Are Shimano's M396 The Best Budget Brakes?
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?
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.
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.
,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.
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.
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.