Nvidia GeForce GTX 960: Maxwell In The Middle

Noise Level And Frequency Analysis


Will we have better luck with Nvidia’s new graphics cards than we’ve had in the past? It turns out that the answer to this question is a resounding yes! For this reason, we decided to forgo our usual comparison videos. The overall volumes of all the graphics cards are very low, and the differences between them are very small. Some of the fans are actually so quiet that we could measure the voltage converters’ noise, which is usually drowned out by them.

The overall noise level of the graphics cards might be the same, but the character of that noise most certainly isn’t. Every card produces a fairly wide assortment of noises, ultimately combining motor, fan (turbulence and airflow), as well as coil and capacitor (“whining”) noises into one overall sound characteristic. This is why we’ll try to make the measurement results for all individual graphics cards more meaningful by supplementing the rather neutral dB(A) values with a frequency analysis.

We’re using a high-quality studio microphone for our measurements and Smaart 7 for the data analysis. As usual, we measure from a distance of 50 cm perpendicular to the center of the graphics card in question. The ambient noise never exceeded 26 dB when we measured at night, and it was recorded and taken into account for each individual measurement.

The Secret Behind the Semi-Passive Mode

The following table shows a comparison of Nvidia’s default switching points, at which the fans are turned on and off. It also shows how Gigabyte made changes to these points for one of their graphics card models. To truly understand what’s going on, you need to know that the switching points are based on the GPU’s temperature, the voltage converter load, and, finally, hysteresis, which is to say that past performance is taken into account. The limits based on the power draw assume a good cooling solution. We’ll talk more about this in just a bit. In any case, it’s important that the VRM isn’t preheated in passive mode, since its capacitors don’t actually have any temperature sensors. This is why the load serves as an estimate instead.

But let’s go back to possible deviations. For example, the Gigabyte GTX 960 WindForce OC turned out to be unique in this regard during our tests. When asked, Gigabyte told us that this was their so-called “Silent Mode.” We’ve already seen its consequences when we looked at the voltage converter temperatures on the previous page: The fans rev up a lot earlier.

Switching Points
<T-ON>Fan On by Temperature (℃)69 (Nvidia Default)
62 (Gigabyte GTX 960 WindForce OC)
<T-OFF>Fan Off by Temperature (℃)43 (Nvidia Default)
<P-ON>Fan On by Power (W)60 (Nvidia Default)
<P-OFF>Fan Off by Power (W)32 (Nvidia Default)

Here are the measurement results of all the graphics cards in this test summarized in one table. Measurements were conducted at an ambient temperature of 22 degrees Celsius.

Gaming Loop
Asus GTX 960 StriX OC
Fan Off
33.6 dB(A)
35.8 dB(A)
Gainward GTX 960 Phantom OC
Fan Off33.6 dB(A)
35.9 dB(A)
Galax/KFA² GTX 960 EX OC
Fan Off35.1 dB(A)
36.2 dB(A)
Gigabyte GTX 960 WindForce OCFan Off33.4 dB(A)
35.8 dB(A)
Gigabyte GTX 960 Gaming G1
Fan Off34.4 dB(A)
34.6 dB(A)
inno3D GTX 960 iChill
Fan Off35.3 dB(A)
36.4 dB(A)
Palit GTX 960 Super JetStream
Fan Off36.2 dB(A)
36.6 dB(A)

Operating Noise Analysis

We now come to the previously-mentioned frequency spectrums of each individual graphics card in this test during gaming and torture loads. We’ve included a detailed analysis as well.

Asus GTX 960 Strix

During the gaming loop, we just see the motor noise of the slowly revolving fans and a bit of turbulence at approximately 200 Hz. The voltage converters don’t play a role here and the overall character of the noise is very balanced and pleasant.

Under full load, the noises produced by the fans’ blades and the airflow dominate. The voltage converters play a very minor role at just under 6 kHz. Together, this makes for a well-executed and unobtrusive cooling solution.

