinds while the rear is deeper and has a V-shaped one to improve its aero performance.

In the last couple of years, Roval, Hunt, and Parcours have introduced wheelsets with different front and rear dimensions, and some, profiles, though none are as wide internally as the 4.5.

ENVE SES 4.5

ENVE’s measurements show the average 4.5 weighs about 100 grams less overall than the 4.5 AR did and, more importantly, their deeper, wider rims weigh about 110 grams less than the first generation ones.

My demo ENVE 4.5 wheelset came in at 1518 grams with the Shimano/SRAM 11-speed HG freehub (a SRAM XDR 12-speed one weighs about 20 less) and with the wheels taped but with no valve stems in place. That still puts it about 50 grams heavier than the actual weights of the narrower and shallower Bontrager RSL 51 and Campagnolo Bora Ultra 45 wheelsets and 140 grams more than the $4000 Zipp 454 NSW. The difference accelerating from a dead stop is minimally better with the Bontrager and Campy, and more noticeably so with the Zipp.

While more and more rims come through pre-taped with valve stems in place these days, ENVE continues to send you tape and stems to install yourself. This video demonstrates how to install ENVE tape; ignore the part at the beginning about using clincher tires – it doesn’t apply to the current line of SES wheels.

ENVE justifies this DIY approach by wanting to give you or your retailer the option to adjust the internal nipples for spoke tension and wheel true before applying the tape that covers access to the nipples. Internal nipples reduce the drag of external ones by 0.75 watts per wheel in ENVE’s wind tunnel tests. Nothing to sneeze at for those who believe in marginal gains.

I don’t know about you, but even with all the wheels I test, I’ve never found the need to have a tension meter or trueing stand on my workbench. Hand and eye inspection can detect true outliers and even with them, I’m not wrench enough to start messing with my spoke nipples.

I expect that ENVE ships very few wheels that are out of tolerance. Heck, they were one of the first to offer 5-year parts and labor warranties on their wheels. So, they likely have a pretty good fix on the quality of their wheels, all of which are made in their Utah factory. I would think most of us and our store mechanics would prefer ENVE tape their rims before shipping them to our doorsteps even though some of us have become pretty good at taping them ourselves over the years.

If a wheel were to come in with spoke tension or true that’s not up to spec, their warranty should pay a trained mechanic to adjust the nipples and retape the rim.

Note also that the ENVE SES 4.5 (and all current ENVE SES and Foundation wheels) use hookless rims and require tubeless tires whether you use sealant or tubes inside. Fortunately, the list of compatible tires for that combination is growing longer and longer and includes the top-performing tires from most brands. You can see the list of compatible and incompatible tires per ENVE testing.

For those of you still resistant to hookless rims because you want to be able to inflate your tires as high as you like without the worry of them blowing off, please understand a few things about the SES 4.5 wheels.

First, with the 4.5’s 25mm inside width, you won’t want to inflate your tires past the maximum recommended pressure of 80psi even if you weigh the maximum recommended rider weight of 250lbs/113kg. They’ll be increasingly uncomfortable and slower above the recommended pressures shown in ENVE’s chart. As you can see there, it shows only 67 psi as the starting tire pressure recommended for the heaviest riders.

Second, ENVE has been making hookless rims and testing them with tubeless tires for years. For their 25mm inside width rims, they have established 80psi as the maximum recommended tire pressure and 90psi for their 21mm inside width hookless rims. Both of these pressure levels are higher than the ETRTO and ISO 5 bar, 72.5 psi standard for hookless rims of any width.

And, ENVE only lists tires as compatible if they stay on their rims in their tests through 150% of the maximum recommended pressure. So I think there’s plenty of performance and comfort motivation to keep your tires well below the max pressure and a pretty good safety zone if you revert to your 20-year younger self in the presence of a tire pump on an off day.

Unlike earlier incarnations of SES wheels where you could order Chris King, Industry Nine, DT Swiss, or ENVE’s own branded hub with carbon shells, there will only be one hubset available on the 4.5.

