Vital MTB Face Off: The Best Heavy-Duty Disc Brakes

Curiously, the better your brakes are the faster you go. But with no shortage of options, things can get a bit confusing when it comes to choosing your next set of stoppers. To make things even more complicated, big four-piston brakes that were once the exclusive domain of downhill bikes are increasingly finding their place on anything from hard-hitting trail bikes to full-on enduro race rigs – such are the demands of today's version of mountain biking.

To help you figure out what’s what, we’ve spent the last six months and over 350 hours putting six of the world’s best heavy-duty brakes to the test. The time has come to reveal the results.

1st Place: Hope Tech 3 V4 - Best in Test

"Designed, tested, and manufactured" – three words that have become synonymous with Hope Technology and the ever-growing catalogue of high-quality bike parts that they produce in their Barnoldswick, UK factory. Hope’s V4 brakes are CNCed from single blocks of aluminum and have been around for about four years. The unchanged design is a testament to just how well they perform and how dependable they are. While they are not the outright most powerful on test here, their incredible modulation and adjustability ultimately helped them to a convincing win.

Shop the V4 at Chain Reaction Cycles.

2nd Place: SRAM Code RSC - Runner Up

Throughout the years, Avid and later SRAM have known more than their fair share of trouble when it comes to the long-term reliability of their brakes. Their Code brakes, however, have stood as a proud exception for a couple of generations. The latest version borrows heavily from the much-lauded line of Guide brakes, but adds another dimension of power and reliability that saw it come very close to challenging for the top spot.

Shop the Code RSC at Jenson USA.

3rd Place: Formula Cura

Formula has often been a bit of a love-hate thing for many people when it comes to brakes. Their previous generation of heavy-duty brakes featured a vertical master cylinder and oval pistons, and while they were often praised for their power some versions of those brakes could be a bit unreliable. Their ergonomics were also not for everybody. The Cura, however, represents a complete redesign from the ground up. Although it was only available in a dual-piston version when we kicked off this test, Formula were confident that it could hold its own in a heavy-duty brake shootout – Finn Iles won the overall Junior UCI Downhill World Cup Title running a standard, off-the-shelf, two-piston Cura after all. Lo and behold, it turns out Formula’s confidence was warranted, and the light and relatively inexpensive Cura surprised us by storming right up the rankings to snatch the last spot on the podium.

Shop the Cura at Chain Reaction Cycles.


How We Tested

We have prior long-term experience with all but the Cura. To put them all to the test under more or less equitable circumstances, we rode a set of each brake again for at least one month on the same bike under the same tester. We used 200mm or 203mm rotors up front and 180mm rotors out back each time.

Of course, conditions change during six months of testing, but this gave us a good idea of how each brake performs day to day. We mounted the brakes on a long-travel enduro bike which allowed us to make sure each brake would see all kinds of riding, from shuttling downhill tracks to general trail duty.

At the end of the six months, it was time for the final exam: one day spent riding the six brakes back to back. We headed out to a local downhill track and a long, steep shuttle road where we set up our mobile workshop for the day and proceeded to bang out runs and fine tune our F1 pitstop brake-swapping skills.

During our back-to-back test, each set of brakes saw one run on the downhill track followed by a “burn test” down the aforementioned fireroad. This test consisted of heavily dragging the front brake for two minutes down the steepest part of the mountain, holding our speed just above walking pace, in order to really heat the brakes up. Once hot, we continued to alternate heavy braking and brake dragging all the way to the bottom to detect any fade or other performance-related issues. At the end of this final exam, we were ready to compile the scores and call a winner…

By The Numbers

Here you have it, one table with all the answers. The maximum score in any one category is 10. Weight measurements are for a front brake and 200mm/203mm rotor, but exclude any mounting hardware. Similarly, the listed prices are full retail value for a complete front and rear set including rotors, but excluding mounting hardware.

Brake

Total
Score

Power
Score

Modulation
Score

Heat
Score

Adjustability
Score

Weight
(grams)

Weight
Score

Retail Price
Per Pair (USD)

Price
Score

Hope V4

9.05

9

10

9

10

461g

8

$560

7

SRAM Code RSC

8.75

10

9

8

9

511g

7

$598

7

Formula Cura

8.60

8

9

9

6

397g

10

$420

10

Magura MT7 HC3

8.35

9

8

9

8

425g

9

$830

6

Shimano Saint

8.35

10

7

8

8

479g

8

$520

8

TRP Quadiem G-Spec

8.15

8

9

8

7

487g

8

$515

8

In order to establish this final ranking, we evaluated performance aspects we feel are most important for a heavy-duty brake. The different aspects were given the following weights:

  • Power: 30%
  • Modulation: 25%
  • Heat Management: 15%
  • Adjustability: 10%
  • Weight: 10%
  • Price: 10%

Power

When testing heavy-duty brakes, one of the most important aspects is power. What is power and how to you measure it? How can one finger stop you so quickly? Braking power is primarily the result of the mechanical advantage the brake lever provides, the hydraulic advantage of increasing piston area from the master cylinder to the caliper, and the size of the rotor. Things like pad material, flex in the brake line, splay in the caliper, and air in the system all have an impact on the amount of power that is produced.

All the brakes tested here generate more than enough power to lock up a front wheel under any circumstance, but we judged them on how much power they are able to create with a similar amount of lever pressure. We did not resort to a machine to test this aspect, nevertheless we were able to easily identify the brakes that offer more stopping power with relatively less input at the lever.

Modulation: Power Is Nothing Without Control

The way each brake behaves is crucial to how it feels on the trail, and it is in fact the main differentiating factor between all the brakes on test here. In short, these six heavy-duty brakes can all stop a truck, but the way they apply their immense braking power is very different.

