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 Winter 2018, we've updated this guide yet again, featuring our top 10 favorite coolers on the market. Over the years, we've tested more than three dozen coolers, so we have a pretty good sense of what's hot and what's cool, if you know what we mean! You can learn more about the various models we've surveyed in our broad catalog of CPU Cooler Reviews. The newest additions come from Noctua and Scythe on the air side, and Thermaltake and Cooler Master on the liquid side. These companies are really leaving their competitors behind in terms performance in their respective categories. We're particulary impressed with Thermaltake's latest entries in the liquid cooler market, which are much quieter than previous-gen coolers, including models from its arch-rival Corsair, and they look a lot better too!

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 and video cards when using air coolers, and roof-mounting space for liquid coolers.
  5. Coolers taller than 160mm will be unlikely to fit in a lot of mid-sized cases, and all coolers using 140mm fans are taller than 160mm.

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 newest, best kid on the block, Grizzly Kryonaut. 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 - Winter 2018

    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:

    Cryorig H7

    The very best cooler under $40. That's what you're getting in the Cryorig C7. It's compact yet very powerful, and is also amazingly-easy to install (as in the easiest on the market!). And thanks to its very high-quality fluid dynamic bearings, the included fan is virtually silent. Another great feature is its offset design, which allows it to be used on ITX motherboards and systems with tall RAM. Learn more about it in our recent 120mm cooler comparison review!

    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. Please don't buy it.

    CPU Cooler:

    Cryorig H5 Ultimate

    Do you want to go big without spending a ton of money? Then Cryorig has the cooler for you! Featuring a huge 140mm fan to provide fantastic cooling at ultra-low RPMs, this cooler will seriously outperform nearly any 120mm-based model despite a very similar price. Cryorig may be a relatively new name in coolers, but it's taking the industry by storm!

    The Guru's Tip:

    Just note that this cooler is 163mm tall, which means you need a fairly large case to use it, and it may also block the first RAM slot depending on the height of your RAM heatsinks

    CPU Cooler:

    Scythe Mugen 5 Rev. B

    Scythe has been absent from the cooler market for a while, but it's back with a vengeance in the form of the Mugen, the best all-around 120mm cooler on the market. Offering fantastic RAM clearance, a moderate height of 155mm, and a well-designed mounting system, it can be installed in practically any standard desktop. And thanks to its ultra-premium Kaze Flex fan, it's incredibly quiet.

    The Guru's Tip:

    See how well this cooler performs, check it out in our huge CPU cooler roundup!

    CPU Cooler:

    Noctua NH-L12S

    If your compact PC has at least 70mm of clearance for a cooler, you can't do better than Noctua's new-for-2017 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. See how it compares to the "big guns" in our latest CPU cooler roundup!

    The Guru's Tip:

    This is Noctua's first new cooler since 2015, and the only one to include both Intel and AMD AM4 brackets right in the box!

    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:

    Cooler Master Masterliquid 240

    Cooler Master is on a mission to totally disrupt the cooler market by offering premium liquid coolers for the price of an air cooler. The Masterliquid 240 offers better performance than any air cooler on the market - just check out our benchmarks for the proof!

    The Guru's Tip:

    If this is so cheap and so effective, why don't we recommend it to everyone? Well, for starters, some people just don't like the idea of liquid in their PCs. And secondly, installing a liquid cooler is much more involved than installing a good air cooler.

    CPU Cooler:

    Thermaltake WATER 3.0 Riing RGB 240

    Want to get your feet wet with liquid cooling (figuratively, not literally!)? There's no better place to start than the awesome Water 3.0 Riing RGB 240. This model offers awesome performance and ultra-quiet operation, along with unique aesthetics thanks to its patented Riing RGB fans.

    The Guru's Tip:

    We tested the larger version of this cooler in our recent liquid cooler shootout, and it was simply unbeatable in terms of its performance-to-noise ratio.

    CPU Cooler:

    Thermaltake Floe Dual Riing RGB 280

    Thermaltake is forging ahead as its competitors get left behind in the cooler business. This awesome model uses a 280mm radiator for massive cooling potential, and features not only two awesome Thermaltake Riing 140mm fans, but also an RGB pump cover, which is unique to the "Floe" model. It's seriously the best-looking cooler out there, and based on our testing of the Riing 140mm fans in multiple reviews, we can assure you that these fans are incredibly quiet.

    The Guru's Tip:

    We used to recommend Corsair coolers in this guide, but given that Corsair hasn't introduced a new cooler in nearly 3 years, we're guessing it's leaving the cooler business behind. Honestly, we can tell you its coolers are now far outclassed by Thermaltake's new models based on our testing.

    CPU Cooler:

    Thermaltake Floe Triple Riing RGB 360

    For extreme cooling needs, step up to this big 360mm model from Thermaltake. Featuring the same basic design as the Floe 240 above, you get a longer radiator, along with three 120mm fans, rather than two 140mm fans.

    The Guru's Tip:

    Most cases that have room for a 240mm radiator will also have space for a 360mm radiator, but check your case's specs to make sure.