The hydraulic braking scene has had a big shake-up in the past year, with new designs from the likes of Shimano, Magura and Hayes hitting the market, and significant tweaks to existing models from Avid, Hope and others.
We've spent months testing a whopping 33 of the main contenders, both out on the trails and on a dynometer, to find out which ones are worth spending your hard-earned money on. You can see our favourites below. To find out more, check out our Buyer's guide to disc brakes and How we test hydraulic disc brakes articles.
Best disc brakes
1 Shimano SLX M666, £125
Shimano’s SLX M666 brake packs all the best bits of the latest Japanese anchor generation into a remarkably affordable, top performance package that offers the ultimate in powerful, controlled and utterly reliable braking.
Despite the low price you get the same Ice Technologies finned heat dissipating pad technology as with the top-end XTR brake (see below). This stops the mineral oil internals overheating even when hammered relentlessly. We’ve had zero reliability issues with any of the new generation Shimano brakes and you can even run them on cooking oil in an emergency.
Shimano's modular selling model means that if you’re upgrading existing brakes you can buy the fully bled SLX brake kit (lever, hose and calliper but no rotor or IS/post-mount adaptor) for just £89.99, making high weight the only potential gripe.
Or, if you can't quite afford SLX:
Shimano Deore M596, £93
Shimano’s new M596 Deore brake isn’t light and doesn’t get their latest Ice Tech features but it still delivers superb power and single-finger control at a bargain price. While it doesn’t get the Servo Wave leverage change cam of SLX and upwards it’s still easy to set up without drag.
There’s more than ample power for one-finger anchoring, while modulation and general lever feel is good in overall terms and excellent for the price. Apart from the weight you’d never know you were working with a brake that costs under £100.
2 Avid Elixir 7, £150
Avid’s mid-price Elixir 7 brake is a great lightweight, high control all-rounder. An internal overhaul has eliminated all the previous position and bleed intolerance issues and turned them from brakes to avoid to brakes to look for.
The alloy master cylinder feels stiffer when emergency braking than the magnesium pieces on more expensive Avids. You still get a carbon blade to keep winter fingers warm and overall weight is low for the price.
Or, if you can afford £25 more:
Avid Elixir 9, £175
The Elixir 9 is light (sub-400g), very communicative, adjustable, a neat fit and finally reliable too. It has the same alloy build and carbon lever blade as the Elixir 7 but with an additional bite point barrel adjuster on the master cylinder for levelling out lever feel.
The new 180mm HS1 rotor reduces weight and prices are lower than the old Elixir CR equivalent. The new ‘Air trap’ master cylinder means much better tolerance to air in the system and resolves the previously woeful reliability of top-end Elixir brakes.
3 Formula RO, £309
It's very expensive, but Formula’s new RO brake pushes the braking power boundaries while staying trail bike light. In fact, it’s the most powerful brake we’ve ever tested, both out on the trail and on the dyno.
That means it needs serious respect at first, although fine control and feedback is fantastic once you’ve adjusted to the amount of anchorage at your fingertips. You can drop a rotor size to save even more weight, too. Ultimate performance comes at a cost though, and Formulas often need more TLC than other high-end brakes.
4 Hope Tech Evo X2, 159
Hope’s Evo tweaks give the smooth and adjustable Tech lever and X2 brake combination the power they’ve always deserved. This brake has love/hate looks but outstanding lever adjustment plus excellent feel and upgrade options.
Basic price is good and upgrades include braided hoses, alloy centred floating rotors, Matchmaker clamps plus colour kits. Hope’s legendary factory-direct support backs up excellent reliability from recent long-term brakes we’ve run.
Value winner: Quad QHD-7 Nano, 60
Quad’s Nano intro brake needs careful setup but it's an absolute bargain. Extensive bedding in is vital to overcome low initial power levels but new pads on our latest sample made it significantly more powerful than previous versions we’ve ridden.
In fact, the steeply rising torque rate through the pull was almost enough to stop the dyno during lab testing, and you need to adjust to the noticeable progression of power for a given lever pull in slippery conditions. It’s early days, but the new pads are lasting well, making it even better value.
Magura MT2, £99
“Magura’s MT2 is an impressively light, controlled performer for the sub-£100 bracket.”
Shimano Deore XT M785, £163
“Not light, but outstanding single-finger power and control with modular value.”
Shimano XTR Race M985, £243
“Not super-light or cheap but the XTR Race has outstanding feel, control and reliability.”
Shimano XTR Trail M988
"Not cheap, but sublime single-finger control, mountain proofing and reliability at a cross-country weight."
Avid Code R, £140
"Great feel and surprisingly light for their on-trail power and heat tolerance."
Avid Elixir 1, £75
“It’s a basic fit, but still offers impressive control and feel for the money.”
Avid Elixir 3, £100
"Affordable and reliable, with great feel and tidy bar potential."
Avid XX World Cup, £245
“Limited adjustability and noticeable flex, but great modulation and super-light weight.”
Formula R1, £279
"Expensive full kit, but outstanding power and super-light control."
Formula R1 Racing, £331
“Super-light brake with sublime control, but needs some TLC and the extras are expensive.”
Formula The One, £289
"Deep pockets and TLC deliver outstanding power/control-to-weight ratio."
Gusset Hydro Chute, £75
“A good looking rotor helps to pimp up this decent discount price brake.”
Hope Race Evo M4, £219
"Awkward alignment, but fantastic looks, plentiful power and excellent control."
Hope Tech Evo V2, £184
"Bulky and heavy, but a bombproof, highly adjustable heavy-duty option."
Hope Race Evo X2, £200
“New Evo tweaks add some serious power to this potentially super-light brake.”
Shimano Saint, £225
"Heavy, but massive power, excellent control and reassuringly bombproof reliability."
TRP Dash, £135
“The Dash is light, consistently controlled and a very reliable brake at a good price.”
Formula RX, £187
“The RX has loads of mid-weight control and power, but the extras make it expensive."
Magura MT6, £200
"Lightweight, with very consistent control, but no bite point adjust."
Magura MT8, £300
“Very light, predictable and controlled brake but at a hefty cost. Comes with five-year anti-leak guarantee.”
TRP Dash Carbon, £175
"Neat, light and very smoothly controlled brake, but slightly low on power."
Quad QHD-7.1 Nano Lite, £80
“The Lite is light for the money, but bite point adjustment adds squish and drag.”
Quad Rapide, £100
"Tempting features for the price but awkward setup and mushy feel."
Tektro Auriga Pro, £100
“It may be short on power, hose and pad life but it’s super-reliable and affordable.”
Hayes Prime Pro, £180
“Hayes’ Prime Pro is reliable, but basically heavy and underpowered for the price.”
Ashima PCB, £130
“The PCB is very light for the money, but we'd advise waiting for the second generation models.”