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MSI MPG Z690 Carbon EK X Motherboard Review: EK Block Included

MSI’s Z690 Carbon EK X is a feature-rich board that includes a custom EK monoblock for $629.99.

MSI MPG Z690 Carbon EK X
(Image: © MSI, Shutterstock)

Tom's Hardware Verdict

At $629.99, the MSI Z690 Carbon EK X includes a custom EK monoblock, five M.2 sockets, 10 USB ports, flagship-class audio codec, and is a well-rounded motherboard. If you want to build a water-cooled system with less hassle than DIY and less expensive than the other like-boards available, the Carbon EK X is your best option.

Pros

  • +

    + Included EK Monoblock

  • +

    + Five M.2 sockets

  • +

    + 10 total Rear IO USB ports

Cons

  • -

    - Mediocre VRMs

Watercooling your PC doesn’t come cheap, with full custom loops that start around $300 and go up from there. And while cost is one consideration of custom cooling, another is trying to find a part that fits your specific hardware, or spending nearly double for some halo products that integrate onto an incredibly expensive motherboard. MSI solves the latter issues for you. The company worked with EK and developed a custom block made for the Z690 Carbon. And what was born out of this relationship is its own SKU, the MSI MPG Z690 Carbon EK X. You get a mid-range class motherboard and an EK monoblock designed to cool the CPU, VRMs, and the top M.2 socket for $629.99.

Along with the sweet-looking custom monoblock, the Carbon EK X provides ample storage options with five M.2 sockets and four SATA ports, fast USB including a 20 Gbps Type-C port, the latest-gen premium audio codec, and an even more capable power delivery. Some notable improvements from the Z590 version include an updated appearance with heatsinks on the bottom of the board covering more real estate. There’s also a festival of RGB lighting (which you can easily disable). This board just begs to be the center of attention, with that massive block covering the top portion of the board.

But it’s not all about looks! The Carbon EK X also performed well overall, ending up around average when testing was all said and done. Performance was slightly above average in the Procyon Office tests and gaming, but slightly slower than average for some longer-running multi-threaded tests. AIDA64 memory testing results were some of the slowest we’ve seen, which is part of the difference in performance on those tests. Power consumption was higher, but there’s a different pump and fans on the custom cooling we use compared to the AIO, which caused at least some of that increase.

Before we get into details to see if this is a good board to build your Alder Lake-based system on or is even good enough to be one of the best motherboards, here are the detailed specifications from MSI.

Specifications: MSI MPG Z690 Carbon EK X

SocketLGA1700
ChipsetZ690
Form FactorATX
Voltage Regulator20 Phase (18+1+1, 75A SPS MOSFETs for Vcore)
Video Ports(1) HDMI (v2.1)
(1) DisplayPort (v1.4)
USB Ports(1) USB 3.2 Gen 2x3 Type-C (20 Gbps)
(5) USB 3.2 Gen 2 (10 Gbps)
(4) USB 2.0 (480 Mbps)
Network Jacks(1) 2.5 GbE
Audio Jacks(5) Analog + SPDIF
(5) Analog + SPDIF
Other Ports/Jack
PCIe x16(2) v5.0 (x16/x0, x8/x8)
(1) v3.0 (x4)
PCIe x8
PCIe x4
PCIe x1
CrossFire/SLISupports AMD CrossFire
DIMM Slots(4) DDR5 6666+(OC), 128GB Capacity
1DPC 1R Max speed up to 6666+ MHz
1DPC 2R Max speed up to 5600+ MHz
2DPC 1R Max speed up to 4000+ MHz
2DPC 2R Max speed up to 4000+ MHz
M.2 Sockets(1) PCIe 4.0 x4 (64 Gbps) / PCIe (up to 110mm)
(1) PCIe 4.0 x4 (64 Gbps) / PCIe (up to 80mm)
(1) PCIe 4.0 x4 (64 Gbps) / PCIe (up to 110mm)
(1) PCIe 3.0 x4 (32 Gbps) / PCIe + SATA (up to 80mm)
(1) PCIe 4.0 x4 (64 Gbps) / PCIe (up to 80mm)
Supports RAID 0/1/5/10
U.2 Ports
SATA Ports(4) SATA3 6 Gbps (Supports RAID 0/1/10)
USB Headers(1) USB v3.2 Gen 2, Type-C (10 Gbps)
(1) USB v3.2 Gen 1 (5 Gbps)
(2) USB v2.0 (480 Mbps)
Fan/Pump Headers(8) 4-Pin (CPU, Water pump, system fan)
RGB Headers(2) aRGB (3-pin)
(1) RGB (4-pin)
(1) Corsair LED (3-pin)
Diagnostics PanelEZ Debug LED, 2-Digit Debug Code LED
Internal Button/SwitchLED On/Off
SATA ControllersASMedia ASM1061
Ethernet Controller(s)(1) Intel I225-V (2.5 Gbps)
Wi-Fi / BluetoothIntel AX210 Wi-Fi 6E (2x2 ax, MU-MIMO, 2.4/5/6 GHz, 160 MHz, BT 5.2)
USB Controllers
HD Audio CodecRealtek ALC4080
DDL/DTS Connect✗ / X
Warranty3 Years

