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Tom's Hardware Graphics Charts: Performance In 2014

How We Measure Noise

We measure each graphics card's noise levels with a calibrated high-quality studio microphone (supercardioid) 50 cm away from a position perpendicular to the middle of the board. This distance, as well as the strong cardioid microphone characteristic, represent a compromise between avoiding noise generated by the fan’s airflow and ambient noise that can never be completely eliminated. Our noise-dampening efforts certainly help minimize the latter, but they'll never be 100-percent successful. 

This year, we also had to decide (yet again) if we should use sone, dB, or dB(A) for our charts.

Decibel or Sone?

The definition of perceived loudness expressed in sone is based on sound pressure. One sone equals 40 phon, which in turn is defined as a pure 1 kHz tone at 40 decibel (dB). Sone scales with perceived loudness (that is, a sound pressure perceived to be twice as loud as 1 sone has 2 sone, and a sound pressure perceived to be half as loud as 1 sone has 0.5 sone). At first glance, this appears to be a logical, practical, and easy way to express noise level. Unfortunately, a closer look at how it works in practice reveals some irritating problems.

An increase in loudness by 10 phon from a starting point of 40 phon, totaling of 50 phon, results in a perceived doubling, which makes it 2 sone. However, the situation isn't straightforward under 40 phon. In that range, a reduction of less than 10 phon is enough to halve perceived loudness. And typically, the sound pressure produced by graphics cards at idle (along with quiet products under partial load) is almost exclusively below the 40 dB (40 phon, 1 sone) limit. So, recording an idle board's noise level in sone is difficult and potentially confusing. Overall, sone is better-suited to expressing higher sound levels.

Complex Noise Instead of Pure Tones

Another problem with sone is that it’s based on and scales with the perception of loudness of a pure 1 kHz tone. As we know, a graphics card's fan doesn't generate a pure tone at all. Rather, it produces complex noise covering a spectrum of frequencies.

The debate gets even more complicated when you try to compare noise from a centrifugal fan to that of an axial fan, and crazier still when you take different diameters and speeds into account. A sone value is strongly dependent on a graphics card cooling solution's specific sound profile, making the loudness rating it provides hard to interpret, even though that's theoretically the most exact way of expressing it.

The Human Ear

Coming back the other way, acoustic measurements use weighted sound pressure levels to reasonably model the human ear’s sound perception, simplifying our conundrum a bit. This is achieved through the use of filters, which are based on weighting curves defined in the DIN EN 61672-1/-2 norms. These filters are designed to provide a similar frequency response to that of the human ear for loudness measurements.

When you get right down to it, these are still only estimates. But, depending on the quality of your measurement device, they should be more representative for the range below 40 dB than sone values. Of course, providing dB(A) values only makes sense if the distance to the source of the sound is given as well (we make sure to do this).

With all of this considered, we'll keep using dB(A) for our noise measurements. Based on your feedback, though, I also want to give you the following table as a frame of reference. Hopefully dB(A) reference ranges with my own commentary adds meaning to the quantitative data that comes from our readings.

Audio Comparison Table
< 31 dB(A)Very good cooling solutions at idlePassively-cooled graphics cards
31 - 33.9 dB(A)Mediocre cooling solutions at idleGraphics cards with idle fan speed set too high (~40%)Entry-level graphics cards with very good cooling solutions under full load
34 - 35.9 dB(A)Entry-level graphics cards with average cooling solutionsMid-level graphics cards with very good cooling solutions under full load
36 - 39.9 dB(A)Mid-level graphics cards with good cooling solutions under full loadHigh-end graphics cards with very good cooling solutions
40 - 44.9 dB(A)Mid-level graphics cards with below-par cooling solutionsHigh-end graphics cards with average cooling solutions
45 - 49.9 dB(A)Generally loud graphics cards with below-par cooling solutions
> 50 dB(A)Unbearably loud, usually graphics cards with reference coolers
  • blackmagnum
    Thank you Tom's team for updating the charts. You're my goto when I'm upgrading my rigs. I'll be waiting... Bring on yesterday's gems.
    Reply
  • Pyree
    Awesome!
    Reply
  • outlw6669
    Nice writeup; I look forward to seeing the new charts!
    Reply
  • tomfreak
    First thing Tom need is to bench how PCIE 2.0 8x vs 16x perform on a modern top end GPU. Since 290X are passing the bandwidth from crossfire bridge to PCIE, may be is time to check them again? As I recall AMD do not recommend putting 290x XDMA crossfire on PCIE 2.0 8x. Please check this out
    Reply
  • cypeq
    First it's great to see new charts.
    I was never a fan of this style of benchmarking. It sure gives clean graph of gpu capabilities which we always needed. I would love to see new bottleneck analysis. Or at least parallel test done on midrange PC.

