Decent disc brakes are essential for boosting control and confidence on the trail.
We pick the very best mountain bike disc brakes from three categories: budget, lightweight and four-piston. Don’t start stopping until you’ve read this.
As ever, reviews up first. Then some conclusions and specific recommended brakes. All followed up by some general disc brake buying advice.
Shimano Deore M6000
Shimano Deore M6000 disc brake keeps bumping up the standard of what a budget stopper can really be, premium performance with a great price.
The Clarks M3 is the updated version of their incredibly low priced M2 brake system. At just under £50 per end it’s still astonishing value for money.
SRAM Level T
Sitting at bottom of the SRAM range, the SRAM Level T is another brake you’ll find equipped on many lower priced mountain bikes.
Hope Tech 3 X2
The Hope Tech 3 X2’s consistency and its comfortable and highly-adjustable brake lever secures it as our favourite dual-piston disc brake.
Hope Tech 3 V4
The Hope Tech 3 V4 is their flagship high powered brake and sits just above their E4 when we’re talking power.
SRAM Code RSC
Once fitted to our test bike, our initial impressions of the SRAM Code RSC disc brake were how noticeably firm it felt as you grabbed the lever.
TRP Quadiem G-Spec
The TRP Quadiem G-Spec’s huge lever and chunky caliper gives off as strong sense they’re built to take some serious abuse and dish out some big forces.
SRAM Guide RE
SRAM didn’t develop the RE for regular trail bikes, but since it costs the same as the cheapest Guide brake, only adds 35g, and packs Code levels of power, we’re totally sold on it for regular trail use, especially if you’re a heavy or more aggressive rider.
SRAM Level TLM disc
As an XC brake, the Level TLM is sleek, lightweight and easy to set up and service. If you don’t weigh much, you could probably get away with it on a short-travel trail bike, but if you ride more aggressively, we’d recommend the Guide instead, as it’s a lot more capable.
Shimano XTR Race disc
Shimano offers two XTR brakes: Trail and Race. The latter lacks the power-boosting ServoWave lever design and finned brake pads, but it is lighter as a result. The Shimano XTR Race delivers unbeatable value and performance and is easy to set up and bleed as well.
Shimano Alivio disc
Shimano’s Alivio brake is a popular choice on hardtails and entry-level full-suspension bikes, and we’ve ridden dozens of sets over the past couple of years. Come rain or shine, on smooth local trails, ragged BikePark Wales runs or lift-assisted laps in the Alps, it’s never let us down.
Sram Guide Ultimate disc
SRAM has really nailed the lever feel and position on the Ultimate, and while we used the minimum Contact Point Adjustment setting, the wide range of adjustability makes it easy to get your preferred lever feel. Not cheap, but they do offer unrivalled control.
Avid DB3 disc
With the lever pivot really close to the bar, you get improved control — one-finger braking is all you need. We like the split clamp too, and its compatibility with Matchmaker mounts lets you clean up your cockpit, but it’s the impressive feel and power that really makes the Avid DB3 stand out.
Hope Tech 3 E4 disc
The caliper doesn’t sport any clever heat shields or fancy backing materials on the pads, but we had no issues with heat build-up or inconsistent braking power. In fact, the opposite was true; the Hope Tech 3 E4 offered the most reliable performance in test, with zero lever pump or brake fade. It isn’t the most powerful, though, and would benefit from a little more progression.
Clarks M2 disc
Overall performance was good, if a notch or two below its competitors. We put this down to a couple of things. Firstly the pads don’t sweep the full braking surface of the rotor; around 3mm is left untouched.
Formula R1 Racing disc
With its oversized pistons and Kevlar hose, the Formula R1 Racing is the most powerful brake here. It’s also the lightest, but the stumpy lever is a little uncomfortable when braking hard; it also needs constant fiddling to run drag-free.
Shimano Saint disc
The Shimano Saint brakes come at a great price but are harder to modulate than other four piston brakes. There’s still a lot of dead lever travel, though; the free stroke adjuster is all but useless, and the power ramps up suddenly, making it much harder to modulate than other brakes in this price range. There’s no arguing with the Saint’s price, though.
Shimano XT M8000 disc
Shimano’s XT brakes have long held a reputation as being ultra-reliable. Unfortunately, on prolonged descents, issues ranging from wild shifts in bite point, to inconsistent power, frequently spoiled our ride with the new M8000 model. In a nutshell, if we hadn’t had the significant teething issues with the M8000, you’d be reading a rating much closer to top marks here.
Best mountain bike disc brakes conclusion
When it comes to braking, you’re first and foremost boxes to be ticked have to be power and reliability. At no point on a trail, do you want to find yourself searching for some stopping power or bite that isn’t there. Now although none of our brakes were that awful, this factor still played a key role in the outcome of our test.
Albeit not as vital, modulation and fine tuning are also very important sides to the story, as without these, you lack the control to use the power available. Most brakes on test showcased a decent level off controlled stopping power, some lacked features that others had, but not all proved to be as reliable as we’d expect.
