5 Best CPU Coolers 2018 – Air and Liquid Cooling Systems

best cpu cooler for gaming

After spending 35 hours researching and testing, we have concluded that the Noctua NH-D15 is the best CPU air cooler. This may be an air CPU cooler but its performance is known for being able to compete pretty well against liquid coolers-- even being better in some cases-- minus the expensive price tag.

If you’re looking for the best liquid CPU cooler, don’t fret. Its included below.

Also, don’t get intimidated if you’re not familiar with some of the terms because we’ll also cover these later, but first let's take a quick look at each of our CPU coolers.

Our Air Pick
Noctua NH-D15

Noctua NH-D15

Best CPU Air Cooler

This is everyone’s best air cooler. Its performance is so outstanding that it can compete and even top liquid CPU coolers.

The Noctua NH-D15 is heavily based on the NH-D14 cooler. This is composed of 2 massive aluminum heatsink towers, newer design features, a smooth copper base plate, 6 copper heat pipes, and 2 140mm fans to deliver outstanding air cooling performance.

Our Liquid Pick
Cooler Master MasterLiquid ML360R

Cooler Master MasterLiquid ML360R

Best Liquid CPU Cooler

This is everybody’s go-to CPU cooler when it comes to keeping overclocked CPUs at cool temperatures. This is the chilling champ in the high-end liquid CPU cooler category.

An RGB-filled CPU fan done right. This AIO (all in one) is packed with RGB lights, but this isn’t just pretty, this fan performs well enough that it can even keep high-end CPUs cool.

The Silent Pick
Noctua NH-L9x65

Noctua NH-L9x65

Quietest CPU Cooler

If you’re after a low-profile cooler for your system, then nothing beats this air CPU cooler since it’s the quietest CPU cooler on the market.

This is what you’ll want to get if you’re all about keeping things silent. It has a large heatsink compared to its predecessor but this heatsink is what makes it the most silent CPU fan on the market.

The Cheaper Water Cooler
Corsair Hydro Series H100i Pro RGB

Corsair Hydro Series H100i Pro RGB

Best Water Cooler CPU (a more affordable option)

An alternative AIO that’s constantly being recommended to builders looking for a more affordable alternative by professionals-- that can be something to be proud of, too, of course.

Equipped with 2 Magnetic Levitation (ML) PWM based fans and RGB lights that can be configured via Corsair’s iCUE software, this AIO cooler is an alternative to our top liquid pick that builders can still rely on.

The Budget Pick
Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO

Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO

Best Budget CPU Cooler

This is a quality budget pick CPU cooler that professional builders can confer. In its section of the market, this cooler reigns as one of the best.

If your budget is tight, you’ll want nothing but the Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO-- this is the low budget CPU cooling king. It’s a good cheap CPU cooler that’s still viable in 2018.

How We Choose

We didn’t come up with our list just because… Instead, we specifically opted for coolers that excel not only in their specific category but according to the following criteria as well:

Reliability

CPU Coolers-- liquid coolers, specifically-- are notorious for leaking and there’s no guarantee that it won’t leak even if you install it properly.

This is why we only choose the most reliable coolers. The liquid coolers we have on this list are used by a lot of people and come from respected brands.

Performance

All the CPU coolers on our list are proven to perform well in relation to their cost. Specifically, these coolers were all reviewed well in their respective category according to thousands of users from different parts of the world who deal with wildly varying temperature ranges.

Noise

CPU coolers are expected to be loud when running at max. However, air coolers generally produce more sound than liquid coolers. There are some general things you can pay attention to that will let you get an idea for how loud a fan will be, like RPMs (revolutions per minute), but ultimately it’s best to read reviews to get an idea for how much noise they’ll make.

Tips on How To Choose the Best CPU Cooler

Before we really get down to business, here are some basic terms you should be familiar with. Don’t worry; there won’t be a test!

AIO (All-In-One)

This is in reference to a liquid cooler. This means it comes with the liquid, the pump, reservoir, and everything needed to run. All you have to do is install it and you’re good to go. Buying these pieces separately allows you to create a more customized setup, but it will cost you.

TDP (Thermal Design Power)

Also called Thermal Design Point. This is the maximum heat generated by a computer chip. In this case, a CPU.

RPM (Revolutions Per Minute)

Revolutions per minute or RPM is the number of revolutions a CPU fan makes in a minute. More RPMs means more airflow, but it also means it’s louder.

PWM (Pulse-Width Modulation)

Pulse-width modulation is a modulation process or technique that performs a predefined action based on either temperature (of the CPU) or system commands.