    Everyone should keep mind that these charts represent performance of <1% PC builds out there.

    13278215 said:
    First thing Tom need is to bench how PCIE 2.0 8x vs 16x perform on a modern top end GPU. Since 290X are passing the bandwidth from crossfire bridge to PCIE, may be is time to check them again? As I recall AMD do not recommend putting 290x XDMA crossfire on PCIE 2.0 8x. Please check this out

    If I recall correctly we are at this moment at the edge of PCI 2.0 x8 which = PCI 1.0 x16 . Next or following gen will finally outdate PCI 1.0 in single and PCI 2.0 in dual GPU configs as there will finally be noticeable bottle necks.
    Reply
  • mitcoes16
    Any Steam OS or GNU/Linux benchmarks?
    It would be nice to add any opengl crossplattform game as any ioquake based one or something more modern and test it under MS WOS and under GNU / Linux

    Better if it is future Steam OS to let us know the performance at the same game under MS WOS and under GNU/Linux.

    Also it would be nice to test at MS WOS with and without antivirus, perhaps avast that is free or any other of your preference.

    Last but not least, in opengl or in directx there are version changes and being able to split cards generations by opengl / directx version support would help as a current price / performance index based in your sponsored links prices.
    Reply
  • mitcoes16
    No 720p tests?
    720p ( 1280x720 píxels = 921.600 píxels) is half 1080p more or less
    1080p (1920×1080 píxels = 2.073.600 pixels)

    And when a game is very demanding or you prefer to play with better graphics playing at 720p is a great option

    Of course,latest best GPUs would be able to play at 4k and full graphics, but when we read the benchmarks we want to know also if our actual card CAN play at 720p (1k) or what the best ones can do at 1k to be able to compare

    Also even it is not a standard or accurate, for benchmarking purposes calling 720p (1k) 1080p (2k) and 2160p (4K) wouldbeeasier to understand in a fast sight than UHD FHD and HDR, that can be used too UHD (4k) FHD (2k) HDR (1k)
    Reply
  • InvalidError
    13278758 said:
    No 720p tests?
    720p does not stress most reasonably decent GPUs much and how many people would drop resolution to 720p these days with all the re-scaling artifacts that might add? In most cases, it would make more sense to stick with native resolution and tweak some of the more GPU/memory-intensive settings down a notch or two - at least I know I greatly prefer cleaner images over "details" that get blurred by the lower resolution and re-scaling that further distorts it.

    Considering how you can get 1080p displays for $100, I would call standardizing the GPU chart on 1080p fair enough: the people who can only afford a $100 display won't care much about enabling every bell and whistle and the people who want to max everything out likely won't be playing on $100 displays and $100 GPUs either.
    Reply
  • 2Be_or_Not2Be
    I really like to see the charts on how much noise a video card's cooling fans make. That makes more of a difference to me as limiting something distracting that I hear every time I game versus getting a louder card with 10 fps more.

    I also like seeing how current cards stack up performance-wise to previous generations. That really helps when you're deciding whether to upgrade or not.
    Reply
  • Ubrales
    Thank you! Good reference article!
    Reply