Getting the best mountain bike wheels can totally transform your ride. Upgrading your bike's existing wheelset will add speed and improve the feel

The best mountain bike wheels can take more of a hammering than ever. This partly explains the bias towards durability, strength and downhill aptitude in many new wheels; factors that have slightly overshadowed traditional concerns of saving weight and maximum efficiency at all costs.

Of course wheels are just part of the package; make sure you’ve got the best mountain bike tyres for the conditions you’re riding in and good mud tyres if you’re looking for extra grip.

Crank Brothers Synthesis E11

Crank Brothers Synthesis E11

1. Crankbrothers Synthesis E11

Tuned ride feel brings a performance advantage

Weight: 860g front, 1,020g rear | Internal rim width: 31.5mm front, 29.5mm rear | Rating:10/10

Reasons to buy: A special product that dos what it sets out to do. Noticeably more grip on sever terrain.

Reasons to avoid: Still not exactly cheap. Not for weight weenies.

Crank Brother’s Synthesis is a special product that lives up to its billing. For £2,150, the top end version is even lighter and adds freehub engagement points for more precision in technical climbing, but you get the main advantages here with the supple front rim and its subtle ability to scrub off less speed and grip more than rivals on really sharp terrain.

This translates to a sense of running less tyre pressure or a softer compound in terms of calmness, but since they still feel really rapid too, this Synthesis is one of the best carbon MTB wheelsets available. Superb ride feel and £500 less than their top end version.

Read our test of Crankbrothers Synthesis E wheelset

Hunt Wheels Trail Wide

Hunt Wheels Trail Wide

2. Hunt Wheels Trail Wide

Great value for money and durable

Weight: 810g front, 990g rear | Internal rim width: 30mm | Rating: 10/10

Reasons to buy: Lighter and faster than most. Insane value for money.

Reasons to avoid: Again, not a lot wrong here. Direct sales only.

Hunt’s alloy wheel package is an absolute bargain with a well thought out spec list, proven hubs and a performance you’ll struggle to match for that much money.

Ultimately, it’s hard to argue with a lightweight, fast and tough Hunt wheelset for under £350 when it rides this well. Hard to argue with a wheelset for under £350 that rides this well.

Read our test of the Hunt Wheels TrailWide wheelset

DT Swiss M1900

DT Swiss M1900

3. DT Swiss M1900

Brilliant budget trail-riding wheel from one of the leading names

Weight: 950g front, 1,060g rear | Internal rim width: 30mm | Rating: 9/10

Reasons to buy: Really smooth ride feel. No weird construction.

Reasons to avoid: Not the lightest… We’re nitpicking at this point!

Toughness and reliability are the main selling points here, and this bombproof package does the job for a fair price. You’ll need to spend considerably more, and reach much higher up the DT range, to save weight, but lighter wheels are available for a similar price from less prestigious brands.

And this, plus repairs or spoke replacement on your travels being potentially more difficult are worth thinking about.

Read our test of DT Swiss M1900 Spline wheelset

Nukeproof Horizon V2 wheels

Nukeproof Horizon V2

4. Nukeproof Horizon V2

Affordable and considerably lighter than you might think

Weight: 912g front, 1,992g rear | Internal rim width: 30mm | Rating: 9/10

Reasons to buy: Great all round package for a reasonable price

Reasons to avoid: Not the most exciting ride quality

With a subtle finish and sorted looks, £400 for a sub two-kilo alloy wheelset that’s tough enough for proper all-mountain riding represents good value. The Horizon V2s don’t offer anything extraordinary in terms of performance, but they are totally non-nonsense with well thought out details, and that means they’re an excellent upgrade.

Read our test of the Nukeproof Horizon V2 wheelset

Mavic E-Deemax S 30/35 wheels

5. Mavic E-Deemax S wheels

Best electric mountain bike wheels

Weight: 1,030g front S30, 1,150g rear S35 | Internal rim width: 35mm | Freehub: XD driver, Microspline or HG | Rating: 9/10

Reasons to buy: Easy to set-up tubeless. Strong rims. Durable. Low-friction freehub. Good quality.

Reasons to avoid: Heavy. Standard graphics are a bit naff.

