Mugen

One of the very best and easiest upgrades you can make to your PC is to upgrade its cooling, and this guide lists all of the very best CPU coolers and case fans we've tested over many years of reviews and model PC builds. Over the years, we've benchmarked nearly 40 different cooler models, and tested even more fans, so we have a pretty good sense of what's on the market!

For Fall 2019, this guide lists not only our very favorite coolers from low-profile to big air to liquid, but also our favorite case fans for every application. In all, we list 8 coolers (5 air and 3 liquid), our favorite thermal paste, and the best 4 fan picks on the market. 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!

Let's start with the coolers. There's nothing that says "custom PC" like a sweet hunk of metal or a liquid cooling loop looking back at you every time you pop open your machine (or better yet, every time you look at it through a sleek tempered glass side panel!). 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! Here are a couple of 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, and among tower coolers, 140mm-class towers will almost always outperform 120mm-class models. With that said, we've seen a huge improvement in 120mm coolers over the past year, and we no longer recommend 140mm coolers due to their case fitment issues. The industry standard for cooler clearance is right around 160mm, which will limit you to 120mm-class coolers.
  2. Modern liquid coolers will always outperform air coolers, even at the same price, at the expense of a bit more idle noise due to their always-on pumps. We get a lot of questions about leaks and reliability, and the truth is that these have been pretty well vetted over the years, and we're not concerned about liquid coolers over the long haul.

Noctua 140mm

What about fans? Well, two rules of thumb:

  1. The quality of the fan bearings has a lot to do with the overall user experience; standard sleeve bearings always sound rougher than fluid dynamic (or "hydraulic") bearings.
  2. Just like with coolers, when all else is equal, larger fans like the 140mm Noctua model shown here provide more cooling performance at lower RPMs (and noise) than smaller fans, like 120mm or 92mm models. At the same time, they have much more limited applications.

By the way, unlike a lot of other categories of PC components, CPU coolers and case fans can be used in multiple systems over time, making them a very good place to invest in the best you can afford. With that said, while larger coolers generally perform better, you quickly run into clearance issues with RAM and video cards when using air coolers, and roof-mounting space for liquid coolers. So focus on quality rather than size - that's what we do in this guide!

CPU Coolers and Case Fans - Fall 2019

Coolers

    CPU Cooler:

    Noctua NH-L9i

    We start with an excellent low-profile model from Noctua. At just 37mm high, it can fit in absolutely 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 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 NH-L9i. In our Low-Profile CPU Cooler Shootout, it came away a clear winner thanks to its combination of ultra-low-noise and better performance than the stock Intel heatsink. That's a win-win.

    The Guru's Tip:

    Note that while nearly every Noctua has recently been updated to include AM4 brackets, the NH-L9 actually requires a different layout for use with AMD sockets, so you'll need to make sure to buy an AMD version if you have an AMD processor. The NH-L9a for older AM3 platforms has been discontinued, but the newer NH-L9a-AM4 edition is a perfect match for modern Ryzen- or Athlon-based PCs.

    CPU Cooler:

    ARCTIC Freezer 34 eSports DUO White

    Anyone looking for a great, inexpensive upgrade from stock cooling should look no further than the Arctic Freezer 34. Featuring two ultra-quiet 120mm fans that uses fluid dynamic bearings, along with both Intel and AMD AM4 brackets right in the box, it's the best cooler you'll find for under $40. Note that you can of course use this cooler with one fan and mount the second fan as an upgrade for your case, giving you a two-for-one buy!

    The Guru's Tip:

    We know some readers are probably wondering where the Cooler Master Hyper 212 Evo is. Well, despite being the best-selling CPU cooler for over 10 years running, it's terrible. The fact that the Hyper 212 has been on the market in one form or another for that long should be your clue that better products have hit the market in the meantime!

    CPU Cooler:

    Scythe Mugen 5 Rev. B

    Looking for an ultra-quiet cooler that still packs a punch? Go for the the Mugen 5 Rev. B. Its amazing Kaze Flex 120mm fan with fluid dynamic bearings is among the very best fans in the business, providing ample airflow and silent operation. Even better, the Mugen 5 will work in nearly any PC, thanks to an offset that provide 100% compatibility with any RAM, and a height of just 155mm. And good news for AMD owners: it has an AM4 bracket right in the box!

    The Guru's Tip:

    Learn more about this awesome cooler in our full shootout review.

    CPU Cooler:

    Noctua NH-L12S

    If your PC requires a low-profile cooler and has at least 70mm of clearance, you simply can't do better than Noctua's NH-L12S. It's ultra-quiet, incredibly easy to install, and will fit over RAM heatsinks as long as they're under 35mm, which includes Corsair's best-selling Vengeance LPX line.

    The Guru's Tip:

    Learn why this is the very best low-profile cooler on the market in our full shootout review!

    CPU Cooler:

    Scythe Fuma 2

    Long-time cooler manufacturer Scythe is back with a vengeance in the form of the new Fuma 2. The original Fuma was already an amazing performer, as we found in our shootout review, but it posed some installation challenges, and it was a bit loud. Scythe went back to the drawing board and fixed everything! It's easier to install, much quieter (thank to an upgrade to dual Kaze Flex fans), and will fit around any RAM, no matter how high, thanks to an offset design. And because it's just 155mm tall, it will fit in nearly every ATX case on the market. How's that for compatibility?!?!