Gainward GTX 960 Phantom OC

This graphics card suffers from the design of its cooling solution, which places the fans between the cooler’s fins and the board and also has a cover that’s almost completely closed. The frequency of the ensuing noise is fairly low. This noise might be transferred to the PC case, since graphics cards are usually screwed on tight. The case then might resonate with it, which would be a very undesirable outcome, of course. Lesser whining noises from the voltage converters show up at approximately 7 kHz and can be measured easily. The turbulence isn’t really annoying from the outside, but the motor noises do produce very a noticeable and distinctive sound.

This sound get even louder under full load, and the voltage converters become more noticeable as well.

Galax/KFA² GTX 960 EX OC

We measure (and hear) both the fans’ motors at approximately 200 Hz and some minor turbulence. In addition, there’s the “electrical noise” of the voltage converters, which can also be both measured and heard at almost 7 kHz and also just above 10 kHz. The 3+1 phase design shows its flaws here.Both turbulence and coil whining increase noticeably (and audibly) at full load. Overall, the card isn’t really all that loud, which is an observation backed up by the measurement results, but it can certainly be noticeable even after closing the case.

Gigabyte GTX 960 WindForce OC

The relatively open cover of this graphics card, as well as its fan placement, have us measure primarily motor, turbulence, and airflow noises. These yield a broad spectrum of frequencies, while staying pleasantly quiet overall. The voltage converters don’t make themselves known at all, which should be due to the 5+1 phase design. Moreover, these noises are more easily controlled by a PC case than deep resonances or high coil whine.

Even during the stress test, all that’s audible are the now somewhat louder fan noises of the now somewhat faster-spinning fans. The voltage converters stay on the sidelines.

Gigabyte GTX 960 Gaming G1

This graphics card’s performance results are counterintuitive. Voltage converter noise is audible during the gaming loop, but decreases with increasing constant load all the way to becoming inaudible. Three fans will always create a certain amount of noise no matter how low their RPM, but complaining about this is really just nitpicking.

Under full load, the fan noise increases marginally, but the card stays pleasantly restrained.

inno3D GTX 960 iChill

This graphics card cools like there’s no tomorrow. This does impact the noise level a bit during gaming operation, but it still manages to stay in the moderate range. The coils are dead quiet.

Under load, the noise produced by the fans is still all the noise that there is. Cool as ice and without any annoying coil whining: This is all that anyone can really ask for!

Palit GTX 960 Super JetStream

Sharing a space with the Palit GTX 960 Super JetStream could be such a good experience if it wasn’t for the coils. The fans spin very slowly during gaming and produce a noise at around 120 Hz. The voltage converter noises at 7 and 10 kHz are enough to really ruin the experience, though.

The same is true for full load. The motor noise at approximately 150 Hz is barely audible, but the voltage converter’s whining is just horrible.

Bottom Line So Far

Overall, finding a good cooling solution for the average waste heat of up to 100 W during gaming has been a successful endeavor for all manufacturers. Operating a graphics card like the ones tested doesn’t have to result in a noisy system anymore. The only caveat to this are the noises from the power converters, which, depending on the model and the design of the power supply, can be really annoying. This is the same problem we encountered with the GeForce GTX 970.

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  • Novuake
    This seems meh... Impressive but not phenomenal power consumption to performance numbers. Especially compared the GTX970/980.

    Would have liked to see two more things.

    1. More extensive AA. post processing and memory bandwidth testing. Pretty sure Nvidia hamstrung the card a bit in some scenarios with a 1280bit interface. I had to read it 4 times before I believed it and still am skeptical.

    2. Overclocking benchies.

    So otherwise I guess we are back to the "old" ti-designation setup where the GTX960ti SHOULD be based on GM206 and vanilla GTX960 is not.
  • sconzen
    I may be blind, but I don't see the Zotax Amp! edition in the temperature and noise tests. Confirm?
  • damric
    The R9 280 is the fast and cheap elephant in the room that was never mentioned in this review,
  • Grognak
    Well, I'm not saying a 10% improvement on top of a reduced power consumption isn't nice, because it really is, however we're still quite far away from the 770. I suppose Nvidia has a card planned to fill the massive performance gap between the 960 and 970, one at 4Gb of VRAM maybe?
  • ykki
    The damn arrows are STILL blocking the charts!
  • sconzen
    I may be blind, but I don't see the Zotax Amp! edition in the temperature and noise tests. Confirm?
  • ykki
    Great review.
    Now AMD, time to bust out the 270x!
  • ykki
    Lol I meant the 370x!
  • Novuake
    1427918 said:
    The damn arrows are STILL blocking the charts!

