Original Link: http://www.anandtech.com/show/6830/cpu-air-cooler-roundup-six-coolers-from-noctua-silverstone-and-cooler-master


Now that CPU cooler reviews have begun in earnest here at AnandTech, it's been interesting to see just how conventional wisdom plays out in practice. There's been a pervasive attitude that closed loop coolers are only really competitive with the highest end air coolers, and there may be some truth to that, but we have at least one of those flagship coolers on hand today along with parts from SilverStone, be quiet!, and Cooler Master.

Once we got in touch with Noctua and let them know we were doing cooler reviews, they gave us the opportunity to correct what I'd consider to be a sizable omission in terms of coverage in general: no review of the flagship NH-D14 CPU cooler. The NH-D14 is big, beefy, expensive, and typically regarded in enthusiast circles as one of the finest air coolers available. Alongside the NH-D14, Noctua also sent us their NH-L12 and NH-L9i low-profile CPU coolers; while the NH-L9i is potentially underwhelming, the NH-L12 stands to impress as potentially the most powerful downward-flow cooler on the market.

In the interests of making it a full-on roundup, three additional coolers were brought in for review. First is the flagship SilverStone Heligon HE01, a substantial dual tower cooler with a massive 140mm (38mm thick!) fan in the center and rated to cool a staggering 300W. Next up were two coolers I've had in house for a little while that are going to get to see sunlight and scrutiny: the be quiet! Dark Rock Pro 2 (rated for 220W) and the cooler from my case testing bed, the Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO. The EVO can typically be found for under $40 (and usually much closer to $30) and is regarded as one of the best budget coolers on the market.

  Noctua NH-D14 Noctua NH-L12 Noctua NH-L9i
Dimensions (in mm) 158x126x120 93x128x150 95x95x37
Fans (Supported) 1x 140mm & 1x 120mm (3) 1x 120mm & 1x 90mm (2) 92mm (1)
Weight 1240g 680g 420g
Rated Noise in dB(A) 13.2~19.8 13.1~22.4 14.8~23.6
Price at NewEgg $81 $69 $48

  SilverStone Heligon HE01 be quiet! Dark Rock Pro 2 CM Hyper 212 EVO
Dimensions (in mm) 140x119x160 147x138x166 120x80x159
Fans (Supported) 140mm (3) 1x 120mm & 1x 135mm (2) 120mm (2)
Weight 926g (w/o fan) 1250g 580g
Rated Noise in dB(A) 18~41 13.5~26.4 9~36
Price at NewEgg $75 $99 $33

Before we get started with testing, some notes. First, the NH-D14 that Noctua sent is their Socket 2011 edition, but there's no appreciable difference between that one and the standard version; the mounting brackets from the NH-L12 were used for the NH-D14 and worked like a charm.

The be quiet! Dark Rock Pro 2 is unfortunately, like the rest of be quiet!'s line, still a bit rarefied stateside. That's unfortunate, because this little company has a lot to offer (as you'll see later). Of all the coolers tested, the Dark Rock Pro 2 is the most intimidatingly large, but be quiet!'s products are designed for silence first, so we'll see how it works out.

Finally, having the Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO in this lineup almost seems unfair; it's smaller than the other coolers, only really benefits from one fan, and is the least expensive by a longshot. Looks can be deceiving, though. I used to run a Hyper 212 Plus and can attest to that cooler being both remarkably inexpensive and efficient, and the EVO's fan is both more powerful and quieter than its predecessor's.

Ease of Installation

After reviewing the Deepcool coolers, the ones I have on hand for this roundup feel like a night and day difference. Deepcool's products seem clearly designed to undercut more expensive propositions like most of the ones found here, but everything about the packages surrounding all the coolers here but but the bargain Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO scream quality.

Noctua's mounting system for the NH-D14 and NH-L12 is pretty similar to what Deepcool was doing, and in fact I've found most of the mounts I've tested so far have hewed to the same general designs. There's a backplate with four screws that goes through the holes in the motherboard, and then spacers and mounting brackets are secured on top of them. The mount for the Heligon HE01 is virtually identical. There are two studs on the brackets that another bracket (mounted between the cooler's heatpipes) affixes on to. It's a good system and allows the user to adjust orientation of the cooler pretty easily.