Power is awesome, but if you can’t control it you can't use it. A locked-up wheel is far less efficient at slowing a bike down than one flirting with the limit of traction. “Modulation” is a word that gets thrown around a lot, so we should clarify what we mean when we say it and how we evaluated it. Basically, modulation describes how sensitive a brake is to changing input at the brake lever. A brake that modulates well lets you easily control the amount of braking power under any circumstance. Squeeze a bit more and you get a bit more power. Squeeze a bit less and the brake should respond accordingly. It sounds straightforward enough, but the way each brake behaves is crucial to how it feels on the trail, and it is in fact the main differentiating factor between all the brakes on test here. In short, these six heavy-duty brakes can all stop a truck, but the way they apply their immense braking power is very different.

Heat Management: Is It Me Or Is It Hot In Here?

Heavy-duty brakes usually have to deal with long runs full of hard and/or sustained braking. As a result they get very hot, and how they deal with this heat build-up is crucial. As previously described, we came up with a specific “burn test” to help us evaluate how each brake reacts to extreme heat build-up. This test doesn’t really mirror any real riding conditions – if this is how you get down mountains regularly you probably need to rethink what and how you ride – but it was the best way for us to easily see how each brake performed when pushed to the extreme. We found some interesting differences in how each brake reacted, most notably in terms of noise but also lever pump.

Making Adjustments

We’re not all born equal, and just one look at how different people set up their brake levers should help convince you of that if you didn’t already know it. Some people like their levers close to the bars, others further away. Some like the lever throw to be as short as possible, others prefer to wait for the bite point. There is no one correct answer, which is why it is so important that a brake lever offers a wide range of easily usable and effective adjustment.

Measuring Up

To complete this overview of scoring aspects, we also took into account physical weight and price. Considering that both these factors are slightly less important to the typical buyers of heavy-duty brakes, these aspected were given a relatively low weighting when the scores were tallied up.


Our Picks

The best three heavy-duty brakes in the world, starting with our winner:

Hope Tech 3 V4 – Best in Test

To say that Hope has a history of making disc brakes for mountain bikes would be an understatement, as they quite literally were among the very first to do so all the way back in 1989. Since then the company has gone from strength to strength, growing their catalog and building a loyal following worldwide based on dependable product and great customer service. Launched in late 2013, the Tech 3 family of brakes took everything Hope had learned and put it into three different packages, the two-piston X2, the enduro-oriented E4 we tested previously with excellent results, and the full-on V4 featured in this heavy-duty brake shootout. Powerful and adjustable, this DH-rated stopper has everything you need to slow you down - it certainly looks the part, too.

Hope Tech 3 V4 Highlights

  • Rigid one piece caliper, CNC machined from 2014 T6 aluminum alloy
  • V4 caliper uses four phenolic pistons to give more usable power
  • DOT 5.1 brake fluid
  • Ergonomic lever design to fit around other handle bar items
  • The Tech 3 lever is directly compatible with Shimano I-Spec shifters, separate direct mounts also available for Shimano I Spec 2 & SRAM shifters
  • Complete brake available in Black, Purple, Red, Orange, Blue and Silver
  • Comes with braided hose as standard (regular brake hoses used in some markets)
  • Tool free bite point and reach adjustments
  • Uses post mount, 9.74 caliper with adapters to suit all mount options
  • Top entry pad fitting
  • Compatible with 180, 183 and 203mm rotors
  • Weight: 461 grams (front brake, including 203mm rotor, verified)
  • MSRP: $560 USD (complete set, including rotors)

Initial Impressions

Best known for their CNC wizardry, it comes as no surprise that Hope’s V4 should impress at first sight. The caliper is intricately machined and certainly looks the part while the equally elaborate lever combines that industrial design with a distinctly modern shape. Add a choice of Hope’s six colors and the V4s never find themselves lacking in the bling department.

The V4 features two different piston sizes (where the slightly lighter E4 makes do with a single size) housed in a caliper machined from a single piece of aluminum. This is said to increase caliper stiffness compared to a traditional two-piece design, and it is also the reason why it features the two distinctive bore caps – this is the only way to get into the caliper!

The Tech 3 lever offers both bite point and reach adjustment via a set of two bolts that are entirely external to the lever body. One bolt moves the master cylinder piston in and out (and thus the caliper pistons which moves the pads closer to or further away from the rotors), while the other changes where the lever blade sits in relation to the handlebar. The V4s come standard with braided hoses and are the only ones in this test to do so (note: they come with regular hoses in some markets). We tested with a set of Hope’s floating disc rotors where the external steel part of the rotor floats on an aluminum carrier. This is said to improve resistance to warping while also offering a good opportunity for a little fun with anodizing.

On The Trail

Installation of the V4 is straightforward as all the hardware is high quality and a pleasure to work with. Aligning the brake is trouble-free, and if you take the time to line up the caliper then work the pads in and out a bit you are rewarded with drag-free performance from day one. Bleeding a Hope brake is a slightly more messy affair than with many others, but what the open-bath procedure lacks in cleanliness it more than makes up for in the performance department. We have yet to fail getting a great bleed on a Hope brake, and we’ve had several years of experience with them.

These Hope brakes deliver their power in a very different manner: the initial bite is very soft and the power builds up quickly as you squeeze the brake with minimal lever travel. Once you get used to it this creates a brake which is incredibly intuitive to use, to the point of becoming completely second nature.

Those accustomed to a more sensitive brake may feel disappointed at first because these Hope brakes deliver their power in a very different manner: the initial bite is very soft and the power builds up quickly as you squeeze the brake with minimal lever travel. Once you get used to it this creates a brake which is incredibly intuitive to use, to the point of becoming completely second nature. There are a couple of other brakes in this test that come close, but those don't deliver that perfect combo of sensitivity and power when you need it.

