The Contenders

Introduction

For the past few years, The Tech Buyer's Guru has been on a quest to find the very best CPU coolers on the market at every price point, and in every form factor. In mid-2015, we published a comprehensive guide to CPU coolers, benchmarking six coolers featuring vastly different designs, from a low-profile 92mm model to a dual 120mm liquid cooler, using Intel's Core i7-4770K as the test platform. That overview set the stage for many articles to follow. First we conducted a comprehensive shootout among high-end coolers, starting at $50 and going up over $100, using the hexa-core Intel Core i7-5820K as the test platform. And then in mid-2016, we published a review of five 140mm CPU coolers using the Core i7-6700K as the test CPU. Finally, in late-2016, we published a shootout comparing a number of low-profile coolers, using the Core i5-6600K and an ITX motherboard as the test platform. That means we have just one major category of coolers to cover, mainstream 120mm coolers, and that's what you're going to read about today.

Now, we want to make clear that we approach CPU cooler reviews very differently than just about every other PC review site out there. First of all, we no longer do one-off reviews, because we just don't find them that interesting or informative to read (or to write). Second, we don't use the same old platform month after month, year after year, because you know what... cooling a Core 2 Quad or a Core i7-920 is a whole lot different than cooling a Core i7-7700K. And while this comes at the expense of cross-article comparisons, we make up for that by always giving you a look at a wide array of coolers all at once. That means they're all tested on the same platform, under the same conditions, and in the same timeframe, so we can honestly compare not just the numbers, but the user experience.

We've built up enough trust among CPU cooler manufacturers that most of them are more than eager to provide test samples, and we're more than eager to consider their latest offerings. Here are the five coolers we're testing, along with their retail prices as of our publication date:

  1. Arctic Freezer i32 - $30 (special thanks to Arctic for providing this review sample)
  2. Cryorig H7 - $35 (special thanks to Cryorig for providing this review sample)
  3. SilverStone AR07 - $28 (special thanks to SilverStone for providing this review sample)
  4. Noctua NH-U12S - $58 (special thanks to Noctua for providing this review sample)
  5. Reeven Hans - $29 (special thanks to Reeven for providing this review sample)

The Coolers

The names Arctic and Noctua should be well-known to just about anyone who's followed the PC industry over the past decade. These two European-based companies (Arctic is Swiss, Noctua is Austrian) have developed a reputation for both performance and reliability. Cryorig and Reeven are newcomers to the field, and both being based in Taiwan have access to the latest manufacturing tech (coolers and fans are actually manufactured in Taiwan).

Finally, we have SilverStone, which is the only company represented that's really a full-range manufacturer. SilverStone makes cases, power supplies, and a wide range of PC accessories, and our guess is that it has the biggest budget of any of these companies. That being said, it oddly didn't have a new 120mm cooler to submit for this shootout. Keen observers will notice that the AR07 sample we have is actually a 140mm cooler. So why did we include it in a "120mm CPU Cooler Shootout"? We decided to consider it because its size and price actually puts it in direct competition with 120mm coolers, making for an interesting comparison. We also tested it in our previous 140mm Cooler Shootout, which allows some degree of cross-comparison for shoppers deciding between these two classes of coolers. Note that it just barely squeezed into our mid-range case, and is likely the only 140mm-based cooler on the market that could do so, given that it comes in under 160mm tall. For a lot of PC builders, 140mm-class coolers just haven't been an option previously, because every other model is over 160mm tall.

Now, we know what some of you are thinking:

But where's the Cooler Master Hyper 212 Evo? Don't you know that's the best cooler out there?!?

