Review NB Minimus Life by New Balance
For Spring 2011, in addition to the NB Minimus Road and the NB Minimus Trail, New Balance is releasing a third minimalist shoe geared towards casual, everyday use with perhaps a bit of fitness (e.g. weight lifting, perhaps) functionality to boot — this third offering in the New Balance's minimalist footwear line is called the New Balance NB Minimus Life (originally the "Wellness").
I've been wearing a pair of the NB Minimus Life shoes almost exclusively since I got them about a week ago.* I'd say this was for testing purposes only (Disclaimer: New Balance sent me these to test), but truth is, I just really like these shoes. They are super comfortable, extremely easy to put on (they lack true laces), have very little sole to speak of (though the sole they have is soft/cushy and there is a heel-to-toe drop of 4mm. More on this later.), no arch support, and they have a good-sized toe box. Plus, they just look really good to me. I've worn them with shorts, jeans, workout clothes, and even khakis. For a sneaker, they're plenty versatile, and though I've only "run" to the car or back and forth here and there in them, I'd imagine you could run in them if you were so inclined even as that's not what they're expressly designed for.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Allow me to dive into some details with photos, video, and more after the jump.
NB Minimus Life Design
Let's start with the sole. Like the other two options in the NB Minimus line, the Minimus Life has a 4mm heel-to-toe drop. More specifically, by my caliper measurements the heel is 15mm thick whereas the ball of the foot is only 11mm thick.
It's worth doing a little comparative measuring here to put the NB Minimus Life sole in perspective. The Minimus Life is certainly thicker than any Vibram Five Fingers which are sub-10mm thick shoes across the board (if memory serves). But compare the NB Minimus Life to the Nike Free Run+ 5.0 and you've got a much thinner-soled shoe with the Minimus Life: the Nike Free 5.0s ring in around 17.5mm at the ball of the foot. Both soles on the Minimus Life and the Frees are similar as far as the cushiness of the foam used (EVA? Not sure). THat said, the extra 6mm in the front on the Frees makes for a lot less barefoot feel.
Meanwhile, and I have to disclaim that it's difficult to measure the thickness of the Nike Free 5.0s at the heel, I just did my best and they came in at — wait for it — 36mm thick! If that measurement is remotely accurate, we're talking about 3/4 of an inch heel-to-toe drop with the Free 5.0s. Yowza.
A more fair comparison might be to the Terra Plana Vivo Barefoot Aquas, which are zero-drop and caliper out to around 7mm thick sans insole (Note there is no insole to remove with the Minimus Life so comparison is a little tricky here). The Vivo Barefoot Aquas sole is also a hard, heavy rubber which, while transmitting ground feel pretty well, is a bit inflexible and adds weight to the shoe. The foam-soled Minimus Lifes (size 10.5) weigh in at under 6 oz. My EU 44 Vivo Barefoot Aquas weigh 9 oz. by comparison.
This is the weight of one shoe — the admittedly more complex FiveFingers KomodoSports in size 43 weigh maybe a fraction of an ounce more than the NB Minimus Lifes, by the way. Rubber is heavy.
Anyway, you might be wondering about ground feel with the NB Minimus Life. Well, despite the cushy-ness of the Minimus Life sole, there is still a decent bit of ground feel to be had. I'd say the ride feels "plush" to my feet in that the sole of the Minimus Life does mute the nuances of the ground a great deal compared to Vibrams. That said, this plushness hasn't bothered me. For that matter, I hadn't measured the heel-to-toe drop until today and I was actually starting to wonder if they were actually zero-drop. It's not that there's no heel, it's just that while almost any heel usually affects my gait (noticeably), I haven't really noticed an impact while wearing the Life shoes.
Meanwhile, one specific test of the Minimus Lifes was spent walking on a treadmill desk at my day-job office three-and-a-half miles over about an hour and forty minutes. Walking on a treadmill in the Minimus Lifes feels very comfortable and natural to me — and generally I've found an hour on a treadmill walking 2 miles/hour (not that fast) isn't always comfortable in VFFs, Vivo Barefoots, or Merrell Barefoots. So I don't know what the deal here is (I've got an idea or two), but I like it. Note that walking generally in the NB Minimus Life shoes is also very comfortable. The NB Minimus Life sole design just makes for a nice, casual ride.
The New Balance NB Minimus Life upper features seamless, tongue-less, lace-less design that makes for a fantastic experience wearing the shoes barefoot. I'll talk aesthetics separately, but the construction of the upper is almost that of a structured sock — one with a reasonably upsized toe-box — that has a silky smooth inside made of some kind of spandex-y material that has been seamlessly stitched together. There are joints where fabric comes together, of course, but no loose fabric edges anywhere inside the entire shoe. There is no tongue on the NB Minimus Life just as there are no laces. The criss-cross on the top of the shoe (it looks like laces) is an elastic band that provides some resistance against the upper of your foot, but not in an unpleasant way.
