New Balance 550 Versus 650: Breaking Down the Differences
While running is New Balance’s forte, the revival of a once-obscure basketball shoe has been one of the brand’s most successful moves in recent years. The model in question is, of course, the 550. And after already doing the legwork with the 550, the 650 entered the fray to expand the retro range.
At face value, the 650 is simply the high-top version of the 550 – considering both were designed at the same time by none other than Steven Smith. That obvious observation is enough to call it a day for many, but let’s go a little deeper and break it down section by section. New Balance Energy lead designer Sean Scudder also offers some behind-the-scenes insight into resurrecting these silhouettes after 30-plus years of dormancy.
Okay, there are definitely some overlapping features on these two models. The midsole units are absolutely identical because there’s no reason to change them. That being said, it took over ten rounds of sampling to get the details right – especially the sole.
‘Each round was about refining and tweaking until the pattern and sole unit looked and felt like the OG. The first couple of rounds were focused on getting the correct shape and stance of the sole unit,’ says Scudder.
The colour-blocking for GR colourways is just about the same, too, with most opting for solid white leather uppers and accents reserved for main sections like the N logo and ankle collar. Material treatments are also pretty similar, featuring perforated mudguards and toe boxes. Branding is one-to-one across the 650 and 550 – the only difference between the geometrical basketball tongue labels is the first digit.
The strip that runs up the sides of the shoes from the midfoot mudguard to the forefoot ball is called the ‘sway bar’, per Smith’s terminology. He cites it as being inspired by the automotive world, and it’s where the 650/550 numerical logos are displayed on the lateral side.
Here’s where one of the minutest differences can be observed: the fonts are different! The 550 digits have round edges, while the 650’s are more reminiscent of collegiate lettering. That could be the result of small design changes between the 550 and 650 retro production batches, but OG 650s have been sighted with the rounder font.
Most, if not all, modern footwear is designed and built around a foot-shaped mould called the ‘last’. It would appear that creating the 650 wasn’t as simple as taking the pre-existing 550 last and adding some extra height to the ankles to make it a hightop. Scudder explains there was more to it than that, especially as factories have changed over the years.
‘We were trying to replicate the old manufacturing process to capture the exact shape, style and attitude of the original models. Although this sounds easy, it’s harder because shoes were made differently back in the day,’ explains Scudder.
When viewed independently of each other, it appears the 650 is visibly proportioned as a high-top and the 550 its low-cut brethren due to factors like the eyelet count (nine versus six) and collar padding. However, upon placing the shoes side-by-side, the difference doesn’t appear as profound. Visually, they look almost identical heel-to-heel!
Scudder explains some ‘creative liberties’ were exercised to make the 650 suitable for its modern lifestyle guise.
‘The original 650 has a very high collar and an even longer tongue, which helped for performance reasons then, but now we wanted a more casual, universal fit. Therefore, we lowered the collar, changed the moulded mesh details to a stitch and adjusted the tongue accordingly.’
In the interest of science, the shoes were measured from the midline of the rear, from the base of the outsole to the top edge of the Achilles notch. With both pairs the same size, the height difference was only 1 cm. However, the collar on the 650 slants backwards, so this section is actually not the shoe’s tallest point. The front side of the eyestays measures about 16 cm – versus 11.5 cm for the 550 – therefore maintaining the illusion that the former is taller.,
Eighties basketball shoes may be characterised by their shin-scraping height and chunky padding, but in 2022, the 650 is noticeably thinner. Its ankle collars are lined with almost nothing at all, instead relying on the thickness of the material to fill up volume. It does, however, have additional New Balance branding on the medial collar strip, as opposed to the 550’s blank panel, which would probably look too busy with an extra logo. But the low-cut model is definitely plusher in its pillowy lining – no doubt a consideration for its vast fanbase.
At the end of the day, comparing the 650 with the 550 is an apples-and-oranges scenario, as they’ve been objectively designed as high- and low-cut complements of each other. While underfoot comfort is likely identical, the main factor for most sneakerheads choosing between the two is their preference in styling a slightly taller or shorter shoe. Or, they can just buy both.
As for Scudder, he’s learnt a lot from reviving the 550 and 650.
‘The 550 made me a better shoe designer and taught me a lot about shoe making, which absolutely informed the approach to the 650. The key to a successful bring-back is, first and foremost, a passion for the product. But then it’s also about getting your hands dirty by exhausting every detail and obsessing over every millimetre until it’s equal to or better than the original.’
The New Balance 550 and 650 are available now directly from New Balance.