Noctua designed the NH-U12A to cover a very specific portion of the market – users that want a top-tier air cooler but are limited by the space available in their systems. Although this rarely is a concern for home users with high-end ATX tower cases, it is a growing issue for those building compact gaming systems, be it for living room use or just easier transportation.

To that end, Noctua’s engineers had to develop a cooler that competes with larger variants but fits into compact and HTPC cases. The solution seems simple at first – a modest increase of the NH-U12S’s mass would definitely improve the cooler’s performance. However, chaotically increasing a cooler’s size is a harbinger to compatibility issues. Fortunately, Noctua’s engineers never do anything randomly. The new NH-U12A is designed to specifically stay clear of the PCI Express slots, ensuring that the installation of the cooler will not be blocked by the graphics card. The cooler may partially overhang some of the RAM slots, but regular modules not taller than 42 mm will still fit. Finally, they balanced the length and density of the fins (airflow impedance) with the capabilities of the two 120 mm fans perfectly, ensuring good overall performance.

Noctua claims that the NH-U12A can compete head-to-head with 140 mm tower coolers. Though this definitely isn't true in all situations, when the thermal load is relatively low, the cooler can actually live up to Noctua's claims. With "relative" being, well, relative, by tower cooler standards, as high-end coolers can easily dissipate better than 200 Watts. This means that the NH-U12A will perform just like (or even better than) a 140 mm cooler with many stock-clocked processors, as only a handful of chips actually draw more than a 100 Watts or so.

Otherwise, once we start looking at high TDP scenarios, the larger 140 mm coolers of comparable class and quality will outperform the NH-U12A, even if only slightly. Noctua can't entirely escape the laws of physics here in that regard, as volume and surface area still count for something.

Past that, it's worth noting that the NH-U12A continued to display very good thermal performance even when the speed of the fans is reduced down to inaudible levels, making it an excellent choice for living room usage scenarios.

The only real drawback to the NH-U12A is its retail price, which is above and beyond even the usual Noctua premium. With US listings running at around $100, the cooler is going for roughly double the price of the similar NH-U12S, and the same has been true in Europe as well. As best as I can figure, the use of two high-end NF-A12x25 fans has significantly increased the production costs of the NH-U12A.

As a result the NH-U12A is, at least at the moment, a true niche product. Within its 120 mm space it's the tower cooler to beat. But if you can fit a larger 140 mm cooler, then this opens the door to a number of cheaper and equally capable coolers, including Noctua’s own top-tier 140 mm coolers, which currently sell for less than the NH-U12A. None of which changes the fact that the NH-U12A is a fine cooler, but as things stand the potential market is limited to users who want a high-end cooler for a compact system that can't fit something larger.

Thermal Resistance VS Sound Pressure Level
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  • beginning - Saturday, July 13, 2019 - link

    Thank you for the article. Lives up to the level of scientific rigor that anandtech has gotten me used to. This is very helpful and the graph of average thermal resistance at 12V will be a part of my go-to reference materials. I would like to request a similar graph for AIO liquid coolers if possible. Thank you once again for this in-depth article.
  • Showtime - Saturday, July 13, 2019 - link

    So funny reading people justifying the pricing. I think Noctua has gotten a little full of themselves. Unless this 120mm cooler equals the D15, $100 is silly. Too many options that will fit that space for half the cost.
  • Orange_Swan - Sunday, July 14, 2019 - link

    I love Noctua’s performance, but I really hate their color choice.
  • Surfacround - Monday, July 15, 2019 - link

    great, the be quiet! dark rock pro 3 is not available, and it is a copy of the noctua cooler... no wonder it beats the noctua cooler. moot point.
  • max347 - Wednesday, July 31, 2019 - link

    Ah good, I was hoping to find a review of the new Ultra 120 TRUE....oh wait...

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