words // Zac Dubasik
When the Air Jordan XX8 was unveiled to the public for the first time in December of 2012, it was introduced along with the concept of “stealth.” During the design process, when the theme was taken to MJ, he pulled no punches when explaining what the concept meant to him. “Stealth is like Black Cat. It’s an ultimate aircraft. You never hear it coming, but it’s deadly as hell. You don’t ‘F’ with stealth. My game is like that. When you see it, it’s too ‘F-ing’ late.” The concept of stealth could even be tied in to the fact that the shoe was the first Air Jordan of the blog-era to not leak beforehand.
But while “stealth” may have defined the shoe’s design aesthetic, and even the unveiling, beneath it all, it was basically a shoe you’d seen before. A much better version than you’d seen before, but still a shoe who’s lasting impression came more from its refinements rather than breaking entirely new ground.
There are a handful of differences, which we’ll get into later, but if you are familiar with the Air Jordan XX8, then the easiest way of describing the SE is that it is the AJ XX8, minus the stealth. The sky-high cut of the Air Jordan XX8 may have garnered most of the attention, but it was the shoe’s tooling that boasted the real breakthroughs. Zoom Air has been around since the mid-‘90s, and has been our benchmark for what’s possible in basketball cushioning. In over 20 years, nothing new that has come out since has topped it. That still hasn’t changed, but thanks to the introduction of Flight Plate, Zoom Air has gotten even better.
It’s still Zoom Air, but thanks to a holistic system, you are able to get more out of it than ever before. “The basic system is all around compression, deflection, and ultimately moderation,” explained the shoe’s developer, Josh Heard, when the XX8 launched.
“Zoom Air bags by themselves are extremely energy efficient," he continued. "The problem was the way we had used Zoom Air bags in the past. We would encapsulate them in foam and whatnot, and it would lock up all the energy. You couldn’t get anything out of it. So what we did was we unlocked the Zoom. We unleashed the Zoom. We’ve cored out foam all around the Zoom Air bags, so literally you are stepping directly on Zoom when you are getting that first, initial feel. The outsole also helps, as I said, piston that effect. And then we have a moderator plate on top, that eliminates any bumps or hot spots under the foot. So, it’s moderated all the way through, and you get that nice, comfortable smooth feel.”
The change may seem subtle, and compared to an entire new cushioning technology, it is. But the results are immediately noticeable, and make “regular” Zoom now seem lacking. It allows the wearer to feel “more” Zoom, without the use of “bigger” Zoom, such as the full-length Max Zoom bag found in the LeBron X.
That means more responsiveness, with better court feel, and a stance closer to the floor. Cushioning and court feel typically have an inverse relationship. As one increases, the other deceases. But thanks to this new system, protection and flexibility increased simultaneously. When combined with an outstanding midfoot shank, the Air Jordan XX8 and XX8 SE were simply some of the best playing experiences I’ve ever had.
The shoes flex where needed, offer up support where needed, provide responsive cushioning where needed, and have zero break-in time. I can’t think of a performance shoe that’s ever felt as good right out of the box as the two of these. With the only exception possibly coming from the traction improving over the first few wearings, the shoes felt as good on the first runs as the twentieth.
I haven’t mentioned any differences yet between the original and SE editions of the XX8, because when it comes to the shoes' toolings, there aren’t any differences. It’s the exact same shoe underfoot. And the uppers are similar enough to not effect the way the tooling plays.
The most obvious difference though is the XX8 SE’s lack of a shroud. But considering the shroud was largely a cosmetic feature, the shoe feels much more similar than you may expect. The plushness of the XX8's inner workings provided a level of comfort that isn’t quite matched by the SE, but at the same time, the synthetics used here are more supportive, and have proven to be more durable after long-term testing. And strangely enough, the cut of the XX8 SE actually feels slightly taller than the original. The lack of shroud also means better breathability, which was one of the few negatives of the original.
Unsurprisingly, since it was also the case with the original XX8, the SE runs a bit large. I’d recommend starting a half-size smaller than what you normally wear. Jordan Brand has stuck with the traditional, generally accommodating last, which they’ve used on all recent Game shoes. This means the shoe will fit more people than the sleeker and more narrow lasts used by Nike Basketball, but it won’t fit as well. After playing in my normal size 13 in the XX8, and 12.5 in the SE, I found the ideal fit came by sizing down.
The XX8 was an excellent example of the law of diminishing returns. It was the best performing hoops shoe of 2013 at any price, but it wasn’t twice as good as shoes costing half as much. But with the XX8 SE, you are getting almost the exact same shoe, for $100 less. And with better breathability, more durability and slightly more support, you could almost argue it’s a better shoe.
If I had to choose between the two, I’d probably go with the original XX8, if price was no object. But then again, I could get 2 pairs of SEs for close to the same price. It’s hard to call a shoe costing $150 a deal, but with prices constantly rising, that’s practically at the team level in 2014. At this point in time though, you won’t find a better value, and probably not a better shoe period, at any price.
GRADE BREAKOUT //
best for: most players other than larger forwards and centers who need abrasion protection in the post
colorway tested: Black/Dark Powder Blue/Team Orange/White
key tech: Flight Plate system, Carbon Fiber midfoot shank and heel counter, Dynamic Fit
pros: comfort; cushioning; transition; fit; zero break-in time
improvements: Fit more true to size
buying advice: The SE edition of the Air Jordan XX8 offers almost all of the positives of the original, for $100 less. It’s slightly less comfortable, but slightly more breathable. And in my experience, the SE has been much more durable as well. Its cushioning is second to none, and I’ve never felt a more effective carbon fiber shank. Considering that the $250 Air Jordan XX8 was an easy recommendation, at $150, the SE is one of the easiest recommendations I’ve ever made for a hoops shoe. Just be sure to try a pair on, or size down a half size, for proper fit.
images via Kenlu