Words by: Liam Woods
Year after year, the SRAM vs Shimano brake rivalry continues and becomes even more divided. A few years ago we did a comparison of these two brakes, but since then both brands have come out with new and updated brakes, addressing the previous complaints and always trying to improve. The arguments go one of two ways: either SRAM brakes feel soft and spongy and I have a harder time bleeding them OR Shimano brakes lock up too fast, I can't modulate how much brake I pull and after a few rides my Shimano brakes are pulling to the bar and I have to bleed them often.
Both arguments come up often, and a lot of this comes down to rider preference and your own or your local mechanic’s skills. I have personally been working on both brakes for the better part eight years, so I know most of the tricks. I'll get into my thoughts and personal tips for bleeding each brake later. At the end of the day, there is a reason both of these brake brands are seen as the top two brands to choose from. Both options are amazing and have great brakes to help you slow down regardless of what kind of terrain you ride. From SRAM Code or Shimano Saint brakes for your downhill bike, SRAM G2 or Shimano XTR/XT four piston brakes for your trail bike, and SRAM Level or Shimano XTR/XT two piston brakes for your cross country bike, each brand makes something for everything.
I would say that this is pretty much the biggest part of the argument right here, how each brake feels and performs on the trail. One brand is known to have a snappy feeling but less “feel”, by which we mean how easily you can put on a little bit of braking power to scrub speed versus pulling the brake and instantly locking up the rear wheel. The other brand is known to have a little more feel and modulation, making it easier to control the amount of braking power you want, although seemingly lacking some of the initial bite the other brand offers. Let’s brake it down... (see what I did there?)
SRAM brakes are known to have more feel and modulation, no matter which category of brake we're talking about. The lever feel is smooth, and you can slowly apply the amount of brake pressure you want in any given situation. Over the years SRAM has got much better at feeling sharp without losing their key feature of modulation. Each new model that comes out gets better and better and more and more consistent. Oftentimes riders who have not ridden any newly updated SRAM brakes are blown away by the improvements, the amount of modulation they can achieve and just the overall power, especially the Code brakes made for downhill bikes.
Shimano is the brand most commonly put on the pedestal for staying snappy over a long period of time. This has to do with a technology they use called ServoWave, which creates a bit more effort to pull the brake lever at the beginning of the lever stroke and then gets easier after that. This allows you to get a good snap on the lever and pull lots of braking power. That leads to the snappy feeling as well as the feeling of lots of immediate power from the brake. But that also has its drawbacks, as it can provide too much power, more than a rider might have wanted at first. This gets better once you are used to them and learn to put on the amount of power you need, but it does take some time. Over the past few years, Shimano has actually made it a point to make the ServoWave be a bit less and improve on the modulation as well. So basically, both brake brands are trying to get closer to what the other brand is good at.
Both brakes have a specific feel and it often just comes down to what you want as a rider. We will get more into personal preference further down, but thoe are the basics of what each brake offers.
This is where things get a bit crazy and hard to understand. We will break this down into the easiest methods. The two brands use different ways to categorize their brakes for different disciplines. SRAM uses one model name for different categories and within that model there are different levels of high end down to entry level. Shimano on the other hand, has model names for the level of high end to entry levels and within those models are the category discipline. Hopefully, this will make sense a bit further down.
There are going to be three main categories for mountain bike disc brakes: cross country, trail/enduro, and enduro/downhill. Just like any other mountain bike category, there is a bunch of cross over and you can run a more powerful brake on a smaller bike as many do, or a less powerful brake on a bigger bike, not that many do but you can. Cross country brakes will be the lightest version of disc brakes and typically feature only a two piston caliper. External tool free adjustments are removed for weight and the size and fluid capacity have been shrunk down to be as light as possible while providing just the right amount of braking power needed. Trail/enduro brakes usually move to a four piston caliper and you typically get some tool free adjustments. The fluid capacity on these brakes is also increased. The trail/enduro brakes are what you will see spec’d on most bikes and are very common. They provide adequate braking power and can be found on a huge range of bikes from 120mm light trail bikes to 160mm enduro bikes. Rotor size comes into play big time with these styles of brakes, and we will cover that in just a second. The last category of disc brakes are enduro/downhill brakes, made for downhill bikes but many fast enduro riders use these brakes on their bikes to get the most stopping power possible. These also have four piston calipers and have the most amount of fluid packed into the brake to reduce any overheating that may occur.
The last bit to cover is rotor sizes. Yes, size does matter with rotors. The smaller the rotor, the less leverage and therefore stopping power you can get with any given brake. Typically you will see 160-180mm rotors on a cross country bike paired with a two piston caliper. For trail and enduro bikes, 180mm is most commonly used and bumping up to a 200mm or 203m rotor is also a common thing to see to get a touch more stopping power out of a trail style brake.
