Best CPU Cooler

One of the most cost effective and easiest modifications 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 cooler reviews. During that time, we've benchmarked well over 45 different coolers, and recently published some of the most comprehensive case fan and cooler fan shootouts on the 'net. So we have a pretty good sense of what's on the market!

For Winter 2021, this guide lists the top seven coolers at every pricepoint (5 air and 2 liquid), our favorite thermal paste, and the best 5 fans on the market, with specific recommendations for cases and coolers. 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we update this guide on a quarterly basis to ensure that you always get the latest and greatest gear, not the same outdated coolers and fans that everyone's been using for the past decade!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 for most users due to their case fitment issues. The industry standard for cooler clearance is right around 160mm, which limits you to 120mm-class coolers.
  2. Liquid coolers have two distinct applications where the excel: using 120mm models, like the one pictured above, to provide excellent cooling where no tower cooler can fit, and using higher-powered models with large radiators to exceed the performance of any air cooler. You don't necessarily get more cooling per dollar with liquid coolers, but you do bend the rules, so to speak, by hitting performance levels that aren't possible with air coolers. 

Best case fan

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. As with coolers, bigger typically is better. 140mm fans are almost guaranteed to provide more cooling at the same noise levels than 120mm fans, but there are exceptions. We've performed the most in-depth case cooling optimization analysis on the 'net, which you can see here
  3. A fan is about far more than the silly airflow and static pressure metrics that you find in marketing materials. People who rely on this nonsense to choose their fans are fooling themselves, as is anyone who believes all a fan needs to do is move air. That is simply not true, and fans can move air in very distinct ways, some more effective than others. Our extensive testing, which we believe to be the most comprehensive on the 'net, has shown that most fans that are especially good at one task (like producing case airflow) often aren't that good in static pressure applications (like on a radiator). 

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! If you decide to purchase one of the options listed below, please use the links we provide, which helps support further development of this guide and the extensive testing that backs up our picks!

CPU Coolers and System Fans - Winter 2021

Coolers

  • CPU Cooler:

    Scythe Shuriken 2

    We start with an excellent low-profile model from Scythe. At just 58mm high, it can fit in almost any PC. While there are more powerful low-profile coolers out there, they are often taller or wider, and almost all block the RAM slots, requiring the use of special low-profile RAM. In our ultra-low-Profile CPU Cooler Shootout, it came away a winner thanks to offering better performance at the same noise level as the stock AMD heatsink, and much more cooling capacity at maximum RPM. And it's without question far superior to the stock Intel heatsink.

    The Guru's Tip:

    If you need the shortest cooler possible that still offers decent performance, go for the 37mm-tall Noctua NH-L9a-AM4. It's ideal for ultra-small form factor systems, but the Shuriken 2 definitely outperforms it thanks to being 21mm taller.

  • 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 tall, 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:

    ARCTIC Freezer 34 eSports DUO Black/White

    Looking for a quiet cooler that still packs a punch? Go for the Arctic Freezer 34 eSports Duo, which not only performs well, it also looks awesome, thanks to the striking white-on-black design. It's the best cooler under $50.

    The Guru's Tip:

    Note that this model is extremely popular and often sells out, so you may also want to consider other colors available on the same product page.

  • 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! The Fuma 2 is 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:

    Learn more about what makes this the best all-around cooler on the planet in our full shootout review!

  • CPU Cooler:

    NOCTUA NH-D15 chromax.Black

    Noctua has always dominated when it comes to air-based cooling performance, and if you want nothing but the very best in high-powered air cooling, you want the NH-D15. The latest chromax.Black edition of course comes in all-black, which means you don't have to make excuses for Noctua's odd beige color schemes anymore!

    The Guru's Tip:

    This model will block the RAM slots, so unless you're using low-profile RAM, you'll need to raise the front fan, making the cooler effectively taller than its 165mm spec would suggest. Factor that in when determining if it will fit in your case.

  • CPU Cooler:

    SilverStone PF120-ARGB

    If you want extreme cooling in a compact package, you want to go with liquid. While this featherweight cooler can't beat big towers, it can go places that even smaller towers can't possibly fit, and for many small form factor systems, the PF120 is going to be the best cooler you can possibly use. And thanks to the ARGB effects, it also looks great! Learn more in our full review!