I've been wearing the NB Minimus Life barefoot, which is clearly the expectation based on the above design. I suppose you could wear them with socks without a problem, but why would you? Who likes wearing socks anyway? Herein the NB Minimus Life stands toe to toe in barefoot-comfort with the smooth-sock-lined Bikila FiveFingers, but also with the sheepskin soled Soft Star Mocassins. Matched with the aforementioned foamed sole, I find the NB Minimus Life shoes are just super comfortable, all the time. If I had one complaint about the NB Minimus Life it's that there's a small rectangle on the inside of the "tongue" that covers up the spandex-y liner and can sometimes feel like it is sticking to the top of your foot. It's pretty innocuous but I'll mention it in hopes that future iterations will just print that information directly onto the liner.
Without laces to fool with, you can easily slip on the NB Minimus Life one-handed via grabbing the heel-tab and just slipping your bare foot in. Since these are knock-about, everyday shoes, being able to throw them on quickly is a huge plus, and will make you (if you're like me) much more likely to wear them around.
Finally, the Minimus Life shoes breath well given the upper does have a thickness to it (it's a light sort of thickness, but there are at least a couple of fabric layers throughout all of the upper).
General thoughts on functionality
The NB Minimus Life is geared towards "wellness," or perhaps light fitness, weight training, and casual wear for walking, running errands, etc. I assume you could knock out a run in them without a problem. I've only run here and there for very short distances (like running to the car or after my one-and-a-half year old); if I had to guess, I'd say they're not running shoes simply because the foam soles might wear quickly.
My testing has been casual, everyday wear with a good bit of walking thrown in and I have done a weight lifting workout or two in them. I'm accustomed to doing heavy squats in VFFs and likely won't change that behavior anytime soon, but my most recent squat workout I subbed the NB Minimus Lifes for my Bikilas and they functioned well enough. I actually liked them better for some squat-bar calf raises as the plushness at the ball of the foot made the 325 lbs. of extra pressure on the balls of my feet not feel so slammed into the underlying steel structure. But for the squats, I'd rather be more locked into the ground and the added 4mm of heel — well it just made me a little nervous and may have put my knees more forward than I'd prefer.
Speaking of foam, foam fatigues over time, breaking down and compressing. So does that mean that over time the NB Minimus Life shoes will become more barefoot as they break in? I don't see why not — I'll find out in good time.
As if I didn't already have enough to like about the NB Minimus Life, the shoe is aethetically purty good lookin' to me. The clean-cut aesthetics of the light grey with black accents around mid-foot; the simple elastic, criss-crossed "lacing" system; the white, thin sole, and the natural low-profile nature of a thin-soled minimalist shoe; the New Balance NB Minimus is downright stylish. I've worn them with jeans, shorts, and khakis from Banana Republic. They seem to work with just about anything. Mrs. BirthdayShoes wants a pair, as does a coworker, and they've even elicited querulous comments from strangers about where to buy them. In a week of wearing the Lifes, that's a lot of positive interest simply based on their looks. They're no toe shoes, but the NB Minimus Life shoes are still eye catching by being good looking, simply designed sneakers. Win!
Conclusions, Photos, and Video of the NB Minimus Life
I'm not trying to oversell these things, but the truth is that I just like them a lot. There aren't a ton of minimalist shoe offerings out there geared toward everyday wear. Sure, you can wear any pair of Vibram Five Fingers or any other barefoot shoes with whatever you want — but who doesn't want to have a pair of comfortable shoes that your significant other will aprove of?
And as far as barefoot-feel, while the foam is plush, it still affords a good bit of ground feel. If you want to turn the volume down a bit from what you get with a pair of Vibrams, then the NB Minimus Life will do that. Meanwhile, the lack of a rubber outsole makes the Life shoes lightweight, very flexible, and are likely to break-in smashingly over time.
The only question that I have is: are they machine washable?
As soon as I can find out I'll let you all know. Word is they are machine washable, delicate, cold water. Will have to try it! And price? The New Balance NB Minimus Life shoe is now out and available for purchase for $100. They can only be bought online via the New Balance store, so if you're looking to buy online, you can find a pair of the Minimus Life here for a hundred bucks. Otherwise, look for a local The original New Balance Minimus Life is being discontinued to make way for the just released Minimus Life Zero (reviewed here); unfortunately, I'm not a huge fan of the new Zero Lifes (as you'll read in the review in an extensive comparison to the original), but if you're wanting to snatch up a pair of the originals, I found an online retailer carrying them at a discount (only $75 or less!). Grab a pair while they last.
Now for some video!
* You can imagine I have a lot of footwear options, so multi-day wear of a single pair of shoes isn't really common for me.