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SRAM Level Ultimate brakes review

Jul 19, 2023

Top-tier cross-country race brakes

This competition is now closed

By Tom Marvin

Published: November 22, 2022 at 9:00 am

The Level is SRAM's cross-country racing brake, and this Ultimate model sits at the top of the tree within that range.

It's the very brake that SRAM's roster of World Cup racers use week-in, week-out on the race circuit.

As with the majority of SRAM's brakes, the bar clamp integrates seamlessly with its shifters and dropper lever. A T25 bolt holds the brake-lever body within a split clamp.

Aftermarket options are available for Shimano shifters, though I’ve found a bar-clamp Shimano shifter sits fairly easily with SRAM's brake levers.

Attaching it to the bar can be a touch fiddly, when the two halves of the split clamp and the hydraulic hose-influenced lever body don't quite play ball. However, the trade-off is a clean, fuss-free cockpit and plenty of adjustment.

The long, carbon lever is straight in profile, when compared to levers from Shimano and Magura. Its carbon blade is smooth along its length, with a more relaxed upturn at its end than some, and no texture embossed where your finger sits, so it can be a touch slippy in the wet.

A small Allen-headed bolt is required to adjust lever reach – it's not the most accessible (though is done in lieu of a little bit of weight).

The lever pivot features smooth sealed bearings, and with the pivot sitting right above the clamp, there's minimal lever-body flex. The lever pushes directly on the master piston, rather than via a link (such as the SwingLink found on SRAM's more powerful brakes).

The two-piece caliper holds a pair of pistons, which push onto a sintered (from stock) pad. The pads load into the top of the caliper. The hose exit is fixed from the caliper, while inside, DOT 5.1 fluid actuates the caliper's pistons.

Bleeding the brakes is done with SRAM's Bleeding Edge tool. It's a simple and effective system, with which I’ve easily achieved good-quality bleeds, although the kit is an added expense.

The olive and barb setup is also nice. The barb screws into the hose (so you don't need to clamp or hold it awkwardly) with a small Torx head, and the olive then screws onto the barb's end.

Oil-slick coloured titanium hardware is featured across the brake, shaving a few grams.

I tested the brakes with the lightweight SRAM CenterLine X rotors.

SRAM's factory bleed feels very good. There's a firm feel when the pads hit the rotor, with moderate levels of additional lever travel before maximum power is achieved.

There's no mechanical bite point adjustment on offer, and on our set, with a factory bleed, there's a fair bit of lever pull before the brake pads contact the rotor. Post-bleed, this reduced a touch.

Bedding in the sintered pads proved quick and easy, with full power accessible within a few runs.

Initial bite is good – not as ‘digital’ as Shimano's brakes can be, but snappy and effective at scrubbing off a little bit of speed. Squeeze the lever harder, and overall power levels are good too. However, during our stopping tests they were marginally lower than Shimano's XTR two-pot brakes.

The power on offer is easy to manage, ramping up progressively as the lever is pulled. The full extent of the brake's power easy to achieve without having to pull excessively hard on the lever.

This leads to a brake that offers fine control of its braking power, enabling good control of the bike in a range of conditions.

The lack of lever-body flex, and the smooth, light-feeling lever action leads to a clean-feeling brake, avoiding a wooden feel, and also helping prevent excessive arm fatigue.

Weight weenies might notice the extra 50g in weight over a Shimano XTR or Hope XCR brake, but this will be largely immaterial to the majority.

SRAM's top-end XC brakes performed well in my testing. Their lever feel is crisp and clean, while there's ample power for the vast majority of XC scenarios.

The Ultimate-level construction is classy, with the brakes featuring some lovely finishing touches, while SRAM's bleed hardware is some of the most well-considered on the market.

This year, our expert reviewers have tested a selection of the best mountain bike brakes, split into two broad genres.

First, there's a selection of the most powerful stoppers, aimed at downhill, enduro and electric mountain bike riders. We’ve kitted these brakes out with 200mm rotors front and rear to get the most out of their four-piston calipers and tested them on an e-MTB and our enduro bikes.

The second cohort is targeted at cross-country and downcountry riders, who still need plenty of stopping power without upsetting the scales. These two- and four-piston brakes grab onto 180mm and 160mm rotors in our testing, fitted to our downcountry test rig.

Before hitting the trail, we gave each brake a full going over in our workshop. Hoses were cut to get the brakes fitting neatly and to check out how easily they’re bled at home. We weighed and measured them, making sure no detail was missed.

We lined our levers up against SRAM and Shimano shifters to see which play nicely and weighed up the balance of cost and spec in order to reach our conclusions.

Senior technical editor

Tom Marvin is a technical editor at and MBUK magazine. He has a particular focus on mountain bikes, but spends plenty of time on gravel bikes, too. Tom has written for BikeRadar, MBUK and Cycling Plus, and was previously technical editor of What Mountain Bike magazine. He is also a regular presenter on BikeRadar's YouTube channel and the BikeRadar podcast. With more than twenty years of mountain biking experience, and nearly a decade of testing mountain and gravel bikes, Tom has ridden and tested thousands of bikes and products, from super-light XC race bikes through to the most powerful brakes on the market. Outside of testing bikes, Tom competes in a wide range of mountain bike races, from multi-day enduros through to 24-hour races in the depths of the Scottish winter – pushing bikes, components and his legs to their limits. He's also worked out that shaving your legs saves 8 watts, while testing aerodynamics in a wind tunnel. When not riding he can be found at the climbing wall, in his garden or cooking up culinary delights.