How to Choose the Best Mountain Bike Brakes in 2024: A Buyer’s Guide

Need help finding the perfect mountain bike disc brakes? Here is everything we've reviewed and what kind of MTB they're best for.

Choosing the best brakes for your mountain bike is a piece of cake–if you know what to look for. If you’re in the market to upgrade your bike’s stoppers, this guide should dial you in to what’s important. We cover some basic knowledge and what to know when shopping for a new set of mountain bike brakes, and our picks for the best gravity, trail, and XC hydraulic mountain bike brakes on the market.

The best mountain bike disc brakes in 2024

Singletracks has tested dozens of mountain bike brake sets over the years, including all of the most popular models. Here are a few recommended MTB disc brake systems to consider.

  • Best brakes overall: TRP DHR-Evo
  • Best budget brakes: Shimano MT520 and SRAM Guide RE
  • Lightest MTB brakes tested: Trickstuff Piccola 2-piston
  • High power brakes: Hope Tech 4 E4
  • Excellent modulation: Formula Cura 4
Hope Tech 4 E4 brakes

The best brakes for enduro, downhill, and freeride

Hope Tech 4 E4: UK brand Hope makes some of the best mountain bike brakes out there. Their latest enduro brake the Tech 4 E4 uses a DOT 5.1 fluid and a nicely machined lever to deliver power, modulation, and a distinct bite through the E4 calipers. Get these brakes if you like good lever adjustment, power, reliability and beautifully machined components.

Read the full review here.

  • Weight: 343g each
  • Fluid: DOT 5.1
  • Pistons: 4
  • Price: $245 each
Shimano Saint brakes

Shimano Saint: Bombproof, tried and true, the Saint has been around for more than ten years. They are known for their reliability, strength, and resistance to fade on the longest of downhills. If you’re a heavier or faster rider who wants reliable power over anything else, these are a great choice.

Read the full review here.

  • Weight: 450g each
  • Fluid: Shimano mineral oil
  • Pistons: 4
  • Price: $240 each
SRAM Code brakes

SRAM Code: The Codes are SRAM’s answer to a beefy, 4-piston, enduro and gravity brake. There are a few submodels of the Code: The entry-level R and upper-level RSC. As of 2023, SRAM introduced the Stealth lineup giving the Codes a sleeker look, and the Bronze, Silver, and Ultimate model names. All of them offer a good level of stopping power, even with the Code R models; a more affordable entry-point for stronger brakes.

  • Weight: 443g each
  • Fluid: DOT 5.1
  • Pistons: 4
  • Price: $167 each
TRP DHR-Evo

TRP DHR-Evo: The TRP DHR-Evo has been one of the most popular enduro and downhill brakes since its debut. The DRH-Evos use TRP mineral oil, have beefy master cylinders and levers, and can stop a lot of weight for a long time without requiring maintenance.

Read the full review here.

  • Weight: 328g each
  • Fluid: TRP mineral oil
  • Pistons: 4
  • Price: $230 each
Formula Cura 4 brakes

Formula Cura 4: Formula doesn’t do entry-level, but if you’re willing to spend a little bit of money, you’re in for a treat. The Cura 4s have excellent modulation with a light and responsive lever action and it’s easy to find the perfect amount of force. These brakes use a proprietary mineral oil for long-lasting performance, though some might find they don’t have the adjustment capabilities of some other brakes.

Read the full review here.

  • Weight: 379g each
  • Fluid: Mineral oil
  • Pistons: 4
  • Price: $208 each
Trickstuff Direttissima brakes

Trickstuff Direttissima: Trickstuff’s 4-piston Direttissima brakes–Italian for “very direct” have a smooth, light lever feel and power by the buckets. And not only do they have power, they offer modulation for just the right amount of pressure. Bleeding these brakes takes some patience, but it can be easily done by the avid home mechanic and they use a Trickstuff mineral oil. These are also some of the lightest gravity brakes on the market. The two downsides of these brakes are that they are pricey and hard to get in the U.S. Otherwise, the Direttissimas are a stunningly good-looking brake with performance to match.

Read the full review here.

  • Weight: ~221g each
  • Fluid: Trickstuff mineral oiil
  • Pistons: 4
  • Price: €450 each
Shimano brakes

The best trail bike brakes

Shimano SLX/XT/XTR: Shimano’s lineup of 4-piston brakes is probably the most versatile on the market. You’ll see them on downcountry, trail, and enduro bikes alike. They’re reliable and look sharp and deliver a commendable amount of power in their package.

Read the SLX Review here.

Read the XT review here.

Read the XTR review here.

