22 July 2009

bikefix Exclusive Review: Avid Elixir CR Carbon disc brakes

When mountain bike disc brakes were in their infancy, the company Avid made a name for themselves with what is widely regarded as the best mechanical disc brake on the market. The sometimes flaky performance of early hydraulics (and cost of replacing perfectly good brake levers) scared quite a few riders into the mechanical camp. Largely relegated to entry-level OEM spec, Avid's BB5 and BB7 discs are still going strong and as a result, most all of us have spent time on Avid mechanicals.

Of course, most of the early concerns around hydraulics have been addressed and it's now possible to pick up a set of perfectly good, reliable hydraulics for less than a set of BB7's and levers. Several years ago, Avid (now a part of the SRAM empire) saw the writing on the wall and introduced their Juicy line of discs, co-developed with bikefix favorites Formula. While largely reliable, the Juicy line suffered from excessive noise, a wooden feel and lack of modulation- by 2009, it was time for a change. With the Elixir platform, Avid made priorities of reducing stiction while increasing power and modulation. The company's TaperBore technology uses a tapered master cylinder that ingeniously does away with the port that other brakes use to equilibrate the brake line with the reservoir. The TaperBore design removes some of the notchiness that can be felt in other brakes' travel and allows the reservoir to be located in line with the piston and minimize the amount of space taken up at or near the handlebar.

As with most companies' products, brakes in the Avid's Elixir range are available with a number of external adjustments, each at a premium. What I've been riding are the company's range-topping (at least until the Elixir XX brakes become available) Elixir CR Carbon. The C and R, rather than calling out the carbon lever blade (the default and an option at the OEM level), denote the levers' tool-free reach and pad contact adjustments. While the former is pretty standard (though not always tool-free), the pad contact adjustment allows the rider to dial in the amount of lever free throw before the pads contact the rotor.

The calipers themselves feature pretty standard 2-piece construction, run through by a pair of bolts. Like rebar, the bolts serve to reinforce the aluminum caliper bodies, which the company feels makes for a stronger caliper at a weight competitive with single-piece construction. As long as the seal between the halves holds (and I've never heard of that being a problem), its probably as valid an approach as any (and more economical to manufacture than a 1pc body). Avid and the cycling press like to note that the pads can be removed through the back of the caliper. As neat as this sounds, I don't tend to take the pads out of my calipers unless they're pretty badly worn- and then it's to put new pads in. As a result, the pistons nearly always require resetting. Doing so with the rotor in place (the main advantage of a rear-entry caliper) seems like a good way to bend a rotor- not resetting the pistons means that new pads won't fit. At least the gaping hole at the back of the caliper allows for a good deal of cooling air flow.

As with all of Avid's brakes, the Elixir's attach to post mounts or adapters by way of two sets of spherical washers (the kind that come with V-brake pads). How many of those damn things did Avid buy when linear pull brakes were king? The idea is to allow the user to accommodate non-true disc tabs or posts, but I have to think that the likelihood (especially by this point) of the rider screwing up the caliper's alignment thanks to the spherical washers is far greater than getting a frame or fork that is out of tolerance (most good shops have disc tab facing tools now). Furthermore, they look cheap and have a habit of rolling under any immovable workshop fixtures that they can find. The idea was neat, but adds weight and introduces more complication than it's likely ever to solve.

On the trail, the overwhelming impression that the Elixirs make is one of noisiness. Lots of noisiness. At the best of times, the sexy-looking "G3 Clean Sweep" rotors make a metallic sound like that of a robot turkey taking a bong hit. At the worst (most of the time), the rear brake unleashed a violent howl that literally shook me to my, um, timbers. Now, as a long-time cyclist, I can't help but appreciate any signs of life in my nether regions. That said, as nice as the sensation was, I have to think that riding the world's loudest is best done in the privacy of one's own home. My local shop played with the Elixir's for a while without much success- it wasn't until I mounted a pair of Shimano XT rotors (180mm front, 160mm rear, with the appropriate adapters- Avid don't do the industry standard 180mm diameter) that the noise went away. Most riders should probably budget an extra $30 per wheel to do the same. Once they were off the bike, I noticed that the G3 rotors' cuts were far from clean- I don't attribute the noise to that fact, but the burrs/slag are disappointing on what's supposed to be a high-end product. Also disappointing were the mounting bolts- not a big deal, but the provided mounting bolts are awfully soft and their heads prone to rounding out. Given the Elixir CRs' $204-208 per wheel suggested retail price, the company could probably afford to splurge on nicer hardware.

In use, the Elixirs' lever feel is certainly an improvement from previous Avid hydraulics, though not quite to the level of Formula's Oro series (and still miles from Shimano's XT hydraulics). I know that a lot of people prefer a more solid feel at the lever, but the line between slowing and skidding is still too fine and hard to control- not a good thing for the trails or biker/hiker relations. The Elixir's are also the first brakes that I've ridden in a long time to suffer from fade. It's not like I do a lot of any lift-serviced riding- I noticed the fade in a relatively gradual 2000' descent during a cross country race. The fade wasn't terminal, but we should be beyond needing to pump the brakes at this point. This alone will likely rule the Elixir's out for all of the chairlift and shuttle fans out there.

While maybe not necessary (and not something I'd looked for in the past), the pad contact adjustment came in particularly handy on my Elixirs. For some reason, the front and rear brakes want to contact the rim at different points in their lever travel- the pad contact adjustment allowed me to correct the problem without bleeding the brakes or resetting the pistons (which would have been the next step). Unfortunately, the tool-free adjustment (which comes from turning the large red barrel on the lever) does not really lock in place and is subject to twist in the brake hose (the hose is attached to the barrel)- so doesn't always stay where it's put. A more solid adjustment that didn't fight the hose would be a nice addition, but I can manage occasional adjustments until Avid figure that part out. I wouldn't even mind using a tool- if it were a common one. The reach adjustment is pretty slick- the knurled barrel serves to move the lever blade's pivot relative to the piston and holds it's setting far better than the more commonly-used screw with Loctite, but imparts the lever with quite a bit of play right out of the box.

