Recently, we did an article on CPU Liquid Coolers, which focused on the many coolers available on the market which target consumers looking to take their build a step up above the norm. In that article, we outlined the benefits and drawbacks of liquid cooling and provided you with options across a plethora of CPU sockets, radiator sizes, aesthetics, prices and more. However, our list did not include—for obvious reasons—air coolers. While we did mention them, and also highlighted their many benefits, that article focused on the liquid side of cooling.
In this article, we’ll cover the other side of the CPU cooling market.
Air cooling has been the standard since nearly the inception of computers, and for a very good reason: it’s cheap, and it’s reliable. Copper is very good at dissipating heat, so throwing it against a hot electronic device—like a CPU—is practically a no-brainer. The copper will pull the heat away, where the fan (which is not involved in passive cooling systems) will then blow it away, carrying the heat away from the hot component(s). It’s cheap, it’s efficient, and it just works. As such, the market is full of air coolers ranging from tiny, small-form-factor coolers, all the way up to massive coolers that require specific cases to mount them.
While there eventually is a point of diminishing returns, the rule of thumb for air coolers is as follows: the larger the cooler, plus the more heat pipes and fins, equals better cooling. As such, larger heatsinks will almost always outperform smaller coolers. As mentioned though, there is a point of diminishing returns, where the laws of thermodynamics can only do so much to remove the heat in a timely, efficient manner.
In our last CPU cooler article, we covered the benefits and drawbacks of liquid coolers over traditional air coolers. In this article, however, we feel that is largely unnecessary. The only drawback(s) to air coolers are their (potential) size and aesthetic. The only moving part in an air cooler is the fan—if it is not passively cooled—and fans can be replaced for incredibly cheap, so air cooling is both efficient, affordable, safe and long-lasting. The only drawback would be the potential size, as mentioned before, where RAM compatibility can come into play, and aesthetic, as some air coolers can be an eyesore.
Below, we’ll cover the best air coolers on the market, and why we recommend them!
Related: The best 120mm case fan
|Name||Best Price (Amazon)||Fan Size||Socket Support|
|Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO||Check Price||120mm||Intel LGA 2066 / 2011-3 / 2011 / 1150 / 1151 / 1155 / 1156 / 1366
AMD Socket AM4 / AM3+ / AM3 / AM2+ / FM2+ / FM2 / FM1
|Enermax ETS-T40 Fit||Check Price||120mm||Intel LGA 1156 / 1155 / 1151 / 1150
AMD AM4 (with included mounting adapter) AM3+ / AM3 / AM2+ / AM2 / FM2+ / FM2 / FM1
|Noctua NH-D15||Check Price||Dual 140mm||Intel LGA 2011-0 & LGA 2011-3 (Square ILM) / LGA 1156 / LGA 1155 / LGA 1151 / LGA 1150
AMD AM3+ / AM3 / AM2+ / AM2 / FM2+ / FM2 / FM1 (backplate required)
|be quiet! DARK ROCK 3||Check Price||135mm||Intel 2066 / 2011 / 1366 / 115x / 775
AMD Socket AM4 / AM3+ / AM3 / AM2+ / AM2 / FM2+ / FM2 / FM1
|Arctic Freezer 33 eSports Edition||Check Price||120mm||Intel LGA 2066* / 2011-3* / 2011* / 1156 / 1155 / 1151 / 1150
AMD Socket AM4
Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO Review
Why You Want It:
To call the Hyper 212 EVO a “legendary” air cooler would be an understatement. This thing has been around since practically the dawn of time itself. Okay, maybe not that far back, but its name is very well-known in the computer space, and for a very good reason: this thing is very good and very cheap. This cooler can typically be had for less than $30 USD, and it even comes with a fan that, while not the greatest, will more than do the job. Included in the packaging is everything you’ll need to get this thing set up and going. The heatsink itself, an included fan, all necessary mounting hardware, as well as some complementary thermal paste. Plus, extra brackets for mounting an additional fan, if you desire a push-pull configuration.
This cooler, while not the best on the market in terms of cooling performance, will be leagues ahead of any stock cooler that may come with your CPU. It will even allow for some overclocking, depending on what CPU you pair it with. The only real drawback to this CPU is its lack of out-of-the-box support for AMD’s AM4 socket, which covers their Ryzen lineup of CPUs. Some Ryzen motherboards will use the traditional AM3 mounting bracket, which the Hyper 212 supports, while others will not. Finding a Hyper 212 variant with AM4 support will depend on when the cooler was shipped to shelves, as Cooler Master only later began shipping it with the required mounting hardware. The versatile mounting arm means, however, that this will support most Intel sockets, and anything from Intel or AMD pre-Skylake and pre-Ryzen for sure.