The impressive adjustability of the Tech 3 lever is another point where the V4s outscored the others. The 100% external reach and bite point adjustments are as simple as they are effective, with a wide range and distinct clicks to help you keep track of what you are doing.

Burn Test

The V4s were among the very best in our burn test with no annoying noise and almost imperceptible lever pump. The feel and the power seemed unaffected by the high temperatures, and the brake essentially delivered the same performance at the bottom of this special test run as it did at the top.

Durability

We have had a set of Tech 3 E4 brakes (the enduro version of this same brake) running for a couple of years now, and we’ve been more than impressed with how it has held up over time. We had one lever start to act up after about 18 months, then replaced the two main piston seals in the master cylinder and were back to normal at a cost of about $5. Hope brakes can be rebuilt at home, and all the individual parts are available for purchase should you need them. This is another strong point of this family of brakes, as aside from the bore cap tool you don’t really need any particularly special equipment or skills to completely strip and rebuild the V4.

Summary

Despite having close to no presence in the OEM space, Hope has managed to build up an impressive catalogue with customers around the world swearing by their products. The Tech 3 V4 is a quality piece of equipment that is set to carry this fine tradition forward, taking the top spot in this shootout thanks to an unbeatable combination of power, feel, adjustability, and durability – that it happens to be available in six rad colors will keep the fettlers happy too!

Shop the V4 at Chain Reaction Cycles.


SRAM Code RSC – Runner Up

Looking back, some Avid brakes were often the subject of much ire and a near endless source of frustration for riders. When they worked well they always offered up a great feel and in many cases the performance to back it up. However, they were plagued with reliability issues which eventually led SRAM to ditch the Avid name altogether and redesign its line of brakes from scratch. The resulting Guide family of brakes presented a significant improvement in quality and consistency of performance. They offer that same trademark lever feel that many have come to appreciate, although some annoying issues persisted as anybody with a stuck master cylinder piston will testify. Throughout the years, however, one brake stood out from the others in terms of both power and consistency – the Code. Now fully part of the new family, SRAM’s flagship stopper seems largely impervious to the troubles sometimes affecting its smaller siblings, which sees it finish very close to the top step in this shootout. If it's monster power and near-perfect modulation you want, you'll find it easy to look past the weight and the price tag of this premium product.

SRAM Code RSC Highlights

  • Based on Guide architecture, designed specifically to handle heavy-duty demands
  • 4-piston, dual diameter alloy caliper
  • CenterLine rotor
  • Steel-backed, metal sintered, top-loading pads
  • DOT 5.1 brake fluid
  • Ambidextrous mount
  • Tool-free Reach Adjust, Contact Point Adjust, Banjo Adjust
  • MatchMaker X compatible
  • Bleeding Edge easy bleed tech
  • SwingLink architecture, lever pivot bearings
  • Rotor sizes: 160, 170, 180, 200mm
  • “Bend Zone” lever blade
  • Color: Black anodized
  • Weight: 511 grams (front brake, including cable and 200mm rotor, verified)
  • MSRP: $598 USD (complete set, including rotors)

Initial Impressions

“All business” is probably the best way to describe the Code. Borrowing heavily from the aesthetics of the Guide brake, the Code is an all-black affair with minimal graphics and understated black-on-black bling. The extra 30% of fluid volume the lever contains compared to the Guide brake is visible in the form of a bulging main reservoir. The two-piece, V-shaped caliper looks almost like a two-piston brake at first glance, but it hides four pistons and its imposing size gives away its purpose: slowing down big loads at any cost.

The Code RSC lever may look simple at first glance, but looks can be deceiving. The lever blade pivots on bearings, and SRAM’s “SwingLink” provides a different effect on the pad travel at different points in the lever stroke. When you initiate the stroke, the pads move faster to allow them to take up the “dead” part of the stroke faster. Once the pads engage, the leverage ratio changes to give more power and control. The RSC lever also offers both contact point adjustment and lever reach adjustment.

On The Trail

Mounting up the Codes is child’s play. They are easy to set up drag free and bleeding is a cinch thanks to SRAM’s “Bleeding Edge” technology. A special port on the caliper allows you to connect a specific syringe and open the bleed port without losing any fluid or without any air entering the system. Simple and very effective. All the hardware is of good quality, and if you happen to be running SRAM shifters and/or a Reverb dropper you can mount everything on just a single clamp on each side.

When it comes to power and modulation, the Code delivers. If you know the feeling of a good Guide brake, pump it up on steroids and you get the Code.

The ergonomics of the lever are near perfect, and the pivot point sits in a great spot which allows you to get good braking power at just the right point in the lever’s travel. Our only gripe with the Code levers is the somewhat faffy and ineffective nature of the adjustments. The bite point adjuster seems to offer too much range in the wrong direction, which translates roughly to “why would anybody want to dial in this much extra lever slop?” The reach adjustment is reasonably effective, but the knob is small and it’s difficult to feel what you’re doing with it. It also has a tendency to get stuck between clicks.

When it comes to power and modulation, the Code delivers. If you know the feeling of a good Guide brake, pump it up on steroids and you get the Code. The same great lever feel is still there, it’s just a bit more "solid" for lack of a better word. The extra power seems to come with even better modulation. With the Codes, you never feel out of power and you never feel out of control.

Burn Test

Pitting the Codes against gravity in our burn test, we discovered a bit of a dichotomy: one the one hand, the lever pump was well controlled and the power never faded. On the other hand, the Codes started howling like stuck pigs about halfway into the test, and they kept it up until normal service had resumed. This is likely due to the rotor design, despite several attempts by SRAM at creating rotors with the promise of “a quieter ride.” Be that as it may, the Codes were mostly quiet under normal use on the trail, although they can pipe up a bit sometimes when riding in wet conditions.

