Wil Reviews The Super-Light SRAM Level Ultimate B1 Disc Brakes
Four years ago, during the lead up to the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, SRAM took the opportunity to launch a whole suite of flagship XC race product. That included the game-changing Eagle XX1 12-speed groupset, the latest generation SID fork, and the ultra-light Level Ultimate disc brakes. Replacing the previous SRAM XX brake, the Level Ultimates brought forward an entirely new design with a minimalist one-piece Monoblock calliper and a revamped master cylinder. Along with titanium hardware and trick carbon fibre lever blades, the Level Ultimates were lighter and significantly more reliable than their predecessor.
In its launch year, the Level ended up crossing the line for Olympic Gold in both the Women’s and Men’s cross-country races – a dream come true for the marketing department at SRAM. They’ve since continued to be proven at the highest level (boom-tish!) of the sport, and they’ve also enjoyed favourable reviews from cycling media all around the globe.
But a lot has changed since 2016. World Cup XC race courses are getting faster and more technical, and the latest generation of XC bikes are reflecting this. Frame geometry is slacker and longer, stems are shorter, bars are wider, and dropper posts are becoming more commonplace. As the bikes improve, riders are able to go faster on the descents and through technical sections of the racecourse. As racing speeds increase however, so too does the need for stronger brakes.
To answer those needs, SRAM rolled out its second generation of the Level Ultimate disc brake (also known as the ‘B1’ version) for 2020. The new brake sees a completely redesigned calliper with a chunkier two-piece construction and a host of improvements to increase braking power and consistency. To find out if those claims played out on the trail, I removed a set of the old Level Ultimates from my Santa Cruz Blur, and fitted a new set to see how they compare.
Firstly, How Light Are They?
They’re decent, but not quite as svelte as the old version. With the hoses cut to length, the new Level Ultimates weigh in at 238g (front) and 250g (rear). That includes the lever, bar clamp, calliper, hose and titanium mounting bolts – everything except for the rotors.
In terms of the competition, the Level Ultimates are a little weightier than the Magura MT8 SL, Shimano XTR Race M9100, and the Formula R1 Racing brakes, all of which hover around the 195-225g mark. They’re also a ways off the incredibly light (and stupendously expensive) Trickstuff Piccola brakes, which are supposedly just 158g per end. Holy cow!
However, I’ll point out that without the brakes physically on hand, specific gram comparisons are fraught with inaccuracies. This is because weights found online don’t always stipulate the same hose length or what mounting hardware is included, and sometimes they can even be weighed without pads or fluid, which is a bit odd. What I can tell you though is the new brakes have gained about 25 grams per end compared to the old Level Ultimates I took off the bike (which weighed 212g for the front and 224g for the rear).
New Callipers, New Guts
The extra 25 grams can be traced directly to the new two-piece calliper, which SRAM has employed to increase stiffness over the old one-piece Monoblock calliper. A stiffer structure reduces flex under hard braking to improve both power and feel, and you also get a larger pad pocket that helps exhaust heat more effectively. In fact, cooling has been improved enough that, just like the latest G2 brakes, SRAM has ditched the stainless steel Heat Shields altogether.
Like all of SRAM’s hydraulic disc brakes the Level Ultimates run on DOT 5.1 fluid, which SRAM says is more heavily regulated than mineral oil, and also manages heat better while being less compressible too. The 21mm diameter pistons are the same size as the previous brake, but they are now now made from phenolic plastic rather than alloy. The pistons are also sealed with larger friction pucks, which help speed up pad retraction to give a snappier feel at the lever.
The pads themselves are also different to those used in the old Level brakes. Rather than a whole new pad shape though, thankfully SRAM has reemployed the old Elixir brake pad profile, which is great news from a replacement perspective. The stock pads in our test brakes do use the new ‘Power’ compound, which is a Goldilocks recipe that aims to combine the durability and wet-weather performance of a sintered pad compound, with the quietness and smoothness of an organic pad compound.
Up at the lever end the Level Ultimates are unchanged, which is largely a good thing.
In the name of weight-saving, the minimalist lever bodies are stripped of many of the doo-dads you’ll find on the G2 and Code brakes. There’s no pad contact adjustment, and you also won’t find any leverage-altering linkages like the SwingLink used in the G2/Codes, or the Servowave link used in Shimano brakes. Instead, the lever drives the master cylinder directly, which reduces moving parts for a simpler and lighter system.
To adjust lever reach you’ll need to use a tiny 2mm L-handle hex key, with the bolt head tucked away inside the lever’s armpit. It’s awkward to access, and basically impossible to use with a multi-tool if you needed to adjust it out on the trail. There’s definitely room for improvement here.
The Level Ultimates bolt onto the handlebar via the same hinged C-clamp found on other SRAM brakes, and they’re also compatible with the MatchMaker system that allows you to mount a SRAM shifter directly to the right-hand brake lever. Depending on your dropper post remote, you can also bolt it directly to the left-hand lever, which offers a neat cockpit setup. Oh, and on the occasion that you need to lend your bike to one of those weirdo left-hand-front-brake riders, it’s possible to flip-flop the levers due to the ambidextrous design.
