Today, we’re going to tell you all you need to know to find the best CPU cooler, liquid or air, for your needs. This includes our top picks for both liquid and air coolers, as well as a detailed rundown on all you need to know in order to buy the right choice for you.
Do I need a CPU Cooler?
The short answer is a loud and clear YES, you need a cooler. The long answer is YES, you need a cooler, but be careful which one you install for your PC build.
You don’t need to be an expert in order to read through this article and pick the right cooler- our buying guide will teach you everything you need to know, and we already used our expertise to vet these picks for you.
But enough of that. Let’s dive into it!
Best CPU Air Cooler
Type: Air Cooler | Heatsink Height: 159 mm | Fan RPM: 600 – 2000 | Estimated Noise Level: 9-36 dB | Socket Compatibility: All Modern AMD and Intel Sockets | Lighting: N/A
Our pick for the best budget CPU air cooler is the Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO. This is the most popular CPU cooler on Amazon, and for good reason: at a consistently low price point for the past decade, it still provides some of the best performance for the money. If you want to upgrade over your wimpy stock cooler without breaking the bank, then the 212 EVO is a consistent top pick for enthusiasts and budget users alike.
The only issue with the 212 EVO is that it may not fit in some of your super-slim Mini ITX or HTPC builds, due to its height. If you’ve made sure the height isn’t a problem, though, it’s unlikely to interfere with your RAM installation or anything, either, since its horizontal footprint is also pretty low.
As long as you aren’t trying to overclock a Ryzen 7/9 or Core i7/9, this cooler should be a perfect companion for your PC build.
Verdict: The Best Budget CPU Air Cooler
#2. Noctua NH-D15
Type: Air Cooler | Heatsink Height: 165 mm | Fan RPM: 300-1500 RPM | Estimated Noise Level: 19.2-24.6 dB | Socket Compatibility: All Modern AMD and Intel Sockets | Lighting: N/A
The Noctua NH-D15 is our pick for the best CPU air cooler, and arguably the best CPU cooler for gaming overall. It’s incredibly beefy and has two fans to match, but so long as it can fit inside your system, the performance you get in return will be more than worth the trade. This is pretty much the ultimate air cooler at the time of writing, so…what’re the downsides?
For one, the fact it may not fit inside your build, especially if you’re doing a Mini ITX build. Even if it fits in the case, the heatsink or the fan may conflict with your RAM slots, and you don’t want that. The best air coolers come with a size to match, and it’s important to keep that in mind. Beefy air coolers like this are most at home in an ATX case.
Secondly…it’s a bit expensive for an air cooler. At the time of writing, it isn’t that much cheaper than our top liquid cooling option, but that’s more than likely because of certain worldwide supply shortages going on in Q1 2020 for certain reasons. It’s still cheaper, though, and it should still provide on par or better performance than any AIO liquid cooler.
So, for those reasons…we still highly recommend this cooler.
Verdict: The Best CPU Air Cooler / Best CPU Cooler For Gaming
#3. Noctua NH-L9i
Type: Air Cooler | Heatsink Height: 37 mm | Fan RPM: 600-2500 RPM | Estimated Noise Level: 14.8-23.6 dB | Socket Compatibility: All Modern AMD and Intel Sockets | Lighting: N/A
Last but not least for our air cooler lineup is the Noctua NH-L9i. This one isn’t really a high-performance option, but rather the ideal choice of CPU cooler for those builds that are super space-constrained. If you can’t afford or can’t fit an AIO liquid cooler inside of your build, this is the next best option.
In addition to being small, it runs fairly cool and quiet. It’s much cooler than the similarly low profile Intel stock cooler, anyhow, which should still give some nice headroom on Core i3/i5 and Ryzen 3/5 chips. The price is pretty low, too- this one shouldn’t cost you much more than our #1 budget air cooling pick, the Hyper 212 Evo.
Verdict: Best Low Profile CPU Air Cooler
Best CPU Liquid Cooler
#1. NZXT Kraken M22
Type: Liquid Cooler | Radiator Width: 120 mm | Fan RPM: 500-2000 RPM | Estimated Noise Level: 21-36 dB | Socket Compatibility: All Modern AMD and Intel Sockets | Lighting: RGB
The NZXT Kraken M22 is our pick for the best budget liquid CPU cooler. It uses a 120 mm radiator and attached fan to provide great liquid cooling performance in a small package, making it ideal for those SFF PC builds where you can’t fit a big air cooler but still want great performance. It also has some RGB implemented on its CPU shroud, with an RGB NZXT logo and nifty “infinity mirror” design. (No RGB on the fans, sadly.)
If you can afford something bigger in your budget or your case’s physical capacity, we’d recommend going for that. But if you can’t, then the NZXT Kraken M22 is an excellent pick for getting you started in the wide world of liquid cooling.
Verdict: Best Budget CPU Liquid Cooler
#2. EVGA CLC 280
Type: Liquid Cooler | Radiator Width: 280 mm | Fan RPM: 600-2200 RPM | Estimated Noise Level: 16-39.5 dB | Socket Compatibility: All Modern AMD and Intel Sockets | Lighting: RGB
The EVGa CLC 280 is currently the best-performing AIO liquid cooler on the market.
That’s it, there you go. You can go home now.
Okay fine, there are other things going for it, too. For instance, there’s some subtle RGB on the CPU shroud, and the fact that it’s very cheap for being the best-performing AIO on the market. That’s probably because EVGA chose to spend their money on performance rather than pretty lights, but don’t take that as an official statement from us.
The main downside with this cooler is that it uses two 140 mm fan slots, rather than 120 mm fan slots. This makes it much less likely to be compatible with the Mini ITX/Micro ATX builds that liquid cooling is known to go so well with, since 140 mm fan slots- much less two side-to-side- are hard to come by in those form factors. If you want to get this cooler, be sure to double-check your case fan specs!
