Brakes are arguably the most important control component on your bike and disc brakes are a dirt riding essential. Worryingly, there’s a massive variety of performance from indulgently interactive fingertip speed control to no guarantee they’ll even work when you grab the lever. As well as character and power, there’s also a wide range of weight and cost issues to juggle with when hunting down the best mountain bike brakes.
Having tested every readily available set of mountain bike brakes on the market, in this writer's opinion, SRAM makes the best mountain bike brakes for most riders. The latest lightweight Level and ultra controlled, e-mtb proof Code RSC have got the premium specialists covered. However, it’s the simple, affordable, powerful but super-controlled ‘mongrel’ of the SRAM family - the Guide RE - that most trail riders should be sliding onto their bars to guarantee they can stop worrying about stopping.
On the flip side, there are many other reputable options out there such as Clarks, Magura and Hayes, each of which delivers impressive and trustworthy performance. Shimano shouldn't be written off as a reliable alternative either - the Japanese brand offers some impressive options too which span everything from entry-level Deore to full-on race-bred XTR mountain bike brakes.
The best mountain bike brakes you can buy today
Shimano do utterly trustworthy, seemingly indestructible and very affordable kit very well and the latest Deore M6000 brake (and the M615 before it) is the absolute epitome of that.
You don’t get an external knob to adjust reach (just use an Allen key), there’s no largely ineffective ‘Free Stroke’ adjustment, the pads are held in with a split pin, not a screw peg and they don’t have heat-shedding 'Stegosaurus' fins.
This is the first Deore brake with Servo Wave to alter pad movement and increase power though. That means Deore has a significantly better feel than anything cheaper, flawless lever pull consistency (not a Shimano strongpoint recently) and relentless reliability.
It bites better in filthy weather with aftermarket sintered pads too, although beware using them with softer, cheaper Shimano rotors.
Shimano’s Zee brake appeared years ago but this Japanese equivalent of SRAM’s Guide RE is still one of the best options if you need siege engine power for a decent price.
Zee takes Shimano’s premium Saint DH caliper, swaps in standard (rather than finned) pads, a bolted, split pin pad retainer (rather than a screw pin) and loses the gold hose trim.
The rebadged SLX lever means reach adjust is tooled not dialled, but still gets Servo Wave power assistance and dodges ‘Free Stroke’ issues found on other brakes. The result is eye-straining power (just 1% behind Magura MT5 on the dyno) delivered with utterly reliable repetition in all conditions.
Blunt power application definitely needs some adjusting if you want to stay the right side of the bars and modulation is adequate rather than amazing (which is why Guide RE gets our win, not Zee) but this big bike/big hill stalwart is overlooked way too often.
TRP’s Quadiem brake has been refined with input from downhill mountain bike legend Aaron Gwin and while the basic version doesn’t have the polished finish of his signature model, performance is basically identical.
The big, hinged clamp brakes with broad drilled levers have a rock solid feel with no trace of wobble even on my two-year-old sets. Reliability from the four steel and ceramic cylinder calipers has been flawless, and feel consistent on every set I’ve abused even when spending months in the high mountains or on e-bikes. Be careful of the outboard hose attachment on uplifts though.
There’s a lot of free stroke and no bite point adjust too so you need to like a lever-on-bars feel. Power is decent rather than dramatic, so fit big rotors for big bikes.
If you don’t believe the price, then don’t worry, neither did we when we first met Clark’s M2 a few years ago.
They really are under $70/£50 for both brakes, plus rotors and relevant brackets and bolts and they’ve also upsized the front rotor to 180mm. That’s definitely necessary as power is limp even compared to Shimano Deore. Switching to (Shimano pattern) aftermarket pads really helps, though.
Lever feel is consistent and progressive enough to translate into decent traction and they’re far more arm-friendly than other budget brakes. While the design has changed a few times over the years they’ve all been utterly, ridiculously reliable. They even still worked after I tortured them on a dyno until the rotors were orange hot and the paint started bubbling on the calipers. That makes them a comically cost-effective option if your budget is tight.
As well as making brakes, Magura is a massive automotive plastics manufacturer so perhaps no surprise they mix the two on their long-running MT series, but that definitely defines their character.
Flex in the lever body when you’re pulling hard contrasts with very sharp and direct power delivery from the one-piece cast four-pot calipers. The overall snatchy then spongey feel definitely divides riders into lovers and haters but Youtube superstar Danny MacAskill does OK on them!
There’s no arguing that Magura’s four-pot brakes are also the most powerful I’ve ever tested on a dyno, and when they’re healthy, the mineral oil internals can handle high mountains and e-mountain bikes fine.
Pricing is also excellent for the power, with various aftermarket lever options too. I’ve always had mixed reliability results from Magura over the years, though and failures tend to be terminal rather than tweak-able.
Hayes absolutely dominated the disc brake market at one time but lost that lead in a big way. That means they invested serious R&D time in their Dominion comeback brake and it’s been worth it.
‘Crosshair’ caliper adjustment makes set up easy and all brakes are in-house adjusted for minimal free stroke. Reach and bite point are tuneable and the blade uses cartridge bearings for a really smooth feel.
Bedding in takes a while (wet weather helps) but power is plentiful when it gets there. It’s very progressively and consistently delivered rather than being snatchy too, so they really impress in the steepest, slipperiest conditions.
Apart from an early re-bleed using the unique ‘port on each side’ caliper design, they’ve been totally trouble-free for nearly a year now. At $260/£200 they’re not bargaining their way back into the market, though, and the ‘resonance matched’ D rotors are particularly expensive.