I setup our test brakes with SRAM’s stainless steel Centerline rotors, which sell for $79.95 per end. If you’re really chasing grams, you can get slightly lighter two-piece rotors for $99.95 per end. I went with 160mm diameter rotors, which provide a tidy setup without need for adapters on the Blur. Installation is straightforward, just a T25 torx key is required to bolt the levers and callipers on. Of note is that the new 2-piece calliper no longer has an adjustable banjo, which isn’t an issue for the fork, but may present an issue on the rear of some bikes that require some particularly curvaceous routing.
On The Trail
Thankfully SRAM carried over the sleek carbon fibre lever blades from the previous Level Ultimate, which feel lovely with or without gloves. The shape of the lever blade is a little less hooked than a Shimano lever, with a slightly flatter and taller face for your finger to rest on. The combination of a sealed cartridge pivot bearing and the DirectLink design ensures there is minimal resistance as you engage the brakes, with a nice light feel.
Compared to the previous Level Ultimates, there’s a slightly more solid bite point as the pads engage the rotor, and you can feel the extra snappiness when you release the lever and the pistons retract into place. There’s very little hesitation, and I experienced no rotor drag from sticky pistons. I’ll also mention here that there’s a good amount of clearance between the rotors and pads to begin with, and in terms of aligning the callipers, I’ve found the twin-piston Levels to be easier to setup than their quad-piston siblings.
More noticeable though is the improved bite and sustained power, which is the result of the chunkier calliper body and the new Power pad compound. According to SRAM, there’s 34% more power on tap compared to the previous Level brakes, and I can believe it. Even though I was using larger 180mm rotors with the previous Level Ultimate, there’s still more power on tap with the new brakes and the smaller 160mm rotors. Really, the power is impressive for such a lightweight twin-piston XC brake, and I wouldn’t hesitate in recommending them for trail riders as well as spandex warriors.
They’re not far off that of the quad-piston G2, though the delivery of power is more linear. So while it’s predictable, you don’t have quite the same early-stroke modulation as the G2’s. If it’s a softer braking feel you’re after, I’d suggest running organic pads, which are both quieter and a little softer on the initial bite.
If I was to compare the power and feel to Shimano, I’d say the Level Ultimates are somewhere between the XTR Race (twin-piston) and XTR Enduro (quad-piston) brakes. The Level offers more bite compared to the XTR Race brake, though the new generation Shimano lever bodies are stiffer due to the mid-mount clamp design.
Long Term Living
After shortening the hoses and bleeding the Level Ultimates during installation, they haven’t needed touching since. That process is easy enough with the excellent Bleeding Edge tool, and SRAM has improved the efficacy of the bleed process by locating the port right at the bottom of the calliper, which helps to capture and extract more air bubbles in the first place. They’re lightyears away from the Taperbore-related nightmares of Avid’s old Elixirs.
Testament to that bleed quality, the bite point and overall lever throw have been totally consistent throughout four months of testing and racing. They’ve also been impressively stable on longer descents, and I’ve had zero issues with fade. The Power pads deserve mention here too. In wet conditions power doesn’t drop off a cliff, and aside from an initial squeal as the pads clear away moisture from the rotor, they’ve been pretty darn quiet all-round. They’ve also lasted very well, with plenty of meat left on the pads.
When it does come time to replacement, you’ve got several options from SRAM between $35-$45 per end. And if they require more invasive surgery, SRAM offers spare seals and both calliper and lever rebuild kits – a stark difference to Shimano, which offers very few spare parts for its hydraulic disc brakes. Worth noting here is that being a simpler twin-piston brake, you’ve only got four pistons and seals in total to worry about, not eight sets like you’ve got in a G2/Code.
While the new Level Ultimates have proven to be an improvement over the original, with terrific power, lever feel and consistency, there’s no getting around that this is a pricey set of stoppers. If you opt for the 2-piece rotors, you’re looking at a thousand dollarydoos for the full setup.
SRAM does offer a lower-priced option in the new Level TLM brake, which utilises exactly the same two-piece calliper as the Ultimate, albeit with a cheaper alloy lever blade. The TLM sells for $249.95 per end, so you’d save $300 on the full set. I recently tested the Level TLM brakes on a 2020 Canyon Lux CF SL 8.0, and once I’d given them a thorough bleed, they performed admirably. They do miss out on the lever pivot bearing though, and as a result aren’t quite as smooth as the Ultimates.
Thanks to the move to two-piece callipers, the new Level Ultimate brakes are noticeably more solid than their predecessor, making them a viable option not just for World Cup XC racers, but also for trail riders who are looking for a simpler twin-piston setup. They have gotten a touch heavier, and there are lighter options for particularly obsessive gram-hunters. But if you value consistent performance, a smooth lever feel, and the serviceable design, the Level Ultimates are a top quality choice.
Mo’ Flow Please!
Enjoyed that article? Then there’s plenty more to check out on Flow Mountain Bike, including all our latest news stories and product reviews. And if you haven’t already, make sure you subscribe to our YouTube channel, and sign up to our Facebook page and Instagram feed so you can keep up to date with all things Flow!