Fortunately, it’s the ENVE hub with alloy hub shells, a direct drive model they’ve been putting on most of their wheels for the last handful of years. These are the same ones I’ve used with no issues (and performed no maintenance on) with the ENVE SES 5.6 and 3.4 AR wheelsets I bought to benchmark other brands of wheels with performance goals similar to those.

You can order the 4.5 with either an HG, XDR, or N3W freehub body compatible with your Shimano, SRAM, or Campagnolo groupset.

Finally, some ENVE wheelsets I’ve tested in the past have come through with hair-thin, 2-3mm long white lines in the carbon accumulated at random places along the rim’s spoke edge. While hardly visible unless you go around looking for such things (I do), I and some readers found this rather annoying and even worrisome.

The issue turned out to be only a cosmetic one apparently caused by an oxidation side effect of the hardening agent used in the resin. While a sample size of one, the new SES 4.5 I tested had almost none of these white lines. ENVE is using a new resin in their new line of SES wheels that, in part, has enabled them to reduce the rim weight but also is supposed to address the oxidation issue that caused the white lines in the earlier resin.

We’ll keep an eye on this. Literally.

The ENVE SES 4.5 price has gone up US$300 and £300 to $2850/£3100 and is available using these links to recommended store Competitive Cyclist and directly from ENVE. It’s hard to justify – you’ll need to make peace with your own budget watchdogs – but it’s also hard to say no to a wheelset that still stands above its competition.

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First published on May 26, 2022. The date of the most recent major update is shown at the top of the post.

6 comments

  • Thanks for another great review, Steve!

    Just wanted to echo your remakes on ENVE rim tape. I bought a pair of AR 4.5s based on your recommendation and have loved them – but the rim tape part of the experience has been a complete nightmare.

    Admittedly I’m rather inexperienced with tape installation. I’ve watched every one of their instruction videos and have (I thought) been meticulous in prepping the rims. And have now had a fair bit of practice applying it. But I’ve still had the sealant get through numerous times, causing multiple slow flats and bottom outs, and have found the tape will also often pull off when you de-mount a tire. Ended up having to re-apply rim tape 2-3 times this last year. Which is all the more such a bosh as ENVE won’t ship tape outside of the US and local dealers don’t seem to keep it in stock. Until recently ENVE would also only sell the tape as part of a tubeless kit (do they expect people enjoy collecting tubeless valves lol?). Ive had to pay exorbitant prices to get US shops to send it to Canada, when I’ve been in pinch. Been such an incredibly frustrating experience considering it’s a 2550 USD wheelset and all of ENVEs competitors do factory install. Given that ENVE says it will void the warranty (what they told me) if you don’t use their tape, they really need to figure out how to deliver a more reliable consumer experience. Sorry for the rant haha.

    To circle back though: phenomenal wheels and love your methodical approach to reviews. Chapeau!

  • Hey Steve, outwardly this seems like a minor update to the 4.5ar. From a pure performance perspective, do you think it’s worth upgrading?

    • Chris, Like everything else, it’s relative to the performance level you’re at and seeking. They are marginally lighter and wider and have improved puncture protection. For most current 4.5 AR owners, I wouldn’t think those improvements would be noticeable. Wouldn’t be for me.

      If you are racing, those differences might make a difference at key selection points in the race – a climb, a breakaway, a sprint, etc. I’d think there are other places you could spend your money to improve your performance either in training, gear, or kit that could make a bigger difference. Perhaps even another wheelset to complement the 4.5 AR specific to a climbing or gravel type event or regular vacationing you like to do. Steve

  • Hi Steve,

    This is great and worthy review. I’m also intertested in how you would think of comparison between Bontrager RSL 51 and ENVE 4.5 AR(Not new SES 4.5). In terms of performance, 4.5 AR still stands better than RSL 51?

    Regards,
    Eric

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