In this article I’m going to give you my thoughts on the best budget hydraulic disc brakes, looking at the product offerings of the biggest brands in the industry.
Everybody knows and understands that component manufacturers need to sell stuff to stay in business, but as far as brakes are concerned they kind of do a crappy job. Any product, including brakes, need to have distinct characteristics for you to make a clear choice about what you want to spend your money on.
However, a recurring theme, especially with Shimano and SRAM, is that the difference between products within the same line aren’t communicated, leading to similar specifications for different products. This is confusing at best.
What you need to know is that you sometimes pay money that doesn’t add to an improvement in braking in any way. The most obvious example of this is the huge amount of cash you need to pay for a marginal gain in weight reduction.
Although it’s nice to have, a carbon lever blade does not work better than an aluminum one. They do snap in half more easily though, besides lowering the overall weight with a couple of grams.
The majority of the brakes here are 2-piston brakes, meant for XC and light trail riding. 4-pod brakes are simply (far) more expensive. They are about half the amount of 180 USD, which is the average price you need to pay for a single lever and caliper combo.
Although Magura does it for all of their hydraulic brakes, a unibody caliper design, rather than two halves bolted together, adds stiffness and a more direct feel to your braking. That’s one of the reasons Magura brakes are as good as they are, alongside the fact that their pads sit very close to the rotors.
Shimano and Magura both have snappy lever action. Because of the design of SRAM lever pivots, and how far it sits from the lever blade, the brake feel is different, and often leads to the statement that SRAM brakes have more modulation. Only taking the lever design in consideration, this is true.
Except for the most expensive brakes, which you don’t find here, lever action is the same within the same brand. If a brake feels different from another one from the same brand, I’ll say so for that specific product.
As with all bicycle products, they need to be correctly set up and function to get the most out of them. That’s very true for brakes. if you decide to buy any of these brakes and use them for their intended purpose, they will perform as advertised. In that respect, what type of brake is best for you is indeed somewhat subjective.
For now I’ll leave it at that. Let’s head over to my list of the best budget hydraulic disc brakes.
Magura MT Sport
The Magura MT Sport is the cheapest hydraulic disc brake in their lineup, and probably one of the cheapest, if not the cheapest big brand hydraulic disc brakes on the market.
The best thing I could possibly say about these brakes is that I actually bought them as a temporary replacement for my SRAM Level Ultimate brakes, because one of them was broken. It’s been a year and I’m still riding with these brakes.
So I have this extremely high-end XC bike rocking the cheapest disc brakes you can find, and I’m totally ok with that, because these brakes work fantastic for the type of riding I do with that bike.
I believe I paid 100 euros for a set, which included the levers, calipers and hoses. The main reason why Magura has been able to create such a high-quality product for such a low price is because of the material.
The brakes and levers are almost made entirely from carbotecture, which is a name Magura coined themselves for a fiberglass-reinforced polymer. They borrowed the technology from their own work in the automotive industry and applied it to their brakes.
It shares some similarities to carbon fiber with respect to its low weight and that fiber alignment allows for additional strength in places where that will be under a lot of stress. The most important aspects for us is that it’s very strong, very light, very durable, and best of all, very cheap.
And if that isn’t enough, the Magura 7.S brake pads are outstanding as well, offering long-lasting life, little squeal, and an allround great performance in varied conditions, from dry to wet.
The overall shape of the 2-finger lever is solid, with a modulation sitting somewhere between SRAM and Shimano. The brake lever is made from the same carbotecture material and offer markedly more flex than the aluminium levers (or carbon) used in the rest of Magura’s lineup.
It doesn’t mean the MT Sport offer less braking power because of it, and you probably won’t notice it because it sits at the end of the lever pull, when you’ll be braking hard on a trail section that demands your attention, not a bit of flex in a brake lever.
The SRAM Level Ultimates are all carbon fiber levers, red anodized pistons, and titanium bolts. In other words, they look as premium as can be. The same cannot be said for the carbotecture finish, which looks decidedly plastic and have a dull sheen.
