One of the best upgrades available for your bike is the brakes. No matter if you have a pro level bike, or something more average, upgrading the braking system to newer more powerful technology will do wonders for your riding. We will review the best hydraulic brakes for mountain bike and show a variety of options and what they will mean to you. Our top pick for best hydraulic brakes for mountain bike comes from Shimano with their Shimano XT and XTR product lines.
We went with these two brakes which are fairly close to the same because Shimano does not just make basic brakes and slap the model number on. Shimano saw fit to specially design versions of the brakes based on ride type. So the XT has a cross country version and a more aggressive version. Unfortunately, there is no one size fits all choice, as there are significant performance factors between gravity based riding and cross country. Same goes with the XTR, with variations available.
Top Pick: Shimano XT or XTR
There are a number of great reasons to go with the Shimano brakes over several others in the market. Also, it isnt to say other brands and models are bad, we are going to look at solid positives in any of the brakes recommended. The first is availability. Shimano is well received nearly every where you go. So if you need new pads, or a rotor, more than likely you can do that in a small town, or a big city. That makes maintenance quite easy. Beyond that, maintenance items are always available online, and usually are not out of stock.
Both the XT and the XTR come in several versions as mentioned previously. There is a 2 and a 4 piston caliper option. In theory, 4 pistons allow more pressure to be placed on the pads, and thus more braking force. Beyond just a 2 and 4 piston option, there are options with disc rotors and with pads. Some brands may only have one option on pads, and that is normally not a one size fits all situation. Pads perform differently dependent on the environment and your riding style.
Let’s go over a few other things with the Shimano XT and XTR brakes. Shimano is one of the few companies that have integrated cooling heat syncs into the brakes and pads. This does make a difference. Shimano was also one of the first companies to make a rotor that had different layers of metal. Most rotors are just steel. But it is possible to bond or fuse different metals together, so you get a tough braking surface and a great core for heat dissipation.
Best High End Brakes: TRP Dash Carbon
For those that don’t know, TRP stands for Tektro Racing Products. Tektro is probably the largest manufacturer of brakes in the world. Take a look at the TRP Dash Carbon, these brakes are just cool. Just look at the carbon levers!
I think one of the best things about these brakes are the levers. Not just the carbon part. These levers feature two adjustments, reach and power. Normally you will only find a reach adjustment. A significant issue with many brakes is that when you close down the reach for smaller hands, you lose power as the lever cant travel as far to create pressure.
Tektro runs a pretty solid pad and they are readily available out there. While each pad design for a given brand is usually proprietary, Tektro uses similar shapes in multiple brakes. The pad material is part ceramic, so you get good heat characteristics.
Most Affordable: Shimano Alivio
The Shimano Alivio brake set is an excellent choice if you are on a budget. They offer solid braking, and simplicity in the design. There are not a ton of complaints in regards to servicing them when that time comes around.
This is a very basic hydraulic brake. Even though, at its price it is still superior in power to a cable driven brake. The service needs with this brake is also quite minimal.
There are many ways that this brake is an excellent purchase. If you tear up your bike with crashes and dirt jumping, go with this brake; it is cheap to replace when the lever breaks off. If you are looking for a basic upgrade to the entry level cable brakes, this is a great way to go. The lever throw can be adjusted nice and close, so for small hands, go here over a cable brake, which helps eliminate those scary no brakes moments for smaller riders. The actuation is super easy, so it takes less hand strength to make them work well.
Alternate Choice: Magura MT 7
Of the brakes on the market, there are only a few major name brands that are truly dependable. Magura is one of those brands, and was one of the first to market with a hydraulic mtb brake. The Magura MT 7 is a great alternate choice for that eclectic rider who doesn’t feel the need to fuel Shimano and Sram.
With the MT7, you get ample braking power from the 4 piston calipers. The levers are of reasonable length for good leverage on the master cylinder. Overall the setup is pretty simple.
The other cool thing with the Magura brakes is the style and coloring. So many parts are muted and not colorful. Biking is fun, why not add a bit of color to your ride?
Electric MTB: Tektro Auriga E
If you are going fast on your eBike, get rid of those cable mechanical disc brakes and move up to the Tektro Auriga E. These are some of the best brakes for an eBike that we have tested, better than models costing 2-3 times more! They are also pre-wired to fit many eBike wiring systems for the motor cut off.
These brakes are pretty easy to setup. The split clamps on the levers can potentially allow install without removing your grips. The design runs a slightly longer lever handle, which builds brake pressure quite easily. You can lock up a fat bike wheel pretty easily at speed.
The two piston calipers are simple to align. They use a standard brake pad that is inexpensive and found easily. The cutoff switch is two conductor wires. So if you have to splice these in, they should work pretty easily. A standard bleed kit works on them
It used to be that adding disc brakes onto your bike was difficult and tedious. Many wasted minutes of alignment, or potentially having to bleed a new system. Today, things are easier.
If you can, buy brakes that are fully assembled and pre-bled. Now if you have a weird rear hose routing, you might want to choose a quick connect rear, that is pre-bled, but the lever is not attached yet. If you go this direction, be careful uncapping the hose and the lever so that no fluid escapes, and get your connection completed quickly. If that happens, the rear should require no bleeding at all. Our goal is not to have to bleed a brake.
There is a bit of debate here. Small rotors are low in weight. Large rotors dissipate heat better. For most riding, and riders, I think a 160 or 180 rotor is just fine. If you have more hills, go larger.
TRP has recently released 223mm rotors. They are also thicker at 2.2-2.3. Most brakes are set for thinner rotors, so be careful trying to upgrade rotors. Running the 223 with a 4 piston caliper gives so much braking feel.
Fluid and Hoses
One aspect many fail to realize is the importance of proper fluid. There are always questions about what is the proper fluid for a given system. Always try to stick with a compatible fluid. Adding DOT fluid to a system not rated for it will see the fluid erode the O-rings and contamination and leaks will occur.
There are different hoses available. Most hoses have flex built into them. If that was not the case, the brake would lock up too quickly. So with that the hoses expand and flex slightly. Some hoses and systems are higher volume, but they also take a bit more brake lever force. The higher volume comes in handy for 4 piston calipers.
The cool thing with pads is that there are many manufacturers, and they are fairly inexpensive. The first suggestion is to try different pads out. Our environment plays a key role in the pad performance.
If you have wet and humid climates, you will want to identify a compound that works well. Don’t just trust the OEM compound as gospel. Try several out. You may even need to pair up a different rotor type to make the most of your braking system.
Some dry climates are problematic and you get squeals pretty bad. Work hard to get your calipers adjusted correct. More than just alignment, but how the pad hits on the rotor plays a role. If the caliper is uneven, the rotor makes it vibrate and squeal.
As you can see, there is much to the brakes on your bike. Buying simply based on brand may not be the best choice. The best thing to do is evaluate where you ride the most and understand your braking needs from that terrain. If you rode bike parks and lift passes are your world, you definitely dont want a XC oriented brake. However, some XC riders like a strong braking system and may add a downhill/gravity oriented brake onto their bikes.
It is hard to go wrong with the Shimano XT and XTR braking systems. They have most riders covered no matter the terrain they ride the most. With 2 and 4 piston systems, you can easily find braking power and feel for your riding situation.
While it is fun to work on your own bike, and a good idea to be familiar with how things work, check with your local bike shop for a second opinion or safety check. Using the best hydraulic brakes for mountain bike actually allows you to go faster knowing that you can control your movement safely. Choose the best brake you can afford for your riding style, and don’t be afraid to experiment with pads and rotors to get the best performance.