Durability

As mentioned previously, some SRAM brakes have struggled with long term durability. We have not found that to be true of the Codes. Whether it’s the extra volume and size giving the designers more room to work with or simply better tolerances on this family of brakes we can’t say, but we do know that the Codes just keep on keeping on with a consistently smooth lever feel.

Summary

Downhill brakes are flagship products, and SRAM took their time when redesigning the Code. They're like Guides on steroids and are the best of the SRAM family, in our opinion. They're incredibly powerful with great lever feel. Slightly subpar adjustments and lower scores on weight and price kept the Code from challenging for the top spot in this test.

Shop the Code at Jenson USA.


Formula Cura – 3rd Place

Formula has a bit of a spotty record as riders seemed to either love or hate their brakes. Moving on from the previous generation of serious stoppers, the two-piston Cura was developed with downhill World Cup racing team input. They were proudly featured on the bike that Finn Iles rode to the overall 2017 Junior UCI Downhill World Cup title as well as Miranda Miller’s World Champs winning steed. Loic Bruni was also running the new goods in 2017, although he was already testing a four-piston prototype of the same brake later in the season. With such good results it’s clear to see why Formula didn’t hesitate to send us the Cura even though they knew that this two-piston welterweight would be going up against a group of four-piston heavyweights – figuratively and literally. With great power delivery and an even better lever feel, the Cura wasted little time proving itself worthy of the vote of confidence.

Formula Cura Highlights

  • Forged aluminum master cylinder
  • Forged aluminum lever blade
  • PM6 caliper with 24mm pistons
  • Organic compound pads
  • Mineral oil compatible
  • One piece (tested) or two piece rotors available
  • Speed Lock Standard: Caliper side only
  • MixMaster compatible (optional)
  • Weight: 397 grams (front brake, including cable and 203mm rotor, verified)
  • MSRP: $420 USD (complete set, including rotors)

Initial Impressions

The Cura almost looked out of place when its svelte lines revealed themselves. Even the box they showed up in was smaller than the others. Throwing them on the scales confirmed what already seemed obvious: the Cura is also a good deal lighter than any other brake featured in this test. The lines are smooth with the brake lever looking a bit like the result of a night of passion between a Shimano XT and a Dyson vacuum cleaner.

Gone is the pull-piston design of old, making way for a classic, in-line push-piston design. For the first time ever, Formula has gone to mineral oil – a move they say was possible because they finally discovered an oil that was “up to their standards.” The oil pushes two pistons per caliper. At a 24mm diameter they are much bigger than the average piston in a four-piston brake, which is necessary to reach downhill-worthy stopping power levels in a two-piston design.

The “Speed Lock” quick connector on the caliper side allows for fast, toolless disconnection of the brake hose from the lever. It seems a bit scary at first, but the execution of the concept seemed solid to us and it is truly a boon for working on internally routed frames. Kudos to Formula on this design.

The lever shape is fairly classic, and Formula says they spent a lot of time figuring out the ideal place for the pivot in order to maximize power at the appropriate point in the stroke. There is no bite point adjust, and the small reach adjust requires a tiny Allen key to operate.

On The Trail

Installing the Cura was devoid of any drama, and the “Speed Lock” system proved to be every bit as effective as advertised. Try as we may, we have not been able to fault it. You can basically connect and disconnect the brake hose as many times as you like without losing fluid or introducing air into your brake lines. Setting up the lever in a comfortable position also proved easy, even if the tiny reach adjust bolt is a pain to work with.

The lever action is direct and solid, and the brakes have a real bite to them. The modulation is awesome, and it’s very easy to feel what the brake is doing at all times.

On the trail, it didn’t take long for the Cura to convince us. The lever action is direct and solid, and the brakes have a real bite to them. The modulation is awesome, and it’s very easy to feel what the brake is doing at all times. The geometry of the lever was perfect for this tester, leaving us feeling in control and with good amounts of power in reserve for when we needed it. Yes, there is a bit less power outright than the most powerful four-piston brakes in this test, but not significantly so. More importantly, the brakes ramp up nicely towards the end of the lever travel and it’s never a struggle to unleash those last bits of braking power when required.

Burn Test

Heading down the steep fireroad for our burn test, the Cura would once again punch above its weight. Completely silent to the end, there was little discernible lever pump and no brake fade. With this level of performance from the dual-piston version, we can hardly wait to get out hands on the four-piston edition which Formula says will drop “sometime during the spring.” We’ll be sure to come back and update this test when they do, as we have a feeling they might well end up challenging those on the podium above it…time will tell!

Durability

We have kept the Cura brakes on a bike for about two months, but as we have no prior experience with this model we can’t yet give a definitive opinion on durability. What we have seen of it so far bodes well – it is easy to bleed and the performance has remained very consistent throughout testing. We’ll keep it on the trail and report back with any additional findings at a later date should anything unexpected reveal itself.

Summary

Formula went back to the drawing board for the Cura, and their dedication has been rewarded with an excellent, general-purpose brake that can also hold its own against the best heavy-duty brakes in the world. With great ergonomics, plenty of power and modulation, and light weight coupled with a slender price tag, the Cura really only lacks a bit of power and adjustability to challenge for the top spot. We can’t wait to see what the four-piston version will deliver…

Shop the Cura at Chain Reaction Cycles.


The Other Contenders

We chose the brakes for this test carefully. We looked for “big boy brakes” with DH-worthy ratings and stopped at the six main contenders that can be easily purchased and serviced pretty much anywhere in the world. Because this is a shootout format somebody has to win, but all the brakes in this test will more than satisfy their users in every condition imaginable. A few words on those that didn’t make the podium:

Magura MT7 HC3 MacAskill Edition

We have tested Magura’s flagship stoppers before, and we were well impressed with the power and modulation on offer. The same is true of this revised version with the brake doing well both on the trail and in our burn test. It showed the least amount of lever pump and only a slightly off-putting grinding noise noticeable towards the end of the burn run. 