It simply means a PWM fan lets you control the rotational speed or RPM and lighting (if it’s RGB) wirelessly or via a 3rd party software.

dbA (A-weighted decibels)

This directly expresses the relative loudness of sounds in the air as it is perceived by the human ear. A-weighted system decibels means sounds at low frequencies are reduced compared with the unweighted decibels.

Here’s a table showing comparative examples of noise levels:

Noise levels
ExampledbA
Breathing/pin drop10
Rustling leaves20
Whisper30
Babbling brook40
Light traffic50
Conversational speech60

Things to Consider Before Buying a CPU Cooler

When buying a CPU cooler it doesn’t end with choosing the right size cooler for your case. Below are a few things to consider:

Your Budget

This is pretty obvious but you don’t want to buy something that’s not powerful enough to satiate your cooling needs. If you’re unsure how powerful your fan should be after reading everything here, then it’s still best overkill it since you’re not at risk of cooling too much.

Moreover, if you buy an extra powerful CPU cooler, then you might not need to upgrade it when you upgrade your CPU next. Yay for future proofing!

Consider the Amount of Heat Your Computer Generates

Before you can determine how large of a CPU cooler you’ll need (and how much money you should budget for) you first need to know how much heat your CPU generates.

Thankfully this is a lot easier than you’d think since you really just need to know the TDP.

If you’re one of those who keep all of your computer parts boxes, then the CPU box should tell you everything you need to know.

If you don’t have the CPU box anymore, simply go online and type in the model number of your CPU and head straight to the specifications tab and look for the TDP.

If you don’t know the model number of your CPU, there is a 3rd party software you can use like CPU-Z (which we highly recommend, too). Once installed, open the CPU-Z software and the CPU tab should tell you everything you need, which we conveniently highlighted as seen on the image below.

CPU Z highlight

The Family, Model, and Stepping codes will help you identify which processor version you have-- especially helpful if the processor has more than one version.

Do You Need a Small, Medium, or Large CPU Cooler?

Now that you know your CPU model, it’s time to determine the CPU cooler size that best fits your needs.

If you have a low TDP CPU (around 40W to 70W), then a large cooler will not be necessary. You can go for a cheaper, smaller to medium CPU cooler size. But anything over 70W will benefit from bigger, larger CPU coolers for efficient airflow.

Mind the CPU Socket

Whether you use a liquid cooler or air cooler, it must fit with the CPU socket.

Even though most CPU cooler manufacturers produce coolers to fit most CPU sockets by offering various brackets, some coolers still only work with specific CPU sockets.

To determine the type of CPU socket that fits your CPU cooler, check your CPU or your motherboard spec sheet.

Should You Use Air or Liquid?

Technically you could just randomly choose air or liquid. In fact, you likely wouldn’t destroy your computer doing that! But isn’t “Not destroying your several hundred dollar computer” a relatively low benchmark for making decisions? (Yes.)

Anyhow, there are some real pros and cons to take into mind when making your decision. The lowest hanging fruit being that, generally speaking, water cooling solutions are more expensive. However, AIO options mitigate this to a degree.

Clearance: Make Sure All Your Components Fit

One of the most common problems people face when buying a mid- to high-end air CPU cooler is the clearance.

And because CPU coolers can be really big, they leave little to no space left for your RAM and other hardware. So make sure you check the clearance, which should be clearly indicated on the spec sheet of the CPU cooler.

You should also check your motherboard’s layout to ensure parts won’t be bumping into one another.

If you have plenty of clearance, then will be fine. On the flipside, if you don’t have enough clearance, then you’ll need to go with a liquid cooler since they take up less space.

Consider the Position of the Fan and the Direction of the Air

Typically, a case will have 4 different locations for radiators to be mounted. However, some radiators can only be installed in either the top/bottom locations or the left/right locations. Most AMD coolers usually belong to the later since they have a rectangular form factor.

Knowing which direction the cooler blows air will help you organize the air circulation inside the case.

If the direction of the CPU cooler’s exhaust is jeopardized by a obstructed exhaust port, or perhaps an odd direction toward an exhaust port, then you will most certainly be better off with a liquid cooler.

How Much Do Aesthetics Matter?

It goes without saying that liquid coolers look nicer than air coolers.

However, just because a liquid cooler looks cooler doesn’t mean that it is cooler. In fact, there are a handful of air coolers that cool better than liquid coolers.

Just keep in mind that liquid coolers are usually the go-to option when overclocking as they cool better than air at higher temperatures.

