Putting A Price On Silence
With a GPU that’s factory-overclocked by 6%, PowerColor’s LCS AXR9 290X 4GBD5-WMDHG/OC sets the example of liquid-cooled value by being priced only $100 higher than the card we compared. Yet, one of the reasons this $800 offering looks like such a good deal (relatively) is that its $700 air-cooled rival is currently overpriced. We'd hope to see the gap between them widen as the prices on 290X cards fell back to AMD's launch prices, but we're not holding our breath, either.
Price volatility aside, our LCS AXR9 290X sample was also able to reach a 1200 MHz overclock silently. The optimized fan profile required to hold the air-cooled card at 1120 MHz pushed system noise up from 31 dB (stock) to 45. And that's a best-case scenario using Nanoxia’s Deep Silence 1 enclosure to stifle noise, in an 18 to 19 °C room. I pity the enthusiast in a warm environment.
A 6% performance improvement is hardly worth a 15% price increase, but the above chart also includes the $180 worth of liquid-cooling hardware that we added to make the LCS AXR9 290X function. If you already own a large enough loop to add this card, you’ll find value parity between PowerColor's $800 board and the $700 air-cooled retail card when you add them both to a $1200 system.
Amazingly, the price-per-performance of the card alone is similar to its value when added with a $180 pump and radiator combo to a $1200 PC.
The real added value of liquid-cooling a Radeon R9 290X doesn't necessarily come from increased performance though, but decreased noise. You can get most of the speed-up by simply turning up the clock rates and cranking the fan speed on an air-cooled card to annoying levels. Unfortunately, the worth of less noise depends on the liquid-cooling components you're using, making any attempt to quantify this completely arbitrary. Our charts are the closest approximation we can find without dollars-to-noise compensation.
The liquid-cooling sink used on PowerColor’s LCS AXR9 290X is definitely worth something over AMD’s maligned reference heat sink and fan, but is the card ultimately worth $800? We believe that all Radeon R9 290X graphics cards are currently overpriced, unless you’re making money off them in crypto-currency mining, in which case there's a good chance you're getting hammered on power costs. Really though, any Hawaii-based card has the potential to re-emerge a value leader once supply catches back up to demand.
Sidestepping the question of value, which market forces affect on an almost-daily basis, we find that it's better to ask if we'd spend an extra 14% to rid ourselves of the reference card’s heat and noise issues. The answer is an easy yes.