Shimano M396 NSMB AndrewM
Product Review

Are Shimano's M396 The Best Budget Brakes?

Words Andrew Major
Photos Andrew Major
Date Apr 7, 2017

M396

At $45 (USD) per wheel, Shimano's M396 model are as cheap as hydraulic brakes come. Numerically they fall into the budget Acera group, which is heavily spec'ed on basic hardtails. The set I'm testing are the stock brake on our $1500 Marin Hawk Hill test bike.

There is no hiding the budget construction of the M396. For example, there is a notable amount of slop at the lever blade's main pivot right out of the box, and it has become more noticeable over hours of riding. The brake system also doesn't have the sex appeal of Shimano's higher end systems. 

Did I mention the price?

Shimano M396 NSMB AndrewM

The M396 shares brake pads - b01s | e01s - with a number of other Shimano brake systems, making spares very easy to come by. 

The difference between a cheap product and one with out-sized performance for the price is all in the ride experience. Despite its budget price, the M396 is an impressive system on the trail. The modulation at the lever blade is very easy to adapt to and the power curve is very consistent.

The harder I pull the more stopping power is delivered to the rotors. It seems like that's how brakes should work but that's not always the case. Many systems that deliver rotor-grabbing initial bite have little in the way of follow through. 

Lever Blades for Days

The M396 master cylinder consists of a removable cap and bladder, a bleed port, a hex-key operated reach adjust and a 4"/100mm long lever blade. For those counting along at home that's a full 1" / 25mm longer than the blades on the Shimano Servo Wave levers found on Deore, XT and XTR systems. 

There is no magic Servo Wave voodoo happening with the application of power on this basic horizontal piston brake system. Pull the long lever and feel the easily modulated pressure applied to the brake rotors.

The levers themselves are not nicely machined pieces and the slop between the blade and body of the master cylinder is a bit annoying, but these are not on-trail performance issues. The M396 brake levers are excellent in the heat of battle. 

Shimano M396 NSMB AndrewM

That's a 100mm / 4" lever blade. I set it up for one-finger use and let leverage do its work. There's nothing fancy happening here. 

In fact, the on trail performance of the $100 M396 system, combined with sintered pads and real rotors, rivals any of Shimano's two-piston brake systems in terms of power, modulation, and lever feel. 

Switching between various brake systems - Formula, Magura, SRAM Guide & Level - while riding the M396 is a very quick adjustment. On the other hand, I find Shimano's Servo Wave system combined with their two piston calipers to be unique enough that I really have to focus at the start of any ride when I'm on them. 

Pads & Rotors

Without getting too deep into a future review, the two biggest negatives on the Marin Hawk Hill's spec are brake-related. First, the use of Center Lock hubs seriously limits the availability of reasonably priced, high performance brake rotors for future replacements, requiring the purchase of expensive center lock rotors or adapters. 

Second, I think the Shimano RT10 rotors are the most sh*t product the company has ever produced. Why, Shimano, why? Let there be no discussion; resin pad only rotors suck in general both in terms of performance and future braking improvements through pad choice and the RT10 center lock models look like cheap garbage to boot. 

Step one. Get some decent rotors. For anyone buying the ultimate budget brakes in the aftermarket this isn't a problem, but for those who already own a bike with rotors that have 'resin only' printed on them: (recycling) Bin That Sh*t.  

Shimano M396 NSMB AndrewM

First, make sure the M396 is clamping down on a quality (not 'resin only') brake rotor. Then, when the stock resin pads wear out replace them with sintered metal ones. 

,Combined with a good quality rotor, the M396's stock resin brake pads (Shimano part B01S)  provide very reasonable braking power. When the stock pads wear out, the brake power can be further improved in most conditions by replacing them with sintered metal pads (Shimano part E01S)  which are readily available thanks to their compatibility with a huge number of Shimano brake models. 

Please remember that the sintered (E01S) pads are not compatible with the Resin Only rotors that come stock on many bikes that spec these brakes, meaning you will be required to spring for a rotor upgrade at the same time. 

