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Best CPU Coolers 2020: Air and Liquid

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Whether you’re aiming for the ultimate competitive overclocks or just a PC that doesn’t get noisy under load, choosing the right CPU cooler is an important decision in any PC build or upgrade that can make a big difference in temperatures, noise and (particularly if you're overclocking) performance. If your existing cooler can’t keep your chip’s heat under control, that could mean slower performance and / or a shorter lifespan for your precious processor, and no one wants that.

If you’re unsure whether you want air cooling or a liquid-cooled AIO, there are a few things to consider. Big air coolers tend to take up more internal space in your PC case, particularly when it comes to vertical clearance off the motherboard. They can also be louder and less efficient at moving heat away from your choice of CPU and out of the chassis, though that’s not always the case. Air coolers also tend to cost less than AIOs, though that line is blurring as well.

Quick Shopping Tips

When choosing a CPU cooler, consider the following:

  • Own a recent Ryzen CPU? You may not need to buy a cooler, even for overclocking. All Ryzen 2000-series processors and some older Ryzen models ship with coolers, and many of them can handle moderate overclocks. It you want the best CPU clock speed possible, you’ll still likely want to buy an aftermarket cooler, but for many Ryzen owners, that won’t be necessary.
  • If opting for a large air cooler, be sure to check clearances before buying. Big coolers and low-profile models can bump up against tall RAM and even VRM heat sinks sometimes. And tall coolers can cause clearance issues with your case door or window. Be sure to check the dimensions and advertised clearances of any cooler you're considering and your case before buying.
  • Remember that, all else being equal, more fans=better cooling, but more noise. The coolers that do the absolute best job of moving warm air away from your CPU and out of your case are also often the loudest. If fan noise is a problem for you, you’ll want a cooler that does a good job of balancing noise and cooling.
  • RGB lights can be nice, but make sure there’s a way to turn them off. Many coolers these days include RGB fans and / or lighting. This can be a fun way to customize the look of your PC. But be sure there’s a way, either via a built-in controller or when plugging the cooler into a compatible RGB motherboard header, to turn the lights off without turning off the PC. If you're going to watch a movie or play a stealthy game, you probably don't want bright lights shining in your face.

For much more detail on how to choose the right cooler (and cooler type) check out our CPU cooler buying guide

Best CPU air coolers at a glance:

1. Deepcool Assassin III
2. Cooler Master MasterAir MA410M
3. Noctua NH-U14S

Best Air Cooling 2020

Deepcool Assassin III (Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

1. Deepcool Assassin III

Best Big Air CPU Cooler

Dimensions: 171.5 x 139.7 x 133.4mm | Base Height: 38.1mm | Weight: 42.7oz (1210g) | Fans: (2) 140 x 25mm | Socket Support: 115x, 1366, 2011x, 2066; FM2(+), FM1, AM2(+), AM3(+), AM4 | Warranty: 5 years

Budget friendly
Silent operation
Excellent thermal performance
Lack of RGB lighting options
Incomplete AMD and Intel CPU socket support

With twin cooling towers, seven heatpipes and two 140mm fans, the GamerStorm Assassin III from Deep Cool brought us the lowest temperature of big-air coolers. Pairing that thermal performance with low noise makes it our choice for air-cooling big CPUs, with great looks and easy installation qualifying as bonuses.

Read: Deepcool Assassin III Review

Alternative Best Big Air CPU Cooler: See Noctua NH-U12A Review

With slightly better cooling and slightly lower noise than the above Arctic model, Noctua's NH-U12A becomes the premium choice for buyers who aren't afraid to pay big dollars for small gains.

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Cooler Master MasterAir MA410M

2. Cooler Master MasterAir MA410M

Best Mid-size Air CPU Cooler

Dimensions: 158.8 x 132.4 x 58.2mm | Base Height: 37.88mm | Weight: 43.87oz (1247g) | Fans: (2) 120 x 25mm RGB | Socket Support: AMD FM2(+), FM1, AM2(+), AM3(+), AM4, Intel 7115x, 1366, 2011x, 2066 | Warranty: 5 years

Excellent cooling performance
Mid-size cooler occupies less space
Thermal probe provides thermal load display via RGB lighting
Fans kick up a bit more noise than others by comparison

The Cooler Master MasterAir MA410M is our pick for an excellent performing mid-size air cooler, especially considering the aggressively designed exterior shell and the inclusion of addressable RGB lighting from within the cooling tower itself. Sitting on the upper range of the affordable pricing tier, $67 (£60) might cause budget system builders to balk a bit, but considering the features and performance, it definitely deserves those few extra dollars.