Anyone who has read this far will know that I'm not thrilled with the Elixirs. While, lack of modulation aside, my issues with the brakes would be acceptable on a budget brake (like the $129/wheel Elixir R), my set of Elixir CR's (185mm front, 160mm rear) retail for a rather high-end $412. On paper, their 385g/wheel weight and features make them competitive with other companies' mid- to high-end brakes. Avid have done some interesting things with the Elixirs, which will likely be a durable option for many riders. In use, though, they leave too much to be to be desired.
As an OEM choice, they wouldn't put me off a bike- but I can't recommend seeking them out aftermarket. For the money, there are far more attractive options out there.




Anonymous said...

Thanks a lot for your review. I'm very glad to read for the first time a review about these brakes which is completely in line with the reality. I have the exact same issues (washers and noise) and feeling with this brakes. After 9 years using Shimano I finally decided to try Avid, because of the positive reviews. How disappointed I was after trying them. Don't know why we do not find more true reviews like this one on the Internet about them.

Anonymous said...

Gotta say I enjoy your frankness in product reviews. Good to see clear and thorough descriptions to help out those of us living day to day in the real world.
Thank you sir.. I say thank you.

bikefix said...

Thanks guys! Honestly, I hesitated and re-read this review a couple of times before posting because I thought that it might be too negative. At the end of the day, though, I feel like I can stand by all of the points I tried to make. Noise aside, they're not bad brakes, they're just not very good, given the competition. Thanks again- your support keeps us interested!

daveb said...

Excellent article!

This kind of honest, and very knowledgeable reviewing can't be found in any of the magazines.

Well done.

Chris said...

I echo the other readers' thoughts. I've been reading the blog for 5 months now and really like it. Fact is, most of the gear out there works pretty well - what we need and what you provide - is a critic to tell us when you spot a lemon - like these brakes, and when it's time to show the emperor has no clothes and the boutique version of the wheels that cost $1200 or the $200 seatpost provides nothing over the version that costs a third. Keep up the good work.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for the candid review. I have the Avids, they were OEM on a recently purchased bike. The howling from the rear brake is intolerable. When I initially raised the issue I was advised that my adjustment must be incorrect, I must be using the wrong pads (they were the manufacturer installed pads) or it must be some other version of Its My Fault! After several months and the efforts of the mechanics and shop owner where I purchased the bike Sram has finally accepted responsibility and informed me that they are providing redesigned rotors to fix the problem. If this was not a defect why were they designing a fix? I continue to wait for the replacement rotor. I am disappointed with the product and thoroughly disgusted with the poor customer service. I am in the process of purchasing a new road bike. Needless to say I am going to stick with Campagnolo components. I've used them for over 25 years and, while they ain't cheap, they have never disappointed.

bikefix said...

Thanks for the note about new rotors- I'll have to check with my local shop... Not holding my breath, though- after a heinously muddy ride, mine have started to howl even with the Shimano rotors I mentioned. Oh well.

haritone said...

Thanks for the honest review. Unfortunately I only found positive reviews about these brakes before purchasing a set of my own. I haven't fitted them to my ride yet, and sadly i'm not looking forward to it either..

I don't know why people accept noise as being 'normal'. I never heard a peep out of my old Shimano M575 calipers, wet or dry, so why should a premium brake get away with it?

Could you tell me what adapter you used for the front 180mm? I run a PM fork and after reading your review, I think i'll be needing some better rotors too..


bikefix said...


You may luck out- let us know if you have quiet brakes. On two separate bikes and two forks with two brands' rotors, mine have been noisy (wet and dry). I'm using a Magura 180mm adapter- different than the one shown- and visually identical to Shimano's 180mm post mount adapter. Using either, you'll need a proper 180mm rotor (rather than Avid's 183mm)...

haritone said...

Hi All,

I've since fitted the brakes (185F/160R) and bedded them in gently at the carpark before my run.

My experience so far..

The dome washers are not only pointless, they make aligning the calipers a very fiddly exercise - and it shouldn't be. Other than that it's pretty straight forward.

Using the Matchmaker setup with X.0 shifters I couldn't achieve the same shifter angle/position as I was used to when using both clamps.
And no, I don't have them at unusual angles either.

Not as much stopping power as I expected - I was thinking endo stopping power - but this may improve as the pads wear?

No turkey gobble (yet) and the pads make an acceptable amount of noise in use with 2 exceptions..

After riding through a shallow creek, the rear brake makes a rhythmic 'tweet' noise like a baby bird, but stranger still the front makes a vibrating noise which sounds like it's coming from the master cylinder. I can feel the vibration through the handlebars and can only describe the sound is as if someone was blowing on a comb like a harmonica.

If there was any backing for Formula in Australia I would have gone the K24s. Sigh..

I'll respond again after a couple more weeks of use, but so far i'm disappointed.

bikefix said...


Sorry they're not up to your expectations- keep us posted on how things go! Thanks for reading,


Anonymous said...

so it sounds like if you had a choice between XT, Ultimate and Elixir CR, the choice would be XT? I have this option right now on a new bike i am buying and don't would accept a bit of weight for lack of noise and chatter

bikefix said...

Anon- no question, in my opinion: those XT's have great modulation, no carcinogens and are bombproof. Those or entry-level Formula Oro K18s would be my budget recommendation.