  • Weight: 445g (SLX), 410g (XT), 375g (XTR)
  • Fluid: Shimano mineral oil
  • Pistons: 4
  • Price: $187 each
TRP Slate Evo brakes

TRP Slate Evo: TRP takes the technology that made their DHR-Evo brakes great and put them in a more affordable package with a simpler finish. The end result: Great braking power for trail brakes and a really nice price. These Slate Evos can last a long time without a bleed making them a great choice for those who want a premium feeling brake without the hassle of maintenance.

Read the full review here.

  • Weight: 315g each
  • Fluid: TRP mineral oil
  • Pistons: 4
  • Price: $140 each

Magura MT5: Magura’s MT5 brakes feature much of the same great modulation, power and reliability as the MT7, but with a simpler master cylinder and a better price. These make for a great all-around trail bike brake.

Read the MT7 review here.

  • Weight: 255g
  • Fluid: Magura Royal Blood mineral oil
  • Pistons: 4
  • Price: $119 each
Hayes Dominion T4 brakes

Hayes Dominion T4:

The Hayes Dominion T4 are a lighter weight version of their A4 brakes, complete with carbon levers and titanium hardware. The Dominion T4s have a short stroke and a progressive bite and two bleed ports at the caliper to make removing air easier and more efficient.

Read the full review T4 here.

  • Weight: 257g
  • Fluid: DOT 4 or 5.1
  • Pistons: 4
  • Price: $325 each

The best cross-country bike brakes

Trickstuff Piccola 2-piston: The Trickstuff Piccola 2-piston brakes were some of the most powerful and snazziest cross-country brakes we’ve tested. The Piccolas are light for serious XC riders but match the stopping power of heavier brakes and have a reputation for longevity. Unfortunately these can be hard to find in the U.S.

Read the full review here.

  • Weight: 150g each
  • Fluid: Trickstuff mineral oil
  • Pistons: 2
  • Price: €450

Hope Tech 4 X2: Hope’s X2 brakes use the same Tech 4 lever as their stronger E4 and V4 brakes, but it’s paired with a sharp 2-piston caliper instead for a lighter weight. The X2 brakes comes in handful of anodized color options for a perfect match.

  • Weight: NA
  • Fluid: DOT 5.1
  • Pistons: 2
  • Price: $220 each
SRAM Level Silver Stealth brakes in action

SRAM Level Silver Stealth: We tested the latest version of SRAM’s Level brakes with their Stealth master cylinders and 4-piston calipers on the Revel Ranger and found them to be an impressive performer over the old version. The Levels have a strong and stiff feel, don’t fade, and the calipers pack 4-pistons. Unlike other SRAM brakes, they use a DOT 4 fluid. SRAM also makes the Bronze at a more affordable price as well as 2-piston caliper options.

  • Weight: 255g each (4-piston, Silver)
  • Fluid: DOT 4
  • Pistons: 2, 4
  • Price: $195 (Silver)
Shimano MT520 brake caliper
Photo: Sam James

The best budget brakes

Shimano MT520: E-bikes have helped bring some strong technology to market since their debut and the Shimano MT520 brakes are a great example. The brakes have ceramic pistons, Servo-wave and I-spec II compatibility just like other Shimano brakes, but in a very affordable package. They of course skip on a lot of features that pricier brakes get, like tool-less reach adjust and a slick finish, but for the price they are hard to beat.

Read the full review here.

  • Weight: NA
  • Fluid: Shimano mineral oil
  • Pistons: 4
  • Price: $74 Front / $138 Rear
SRAM Guide RE brake caliper

SRAM Guide RE: The SRAM Guide RE is another brake made for e-bikes and gravity bikes. The caliper is close to what you might get on the Code brakes and has large diameter pistons which deliver exceptional power for the price, though they don’t have as much bite. In our test, we didn’t have any problems with brake fade and they maintained strength on long descents. The sacrifice here is the finish and aesthetic, but for the price savings, it’s an easy choice.

Read the full review here.

  • Weight: 415g each
  • Fluid: DOT 5.1
  • Pistons: 4
  • Price: $135 each

Understanding mountain bike brakes

There’s a lot to know about mountain bike brakes, starting with the basic types and how brakes work. The following buyers guide will help you get familiar with brakes so you can choose the best option for your bike and style of riding.

Mountain bike brake types

Most modern mountain bikes these days come with disc brakes and on most of those, you’ll see a hydraulic brake system with either 2- or 4-pistons.

For lighter cross-country and some trail bikes, 2-piston calipers tend to work well. They don’t have as much stopping power as a 4-piston brake, but they are usually lighter.

On some trail, and most all-mountain, enduro, and downhill bikes, you’ll find 4-piston disc brakes. These systems have more power than 2-piston calipers but are heavier. Since riders are generally going faster on these bikes, stopping power is often preferred over the weight penalty.

