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I'm currently overhauling a bike with a Shimano Sora 3400 groupset. I've replaced most of the parts with Sora 3500 (notably not the brake levers -- still 3400) and am interested in buying some nicer used brakes, but don't want to spend a ton. Would 105 BR-5500 brakes be much of an improvement over what I have?

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    I don't have personal experience with this model of Sora versus this model of 105 (which isn't the current version, and may be several generations out of date - are you sure about the model #?). However, were you aware you can upgrade just the brake pads? Our site policy is no product recommendations, but people violate this all the time for Kool Stop pads, and for good reason - they're an excellent and cost-effective upgrade, especially for lower-quality pads like those on your current group.
    – Weiwen Ng
    Sep 3, 2020 at 0:02
  • I replaced my pads with other Sora pads after some years of use when the braking power had gotten pretty minimal, and it basically didn't improve with the new pads, so I assumed the problem was with the brakes. You think the better pads will help? Sep 3, 2020 at 4:30
  • The working mechanism of both brakes is identical, I don’t think there will be a significant improvement in braking power. Good cables (cable housing) and brake pads (e.g. Koolstop Salmon or SwissStop Green or Blue) are your only hope.
    – Michael
    Sep 3, 2020 at 5:52
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    There could be difference in the caliper flex but I do not expect to be significant. There are good pads produced by several companies. Sep 3, 2020 at 6:16
  • Decent brake pads on the sora calipers will make a bigger difference than 105 caliper with stock pads.
    – abdnChap
    Sep 3, 2020 at 12:28

2 Answers 2

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Would 105 BR-5500 brakes be much of an improvement over what I have?

What could the improvement be?

Lighter weight would mean the brake arms are less stiff, causing flex in the brake system. Thus, you cannot reasonably reduce the weight of the brake arms. Besides, most weight reduction "upgrades" are not worth it, giving only few tens of grams of savings at most, the benefit of which is infinistesimal but occurs at great cost.

Stiffer brake arms (less flex) would mean the brake arms are are heavier than necessary. Weight being unacceptable in a bicycle, the manufacturers are reluctant to do this.

Higher mechanical advantage (more power in brakes) would mean the brake lever runs out of travel very quickly, requiring frequent turning of the barrel adjuster, and the free spacing in the brake pads is so low that they cannot track a wheel with a broken spoke. However, do note that current trend of high mechanical advantage in dual pivot brakes with their forced centering and current trend of less than 36 spokes per wheel may mean you may run into problems if you break a spoke anyway.

Higher free spacing (allowing to track a wheel with a broken spoke exceptionally and not running out of lever travel quickly) would mean the brake has little mechanical advantage and would require unacceptably large lever force to stop.

Sometimes, a design is a compromise that has been perfected decades ago.

If you want an improvement in brake technology, there are three options (or actually two really as you cannot find hydraulic rim brakes):

  1. Better brake pad material. The Kool Stop salmon-colored compound works exceptionally well in varying conditions, not picking up pieces of sand that work as an abrasive compound to cause early rim wear. This is the cheapest approach and I highly recommend it.

  2. Better actuation mechanism. Cable actuation can be replaced with hydraulic actuation. However, you probably won't find hydraulic rim brakes easily.

  3. Better brake type. Rim brakes can be replaced with disc brakes. However, disc brakes are heavier (because they do not reuse the rim as the brake disc but rather require a separate brake disc) and require a heavier fork and a more sturdy spoking pattern in the wheel. On the other hand, disc brakes do not have brake lag in the wet, unlike all rim brakes. The cost is more frequent brake pad replacements. I don't recommend this approach because in practice it requires getting a new bicycle, as forks not having disc brake mounts cannot support disc brakes.

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Parts higher up the range typically have a better finish quality, use higher quality materials and hardware and may have special treatments on pivot points. Often they can be lighter due to using a stronger, more expensive material or process. That's the general overview.

Certainly the 105 calipers will have a much better finish than the Sora ones and the hardware (nuts, bolts, qr) should be a better quality.

My experience is that the lifespan of the higher range brake will be longer and the pivots will be less prone to freezing up but this could be a function of how better bikes are maintained and stored.

You should choose whichever you like the look of best if they are in equally good working condition.

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