We have tested Magura’s flagship stoppers before, and we were well impressed with the power and modulation on offer. The same is true of this revised version with the brake doing well both on the trail and in our burn test.

On the flipside, the MT7s was the most difficult brakes of the bunch to set up right. They are quite sensitive to how you bleed them, and the low overall oil volume does not provide a lot of buffer if things should go a bit wrong. They were also the most tricky to set up drag-free. 

The levers were the major negative point when we originally tested the MT7, which is a flaw that Magura corrected with the release of the new HC3 lever shown here. With far better ergonomics and a nifty feature that allows you to adjust the power delivery, these new levers help the brake suit a much wider range of hand shapes and preferences. Having said that, the MT7 still falls a bit short of the top competitors in terms of overall ergonomics and adjustability, and the heavy price tag on the new lever didn’t help its cause either.

Shop the MT7 at Worldwide Cyclery.


Shimano Saint M820

A staple among gravity riders with a penchant for snappy brakes, the Saint is the most polarizing brake in this test and probably in the world. 

Launched in 2013, the latest generation still has incredibly direct action. Just the slightest squeeze of the lever is enough to see your wheels starting to fight for purchase in pretty much in any conditions. Some swear by this type of power delivery, and for those who master it the Saint could arguably rank higher – such is its outright power and capacity to stop any moving object on a dime. For us, we ultimately felt like the Saint would come back and bite us when we needed to rely on it the most, like moments of panic braking or when making our way down really loose, steep terrain.

Just the slightest squeeze of the lever is enough to see your wheels starting to fight for purchase in pretty much in any conditions. Some swear by this type of power delivery, and for those who master it the Saint could arguably rank higher – such is its outright power and capacity to stop any moving object on a dime.

As Spiderman’s uncle Ben famously said, "with great power comes great responsibility," and we just feel like the Saint is more of a Hulk than a smooth webslinger. Somewhat surprisingly, the Saint exhibited the most amount of lever pump in our burn test. It also howled its discontent with the best of them, but never faded on us despite the racket it was making.

Shop the Saint M820 at Jenson USA.


TRP Quadiem G-Spec

As you would expect from a piece of equipment that bears Aaron Gwin’s name, the Quadiem G-Spec is in many respects an awesome brake. The finish is impeccable and it is the most consistent performer when it comes to lever feel and modulation of all the brakes in this test. The bite point is always in the same place and the lever reacts in exactly the same way every time you squeeze it, all testament to the large oil volume and excellent build quality of these imposing anchors. Power delivery is smooth and linear, and it’s a pleasure to work the brake over loose ground or down slow awkward lines.

As you would expect from a piece of equipment that bears Aaron Gwin’s name, the Quadiem G-Spec is in many respects an awesome brake. The finish is impeccable and it is the most consistent performer when it comes to lever feel and modulation of all the brakes in this test.

In the burn test the TRP was very noisy (especially with metallic pads), but there was little discernible lever pump and no brake fade to speak of. Our major gripe with the Quadiem, which is reflected in its “Power” score, is the lack of power ramp up at the end of the lever travel. We feel like this brake is too linear, which can give an impression of lacking power. This is not true, as the Quadiem has more than enough power in reserve to stop anything, it’s just that we would consistently find ourselves under-braking in situations like when we’d come in hot to a steep section already on the brakes. A little more bite towards the end of the lever travel would be a welcome improvement here, and could see the Quadiem climb up this table thanks to its many other redeeming qualities.

Shop the Quadiem G-Spec at Worldwide Cyclery.


Want more Face Off action? Check out our previous shootouts:

Vital MTB Face Off: The Best Flat Pedals

Vital MTB Face Off: The Best Dropper Posts

Vital MTB Face Off: The Best Tire Inserts


About The Reviewer

Johan Hjord - Age: 44 // Years Riding MTB: 12 // Weight: 200-pounds (90.7kg)

Johan loves bikes, which strangely doesn’t make him any better at riding them. After many years spent practicing falling off cliffs with his snowboard, he took up mountain biking in 2005. Ever since, he’s mostly been riding bikes with too much suspension travel to cover up his many flaws as a rider. His 200-pound body weight coupled with unique skill for poor line choice and clumsy landings make him an expert on durability - if parts survive Johan, they’re pretty much okay for anybody. Johan rides flat pedals with a riding style that he describes as "none" (when in actuality he rips!). Having found most trail features to be not to his liking, Johan uses much of his spare time building his own. Johan’s other accomplishments include surviving this far and helping keep the Vital Media Machine’s stoke dial firmly on 11.

Photos by Johan Hjord and Nils Hjord

42 comments
  • al.boneta

    12/27/2017 6:14 PM

    Everyone's experience and preference will vary. Just because your favorite didn't finish on top, doesn't mean you're an idiot for liking or preferring it. If your seeking validation for liking what you like or bought from an online product review, maybe you should be reevaluating your priorities in life and not so much the choices you've made

  • SlicedAsiago

    12/25/2017 9:00 AM

    Fortunately there's plenty of options to suit everyones preference. As consumers all you can do is try multiple brands out and choose which one performs how you need it to. Just because the review says its the best that doesn't mean it will meet your requirements in all aspects. Yes sometimes things happen within quality control so take every personal review as what it is, information.

  • Lance_h

    12/22/2017 7:30 PM

    The true test is t have multiple sets of each brake to showcase how consistent these ratings are. Formula and Avid have no place next to the rest of the brakes. I have loved my Tech 3 V4's, try awesome. My Magura's have been amazing as well. My Saints were also top notch. Sram and Formula products suffer from drastically different brake feels from brake to brake. Even from bleed to bleed. What a gong show.

