The most minimalist pair of Vibram FiveFingers since the (discontinued and limited-use/indoor-only) Moc just became available for purchase in the U.S. — this is a surprise as, well, the El-X is a “Spring/Summer 2013” model and it’s only mid-December 2012! I guess Vibram wanted it out before the end of the world. The El-X is a men’s model that rivals and may even surpass the original Classic FiveFingers in terms of ground feel, flexibility (adherence to the dynamic nature of the foot), overall fit, and comfort. While the end of the world is unlikely to happen any time soon, Vibram has released a model that is true to the original FiveFingers in it’s simplicity and “barefoot feel.” My initial take (some 48 hours into having a pair!) is that the El-X is a 10, even if that’s not “El-X” means. More on the meaning, photos, and even video, after the jump!

Overview

What is the El-X? Below is the official product description straight from Vibram (slightly modified from what was first seen on our 2013 preview!):
Built to be simple, comfortable and easy to put on, the ELX is the perfect introduction to FiveFingers. With an ultra thin sole, this shoe connects you to your environment while packing easily and showing you what FiveFingers are all about. Offered for Men Only. Materials: WEIGHT: M43 = 4.23oz MAX SOLE THICKNESS: 2.7mm COMPOUND: TC-1 Performance Rubber INSOLE: 2MM EVA + Anti Microbial Drilex Sockliner UPPER MATERIAL: Polyester Mesh Machine Wash Cold/Air Dry
You gotta love how Vibram put a second decimal place in for the weight — the El-X is slightly more than 10% lighter than a pair of SeeYa FiveFingers (same size). This past year Vibram has effectively discontinued the Sprint and Classic FiveFingers. Of all Vibram FiveFingers models, the Classic is probably the most loved and ignored model. What you say? Yeah, people who have Classics (and fit the Classic build well) absolutely love them. I am personally a huge fan of Classics — the easy-on, barely there FiveFingers. So I was concerned Vibram was killing them off. Meanwhile, the KSO FiveFingers vaulted Vibram to superstar status, so Vibram is still keeping a small offering of KSOs on tap going forward (in all black). But it’s more a minor concession (my take). Anyway, all this product offering rearrangement left a void in the Vibram line-up — specifically, Classics were not only the most minimally soled Vibrams (only a 3.5mm rubber outsole with no EVA midsole) but they also priced at $75. Now, you’d have to fork over at least $85 to put a rubber-shod toe in the water, so to speak. Enter the El-X. What does the El-X mean? Though you might mistakenly assume it has something to do with Spanish for “The Ten,” perhaps paying homage to 2*5=10 toes. Or some Varsity Blue reference about the El-X being … a 10!; the truth is much less obvious. EL-X stands for “Entry Level – Crosstrainer.” Duh! I’ll stick to calling it the ten. In short, what you get with the 10 is a super thin Vibram rubber outsole, a little EVA midsole, and a mesh upper. It has no strapping mechanism and gets it’s adherence to your foot via the stretch mesh upper and a paint-on stretchy and ultra rubber that wraps the foot. And that’s it. Take a look:

Soles

The El-X is all sole — mostly because the sole comprises most of the weight and lends the primary characteristics to the toe shoes. If you’re familiar with the original FiveFingers sole, you’ll recall that it was razor-siped, meaning it took rubber and had zig-zagging slices throughout the sole. That sole was 3.5mm thick rubber, by the way. Well, the El-X takes the original sole to the next level. First off, it reduces the total thickness of the rubber by over 20% going from 3.5 mm to 2.7 mm of “max thickness.” What’s up with the “max thickness” specification? It means that it’s most thick at the little parallelogram protrusions that pervade the El-X sole. These little guys, themselves vary in thickness and density. To my eye, they parallelograms seem to be about a millimeter thick. That leaves 1.7mm of Vibram rubber as the “foundation” of the El-X outsole. Of course, the El-X also has 2mm of EVA midsole. Add it up and you’ve got a “max thickness” of 4.7mm but a “foundational thickness” of 3.7mm. That is crazy thin. Comparing thickness of the El-X sole to the other super-minimalist Vibrams (the Classic and the SeeYa), the El-X is about 4.5mm thick by caliper measurement at the heel (easiest point of measurement) — that’s closer to 5mm for the Classics (for whatever reason). These are some thin and flat VFFs:
In the case of the El-X, the sole is so thin that it’s floppy. The front hangs down when held at the heel in your hand. You can roll up the El-X any which way you want. You can even stuff a rolled up El-X inside the non-rolled up one. Reviewers and bloggers in the “barefoot shoe” community like to roll up shoes to (attempt to) show how flexible they are. The truth is that this can be deceiving—how much effort did it take to roll up the shoes in question? Use enough force and you can roll up tons of shoes, but it’s still hard to go from that to figuring out just how flexible a sole really is. Regardless, here are some rolled up shots of the El-X. Note I took a little bit of a different approach:
I had my black^ El-X rolled up and stuffed inside it’s other half for this photo and when I took it out, it didn’t just spring back into shape. It sorta unrolled slowly, which gave me the time to grab the camera for a candid shot:
The El-X really springs back into shape, right? (I jest) Also, like the original FiveFingers line-up, you can get downward toe flex in the El-X, which is something that I (frustratingly) have a hard time doing in the SeeYa by comparison. Flex those toes!
This super thin and flexible sole translates into incredible ground feel. It’s on par if not slightly superior to the Classics. The EVA midsole takes a little edge off of every step, I guess, but not much. Indeed, as EVA tends to compress and break down over time, a pair of El-Xs should “break in” (or down however you want to put it) into an even more ground-feeling pair of toe shoes. What does incredible ground feel mean? It means you feel the springiness of stepping on the silicone nipple of a pacifier (Random experience, true sensation). It means you’re going to feel the gradations of worn asphalt. Textures of surfaces shine through these soles. Also, the El-X seem to be quite grippy. I’ve not had the chance to do much in the El-X more than walking, but the tread seems obviously better than the razor-siped original Vibram sole (Bonus: the millimeter-thick parallelograms don’t detract from the ground experience). Here are some more photos of the sole in action: ^ Black isn’t yet available for purchase, but you’ll see some more photos of them below.