Inside the Box of the MSI MPG Z690 Carbon EK X

Inside the box, you’ll find a slew of accessories designed to get you started without going out to buy additional parts. MSI includes all of the basics from SATA cables, RGB extensions, and drivers USB stick, but also includes a handy leak tester to pressure test the loop and check for leaks. You’ll still have to purchase all watercooling equipment outside of the included EK monoblock. Below is a complete list of the included extras.

  • Quick Installation Guide
  • Cable/MPG stickers, Case badge
  • Screwdrivers
  • Cleaning brush
  • RGB extensions (Corsair, Y, Rainbow)
  • (2) SATA Data cables
  • (2) M.2 screw/standoff sets
  • EK Leak Tester
  • EK Monoblock
  • Wi-Fi antenna

Design of the MSI MPG Z690 Carbon EK X

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MSI MPG Z690 Carbon EK X

(Image credit: MSI)
Image 2 of 3

MSI MPG Z690 Carbon EK X

(Image credit: MSI)
Image 3 of 3

MSI MPG Z690 Carbon EK X

(Image credit: MSI)

The MSI MPG Z690 Carbon EK X is built with a black 8-layer PCB, with 2 Ounnces of copper traces between. On the left, the rear IO cover sports a carbon fiber pattern on top, along with MSI branding and the familiar MSI Gaming Dragon lit up by RGB LEDs from below. The EK Monoblock looks similar to the Z590 version, though it’s larger here and extends out to cool the primary M.2 socket as well. It retains the Carbon fiber look and a black accent piece on the right edge with EK branding. A passive flow meter also spins when water moves inside the loop. The monoblock is full of RGB lighting that connects to the motherboard for control via MSI’s RGB Fusion software. The lighting is saturated and bright, making for a great centerpiece for your PC if you’re into that sort of thing.

(Image credit: MSI)

On the top half, we’ve covered the rear IO cover and monoblock’s appearance, which takes the MSI MPG Z690 Carbon to another level. There are two 8-pin EPS connectors above the monoblock to send power to the processor.

To the right, four unreinforced double-side locking DRAM slots support up to 128GB of RAM with speeds listed to DDR5 6666+ MHz. Reaching these speeds depends on the memory kit used and the processor’s Integrated Memory Controller (IMC). Not all chips and RAM combos will be able to hit those top speeds.

Above the DRAM slots are the first two (of eight) 4-pin fan headers. The CPU_FAN1 header supports up to 3A/36W and auto-detects what type of fan (PWM or DC controlled) is connected. The PUMP_FAN1 also supports up to 3A/36W, but defaults to PWM mode. The rest of the fan headers, labeled SYS_FAN1-6, default to DC mode and support 1A/12W each. In short, there are plenty of fan/pump headers with enough power to support most anything you need power-wise for water cooling.

If the board and monoblock’s RGBs aren’t enough, to the right of the fan headers is a 3-pin ARGB header to add more. There is another 3-pin header, a 4-pin RGB and a 3-pin Corsair LED header. If you like loads of RGB, this board gives you all the options.

