Slow down, buddy...
In the past few years a new generation of brakes has hit the market. SRAM finally came out with a successor to their much decried Avid brakes (although some were quite good, like the Codes), Shimano kept slowly improving their excellent stoppers, and Magura came out with their Next generation of mountain bike brakes.
With these advancements, all three companies have improved their power, reliability, and in some cases, even their price points. So in 2017, where do we stand? Is there one brand above the rest? What to get when you just want simple, reliable? How about power and modulation for an enduro race?
For the sake of this discussion, we'll be comparing Shimano XT, SRAM Guide RS, and Magura MT Trail Sport. Sorry, Formula, TRP, Hope, Hayes, and Tekrto--not enough space for everyone!
Let's take a look and find out...
Shimano is the current King of the Mountain. Their brakes, starting with $50 Deores all the way to their premier level XTR all are celebrated for their power, simple maintenance, and longevity. Their Saint/Zee line of brakes can be found on DH and Enduro bikes, while XTR and down on anything from a 20lb XC whip to world cup Enduro racers. There's a reason they have been on top for so long.
SRAM introduced the Guide and subsequent Level series brakes in the last couple of years with a lot of praise--and for good reason. The power and modulation of the Guides meant they started arriving OE on practically every type of bike. With an easier bleed method and a new taperbore design, SRAM claims to have solved many of the headaches of the Avid brake family, which is good news, since the lever and feel of Avids was always tough to beat.
Magura is not a new name in the brake world: their brakes have graced the podiums of Moto GP as well as mountain biking for years. With that said, they haven't been as popular this side of the pond as the other two, mainly due to OE speccing. Despite the lack of attention, the new Next series brakes offer insane stopping power and plenty of modulation as well. Let's not discount our German overlords...
Stopping power can be deceiving. Just like in a speeding car, skidding doesn't mean stopping. Controlled deceleration under high speed is tough to execute on something as active as a helmet wearing monkey on a mountain bike. With that in mind, how does the power compare?
Shimano: Good, but very abrupt. Easy to skid, short throw lever, plenty of power.
SRAM: Good, with very linear power delivery and enough to lock up if need be.
Magura: Excellent, more than enough power. Be careful regarding an OTB moment.
For some people, brakes are brakes, and as long as they can stop, they don't care how they got there. For us, modulation is extremely important, especially in loose conditions that we experience here in Santa Fe. Modulation means the feel in the lever and ability to apply power delivery when and how much.
Shimano: Okay, although I really want to say poor. With a good bleed and pads, you can achieve okay modulation, although most the time Shimano's feel On/Off, which can spell doom in loose turns.
SRAM: Good, with very consistent power delivery and a large lever blade the Guide modulate quite comfortably.
Magura: Excellent, delivering a very consistent, progressive, and predictable power delivery. Easy to feather through the chunder.
Reliability and maintenance kinda go hand-in-hand. In this case, how reliable are the brakes and how easy are they to bleed or change pads?
Shimano: Excellent, the current standard bearer. With the exception of a run of XT calipers that leaked, overall they are stupid reliable and have the easiest bleed method, by far.
SRAM: Okay, even with their Avid history, SRAM still suffers from rounds of warranty claims. Fortunately, they're doing a helluva good job in that regard, so hats off to them. Bleeding is also easier, although not nearly as foolproof as Shimano.
Magura: Good, with the new Next series, bleeding is easier than SRAM, but not as simple as Shimano. Likewise, we haven't experienced any warranty needs or during-ride failures.
Brakes should last a long time, so while the bulk of the cost occurs during the initial purchase, maintenance and consumables can quickly add up as well.
Shimano: Excellent, even the lowest end Deore perform well and are dirt cheap. Given their reliability and ubiquitous pads, their pricing is tough to beat.
SRAM: Good, for being one of the biggest OE suppliers, we are a little disappointed in the Guide price points. Bleeds are more frequent than Shimanos, but with more pad surface, pad replacements are fewer than Shimano as well and on par with Magura.
Magura: Good, while being relatively exotic, pricing on the Next series is very good considering the power and modulation. Pad life is also quite good and bleed life seems to be excellent as well.
As you might have noticed, there's no clear 'best' here. Just like when deciding between Fox and Rockshox or a Trek Slash vs Yeti Sb5.5, it's hard to go wrong these days. Bikes are currently being spec'd with a variety of SRAM and Shimano, depending on the brands, and that's great! There was once a time when upgrading brakes immediately was recommended, but those times are gone. With that said, riders still find reasons to upgrade, whether it's more power, better modulation, or both. Our verdict?
Shimano: If you don't mind the smaller levers or abrupt modulation, then these are the most affordable and reliable brakes out there. Hard to go wrong!
SRAM: If you prefer a larger lever and linear power delivery, this is a good option.
Magura: If you want tons of power, modulation and still great reliability, these are hard to beat. This is our aftermarket recommendation for aggressive riders.