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Overclocking On Air: 10 LGA 1156-Compatible Performance Coolers

Do We Have A Winner?

Four coolers that stood out today for superiority in various areas are Noctua’s top-cooling NH-D14, Thermalright’s nearly-silent MUX-120, Cooler Master’s superb-value Hyper 212 Plus, and Scythe’s jack-of-all-trades Mugen-2 Rev. B. Yet the one we’d use and the one we’d recommend might be completely different parts.

Even though the cooler cost $10 more, it’s impossible to ignore the six degrees Celsius cooling advantage Scythe’s Mugen-2 Rev. B provided over Cooler Master’s low-cost Hyper 212 Plus. Our biggest reservation in recommending it universally to budget-oriented overclocking enthusiasts is that it’s the second-biggest sink in the comparison. Putting the fan on the front causes it to hang over the memory slots of most motherboards, discouraging builders who prefer high-profile memory cooling..

At over twice the Mugen-2 Rev. B’s price, the Noctua NH-D14 exacerbates the fitment issue by extending even farther over DIMMs. An impressive 42mm of clearance beneath its bottom fins and adjustable fan height allow at least modest clearance for memory heat spreaders, although there still isn’t enough room for high-performance memory cooling. Yet, while the NH-D14’s sheer size will put off many buyers, class-leading performance and the ability to install and remove the sink from inside a traditional case is sure to put it on the wish lists of many extreme-air enthusiasts.

While we don’t want to dismiss the excellent value of Cooler Master’s $30 Hyper 212 Plus, we were even more impressed to see Thermalright’s thinner sink and ultra-quiet fan provide even greater cooling performance. Unfortunately, Thermalright’s better performance comes at a significantly higher price of $50, hurting its standing in our value charts.

The combination of pros and cons leave us with several recommendations, depending on intended use. While Noctua’s customers have probably already committed themselves to purchasing the best-performing CPU air cooler, we’d recommend the cheaper Mugen-2 Rev. B as a better value for nearly any configuration that has the necessary mounting space. Thermalright’s MUX-120, on the other hand, is the best performing solution for builds that have limited mounting space, while Cooler Master’s far cheaper Hyper 212 Plus is worth considering by anyone who requires a similar footprint but can’t live with Thermalright’s higher price.

With our recommendations out of the way, it’s worth noting that while several coolers included manual fan speed controllers, only three supported  pulse-width modulation (PWM) fan speed control. Of those, Scythe’s Mugen-2 Rev. B was the only one to make its way into our recommendations based on performance alone. We see many of our readers express frustration over their motherboards' “inability” to control fan speed automatically, but many of those boards rely on PWM control exclusively. While some motherboards also provide for fan-speed control via automatic voltage changes, PWM fans work with either type of speed control. Automatic speed control is a far more valuable feature to us than any included potentiometer, because we prefer our systems to be nearly silent under low load. Thus, while we’ve ignored the feature in our performance analysis, this editor has taken the initiative to replace the fan of his own MUX-120 test cooler with a PWM-based unit.

Thomas Soderstrom is a Senior Staff Editor at Tom's Hardware US. He tests and reviews cases, cooling, memory and motherboards.