For the Noctua NH-L9i and be quiet! Dark Rock Pro 2, four screws essentially come up through the motherboard's mounting holes and directly into sockets affixed directly to the coolers themselves. The Dark Rock Pro 2 uses a backplate while the L9i does not due to essentially operating within Intel's own cooler spec.

Of all the coolers, the Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO's mounting may be the most aggravating for newer users. I've used a couple of 212 Plus units on builds for myself and other people, and I've had to move the 212 EVO a few times, so the quirks of the mechanism Cooler Master employs are old hat at this point. There's a backplate that goes behind the motherboard, and from there you insert four mounting standoffs and secure them to the backplate with bolts. The problem is that it can often be difficult to jam the screw parts of the standoffs through the backplate in the first place. The size of the backplate also means that if there are any electronics on the back of the motherboard, the plate is going to be butting up against them.

From there you move a mounting bracket between the heatpipes and push the screws into the standoffs. The problem with the design here is that even with the bracket securely fastened, you can still rotate the cooler slightly. It's not really a huge deal; if you applied thermal paste properly, the paste prevents anything from scratching, and obviously it doesn't bother me enough to stop using the Hyper 212 EVO in the case testbed.

I will say that where the 212 EVO shines is in the mounts it uses for the fans. There are plastic brackets with rubber pads that screw into the fan, and then the brackets snap on to the heatsink. These brackets are far, far easier to use than the cheap wire brackets used the majority of the time. Noctua avoids the pitfall of the wire brackets by having them affixed to the fans themselves, but SilverStone's Heligon HE01 requires a bit of dexterity to mount the fan.

Testing Methodology

If you've been keeping up with our case reviews, our testing methodology for the fans here is going to seem relatively similar in some ways. Our test system may seem a bit unusual in more than a few ways, but stick with me and I'll explain why I put it together and tested it the way I did.

The processor, with its healthy voltage boost and overclock, throws a pretty substantial amount of heat at our cooling system. Testing with an i7-2700K at stock speeds would defeat the purpose; Intel's own stock cooler can handle that, we want to "separate the men from the boys" so to speak.

Fan and Radiator Testing Configuration
CPU Intel Core i7-2700K overclocked to 4.4GHz @ 1.4V
Motherboard Zotac Z77-ITX WiFi
Graphics Intel HD 3000 IGP
Memory 2x4GB Crucial Ballistix Sport Low Profile DDR3-1600
Drives Kingston SSDNow V+ 100 64GB SSD
Power Supply Rosewill Hive 650W 80 Plus Bronze Modular
Enclosure BitFenix Shinobi XL Window

I needed a case that could produce adequate airflow, handle all of the different cooling systems without much trouble, and did not include any sound dampening features. You might be surprised at just how difficult that was to find, but BitFenix came to the rescue and sent over a Shinobi XL. BitFenix's enclosure didn't get the best review when I tested it, but it's actually ideal for this testbed. I removed every case fan but the front intake, which I ran at 5V to prevent it from affecting acoustics while still providing adequate airflow.

Since a dedicated GPU wasn't needed, one wasn't used. This prevents a graphics card from generating additional heat or noise or deflecting airflow.

Thermal and acoustic test cycles were done the same way as our case reviews. First, the system is left powered and idle for fifteen minutes. At this point the sound level is tested, room ambient temperature is recorded, and idle temperatures are recorded. Then eight threads of small FFTs in Prime95 are run for fifteen minutes, and load temperatures are recorded.

Each cooler was tested using its available presets; the PWM-controlled coolers were tested between 30% and 100% using motherboard control as well as at a constant 100%.

Thank You!

Before moving on, we'd like to thank the following vendors for providing us with the hardware used in our roundup.

  • Thank you to iBuyPower for providing us with the Intel Core i7-2700K.
  • Thank you to Zotac for providing us with the Z77-ITX WiFi motherboard.
  • Thank you to Kingston for providing us with the SSDNow V+ 100 SSD.
  • Thank you to Crucial for providing us with the Ballistix Sport Low Profile DDR3.
  • Thank you to Rosewill for providing us with the Hive 650W 80 Plus Bronze PSU.
  • Thank you to BitFenix for providing us with the Shinobi XL Window enclosure.