These alloy E-Deemax S wheels are a relatively new addition to the Mavic range and are aimed squarely at e-bike riders. They are available in two internal widths – 30mm and 35mm – and two diameters – 29in and 27.5in.

The Mavic’s have a ride quality that sits somewhere towards the middle of the wheel stiffness spectrum. Mavic can use a sealed rim bed thanks to its FORE Concept, where the oversize, splined spoke nipples thread directly into the alloy rim.

One particularly enjoyable trait of the E-Deemax is the low-friction freehub that just seems to spin and spin when you’re coasting. It uses Mavic’s ID360 design – similar to the DT Swiss star ratchet – and offers 15º engagement, minimal resistance and a really solid connection and drive even when the bike and rider are putting out maximum torque.

Mavic has built an impressively strong, durable, low-maintenance and free-spinning wheelset in the E-Deemax S. It won’t win any weight awards, but if you want something that will take the knocks and deliver a fuss-free, no hassle experience then the E-Deemax S is just the ticket.

Read the full review of the Mavic E-Deemax wheels

Silt Carbon XC wheels

6. Silt Carbon XC wheels

Best lightweight cross-country XC wheels

Weight: Front: 640g/Rear: 750g = 1,390g total | Rim width: 32mm external, 27mm internal | Rating: 9/10

Reasons to buy: Lightweight, great value and immediate, stomp and go acceleration

Reasons to avoid: Sticky freehub, front spacer not super secure

These ridiculously light £800 Silt XC carbon wheels are amazing value, and Silt’s latest offering also comes with proven components and an unlimited free crash replacement programme (labour not included).

Obviously, the low price is a major draw, but there’s also snappy immediacy and proper stomp-and-go acceleration that sees you soon zipping along. Even with the relatively shallow 25mm rim depth, the ride is less conforming and damped than some more expensive carbon wheels we’ve tested, more like old-fashioned razor-sharp carbon XC wheels.

This harshness isn’t excessive, but just a sense of a bit more feedback and vibration from small rocks flecked in the ground, rather than smoothing out every ripple like some modern rims that are designed to specifically create extra compliance.

Silt’s XC wheels are well sorted and bring all the benefits of a lightweight wheelset, albeit with a slightly sharper ride than some carbon options. In terms of value and performance then, the Silt Carbon XC wheels are impressive.

Read the full review of the Silt Carbon XC wheels

Mavic Crossmax XL wheels

Mountain Biking product shot in the studio

7. Mavic Crossmax XL wheels

Durable, reliable hoops from a brand with decades of heritage

Weight: 964g front, 1,109g rear | Internal rim width: 30mm | Freehub: XD driver, Microspline or HG | Rating: 9/10

Reasons to buy: Durable internals. Mix and match wheel sizes. Tough. Easy to run tubeless.

Reasons to avoid: Freehub engagement is laggy.

Mavic offers three tiers in its mountain bike trail wheel range and the CrossMax XL is the budget model. Like its siblings, it’s built around a 30mm asymmetric Maxtal alloy rim, which is SUP welded and machined, the difference is it doesn’t get the ISM inter spoke milling process, so is slightly heavier than more expensive models. If you’ve bought an entry-level trail bike in the last year or so and are looking to upgrade the factory hoops, you won’t go far wrong with the CrossMax XL. You may not notice a massive improvement in ride feel or hub pick-up, but they’ll be easier set up with tubeless tyres and bring increased reliability.

Read the full review of the Mavic Crossmax XL wheels

Stan's No Tubes Flow EX3 wheels

Stan’s No Tubes Flow EX3

8. Stan’s No Tubes Flow EX3

Ideal for heavier and/or enduro riders

Weight: 1,000g front, 1,145g rear | Internal rim width: 29mm | Rating: 9/10

Reasons to buy: Heavy duty wheels for serious enduro riding or bigger riders

Reasons to avoid: Perhaps overkill for smaller, lighter, smoother riders

While most wheels this weight can feel like too much to drag around on an enduro bike, that’s not the case here, making them impressive all-rounders and recommended for heavier or demanding riders after a really tough set of aluminium wheels for DH or enduro racing.

