So, we said at the beginning that we were going to choose a winner, and indeed we are. And it's going to be tough, because we're trying to balance four factors here: price, cooling performance, noise levels, and ease of use. And in fact there's a fifth dimension, believe it or not: form factor. But that's a hard one for us to judge, because it's entirely dependent on the case you use. So right off the bat, we're going to knock out of contention the Noctua NH-C14S, which retails for $80, the highest price of all our entrants. The performance just isn't there, and because this is still a very large cooler, there are very few scenarios where you'll be able to fit it but not a tower-style cooler. Perhaps it's a good pick for users with narrow ATX and mATX cases (i.e., with cooler clearance under 160mm) that still want very low noise levels. Too bad about that price, though, as we're pretty certain that many 120mm-based tower coolers will outperform it for less. Update: Noctua came back to us after this review was published and suggested that perhaps there was something wrong with this sample, as it should perform similarly to the NH-U14S. In our opinion, it worked exactly as it was designed to work. It might perform well on an open bench, but in an actual computer case, this style of cooler became obsolete a long time ago.
Moving on, we're going to have to kick the $40 SilverStone AR07 to the curb. We applaud SilverStone's efforts to bring 140mm coolers down to the price of many mainstream 120mm coolers, but the AR07 has a few too many issues. We already mentioned the difficult installation process. We also hinted at another issue early on, and now we'll get right to it: the direct heat pipe design that it uses, which was popularized by the top-selling but low-end Cooler Master Hyper 212 Evo, released way back in 2011, simply doesn't work on the AR07. With just three heatpipes spread across a huge contact area, the AR07 falls flat on its face. In fact, only two of the heatpipes actually made contact with our Core i7-6700K's heat spreader, which ended up being a huge handicap for the AR07. And while one could make the argument that the large contact area of the AR07 makes it ideal for big CPUs like Intel's Haswell-E, one could also make the better argument that the cooler is far too mediocre to bother using on such high-powered CPUs. Oh well, back to the drawing board for SilverStone.
Next, we get to the Thermalright Macho Rev. B, which at $53 offers an amazing combination of price, performance, and moderate noise levels. But it's not our winner for two reasons. First, its fan is clearly of lower quality than those of the top models in our roundup, with a rough bearing sound that isn't quite picked up in our sound meter test but can clearly be distinguished by the human ear. Second, it's just an absolute pain to install. But, if you're looking for the bang-for-the-buck champion, especially for a PC used for typical high-load applications rather than competitive overclocking and stress testing, this is absolutely the one.
Our runner-up was a complete unknown to us when we began our testing, but boy did it prove itself worthy of this competition. The Reeven Ouranos, which retails for $49 and is currently only available in the U.S. via Newegg, is a promising new entry in a crowded market. It's relatively easy to install, looks absolutely fantastic, and achieves a very fine balance of performance and noise levels. We think Reeven is pushing its luck shipping the Ouranos with a fan that spins up to 1700RPM, but at least it includes an in-line low-voltage adapter for those who won't be taming this beast with motherboard controls. In fact, we had to use these adapters to get our motherboard to bring the Ouranos down to 600RPM in our dual-fan testing. Luckily, despite its high maximum RPM, this Coldwing 14 fan has a very docile nature, with a noise signature befitting of a high-end cooler. Alas, due to limited availability and performance that was great but not chart-topping, it isn't quite our winner.
In the end, our top pick is the amazing Noctua NH-U14S, which won our previous round-up, and has since dropped in price to $70, making it even more attractive. It's the total package, providing a fantastic manual and accessory bundle (including a tube of NT-H1 Thermal Paste), a truly exceptional mounting system, great performance, and ultra-low-noise operation.
Now, we'll admit that the NH-U14S didn't ace every performance test, but remember what we said early on: Skylake processors just don't run all that hot. So if you're going to bother with an aftermarket cooler, why not choose the one that installs in minutes, runs silently, and offers excellent all-around performance?
That's all for now, but this isn't the end of our CPU cooler coverage. To browse our top CPU Cooler picks at every price point, check out our CPU Cooler Buyer's Guide, updated quarterly!