In Issue #111 of Singletrack Magazine, Wil brought you his review of Shimano’s wide-range Deore XT 11-46t cassette
As rims have gotten wider and fork stanchions have gotten fatter, so too have cassette sprockets expanded. Modern wide-range cassettes have made going to a single-ring drivetrain that much easier by using larger gear sprockets on the back to reduce the need for a granny chainring up front. And while not everyone is a fan of ditching the front derailleur, there are loads of benefits to doing so. But you already know all of those, so I won’t bore you by recounting them all here.
Of course SRAM was the first to popularise the 1×11 drivetrain with the original XX1 groupset, and Shimano has been playing catchup ever since. Last year, Shimano quietly introduced a new 11-46t cassette option in the Deore XT line, creating the widest range cassette to ever come from the Japanese brand.
Then in the following month, SRAM stole all the thunder when it rolled out its new Eagle™ 12-speed drivetrain with its radical front-derailleur-killing 10-50t cassette. We’ve tested loads of Eagle™ groupsets since then (you can read the standalone SRAM XX1 Eagle review here), and they are indeed mighty impressive. And based on all the latest 1x hype, it would seem that the days of the front derailleur are indeed numbered.
Although Shimano’s latest wide-range cassette was somewhat lost in Eaglemania™, it’s actually a really important product for Shimano, and one that has proven to be a significant enhancement for its 1×11 arsenal.
Designed to suit 1×11 Shimano drivetrains, the 11-46T cassette joins the existing 11-42T and 11-40T options in the Deore XT range. Compared to the 11-42T cassette, the 11-46T cassette is identical in the first ten sprockets, which are all made of steel. The only difference is in the final alloy sprocket, which offers 46 teeth, instead of 42 teeth.
For those of you doing the maths, you’ll realise that this 418% gear range falls a bee’s dick short of SRAM’s 420% range on its current 11-speed 10-42T cassettes. It’s also a way off the mark of the Eagle™ 10-50T cassette that offers a whopping 500% range.
But is range the only factor in the performance of a cassette?
For a start, Shimano’s 11-46T cassette will slip straight onto a traditional freehub body, which is nice. SRAM achieves its massive gearing range by using a 10t small cog, but in order to fit such a small sprocket on the rear hub, it requires a specific SRAM XD freehub body to make it happen. And because Shimano won’t go down that route with its mountain bike cassettes, an 11t small sprocket is the smallest it can achieve with a regular freehub body.
Secondly, the shifting is silky smooth. As you’d expect from Shimano, the jumps from gear to gear are evenly stepped through the first half of the block, though even as the gaps open up in the latter half, and each shift is still fired off with minimal noise and minimal fuss. It’s noticeably slicker than an equivalent SRAM cassette, and this only becomes more apparent as things wear over time. Despite hundreds of kms of riding, this XT test cassette has remained quiet and smooth, with none of the ‘cracks’ or ‘bangs’ that you can occasionally get from a worn SRAM unit under load.
I was expecting there to be a lag in shift speed with the larger 46T sprocket, but my assumptions proved unfounded. At a 9t difference, that final jump is big of course, and it serves as an ideal bail-out gear for when you really have to grind into the techier climbs. But providing you have everything setup correctly, the shifting is smooth both in and out of the dinner plate, with zero hesitation from the rear mech.
Oh, and if you’re a numbers person, the ratios go like this: 11-13-15-17-19-21-24-28-32-37-46. That means the tooth differences are: 2-2-2-2-2-3-4-4-5-9. So it’s really that last gear that’s the one that sticks out.
But compared to some of the ‘expander’ and ‘booster’ cogs on the market such as those from OneUp and Wolf Tooth, the shifting is incomparable – the XT block is far, far smoother from top to bottom. Having sworn at the poor shifting from such expander cogs, I would always recommend electing for a complete cassette rather than modifying an existing one by shoving in a larger sprocket. And after all the time and effort those Japanese engineers have put into developing tooth profiles and shift ramps, how do you think they’re going to feel when you go and jam a different sprocket in there?
Coming off 11-40t and 10-42t cassettes, the biggest improvement I found with the 46T sprocket became apparent on steady half-hour long ascents. Although I had no trouble making it up the same climbs with a 42T or even a 40T low gear previously, having the 46T allows for a much gentler sit-and-spin technique that has proven to be a dramatic saver on both the knees and general fatigue. This means I’d arrive at the top of a descent a lot fresher, and ready to rip the rollercoaster ride back down. In a group ride situation, the difference is noticeable, and going back to a bike with a 42T felt like a chore.
I’ve tested the 11-46T cassette as part of a complete 1×11 Shimano Deore XT drivetrain, and have also used it with an otherwise complete SRAM GX 1×11 drivetrain. Neither SRAM or Shimano will recommend mixing and matching components, but I can confirm that SRAM 11-speed rear derailleurs have more than enough B-tension adjustment to clear the 46T sprocket. Your warranty will be void of course, so bear that in mind if you decide to go down that route.
I also tested the 11-46t cassette with the Box Components 1×11 PushPush shifter and rear derailleur. While Box Components claim its mech is compatible with up to a 46t sprocket, that derailleur did require the use of a longer B-tension screw in order to get the upper jockey wheel to clear the 46t sprocket. For more information on how that all came together, check out our review of the Box Components drivetrain.
At a not-inconsiderable 440g, the Deore XT cassette comes in about 50g heavier than a SRAM XG-1150 (10-42T) cassette. Shimano’s 11-speed cassettes have always come with a weight penalty over their SRAM equivalents, but in the case of the XT cassette, it does shift better than the pinned sprockets on the XG-1150, and it’s also £20 cheaper too. For less monies again, Shimano now offer an SLX cassette in the 11-46t ratio for £74.99.
As it stands, Shimano has finally delivered the cassette option its 1×11 drivetrains that should have come with two to three years ago. It shifts smoothly, offers excellent durability, and in my experience, works equally with Shimano and SRAM drivetrains. It doesn’t quite deliver the same range as SRAM’s 10-42t 11-speed cassettes, and it’s completely trumped by the Eagle 10-50t 12-speed cassette. But if you’re not looking to go for a full 1×12 setup, this could provide an ideal range-extending option for many existing 1×11 users. Recommended.