Read our test of the Stan’s No Tubes Flow EX3 wheelset

Silt All-Mountain

Silt All-Mountain

9. Silt All-Mountain

Don’t just go by the All-Mountain tag, these are impressively light

Weight: 1,890g pair | Internal rim width: 30mm | Rating: 9/10

Reasons to buy: Pretty much unmatched in terms of weight and strength at this price

Reasons to avoid: Not a lot at this price

Silt has sweated the details, but how do these things ride? Very well is the short answer. The AMs feel snappy and responsive and accelerate and change direction quickly. This is likely aided by a sub-1.9kg weight, which is low for a durable enduro-ready 29er wheelset, and the same as many much more expensive wheels – including loads of carbon all-mountain packages.

The Silt All-Mountain wheelset is stiff enough too, so there’s no twanginess or flex smashing through beaten up gulleys or eroded berms, even considering the lower front spoke count.

Read our test of the Silt All-Mountain Wheelset

DT Swiss XM 1501

DT Swiss XM 1501

10. DT Swiss XM 1501

Brilliant wheels for aluminium aficionados

Weight: 808g front, 940g rear | Internal rim width: 30mm | Rating: 9/10

Reasons to buy: Immediate improvement to any bike. Extremely low drag sensation.

Reasons to avoid: Approaching carbon price point. Centerlock rotor mounts.

This DT Swiss wheel package is a beautifully refined product with a ride feel that’s a cut above. It has a real zip to it, but it isn’t the cheapest and also has less well sealed bearings that appear to prioritise rolling speed over sealing, which won’t suit everyone.

DT Swiss XM1501 is a brilliant wheel for aluminium aficionados.

Read our test of the DT Swiss XM1501 Spline One wheelset

Zipp 3Zero Moto

Zipp 3Zero Moto

11. Zipp 3Zero Moto

Smooth ride and amazing grip on off-camber trails

Weight: 891g front, 1,019g rear | Internal rim width: 30mm | Rating: 9/10

Reasons to buy: Simply amazing rims. Comes with TyreWiz sensor.

Reasons to avoid: Comes with TyreWiz sensor whether you want it or not. That price tag.

By using a low-profile single-wall rim, Zipp has been able to engineer the carbon to flex locally around the spoke bed. This allows the section of the rim just above the contact patch of the tyre to flex under load. In back-to-back testing, with Santa Cruz Reserve 30s, the Zipp 3Zero Moto wheels offered an appreciable reduction in harshness, while increasing traction and control. In fact, the best analogy we can use to describe the sensation of riding the Zipp wheels is by comparing them to tyres. It was as if we’d switched to a softer compound rubber, without the associated increase in rolling resistance. And even though the tyres on both wheelsets were identical, the sound of the tyres also changed, with less pinging from the side knobs on the Zipp wheels when blasting through rough, rocky terrain. So impressive are these rims in rough terrain that we’ve heard them described as cheating.

Read our test of Zipp 3Zero Moto wheelset

Enve MTB Foundation AM30 wheelset

Enve MTB Foundation AM30 wheelset

12. Enve MTB Foundation AM30 wheelset

Enough to turn this carbon cynics into firm believers

Weight: 1,875g pair | Internal rim width: 30mm | Rating: 9/10

Reasons to buy: Good balance of stiffness and comfort. Anti pinch flat design is cool.

Reasons to avoid: Not lighter than alloy. Price is still high.

Enve’s AM30s are expensive and don’t bring any ‘extra’ compliance or tracking benefits to the table like Zipp 3Zero Moto or Crank Brothers Synthesis wheelsets. But, if you’re after a zesty, rapid-feeling carbon wheel that’s comfortable enough to ride all day and tough enough to handle a proper battering, this package is a sound investment. And while Enve hasn’t exactly reinvented the wheel itself, it’s done enough to turn this previous cynic into a firm believer.

Read our test of Enve MTB Foundation AM30 wheelset

Hunt XC Wide

13. Hunt XC Wide wheelset

Affordable and fast

Weight: 780g front, 880g rear = 1,660g pair | Internal rim width: 25mm | Rating: 9/10

Reasons to buy: Fast and feel fast. Lightweight for great price. Dynamic steering. Noisy

Reasons to avoid: Slightly harsh ride. Noisy. Had to re-inflate the control tyres several times to settle

Enve’s AM30s are expensive and don’t bring any ‘extra’ compliance or tracking benefits to the table like Zipp 3Zero Moto or Crank Brothers Synthesis wheelsets. But, if you’re after a zesty, rapid-feeling carbon wheel that’s comfortable enough to ride all day and tough enough to handle a proper battering, this package is a sound investment. And while Enve hasn’t exactly reinvented the wheel itself, it’s done enough to turn this previous cynic into a firm believer.

