Noctua

One of the very best upgrades you can make to your PC is to install an aftermarket CPU cooler. There's nothing that says "custom PC" like a sweet hunk of metal looking back at you every time you pop open your machine (especially if that metal's attached to a set of liquid cooling hoses!). Whether you're trying to achieve lower noise, higher overclocks, or just that tricked-out look, there's a great CPU cooler out there for you, and this Buyer's Guide lists the very best of the best at every price point! And take note: we update this guide on a quarterly basis to ensure that you always get the latest and greatest gear, not the same old cooler everyone's been using for the past decade!

For Fall of 2016, we've added several new products, and removed a few as well, based on our continued hands-on testing of as many coolers as we can get our hands on. In all, we've benchmarked nearly two dozen coolerse, which you can see in our Complete Guide to CPU Coolers, and along with our ever-expanding catalog of CPU Cooler Reviews. Here are a few tips we've put together based on all of our testing:

  1. Tower-style coolers will always outperform equivalent downdraft coolers of the same price/size.
  2. All else being equal, larger fans provide more cooling performance at lower RPMs (and noise).
  3. The quality of the fan bearings has a lot to do with the overall user experience; standard sleeve bearings can often sound rougher than fluid-based bearings.
  4. Larger coolers generally perform better, but you quickly run into clearance issues with RAM, video cards, and even the side panel of your case, so bigger isn't always better!
  5. Coolers taller than 160mm will be unlikely to fit in a lot of mid-sized cases, and nearly all coolers using 140mm fans are taller than 160mm.

Of course, the latest rage in CPU cooling is liquid cooling, and yes, it's pretty "cool," so to speak. But it's definitely not necessary for most users, and in some cases it simply doesn't make sense. The vast majority of users will never need liquid cooling, and should probably avoid it due to the more complicated installation procedure and higher noise levels (yes, we do mean higher, and it's all due to pump noise). But if you're an extreme overclocker, transport your PC frequently, or have a compact PC that can't fit a standard air cooler, liquid cooling may just be for you!).

By the way, unlike a lot of other categories of PC components, CPU coolers can be used in multiple systems over time, making them a very good place to invest in the best you can afford. And while all coolers come with thermal paste (also referred to as thermal interface material or "TIM"), you might want to consider investing in really good paste as well, since you probably won't want to change it all that often. The three best products in terms of performance, usability, and longevity are Gelid GC-Extreme, Noctua NT-H1, and Arctic MX-4. Which product doesn't make the list? Arctic Silver 5. Despite outselling all other TIMs combined, it is, in a word, garbage. Do us a favor and don't buy it when it pops up as a recommended product at checkout!

CPU Coolers - Fall 2016

    CPU Cooler:

    SilverStone AR06

    We start with an excellent low-profile model from SilverStone. It's just 58mm high, meaning it can fit in nearly any PC. This is the one and only aftermarket cooler that we feel comfortable recommending to any PC user, for the simple reason that it will fit almost everywhere the stock Intel cooler will work. While there are more powerful low-profile coolers out there, they are often taller or wider than the AR06, which is 92mm wide and 105mm long (including heatpipes). In our recent Low-Profile CPU Cooler Shootout, it came away a clear winner.

    The Guru's Tip:

    If your case doesn't have the headroom for this cooler, we have to be honest with you: just stick with the stock Intel or AMD coolers you're using. Ultra-short aftermarket coolers aren't worth upgrading to, as they perform no better than the reference coolers.

    CPU Cooler:

    Arctic Freezer i32

    The very best cooler under $50. That's what you're getting in the new Freezer i32. It's compact yet very powerful, and is also quite easy to install. And because it's the first cooler on the market to come equipped with a fan that shuts off at idle, it is literally silent almost all of the time! Another great thing about the i32 is that it comes with a sample of our favorite thermal paste, Arctic MX-4. And amazingly, this cooler is just 150mm tall, meaning it can fit in almost any ATX or mATX case!

    The Guru's Tip:

    Yes, we know a lot of readers are probably saying "but where's the Cooler Master Hyper 212 Evo"? Yes, we've used it before, and yes, we know it's the #1 selling CPU cooler in the world. But the honest truth is that's it's just not that good, and in fact has one of the worst stock fans we've ever come across on an aftermarket cooler. Given how vastly superior the Arctic Freezer i32 is in terms of both thermals and noise, there's no longer any reason to buy the 212 Evo. Just save up a few more dollars and get the i32.