Hydraulic vs. Mechanical Disc Brakes

Disc brakes can operate both hydraulically and mechanically. Hydraulic brakes utilize a piston-cylinder system filled with fluid similar to the brakes you’d find on a motorcycle or car. Most modern mountain bikes these days have hydraulic brakes, but on entry-level bikes, some manufacturers still spec mechanical disc brakes.

Mechanical brakes use a steel cable to translate a pull on the brake lever into a pull on the caliper at the disc.

Hydraulic brakes use hydraulic power, a plunger in the master cylinder and pistons inside the caliper to actuate the brakes.

Mechanical brakes are less expensive and riders may find them easier to maintain and troubleshoot, though even cables stretch and need to be replaced. Both mechanical and hydraulic mountain bike disc brakes require maintenance.

Because most modern mountain bikes have hydraulic disc brakes, we’ll focus on their technology and use them as a reference.

Rotor Considerations

The rotor in a disc brake system is the circular disc mounted to the wheel that the brake pads inside the caliper grabs to slow the bike down. One of the rotor’s main jobs is to dissipate heat caused by braking so manufacturers often use innovative patterns and materials that seek to maximize airflow and heat transfer (while keeping weight low). A rotor’s diameter also dictates heat transfer.

Again, weight and stopping power determine the size of brake rotors on cross-country and trail bikes versus gravity bikes made for enduro or downhill.

These days, there aren’t many 160mm rotors out there, except for dedicated cross-country race bikes. Most trail bikes have moved toward 180mm rotors and gravity bikes and e-bikes use 200mm rotors and sometimes 220mm rotors–helpful for stopping heavier bikes.

To some degree, the position of the caliper mounts on a bike frame or a fork dictate the size of the rotor that can be used, but adapters make it possible to mount larger rotors.

Rotor thickness used to be standardized to 1.8mm, but now some brands like TRP (pictured above) and SRAM have developed 2.3mm thick rotors. These rotors are said to add a stiffer overall braking feel and manage heat better.

Magura’s Royal Blood mineral oil. photo: Matt Miller

Brake fluid considerations

Amongst hydraulic disc brakes, you’ll find two choices for brake fluid and die hards on either side: mineral oil or DOT 5.1.

Some brands like SRAM, Hope, and Hayes use DOT 5.1 and others like Shimano, TRP, and Magura use mineral oil.

There is merit behind both and they each have their advantages. Mineral oil tends to last longer without maintenance, flushes or bleeds, but properties between different brands can differ a lot since it is not regulated by the DOT.

DOT 5.1 is regulated and different fluids are usually more consistent between any two. DOT 5.1 is hygroscopic though and will absorb water, decreasing performance. Because of this, brakes with DOT 5.1 usually need to be bled and flushed more than brakes with mineral oil. Shelf life of open DOT 5.1 containers is short too.

There really is no clear winner between the two fluids and there are outstanding mountain bike brakes from brands that use mineral oil and DOT 5.1 fluid.

MTb Brake pad change

Disc Brake Pads

There are three basic types of disc brake pads for mountain bikes: semi-metallic, sintered, and organic.

Semi-metallic brake pads are known to produce better stopping power and they don’t wear as quickly as organic pads. Out of the box, most brakes will include some type of semi-metallic brake pad.

Sintered pads are also known as metallic pads and are typically used by gravity riders due to their high friction values. In fact, sintered pads generate more friction at higher temperatures than low so they don’t have as much initial bite as organics but work well in extreme conditions.

Organic brake pads (also called resin) offer improved modulation because of the softer material and generate less noise. But remember, they also tend to wear out more quickly and you’ll want to avoid them for wet rides.

Ceramic disc brake pads are also available and in general they’re similar to metallic pads but with improved heat performance.

Brake Modulation

Brake modulation refers to the way stopping power is affected by the position of the brake lever. For example, a system with high modulation generates a little stopping power for a light pull on the lever, medium power for a medium pull, and so on. A brake system with low (or poor) modulation might instantly jump from low stopping power to full stop with just a minor change in lever pressure.

Mid- to high-end braking systems may feature reach, stroke, and even modulation adjustments. A reach adjustment allows the rider to change the distance from the brake lever to the handlebar, perfect for riders with smaller hands. Stroke adjustment affects the amount of “play” in the brake lever; some riders prefer a long stroke while others prefer a short stroke. Each of these adjustments affects modulation to some degree and in addition to these adjustments, some systems allow the rider to change the ratio of the lever piston to the caliper piston for even greater modulation control.

Photo: Sam James

Choosing a mountain bike disc brake

Armed with an understanding of the basics, it’s time to choose a disc brake system. Manufacturers typically package brake systems based on the type of riding you’ll be doing. Beyond riding style, heavier riders, for example, may want to go with a system with a little extra stopping power even if they intend to stick to mostly XC trails.