We're here to help you choose between Shimano's top two mechanical groupsets
Words and Images - James Raison
I recently spent a few days on a gorgeous Daccordi Noah outfitted with Shimano’s top mechanical R9100 groupset. I took the opportunity to do a side-by-side comparison against my own Ultegra R8000 groupset (read the review) on my Specialized Allez (read the review).
So, what are the differences and what should you buy?
Ultegra’s added heft is oft-cited as the biggest real separator between it and top-tier Dura-Ace. So, what’s the difference? Our Ultegra 6800, R8000, and R9100 weight comparison article uses figures directly from Shimano. So, let’s pull out the mechanical stats with R8000 on the left and R9100 on the right:
Shifters: 438g v 365g
Cranks (50/34): 674g v 609g
Front Derailleur: 106g v 70g
Rear Derailleur: 200g v 158g
Calipers: 360g v 326g
Cassette (11-25): 232g v 175g
TOTAL: 2010g v 1703g
There you have it folks, about 300g is the difference. For perspective, my Pixel 2XL phone weighs 210g plus case. BOOM - gave context and humble-bragged about my phone. It's been a good day...
Changing gear is rather important with road groupsets, and both R8000 and R9100 are excellent. R9100 buyers can breathe a sigh of relief because their premium offering is more excellent.
Dura Ace gives sharper, and louder (yes, that matters) shifts with less hand input. The lever throw is very short to shift individually, and the sweep down-shift is more direct too. It’ll shift under load, cross-chain, and generally forgive your bad habits. Front derailleur shifts are especially delicious with instant changes from efficient lever movement.
Ultegra is still outstanding but it’s all a little softer, less tactile, and not quite as fast. Forced to put a number on it, I’d say Ultegra shifts 90% as well as Dura Ace. I will not deny that extra 10% is lovely though.
This one is really close to call. Both calipers are phenomenally good at deceleration, easily the best standard mount stoppers I’ve used and only a little less effective than running into the side of a barn. I noticed a little less feel in the R9100 calipers but I think that’s the harder Swissstop pads that give less feedback than the gummy Kool Stop pads I use on my R8000s. They felt indistinguishable otherwise.
There’s a little difference in lever feel. The R9100 levers are definitely smoother and ask for less hand input to squeeze the calipers together. The good news is that you’re getting one of the two best braking setups whether you go for R8000 or R9100. Dura Ace wins by a nose.
Braking is still for quitters.
Now we're getting into the truly consequential discussions.
I’ve been insisting that the R8000 looks better but I’ve changed my tune after spending some time with the R9100. Early photos made the R9100 look much glossier than it does up close. It looked a little plasticky for my taste but in the real world it’s much more nuanced, with a subtle grey-to-black fade. It looks delicious.
Other than the finish, components look very similar with only subtle differences. Both have the pointy Shadow design pillaged from Shimano’s MTB division. Dura Ace gives up a tidier and more compact front derailleur but both rear derailleurs looks near-identical. Shifters are only distinguishable by their badges and slightly different texturing on the hoods.
The 9000 series Dura Ace was one of the best looking groupsets ever made so the new generations have a tough act to follow. Only time will tell if R9100/R8000 are remembered so favourably but I like both of them. For sure, R8000 looks faaaaar better than the 6800 series.
So I’ve changed my tune. The R9100 is the more aesthetically appealing groupset. Really, that should be the end. But nah, you should probably care about other stuff. I guess.
Blindfolded, the ergonomics are almost identical. The brake lever fits the hand nicely and its shaping means it’s easily reached on the drops. Shimano took a big step forwards with lever ergonomics in this generation and came closer to Campagnolo’s ergonomic brilliance, and stretched further away from SRAM.
The only notable difference is the shift lever is carbon, and slightly more sculpted on the R9100. Ultegra is ever-so-slightly less smooth and has more pronounced edges to the rubber hoods as well. Other than those small differences, Shimano has done very well in both groupsets.
Ultegra R8000 costs about half of what Dura Ace R9100 does for the full groupset depending on where you buy. After some scratching around online, R8000 can be bought commonly for $800-$1,000 and R9100 will run $1700-$2,000. It'll cost more from brick-and-mortar stores but the gap should be similar. That exceptional value is what makes Ultegra so damn popular. It’s half the price for a groupset that looks, feels, and functions almost the same.
Think of what you could do with the extra money if you buy Ultegra! You could own many copies of Coolio's cookbook. Go on.... click the link...
SO WHAT DO YOU BUY?
Sensible people should buy Ultegra but we certainly won’t blame anyone for dropping the extra dollarydoos on R9100. It’s a truly fantastic mechanical groupset that shifts, stops, and looks the business. The same can be said of Ultegra. Adjusting for price there’s a strong argument that the R8000 is the better offering.
Good news for you, there are no wrong answers here. You'll love either of them. Just make sure you ride them*.
*After you've whipped up some delicious treats from Cookin' With Coolio...