Best mountain bike disc brakes: 10 hydraulic discs tested

Anchors to help you stop your bike on any budget

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Looking for new brakes for your mountain bike? Our list of the best mountain bike disc brakes has put ten popular hydraulic disc systems head-to-head.

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Having good brakes on your bike makes you go faster. Sound like an oxymoron? Maybe, but it’s true. The fact is, if you know you can quickly and efficiently bring your speed under control, you’re more likely to let it creep up into the red zone. You become a faster and more controlled rider.

For more bike control, you want not only power, but also effective modulation of that power, where subtle variations in lever force give a much more controllable braking force, rather than an on/off feel.

That way, you’ll reduce unintentional skidding and the resultant reduction in braking power and bike control. You want the precision to take yourself right to the edge of breaking traction, which is where you’ll get maximum stopping power.

It used to be that only gravity riders would consider four-pot calipers, but with trail bikes getting more and more capable, they need more powerful brakes to keep them under control. Four pistons deliver more braking force and better heat dissipation, so they’ve steadily crept their way into the mainstream, becoming the choice of more and more riders, both as original spec on complete bikes and aftermarket replacements.

Of course, two-pot units still have acres of power on hand, so don’t write them off if you prefer a simpler setup with fewer pistons to get sticky or malfunction, less weight (although this is marginal) and a lower cost.

Some level of adjustability is helpful for effective control and to reduce hand fatigue. Riders with smaller hands will want a shorter lever reach, an adjustment which most sets have as standard, but the ability to change the bite point of the brake can also help get it in the sweet-spot where your fingers have the most leverage.

Practically speaking, you want stoppers with low maintenance requirements, which hydraulic units generally bring (save for the occasional bleed), and easy swapping-out of brake pads when the time comes.

With all this in mind, we bolted 10 sets of brakes on, with a 200mm rotor up front and 180mm at the rear, and scraped our way down descents, checking for power, feel, fade, modulation and reliability.

There was a lot of bike swapping in the middle of downhills to directly compare setups, plus plenty of fitting and dismantling sessions, before a final head-to-head shootout.

NOTE: All weights and prices are for a single brake (front caliper, hose and lever, but no rotor or adaptor, unless indicated otherwise).

The best mountain bike disc brakes, as rated by our expert testers

  • Formula Cura 4: £150 / AU$295
  • Hope Tech 3 E4: £175 / €220 / $220 / AU$350
  • Shimano Deore M6000: £75 / $103
  • SRAM Code RSC: £240 / €270 / $245 / AU$350
  • Clarks Clout 1: £25 inc. rotor
  • Hope Tech 3 X2: £155 / €195 / $195 / AU$320
  • SRAM G2 Ultimate: £265

Formula Cura 4

4.5 out of 5 star rating
Best mountain bike disc brakes
There’s power in spades, but the smooth, progressive way it’s applied is even more impressive.
Andy Mccandish / Immediate Media
  • Pistons: Four
  • Fluid: Mineral oil
  • Weight: 246g
  • Adjustments: Reach (TD)
  • Price: £150 / AU$295

Without much experience with Formula brakes in recent years, we tried the Cura 4 with no expectations. Fitting and bleeding were slightly fiddly, with tight pad clearances making a rub-free result hard to achieve, and the fixed hose angle at the caliper meant hose routing was a bit untidy, but once resolved (or accepted) we really liked the sleek lever and caliper. The weight (second-lowest on test) is good too.

There’s power in spades, but the smooth, progressive way it’s applied is even more impressive, making it easy to achieve that magical ‘just below’ pressure before breaking traction.

There’s no bite point adjustment, but once reach was set (with an Allen key), we didn’t think about it anyway.

Hope Tech 3 E4

4.5 out of 5 star rating
Best mountain bike disc brakes
Hope’s Tech 3 E4 brakes are powerful, well-modulated and feature useful adjustment.
Andy McCandish / Immediate Media
  • Pistons: Four
  • Fluid: DOT 5.1
  • Weight: 256g
  • Adjustments: Reach (TF), bite point (TF)
  • Price: £175 / €220 / $220 / AU$350

With a choice of levers and calipers that can be mixed and matched in the Hope range, we opted for the Tech 3 lever with the four-pot E4 caliper.

The Tech 3 is slightly heavier than the more pared-back Race option (by around 40g), but what it loses in weight and titanium hardware it gains in on-the-fly adjustment, via tool-free reach and bite-point dials.

It’s compatible with Shimano I-Spec A shifters, to cut down handlebar clutter, and other standards are available as optional extras. This is a thoroughly solid, industrial bit of kit, built to last a lifetime.

The E4, meanwhile, is a one-piece caliper, CNC-machined from T6 alloy, with four phenolic pistons pushing out serious stopping power. Top-loading pads make for easier replacement, and the whole DOT fluid system is bled using the old-school open reservoir method, which is easy once you’ve got the hang of it.

Together, the lever and caliper are nothing short of excellent, with oodles of power to call upon through superbly engineered and adjustable components. The lever feel is firm, with maybe slightly less feedback than the best of the rest, but a consistent, smooth action more than makes up for this.