Upper

The upper of the El-X has almost zero structure to it. This made it a little hard to photo from the side without manually expanding the upper as seen in the photo above (by comparison, the upper tends to just flatten out when left alone as seen here). What keeps the El-X on your foot? Two things: the fabric of the upper is a stretchy mesh. It provides a snug feel to keep the toe shoes on your feet. The second thing is this layered on thin rubber that wraps the upper of the El-X. In the case of the grey, orange, and black pair, this makes the shoes look striped. A minimalist solution to having straps, I’m happy to say it the mesh + paint-on rubber combination seems to work very well. It felt a little over-snug on my instep at first, but seems to adjust comfortable in short order. Meanwhile, the entire system feels almost like a second skin. I’m finding I really appreciate they didn’t outfit the El-X with a KSO-like strap (or a bungee cord). All in all, the fit of the El-X is one of the best in the Vibram line-up. It feels locked on to my foot, but not so tight as to be uncomfortable. You won’t have a problem wearing these all day, I don’t think, though it’ll be good to hear from any of you with higher insteps as far as how stretchy the mush + rubber can be. Size-wise these seem the same as the SeeYa to me though I size 43 across all VFFs. A note to the Classics fans: I always took the bungee out of my Classics because they stayed on fine without it. That said, right-sized Classics still felt a little bulbous in the heel. Not so with the El-X! And this is a huge win for the model: I think most people will be able to fit them right, which is as it should be for an entry level model of FiveFingers. As far as the insides go, the El-X has gotten the upgrade to Dri-lex and a seam-reduced experience. The insides are definitely improved over Classics/Sprints/KSOs, in other words, and similar to the SeeYa (but with fewer seams!). You can see inside the El-X in this photo. Finally, Vibram has included a little bit of toe protection to help prevent a snagged toe rip (pretty much a standard offering on Vibrams, these days):

Video

I shot a seven minute video overview of the El-X if motion is your thing. I also talk about the Classic and SeeYa and compare them a little side-by-side. Take a watch and then I’ll wrap this initial review up:

Initial Review is Initial.

What you’ll note is that I’ve not gone in depth on how these work for running, fitness, sprinting, climbing, river forging, or tree climbing. Frankly, I just haven’t had them long enough to put them through the paces; however, in the interest of sharing some information, I’m putting this initial review up now. I’ll update it as I use the El-X more and more (feel free to ask questions in the comments!).

The El-X may be the Entry-Level, Only-level FiveFingers you need.

With the El-X priced at $75 (still time to order for Xmas, believe it or not) and having — okay I’ll say it — the best ground feel, foot flexibility, and fit (no straps to futz with!), these things have the potential to be blockbuster toe shoe hits. I could see them being great “barefoot running shoes” (as oxymoronic as that is) — better than SeeYas or Bikilas. Want them for CrossFit? Sure why not? Casual, everyday toe shoes — sure if you can rock’em, do it. The only places they’re not going to really work is running trails — yes, you could wear them for running or hiking trails, but that’d be more an advanced experience (you’d have to have a honed light impact hiking or running gait). Also, the mesh might not hold up over time to that kind of wear. Note: I can’t officially sign-off on them as “BEST EVAR!!1!yet—just haven’t had enough time in them. But I’m encouraged by not seeing any glaring problems with them out the gate while seeing pretty obvious improvements. These toe shoes are barely there and just work. I’m going to stop here. I’ve said enough already (maybe too much). Suffice to say I’m very excited about the El-X. What do you think? Is “the ten” the one toe shoe to rule them all? Maybe so!

More photos

Back in black. Wear’em casually with jeans. * My first pair of VFFs were Classics, which I reviewed , I’ve written an extensive follow-on review of them, and I’ve even forked over serious cash to have Europe-only colorways sent my way. I still wear Classics all the time in the summer as my go-to all day footwear.