Trying to find the best liquid CPU cooler for 2021? Whether you’re a savvy enthusiast just wanting a quick list of the best picks or a newcomer who wants to make an informed buying decision, we have you covered.
Liquid cooling offers a number of benefits over air cooling, not the least of which is bragging rights and quieter operating temperatures. Check out the buying guide below if you find yourself with any questions- otherwise, let’s dive right into our top picks!
Best Liquid CPU Cooler For 2021: Our Top Picks
We’ve done the research so you don’t have to, here are our top picks for the best liquid CPU cooler on the market this year.
#1. NZXT Kraken M22
Radiator Width: 120 mm | Fan RPM: 500-2000 RPM | Estimated Noise Level: 21-36 dBA | Socket Compatibility: Modern Intel & AMD Sockets | Lighting: RGB Logo
The NZXT Kraken M22 is our pick for best 120 mm liquid CPU cooler. Due to its smaller size, this is an ideal liquid cooler for a smaller Mini ITX build, especially one that doesn’t have room for a high-performance air cooler. Its noise levels are respectably low and its performance is fairly solid- it’s hard to beat the Kraken M22 in this form factor and this price range for what’s on offer.
The main caveat here is that if you have room for a larger liquid cooler or a proper air cooler, we definitely recommend those for the increased performance you would get- especially from, say, our #2 pick. But if you don’t mind losing just a little bit of cooling potential and really want that low-profile liquid cooling rig, this is a great pick for you.
Verdict: Best 120mm Liquid CPU Cooler
#2. EVGA CLC 240
Radiator Width: 240 mm | Fan RPM: 500-2400 RPM | Estimated Noise Level: 16-39 dBA | Socket Compatibility: Modern Intel & AMD Sockets | Lighting: RGB Logo
The EVGA CLC 240 is our top pick for best value liquid CPU cooler. It has great cooling performance, should fit in most cases, and while it isn’t the cheapest option, it’s certainly superb for the performance-per-dollar on display here. If you’re looking for a good liquid cooler that provides a decent benefit over air cooling in raw performance and aren’t trying to break the bank on a bunch of extra bells and whistles, this is most likely the cooler for you.
However, we do have to note the caveat here- this is a little louder than most of the other AIOs on this list when at full load. That being said, it’s still quieter than your average air cooler, and chances are high that your speakers or headphones will easily drown out any extra noise generated by this cooler.
Verdict: Best Value Liquid CPU Cooler
Radiator Width: 360 mm | Fan RPM: 800-1900 | Estimated Noise Level: Up to 20 dBA | Socket Compatibility: Modern Intel & AMD Sockets | Lighting: RGB Logo & Fans
The Lian Li Galahad 360 is our pick for best high performance liquid CPU cooler, because…well, it’s the best high performance liquid CPU cooler that we could find actually available on Amazon. In addition to market-leading cooling performance, it’s extremely quiet and offers some flashy RGB fans for those who want to really flex their case lighting.
The downsides are what you’d expect. That high performance is partially because this is a 360 mm AIO, which means that you aren’t going to be able to fit this into any Mini ITX case and most likely not any Micro ATX cases either. This is a cooler for the big boys with ATX cases. Additionally, the price is quite high, especially compared to our previous two options- but this is to be expected if high performance is what you’re chasing.
Verdict: Best High Performance Liquid CPU Cooler
Want a 240 mm instead? Get the 240 Version of this cooler- it’s only a few degrees warmer in most workloads!
Radiator Width: 280 mm | Fan RPM: Up to 2000 RPM | Estimated Noise Level: Up to 40 dBa | Socket Compatibility: Modern Intel & AMD Sockets | Lighting: RGB Logo & Fans
Let’s face it: in today’s PC builds, performance isn’t everything- aesthetics compel many builders to choose some parts over others.
In this case, the Corsair H115i RGB Platinum is an interesting compromise between aesthetics and raw performance. This is a 280 mm AIO that offers fairly good performance, but the main draw is definitely in its RGB fans and Corsair software. For fans of RGB, especially those who want RGB across their entire PC build, Corsair products tend to be the way to go. The H115i RGB Platinum follows this trend, and perhaps unsurprisingly is our pick for best RGB Liquid CPU Cooler, thanks to Corsair’s RGB software alongside the fans.
