Welcome to yet another no-holds-barred CPU cooler shootout at the TBG corral! Believe it or not, this is the sixth multi-cooler shootout that The Tech Buyer's Guru has conducted over the past three years, and in fact the second 120mm CPU cooler shootout we've run in 2017. This can probably tell you two things: there are lots of new coolers hitting the market every year, and we've benched many of them (nearly three-dozen, to be precise!). There's no doubt, however, that 2017 has seen a bumper-crop year of coolers, accelerated by the release of AMD's ultra-competitive Ryzen line of CPUs and its new AM4 socket. This socket required a revised cooler mounting system, which means that many CPU cooler manufacturers realized it was the ideal time to release their brand-new offerings, or at the minimum to re-launch existing coolers with updated mounts.
Indeed, nothing stands still in technology, and just as you typically shouldn't buy a CPU, video card, or SSD released two or three years ago, older CPU coolers should be viewed with a critical eye. Sometimes old doesn't mean "best," even if it is a best-seller. It may just mean that the word hasn't got out that old means old! This couldn't be any clearer than in the 120mm tower air cooler market, where the ancient Cooler Master Hyper 212 line is still by far the best-selling cooler in the business despite being massively surpassed years ago in terms of performance. We actually asked Cooler Master for an updated version of the 212 to include in this roundup, but the company hasn't relaased one for the Ryzen platform, so it had to pass. That being said, it does offer an excellent liquid cooler for Ryzen, the MasterLiquid 240, which we benched in our liquid cooler roundup conducted just last month, and it's a great performer for the money, and we highly recommend it to Cooler Master fans. We just wish the firm would finally get the courage up to redesign its ultra-popular air cooler to better serve today's budget-oriented enthusiasts.
So while Cooler Master isn't represented in today's roundup, just about every other manufacturer of merit is. At this point, we've developed enough of a reputation with all the biggest CPU cooler brands that when we come calling, they always answer. This time around we've got Arctic, Cryorig, Noctua, Scythe, and SilverStone lined up for the event, and with seven models in total, this is among the biggest CPU cooler shootouts we've ever conducted. Prepare to learn a thing or two about air cooling, folks!
Below you can see all the coolers we'll be testing this time around, followed by their model numbers and current selling prices:
Clockwise from top-left, we have the:
- Cryorig H7 Quad Lumi - $60 (special thanks to Cryorig for providing this review sample)
- Scythe Mugen 5 Rev. B - $48 (special thanks to Scythe for providing this review sample)
- Scythe Fuma Rev. B - $46 (special thanks to Scythe for providing this review sample)
- Arctic Freezer 33 eSports Edition - $50 (special thanks to Arctic for providing this review sample)
- Noctua NH-L12S - $50 (special thanks to Noctua for providing this review sample)
- Noctua NH-U12S SE-AM4 ($60) (special thanks to Noctua for providing this review sample)
- SilverStone AR03 ver. 2 ($40) (special thanks to SilverStone for providing this review sample)
Note that we're using the current lowest selling price of each cooler, but because these products are manufactured in limited quantities, prices and stock can definitely fluctuate. In fact some of these coolers are so new that you can't even buy them yet; the Cryorig H7 Quad Lumi is a Newegg-exclusive until December 2017, and the SilverStone AR03 ver. 2 has yet to be launched in the US, although the older, original AR03 is available at a huge discount (missing only the AM4 bracket in the box). We've estimated a US price for the v2 model based on the premium we see for it in the UK, where it is available. What's really interesting from our point of view is how closely-packed all of these models are in terms of pricing. With the cheapest being $40 and the most expensive being $60, we dare say that anyone considering the purchase of a mid-range CPU cooler should pay close attention, as skipping a few stops to the local Starbucks might just net you a much better PC user experience!
As always, we benchmark coolers on the latest test platforms, meaning you know how these coolers will work on gear you're buying today. Here's the system we used to rate our contenders:
- CPU: AMD Ryzen 7 1700 (thank you to AMD for providing this review sample)
- Motherboard: Gigabyte GA-AB350-Gaming 3
- Video Card: Sapphire Radeon R9 Fury Nitro+ 4GB
- SSD #1: Samsung 960 Evo 500GB M.2
- SSD #2: Crucial MX300 525GB 2.5"
- RAM: GeIL 2x8GB Super Luce DDR4-3000
- Case: Thermaltake View 31 RGB (thank you to Thermaltake for providing this review sample)
- Power Supply: Corsair HX750 Platinum (thank you to Corsair for providing this review sample)
- Operating System: Windows 10 Flash Drive
This being our AMD platform, we felt we had to include an AMD-based video card, but AMD's new Vega series is a complete bust in our opinion, so we turned to our trusty Sapphire Radeon Fury Nitro. No, you shouldn't buy it today (and in fact, you can't because it's been discontinued), but it's still a potent gaming weapon, easily beating out anything you can find for under $300 today (we picked ours up for $250 a year ago, which is a sign of how the mid-priced market has stagnated during this time). The other great thing about the Fury Nitro is that it has a zero-fan mode, which was critical to our noise testing. During all of our CPU cooler testing, it remained completely silent.
We should also call out our case of choice, the Thermaltake View 31 RGB. In addition to being quite a looker thanks to its RGB fans and tempered glass side panels, this is the perfect platform for cooler testing. If there's one thing Thermaltake understands, it's how to design a case that can actually fit any cooler on the market. And this shouldn't be a surprise, given that Thermaltake markets more coolers than any other manufacturer in the world, including some very fancy custom loop solutions.
To provide a broad view of each cooler's performance, we tested our Ryzen 7 1700 both at stock (where it runs at a leisurely 3.2GHz at load, with a rated TDP of just 65W), as well as overclocked to 3.8GHz using 1.27V. We tried to dial in a 3.9GHz overclock with less than 1.35V (the reasonable limit to ensure CPU longevity), but couldn't get it stable. Note that a lot of reviewers have boasted of Ryzen overclocks of 4GHz and even 4.1GHz, but they typically were using 1.45V to get there, which is a recipe for a "burnt" CPU, as they say on the Interwebs. In terms of cooler settings, most reviews simply run coolers at maximum RPM, show the results, and on a separate page might provide noise data. Frankly, this just isn't good enough. Performance data divorced from noise data is meaningless, and it has encouraged manufacturers to "juice" the benchmarks by shipping coolers with insanely-high-speed fans. Therefore we ran our coolers using PWM motherboard controls. This allowed them to ramp down at idle, and ramp up for a moderate and extreme loads. We used the motherboard's standard fan profile, except for one tweak: we leveled out the profile through 40°C to eliminate the constant changes in fan speeds that otherwise occur (and annoy) during idle periods as the CPU fluctuates between 30°C and 40°C.
And what about the actual tests we performed? We used three different test scenarios to benchmark our coolers. First is idle at the desktop, where we report the minimum over a five-minute span (minor OS operations can spike temperatures momentarily, but these spikes can be ignored). Second is load in the CPU-z built-in benchmark, where we report the maximum after a 5-minute run. The third is Prime95 Small FFTs, where we report the maximum after a 10-minute run. As you'll see, each of the tests we ran illustrates a distinct facet of cooler performance, allowing us (and you) to gain a better understanding not just of how these coolers perform, but why they perform the way they do. Temperature data are collected using the wonderful app HWMonitor. All analysis was conducted with an ambient temperature of 70°F +/- 0.5°F. Noise data was collected with a sound meter placed right next to the case's top panel mesh vent, and all other fans in the system were shut off, including the case fans and power supply fans.
Turn to the next page to learn more about the companies included in this roundup.