    I am not the only one! Thank you!
  • ykki
    Novoake, I am very sorry but I stole your comment from an earlier review.
    But seriously, those arrows can block out the sun if tom's put 'em right.
  • ImDaBaron
    The Gainward version of this card has to be the ugliest video card I've ever seen
  • maestro0428
    Yes, the arrows on the charts bug me too. I am a bit let down by the performance here. Sure, the efficiency is great, but bandwidth is just to low to play above 1080p. I was hoping to put two of these in SLI, but I am afraid it won't do my Surround set up justice. Looks like I may be going with a single 980 or eventually two 970s. Bummer.
  • Novuake
    1427918 said:
    Novoake, I am very sorry but I stole your comment from an earlier review. But seriously, those arrows can block out the sun if tom's put 'em right.

    I do not recall posting such a comment? But I may have been frustrated that day. Hehe I am quite outspoken.
  • silverblue
    Not bad at all. R9 285 or better performance for 2/3 the power (or better), and for a little cheaper as well - a great 1080p card.
  • xXComputer_Nerd1625Xx
    Honestly I'm a little let down by the specs. I know specs aren't everything, but I really would've liked to see a beefier GPU compared to the last-gen 760 (which on paper looks better) and that also surpassed the last-gen 770, which this card can hardly do. I've got to admit though, at $200 it still is a great card, and maybe I'm asking for too much.
  • gudomlig
    power charts seem questionable to me. 10 minutes running furmark drew an average of 280 watts with my sapphire 7950 boost and draws about 330 watts with my MSI gaming gtx 970. the power consumption torture charts show GTX 970 running at less watts than a 7950...I call BS. Even the older reviews here on Tom's show GTX 970 draws more power than 7950 boost so not sure where they pulled these numbers and makes me question the integrity of the entire article
  • Agera One
    Why don't you always put the Anti-aliasing GIF on a screen with no moving objects? That would be more accurate to see what changes !!
  • cmi86
    I appreciate what this card was able to do in regards to the lower TDP and slightly higher performance than the 760. That said I don't think this card did enough to win my vote. I am currently shopping for a new GPU and was really looking forward to this release thinking it would be a huge game changer like the 760 but it just wasn't. Now I'll be waiting for the 3XX release before making a decision.
  • mapesdhs
    Where are the EVGA ACX 2.0 960 results?

  • elbert
    It requires an overclock to match the 280/285 in 1080p and totally gets crushed in 4k. While costing more than 280. Most of the gtx960 8 pin overclocking versions are more than the 285. The power saving may offset one disadvantage but costing more while under performing lol.

    I was planing on buy two but this so bad ill wait and check out GTX960ti 1280sp.
  • salgado18
    And why did you use the Asus Strix overclocked card for performance benchmarks, but for power you use Gainwards, which can be downclocked to reference specs? That's heavy bias on the numbers, and saying "A reference-clocked GeForce GTX 960 would have been slower than Asus' specimen..." is no excuse, when you did make one! Come on, great review and writing, but that is one major slip!
  • logainofhades
    Really disappointed with this card. Hopefully a 960ti will be released to be what this card should have been. Guess I am going to buy a GTX 770, from a friend of mine instead. Odd to see that all the sudden the HD 7970/R9 280x is faster than the GTX 770 now. First time I have really seen that.
  • cleeve
    120171 said:
    And why did you use the Asus Strix overclocked card for performance benchmarks, but for power you use Gainwards, which can be downclocked to reference specs? That's heavy bias on the numbers, and saying "A reference-clocked GeForce GTX 960 would have been slower than Asus' specimen..." is no excuse, when you did make one! Come on, great review and writing, but that is one major slip!

    The answer is timing.

    Game benchmarks were don in our Canadian lab. The Asus card was the only one sent early enough for us to get game benchmarks in time.

    Power tests are done at the German lab, where the Asus card arrived later than the other samples. Unfortunately, it was unavoidable.
  • fw1374
    At page 9 three times it is written GeForce GTX 690 instead of 960. Just a typo but it is there :)