Overall, this is an incredible cooler at an incredible price.
Enermax ETS-T40 Fit
Why You Want It:
This Enermax ETS-T40 Fit is versatile, with its native AM4 support, but its cooling potential is slightly better and in some cases significantly better than the previously-mentioned cooler. It has a sleeker design for those who care about aesthetics, and it even offers an RGB variant for slightly more money, if you’re into that sort of thing. The Enermax ETS-T40 Fit is everything you want out of a cooler, and nothing more. While this monster cannot tackle behemoths like Threadripper, it can more than adequately cool everything up to that point.
Why You Want It:
Have you ever seen one of those “lifted” trucks on the road? The kind that sit so high up off the ground, you fear you may die if you fall out of it? How impractical it seems for everyday use? That’s the Noctua NH-D15. Oh, except for one part: this is actually very, very practical.
If your case can support this monstrosity, the NH-D15 is among the absolute best air coolers on the market, outperforming many liquid coolers at similar, or even greater prices. How does it pull off this feat, you may ask? Well, by being as large as a small computer case, that’s how. Do you know what’s better than one heatsink? Two heatsinks! At least, that was Noctua’s logic when building this thing, as the NH-D15 is the air cooling equivalent to a W16 engine. “Let’s just try sticking two of these together and see what happens.” Well, in this case, a lot of magic happened.
Noctua is known for their high-quality fans with ugly color schemes. This cooler comes with two of them, and they perform excellently. They’re practically silent, and could probably cool down a nuclear reactor if you somehow managed to mount it to one. All joking aside, this cooler’s only downsides are its size, and lack of AM4 support out of the box. There is, however, an AM4 variant available for a few extra dollars. If you have a case that can support such a thing, and low-profile RAM that you can slot beneath this behemoth, there’s very little room left for better air cooling potential.
be quiet! DARK ROCK 3
Why You Want It:
While this probably isn’t true, I can’t help but imagine that the CEO of be quiet! Was probably traumatized by libraries when they were younger. All of their products are just so quiet, it’s kind of incredible. Truly, they live up to their name, especially when it comes to their fans. At max RPM, their SilentWings fans truly are practically silent, as you hear only the sound of the air itself being moved. Well, what happens when you combine those fans with a decent heatsink? The DARK ROCK 3, that’s what. (Ironic, isn’t it? A company all about quietness, with all capitals in their product name.)
This cooler stands out due to its all-black, sleek design, and its inclusion of the SIlentWings fan. This fan by itself costs almost as much as the Hyper 212 cooler, and for a very good aforementioned reason. When you couple that fan with a good heatsink and all-black design, you’re left with a sleek, desirable cooler that actually performs. Who would have thought? Function AND form! This cooler even supports AM4, edging it just slightly ahead of the NH-D15 for this very reason.
If you need a smaller variant or need something cheaper, consider looking into the PURE ROCK cooler, this cooler’s smaller cousin.
Overall, this is a great cooler at a slightly-premium price, but you definitely get what you pay for.
Arctic Freezer 33 eSports Edition
Why You Want It:
Okay, I’ll admit, this one’s a little bit frivolous. NOW WAIT! That doesn’t mean it’s bad! In fact, this cooler’s Threadripper edition was even able to cool a massive CPU, even whilst it was overclocked, so don’t just go and undercut this cooler because its name sounds like marketing gimmicks. The reason I say it’s frivolous is that of the customization options. This cooler comes with two decent-if-not-good fans, and you have the option to buy them with white rings, red rings, yellow rings or green rings, to help tie the cooler into the rest of your build. Furthermore, this thing is cheap. You can regularly find this thing for the same price as the Hyper 212, and sometimes (during sales mainly) the H7. It also has a rather sleek, clean design that I personally really appreciate it. Oh, and it has AM4 support, so that’s a nice bonus.
This cooler isn’t going to be the best performer on this list, nor is it the best-specced feature-wise. However, it looks good, it will undoubtedly tie into any build you do, it’s affordable, and it performs well enough to justify the price. If you like it, you can’t go wrong with it.
We hope you enjoyed our list of the Best CPU Air Coolers. We tried our best to grab a variety of coolers as a variety of price points, allowing for any builder to find the cooler they need. Our only main exclusion was low-profile coolers, as they’re a part of a very niche market, and not many are available anymore. In the future, we may do an article covering the many perks and facets of low-profile building, including the few cooling solutions available on the market.
If you disagree with our picks or do not see a cooler you believe belongs on here, please let us know and we’ll look into it!