Verdict: Best CPU Liquid Cooler / Best Liquid Cooler For Gaming
Type: Liquid Cooler | Radiator Width: 280 mm | Fan RPM: Up to 2000 RPM | Estimated Noise Level: Up to 40 dB | Socket Compatibility: All Modern AMD and Intel Sockets | Lighting: RGB
The Corsair H115i Platinum is our final pick, and it’s pretty much only getting it for the ultra-flashy RGB implementation. The liquid cooling performance is pretty solid- albeit at the cost of the same dual-140 mm slot requirement that the CLC 280 has- but the real star of the show here are those sweet, sweet RGB fans and the excellent Corsair RGB software that comes with them. If you aren’t interested in RGB, then this pick isn’t for you- but if you can’t live without it, then you should definitely consider this one.
Aside from the size and the fact that it isn’t technically the best AIO on the market, the biggest con involved here is the price. Pretty RGB comes at a high cost. If you’re willing to pay that cost, go for it- otherwise, we’d seriously recommend considering one of our other picks. It’s also important to keep in mind that you can replace the fans in pretty much all of the picks we have, and that means you can add RGB fans to any cooler on this list.
Make no mistake: this is a superb cooler, and it should serve you well no matter what CPU you use it with. We just want to make sure you know everything you need to to make a good decision according to your needs.
Verdict: Best RGB CPU Liquid Cooler
Buying The Best CPU Cooler For You
In this section, we’re going to walk you through all the need-to-know info there is around buying the best cooler for your needs.
What is the difference between air and liquid CPU cooling?
Air cooling uses a fan and heatsink attached directly to the CPU to cool the CPU. The heatsink takes the excess heat generated by the CPU, and the fan disperses that heat. As long as this is being done properly, this will prevent the CPU from overheating or thermal throttling, which can inhibit performance or damage hardware in severe circumstances.
Liquid cooling still uses a fan or two, but trades out the heatsink for a radiator attached to one of the fan slots of the case. The fan is attached to this radiator, and liquid runs through and from this radiator to the CPU. This liquid, like the heatsink for an air cooler, carries the heat. The fan and radiator then serve to get rid of that heat as it’s generated. This is an equally valid method of preventing overheating and thermal throttling and is particularly popular among enthusiasts.
Is liquid CPU cooling better than air cooling?
In some ways yes, and others, no. We’ll break it down into some simple pros and cons.
Air Cooling Pros
- Can accomplish the same or better results than an AIO/closed loop liquid cooler
Air Cooling Cons
- Higher noise levels
- More likely to have compatibility issues with SFF PCs and motherboards
Liquid Cooling Pros
- Accomplishes great thermals at lower noise levels- fans don’t need to be pushed as hard on liquid cooling setups
- With custom loop* setups, can accomplish the best thermal results
- Better compatibility with many SFF PCs, since radiators use pre-existing fan slots
Liquid Cooling Cons
- More expensive than air all-around, especially for raw performance
*A custom loop setup is a custom liquid cooling setup, and a bit out of the scale of this article, since you can’t exactly buy them as a singular product. Custom loops can achieve the best cooling performance on the market, but not by a huge margin- they’re usually made for the fun of it or to show off, not as a practical cooling solution.
How does fan RPM contribute to performance?
The faster the fan is spinning, the cooler the heatsink/radiator will be…but also, the louder it will be. High fan RPMs are great for thermals, but not so great for user experience. This works out in favor of liquid cooling setups, since the sheer amount of cooling mass (liquid) keeps baseline temperatures lower, requiring less fan speed to achieve good results.
How do heatsink and radiator size correlate to performance?
There is a point of diminishing returns (especially where radiators are concerned- 280 mm seems to be the sweet spot), but in general, larger means better. This is because more thermal mass is available to disperse heat with- as long as that dispersion comes with a decent fan or two, you’ll get better results. This is why the best-performing coolers, air or liquid, come with two or more fans and larger heatsinks/radiators.
How do I know what noise levels are acceptable?
Aside from personal preference, here are some common sounds and where they rank in terms of decibels (dB) generated. (Note that the ranges displayed in our spec sheets correspond to fan RPM and corresponding noise- especially with liquid coolers, turning down fan RPM to reduce noise without overly hurting cooling performance is an option!)
- 0-10 dB – Ambient noise
- 10 dB – Breathing and rustling leaves
- 20 dB – Distant whispers
- 30-40 dB – Soft rain
Things don’t really start getting loud until you exceed this range, and fortunately all of the coolers we’ve listed fall within it. Add in some sound on your speakers or especially your headphones, and any noises your coolers make should be virtually inaudible in regular use. Some PC cases are also well-built for quiet operation, which further reduces the likelihood of your coolers interrupting your experience.
What to know about RGB on your cooler
RGB lighting refers to LEDs that can cycle through multiple colors. Some RGB coolers are limited to certain patterns and color palettes, but the ones that we’ve selected in this article have a full range of color and are also customizable with the appropriate software and fan controllers. There are two main implementations to think about when it comes to coolers, though:
- On-Fan RGB: The cooling fans double as RGB fans- this one is much more visually-striking. The Corsair H115i uses this method.
- On-Shroud RGB: The shroud that covers your CPU in an AIO setup is RGB, usually an RGB company logo. Much more subtle, but may be preferred by some users. The EVGA CLC 280 uses this method.
And that’s it! We hope you found that article informative, and that it’ll help you make an informed buying decision. Even if you didn’t buy anything, we hope we taught you a few things about coolers for you to carry onward. If you have any lingering questions, leave a comment below and let us know- we’ll be happy to help!