Performance Results

Given that I've been doing these cooler reviews entirely in roundups, it's probably no surprise that the amount of results I've put together have absolutely ballooned. So much so that including all of the results in every graph would result in some very, very long graphs. With that in mind, for the master list of coolers (including all of the results from the current roundup), I'm only including what I feel are the most balanced results for a given cooler. I'm taking into account if ratcheting up fan speed doesn't produce much of a difference in performance, or if ratcheting it down makes a huge difference.

Results in black are for coolers that actually failed testing.

Cooling Performance

Out of this roundup of coolers, the three big boys put in the best performance overall, tying or beating Deepcool's flagship Assassin. Unfortunately, they have to run at full bore to really start to nip at the heels of the closed loop coolers. None of them are bad coolers, but the metrics I'm using here really don't tell the whole story.

Acoustic Performance

The nice thing about these new coolers is that none of them are really that loud, with the exception of SilverStone's HE01. The fan Cooler Master employs on the Hyper 212 EVO isn't particularly quiet, but at full bore it's still fairly easy to ignore.

In the midst of all these results, it's unfortunate that Noctua's NH-L9i pretty much has to run at full bore to be usable. It's a definite improvement on the Intel stock cooler, but you're still not really going to be doing any overclocking with it. Its chief advantages over the stock cooler are going to be its lower noise level under load and superior mounting mechanism.

Silent Cooling Performance and Absolute Performance

Testing cases is in some ways much simpler than testing coolers, and a large part of that is because outside of an integrated fan controller, there's really not as much variability in the case's stock performance. Coolers, on the other hand, immediately benefit from the motherboard's fan control, and that has to be taken into account. They also have a more direct effect on the CPU's overall thermal performance. That means we need to break down the results into more useful metrics.

The first one is for silent performance. As a noise cap, I've chosen 33dB. Any coolers or settings that resulted in idle or load noise above 33dB have been pruned from the chart.

Cooling Performance (Sub-33dB Coolers)

While every cooler I've tested today makes an appearance on this chart, the closed loop liquid coolers unfortunately have a clear advantage here. These are all quality units using excellent fans, though, and I'm keen to point out that you have to go to a 240mm or 280mm radiator before the closed loop units take a decisive lead. Generally speaking, you can get close to a 120mm or 140mm closed loop's cooling potential in an air cooler with comparable noise levels.

I'm keen to point out that Cooler Master's inexpensive Hyper 212 EVO actually does put in a pretty good showing here. Users on a budget would do well to note that it actually beats SilverStone's much larger Heligon HE01 when the Heligon's fan isn't cranked up.

With silent cooling broken down, let's take a look at the absolute maximum performance that can be gleaned from the coolers we've tested so far.

Maximum Cooling Performance

As it turns out, the closed loop coolers have a bit more headroom left in them compared to the majority of the air coolers tested. Our top performing trio is pretty much neck and neck for thermal performance, and even the Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO is able to get awfully close to them. If you want high end air performance, you can definitely have it at a good price.

Acoustic Performance, Maximum Cooling

Of our big winners, though, Noctua and be quiet!'s solutions prove to be the quietest. SilverStone's Heligon may be able to produce comparable thermals, but that 38mm thick fan has to do an awful lot of grunt work to get there.

Conclusions, Part 1

While the Deepcool coolers were unique in their own ways, the conclusions I came to with them were basically the same. Most of them were fairly underwhelming with little to really recommend them, and today's testing pretty much puts the final nail in that coffin. None of them really stand up particularly well to the already widely available Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO. The Deepcool Frostwin continues to be the highlight of their lineup, but if you need to go lower clearance than that, Noctua certainly has you covered.

I'm drawing conclusions on the individual coolers because each one arguably has something to offer in its own right that goes beyond absolute performance.

Noctua NH-D14

The Noctua NH-D14 performed admirably, and if for whatever reason a closed loop cooler isn't on your list, the D14 is about as good as it gets on American shores (at least until we get hardware from Prolimatech or Thermalright in for review.) SilverStone's Heligon HE01 can hit the same performance levels, but it produces much higher noise in the process. You'll pay a pretty penny for the NH-D14, but it definitely feels like a quality cooler. Installation is sturdy, and performance and acoustics are very good.