Everything, from the solid, dimpled lever blade to the large, glove-friendly bite point and reach-adjust dials are well thought out and easy to tweak, and fitting and bleeding are a breeze, too.

With an impressive weight of 256g that compares well with the competition (304g for Shimano XT four-pots, for example), the price feels very reasonable indeed, so we found the Tech 3/E4 combination hard to see beyond.

Add customisation options such as shifter adaptors and a variety of brake pad materials, and you have a winner on your hands. All that remains is to choose between the black, purple, red, orange, blue and silver-anodised finishes, and buy a matching £45 to £50 floating rotor to really colour-coordinate your precious steed.

Shimano Deore M6000

4.5 out of 5 star rating
Best mountain bike disc brakes
Shimano bleed more functionality into their budget stoppers.
Andy Mccandish / Immediate Media
  • Pistons: Two
  • Fluid: Mineral oil
  • Weight: 278g
  • Adjustments: Reach (TD)
  • Price: £75 / $103

Shimano’s Deore brakes have long been our go-to budget discs. They just work well, at a fraction of the cost of others, so why look elsewhere?

Just about every tester on the team has a bike with Deore brakes somewhere in their stable. This latest version, the M6000, benefits from features trickled down from higher up the Shimano ladder, such as hinged bar clamps and reach adjustment via Allen key bolts behind the lever, so it’s far from the basic setup you might expect.

Power and modulation are more than adequate too, with a good blend of positive lever action and smooth power feed with increased lever pressure. Add the particularly solid-feeling, wide-bladed lever and, for the money, you simply can’t go wrong.

SRAM Code RSC

4.5 out of 5 star rating
Best mountain bike disc brakes
SRAM evolves its big guns for even more power and heat resistance.
Andy Mccandish / Immediate Media
  • Pistons: Four
  • Fluid: DOT 5.1
  • Weight: 330g
  • Adjustments: Reach (TF), bite point (TF)
  • Price: £240 / €270 / $245 / AU$350

The four-pot Code RSC from SRAM delivers amazing stopping power with excellent feel and modulation. This makes it an ideal choice for heavier riders, those with weighty electric bikes or for those who regularly punish their brakes on alpine descents.

If the G2 Ultimate doesn’t quite cut the mustard for sheer grunt on long descents (and you’d have to be working it pretty hard for that to be the case) then SRAM have the Code RSC. Built with a beefier caliper, larger 15/16mm pistons and sintered pads as standard, it feels more capable, even on less extreme trails, with a super-positive bite point and solid, smooth lever action. This is partly thanks to the pivot-bearing reducing play in the lever, but it all feels reassuringly solid.

Power is off the charts, but well controlled and easily modulated, and SRAM’s Bleeding Edge system makes trimming hoses a breeze. The price and weight are high, so it’s worth looking at others unless you favour extreme descending.

Clarks Clout 1

4.0 out of 5 star rating
Best mountain bike disc brakes
Don’t expect aggressive performance, but for the price they’re outstanding.
Andy Mccandish / Immediate Media
  • Pistons: Two
  • Fluid: Mineral oil
  • Weight: 304g
  • Adjustments: Reach (TD)
  • Price: £25 inc. rotor

Hats off to Clarks for producing an effective hydraulic disc brake for £24.99, or even less if you buy two (£44.99). And that price includes a 160mm or 180mm rotor.

It even comes with an olive and barb for trimming the hose (the front hose was already too short for our longer-travel trail bikes, but that’s not the sort of use this is really designed for). Because the bar clamp isn’t hinged, you need to slide the grip off, but the lever fits easily and has a solid feel for the price.

While lacking in bite and power relative to more expensive models, the Clout works passably well. If you’re upgrading a basic bike from cheap cable-operated discs, it’ll be far ahead of what you currently have. Don’t expect aggressive performance, but for the price it’s outstanding.

Hope Tech 3 X2

4.0 out of 5 star rating
Best mountain bike disc brakes
More single-piece wizardry from the Lancashire machinists.
Andy McCandish / Immediate Media
  • Pistons: Two
  • Fluid: DOT 5.1
  • Weight: 242g
  • Adjustments: Reach (TF), bite point (TF)
  • Price: £155 / €195 / $195 / AU$320

An evolution of the good old Hope Mini brake, the X2 was designed to take all the performance of that well-known stopper and shave off a few more grams.

It’s the lightest on test and, from our experience, not at the expense of performance. The Tech 3 lever (also used on the E4 tested here) is excellent, with bite point and reach easily adjusted via large glove-friendly dials.

Fitting and adjustment are simple too, with a rotating banjo-shaped hose attachment and top-entry pads making maintenance a breeze.

Our only negative is that for just £20 and 14g more, you can upgrade to the four-pot E4 and get a punchy power upgrade. It’d double the number of pistons to go wrong, but Hope’s spares and service are second-to-none.