Read our test of Hunt XC Wide wheelset

Crank Brothers Synthesis i9

14. Crankbrothers Synthesis i9 wheels

Premium alloy wheels

Weight: 900g front, 1,008g rear = 1,980g pair | Internal rim width: 31.5mm front, 29mm rear | Rating: 8/10

Reasons to buy: Lighter than other alloy wheels, snappy ride, tough

Reasons to avoid: Expensive

The broader sleeve-joined and welded front rim gives a more squared-off tyre profile, more air volume for damping and extra transverse grip leant over, whereas the skinnier rear encourages faster rolling with a rounded tyre profile that also sharpens directional changes. This translates in a similar way to the camber on a set of skis helping initiate turning, and both decisions prove beneficial in the real world too.

This is a snappy, tough-rimmed, quality set of alloy wheels delivering optimised tyre profiles at each end, but otherwise it struggles to stand head and shoulders above the competition when cheaper, lighter and faster- feeling alloy packages are available for a similar price. Your wallet won’t thank you, but splash out on the superb carbon versions if you want the maximum Synthesis advantage.

Read the full Crankbrothers Synthesis i9 wheels review

How we tested the best mountain bike wheels

As well as back-to-back testing wheels on the same terrain under controlled conditions, we managed to do some uplifts on DH tracks to accelerate ride time on these wheels. We’ve also had time on various test bikes with some of the wheels here and a chance to ride then all over the country.

We used the same Maxxis tyres set up tubeless (at the same pressure) for final testing, and also swapped between wheelsets on the exact same bike with fixed suspension settings and pressures. Deliberately using a shorter-travel (120mm) bike also exaggerated feedback and compliance impressions from wheels on rougher terrain.

mountain bike wheel grouptest imageHow to pick the best mountain bike wheels for you:

The attitude of reliability trumping every shiny new parts weight is a bit of a theme in recent MTB ‘fashion’ overall. Nobody wants to ruin a great ride with a mechanical, so we largely subscribe to the idea here at MBR too, but also reckon wheels are actually one area where you can have your cake and eat it too.

Is it worth upgrading my wheels?

Upgrading your wheels will have a bigger impact on the way your bike rides than just about any other component choice. After-market wheels can massively improve rolling speed, handling, and acceleration. They can also benefit grip, tracking and comfort, which helps you rider faster and safer in the toughest terrain. On top of this, and flying in the face of this new-school attitude for robustness, the best wheels can also achieve these significant performance gains with zero trade offs in terms of reliability and lifespan if you choose wisely.

With wheelsets better than ever, the choices are plentiful, and nowadays you only need to spend top dollar for ultimate (rather than good) performance too.

ENVE's impact strip

ENVE’s impact strip

On the surface, wheels simply roll and support tyres that cushion the bike from the terrain. Dig deeper though, and different products all transfer power variably, accelerate at a range of rates and conform to bumps uniquely. Freehub and hub designs impact durability, serviceability and rolling resistance, while every rim responds differently to impacts. There’s a lot to take in.

Are carbon wheels worth investing in?

Carbon-fibre rims are often thought of as the ultimate wheel upgrade, but high-end extruded aluminium rims can be just as light and offer an even more forgiving ride – in fact many top enduro racers still bank on alloy rims instead of carbon.

Both materials have advantages, but the general consensus is that carbon ‘should’ produce a tougher and rounder wheel, although the flip-side of this is that they can fail catastrophically, while an alloy rim may be temporarily repairable – enough to get you home. Our experience is that modern carbon rims rarely break, while alloy rims can ding or dent relatively easily, which can cause tubeless tyres to leak air and lose their seal. Overall, it’s hard to draw general conclusions about either material – as ever, it comes down to the design and construction of specific products.

If you’re going to the trouble and expense of upgrading though, your new hoops better improve performance or what’s the point, right? The after-market packages here should noticeably improve rolling speed, handling, and acceleration over cheaper, stock wheels, and if you shop wisely you can have the best of both worlds, balancing fast and zingy against strength and comfort.