The 5 Best CPU Cooler

ProductDetails
#1Noctua NH-D15

Noctua NH-D15

  • air or liquid: Air
  • max rpm: 1500 RPM (+/- 10%)
  • max noise: 24.6 dBA
  • dimensions with fan height x width x depth: 165 x 150 x 150mm
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#2Cooler Master MasterLiquid ML360R

Cooler Master MasterLiquid ML360R

  • air or liquid: Liquid
  • max rpm: 2000 RPM (+/- 10%)
  • max noise: 37.7 dBA
  • dimensions with fan height x width x depth: 394 x 119 x 27.2mm (radiator)
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#3Noctua NH-L9x65

Noctua NH-L9x65

  • air or liquid: Air
  • max rpm: 2500 RPM (+/- 10%)
  • max noise: 23.6 dBA
  • dimensions with fan height x width x depth: 65 x 95 x 95 mm
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#4Corsair Hydro Series H100i Pro RGB

Corsair Hydro Series H100i Pro RGB

  • air or liquid: Liquid
  • max rpm: 2400 RPM (+/- 10%)
  • max noise: 37 dBA
  • dimensions with fan height x width x depth: 276 x 120 x 27mm (radiator)
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#5Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO

Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO

  • air or liquid: Air
  • max rpm: 2,000 RPM (+/- 10%)
  • max noise: 36 dBA
  • dimensions with fan height x width x depth: 120 x 77 x 158.5 mm
Check Current Price
#1

Noctua NH-D15

Noctua is a very popular brand in this industry, and the Noctua NH-D15 is a proven masterpiece. It performs just as well as-- and even better than-- a handful of liquid CPU coolers in the mid-range category, which also makes it one of the best CPU coolers for gaming.

Noctua NH D15 unbox

Looking at what comes with the package, you have two 140mm fans. These fans were remarkably quiet even when run at max. With a 24.6 dbA sound level, it’s unlikely you’ll hear it running.

Sadly, these two fans are rather large, meaning your RAM might not fit depending on your setup. While it’s true that you can move the front fan up to give more RAM clearance, it still is not enough if you have a RAM with a bulky chassis.

Noctua have accounted for this with a second, smaller version: the NH-D15S. However, the performance was noticeably lamer than this model meaning you could find a better solution outside of these two products.

Noctua NH D15 unbox 1

One thing I hope we all can agree is a negative (although it doesn’t affect performance in any way) is the color. The brown and beige just aren’t for everyone unless you’re running a wood theme or something, which is highly unlikely. This wouldn’t really be a complaint if there were other colors, but there aren’t.

Still, it’s a damned good CPU cooler so if you’re looking for the best air cooler for overclocking on the market, you’ll definitely want to check this out.

#2

Cooler Master MasterLiquid ML360R

The Cooler Master MasterLiquid ML360R is an impressive 360mm AIO that easily outperforms the rest of the bunch in the category.

In fact, a test result made by Tom’s Hardware confirmed that this cools even better than the mighty NZXT Kraken X72.

However, the first thing you’ll notice isn’t the cooling, but rather the numerous RGB lights.

And it does handle RGB lighting pretty well. The lighting supports full RGB lighting spectrum, which means you can customize the colors to you specific mood. The pump lights and can be synced with the fan lights. It even comes with a remote for wireless adjustment which is always nice.

However, this is somewhat muddled due to the fact that the RGB lighting is also packed with cables long enough to give you a hard time keeping them tidy. Routing them through the right places and proper configuration will be needed to achieve a clean output.

Cooler Master MasterLiquid ML360R unbox

The rectangular control module, however, is something that you can easily install since it has a magnetic base. You can place it anywhere inside the case as long as it’s metal.

Installing the (3) MF120R aRGB fans is also relatively easy because it comes with thumbscrew-type fan bolts that doesn’t require the aid of screwdrivers-- very convenient.

When all 3 fans run at max, it is kind of loud (37.7 dBA); louder even than the mighty NZXT Kraken X72. That being said, this is an AIO CPU cooler, meaning it’s unlikely you’ll have them running at 100% unless you’re doing some serious overclocking.

Cooler Master MasterLiquid ML360R unbox 1

Since the fans can be installed on the front, back, or the top side of the case, you should find it easy to arrange them in such a way that your RAM and PCIe lanes are not being blocked. Plus, since it is a liquid cooler, you only have to worry about the pump on top of the CPU which leaves plenty of space at your disposal.

Despite providing great airflow relative to its cost, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it could have done more. It always felt like it prioritized the RGB lighting and aesthetics over performance for some reason.

But overall, this performs like a premium liquid cooler while being priced like a mid-range liquid cooler.

#3

Noctua NH-L9x65

If you’re after the quietest CPU cooler, then the Noctua NH-L9x65-- with a maximum sound level of only 23.6 dBA at max-- might be the best you can find.

This does come with a caveat: they’re only ensured to be really quiet with low TDP processors. Click this TDP guide to learn more.