Yeah, we anticipated that. Well, here's the deal. We've been testing different variants of the Hyper 212 design since it was released over a decade ago, and we actually asked our contact at Cooler Master for a sample of the latest iteration, the Hyper 212X. As it turns out, Cooler Master was the only manufacturer we contacted to decline to participate in this roundup. Given that fact, we'll go ahead and speculate as to the reason: the Hyper 212 just isn't very good. Yes, the Hyper 212 Evo is, and has been, the top-selling CPU cooler for over five years, but that does not mean it's actually worth buying. And this is an important point, and one of the reasons we founded this site. A lot of products end up being recommended again and again due to word of mouth or simply because they appear on "top seller" lists. We, however, aim to give our readers facts, not feelings. While some may "feel" the Hyper 212 Evo is the benchmark among 120mm coolers, the fact is it's simply one of the cheapest coolers on the market, nothing more. Based on our previous testing (and the testing of a number of other review sites), we know it's actually one of the worst-performing 120mm coolers currently on the market, and that's because in the face of brisk sales, Cooler Master has chosen not to innovate. When it was released in 2009, the Hyper 212 Plus was actually a pretty decent pick. In today's world, we don't think anyone should bother with any of the 212 models, not only due to their tepid performance, but also because they're a pain to install, offer poor RAM compatibility, and have loud, low-quality fans.

All right, with that all clear, we can return to our regularly-scheduled program!

Test Method

Test System

As always, we benchmark coolers on the latest test platforms, meaning you know how these coolers will work on gear you're buying today. Here's the system we used to rate our contenders:

  1. CPU: Intel Core i7-7700K
  2. Motherboard: Gigabyte GA-Z270X-UD3
  3. Video Card:  EVGA GeForce GTX 1070 SC 8GB
  4. SSD #1: Samsung 850 Evo 500GB M.2
  5. SSD #2: Crucial MX300 1TB 2.5"
  6. RAM: GeIL 2x8GB Super Luce DDR4-3000
  7. Case: SilverStone RL06-Pro
  8. Power Supply: SilverStone Strider 850W Platinum
  9. Operating System: Windows 10 Flash Drive

Note that we chose to provide complete benchmarks of our CPU mostly in a stock state, with one benchmark run in an overclocked state. In the past, we've done the opposite, but as you'll see, what Intel has done with the Core i7-7700K makes cooling it a wholly-different story than cooling the previous generation of chips. Also note that while our test system, pictured above, is equipped with dual video cards, we removed the lower card (a GTX 1070 Founders Edition), because we test CPU coolers in a silent test system - all fans are off during testing. The GTX 1070 Founders Edition does not shut its fans off at idle, so we pulled it from the system for testing. Likewise, we disconnected all case fans, and our 850 Platinum-rated power supply didn't come close to needing to ramp up its fan during testing. The SilverStone RL06-Pro case we used for this test provides tremendous airflow, allowing the CPU coolers to breathe even though the case fans are off. It's a compact case, however, and officially only has clearance for coolers up to 158mm tall. Our 159mm-tall SilverStone AR07, the largest cooler we tested, fit with about 1 millimeter to spare, 

In terms of fan settings, most reviews simply run fans at maximum, show the results, and on a separate page might provide noise data. Frankly, this just isn't good enough. Performance data divorced from noise data is meaningless, and it has encouraged manufacturers to "juice" the benchmarks by shipping coolers with ever-faster fans. Fast fans may increase overall performance, but they come with diminishing returns, and more importantly, deliver a serious penalty in terms of noise. Therefore we ran our coolers through two separate sets of tests. First, we ran all of our coolers with their fans set to 1000RPM, which we view as a reasonable speed for extended use. In so doing, we are putting the coolers on equal footing (assuming their fans are generally up to the task), and truly shedding light on the effectiveness of their thermodynamic design. Second, we recorded data using motherboard PWM fan controls, which is the default for most systems, and therefore likely to be the setting most commonly used by PC builders. Our custom fan profile starts ramping up at higher temperatures than standard PWM profiles, a subject we'll touch upon later in this article.

And what about the actual tests we performed? We conducted all analysis with an ambient temperature of 68°F. We use three different test scenarios to benchmark our coolers. First is idle at the desktop, where we report the minimum over a five-minute span (minor OS operations can spike temperatures momentarily, but these spikes can safely be ignored). Second is load in the CPU-z built-in benchmark, where we report the maximum at the point where thermal equilibrium is achieved. The third is Intel Burn Test, where we report the maximum after a 10-loop run. As you'll see, each of the tests we ran demonstrates a distinct facet of cooler performance, allowing us (and you) to gain a better understanding not just of how these coolers perform, but why they perform the way they do. Temperature data are collected using the wonderful app HWMonitor.

All right, with that introduction out of the way, it's time to get into the nitty-gritty of our results, starting with a review of installation!

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