    Great review. I love seeing these shootouts! Keep them coming.

  • Nic Cotton

    12/23/2017 1:47 AM

    But all brakes are shit if you get a bad set? I'd go as far to say that the sram (not avid) guides that I have currently are probably the best brakes I've ever used and as far as bike set up goes, I'm definitely most anal about my brakes. Not to say everyone has the same result, nor does it mean that a well set up guide will suit every person in terms of brake feel.

    I have also had terrible experience with shimano saints and zees. Very inconsistent, poor lever feel and were known to almost fail completely during some runs. I think all manufactures have had issues at some point. Doesn't mean their newer stuff shouldn't be reviewed. And also doesn't mean we should never consider stuff from these brands despite one person saying they're shit, otherwise we would never have any reviews of anything.

    (And also, its not like vitalmtb have a gun against your head and are forcing you to only use sram. Maybe just don't buy them and accept that other people like them and want to read reviews about them?)

  • sliken

    12/23/2017 2:09 AM

    I had a pair of Shimano XTRs that were TERRIBLE. Super noisy, never retracted well, even with the cyclinders rebuilt it was hit or miss. Sure it was 14 years ago or so. But there were articles in dirt rag, mount bike action, and others. People would even heckle me on the trail about it because of the distinctive screech.

    What's worse is shimano brought out revisions and fixes, but despite spending top $$$ on my bike the dealer I bought it from just shrugged and said "that's normal". I switched to avid and it was quite an upgrade. I missed the more recent sram problems, but a few months back I switched to the sram code. Pretty awesome brakes so far. Every big brand misses once in a awhile.

  • Bratwurst11

    12/22/2017 4:09 PM

    Trickstuff is missing here, why VitalMTB?

  • sadfusde

    12/22/2017 2:58 AM

    I'm sorry but I'll never be able to trust any stoppers with the Avid/Sram logo on them. I bought a 4600€ bike which came equipped with Sram Guide brakes and they've been nothing but a headache since I first rode the bike. The seem alright after bleeding when coming out of the store, but as soon as I hit some more demanding trails, they just don't perform. The gap between the pads and the rotor becomes larger on every run down the track (getting to the point where the lever touches the grip) and as soon as they heat up a bit, they get incredibly spongy (even after bleeding and happens on every single one of the Guide brakes I've tested so far). The only half decent feeling I managed to get, was by replacing the original Guide levers with some DB3s I had laying around. It got much better and the spongy feel went away, but the increasing pad/rotor gap problem still exists. Its a shame that such a big player on the market is able to mess up something apparently so simple to the point where when I see a brake review like this and the brakes actually score well, I can't stop but feeling like SRAM made some $$ roll under the table for a good review. As far as I'm concerned, on the brakes department, SRAM won't be on my wishlist ever again.

  • iceman2058

    12/22/2017 3:25 AM

    OK, we need to get real here for a bit. First of all yes, as we pointed out in the article, SRAM has had quality issues with the Guide family of brakes. The most common problem is the master cylinder piston which has a tendency to get sticky over time, especially in hot weather. In our experience, SRAM has been good with warranty replacement, although there have been supply issues from time to time.

    Now, for your problem: "they get incredibly spongy", "to the point where the lever touches the grip", and "happens on every single one of the Guide brakes I have tested so far". Sorry, but this is simply not representative of the overall performance of these brakes. We have tested and used COUNTLESS samples of Guide brakes, on long term bikes, on test bikes, at press camps, in all kinds of terrain, in all kinds of weather. What you are describing here does not reflect our cumulative experience - at all. To say that a Guide brake needs a DB3 lever to perform is misleading at best, or needlessly inflammatory at worst. Sticky piston issues aside, Guides perform much better in general than a reader of your comment would be led to believe. It's one thing to want to make a point, but let's not get carried away here.

    Now for your last point: "some $$ roll under the table for a good review." This level of paranoia is not doing anybody any favors. Not us, not the industry, and contrary to what you may believe, not the readers. We get that you may have had a bad experience with this brand, and it's OK to share that in a factual manner (that's what user reviews are for), but show me ANY product and I'll show you some horror stories from the internet (or share my own, if applicable). The simple truth is, the new Code is an exceptional brake, and we've had three pairs rolling since they were launched earlier this year, with the same excellent results. Yes, SRAM advertises with us, because we are a reputable publication with a worldwide audience that they wish to engage with, but so do all the other brake manufacturers featured in this test.

  • boaz

    12/22/2017 2:58 PM

    thank you for taking the time to write this response. it’s ridiculous how when people read a review that doesn’t reflect their experience or perceived knowledge they immediately jump to the conclusion bribery is the issue. how stupid is everyone? yes, vitalmtb exists because of ad money. so does pinkbike. so does google. so does facebook.

    having said that i hugely appreciate the reviews and shootouts on vitalmtb. i own a carbon dh bike, trail bike and dirt jumper. my purchases have been significantly influenced by reviews on this site and my experiences have reflected review conclusions reasonably well. thanks for the great work vitalmtb

  • yzedf

    12/23/2017 7:46 AM

    Yes, but how many times have we been told by testers that the new SRAM brakes are so much better than the last ones were. The excuses are wearing thin with a lot of readers out there.

    I know that on my Kona Operator my front brake Guide R has been perfect from day one, the rear has been junk. New lever assemblies, bleeds etc. To get a usable brake that lasts all day I need to use metallic pads and hope like crazy it doesn't rain. Supposedly next time it craps out they will "upgrade" me to the Codes. My issue has been the same, mush lever and pads that last two days at the bike park.