But anyone who knows anything about brakes, will not be able to deny the single most important thing these brakes do very well. Which is stopping your bike when you want to. And you can spice up the piston with a custom-colored ring kit if you want to.
One step up from the entry-level MT Sport sits the Magura MT4. In terms of braking power, they are the same, and I would argue that one is as good as the other. There are a number of slight differences though, which might see you buying these instead of the cheaper MT Sport version.
In terms of overall looks, they are almost indistinguishable. The MT4 are slightly lighter at 230 grams versus the 241 for the MT Sport.
Should you need it the MT4 offers a rotatable tube connection, which makes cable management a bit easier.
In terms of braking performance, expect nothing different from the same carbotecture body operating a 2-piston setup. The brake master is made from the same stuff, with an aluminum lever operating the cylinder. The aluminum lever does away with the mushy feel of the carbotecture lever fromt the MT Sport, which might justify the price for some.
The brake pads are the Performance version instead of the Sport version, offering an ever so slight edge in braking power and wet condition riding.
Unless you need an alternative cable routing, there’s little if nothing to buy these brakes over the already fantastic MT Sport. But they do offer a more distinct brake feel courtesty of the aluminum lever.
The Magura MT5 brakes are the German’s most affordable 4-piston hydraulic disc brakes for trail riding purposes.
They’ve ditched the use of carbotecture in favor of traditional forged aluminum for the brake calipers. It’s small touches that make the products from the German brand stand head and shoulders above some similar offerings from the competition. One is the well-crafted unibody design offering rigidity and an immediate brake feel.
The glass fiber reinforced polymer called carbotecture is used for the brake master, accompanied by an aluminum brake lever. This ensures a very high-quality, lightweight brake, with excellent braking characteristics in one of the most affordable 4-piston packages you can get.
The in-house produced material is claimed to offer similar strength properties as aluminum at half the weight. That might be true, but it’s a fact they don’t use it for brake calipers across their entire range, and that’s because the material is more flexible than traditional forged aluminum. Something that doesn’t matter in a brake master, but does in the caliper.
Magura has already claimed the top spot in the budget section for dual piston brakes and with the MT5 they might have done the same for 4 pistons as well.
Shimano SLX BR-M7100
Traditionally the great value-for-money option is reserved for everything that has Deore XT stamped onto it, which is Shimano’s series sitting just below their top-of-the-line XTR. Yet with the Shimano SLX BR-M7100, the Japanese manufacturer has made a more affordable option for 2-piston braking, that is just as good.
It’s a stretch to call these brakes a budget option. They’re mid-tier sitting next to XTR and Deore XT as the more premium option. It means they inherit the same braking technology like the overall design, reach adjustment for the compatible brake lever (BL-M7100), and a servo-wave lever stroke.
Servo-wave was introduced in the early nineties Deore XT cantilever brakes, a time when XTR wasn’t even on the market. By attaching the lever to a slotted wheel, the same travel of the brake lever results in more oil displacement within the cylinder and increased braking. It means more feathering or brake control in brakes, which are otherwise known to offer immediate stopping power.
The reason of the SLX’s popularity has to do with the somewhat odd Shimano sales-pitch claiming that the brake levers, apart from their finish, are actually shared between both SLX and XT, thus offering a similar snappy braking, which is sort of Shimano’s trademark braking style.
That similarity is extended to the brake calipers as well, which are exactly the same weight because of it. Again, the only difference resides in the finish.
Shimano is known for offering ease-to-maintain brakes with excellent lever feel. Even people favoring the braking power of Magura brakes sometimes combine them with Shimano levers for a “Shigura” (portmanteau of Shimano and Magura), so that says something about the quality of the brakes.