    CPU Cooler:

    Thermalright Macho Rev. B

    Do you want to go big without spending a ton of money? Then Thermalright has the cooler for you! Featuring a huge 140mm fan to provide fantastic cooling at ultra-low RPMs, this cooler will seriously outperform any 120mm-based model despite a very similar price. To learn more about what makes the Macho so special, check out our 140mm CPU Cooler Shootout!

    The Guru's Tip:

    Just note that it's 162mm tall, which means you need a fairly large case to use it, and its 140mm width means it typically won't work for mATX or ITX motherboards.

  • CPU Cooler:

    Noctua NH-U14S

    In our opinion, the NH-U14S is the best all-around air cooler on the market. We've tested a bunch, and yes, there are a few air coolers with more power, but none is as elegant or efficient as the NH-U14S. It installs in minutes, does not block RAM or PCIe slots, and is incredibly quiet thanks to its ultra-high-end Noctua NF-A15 140mm fan. Of course, that big fan makes this a big cooler. At 165mm tall, it's about the tallest cooler you'll be able to fit in standard ATX cases. If you have a compact ATX case, though, chances are it simply will not work, nor is it compatible with micro ATX builds.

    The Guru's Tip:

    We're dead serious about this pick, even if Noctua would have you believe the NH-D15 or NH-D15S are better. We've tested all three, and the bigger coolers are far more expensive, much harder to install, don't fit in many cases, and don't perform significantly better. If you need more cooling power than the NH-U14S can provide, we suggest you step up to a liquid cooler. But take note - we're not talking about single-fan liquid coolers, as they won't outperform the NH-U14S despite running a lot louder. In other words, go big water, or stick with the NH-U14S!

    CPU Cooler:

    Corsair Hydro H100i v2 Liquid Cooler

    Want to get your feet wet with liquid cooling (figuratively, not literally!)? There's no better place to start than the awesome H100i v2 from Corsair. It's not only one of the best 240mm coolers on the market, it's also one of the least expensive. Note that "240mm" refers to the width of the radiator, and is short-hand for a cooler with dual 120mm fans. Most modern cases have space for at least one cooler of this size. It will vastly outperform any air cooler, as well as all single-fan liquid coolers, many of which cost nearly as much. And unlike 280mm-based coolers, this one will fit in just about any modern case. Learn more about the H100i v2 in our hands-on review.

    The Guru's Tip:

    The only time we recommend a single-fan liquid cooler, such as the bargain-priced Corsair H60, is in compact systems that cannot fit either a high-end air cooler or the H100i GTX. That's because single-fan liquid coolers perform worse than our top air cooler and dual-fan liquid cooler picks.

    CPU Cooler:

    Corsair Hydro H115i Liquid Cooler

    Corsair has offered the best ultra-high-end coolers since the moment it entered the market, and the new H115i is its crowning achievement. Combining twin 140mm fans running at up to 2000RPM, an ultra-efficient 26mm-thick radiator, and the ultimate in customized controls, the H115i provides extreme cooling capability along with an excellent acoustic profile. Despite costing just a few dollars more than the H110i v2, the H115i is significantly better.

    The Guru's Tip:

    So what's the catch?  Why would you ever go with the H100i over the H115i? Well, at 280mm long and 140mm wide, the H115i is too large for many cases. Make sure your case is compatible with 280mm radiators before choosing this model. Unfortunately, many cases will require you to mount a 280mm cooler on the front panel rather than the top, which isn't optimal for thermal management.

    CPU Cooler:

    Swiftech H320 X2 Liquid CPU Cooler

    If extreme simply isn't good enough, then step up to the mind-bending H320 X2. It comes from Swiftech, which is well-known in custom-cooling circles for its huge range of high-end cooling components. Well, Swiftech has brought all of its best gear together in the H320 X2, including three high-pressure 120mm fans and its Apogee XL2 waterblock.

    The Guru's Tip:

    The real benefit of moving up this cooler is its ability to deliver top-notch performance with very low noise levels.