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 (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! 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 our top 10 list yet again, based on new product releases, pricing, and availability. Over the years, we've published reviews on more than 30 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

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), but coolers taller than 160mm will be unlikely to fit in a lot of mid-sized cases, and all air coolers using 140mm fans are taller than 160mm.
  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 dynamic (or "hydraulic") 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. There's no reason to buy more cooling than you need if it's going to cause installation headaches.
  5. Modern liquid coolers will always out-perform air coolers, even at the same price, at the expense of a bit more idle noise due to their always-on pumps.

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 the 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 2019

    CPU Cooler:

    Noctua NH-L9i

    We start with an excellent low-profile model from Noctua . It's just 37mm high, meaning 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 recent 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 the AMD version of this cooler is a separate model, two in fact. The discontinued NH-L9a for older AM3 platforms, and the new NH-L9a-AM4 edition for modern Ryzen-based PCs.

    CPU Cooler:

    Arctic Freezer 33

    Anyone looking for a great, inexpensive upgrade from stock cooling should look no further than the Arctic Freezer 33. Featuring an ultra-quiet 120mm fan 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 $30.

    The Guru's Tip:

    We know a lot of our readers are wondering where the Cooler Master Hyper 212 Evo is. Well, despite being the best-selling CPU cooler for about 10 years running, it's pretty 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

    With the Mugen 5 Rev. B, Scythe has created a monster cooler that amazingly will fit in nearly any system. It's offset to provide 100% compatibility with any RAM, and at just 155mm tall, it can fit in just about any mainstream case. And thanks to the amazing Kaze Flex 120mm fan with a fluid dynamic bearing, it's practically silent. 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. See how it compares to the "big guns" in our most recent CPU cooler roundup! We know a lot of folks are interested in the older Scythe Big Shuriken 2, but honestly, the NH-L12S is just leagues ahead of it.

    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:

    Thermalright Macho Rev. B

    The Macho is the last of the "big block" coolers, offering massive cooling capability thanks to its monstrous heatsink and large 140mm fan. It makes no concessions to practicality, though, as it's pretty tough to install, won't fit in most mid-size cases (it's 162mm tall), and doesn't include an AMD AM4 bracket. But in terms of performance per dollar, it's never been topped.

    The Guru's Tip:

    Read more about the Macho in our 140mm cooler shootout.

    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, like the ones below.

    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. For that reason, we don't recommend any air coolers above the H60's pricepoint.

    The Guru's Tip:

    Want to learn more about this cooler? Read our full review! It will significantly outperform the Noctua NH-U14S listed above, and can fit in more cases, but comes with the tradeoff of more noise.

    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. And after a recent price cut, it's a simply exceptional deal!

    The Guru's Tip:

    We tested the larger version of this cooler in our liquid cooler shootout, and it was 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 Plus addressable RGB 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:

    This cooler comes with a breakout controller box to control its RGB effects.

    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 280 above, you get a longer radiator, along with three 120mm fans, rather than two 140mm fans.

    The Guru's Tip:

    This cooler will work in a number of cases that the Floe 280 won't, due to its narrower width of 120mm, while performing a bit better. The extra width of the 280 (which is 140mm wide) makes it impossible to install in cases designed around 120mm fans.