The popularity of longer-travel enduro bikes and faster and more technical tracks means wheels get abused more than ever. This partly explains the sector’s bias towards strength and toughness over weight saving and maximum efficiency. Weight is still a crucial factor, however, in terms of rolling speed, acceleration and less rotating mass to drag uphill and we’re frequently surprised by wheel tests downplaying this aspect.

Nowadays there is a plethora of great wheels to choose from; the set that best suits your needs will depend on the compromise between cost and performance that matters most for your riding style and terrain.

How important is weight when choosing a mountain bike wheelset?

Lighter wheels accelerate and slow down faster, change direction quicker and make climbing easier. It’s not that simple though, as wheel roundness and stiffness are factors too, plus the physics involved with rotating mass and centrifugal forces means weight closer to the outside edge makes more difference, so a heavier wheel with a proportionally lighter rim can still spin up to speed faster.

best mountain bike wheels

Spoke count can vary, but most MTB wheels have between 28 and 32 spokes

How important is spoke count and lacing pattern?

Extra spokes add strength, but also weight, and can reduce comfort in terms of bump swallowing. They’ll likely improve resistance to twisting or lateral flex, increase overall strength and durability and should ensure a wheel stays tighter and truer longer too. Any spokes chosen have to match budget constraints and can use different gauges, butting (thicker and thinner zones to save weight) and profiles to tune ride quality. Two and three cross are the most common patterns used on modern MTB wheels. Proprietary spokes are often harder to replace and source, but some wheel brands use the same length spoke on all of their wheels, making repairs much easier.

best mountain bike wheels

Front rims can be wider than rear rims

What is the best rim width?

Most modern rims have become wider. The extra room inside allows the sidewalls of broader, grippier and more comfortable tyres to sit naturally and inflate as manufacturers intended. Rim material, shape and depth also have a marked influence on impact strength, stiffness and compliance. Most brands have settled on between 30 and 35mm wide rims (measured internally). The best rim width will depend on what type of riding the wheel will face, as well as the size of the tyre mounted. 30mm rims tend to be sufficient for most trail riding and tyres up to 2.5in wide, while 35mm rims work slightly better on 2.6in or 2.8in tyres and more abusive riding scenarios.

Plenty of new tubeless rims forego a bead hook to save weight and boost sidewall resilience, and it’s now accepted tubeless tyres mount, stay inflated and remain stable with a multitude of quirky rim profiles.

How important are bearings and weather sealing?

How smoothly (and ultimately how fast) wheels spin is closely linked to bearing quality and design. UK rides often happen in wet conditions where grit and crud can get inside hubs and eat into a precious investment. Balls and bearing casing specification, rubber seals, and grease all effect lifespan, but better sealing can also add friction, which reduces rolling speed.

Beware special bearing sizes and fiddly designs that are a faff to service too. Cup and cone (open) bearings are still common in Shimano hubs and spin well, but require more looking after.

The inner working of a typical rear hub, including sprung pawls, multiple bearings and freehub body.

Should I look for the fastest freehub engagement or pick-up?

Most hub designs use a pawl system of some description whereby small metal ‘hooks’ engage into a ratchet to drive the hub, then disengage to allow the hub to freewheel. Different designs have their own levels of drag (resistance to spinning freely) while not pedalling and engagement (measured in degrees of rotation).

A faster pick up means power is delivered quicker; especially useful for technical climbing where lower gears and higher torques mean responsiveness is key. Faster engagement can eat into durability and strength, since splines or ratchet teeth first need to be smaller to be closer enough together to enable it. E-bikes need stronger internals as they have to cope with more power and torque through the transmission, and in this case, the fastest engagement may not be the best solution.

Can I expect to be covered by a warranty if I crash and wreck my wheels?

Especially important for carbon wheels, where a failure is more likely to be absolute rather than a ding or dent, warranty can make or break a sweet deal. The best warranties will minimise bike downtime and hassle, with some promising no-quibble replacement even in the event of a crash, so read any small print carefully and ask questions before you buy. However, you’ll likely pay a premium for such peace of mind, in the form of a higher up front cost.