Are AE, Loake even viable options or should you only buy the best?
I certainly wouldn't consider them disposable. However If you don't consider them worth your money then your absolutely right you should wait until you can afford what you consider to be better and not settle for anything less.
However there are plenty of others who see it differently and for them that is perfectly fine.
Don't worry about it so much. Don't spend hours polishing new shoes, either, they probably don't need it. Having a rolled grain is a sign that the leather might be less than the best quality, but it isn't the same as a binder-type polished leather with a layer of plastic.
I can tell you my C&Js are obviously better than my AEs, but the AEs are fine and pass muster as decent shoes.
I guess what got me is that apparently even Loake 1880s have their leather stamped onto them. Whether or not that means they are corrected grain I'm not sure but it sounds terrible and I'm hoping that my hours worth of conditioning and shining today got through to the leather. I guess the only way for me to know what the big deal is about C&J is to buy a pair and compare them to my Loakes. This whole process is leading me down a path where I'm going to have to get a better job and buy a bently and an Audi R8.
Actually many will tell you that once you cross that threshold of AE the more you spend the less you get (The Law Of Diminishing Returns). The shoes or boots will probably last you just as long. I mean both brands can be resoled.
The difference really is in the details however. Typically you'll get a more elegant and potentially sleeker Last, a better overall design in my opinion. better quality components with regards to leather and possibly sole, more attention to detail and generally less quality issues, and better finishing.
Most of these things are very noticeable but you don't always have to buy it before you can see it. However your location may make that a bit harder to do.
C&J for me. There's a last that reliably fits me, and is among my favourites aesthetically, regardless of price. Carmina is another I like, but their best looking last IMHO isn't an ideal fit for me. I have several pairs of AE as well, but I wear them only when I'm in the mood to dress it down a bit. YMMV, but even ignoring the styling, the premium for C&J is well worth it to me, as the leather and finishing are worlds apart in the pairs I own. I cheaped out on a pair of Loake loafers, and while their materials and finishing were equal to the AE I own, their fit leaves much to be desired (on my foot). Apologies for the rambling style, I'm typing this on my phone.
Enzo Bonafe is one to look at. At right around $500 I've heard their suede rivals brads hundreds of dollars more and they're Lasts and designs look rather interesting. Vass is a good brand under that mark as well. I like Crockett and Jones for their boots, but I don't find their shoe Lasts that attractive. Alfred Sargent for around $500 has a few models I like, but they just don't have that many models.
The sweetest spot for you however will be the Lasts that fit you the best and the designs that you find most attractive.
I have a couple of pairs of Loake 1880s and a pair of C&J Benchgrade. The C&Js are nicer for sure, but not twice as nice, as the cost would indicate.
I'm not sure what you mean by 'stamped on' at all, unless you are referring to something with a pebble grain. The Loake 1880s I have are smooth, full grain leather. I've had two pairs for a year and a half, have regularly brushes and polished them and at this rate I should get another 3 or 4 years out of them. If the sole wears out before then I'd have it replaced. So no, I don't agree with disposable, but I think that if you spend too much time on this forum the you get a real false sense of worth due to the ridiculous standards that some people tend to afford themselves here.
I would still (and did recently) buy Loake's 1880s as a bread and butter shoe. If I could fill my wardrobe with C&J handgrade then I would, but I live in the real world here. I wouldn't go below the 1880 range though, as then I do think you could be getting into disposable shoe territory.
No loss if you have a pair of Loakes. They're fine shoes that will get you to work and back. Think about this next time: you'll have a better point of reference as to which last/maker fits you best.
I do admit I bought a Player's Shoe in blue suede recently for $100 for summer novelty.