SRAM G2 Ultimate

4.0 out of 5 star rating
Best mountain bike disc brakes
We have nothing but praise for its performance through demanding terrain.
Andy Mccandish / Immediate Media
  • Pistons: Four
  • Fluid: DOT 5.1
  • Weight: 268g
  • Adjustments: Reach (TF), bite point (TF)
  • Price: £265

Taking the title of ‘most expensive on test’ by quite a margin, it’d be fair to expect a lot from this Guide replacement from SRAM. Fortunately, we found it delivered, but coming in nearly £100 dearer than the very capable Hope E3, you may find it hard to justify the extra expense.

Everything from the sheer grunt it offers to the light-touch modulation is excellent on the trail, and we have nothing but praise for its performance through demanding terrain. New phenolic pistons resist extreme temperatures well.

Little touches such as the beautiful carbon lever blade and caliper finish, smooth lever pivot-bearing and ‘rainbow’ hardware may encourage some to dig deep, and we can’t criticise the performance. So if you do go for the G2, you won’t come away disappointed.

Also consider

Hayes Dominion A4

3.5 out of 5 star rating
Best mountain bike disc brakes
Modulation is good, but it requires a lot of lever travel to max-out the braking force.
Andy Mccandish / Immediate Media
  • Pistons: Four
  • Fluid: DOT 5.1
  • Weight: 308g
  • Adjustments: Reach (tool-free), bite point (tool-driven)
  • Price: £200 / $230 / AU$459

Hayes has focused on detail with the Dominion A4, which makes the brake easier to fit than usual. After snugging-up the caliper bolts, you can use the small ‘Crosshair’ grub screws to make final micro-adjustments to its position relative to the rotor, making it much simpler to get things aligned perfectly.

The reach adjustment on the lever is also easy to dial in and out, with the wide range letting you set the blade in the perfect position for all hand sizes and preferences.

While power is a bit lacking compared to some other four-pots on test, it’s fine for 99 per cent of riding. Modulation is good, but it requires a lot of lever travel to max-out the braking force. The A4 is also quite pricey and not the lightest.

Magura MT7 Pro

3.5 out of 5 star rating
Best mountain bike disc brakes
Powerful and light trail brakes.
Andy Mccandish / Immediate Media
  • Pistons: Four
  • Fluid: Mineral oil
  • Weight: 250g
  • Adjustments: Reach (TF), bite point (TD)
  • Price: £189 / $239 / €215

Light, reasonably priced and highly customisable, we were initially very taken with the MT7 Pro. We did have a few issues when it came to fitting it though.

Trimming the hose and bleeding the system as per Magura’s instructions resulted in a perfectly positive action on the workstand, but after 15 minutes of trail riding, the lever began to pull to the bar. We had to repeat this process three times before finally getting all the air out, so there must be some hard-to-purge air pockets in the caliper body.

Once cleared, we couldn’t argue with the power output of this monster, which delivers arm-buckling levels of grunt with a light tap of the lever. The bite point is unmistakably positive too.

Some testers would have preferred more lever travel, but others loved the feel of the MT7 Pro.

Shimano Deore XT M8020

3.5 out of 5 star rating
Best mountain bike disc brakes
Shimano XT reliability with four-pot firepower.
Andy Mccandish / Immediate Media
  • Pistons: Four
  • Fluid: Mineral oil
  • Weight: 314g
  • Adjustments: Reach (TF), bite point (TD)
  • Price: £165 / $172

The M8020 is the latest in a long line of dependable XT stoppers, with a claimed 10 per cent more braking power than its two-pot M8000 sibling.

We felt a marked improvement, not only in power but also in the positive bite point, which inspired confidence. However, after a few rides, the bite point lost its consistency, wandering slightly and causing us to grab the lever earlier, in case it needed to be pulled further than usual. The effect was subtle, though, and the power was still there.

We generally found it to be a superb brake with zero set up issues. It’s a shame Shimano doesn’t supply a complete set of spares – if your brake dies you can only replace whole levers or calipers. The warranty system is good though, so you’re safe for two years at least.

What to look for when buying mountain bike disc brakes

Rotor size

Bigger rotors exert more force at the tyre and have a larger area to cool down on sustained descents, which keeps them working optimally, but they’re heavier.

Adjustment

Most brakes offer reach adjustment, allowing you to set the lever distance from the bar to suit your hand size. Some offer bite point (or free stroke) adjustment too, varying the amount of lever-free travel before the pad connects with the rotor. This can be either tool-free or tool-driven.

Pad removal

If pads are removable from the top of the caliper, they can be cleaned or replaced without the hassle of removing the wheel first. You don’t have to do this often, but it’s handy and far easier when you do.

Pad material

Most brakes have organic pads made of resin, glass, rubber and other non-metallic materials. They give a good ‘bite’ from cold, but can lose power when overheated and wear quickly. Sintered pads have more metallic fragments in the compound and can sound harsh, but wear far better and don’t suffer from overheating as much.

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Brake fluid

Hydraulic brakes use mineral oil or DOT fluid to drive their pistons. DOT fluid is bad for skin and paintwork, and needs more careful handling than mineral oil, but deals with water absorption better. Both are effective but need to be changed on a regular basis for best performance.