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They're considered a level above because they are. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but as someone who has owned over 30 different pairs of Allen Edmonds (I now have about 10) and 15 pairs of Alden, I judge the difference between them to be considerable.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
AE first quality shoes regularly hit my doorstep with a major cosmetic defect (tiger striped burnishing, bunched up leather, ankle bowing, misaligned eye stays, curved/uneven wingtip point, pattern placement mismatches, glue seeping onto the insole, sloppy welt join points, lasting tape stuck between the welt and the upper, eyelet backs gouging the tongue, separating rubber heel lifts, dry shell cordovan, and broguing imperfections, just to name a few that I have experienced myself). When I first started buying AE shoes, I was not very discerning. I never noticed flaws, because I wasn't examining the shoes carefully. Who does? Only shoe "enthusiasts" like many of the folks on here. For 99% of men, AE shoes would be a massive step up from the crap they're wearing every day, and are significantly better finished and made.
However, for "shoe guys", Alden offers a better product. It's more expensive, and they do have their own QC issues from time to time (sloppy welt join points and heel nails that aren't struck in perfectly seem to be more common), but Alden does much better with finishing on their calf (unlike the horribly sticky, glossy finish AE is applying these days), has always used C.F.Stead suede (generally regarded as the best - glad to see AE starting to use it now), and is definitely a cut above AE when it comes to finishing shell cordovan.
While differences in patterns and lasts are aesthetic and thus subject to personal preferences, I think that most Alden patterns and lasts are more elegant than their AE counterparts (wingtip boot vs. Dalton, LWB vs. MacNeil, shortwing bal vs. McAllister).
The one area where AE definitely surpasses Alden, without a doubt, however, is customer service. AE customer service is unparalleled. Alden's is quite poor by comparison (more in line with the general customer service approach to men's shoes).
+1 this has been my experience as well going from majority AE to now majority Alden. I still have love for AE, but I just prefer the aesthetics and fit of Alden makeups in general; plus I caught a case of the "rare" shell bug which is half the fun