Downhill and big enduro bikes will use 200 front and rear and now some brands are making some 220mm or 223mm rotors to get even more stopping power for those fast riders out there. If you have a brake and want to get some more stopping power without buying new brakes, I would suggest going with a larger rotor. It’s cheaper than a new brake system and you might be surprised by how much more power you can get when upgrading to a 20mm larger rotor in the front or the rear. Along with that, you either see the same size rotor front and rear, or a larger rotor in the front than the rear. This is because lots of your stopping power comes from the front and getting a larger rotor in the front increases the ability to stop even faster. It also doesn’t add that much weight to your bike, so a bigger rotor is always the way I go.
Starting from the highest end and down: XTR, XT, and SLX for cross country and trail use, with Saint and Zee being their downhill options. Within the XTR, XT and SLX models you have both a two piston option for cross country and a four piston option for trail/enduro. The Saint and Zee only have one option and are four piston and are made for downhill use. XTR brakes will be the lightest version and most high end option from Shimano with XT coming in just behind. Shimano XT brakes are often said to be the standard for how mountain bike disc brakes should perform for the power and price they are offered at.
SRAM’s brake lineup is a little easier to follow in my opinion. You have three brake names, one for cross country, trail, and downhill. Within those are the levels from high end and down. Starting with SRAM Level brakes, these are SRAM’s cross country option that will be lightweight without tool free adjustments and two piston calipers. In the Level brake category you have four models, starting with the high end Level Ultimate, then the Level TLM, the Level TL and finally the Level T. The trail brakes follow a similar naming convention but are the SRAM G2 brakes with a four piston caliper, and within the G2 model there is G2 Ultimate, G2 RSC, G2 RS and G2 R brakes. The G2 Ultimate and RSC feature a few more adjustments than the latter, with a tool free contact adjust that actually works, and it works great! Lastly for SRAM is their downhill brakes, the SRAM Code with two models to choose from: the Code RSC and the Code R. These will be the burliest brakes SRAM makes and they have a large four piston caliper and a huge master cylinder. The RSC model also features the tool free contact adjust like the G2 Ultimate and RSC brakes.
The Shimano XTR two piston brake (BR-9100) will be the lightest and highest end cross country model from Shimano.
The SRAM Level Ultimate will be the highest end and lightest cross country brake model from SRAM, featuring just what you need and nothing you don’t.
The Shimano XT two piston brakes (BR-8100) are the most common brakes on the market, working on bikes from your cross country race rig to mid travel bikes. Often referred to as the standard for disc brake performance.
The SRAM Level TLM is just a step down from the Level Ultimate, still remaining lightweight but forgoing the carbon and titanium bits. The Level TLM will be slightly more of the workhorse on the Level series.
The Shimano SLX two piston brakes (BR-7100) will be the best bang for the buck out of the Shimano lineup. Offering reliable braking performance at a wallet friendly price.
The SRAM Level TL and T will be the lower end of SRAM’s cross country brakes, but that doesn’t mean they offer low stopping power. Having ridden the SRAM Level TL for a bit I can tell you that they can still stop when you need and are extremely reliable for all types of riding.
Made for modern trail and enduro bikes, the Shimano XTR four piston brakes (BR-9120) have a carbon lever blade, finned brake pads and are made to stop you in all conditions. With titanium hardware, the XTR four piston brakes are the top end for Shimano trail and enduro brakes.
SRAM G2 Ultimate brakes deserve the nickname the “mini-Code” for how much power they pack into a small, compact trail brake. With a four piston caliper, the G2 Ultimate is the lightest four piston brake on the market. They are available in a few colors to match your bike.
Following in the path of the classic two piston Shimano XT brake, the Shimano XT four piston brake (BR-8120) offers some of the best performance to price on the market. Many riders swear by these brakes and the four piston option was a hit when it first came out. The workhorse of the disc brake world, you will see these XT four piston brakes on many different bikes.
The SRAM G2 RSC is the aggressive brother of the G2 Ultimate, without the carbon level blade and titanium hardware. The G2 RSC also has the mini-Code nickname and is one of our favorite SRAM trail brakes to ride. Much of this is from the contact adjust the brake features, allowing you to really move how much dead zone there is in the lever pull.
Shimano’s entry level four piston brake, the Shimano SLX (BR-7120), can take a beating. For the price of this brake, the quality and stopping power is amazing!
SRAM recently released the two G2 RS and R brakes to follow their higher end siblings. Offering the same four piston stopping power, the SRAM G2 RS and R go without the contact adjust to come in at a lower, more affordable price.
Shimano Saint brakes have been long seen as some of the best downhill brakes on the market. With too many downhill World Cup wins to count, you will see these brakes on most Shimano racers’ bikes. Consistency is the name with the Shimano Saints, and they deliver the power too.
SRAM Code RSC will be SRAM's most powerful brake, also having tons of downhill World Cup wins under its belt, the Code RSC can perform at the highest level. Featuring the contact adjust like the G2 Ultimate and RSC, the Code RSC feels great and has the power as well.