Shimano M396 NSMB AndrewM

When the stock resin B01S pads wear out, replace them with Shimano's sintered option (E01S) for improved performance. That's assuming proper (not 'resin only') rotors are in place. 

Bleeding

I don't find Shimano's bleed system as consistent as what Formula and SRAM are using. It's tougher to get a good bleed in one go, however, the bucket-and-syringe system works well and the tools required are both simple and inexpensive. 

Attach the syringe with Shimano mineral oil to the caliper, open the bleed screw and push. Unlike Shimano's current high-end brakes, I can also completely remove the master cylinder cover of the M396. In theory, this allows me to change the bladder if it is damaged but more importantly it makes bleeding possible without the thread-in fluid capture bucket. 

As with all Shimano brakes, don't forget to remove the bleed screw in the master cylinder when pushing the caliper pistons back in when changing brake pads. 

Shimano M396 NSMB AndrewM

Bleeding the M396 is the same easy push-from-the-caliper affair as all Shimano's other brake systems. It uses the same 'bucket' tool at the master cylinder as their other brakes as well. 

Are They That Good?

I'm not running out to replace the Formula ROR or Magura MT Trail brakes I've been riding with a set of M396 brakes. Those brakes are amazing high-end, high-performance products with excellent construction quality. 

The power and lever feel of the M396 brakes are both surprisingly excellent and when I consider the cost I'm actually blown away by this system. But, and it's a big but, the low-quality fit and finish and the lever slop would get me down on my own dialed rides. Despite that, I find it amazing that I would even consider running a $100 set of brakes on a regular basis. 

That said, I much prefer the control and modulation of the 4" M396 lever to any of Shimano's high-end two-piston mountain bike brakes and this has me thinking about two ideas:

1. How would a Shimano Zee or Saint caliper feel with the M396 master cylinder? I'm thinking a super smooth initialization with power for days.

2. Would Shimano's T8000 XT Trekking brake levers combined with a Zee caliper up front and an XT caliper in the rear be the ultimate trail bike brake system from the biggest-S? I'm imagining a more powerful M396 with a much higher level QA and fit-and-finish. 

Anyone building a bike on a budget, or shopping for a budget bike, would do well to consider that M396 punches way above its price class. Kudos to Marin for recognizing it on their maximized Hawk Hill - too bad about the rotors.

Comments

GladePlayboy
+1 Andrew Major
Rob Gretchen  - April 7, 2017, 6:15 a.m.

You are 100% correct about the resin only rotors being garbage... that aside they are damn good.

Reply

AndrewMajor
0
Andrew Major  - April 7, 2017, 7:12 a.m.

Whats the best bang:buck replacement rotor you've come across?

When I was working in a shop we bought a pile of Hayes rotors for swaps and then when those ran out we used the standard Magura rotors as the quality:$ was high - think they were actually Galfer. But nothing is cheap anymore...

Reply

jt
+1 Andrew Major
JT  - April 7, 2017, 6:19 a.m.

Love this. Agree on many points (especially the rotors), and love the talking like a tinkerer, hybridizing their systems. I too found Shimano's drop in a bucket bleed set up to be less than ideal, but Jagwire's mineral oil dual syringe bleed kit remedied that issue. I approach it with a soft touch as I don't know how much vacuum pressure their bladders can take. I also understand that it'd be journalistically irresponsible to recommend trying non sanctioned bleed procedures. Last bit, kudos for actually reviewing an entry level component. We all have a general idea how the expensive bits will work but are often a bit in the dark about the low end.

Reply

AndrewMajor
0
Andrew Major  - April 7, 2017, 7:05 a.m.

Definitely will check out the Jagwire kit! A mechanic friend of mine made something similar but as you say it's obviously not Shimano approved.

Thanks!

Reply

jt
+1 Andrew Major
JT  - April 7, 2017, 7:43 a.m.

