Quite a bit of research and development goes into making a great braking system for a bicycle. It might sound simple- brake levers, calipers, and a disc and you have a brake set. Shimano, Hayes, Magura, SRAM, Tektro/TRP, and many others make good brakes, but what makes for the best MTB disc brakes?
In my expert opinion, Shimano makes the best MTB disc brakes. Here is the thing, with so many different riding types, it is difficult to pinpoint a single brake that is all-around best. Shimano is my choice since they engineer brakes based on the usage. I use Shimano XT and XTR cross country type brakes on my bikes currently.
The Shimano XT brake set is one of my favorite brakes for a variety of reasons. First off is the excellent brake pads that are finned for cooling, and have different compounds to choose from. Climate and environment play a role in the performance of a brake, so having choices is important. The XT brake is well put together and easy to work on. If a fluid bleed is necessary, the process is easy and has excellent tools to do so. Many mechanics struggle on other brands to bleed air out of a brake.
Top Pick: Shimano XT & XTR
The key to great brakes is easy modulation. I am sure you have been on a bike where the brakes barely worked, or maybe they were grabby. A brake shouldn’t be an off or on the situation, there are many points in between that are necessary. That easy function, the ability to apply varying amounts of power is called modulation.
On most high-end brakes, there is various technology incorporated to help maintain modulation. In the case of the Shimano XT and XTR brakes we see a variety of features that make this happen:
- Cooling fins
- Brake pad compounds
- Multi-layer rotor design
- Aluminum rotor center
- Brake lever architecture
- Banjo fittings
Between beefy cooling fins, different brake pad compounds, and state of the art disc materials, it is easy to see how Shimano brakes perform so well. But it doesn’t stop there. The entire package has excellent engineering to help you get the most of the product.
Just a simple change in the brake lever makes a difference. If you compare a more basic Tektro to the XT, you will see the leverage points are different. The adjustability of the Shimano levers is much easier and can be done while riding.
Best High End: SRAM XX
Many people love the new options that SRAM is offering with the XX MTB group. Their brakes are excellent choices as an alternative to other brands on the market.
SRAM pairs up quite a bit of technology and innovation onto this level of the brake. Each company will have a number of unique to their own innovations, but many parallel each other across brands. The key factor with the XX brakes is their lightweight.
The SRAM XX features:
- Carbon levers
- Airtrap technology to help in bleeding
- Aluminum rotor center
- Banjo fittings
From the pictures, it is easy to see major differences between Shimano and SRAM. Part of it is how to adjust lever reach and throw. Shimano employs a leverage mechanism while SRAM is more direct to the master plunger.
SRAM also has various brake pad choices, however, they do not employ cooling fins. The brake caliper itself is designed in a more open way. With that, the hopes are for better airflow, thus cooling the pad down. The rotor design is a bit more minimal, so that also plays a role in heat dissipation.
Affordable Choices: Auriga from Tektro
Tektro is the budget-minded arm of TRP a highly regarded brake brand. You will find Tektro as an OEM supplier to many brands from Giant and Trek to small companies like Soul Beach Cruisers. Their brake products have great reach.
An excellent affordable hydraulic disc brake is the Auriga from Tektro.
This Auriga brake is super easy to set up but lacks some of the features of more expensive brakes. It is by no means lightweight, and the rotors are quite beefy. But for overall performance and longevity, it is hard to beat these Tektro brakes.
The Tektro Auriga is direct to plunger design. So it has just basic leverage to create braking power. The hoses are reasonable in size to get good flow and they are pretty easy to bleed. Women will find the ergonomics and function to work well for them as they can get good braking even with the levers close to the bars.
Key Features to Consider When Choosing the Best MTB Disc Brakes
In one-way disc brakes are quite simple. You have a brake lever to push mineral oil through a hose to a brake caliper. It squeezes pads against a metal rotor to stop. How can you make it any more simple?
If you follow any mechanics forums you will find that some designs are difficult to work on. I am sometimes adding washers, and bending mount arms to get a reasonable alignment of the caliper to the rotor. Whether you are using post mount or standardized arms to setup your brakes, there are some keys to getting the most out of your braking system.
Most brakes come pre-bled. That means that there is already mineral oil or brake fluid in the system, and it is ready to mount and be used. Some bikes however require hoses to be stuffed through the fork or the frame to be hidden, which means taking the hoses to lose to do so. This is where mechanics become frustrated since you have to bleed a brand new brake of air because of the routing.
So the first key is to ensure that any air has been removed after installation. You can fight the setup because of an air bubble. If you didn’t open the hoses to air, then you can move right along.
I always start with the calipers. I actually do a test fit prior to any adjustment, and then sight through the pads and rotor to see how everything is going to line up. At this point, I can determine if I can bend the mount tabs on metal frames, or add shim washers, or work with the concave washers to achieve proper alignment.
I aim at alignment to have a gap on both sides between the pad and the rotor. Effectively, that is around the thickness of the paper. Now it also might be possible on a single-piston design to adjust for the rotor to be closer to the non-moving pad to get better performance.
After I achieve alignment I will check for rotor trueness. I will normally do light bending on the spokes of the rotor first to get any large areas taken care of. Then I can bend the tips of troubled areas. After that I adjust the levers and reach.
As you can see, there is a process for getting the brakes to work well. So key features would involve easy to bleed brakes. Calipers that are high quality and fine-tune quite well. Banjo fittings are a must on high-end bikes so that you can smooth hose routing.
I prefer levers that adjust easily, and perhaps while riding. If I have a long technical downhill I might dial in the brake throw a bit more so I can relax my hands more.
Rotors are going to change significantly in the next 2 years. At the Taipei bike show, a handful of companies were offering carbon disc rotors. Rotor design will continue to evolve.
In choosing the best MTB disc brakes for your bike, realize a few things. Your riding style and brakes need to match. Just buying based on name is not enough, you need to match the purpose. Next, choose rotors that will work for your needs. Lightweight is not always better if you are heat warping the rotors.
A brake system that is easy to work on is a must. While many of these brakes can live for years without maintenance, bikes that get ridden will need maintenance sooner. MTB brakes used in dusty conditions will get contaminated and need a fluid flush. I prefer Shimano brakes since their bleeding is quite easy to accomplish.
You are probably reading this because you want to upgrade. Grab an appropriate set of Shimano XT brakes for your riding type.