The Best CPU Cooler and PC Fan Buyer’s Guide – Summer 2021
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 50 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 Summer 2021, this guide lists the top eight coolers at every pricepoint, including two low-profile coolers, four towers, and two liquid models. But we didn’t stop there! We also list 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note: we update this guide on a regular basis to ensure that you always get the latest and greatest gear, not the same outdated coolers and fans that everyone’s been using for the past decade!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:
- 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.
- Liquid coolers have two distinct applications where they excel: using 120mm models to provide excellent cooling where no tower cooler can fit, and using higher-powered models with large 280mm or 360mm 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.
What about fans? Well, a few rules of thumb:
- 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.
- 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 to show you why!
- 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 effectively than others. Our extensive testing, which we believe to be the most comprehensive in the industry, 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 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!
Low-Profile CPU Cooler –
Scythe Shuriken 2$40If you want a quiet system, the best change you can make is to upgrade the CPU cooler, and this powerful model from Scythe will max out the cooling capacity of a low-profile system while minimizing noise. Learn more about this cooler in our recent low-profile cooler shootout!
While a lot of people go for the popular 37mm-tall Noctua NH-L9a-AM4, it's only ideal for ultra-small form factor systems. The Shuriken 2 vastly outperforms it thanks to being 21mm taller.
Low-Profile CPU Cooler –
Noctua NH-L12S$50If 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.
While there are other coolers with similar dimensions, none can match the L12S, and most cost the same or more!
CPU Cooler –
Arctic Freezer 34$30This cooler is the perfect pick for the Quiet Gaming PC Build. Thanks to its advanced design, it offers nearly-silent operation despite excellent cooling capability. It uses our favorite all-around 120mm fan, the excellent Arctic P12 PWM. Learn more in our 120mm cooler shootout!
One of the secrets to this cooler is the exceptional P12 fan it uses, which is simply unrivaled in any other cooler anywhere near this price!
CPU Cooler –
Arctic Freezer 34 Duo Red$50Keep your new CPU cool with this cost-effective model from Arctic, which is by far the best cooler you can buy under $50, thanks to its dual high-performance BioniX fans!
This model is available in a variety of color combinations, so definitely check out all the options on the product page!
CPU Cooler –
Scythe Fuma 2$60Offering amazing performance thanks to its big heatsink and dual 120mm fans, along with excellent compatibility thanks to its offset design, this is our favorite cooler at any price.
Due to its exceptional performance and compact size, this is among the top-selling coolers in the world, which means it's often hard to find in stock!
CPU Cooler –
SilverStone PF120-ARGB$82Keeping a CPU cool in a high-powered system like this one can be a challenge, but this liquid cooler has what it takes to get the job done. In our testing, a liquid cooler was far superior to any low-profile air cooler, and it matches many of the best tower coolers. All that and it’s easier to install too!
While a similarly-priced tower cooler will outperform this liquid cooler, it will not fit in the same space!
CPU Cooler –
Noctua NH-D15 chromax.black$110Noctua 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! It’s the best air cooler on the market, period.
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. Low-profile RAM is 35mm or below, so check your RAM specs and factor any height above that into the cooler's overall height.
CPU Cooler –
Arctic Liquid Freezer II 360$123
To run a high-wattage CPU like the one in this system, you need extreme cooling, and we suggest you go straight for this awesome 360mm liquid cooler, which offers the best performance of any 360mm AIO on the market based on our testing! Being the best means this cooler sells out constantly. Backorder it if you need to, because it is worth the wait!The Guru’s Tip
The radiator on this model is 38mm thick, while most AIOs use a 27mm-thick radiator. Factor that in when determining the clearance you need for the entire cooler. It's about 64mm thick with the fans.
Thermal Paste –
Noctua NT-H2$13While 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 lasts for years. It will even improve Noctua coolers, which come with the less advanced NT-H1! Have a lot of coolers to install? Then go for the big 10g tube of NT-H2.
Every tube of NT-H2 comes with alcohol cleaning wipes - you get 3 with the 3.5g tube and 10 with the 10g tube, appropriately enough!
Arctic P12 PWM$8 The Guru’s Tip
We want to make clear that this is neither the best cooler fan nor the best case fan (each of which you'll find below). It is the best all-around fan, and the only one that has placed near the top in both types of shootouts we've run.
Scythe Kaze Flex 120mm Fan$14 The Guru’s Tip
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.
Scythe Wonder Snail 120$17 The Guru’s Tip
Two caveats: this is not a case fan, and we do not recommend you buy it for that purpose (go for the Scythe Kaze Flex instead). And because this is so new and so awesome, it's going to be hard to find in stock for a while!
Slim Fan –
Noctua NF-A12x15$20 The Guru’s Tip
When used on coolers and radiators, this fan will actually outperform most 25mm-thick fans!
ARGB Fan –
ARCTIC P12 PWM PST A-RGB$17 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.
- Low-Profile CPU Cooler – Scythe Shuriken 2 ($40)
- Low-Profile CPU Cooler – Noctua NH-L12S ($50)
- CPU Cooler – Arctic Freezer 34 ($30)
- CPU Cooler – Arctic Freezer 34 Duo Red ($50)
- CPU Cooler – Scythe Fuma 2 ($60)
- CPU Cooler – SilverStone PF120-ARGB ($82)
- CPU Cooler – Noctua NH-D15 chromax.black ($110)
- CPU Cooler – Arctic Liquid Freezer II 360 ($123)
- Thermal Paste – Noctua NT-H2 ($13)