The Best CPU Cooler and Fan Buyer’s Guide – Spring 2024

By Ari Altman | Published April 5, 2024 | Updated April 5, 2024

EliteThe Best PC Cooling Advice, Based on Years of Testing!

One of the most cost effective and easiest modifications you can make to improve your PC’s performance is to upgrade its cooling. This guide lists our favorite 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 seven best fans on the market, with specific recommendations for cases and coolers.

And take note: nearly every cooler in this new since we last published our guide, which shows that the cooler market definitely doesn’t stand still. In fact, performance of coolers has dramatically improved over the past few years, to the point where Noctua, which hasn’t released a new cooler in years, has entirely dropped from our guide (well, except for getting a win for two fantastic cooler accessories). It has suffered a number of delays in new cooler releases, and the competition took notice, seizing the opportunity to surpass the once undisputed king of air cooling.

Our Tips on Choosing a CPU Cooler

Feel free to jump to the recommended coolers in this guide, but if you need a bit more background on where specific types of coolers are warranted, here are a few suggestions we’ve put together based on all of our testing:

  1. Air Cooler Styles: Tower-style coolers will always outperform equivalent downdraft coolers of the same price. We only recommend downdraft coolers where neither towers nor liquid coolers will fit.
  2. Air Cooler Sizes: Among tower coolers, 140mm-class towers will generally outperform 120mm-class models. With that said, the latest 120mm coolers are better that ever, and have far fewer requirements when it comes to motherboard and case clearance. The industry standard for cooler clearance is right around 160mm, which limits you to 120mm-class coolers, and many 140mm-class coolers also block RAM or expansion slots (although the recommendation in our guide does not!).
  3. Air vs. Liquid: Liquid coolers have two distinct applications where they excel. First, we recommend using 240mm models to provide excellent cooling where a good tower cooler won’t fit (meaning in mini-ITX or slim mATX and ATX systems). Second, higher-powered models with large 360mm radiators will exceed the performance of any air cooler. They bend the rules by exhausting hot air outside of the case, thereby hitting performance levels that aren’t possible with air coolers.

Scythe Kaze FlexOur Tips on Choosing Case and Cooler Fans

Surprisingly, choosing a fan can be even trickier than choosing a cooler, in part because there is so much misinformation out there, starting with the specs provided by manufacturers. So here are our tips on how to sort through the chatter:

  1. The Bearings: The quality of the fan bearings has a lot to do with the overall user experience; standard sleeve or rifle bearings always sound rougher than fluid dynamic (or “hydraulic”) bearings.
  2. The Size: 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! More importantly, they fit in far fewer applications, so 120mm fans remain our primary recommendation.
  3. The Style: A fan is about far more than the airflow and static pressure metrics in marketing materials. People who rely on these specs to choose fans are fooling themselves, as is anyone who believes all a fan needs to do is move air. Fans can move air in very distinct ways: some are highly directional, moving air over long distances when unobstructed, others are short-distance specialists, with the power to push through tightly-packed fins or mesh. Our extensive real-world testing allows us to provide recommendations tailored to your specific needs!

Final Thoughts

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 Amazon product links we provide, which helps support further development of this guide!

Coolers

  • Low-Profile CPU Cooler

    ID-Cooling IS-47XT

    $30
    If you need a cooler that has the same 47mm height and compact footprint as the stock Intel box cooler, look no further than the IS-47XT. It offers a big uplift in performance, much lower noise, and tremendous value per dollar.

    The Guru’s Tip

    Unlike many low-profile coolers, this one is designed to work with both Intel and AMD systems.

  • Low-Profile CPU Cooler

    Thermalright AXP120-X67

    $31
    The excellent low-profile cooler provides a huge upgrade versus most other low-profile coolers, and does so at any amazing price. The slim 15mm-thick fan uses fluid dynamic bearings, unusual in this class and a critical piece of the puzzle when it comes to eliminating noise. It’s also one of the very few high-performance low-profile coolers that can be mounted so it does not obstruct the RAM slots, although it does offer enough clearance for standard low-profile RAM. The entire heatsink/fan assembly sits at 67mm tall.

    The Guru’s Tip

    Many other low-profile coolers that utilize 120mm fans cause significant clearance issues with RAM or other components in the case. This one is offset to avoid these issues.