For sure. It took care of the persistent lingering air pocket in my and my wife's Deores, as well as pretty much every new or used Shimano equipped bike that comes into the shop. After you close the caliper off, unthread the hose from the syringe at the master cylinder, leaving the hose attached to the master with a rag wrapped around it, and let the internal pressure equalize with the atmosphere before removing the hose/fitting. You may have a couple drops to clean up, but no more than any other bleed process, and you'll be able to flip the bike upside down to fuss with the wheels without having to pump the brake back up once you flip it right side up.

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AndrewMajor
0
Andrew Major  - April 7, 2017, 7:49 a.m.

That's a solid review of the kit; thanks.

Reply

mrbrett
+1 Andrew Major
mrbrett  - April 7, 2017, 6:52 a.m.

Thanks for the review. My wife doesn't ride that much, and the seals in her old brakes were getting unreliable. I just ordered a set of these for her bike.

Reply

AndrewMajor
0
Andrew Major  - April 7, 2017, 7:08 a.m.

Cool!

The range of reach adjustment is very good as well so if she has small hands no worries.

Reply

mrbrett
0
mrbrett  - April 8, 2017, 7:58 a.m.

Well, they're not Trump-ish but likely smaller than typical images churned up by Seinfeld-man-hands-ripping-apart-lobster. So, yes. Or, no. All the same, it's nice to see reasonably priced bike products that work.

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bart
0
bart  - April 7, 2017, 8:11 a.m.

Head 2 Head shoot out against the Magura MT2?  pretty close in MSRP.

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bart
0
bart  - April 7, 2017, 8:12 a.m.

maybe not actually,  MSRP on shimano is under 100$

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AndrewMajor
0
Andrew Major  - April 7, 2017, 8:31 a.m.

Still a great idea. I've had awesome experiences with MT5 | MT7 | MT-Trail. Should definitely try their entry level brakes.

Reply

Ikari
0
Ikari  - July 31, 2018, 5:02 a.m.

I got the new M396 on my new entry level hardtail bike and being a bit of a gear whore, I am somewhat tempted to upgrade the brakes down the line.

Prices in Germany are 150 EUR for the MT Trail Sport set (MT5 & MT4 with the 1 finger lever) which makes sense on a bike like mine than going for MT5 x 2 for 155 EUR (but get the lower spec levers).

Then there's the Formula Cura for 200 EUR, which visually I like quite a bit more (the levers especially). Sure it's not a 4 piston caliper brake but performance-wise it comes close (and frankly a 4 piston brake might look a tad silly on a hardtail?). Wish it came in silly colors like gold same as the cura4, as it reminds me of my old yellow tektro aftermarket brakes I added to my old scott over 20 years ago. :)

Rotors (and adapters) not included in the prices above. Are the Trail Sport still a better set than Formula Cura or do those justify their higher price point?

Reply

AndrewMajor
+1 Ikari
Andrew Major  - July 31, 2018, 11:29 a.m.

The prices in Germany on Magura product make it a bit harder question to answer.

I like that the Cura is fully rebuildable and while I don’t have an issue bleeding either system I prefer Formula’s bleed system.

The Trail Sport is a wicked brake and the number one concern locally (being able to go to a shop and grab pads) isn’t an issue in Germany. If you have small hands or love a huge hook the HC levers deliver for those riders as well.

Power is close enough and lever feel is different but excellent in both cases. 

It’s a hard choice locally (about the same price, good support from local distribution, great performance). Trail Sport for significantly less $$$ is a win on paper unless you greatly prefer the lever blade feel or attach a lot of value to the serviceability of the Cura.

Reply

jason
+1 Andrew Major
jason  - April 7, 2017, 8:24 a.m.

Great review.  

Try this for an awesome power combo.  SLX levers with Zee caliper.  I have this combo on my Patrol and it is awesome.  Actually had to get used to the power as it is so much compared to just Xt brakes.  Now I am used to it and it is great.  No more death grip braking or blowing through corners because of late braking.

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AndrewMajor
0
Andrew Major  - April 7, 2017, 8:34 a.m.