Besides RGB, you get solid performance in a form factor that should fit in most PC cases, except Mini ITX or Micro ATX cases that don’t support 140 mm fan slots.
Verdict: Best RGB Liquid CPU Cooler
Want a 240 mm alternative? Click here to get the Platinum H100i instead– same great software and most of the performance, but in a smaller form factor.
Buying The Best Liquid CPU Cooler For You: FAQ & More
In this section, we’re going to cover all the big questions you might have about buying a liquid CPU cooler. If you don’t feel like you know enough about liquid cooling, this part of the article should ease your concerns a bit and help you make an informed buying decision.
What makes Liquid Cooling different than Air Cooling?
First, the obvious question: what makes liquid cooling different than air cooling?
Truthfully, not a whole lot. CPU cooling in general is based around thermal conductivity. A traditional air cooler accomplishes this by using metal to conduct heat to a heatsink, from which the heat carried from the CPU through the thermal paste to the cooler can be safely radiated off. This is called passive cooling, and is common on portable devices. Add an active fan or two to said heatsink and you get active cooling.
So, how do you accomplish this goal with liquid?
Simple: liquid takes the place of the metal. More accurately, liquid coolant (usually not straight water, as this can be dangerous to your system and also erode tubing over time) circulates from CPU to radiator. The radiator, which is now mounted to one or more fan slots inside of the case, takes the place of the heatsink- this is where you put your fans and cool the liquid, and by extension your hardware.
Depending on what you want, this can be a better or worse solution than traditional air cooling. More on that below.
Is Liquid Cooling better than Air Cooling?
One way that liquid cooling is outright better than air cooling is noise levels. While both liquid and air cooling need to use fans in order to dissipate heat, an air cooler’s fan is directly on a heatsink and has little assistance. With a liquid cooler, the coolant liquid already does quite a lot of work to dissipate heat well before the fan enters the equation, and once it does it’s able to reach the same low temperatures- if not better- at much lower fan speed (RPM). In turn, less noise.
High-performance air coolers can often compete with liquid coolers, especially AIOs. Higher-end AIOs (especially those with larger radiators) can win out, though this comes at the penalty of a much higher price. Custom loops can offer further benefits, but at the cost of a much higher price and more maintenance/building concerns.
Overall, the choice between the two depends on your needs. Just want the best bang for your buck? Air cooling will do the trick. But if you want super high-performance cooling or simply want temperatures to be as quiet as possible, liquid cooling will be the better option.
What about custom loop setups?
As prior, custom loop liquid cooling setups can provide the best overall cooling performance and noise levels. However, this also means spending much more money- and a lot of per-scenario setup that goes outside of the scope of this article. If you aren’t already an enthusiast, we don’t really recommend getting into custom loop setups- especially not if it’s your first PC build or you don’t have the money to replace parts in case of a loop failure. If you’re extremely confident and willing to do the research and extra work, though, a custom loop setup can prove to be a fun project with real performance benefits- or you can simply pay to have it done for you.
Is a larger radiator better?
Yes, but it needs to be built properly (length and width are good, thickness may not be) and have proper fan coverage. An insufficiently-cooled 360 mm radiator may not do as well as a properly-cooled 280 mm radiator, for instance.
Is higher fan RPM better?
Yes- higher fan speed translates to more air being moved, and more air being moved = lower temperatures. However, the way that the fan is constructed matters as well- some fans are built for static pressure (pushing through a heatsink/radiator with great force) while others are built for high airflow (usually exhausting out of a case with little resistance, or intake). Higher fan RPM also translates to higher noise levels, though yet again the exact noise level will vary from fan to fan, with many built to stay quieter at higher RPM than others.
And that’s it!
We hope that this article helped you find the best liquid CPU cooler for your needs, and that we answered any questions you might have had. If you have any more questions, feel free to ask them in the comments section down below- we’ll do our best to help you out!