  • CPU Cooler

    Arctic Freezer 36

    $33
    Arctic’s Freezer line has always punched way above its price class, and the 36 takes it to a whole new level. Featuring dual high-performance P12 fans with hydraulic bearings, it’s both quiet and capable. It uses an innovative click-in fan mounting system to ease installation, and to top it off, the 36 comes with MX-6 thermal paste, some of the best in the business!

    The Guru’s Tip

    If you're looking to cool a moderately-hot processor, there's simply no reason to spend more on a cooler!

  • CPU Cooler

    Thermalright Phantom Spirit 120 EVO

    $50
    Thermalright is legendary in the CPU cooler business, having designed some of the very first premium tower coolers in the early 2000s. Their focus has always been on performance per dollar, providing a lot of metal for your money. And with the Phantom Spirit 120 Evo, that metal comes in the form of seven chunky 6mm heatpipes running through two big heatsink towers. They are aided by two ultra-premium 120mm fans using fluid dynamic bearings and a proven 9-blade design. All in all, you get class-leading performance at a price that no other manufacturer can touch!

    The Guru’s Tip

    The one thing to keep in mind with this incredible cooler is that it works best with low-profile RAM. Big RGB-lit RAM modules will require the front fan to be lifted considerably, reducing performance and increasing space requirements inside the case.

  • CPU Cooler

    Scythe Mugen 6 Black (Dual Fan Edition)

    $55
    The Mugen is legendary in low-noise circles, and yet, things can always get better. So while the Ver. 6 Black Edition still offers class-leading silence, it gets a huge boost in performance, catapulting the Mugen past all of its competitors. That’s thanks to not one, but two Wonder Tornado fans. These beauties are the very best heatsink fans ever released, and alone are worth nearly the asking price of this entire cooler. Of course you also get a smartly-designed heatsink, with tightly-spaced fins, 6 heatpipes, and an offset design that allows it to sit just 154mm tall, while offering unlimited RAM clearance. Basically, this is the perfect 120mm-class cooler!

    The Guru’s Tip

    Due to its exceptional performance and compact size, this is a top choice for compact systems - there's no better cooler under 155mm in height!

  • CPU Cooler

    DeepCool LS520S Zero Dark 240mm

    $80
    For this build, we recommend you go for the LS520S Zero Dark. Fully blacked out and focused on maximum performance, it offers up two high-performance 120mm fans with 9 heavily-swept blades and hydro dynamic bearings for extreme static pressure and low noise levels.

    The Guru’s Tip

    One of the reasons this cooler works so well in small systems in particular is the short pump height and flexible tubes. Others may cause big compatibility issues, especially where the rad sits over the CPU (including our favorite liquid cooler, listed later in this guide).

  • CPU Cooler

    be quiet! Dark Rock Elite

    $100
    For years, Noctua held the crown for the best air cooler on the market with its NH-D15, originally released in 2014. It had a good run, but while be quiet! didn’t quite match the D15 with the Dark Rock 4, the Dark Rock Elite finally usurped the crown. It vastly improves upon the D15, and in so doing takes the title as the very best air cooler on the market. Featuring two ultra-quiet Silent Wings 135mm fans, 7 heatpipes, and two huge cooling fin arrays, it provides performance that pushes the boundaries of what can be achieved with air alone. And be quiet! has never shied away from tying performance with aesthetics, and with the Elite, it offers a blacked out look plus a sleek ARGB top plate for a that custom look.

    The Guru’s Tip

    If you're choosing between this and a 240mm AIO cooler, we'd actually recommend this model unless it simply will not fit in your case. It will outperform almost any 240mm AIO, including the one we list above.

  • CPU Cooler

    SilverStone IceMyst 360

    $137
    There has been tremendous innovation in the AIO liquid cooler market over the past few years, and the IceMyst 360 is the perfect example of this. Not only does its advanced pump, radiator, and fan design provide a tremendous leap over previous-generation coolers on a noise-normalized basis (which is what counts!), you also have the option of adding up to three 70mm accessory fans to the pump to cool RAM, VRMs, or SSDs. This is a truly unique feature that sets the IceMyst apart and makes it the clear choice among 360mm AIOs!

    The Guru’s Tip

    By adding the accessory 70mm fans, you'll get a great light show and provide impressive cooling to other components as well, improving all around system performance significantly.

  • Thermal Paste

    Noctua NT-H2

    $13
    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 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.

