The most quietly rapid, comfortable, versatile, responsive and enjoyable drop-bar wheel we’ve ever ridden at an impressive price with awesome warranty support
25-50mm tyre compatible
Blissful tubeless fit
Not as smooth as new Firecrest
Not Continental tyre compatible
Slow freehub engagement
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Zipp has released two new versions of its super-popular 303 wheel this year. The S is faster in more places than the previous Firecrest, with better user-friendliness, versatility and warranty for almost half the price. But how does it compare to the more expensive Zipp 303 Firecrest and it’s other affordable carbon competitors?
303 wheels have always been in the 40-50mm depth bracket and at 45mm the new S is no exception. At 27mm external and 23mm internal width has been increased significantly over the previous ‘budget’ 302 (17mm internal) and the previous Firecrest (21mm) internal. At 1,610g complete with tubeless valves, they’re 120g lighter than the previous non-tubeless 302 and 115g lighter than the previous Firecrest. Despite the lower weight you still get Zipp’s excellent lifetime ride damage warranty if you’re the original owner and you weigh less than the 115kg (250lbs) rider limit.
By keeping rim bed width to 23mm (new 303 Firecrest is 25mm internal) the S rims are compatible with 25mm tyres and can handle up to 50mm fine although they’re optimised for use with 28mm. Tubeless set up has been simplified with all tyres we’ve tried fitting easily by hand without levers but still inflating and locking into place without fuss using just a track pump. It’s worth noting that not all tyre companies - including Continental - clear their tubeless tyres to use with hookless rims though. It’s also worth noting that the rims don’t get Zipp’s trademark dimpled ‘golf ball’ surface and the new design graphics are baked on rather than removable/replaceable.
The Centrelock 76/176 DB hubs are the same as the 302 so maximum engagement gap is 10-degrees compared to 3-degrees on the new Firecrest hubs. You get conventional J bend bladed spokes for aero efficiency and easy replacement on both wheels though.
Zipp’s whole new wider, lighter wheel ethos is designed to make its wheels faster and more useable - it calls this ‘Total System Efficiency’ for the full range of drop-bar riders and we used the 303S with Zipp’s 28mm Tangente Speed RT28 tyres on the road and Tangente Course G40 wheels off-road. Despite the same rim depth and spoke/hub set up the wider, tubeless set up made for an obviously smoother, more cultured and faster ride than the stiff and dead feeling 302 wheels we’ve ridden.
They’re still stiff firm rather than soft in feel but that’s true of most affordable carbon wheels even in shallower depths. Once the hub had engaged they picked up speed promptly and the stiffness gives excellent tracking precision and the broad profile gives confidently gust and tramline free handling at all speeds and wind angles.
Even when we dropped slightly below Zipp’s suggested low pressures (around 60 psi for a 70kg rider) out of curiosity we had no issues with tyre stability or burped air. We didn’t pick up any rim damage from potholes and other impacts that we deliberately didn’t avoid in the name of testing. Running the tough G40 tyres at 30psi let us hit stuff even harder with no ill effects and again the 23mm bed held them in good shape however hard we attacked rough corners or got cross-threaded in ruts. Compared to similar wheels running similar pressures, ride feel is definitely ‘on par’ in terms of keeping the bike feel unchanged though rather than offering the ‘magic carpet’ float of the wider, shallower, specifically ‘soft’ carbon layup Firecrest wheels.
We weren’t big fans of Zipp’s previous 302 ‘budget’ wheels, but the 303S deliver a far better performance for significantly less money. Easy speed, firm ride feel, vice-free handling and responsive weight are on par with the best wheels of their price and they’re great for harnessing the latest wide tyre, low-pressure trends on-road and off. You also get the bonus of a big brand, lifetime warranty back up and the kudos of Zipp’s new logo. That makes them an impressive contender in the £1,000/€1,000 wheel wars. While they’re fast in a whole range of riding conditions they don’t offer the remarkably floated feel advantage of the Firecrest and the hubs are slower engaging so if that matters to you it's worth digging deeper on spending if you can.
Tech specs: Zipp 303S Carbon Tubeless Disc wheelset
- Weight: 760g front + 850g rear = 1,610g (700c with tubeless valves)
- Depth: 45mm
- Material: Carbon
- Width: 23mm (internal)
- Price: $1,300 / €1,100 / £985
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