    The real question is why are DH bikes being sold with these? Nobody cares that much about mix and match components, we do care about a lost weekend of riding because some purchasing agent believed the latest SRAM brakes reviews...

  • sliken

    12/23/2017 2:14 AM

    My Santa Cruz Blur was over $5k USA with shimano XTR, granted it was 14 years ago. But they were terrible, inconsistent, would often drag, even rebuilding the cylinders didn't always help. Oh and they made their horrible screech. Rides in moab would mock me as they rode by. Generally I think it's more of a hit or miss on any bike parts that are the lightest. I don't mind a few extra grams here and there, not like I don't have some extra pounds around my middle.

    Sram has taken some big steps to help with heat, hot brake fluid, consistency, etc. I just got a pair of codes a few months back and am quite pleased with them. The newst shimano brakes are excellent as well, but in my test rides before I got my last bike I had a slight preference for the code. I did like the shimano XT/XTR (I couldn't tell the difference) over the sram guide though.

  • forrequi

    12/22/2017 2:05 AM

    Great brakes sets! But thats a problem. These brakes are so great, that small differences maybe bluried by reviewer bias, fadigue, time riding, etc. I really like German tests with machines on lab linked with installation and bleed procedures level of difficult, to archieve a final result. It's impossible, and often polemic, try to pass trail feelling on a online magazine. But you guys are really renewing your article style and its a very good thing to see here.

  • freebiker

    12/21/2017 9:08 PM

    Hopes in purple

  • Nozes

    12/21/2017 4:38 PM

    Really loved my Hope Tech X2 brakes. The look,the feel,the adjustability...but after 2 seasons with little use (~1500km),the piston on the rear brake worn the inside of the master cilinder,something I never experienced with any other brake,before or after. Will never buy Hope again whilst I remember.

  • reseRved

    12/21/2017 3:33 PM

    Not a criticism of the review necessarily, but I'm skeptical of the pricing you have listed. I bought a new set of Saint brakes from a reputable online retailer 2 years ago for about 40% less than the price you're noting and can easily find them online today for around $300. Are these not the most powerful, most reliable, AND least expensive in this group? I know you've referenced full retail numbers but real world numbers drastically affect the value side of this shootout

  • iceman2058

    12/22/2017 12:30 AM

    The same is basically true of all the brakes tested here. The only constant we can use is MSRP, otherwise we'd be judging the brakes on things like which retailer might be working with lower margins, or which brake might be on special offer at a particular time.

  • klinkekule

    12/21/2017 1:31 PM

    thorough review guys, but i am a bit surprised that you do not back the qualitative insights of how the brakes perform with actual quantitative measurements - aka the (german) Bike method of dyno'ing the brakes to accurately test different parameters with a given/limited set of variables. The test method you have chosen gives a fair few good insights into what differentiates the different brakes in how the tester perceives them to be during use, but does the chosen analytic approach sufficiently negate individual bias or individual differences due to less than perfectly set up brake sets or negate differences in how the various tests where performed? I also find it a bit odd that all brakes where not presented equally thoroughly, especially so given the weighting towards a qualitative approach to testing the brakes. I dunno - the test would have made a lot more sense when mated with actual measurements of the performance, and then the insights provided of the brakes in use could have been one of the weighted factors compared to graphs illustrating power, modulation and heat management. Then again, it is a better test than Levy's "none of the tested brakes were terrible" approach. So in summary, good effort yet something to strive for - C+ for effort

  • iceman2058

    12/21/2017 1:57 PM

    We opted out of any machine testing as we wanted to keep this about the real-world experience. Yes, this introduces some tester bias but we really wanted to evaluate the brakes on the trail more than anything else. On that topic, it's equally possible to have a brake set up wrong and turn in a less meaningful score on a dyno.

    As for the format, in order to keep things somewhat more digestible, all our Face Off articles follow the same formula: the podium finishers get a more thorough review, while the rest of the contenders make do with a shorter, summarized version.

  • erik saunders

    12/21/2017 3:03 PM

    "Levy's 'none of the tested brakes were terrible' approach" is cracking me up... but hey... none of these brakes will really slow you down any if you know what i mean... you can ride or you cant in the end...

  • Hollywood Gainey

    12/21/2017 8:10 PM

    Its interesting to see two brake reviews done by two reputable online sources in a months time, one brake wins a shootout review, but gets dead last in the other shootout review.

  • bjenson

    12/21/2017 8:42 PM

    hollywood: pb's feature was pretty poor imo. despite their title they did not declare a winner or even rate the brakes. they also didn't try them back to back and each of their brakes were ridden by different testers in different parts of the world. how does that make sense in a comparison?

    i do agree that dyno measurements would have been cool for this feature. can't imagine lab tests like that are readily available or economical though.

  • JVP

    12/22/2017 10:17 AM

    I'm all for the real world vs. lab testing reviews. Lab tests are junk, they don't mean squat. The real world is far more variable, far more demanding, and takes into account abuse - and abuse is the name of the game for how we actually ride.

  • Lastmissouriexit

    12/21/2017 10:28 AM

    Great article, very thorough. I'd like to point out a distinction that doesn't show up in any professional reviews, but which has affected thousands of SRAM customers. SRAM, and perhaps other brands, often use different specifications for OEM brakes compared to the aftermarket sets sold separately. In the Guide line, these cheaper parts in the lever actuators failed MASSIVELY, leaving thousands of customers at the mercy of their respective shops' warranty processes. Some riders reported that their LBS swapped the levers immediately, allowing the customer to keep riding while the shop dealt with the SRAM warranty department. In my case, I dealt with the original bike seller, Jenson, who required their customers to remove and ship the entire brake assembly to Riverside CA. Then Jenson reported that SRAM was backed up and out of the replacement parts for months. Eventually, my levers were re-conditioned with replacement parts and returned to me. I had to deal with re-installing and bleeding the rear. I am partly to blame for using mail-order rather than LBS. However, SRAM was little more than indifferent in admitting these brakes are not the same as the aftermarket versions. My point in this long post is to warn fellow riders that OEM parts are not always the same as what the professional reviewers are provided to test, and the value of an LBS over mail order. Thanks.

