New Balance 550: The Intelligent Choice
The New Balance 550 offers great materials and surprisingly good comfort for a retro sneaker.
The New Balance 550 isn’t as comfortable as modern alternatives, and can be hard to find in certain colorways.
Heads Up: Ever do 99% of something, and then forget to click “submit?” As I was writing next week’s 650 review, I noticed that I queued this up back in November of 2021 and never clicked “post.” In light of that some of the stuff I started adding more recently, such as the weight, is missing.
I bet that if I asked you what your opinion of the New Balance 550 was 2 years ago, I’m pretty sure the answer would be, “huh?”. Even back when they first launched in 1989, you’d never find a billboard with your favorite player rocking them. It might not have even been sold near you.
In fact, New Balance themselves even forgot about this model. The Aime Leon Dore collaboration actually happened because Teddy Santis, ALD’s founder, saw a picture of someone wearing them back in the day and asked about it. New Balance had no information on it and had to find a pair someone still had lying around and reverse engineer it.
For a retro sneaker with no nostalgia, what the New Balance 550 has done over the past year is nothing short of astonishing. It is arguably the sneaker of the year, coming from nowhere to selling out GR releases within minutes. Selling out that fast is doubly impressive as New Balance drops GRs at midnight on the East Coast.
So, what makes this shoe so special that people are staying up late or refreshing New Balance’s websites at parties? Let’s take a look.
1989 was a special time for shoes. We were past the all-white requirement for the NBA, so people were experimenting more, but at the same time most modern materials had not worked their way to sneakers so you still had sturdy shoes made of leather. The New Balance 550 fit in perfectly.
Clad in a variety of overlapping panels, the 55 makes the most of that design. Starting up front, a toe guard, in black on this colorway, is cut in a way that protects your big toe from wearing through. At least, visually. Behind that, a white leather panel runs down the midfoot of the shoe, with two lockdown panels cover the bottom two lace holes.
One really interesting feature of the shoe is that both of these white panels feature extremely fine perforations. They are way too small to get any sort of airflow, and you can’t see them from more than a couple feet out, but they are there.
The back of the shoe sees another hit of black around the ankle, with a green heel cap emblazed with the NB logo. The most notable features, however are the colored “550” and “N” logos on the middle of the shoe. Green, on this pair.
From a visual perspective this is really my own complaint, and it’s pretty nitpicky. The panel the N is sewn from is much larger than the N itself, and causes some odd wrinkles. If that’s the only complaint, I’d say New Balance is doing a pretty good job with the 550.
The white tongue features a “motion basketball” logo, along with some more branding. Inside, the shoe is entirely black with just a White NB logo at the heel.
Mid- and Outsole:
New Balance had to completely rebuild the tooling on these, and with the level of detail that must have been a major pain. The level of detail here is something you don’t normally see, especially in a shoe this old.
Along the midsole, you have various patterns, stripes, and two different versions of the New Balance Logo. There is also a cut out directly to the EVA foam on in inside of each shoe. This cut out gives an otherwise pretty bland shape shoe some curves – it’s a really nice touch. The outsole itself is held on with a row of stitching that runs everywhere but the cutout.
Underneath, I think the best way to describe it is Jordan 1 meets 1990’s kid drawing the terminator. It has the classic vibes – the circle under the ball of your foot, the squares on the back, but elsewhere it is big bold blocks.
Fit & Comfort:
These shoes are classic New Balance – very long, and very narrow. I take these in a size 13, though if they were any wider I’d definitely size down. There is a lot of space at the front of the shoe. 13 is normally the first shoe size I try in sneakers, and is a bit more than a full size over my brannock.
For reference, I wear a 13 in a Jordan 1, 13 in Ultraboosts, and 12.5 in Stan Smiths. You can find a list of my sizing in every shoe reviewed here.
For a shoe that was originally designed in the 1980’s, these really are not half bad. Unlike a lot of shoes with this look, these have a pretty hefty slab of foam under your foot. Plus, New Balance uses a few more modern materials for comfort.
One area that is particularly helpful is the insole. Not only did they use Ortholite branded foam, which is pretty good for this price point, but the insole is actually made up of a number of different materials. It’s a bit hard and supportive in the back, and spongier in the front.
Really, the biggest issue on the comfort front was just how long it was compared to its width. I hit the front of the toe box on a number of things as I walked around, which isn’t a great feeling.
This isn’t going to be the most comfortable sneaker you own, but it’s more than good enough to wear all day without much thought. For a retro, that is all you can ask and more.
Materials & Construction:
For the price, the materials on the New Balance 550 are pretty good. Starting on the upper, the white panels are a coated leather, similar to what you would see on a mid-tier Jordan 1 high. The black and green panels, unfortunately, are entirely synthetic.
The mesh around the ankle and in the lighting is really nice. It is woven incredibly tightly, and I would have zero concerns about its durability. I think that the failure point on this shoe is going to be the outsole wearing through.
Speaking of that outsole, if that is the point of failure, you’ll be able to wear these for a pretty long time. Made of a thick slab of rubber, this is going to be extremely long lasting.
In-between the inside and the outsole, a half inch slab of EVA foam provides a good bit of padding, and is topped off with an Ortholite insole.
The New Balance 550 is primarily a stitched-on cup sole, but with a cemented construction underneath. What that means is that the shoe is held together two ways. First, the rubber cup outsole, foam midsole, and upper are all glued together with contact cement, and then the outsole is sewn onto the upper.
This construction is about as good as you can get in modern sneakers, and should really stand the test of time.
Ease of Care:
Much like your average Jordan 1, the New Balance 550s are going to be pretty easy to take care of. The leather panels (and the panels meant to look like leather) should wipe off easily. You probably will only need water to clean them.
The white fabric panels around the heel are going to be harder, but with them being entirely polyester, they should be pretty stain resistant.
Really, the biggest visual wear spot is going to be the exposed white foam midsole. This is going to grab dirt like a magnet, and be nearly impossible to clean. That being said, nobody is going to see it anyway.
Pricing & Value:
The New Balance 550 is price at $110, though it is sold out at time of writing. New Balance continues to restock these fairly regularly, however if you’re looking to pick them up sooner, resale is reasonable. At time of writing, the GR colorways ranged from $120 to $150. As always, I recommend ebay over StockX or Goat – the authentication is free so you’ll end up paying less overall.
From a value perspective, these are pretty appealing. For about the same price as a pair of Dunks, it’s pretty clear that New Balance put some effort into these. They don’t have any obvious manufacturing flaws, and New Balance actually had to put some work into making these.
Seeing the fully synthetic panels on the upper isn’t great, but it’s a lot easier to swallow on these compared to seeing it on $200 Jordans.
The New Balance 550’s surge in popularity is definitely justified. It uses good enough materials, a classic design, and a healthy dose of comfort. It isn’t perfect – the shape probably isn’t going to fit most, and there are some other sneakers that have better materials for less – but it is a refreshing change from the ubiquitous Nike/Jordan retros.
The 550 shows that New Balance really does care about their product, and that they want to be taken seriously in the sneaker market. Just like Honda and Toyota in the 1980’s, they are coming to market with a better and cheaper product. Nike should take notice what happened to GM. As sneaker customers, this is great news.