    The Guru's Tip:

    From our point of view, this is simply the best air cooler on the market, bar none. Yes, there are much more expensive models out there, but no, they don't perform as well as the Fuma 2.

    CPU Cooler:

    Corsair Hydro Series H60 2018

    If you want extreme cooling in a compact package, you want to go with water. And the very best compact liquid cooler is the H60 from Corsair. While it borrows the same name as its many predecessors, it was completely redesigned in 2018, offering quieter operation, sleeker styling, an AM4 bracket, and cool white LED lighting. It also happens to outperform every single air cooler on the market, including ones that cost quite a bit more.

    The Guru's Tip:

    Want to learn more about this cooler? Read our full review! It actually significantly outperforms the Noctua NH-U14S listed above, and can fit in more cases, but comes with one distinct tradeoff: more noise at idle.

    CPU Cooler:

    Thermaltake Water 3.0 ARGB 240

    Want to step into the cooling big leagues? Then go for the new Water 3.0 ARGB. This model offers awesome performance and ultra-quiet operation thanks to its two excellent hydraulic bearing-equipped 120mm fans. But you're also getting the sweet aesthetics of a full addressable RGB system.

    The Guru's Tip:

    Unlike nearly every other RGB cooler on the market, this one syncs right up with the 3-pin ARGB header included on most high-end motherboards, but it also has a breakout box for use in legacy systems.

    CPU Cooler:

    Thermaltake Water 3.0 360 ARGB

    Thermaltake is forging ahead as its competitors get left behind in the cooler business. This awesome model uses a 360mm radiator for massive cooling potential, and features not only three awesome Thermaltake ARGB Sync 120mm fans, but also an ARGB pump cover. It's seriously the best-looking cooler out there. Learn more in our hands-on review!

    The Guru's Tip:

    Unlike nearly every other RGB cooler on the market, this one syncs right up with the 3-pin ARGB header included on most high-end motherboards, but it also has a breakout box for use in legacy systems.

    Thermal Paste:

    Noctua NT-H2 3.5g

    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. Our recommendation: Noctua's new-for-2019 NT-H2, the best TIM on the market. It even includes 3 alcohol wipes for easy removal of existing paste!

    The Guru's Tip:

    Have a lot of coolers to install? Then go for the big 10g tube of NT-H2, which comes with 10 alchohol cleaning wipes, appropriately enough!

Fans

    Fan:

    Noctua NF-S12B redux-1200 PWM

    Want to silence your noisy case? Look no further than the excellent NF-S12B redux from Noctua. It offers Noctua's legendary quality and design ingenuity, yet comes in at a mainstream price by dropping the accessory package that the "beige" Noctua fans include. Great side benefit: the color is a lot cooler!

    The Guru's Tip:

    Note that this is specifically our choice for cases, due to the low 1200RPM rating and airflow-optimized fan blades. If you want a fan to upgrade your cooler, you'll want a higher-RPM fan with a blade designed for high resistance, namely the Noctua NF-P12 redux-1700!

    Fan:

    Noctua NF-A12x15 PWM

    Need the best slim fan in the business? Skip all the ones you've read about in forums dating back ten years ago and step up to the best ever made: the NF-A12x15, a 15mm-thick, 120mm-class wunderkind. Released in late-2017 after years of painstaking research and development, it's vastly superior to any other slim fan, thanks to its use of a metal hub and exclusive SS02 hydraulic bearing. All other slim fans use scratchy-sounding sleeve or ball bearings, because no one else has the expertise to slim down a hydraulic bearing like Noctua does.

    The Guru's Tip:

    While this is Noctua's best slim 120mm fan, Noctua's very best 120mm fan is the exquisitely-engineered NF-A12x25 (the 25 signifying a 25mm thickness). There's no doubt it's the best 120mm fan on the market, but in our opinion, it's just a bit too expensive - if you're spending this much on a fan, we hope you have space for a 140mm model, like the one below!

    Fan:

    Noctua NF-A14 PWM chromax.black.swap

    Best 140mm fan, bar none. If you have a high-end case that can fit 140mm fans, jump straight into a chromax.black.swap. Combining Noctua's unbeaten performance with a striking new style, it's the only high-end fan to consider.

    The Guru's Tip:

    This fan comes with an awesome accessory package. The fan has an ultra-short pre-installed power cable, perfect for use with rear case placements or 140mm-class coolers, but includes an extension cable plus a low-noise adapter, to tailor it to any scenario.

    Fan:

    Thermaltake Pure 12 ARGB 5V Sync Fan 3 Pack

    Need to add a healthy dose of awesomeness to your gaming rig? Look no further than this affordable 3-pack of high-quality ARGB fans, which happen to be the best ARGB fans on the market. Designed to daisy chain together for use with motherboard 3-pin ARGB headers, these fans provide an awesome light show, including options for lighting in series (they'll rainbow in succession, rather than in unison, which is a very cool look). Thermaltake didn't skimp on performance either with these fans: they use hydraulic bearings for low noise and an extended lifespan. Learn more in our hands-on review.

    The Guru's Tip:

    Thermaltake now offers this kit in a 140mm version, which is perhaps an even better value given the performance on offer!