We spy the 2-digit debug code LED in the upper-right corner to help with POST issues. After another 4-pin fan header, along the right edge is the EZ Debug LED consisting of four LEDs that light up during the POST process. Each LED is labeled (CPU, DRAM, BOOT, VGA), and if a problem happens during POST, the LED remains lit and gives us a general idea of where the problem is located. Continuing down the right edge, we run into a vertical 24-pin ATX connector, USB 3.2 Gen 1 (5 Gbps) header, and a USB 3.2 Gen 2 (10 Gbps) Type-C header.

(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

The MSI Carbon EK X (and Carbon) sport 20-phase power delivery for the system, with 18 phases dedicated to Vcore/the processor itself. Power gets sent from the EPS connector(s) to a Renesas RAA229131 20-channel (X+Y=20) controller. Power is then sent to 18 75A Renesas RAA220075R0 Smart Power Stages then onto the CPU. The 1,350A available to the processor is plenty to handle the flagship Intel i9-12900K processor at stock speeds and overclocked.

(Image credit: MSI)

On the bottom half of the board, heatsinks cover most of the area here, particularly where the M.2 sockets are between the PCIe slot and the chipset heatsink. Starting on the far left, we see the audio section with the Realtek ALC4080 codec fully exposed along with some yellow Nichicon audio capacitors. A dedicated headphone amplifier drives headphones up to 600 ohm. Overall, a majority of users will be happy with this audio implementation.

In the middle of the board are three full-length PCIe slots. The top two slots are for graphics and MSI’s PCIe Steel Armor to protect VGA cards against bending and EMI. These slots connect via the CPU with the top lane capable of PCIe 5.0 x16 operation, while the second slot is limited to PCIe 5.0 x8 speeds. When both slots are populated, they run at x8/x8 speeds. Although this configuration has enough bandwidth to support Nvidia SLI, only AMD Crossfire technology is listed as supported.

The MSI Z690 Carbon EK X has five M.2 sockets, more than most Z690-based boards. All M.2 sockets run up to PCIe 4.0 x4, with M2_4 the only one that supports SATA-based modules. M2_1 and M2_3 support up to 110mm modules, while M2_2/4/5 support up to 80mm modules. The Carbon EK X supports RAID0/1/5/10 modes for NVMe storage devices.

Skipping over the chipset heatsink to the edge of the board, we run into six SATA ports, four of which (SATA 5-8) are fed from the chipset while the other ports (SATA A/B) are managed through an ASMedia controller. There is some lane sharing between the SATA ports and M.2 sockets. If you’re using an M.2 SATA SSD in the M2_4 socket, SATA7 will be unavailable. Your worst-case scenario on this board is running four PCIe M.2 modules plus a SATA-based M.2 module and five SATA-based drives. If you’re lacking storage on this board, there aren’t many options in the mainstream desktop segment with more.

Across the bottom are several headers, including USB ports and RGB.  Below is a complete list, from left to right:

  • Front panel audio
  • 4-pin RGB header
  • LED On/Off switch
  • 3-pin ARGB header
  • Power LED
  • Thunderbolt header
  • System Fan header
  • (2) USB 2.0 headers
  • (3 System Fan headers)
  • Front panel header

(Image credit: MSI)

The rear IO area sports a pre-installed IO plate matching the Carbon EK X’s aesthetics. The black background gives way to grey writing for the ports and MPG branding.

There are 10 USB ports: Four USB 2.0 (480 Mbps), five USB 3.2 Gen 2 (10 Gbps) and a 20 Gbps USB 3.2 Gen 2x2 Type port - enough for most users. Video outputs consist of a single HDMI v2.1 port and DisplayPort v1.4. There’s a 2.5GbE port, Wi-Fi 6E antenna connections, and five analog plug plus SPDIF port. Last but not least is a tiny BIOS Flashback button that allows you to flash the BIOS without a CPU or other parts.

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Joe Shields
Joe Shields

Joe Shields is a Freelance writer for Tom’s Hardware US. He reviews motherboards.