What then are the differences I hear you asking. Well, the only part left in the package are the (recommended) brake rotors. So should you buy an off-the-shelf Deore XT braking setup, including rotors, they will be different. The SLX rotors are a tad heavier and don’t offer the cooling fins of their XT counterpart.
Since the rotors are sold separately and are totally compatible with each type of brake that offer the same design, this is a non-issue unless you specifically want to pay for brakes with XT stamped on them.
The combination of dependability, durability, easy to maintain, and excellent lever feel turn these 2-piston brakes into an option for anyone riding XC and (light) trail.
Shimano Deore BR-M6100
Significantly cheaper than the SLX are the Shimano Deore BR-M6100 brakes (not to be mistaken with the Deore XT brakes). Ditching a number of features, they can be considered Shimano’s budget 2-pod option. So what exactly is different and why would you consider these brakes instead of the SLX ones.
Besides price (these are almost half the amount you need to pay for the SLX), the tool-less reach adjust now uses an allen key, but otherwise the brake levers are similar. That does not extend to the calipers however.
Clearly made from a different mold, the Deore calipers have resin pistons instead of ceramic ones, sitting in a different caliper body with fixed hosed connection instead of a banjo. Similar to Magura’s entry-level 2-piston MT Sport. And it’s probably these resin pistons that give the Deore brakes a somewhat less direct feel than the ceramic pistons used in the mold for the SLX, XT, and XTR brakes.
As can be expected they are about 20 grams heavier than the SLX, and 30 grams heavier than the XT, including everything except rotors.
The entire brake lineup of Shimano can handle their brake pads, and if you want to you can use the newer finned brake pads as well. The are fixed into place using a cotter pin, where you’ll get an allen bolt for the SLX ones. This is kind of an outdated way of keeping brake pads into place, especially since they can rattle, and are generally more of a hassle to work with.
If you like the dependability of Shimano and want the easiest bleeding process available, the Deore BR-M6100 are fine brakes, but they lack the braking refinement of SLX ones, and don’t offer a number of user-friendly features that you do find on the more expensive brakes. And the Magura MT Sport are the better option in the budget category as well.
SRAM Level T
The SRAM Level T is a 2-pod XC-oriented brake which has the distinction of being one of the most affordable ones in their lineup.
The Level family is SRAM’s XC lineup, which favors lightweight, 2-piston brakes over 4-pod ones. A decade ago SRAM brakes (or rather Avid) were known to have crappy pistons that had a tendency to get stuck, but that’s no longer the case at all.
Today’s SRAM brakes, including the Level T ones, are reliable brakes, offering consistent performance within said XC range, and long-lasting life without the need to prematurely bleed them.
They are comparable to Shimano Deore or Magura MT Sport brakes. Not in terms of functionality, but in terms of where they sit in relation to other brakes in their respective series.
If used within the proper XC discipline they are fine. When used for trail, enduro, or even downhill, the lack of braking power and brake fade will rear its ugly head, more so than with other brands. That’s because SRAM uses 21mm pistons, instead of larger 25mm ones. And also because the brake lever rotation points are set differently, offering a longer, more linear brake feel.
It downgrades the otherwise smooth brake feel to a much more on-off system. That’s not really a brake issue, because the Levels aren’t meant to be used as such, but it’s good to know nonetheless if you want to strap these brakes onto a hardcore trail and/or enduro rig (which you shouldn’t).
The brake levers do offer reach adjustment, but the tiny allen bolt can only be operated with the brakes not mounted. That’s a nuisance which has been handled in more expensive models, but also something not present in both Magura and Shimano models.
They are specced to go with DOT 4 fluid. But since DOT 4 and DOT 5.1 (not to be confused with DOT 5) can be used interchangeably, you can make use of the more heat resistant fluid to increase braking performance should you want to.
The main disadvantages of DOT fluid is that it has a shelf life and is toxic. This means you need to take more care bleeding the brakes, and the process is more involved because of it. The other argument against DOT fluid used to be that the shelf life meant braking power deteriorated over time.