At £99.99 for the complete set, the Clarks M3 punches well above its weight, and even though the power didn’t quite match the competition, its still incredible value for money. That could be said for all of our budget competitors though, being totally useable and reliable within our test period.
The SRAM Level T and Shimano Deore M6000 both gave each other a good run for their money, but it was the Shimano that prevailed. With a little more power and premium finish, it inched ahead to set the new standard in this category.
Our dual-piston brakes proved to be a tough choice to pick the winner. All three brakes were fairly equal overall, but factors such as reliability came in to play to stop the Shimano XT M8000 from taking the top spot. Although it had clearly the most power, the inconsistencies in its function gave us a lack of confidence to trust it, and we also discovered similarities in the Saint later on. Issues like this aren’t limited to our test brakes either, we’ve seen it in the past, and is something many of us simply adapt to.
The Hope Tech 3 X2 and SRAM Level TLM both felt comparable in their behaviour, but primarily as XC/trail brakes, their power wasn’t quite to the same strength as the XT. In both cases however it was dependability over the Shimano that inched them ahead. And taking the win was the Hope thanks to its highly adjustable and comfortable lever.
Moving up the power scale, our four-piston brakes provided us with some serious stopping forces, and half the field were new contenders added to the mix. The Hope Tech 3 V4 and Shimano Saint M810 have both been around for a while now, but both act quite oppositely to one another. Where the Hope has consistency, the Shimano has power. But conversely, where the Shimano can be inconsistent, the Hope lacks the same amount of fierce grab.
This left it down to the two newcomers, the TRP Quadiem G-spec and the SRAM Code RSC. The TRP didn’t quite provide us with the masses of power we were expecting, and a lack of adjustment made it difficult to reduce the amount of throw in the lever.
In the end, we struggled to fault the Code in any way. Lever feel, consistency, power and even adjustment – it does everything we want from a powerful anchor very well indeed.
Mountain bike disc brakes need to know
Traditionally, mountain bikes once used cable-actuated rim and disc brakes to help grind you to a halt when the trail demands. This day and age however, you’re likely to find a set of more powerful hydraulic disc brakes to provide the anchors. Thanks to years of trickle-down technology and development in this area, even the most low-cost bikes can be fitted with hydraulic disc brakes.
Whether you’re upgrading to a lighter or more powerful solution, or simply replacing your old worn out units, it’s a good idea to know what your choices are and which best suit your riding style. With a wide range of brands and models now available, there’s a brake to cater for every need and budget.
All of the brakes on test have adjustable lever positions to suit riders of different hand size and preferences – some are tool free while others require an allen key. A selection of the higher priced offerings also feature an additional dial or knob to change what’s called the bite point, but more on that later.
Needless to say, no matter how much adjustment each model has, there’s distinct differences between lever feel and the way each brake provides its power. Modulation is key here, providing control over how the power is delivered. Less will give the brake an on or off feel, sometimes making it difficult not to lock-up during heavy braking. And more modulation allows you meter the power easier to get the maximum for the traction available. Ultimately, it’s a subjective but crucial consideration when making a decision.
Finally, one of few contact points where the bike meets rider is at the lever blade; having a design that’s comfortable is very important in helping you hold on to the bars!
We’ve broken the test down in to three main categories – budget, dual piston and four piston. The budget brakes sit between £50-£116 in retail, and are the lowest priced systems on the market. The dual-piston brakes are aimed towards the trail and light enduro end of the spectrum in a mid weight & price package. And finally, the heavy duty four-piston brakes focus on all-out enduro and downhill descending (and e-bikes too!), where trips abroad and bigger mountains come in to play.
Brake pads come in various compounds but most common is sintered/metallic and organic/resin. Both have positives and negatives so be sure to do your research when deciding on what’s best for you and the conditions you ride in. Most brake calipers now have top loading pads, making it easier to check for wear and remove them.
Bigger rotors generally mean more power. They come in various sizes, but the most typical are 160, 180 and 200mm for use on any brake with the right brake adapter.
Most standard rotors are cut from steel as one part. Premium two-piece rotors have an alloy carrier riveted to the steel brake disc surface. This can create a slightly lighter rotor that’s far less likely to warp.
There’s various designs that manufacturers use for the lever clamp, but most are now of a split design. This allows the lever to be easily removed from the bars without sliding away grips or gear shifters. MatchMaker style clamps allow the shifter to be bolted to the lever, helping to tidy the cockpit.
These are used to fit any brake to any disc with any frame. Get the right one for your needs or use your old ones if you’re not changing rotor diameter.
Reach adjusters come in the form of a grub screw or a knob you can turn with your fingers. They are used to bring the lever blade closer or further from the bars, adapting to your preferences and hand size.
This adjustment alters the position of the main piston in the lever to make the pads closer or further from the rotor, and so altering the amount of free movement in the system. SRAM call this the Contact Point adjustment and for Shimano it’s Freestroke.
Olive and insert
These are the small components used to attach the hose to the lever/caliper. Spares should be provided with the brake so you can easily shorten the hose.
Standard brake hoses are pretty stiff and durable, but braided steel and kevlar options allow less expansion and can increase performance.