Read: Cooler Master MasterAir MA410M Review

MORE: Best CPUs

MORE: Intel and AMD Processor Hierarchy

Noctua NH-U14S

3. Noctua NH-U14S

Best AMD Threadripper Air CPU Cooler

Dimensions: 171.45 x 151.4 x 52.3mm | Base Height: 25.1mm | Weight: 36.5oz (1035g) | Fans: (1) 140 x 25mm | Socket Support: AMD TR4, SP3 | Warranty: 6 years

Excellent performance
Very low noise levels
Simple, secure installation
Premium price
Tall cooler height poses compatibility issues in smaller cases

The Noctua NH-U14S TR4-SP3 provides whisper-quiet cooling with big league thermal performance – the kind of overclocked Threadripper performance that sneaks into quality 360 AIO cooling performance. Armed with six nickel-plated copper heatpipes and a NF-A15 140mm PWM fan, the AMD-friendly NH-U14S TR4-SP3 is a silent thermal assassin. For Threadripper air cooling, this cooler checks all the boxes for enthusiasts and overclockers alike.

Read: Noctua NH-U14S Review

Alternative Best Threadripper Cooler: See Arctic Freezer 50TR Review

Neither as cool nor as quiet as Noctua's NH-U14S, the Artice Freezer 50 TR got our attention for its lower price. The value advantage could be important to current builders hoping to save money by using AMD's previous generation 2000-series parts.

MORE: Best Liquid CPU Cooling

MORE: How To Choose A CPU Cooler

  • abryant
    Archived comments are found here: http://www.tomshardware.com/forum/id-3707693/cooling.html
    Reply
  • bit_user
    Thanks for including a down-draft cooler. I feel better having direct airflow on the VRM, which tower-style coolers don't provide. RAM temps also typically benefit.

    An interesting test would be to measure the difference that occurs when you reverse the fan direction of such a cooler. So, flip the fan and run it as an updraft cooler. The rationale is that case exhaust fans are often right next to the CPU, in which case they'd be fighting the airflow of a downdraft cooler. However, if you instead run it in the updraft direction, the airflow rate should benefit and more of the hot air should get exhausted.
    Reply
  • Carsten_3
    I wonder why you link a 5 month old review, instead of reviewing the latest ENERMAX LIQTECH TR4 II serie?
    As the old Enermax LIQTECH TR4 360mm AIO Liquid CPU Cooler got 35% 1 star customer reviews on Amazon.
    Reply
  • madymadme
    why is swiftech water cooler included here ?
    Reply
  • fredfinks
    Should be stated that gunk builds up on the insides of liquid coolers. Also theres chance of pump failure & leaks.

    A big dumb block of metal, combined with a top notch fan (i.e. the noctua - guaranteed for 7 years) will function for a LONG time.
    The only thing stopping it being mounting kit obsolescence. (low & behold noctua will send out a mounting kit in future if you ever need it, for free anywhere in world)
    Indefinite lifespan. Eff liquid AIOs. (custom loops go ahead)
    Reply
  • bit_user
    21349247 said:
    A big dumb block of metal, combined with a top notch fan (i.e. the noctua - guaranteed for 7 years) will function for a LONG time.
    The enemy of air is dust. Of course, this also applies (somewhat) to liquid cooling radiators.

    Bigger, slower fan = less dust buildup.

    I also run a positive-pressure case setup, with removable dust filters behind the intake fans. This has worked remarkably well at keeping the case clean.

    Of course, it also helps not to have pets.
    Reply
  • medicjambi
    It would be nice to see stats on how much cooling each one provides. As in how many watts of energy it can dissipate or cool, etc. I've not been able to find the cooling capacity on these coolers. I understand the larger the radiator and more fans equal more cooling capacity, but it would be nice to see how much each is able to cool.
    Reply
  • medicjambi
    I have the Liquid Freezer 240 and I was able to find the stats that it is able to dissipate 300 Watts TDP. Information like that should be listed in a review like this. That's quite the oversite there Tom's Hardware. You guys are slipping.
    Reply
  • jill.and.molly.bff
    The most important aspect of a cooling system is its heat dissipation capacity, which CPU makers express as Watts TDP. If the cooler's TDP capacity does not at least equal the CPU's, the CPU will overheat under heavy load. Can't even imagine why this important fact is entirely omitted from the article...
    Reply
  • Chupacabra69
    Err where are the cooling performance comparisons.. is this an opinion or marketing piece?
    Reply