The Best CPU Cooler and PC Fan Buyer’s Guide – Fall 2021
One of the most cost effective and easiest modifications you can make to improve your PC’s performance is to upgrade its cooling. While you can easily find hundreds of opinions on the best products out there, we’ve taken it upon ourselves to actually test well over 50 coolers and fans in real-world setups (not open benches or airflow tunnels) to find products that actually work in, you know, a PC!
Our Cooler and Fan Recommendations for Fall 2021!
This guide lists the top nine coolers at every pricepoint, including two low-profile coolers, four towers, and three liquid models. But we didn’t stop there! We also list our favorite thermal paste and the six best 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note: we update this guide on a regular basis to ensure that you always get the latest and greatest gear, not the same outdated coolers and fans that everyone’s been using for the past decade!
Our Tips on Choosing a CPU Cooler
Here are a couple of suggestions we’ve put together based on all of our testing:
- 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.
- Air Cooler Sizes: Among tower coolers, 140mm-class towers will generally 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.
- Air vs. Liquid: Liquid coolers have two distinct applications where they excel. First, we recommend using 120mm or 240mm models to provide excellent cooling where no tower cooler can fit (which typically means Small Form Factor systems), or alternatively 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.
Our 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:
- The Bearings: 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.
- 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.
- The Style: 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. Fans can move air in very distinct ways, some more effectively than others, some tailored to specific applications. Our extensive real-world 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). That’s why our recommendations are tailored to specific uses!
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-L9i/a, it's only ideal for ultra-small form factor systems. The Shuriken 2 vastly outperforms it at a lower price thanks to being 21mm taller.
Low-Profile CPU Cooler –
Noctua NH-L12S$55If 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 refined performance of the L12S!
CPU Cooler –
Arctic Freezer 34$29This cooler is the perfect pick for a mainstream 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.
The secret to this cooler's success is the exceptional P12 fan. No other cooler at this pricepoint uses a fan nearly as capable.
CPU Cooler –
Arctic Freezer 34 Duo Black/White$45Keep your new CPU cool with this cost-effective model from Arctic. It’s the best cooler you can buy under $50, thanks to its dual high-performance BioniX fans! It also happens to look fantastic!
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 and 155mm height, 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.
CPU Cooler –
SilverStone PF120-ARGB$83Keeping a CPU cool in a high-powered, compact PC can be a challenge, but this liquid cooler has what it takes to get the job done. In our testing, it 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 –
SilverStone PF240-ARGB$85To keep a powerful CPU build cool, this 240mm liquid cooler will fit the bill. It provides exceptional performance for the price, great compatibility with most systems, and sweet looks!
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 –
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, and can beat nearly every 240mm liquid cooler too!
This model will cover 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 ARGB$145
To run a high-wattage CPU, 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! That comes down to its big 38mm-thick radiator, effective pump, and the best ARGB fans on the market, the Arctic P12 A-RGB models. They provide both great looks and superior performance at low noise levels.The Guru’s Tip
The radiator on this model is 38mm thick, while most AIOs use a 27mm-thick radiator. That, combined with the superior fans, is why it's the best of the best. Just factor the size in when determining whether it will fit. 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 PST$10 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 (or the P14 if it will fit!).
Case Fan –
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.
Heatsink Fan –
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).
Radiator Fan –
Phanteks T30-120$31 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, and until we test it ourselves, we're not declaring it the best case fan.
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 ($55)
- CPU Cooler – Arctic Freezer 34 ($29)
- CPU Cooler – Arctic Freezer 34 Duo Black/White ($45)
- CPU Cooler – Scythe Fuma 2 ($60)
- CPU Cooler – SilverStone PF120-ARGB ($83)
- CPU Cooler – SilverStone PF240-ARGB ($85)
- CPU Cooler – Noctua NH-D15 chromax.black ($110)
- CPU Cooler – Arctic Liquid Freezer II 360 ARGB ($145)
- Thermal Paste – Noctua NT-H2 ($13)