Shimano Zee brakes are going to be the budget version of the Saints. Still meant for downhill and stopping fast, the Shimano Zee is a great value to performance from Shimano.
SRAM Code R brakes will be the affordable version of the RSC, very similar but without the contact adjust that the RSC has. Don't let the price fool you, the Code R is a great value and has the performance to prove it.
Between the two brands there are some differences when working on them. Starting with Shimano, the bleed process is quite easy for the home mechanic and you can get a quick top off bleed done very easily without much skill required. I think Shimano brakes are easier to make feel good, and kept bled. SRAM brakes take a little more work and have the use of syringes. While it takes more skill to get down, once you learn it, I think it's easier to make a consistent bleed on SRAM than Shimano brakes. Using the syringes you can be sure that there is no air in the lines and the brake is as good as it can get.
Adjusting the brakes is about the same now. In the past, SRAM pistons wouldn't align as easily as Shimano but there have been many updates since then. Also to note, on the higher end models there is a contact adjust on both brakes but they work very differently. For Shimano this is called a free-stroke adjustment, which has a few drawbacks. It uses a Phillips head screw on the lever that one, requires a tool to adjust, two it's a Phillips head screwdriver and I think that is not the best quality on a high end brake, and three, it really doesn't work at all. All the way out or all the way in you barely feel a difference and it's pretty pointless. For SRAM, they have a pad contact adjustment and it works great. You have lots of adjustment and you can really feel the difference with just a couple quarter turns. When I bleed the brakes I bleed them all the way out and then dial it in to feel. I'd say this is a huge benefit that SRAM has over Shimano.
There is also the fact that these two brands use different hydraulic fluids in their brake systems, and both say that theirs is the best for A or B reasons. SRAM uses DOT fluid, and specifically new DOT5.1, but you can also use DOT4 in SRAM brakes. What you can't use is DOT5 fluid. Shimano uses mineral oil brake fluid, but their mineral oil isn't just mineral oil. It’s specific to Shimano and really only available through a bicycle retailer. There are so many specifics about the brake fluid and honestly, someone else covered these two fluids in depth so well that I am just going to link to their article. Epic Bleed Solutions has an entire blog on Mineral Oil VS Dot Brake fluid, so I suggest you check that out to get a full in-depth answer. I will list a few of their what’s good and what’s bad about each below. I will say at the end of their article there is a poll to let the readers decide what fluid is the best, and out of 10,421 votes at the time of this blog, mineral oil is winning 61% to DOT fluid’s 39%.
Both brands make some amazing brakes, having been at it for years now. Yet both still have some drawbacks compared to the other, and there are also positives from each brand that the other lacks.
Shimano makes a very consistent brake. They've been making consistent brakes for years now and hold the benchmark for other brands to compare themselves to. Shimano is also pretty easy for the home mechanic.
For a brand to be at the brake game this long, it's a shame they haven’t figured out a pad adjustment that works yet. Their “free stroke” is all but basically useless and nobody even really knows why it’s there. Then we also have to wonder why some $300 brakes have a silver Phillips head on the rest of an amazing looking brake.
SRAM pad adjustment sets it above many brakes in that department. Their contact adjust on their Code RSC, G2 Ultimate and G2 RSC works really well. You can bleed the brake with it open, wind it in after the bleed and have some amazing and easy to adjust pad contact. Another cool feature is that their brake levers are dual sided, meaning you can carry one spare, or if a mate from down under comes to visit you can easily swap the brakes for the right front style if needed.
SRAM brakes are inherently a bit harder for the home mechanic. You need a syringe bleed kit in order to properly bleed the brakes, and it takes a bit more trial and error to get the bleed down.
The final bit, which do we prefer? Both Jeff and I lean towards the SRAM side and for a few reasons. I really like the lever feel, and I think it’s easier to slowly add on the power and scrub speed more controlled than Shimano brakes. Another reason is how well the pad contact adjustment works. When you start to wear the pad, if bled and set up right, you can dial in the contact adjust to keep the lever throw the same. This helps prolong the need to bleed the brakes to maintain feel. I also think that once you learn, SRAM brakes are also easier to get a consistent and good bleed on with the syringes. By using vacuum pulling you can be sure that all of the air is out of the system and you only have a tight bleed with brake fluid. Jeff and I are also on the lighter side of the common rider and I have many friends that are some solid, thick guys and many of them prefer Shimano. At the end of the day, they are both great brakes, and it really does come down to personal preference. I can get used to either, but SRAM is my preferred choice.
This article was written / authored by Liam Woods. Liam has been in the bicycle industry for over 10 years as a racer, professional mechanic, service manager and as of late, media and content creator. Liam has ridden thousands of different bikes, ridden countless components, tested endless MTB apparel of all kinds and written reviews on it all. He's a key piece to the Worldwide Cyclery "All Things MTB" content creation puzzle. He also makes consistent appearances on the Worldwide Cyclery YouTube channel and Instagram.