More and more riders are mounting up brakes that in the past were only designated for downhill bikes on their ever day trail and enduro bikes. Today's mountain bikes are more capable than ever, so why not have a brake with no lack of power that won't leave you underwhelmed? There are a lot different options on the market today that all offer something different, so let's begin to breakdown the similarities and differences between the most popular 4 piston mountain bike brakes. If you have your mind made up already on the next set of brakes for your bike, check out our full selection of mountain bike hydraulic brakes.
When the trails get steep, those big brakes come in handy
Before we get started, it might be helpful to identify exactly what is a 4-piston brake. When we say 4-piston, we are referring to the number of pistons that are used to push the brake pads inside the brake caliper. Inherently 2-piston mountain bike brakes weigh less than their 4-piston big brother, but at the same time, a 4-piston caliper will give you more braking power. You will find 2-piston brakes on cross country and trail bikes where weight is very important, and you will find 4-piston brakes on enduro and downhill bikes where additional braking power is worth having at the cost of some added weight. Check out the photo below for a side by side comparison of a Shimano XTR 2-piston caliper and Shimano XTR 4-piston brake caliper.
Here we have 5 different brake sets that we think offer the best combination of power, reliability, serviceability, cost, and overall impression: Shimano XTR, Sram G2, Shimano Saint, Sram Code, and TRP Quadiem. It's important to keep in mind that each of these different brake sets were ridden and tested with "stock" rotors and pads.
When Shimano introduced the latest XTR group set in 2018, with it came a completely redesigned brake set. Shimano now offers a 4-piston brake caliper with their XTR group. A cross country model still exists with a 2-piston caliper that is lighter weight and offers a bit different lever feel. The Shimano XTR BR-M9120 4-piston brakes are designed to bring you similar amounts of all out power we have seen from the Shimano Saint brakes but with a lever design that gives you more modulation. Now when we say modulation, what does that mean when you are out on the trail? What having brake modulation does is it gives you the ability to ask for exactly how much braking power you want. It you want to feather the brakes and not get all of the power at once, you can do that. Notoriously, Shimano brakes are known for not having much modulation, instead coming on and off like a light switch. The latest XTR 4-piston brakes are Shimano's attempt to improve both power and modulation.
Now if the XTR brake set is a little out of your budget, Shimano also offers their tried and trued XT groupset with a 4-piston caliper, the Shimano Deore XT BR-M8120.
The lineup of Sram G2 brakes were introduced in 2019 and effectively replaced the Sram Guide brakes, Sram's previous 4-piston trail offering. The G2 is the next iteration of the same technology we have seen in other Sram brakes and is currently offered as a Sram G2 RSC or Sram G2 Ultimate. In saying that, the G2 brakes are still essentially all new. With changes all around, the new caliper design on the G2 sees less flex during hard braking and gets a better piston seal interface. The G2 brakes come with a new brake line from Sram that is reportedly stiffer, giving you a more firm lever feel. Sram has also introduced a new pad material called "Power Organic".
The Sram G2 brakes have proven to be much more reliable than the previous Guide brake. Sram calls the G2 a "mini Code" and we think that is spot on. The G2 offers plenty of power for your aggressive trail bike and gives you a great lever feel with firm feedback. Dive more in to the details on Sram's latest brake offering by watching our Sram G2 RSC and Sram G2 Ultimate video!
Since being introduced in 2013, the Shimano Saint brakes have set the bench mark for both power and serviceability. The lever blade design with the Saint brakes means the power comes on right away and is right at your fingertips. This does come at the cost of some modulation, especially at slower speeds. The Saint brakes are very easy to bleed and maintain, meaning you can have them running top notch all the time. The Saint brakes are a little bit heavier than the Code brakes they compete against, but with it comes a bit more power and consistency. If you a fan of Shimano's instant "on and off" lever feel, you can't go wrong with the Saint brakes. To learn more about these powerful brakes, dive in to our Shimano Saint brakes review.
When Sram redesigned the Codes and moved away from their previous taper bore technology, there was originally some negative feedback. Sram has since dialed in the Code brakes with continuous improvements to both the lever and caliper, and the Sram Code brakes we have today are a serious contender. The Code is currently offered as the Sram Code RSC and Sram Code R, giving you multiple price point levels to choose from. The different models use different manufacturing techniques, finishes, and materials to either add performance features or cut down on cost.
Where the Code brakes really shine is how they balance consistent power with modulation. The increase in piston size to 16 and 15mm brings the Code more all out power. The Code lever design is what allows for its ultimate modulation and control. You will find the Sram Code brakes on Amuary Pierron's World Cup downhill winning race bike as well as on your weekend warrior's every day enduro bike. For more on Code brakes, check out our Sram Code RSC review.
The TRP Quadiem brakes have been proven successful by 5 time World Cup Series champion Aaron Gwin. With that kind of validation, there are certainly a few reasons the Quadiem brake made it in to this discussion. What sets the the TRP Quadiem brakes apart from the rest is their bang for the buck. The Quadiem comes in at the lowest price of the brakes on this list and still manages to deliver enough power and consistency to win world cup races. TRP offers two different models, the TRP Quadiem G-Spec and TRP Quadiem. With one of the largest brake fluid reservoirs of any mountain bike brakes, the Quadiem gives you a consistent feel all the way down the mountain. With a good bleed, these brakes can take a huge beating before they even think about fading.
One of the drawbacks to the TRP Quadiem brakes are their serviceability. Although these brakes are relatively simple to bleed, the brakes do need to be bled often as the pads wear to effectively overfill the system. TRP also doesn't offer the same quality syringes and bleed kits that you will find from Sram and Shimano. With all that said, the TRP Quadiem brakes offer something unique, especially for the price. To learn more about TRP brakes, check out our TRP Quadiem brakes review.
Max Morgan is 27 years old, and lives in Brevard, North Carolina. Max grew up in Atlanta, Georgia and started racing downhill at the age of 15. He has now been racing professionally for the last 10 years, competing in the UCI World Cup series and U.S. Pro GRT series. To learn more about Max, check out Max's rider spotlight here!