Noctua NH-L12

The Noctua NH-L12's performance isn't exceptional, but it has one very important ace in the hole: it has a fairly low profile. In situations where a tower cooler simply isn't going to be an option, Noctua's NH-L12 offers decent performance and excellent acoustics. With the 120mm fan installed, the cooler's height is 93mm; remove it, and it's down to just 66mm. I also experienced no clearance issues with the NH-L12, even on the fairly crowded mITX board used for testing.

Noctua NH-L9i

While the other coolers definitely have something to offer above and beyond the Intel stock cooler in every way but clearance, the Noctua NH-L9i is a tougher sell. Essentially what you're paying for with this cooler is maximum compatibility and superior acoustics to the stock cooler. For many users that may very well be enough, but I suspect for a lot of people the price tag is going to make it a hard sell. At that point you may very well be better off looking to spend up on the NH-L12 if cooling performance and clearance are going to be sticking points.

SilverStone Heligon HE01

As a longtime fan of SilverStone's stuff, I approached the Heligon HE01 with some trepidation. Reviews for it elsewhere are generally favorable, but none are effusive. That typically means that the reviewer is being diplomatic. SilverStone's entrant doesn't perform poorly, but unfortunately runs into one major problem: nothing about it really recommends it over any of the other options available. If you're going to spend this much on an air cooler, you might as well go whole hog and grab Noctua's solution.

Conclusions, Part 2

The second set of conclusions are for be quiet!'s ninja, the Dark Rock Pro 2, along with Cooler Master's stellar budget performer, the Hyper 212 EVO.

be quiet! Dark Rock Pro 2

The biggest problem with be quiet!'s Dark Rock Pro 2 is that it's incredibly hard to find in the United States. At present, the only place you can get it as NCIXUS, and NCIXUS isn't exactly well known for their competitive pricing. The Noctua NH-D14 was already a tough sell at $81, and as much as I love the Dark Rock Pro 2, I don't think it's worth the $20 premium. This is without a doubt one of the quietest and most efficient air coolers you can find, but until the price comes down the premium won't justify the slightly superior efficiency over the Noctua.

Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO

I'll confess I went into this part of the review with a little bit of a bias. While my experiences with Cooler Master's products have been mixed, the Hyper 212 coolers have generally been very well regarded. And why wouldn't they be? The Hyper 212 Plus and EVO employ basically the same direct touch heatpipe technology that made Xigmatek's HDT1283 such a crowd pleaser, and they're both incredibly affordable. Cooler Master is able to eke a tremendous amount of efficiency out of this design with just one good 120mm fan, and while the 212 EVO can be beaten by closed loop coolers or fancier air coolers, it's an easy sell to an enthusiast on a budget.


Fundamentally, what I'm left with are a series of coolers that at least, outside of SilverStone's unfortunately middle-of-the-road Heligon HE01, can all justify themselves in their own way. Users looking for a beefy air cooler will essentially find themselves choosing between the Noctua NH-D14 and be quiet! Dark Rock Pro 2, and under those circumstances I have to give the edge to Noctua based on price alone.

Meanwhile, users looking for a low profile cooler are probably going to be served fairly well by the NH-L12. The NH-L9i is certainly an upgrade over an Intel stock cooler, and I can imagine corner cases where a user will want one, but under most circumstances I just don't think it does enough to really merit purchase. If you need a low profile cooler and want some extra juice out of it, the NH-L12 is likely going to be the way to go.

Finally, as I mentioned before, I went into this review with a bias toward the Hyper 212 EVO and frankly, it delivered. The price-performance ratio of Cooler Master's Hyper 212 coolers is essentially bulletproof and speaks to the same type of user who overclocked not to hit records, but to get the most out of his or her limited investment. A build using a Hyper 212 EVO and an Antec GX700 enclosure, for example, may not be the most attractive system in the world, but it'll get a tremendous amount of mileage out of the buyer's money. Because the Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO is able to produce fairly competitive thermals without too much noise pollution, I'm happy to award it a Bronze Editor's Choice award.

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