Whether you’re aiming for ultimate overclocks or just a PC that doesn’t get noisy under load, choosing the right CPU cooler is an important decision in any PC build or upgrade that can make a big difference in temperatures and noise. If your existing cooler can’t keep your chip’s temps under control, that could mean slower performance and / or a shorter lifespan for your precious CPU, and no one wants that.
That said, you don’t have to splurge on a massive tower cooler or closed-loop liquid chiller with a giant radiator unless you’ve got an extremely high-end CPU (like AMD’s Threadripper chips or high-end Intel Core X models) and /or you’re trying to push your CPU right to the edge of its overclocking limits. A budget-to-mid-range cooler is usually best for most builders, whether that be an air cooler with a stack of metal fins, or liquid-filed AIO with a one-or-two-fan radiator.
If you’re unsure whether you want air cooling or a liquid-cooled AIO, there are a few things to consider. Big air coolers tend to take up more internal space in your case, particularly when it comes to vertical clearance off the motherboard. They can also be louder and less efficient at moving heat away from your CPU and out of the chassis, though that’s not always the case. Air coolers also tend to cost less than AIOs, though that line is blurring as well.
AIO coolers can move more heat with fewer fans, thanks to an internal pump that moves heated liquid to a radiator, which gets mounted on one of the outside edges of your chassis. AIOs need less clearance above the CPU, so they can be a good option for slim cases, though you’ll still need a place to mount your radiator. AIO coolers can get expensive, particularly for powerful models with big 360mm radiators. But compact 120mm models can sometimes be found at similar—or even lower—prices than good air coolers. Again, AIO coolers can be quieter than air coolers, but you shouldn’t assume that’s the case. Be sure to check the results of our acoustic tests in our reviews before buying.
Why Trust Us
We’ve tested hundreds of coolers over the years, from massive RGB-lit luxury AIOs to tiny to low-profile models built for slim home theater PCs (HTPCs). We install each cooler in our test system and measure airflow, temperature, and noise at multiple settings.
Below you’ll find our favorites, broken out by size type and size. Note that most modern coolers support most modern CPUs and sockets. The main exception is AMD’s high-end Threadripper chips and their TR4 socket. Because these CPUs are larger than anything else in the consumer processor market, they require a larger contact plate for cooling. For this reason, you generally need coolers specially designed for Threadripper chips. We include picks for these as well.
Quick Shopping Tips
When choosing a CPU cooler, consider the following:
Own a recent Ryzen CPU? You may not need to buy a cooler, even for overclocking. All Ryzen 2000-series processors and some older Ryzen models ship with coolers, and many of them can handle moderate overclocks. It you want the best clock speed possible, you’ll still likely want to buy an aftermarket cooler, but for many Ryzen owners, that won’t be necessary.
If opting for a large air cooler, be sure to check clearances before buying. Big coolers and low-profile models can bump up against tall RAM and even VRM heatsinks sometimes. And tall coolers can butt up against your case door or window, even if your case isn’t very compact. Be sure to check the dimensions and advertised clearances of any cooler before buying.
Remember that, all else being equal, more fans=better cooling, but more noise. The coolers that do the absolute best job of moving warm air away from your CPU and out of your case are also often the loudest. If fan noise is a problem for you, you’ll want a cooler that does a good job of balancing noise and cooling. We test for this in all our reviews.
RGB lights can be nice, but make sure there’s a way to turn them off. Many coolers these days include RGB fans and / or lighting. This can be a fun way to customize the look of your PC. But be sure there’s a way, either via a built-in controller or when plugging the cooler in to a compatible RGB motherboard header, to turn the lights off without turning off the PC. Chances are there will be times (say, when you’re watching a movie in the dark) when you’ll wan to turn off the RGBs, but leave your PC running.
Best Big Air CPU Cooler
BE QUIET! DARK ROCK 4
Strong air-cooling performance
Quality build and design
Supports most current CPU sockets
Not as quiet as other coolers
The Dark Rock 4 is an excellent, if spendy, heatpipe air cooler. It will be a majestic presence in any PC build designed to show it off.
Noctua NH-D15 SE-AM4
Best Mid-size Air CPU Cooler
COOLER MASTER MASTERAIR MA410M
EDITOR’S CHOICE tom’s Hardware
Excellent cooling performance
Mid-size cooler occupies less space
Thermal probe provides thermal load display via RGB lighting
Fans kick up a bit more noise than others by comparison
The Cooler Master MasterAir MA410M impresses as an excellent-performing, mid-size heatpipe cooler accompanied by RGB lighting capability and a quasi-rugged stance atop any gaming build.
Best Low-Profile Air CPU Cooler
REEVEN RC-1001 BRONTES
Performs as well as larger rivals while occupying less space
No support for 130W CPUs including Intel LGA 2011x sockets
At only $40, the Reeven RC-1001 Brontes blows away the competition by matching the performance of larger downdraft style coolers, while occupying a minimum amount of space. Thanks to its small size, the Brontes should be a perfect choice for all but the smallest of cases.
Best AMD Threadripper Air CPU Cooler
EDITOR’S CHOICE tom’s Hardware
Very low noise levels
Simple, secure installation
Tall cooler height poses compatibility issues in smaller cases
For those looking for a high-quality, high-performing, low-noise air cooling solution for AMD Threadripper, the Noctua NH-U14S TR4-SP3 makes the decision easy.