I really like Shimano's Zee system (basically what you're running) but for a similar $ my money is into a Magura MT5 system.

That said, I did exactly the same thing on my wife's bikes but to improve feel. Swapped her front XT calipers for Saint|Zee.

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AndrewMajor
0
Andrew Major  - April 7, 2017, 8:36 a.m.

Everything other than weight (who cares re. brakes?) is definitely improved by running Shimano's four piston calipers.

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jason
0
jason  - April 8, 2017, 7:39 a.m.

SLX and Zee levers are the exact same with one diff, the SLX use tool free adjustment the same as XT or saint.  Zee you need an Allen key.  Have not tried the magura though I used to run Louise back in the day (until saint).

Reply

S3tigoHide
+1 Andrew Major
Cameron Taves  - April 7, 2017, 9:32 a.m.

Officially, these calipers aren't​ compatible with metallic pads. I assumed it was due to the resin pistons instead of the ceramic ones on Shimano's more expensive brakes. However they say Deores can use metallic and they have resin pistons so who knows.

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AndrewMajor
0
Andrew Major  - April 7, 2017, 9:50 a.m.

That's weird, first because Shimano is such a careful company it's hard to believe they'd go with a pad option that can easily swapped to a genuine Shimano sintered if it was a no go. Especially if it's a fine print warning.

All I can is a concern over heat although this caliper is used with a few models of brake and as you say the non ceramic pistons are used on lots of higher end Shimano brakes.

Since it's mainly intended as an OE brake and always seem to be spec'd with Resin-Only rotors maybe it's just an afterthought? 

Anyways, not something that concerns me - and larger rotors dissipate heat better if it did.

Reply

wncmotard
+1 Andrew Major
WNCmotard  - April 7, 2017, 12:27 p.m.

Hell, I only have the M315 on my Stache, and I swear they feel better than freshly bled XTs.

Reply

velocipedestrian
+1 Andrew Major
Velocipedestrian  - April 9, 2017, 2:57 p.m.

I went for the first ride on my freshly 'downgraded' shimano XTs last weekend. 

From 775 (original servo wave) to 765 (oldskool skidswitch 535 style lever), they were awesome. Years of use has prepared my fingers to do the modulation.

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AndrewMajor
0
Andrew Major  - April 9, 2017, 3:20 p.m.

That gen of master (Saint, XT, LX, Deore all the same) with a set of the looooooong Dangerboy levers with the big-ass hook on the end... NICE.

Reply

jeanft
0
jeanft  - June 6, 2017, 11:28 a.m.

Hello,

The  Marin website mentions Shimano M315 for stock brakes on the Hawk Hill.  Any differences with M396?

Reply

AndrewMajor
0
Andrew Major  - June 6, 2017, 11:32 a.m.

Hi Jeanft,

Both are Acera brakes using the same master cylinder. The calipers are slightly different but from a function perspective they are the same. 

Hope that's helpful.

Reply

Cainojjj
0
Cainojjj  - Oct. 8, 2018, 10:50 p.m.

Hi,

I think that was a fair review of this brake system.  I ride a morewood shova (the bikes a bit old now but i love it). I got a set of the m396's to replace some leaky hayes one's a couple of years ago. Where i live is a bit hilly and the trails are "illegal" even though the authorities know about the trails and don't really care.  They are user maintained, a bit rough and fairly down hill oriented.  

The m395's handles this terrain as well as anything else I have come across.  Never had brake fade and i've never really wished for more brake power. (i always thought it could be improved but not necessary). 

About 6 months ago I bought aftermarket kevlar brake pads for them and it immediately made a noticeable difference to the overall braking performance.  Worked fine on "resin only" rotors.  

Last but not least, after reading this review a couple of months ago i was curious about the last paragraphs.  I got myself a set of second hand xt calipers (m775 on rear,  m8000 on front) and git them with the m396 masters. Haven't taken it for much of a ride yet but initial thoughs are a noticeable difference in initial grab but (I think) easier to control and a more predictable modulation overall.   

I tend to ramble so thanks for reading.

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