I would argue that with a properly bled system that’s no longer the case, unless you plan to literally never bleed your brakes, which I realize is a common practice among a great portion of people.
As all budget brakes, they offer a fixed housing port, so be sure that they match your particular frame. They are also one of the heaviest budget XC brakes, nearing 300 grams (without rotors).
The entire design of the Level T still offers typical SRAM brake feel for 2-pod brakes, so that’s a plus. On the other hand, their usage feels more narrow since all Magura brakes are more powerful (and some much cheaper), including Shimano SLX brakes. I can recommend these for SRAM aficionados explicitly using them for XC (or lighter usage) on a somewhat tight budget.
SRAM Level TL
The SRAM Level TL brakes borrow all of the technology from the more expensive TLM, and Ultimate brakes. In that respect they are similar to the Shimano SLX, which sit underneath similarly designed Deore XT, and XTR brakes.
The weight with respect to the Level T (the model below it) is about 40 grams and reduced 370 for a brake lever and caliper including housing.
That difference in technology includes the overall design of the brake caliper, which is a forged aluminum one made up of two halves being held together with two large allen bolts. Although you’ll need to move up to the Level TLM, if you want a unibody design, which also happens to use different brake pads.
The monobloc caliper does more than just shave a couple of grams of weight, but is harder to produce, hence the very steep increase in price over the Level TL.
Just as odd as Shimano comparing Deore XT with the SLX, and stating they offer similar braking characteristics, SRAM does exactly the same, claiming the Level TL is on par with both the TLM and the Ultimate. If that is true, then hundreds of dollars only buy you a piece of carbon, titanium bolts, and a different lever pivot so to speak.
And of course it also includes a slight weight gain of about 15 grams per brake, rotor not included. That’s a tough sell for those more expensive brakes, but is consistent with the general trend that you have to remortgage your house to obtain the smallest gains with bicycle components.
This statement from SRAM conflicts with reviews out there stating that Ultimate brakes are more powerful than either the TLM or TL. I believe SRAM in this case and do think those reviews get it wrong, because from an engineering perspective you can’t get any more braking power out of a similar caliper setup without adding pistons, provided the rotors you’re using are the same.
The Level TL does not offer a heat shield in between caliper body and brake pad, which reduces heat buildup and reduces the risk of fading on longer descents. The blade lever is also slightly stronger in the more expensive TLM, made from forged aluminum, rather than the stamped one in the TL.
Just as the SLX does an outstanding job as the cheapest mid-tier solution in Shimano’s camp, the same can be said for the Level TL. Considering the price tag, and SRAM’s own statements concerning braking functionality, there’s not a lot to justify the exponential price curve when moving up the line towards the TLM and Ultimate.
Specifications budget hydraulic disc brakes
buy at Amazon
Magura MT Sport
forged aluminum unibody
forged aluminum unibody
Shimano SLX BR-M7100
Shimano Deore BR-M6100
SRAM Level T
SRAM Level TL
Johan van Seijen
Johan van Seijen is the founder of restoration.bike. His passion for cycling in general, and restoring older bikes turned into a website to share his knowledge with a broader audience. Starting out on his father’s road bike and riding classics as the Amstel Gold Race and Liege Bastogne Liege he has shifted his attention to trail, XC, and gravel riding since. No matter how much he loves writing about everything related to cycling, nothing beats actually using his ever-expanding bicycle collection.
You might also like
In this article my focus is on providing you with a list of what I feel are some of the best hydraulic disc brakes for ebikes.
Ebikes have taken the world by storm, surpassing sales of traditional bi
With this article I’m going to share my thoughts on what the best disc brakes for enduro mountain bikes are.
While the professional scene is mostly dominated by Shimano XTR and SRAM Code Ultimate Ste
With this post I’m going to share my top picks for the best hydraulic disc brakes under 100 dollars. I’m only going to cover mountain bike disc brakes, not brakes meant for road bikes.
When your budg