    The Guru’s Tip

    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!

  • Tool

    Noctua NM-SD2

    $10
    We know what you’re thinking, a screwdriver’s a screwdriver. But honestly, this humble tool will save you some much frustration when installing a cooler or doing any work inside your PC. Here are the reasons: it’s a #2 Philips, which is the standard for almost everything inside a PC case, it’s got a long reach, which is critical for many coolers and helpful in just about every situation, and it’s magnetic. That last property is what really matters when you’re affixing a screw behind in a hard-to-reach spot in your case. Seriously, this is the best investment you’ll ever make in PC components!

    The Guru’s Tip

    You may have noticed that no Noctua coolers actually made our list this time around, but that doesn't mean Noctua doesn't know what it takes to make cooler installation easy!

Fans

  • Fan

    Arctic P12 PWM PST

    $8
    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 value 5-pack, 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.

    The Guru’s Tip

    We want to make clear that this is neither the best heatsink fan, rad fan, nor the best case fan (each of which you'll find below). It is the best all-around fan for the price, and if you are on a budget, this fan is what you want in every fan location in your system.

  • Case Fan

    Scythe Kaze Flex II 120mm Fan

    $16
    Scythe has been in the cooling business for decades, and we actually have some of their fans from the early 2000s still running in our systems! What makes the Kaze Flex II and its predecessors so good are the high-quality fluid dynamic bearings Scythe uses, plus a unique fan blade design that allows for extraordinary cooling even at a quiet maximum speed of 1500RPM. In our testing, the original Kaze Flex proved to be the best 120mm case fan on the market, and Scythe has only made it better with the Flex II, optimizing the fan frame to increase airflow and reduce turbulence!

    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.

  • Heatsink Fan

    Scythe Wonder Tornado 120

    $13
    When it comes to CPU heatsink performance, the Wonder Tornado from Scythe is simply the best. Yes, that means better than Arctic, better than Noctua, better than all the rest. It improves upon the already amazing Wonder Snail with a better name (!) and an optimized hub design that better stabilizes the blades. It can spin at up to 2000RPM while still providing quiet performance. And the very best part is the price, which in typical Scythe form is way below the competition, despite quality and performance that aims straight for the top!

    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 it's not the best radiator fan. That honor goes to the fan below!

  • Radiator Fan

    Phanteks T30-120

    $32
    If you want the best 120mm radiator fan on the market, bar none, you simply must go for the Phanteks T30-120. That “30” in the name refers to a thickness of 30mm, and some people think that’s cheating, but this fan is so far ahead of the competition (yes, we’re looking at you, NF-A12x25!), that if you have the extra 5mm, quit making excuses for the previous market leader and buy it! We’ve tested all the leading radiator fans on the market, and the T30 is in a league of its own, opening up temperature deltas of 3-4C over the next closest competitor (the aforementioned NF-A12x25).

    The Guru’s Tip

    As with nearly all of our fan recommendations, this one is very specific. It's the best 120mm rad fan. It won't work on many heatsinks, due to most fan clips not being long enough. Honestly, it's best utilized to maximize the performance of a 360mm rad, for which the screws are included with the fans.

  • Slim Fan

    Noctua NF-A12x15

    $20
    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. Note that this model is also available in the Chromax.black color scheme for around $5 more.

    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

    $16
    Arctic started with its proven P12 design and made it even better with the ARGB version. It adds not only very slick ARGB effects, but also a stabilizer ring at the blade edges, rubber bumpers on the corners, and a 0dB mode, allowing it to spin smoothly down to zero with a low PWM signal. In our shootout, this fan performed amazingly well, beating even the P12! Basically, if you’re looking for the best all-around ARGB fan on the market, whether for heatsink, radiator, or case fan applications, this is the one!

    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.

  • 140mm Fan

    Scythe Kaze Flex 140

    $17
    Need the best all-around 140mm fan on the market? This one’s easy: it’s the Scythe Kaze Flex 140. Offering the best case fan cooling, amazing radiator cooling, and quiet operation, it’s unbeatable. The fact that it’s also less expensive than its competitors is icing on the cake!

    The Guru’s Tip

    Important caveat: when using this as a case fan, do not be tempted to run it at its maximum RPM of 1800. That's a very high RPM for a 140mm fan, and it's best reserved for use on a radiator.

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