It’s Noctua, what more can we say? They always manufacture great coolers in their respective range-- just like they almost always come in brown and beige colors. They’re a true pillar of consistency!

Noctua NH L9x65 unbox

Looking at the build, it’s very small, as it stands just 64mm tall and has a very compact footprint (only 95x95 mm). Because of their compact size, this cooler has 100% RAM and PCIe compatibility on most platforms.

Just keep in mind that they come at a relatively higher price compared to most coolers in its range due to their silent power. But overall, this brown air cooler performs very well.

#4

Corsair Hydro Series H100i Pro RGB

The Corsair Hydro Series H100i Pro RGB is a relatively cheap liquid cooler that professionals highly recommend. Like the Cooler Master MasterLiquid ML360R, it also boasts RGB lighting.

Through their iCUE software, you can easily achieve a wide range of RGB lighting setups across a spectrum of colors. Plus, it comes with a predefined configuration setting that lets you control the fan speeds from 100%, 50% and even run them at 0%.

This means you can leave the fans at 0% and have the pumps to do all the work as long as the temperature is cool enough. And oh, the pump is also remarkably small-- the smallest in the market.

The pump also comes pre-applied with a thermal paste but you can always use an aftermarket paste if you have one. Nonetheless, the thermals that come with it are fine.

Mounting the pump onto the motherboard can be tricky because the default bracket is compatible with Intel processors. There is an included bracket for AMD processors as well, but you have to swap them out.

Just twist the bracket counterclockwise, remove it, and then replace it with the AMD bracket by twisting it clockwise to lock it in place. You might also need someone to hold the pump as you screw them in place to keep it from slipping and whatnot.

Corsair Hydro Series H100i Pro RGB unbox

It’s also worth noting that the fans do not have RGB lights. But you can get 2 more fans that have RGB lights and install it on the other side of the radiator-- a total of 4 fans in all (2 push in and 2 push out fans).

In some situations, consumers would replace the (2) included fans with 2x Magnetic Levitation 120mm RGB fans on top of another 2 fans on the opposite side of the radiator for a full RGB lighting setup. This makes it the best in the range as it opens up a lot of customization possibilities.

But if you don’t want to invest more, you can stick with the two included fans. In fact, I’d personally recommend you stick with it if you don’t want to spend more. These are already good enough to give you great cooling potential-- unless you really want to go RGB or you want to maximize its cooling potential.

Overall, the build is made of premium materials, which guarantees durability, longevity, and a place on our list as the best water cooler CPU-- in the cheaper category, that is.

#5

Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO

If you’re looking for the best CPU fan (budget), you won’t get anything better than the Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO. It’s literally the king of the budget CPU coolers as confirmed by over 5,500 satisfied consumers on Amazon alone.

Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO unbox

The build is undeniably great for how much it’s worth. It comes with 4 heat pipes and a mounting solution that’s also very durable.

This does not have any RGB lights that you can play with-- which is expected, given that it’s very cheap. But compared to the rest of its competitors in the price range, this performs silently without compromising any cooling performance.

You can have a second fan attached to the heatsink which is a plus for such a cheap fan. But is it really worth it? Well, the temperature difference will probably only be 1 to 2 degrees celsius-- so, instead of spending more than $5 for an extra fan, I’d personally go with a more expensive fan instead.

Overall, it’s a budget CPU cooling fan that you can rely on-- just don’t expect this to handle overclocking CPUs.

Which is the Right CPU Cooler For You?

Now that we have everything covered, it’s time to decide which CPU cooler is perfect for your needs.

  1. Get the Noctua NH-D15 if you’re looking for the best air CPU cooler. It performs just as good and even better than a handful of mid-range liquid coolers.
  2. For builders looking for a really good liquid cooler, the Cooler Master MasterLiquid ML360R can compete against higher-end coolers at a cheaper price point.
  3. We highly recommend the Noctua NH-L9x65 if you’re after the quietest air CPU cooler. Just keep in mind that it’s only low TDP CPUs.
  4. If you don’t need all of the power of our above liquid cooling option, then the Corsair Hydro Series H100i Pro RGB is a good compromise to save some money.
  5. For those looking for the best budget option or the most affordable best heatsink fan, we highly recommend the Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO.

Parting Words

If you’re still reading up until this point, I hope you learned a lot and are now confident with your next purchase. Which CPU cooler are you planning to get? Or do you have experiences with these coolers? Share your thoughts and experiences down in the comments section!

Sources

  1. Thomas Soderstrom, Face-Off: The Kraken X61, Reserator 3 Max Dual, And NH-D15, Tom’s Hardware, December 9, 2014
  2. Garrett Carver, CoolerMaster MasterLiquid ML360R RGB Review: The New Cooling Champ, Tom’s Hardware, August 27, 2018

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