Piggybacking on the popularity of its Guide brakes, SRAM earlier this year released the lighter-duty line of Level hydraulic disc brakes. Level utilizes the same technologies as Guide–namely the move from SRAM’s TaperBore closure system to a more common timing port design–but in a sleeker and lighter package.
I've been able to pile up a significant number of miles on the Guides, simply because they were specced on both my 140-millimeter-travel 29er and my 200-millimeter-travel downhill bike. Curious to see where the Levels fit in given how versatile the Guides have proven, I slapped a pair on my trail bike.
Pricing ranges from $63 per wheel for the base-level version to $297 for the top-end Level Ultimates tested here. SRAM says they’re designed for cross-country racing and “light trail use.” What exactly that means is up to interpretation, but regardless the Level Ultimates were developed to replace SRAM's prior top-shelf endurance racing stopper, the XX. For a whisker under $300 per wheel, the svelte Ultimates include a carbon lever with bearings at the lever pivot, titanium hardware, alloy-backed resin pads, two-piece CLX rotors, plus SRAM's Bleeding Edge bleed port and MatchMaker handlebar mounts. My set of Level Ultimate brakes with two 180-mil rotors, uncut hoses, and all mounting hardware weighed a total of 795 grams.
The Levels use the same timing port closure mechanism, seals, and expandable bladder reservoir employed on the ubiquitous Guides. What you won't find on the Levels are on-the-fly lever-reach or pad-contact adjustments. The pad contact position is preset, and for weight savings the reach distance adjustment requires a 2-mil hex key. The most visually obvious difference between the two brakes is at the caliper. The Guides have a powerful four-piston design, while the Levels keep weight low with a smaller two-piston platform. The Ultimate and $190 TLM models are constructed with a one-piece caliper, while other brakes in the Level line are assembled from two separate pieces.
On Level’s Playing Field
Guide brakes have been universally praised since their release, and with good reason–they have excellent stopping power and modulation, and reliability has been solid. Personally, I've always noticed that they have more resistance at the lever than most brakes, which can be tiring on hands and forearms–especially on long, rough downhills. The Levels, however, feel lighter at the lever with a smoother and more tactile-feeling engagement with the rotor.
The undulating and moderately rough terrain of my cross-country oriented test loops proved to be the ideal proving ground for these new stoppers. The ergonomic levers provided quick input to the brakes to scrub speed on command, and the organic pads held their own on moderate descents. When ridden on steeper and rowdier terrain, the Levels could keep speed in check, but occasionally felt under gunned on steep, rotor-barbecuing sections of trail.
But even in in those situations, the Levels didn't fade or cause me to lose control. Instead, they maintained a consistent input of power to the rotors. Guides have a deeper power reserve, which makes them extremely versatile, but for a brake designed with endurance racing in mind, the Levels provide solid stopping in a sleek, lightweight package. The top-shelf Levels are positioned as an XC race-oriented product, but depending on one's riding style and local terrain they're also a worthy option for less-aggressive trail riders.