    The Guru's Tip:

    We strongly recommend you pick up a tube of Noctua NT-H2 thermal paste to get the most out of this cooler. The stock paste just isn't that good or easy to apply.

  • CPU Cooler:

    Deepcool Castle 360EX @Newegg

    For a hot-running processor, you need serious cooling, and this 360mm liquid cooler from Deepcool has what it takes. Offering up tremendous performance at reasonable noise levels, along with very classy looks, it's a winner in all regards!

    The Guru's Tip:

    In our testing, we've found that the 280mm and 360mm versions of this cooler perform identically, so if the roof of your case can fit 280mm but not 360mm rads, go for the 280mm model.

  • 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 NT-H2, among the best TIMs on the market. It's the easiest to apply, needs no break-in period, and even includes 3 alcohol wipes for easy removal of existing paste. It will even improve Noctua coolers, which come with the less advanced NT-H1!

    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:

    Arctic P12 PWM 120mm Fan

    Want to silence your system? Look no further than the excellent P12 PWM from Arctic. It offers fantastic performance at low noise levels, and comes in at a shockingly-low price. Plus, it's the only fan we've found that excels when used on both coolers or as a case fan. And yet Arctic just piles on the goodness by also offering this fan in a 5-pack for around $30, perfect if you want to upgrade a case and a cooler at the same time! The P12 is the best "Jack-of-all-trades" 120mm fan we've come across, and the price makes it an easy recommendation. Learn more in our full case fan shootout!

    The Guru's Tip:

    Have space for a lot of 140mm fans? Use it! Go straight for the P14 PWM PST 5-Pack! It's the best all-around fan we've ever tested.

  • Fan:

    Scythe Kaze Flex 120mm PWM

    Pronounced "Kaz-eh", Japanese for wind, the Kaze Flex proved absolutely unstoppable in our 120mm case fan shootout. It's simply the best, and comes in at a great price, much better than other fans that it can easily demolish despite its low 1200RPM rating and understated looks. Interestingly, this fan doesn't work that well on coolers, despite its inclusion on the amazing Scythe Fuma 2. That heatsink was designed around the unique properties of the Kaze Flex, but we've found it's not nearly as good on other coolers. It's really a case cooling specialist.

    The Guru's Tip:

    Have space for 140mm fans? Use it! Go for the Scythe Kaze Flex 140mm, which we found to be the best overall case fan on the market, and by far the best exhaust fan available. Of note: our testing has shown that in cases that can fit 2x140mm fans or 3x120mm fans in the front, you will be better off with 3x120mm if you're using a high-TDP video card.

  • Fan:

    Noctua NF-A12x25

    We've been doing a lot of fan testing lately, and the NF-A12x25 has been included in every single one of those tests, specifically because of its reputation as the best fan on the market. Well, we can definitively tell you two things: (1) it's the best fan if you want the absolute highest cooler or radiator performance at the lowest noise levels and (2) there is no "best fan" for everything. Simply put, the A12x25 is a mediocre case fan, and if you spend $150 filling your case with this fan thinking you are tapping into some kind of plastic gold, well, you're fooling yourself. Use this fan for coolers and nothing else... that's our sincere recommendation.

    The Guru's Tip:

    Noctua is preparing to release a black version of this fan, but it's been delayed again and again. If you want something that looks better and offers the exact same performance according to our tests, go for the Thermaltake ToughFan 12, available in a 2-pack for nearly the same price as one Noctua fan. The only issue with it is that the accessories included aren't as robust and the PWM cable is annoyingly long.

  • 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:

    Yes, this fan can even beat most full-width fans, especially when used on a cooler or radiator. Learn more in our shootout!

  • Fan:

    SilverStone AB120R-ARGB

    Need to add a healthy dose of ARGB awesomeness to your gaming rig? Look no further than this affordable yet high-quality ARGB fan. Designed to use with motherboard 3-pin ARGB headers, this fan provides an awesome light show, and can be daisy chained with additional fans to for use in series (the fans will rainbow in succession, rather than in unison, which is a very cool look). Our testing has shown that this fan is excellent for both case cooling and CPU cooler applications.

    The Guru's Tip:

    This fan does not include an ARGB controller box, so make sure your motherboard has a 3-pin ARGB header. There is no adapter for use with older 4-pin RGB headers.