  • Whattheheel

    12/21/2017 9:02 AM

    I am rocking the TRP G-spec's with Saint metallic pads and I am in love!! Best brakes I have had so far! Great article BTW!!

  • JCL

    12/21/2017 8:59 AM

    I think I would love those Forumula's. The lever looks like an old Avid Jucy that had more length than most current levers. Feels way more comfortable to me than Shimano length levers.

  • Salespunk

    12/21/2017 8:59 AM

    First off, great test. We need more of these types especially with full bikes!

    I am a Saint fanboi 100%. Never thought of myself as mastering my brakes, but I know my friends are scared to touch my brake levers when they jump on my bike. Anytime I try a different brake setup I wonder what happened to the power. May have to try a set of Hope's though after this test.

  • lister_yu

    12/21/2017 8:21 AM

    ...and yet I still take off any SRAM brakes and the worst thing with them is, nearly not able to sell them for nearly nothing compared to RSP. That said it really makes me wondering how that RSC could scorre that high.

  • iceman2058

    12/21/2017 8:30 AM

    When a brand has so much OEM success, it can be very hard to sell parts on the aftermarket. In such cases there will always be a healthy supply of used brakes that people have taken off their bikes because they want to personalize their ride or whatever, which drives down the second hand price.

    As for wondering how the Code scored so high, simple answer: that's how good it is. Try one and you'll see.

  • lister_yu

    12/21/2017 9:03 AM

    no thanks - spent enough time with SRAM brakes and that is definitly not happening again. I like them when I get paid to work on, but my personal bike will never see one of those again.

    As for high OEM success - if there is to much supply (like you described) of used brakes it does not speak for SRAM as many people feel the same way I do - want to sell them :-)

  • Hollywood Gainey

    12/21/2017 8:13 PM

    Ill bet 80% of bikes are coming Sram/Rocksh

  • Serge-W

    12/21/2017 7:00 AM

    I am not sure where this low mark for the Saint's modulation comes from. To me they were always well controllable (no digital feel or so). In contrast, anytime I tried Hopes, the immediate sensation was "uh-oh, lack of power".

    Anyway, none of these here are the bees knees, Shigura FTW! ;-)

  • iceman2058

    12/21/2017 7:54 AM

    As we pointed out in the article: for "those who master it the Saint could arguably rank higher – such is its outright power and capacity to stop any moving object on a dime."

    Going from Saint to Hope is definitely a bit of an anticlimax at first. Their power delivery could not be more different. That said, if you are a die-hard Saint fan, nothing else will do really. Ultimately, our scoring mechanism takes into account the general usability across a wide range of conditions (as well as aspects like weight and price), and there is no denying that the Saints' modulation can be tougher to live with at times.

  • Serge-W

    12/21/2017 8:15 AM

    Fair enough, thanks for the reply!

  • PolishTea

    12/21/2017 3:43 PM

    I'm very much of two minds about the Saints comments myself - I agree with a lot of what was said about them being monsters and how they can feel very much dialed in for a rider familiar with them, I have them on 2 bikes since 2014; but it never occurred to me that I was doing something "different" than how I would engage with other style of bike breaks. I rented a Pivot for some Phoenix area riding and I never felt like I was doing something "different" with how the break engaged, certainly not to the level the article suggets, or one of the other posters above seems to notice either. Perhaps I'm just not paying enough attention?

    I've been ultimately very curious about how the codes/guides performed since they do seem to be spec'ed on EVERYTHING but when I was on that pivot with guides, I just honestly didnt feel like they rode differently. Compared to the Avids and the SLX brakes I used before switching to the Saints, I found the saints both silent, monstrously powerful and extremely modular comparatively, and of course, fit my monster truck straight line style of riding.

  • Hollywood Gainey

    12/21/2017 8:18 PM

    I felt the same way when I first went away from Shimano brakes. It wasn't long though till I started to really see and appreciate a more linear brake feel for both racing and joy riding.

  • Renohk

    12/21/2017 6:52 AM

    What happened to Trickstuffs Direttissima?

  • iceman2058

    12/21/2017 8:34 AM

    As stated in the article, we looked for DH-worthy brakes and we stopped at the six main contenders that can be easily purchased and serviced pretty much anywhere in the world. Trickstuff is still more of a niche brand, but we may get around to testing their goods as well at some point.

  • Bratwurst11

    12/31/2017 11:14 AM

    Ok, that's an argument. But I still don't get it as there aren't any other DH brakes except of the Diretissima, which scored best in other bike mag tests.

  • Renohk

    12/21/2017 8:42 AM

    Thanks for your reply - you´ve deffo got a point!!
    It´s just that I´ve been chasing a good DH brake for ever, and right now I´ve landed on the old Code, wich is the best and most reliable brake I ever had - and I´ve been going through a large variety of brakes. The only thing I miss on the old Code, is power, and I heard the Direttissima is the most powerful brake out there, but probably also the most expensive. Maybe I should just go for 225mm rotors instead coupled with my codes!?
    Btw, I´m not asking!!

  • Carraig042

    12/21/2017 5:54 AM

    I am glad to see Hope on the top. I am on my 2nd set and it is hard for me to ride anything else.

  • Verbl Kint

    12/22/2017 1:27 AM

    I take it the hot weather failure complaints against the Guides are not affecting the Codes?

  • iceman2058

    12/22/2017 1:29 AM

    That is correct, in our experience.

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