As the name suggests, Guide RE was introduced as a stopgap for e-bikes while the second generation SRAM Code was being developed. It’s proved a total smash hit with anyone looking for a rowdy brake at an affordable price, so it’s stayed in the line up alongside Code and the new G2.
The Guide lever delivers handy ‘Matchmaker’ syncing with SRAM shifters and remotes. Feedback from the big first-generation Code caliper at the far end is clear and consistently progressive all the way down the longest descent. Lack of ‘Swing Link’ leverage change means delivery of its hefty power is dramatic so be careful while bedding it in.
Bleeding is easy - if not as blissful as the latest SRAM - reliability is excellent, pricing is very good and despite the chunky looks it competes with weedier trail brakes on the scales.
Whether the few grams saved on the carbon lever of the RSC is worth having is a moot point but they do feel warmer on fingers in winter and the cartridge bearing upgrade you get on the RSC gives a silky smooth, wobble-free feel.
Swing Link leverage change, bite point adjustment that actually works, easy reach adjustment and sweet syncing with SRAM remotes and shifters and the bar end of the RSC is brilliant. While power isn’t ‘need a seatbelt’ shocking, it builds to impressive levels with fantastic control and feedback through the twin diameter four cylinder calipers.
The modulation and consistency really shine in situations where all hell is breaking loose around you but the finger to trail connection stays weirdly calm. Add the lower weight than most other four pots, excellent reliability and blissfully easy end-to-end bleeding and this is my favourite ‘power’ brake if you can afford it.
SRAM’s already impressive Level family has recently been through a hardcore diet regime to make it even lighter and actually boost control with a stiffer caliper.
The Level Ultimate is super speedy but the carbon lever and titanium bolt kit help the brakes get towards a super low weight that real weight weenies will value. What separates Level from other featherweights though is that you won’t feel a compromise in terms of control.
With just two cylinders and no power boost linkage, outright power is unsurprisingly down on big four-pot DH brakes but within a slightly firmer squeeze of most four-pot trail brakes. ‘Direct Link’ lever and single piece caliper modulation are excellent for taming minimal tread race tyres or dusty/slippery race courses too.
Long term use has proved them trail-tough and mountain heat-resistant and ‘Bleeding Edge’ end-to-end fluid flow makes servicing simple. Seriously expensive though.
Hope meticulously machine and laser etch every metal part of their brakes (including rotors) into polished (or six different anodised colour) glory in Lancashire, England for a totally unique look that’s loved by an ultra-loyal fan base.
The Tech 3 levers sprout reach and bite point adjusters for balancing feel front to rear and drilled levers boost slippery-conditions grip. The long-running design and build quality mean reliability is excellent and in the unlikely event of a problem, Hope has an incredible reputation for sorting you out in the field with their event van or back at the factory.
The four-cylinder E4 calipers don’t bite as hard as most other trail four-pots though and a blunt feel means they tend to blow arms up fast on rough or extended descents.
Best mountain bike brakes: How to choose
If you’re just looking to replace cable-operated disc brakes or find cheap hydraulics for minimum cost, then Clarks is the answer. Not only are they ridiculously cheap for a pair of fully hydraulic brakes but they’re one of the few sets that don’t feel spongey or numbly wooden at the lever.
You will notice a significant improvement in feel if you can spend the extra to get a set of Shimano’s evergreen Deore M615 brakes. Make sure you’re getting the 615s though as the lower numbered Deore brakes are noticeably more numb.
Clarks and Deore will never hit DH (downhill) level deceleration but on the basis of each 20mm bigger you go on the rotor adding an extra 20% of power, you can certainly get them to the trail-taming point by upsizing your discs. Just make sure your frame and forks are big disc compatible too.
SRAM Level brakes aren’t massively powerful either but if you’re an XC (cross country) racer the more expensive versions can save significant weight while still feeling great at the lever. We’ve roasted them in the Alps without worry too, which is not the case with every featherweight brake we’ve tested.
If the Alps or at least the local DH trails/bike park are a regular riding destination, then power and top to bottom control obviously trump weight saving. There are plenty of different options to suit different feel/performance preferences too.
The most powerful brakes we’ve tested on a dyno are Magura’s four pots, with the MT4 offering the most cost-effective package. The mix of hard hydraulic bite but flexy lever feel from the plastic construction won’t suit everyone though and we’ve always had variable reliability from test sets.
Fractionally behind on power but still eyeball-straining and utterly reliable, with a feel that riders like at a bargain price are Shimano’s Zee brakes.
If you want to say you use the same brakes as Aaron Gwin and never weigh your bike then TRP’s big Quadiems are worth a look. Hayes new Dominion gives a more progressive, lighter feel and some neat touches like sideways caliper adjustment. Prices are high though, and pads and accessories might be hard to find in an emergency.
If brilliant back up is what you’re after then nobody beats Hope, who take a van to practically every UK event and will bend over backwards to help if you have an issue. Distinctive Lancashire machine-carved looks, relentless reliability, easy lever adjustment and the ability to get pretty colours guarantee a very loyal following too, even if actual braking performance and feel are average at best.
If you’re after the ultimate in fingertip speed control, however hot or rough the ride gets, then SRAM’s Code RS wins every time. An oversized reservoir means it can handle even the most intensive e-bike descent without cooking and it’s a positive joy to bleed if you ever need to. It’s relatively light for its impressive bite too.
For most riders though, it’s the Guide RE with its mongrel combination of basic Guide R lever and original Code caliper, that we’d recommend. It delivers enough power to properly shock you the first few pulls but enough control to make the most of it at a bargain price.