It seems like AIO liquid coolers get most of the attention these days, but the best CPU air coolers aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Even the most expensive air coolers cost far below what a premium 360mm AIO goes for. Some people just want something simple and effective that offers good value for money while still keeping everything running cool and quiet.
We’ve chosen six of our favourite air coolers, all of which have been tested by the PC Gamer team. The aim is to cover a wide variety of use cases and budgets. We know our readers run all kinds of different systems. There’s something here for everyone!
The real question is: What is the right cooler for your build? Bigger is better, but will it fit in your case? Do you care about RGB? Do you overclock with a high core count CPU? Do you have good case airflow? All of these things need to be considered when it comes to choosing the right cooling for your rig. Here are six picks to suit all kinds of applications.
Best CPU air cooler
The Deepcool AS500 received worthy attention when it was released, but the AS500 Plus with its additional fan elevates it to the point where it can compete with any single tower cooler on the market. At the same time, it undercuts competitors in price. There aren't many dual fan ARGB supporting coolers at this price. Even if you spent double the money on a premium single tower cooler, your cooling performance won't be a lot better.
Its cooling ability belies its compact dimensions. Only more expensive dual tower coolers beat it, and even then, not by a whole lot. Its dual fan design no doubt helps. It’s also surprisingly quiet. Even when pushed hard the cooler doesn’t get excessively loud. Cooling and low noise levels are welcome, then add to that great build quality and subtle ARGB good looks and there’s nothing to complain about. It even comes with its own ARGB controller, and there’s a white version too if you like.
The Deepcool AS500 Plus punches above its weight (and price). It cools very well, it stays quiet, it's got great build quality, a subtle ARGB splash with its own controller and on top of all that. And, finally, it is great value relative to many dual fan single tower coolers. Short of stressing it with a heavily overclocked high-end processor, the AS500 Plus ticks all the boxes. Highly recommended.
If the brand name didn’t already give it away, the Be Quiet Pure Rock 2 really is quiet! It’s a single tower cooler equipped with the company's highly regarded Pure Wings 2 PWM fan which carries a low 26.8 dB(A) noise rating. That means it's very quiet indeed. It feels really solid too, an indicator of good build quality and it comes in at a low price.
We wouldn’t describe the Pure Rock 2 as the most beautiful cooler on the market. But if you do have a windowed case, you could consider the black version which is certainly more attractive than the plain aluminium finish of the base version. The Pure Rock 2 is primarily designed to cool - unseen and unheard. It's rated to cool CPUs with a 150W TDP.
For anything other than high-end CPUs, the Pure Rock 2 will keep your chip cool and quiet. If you're not interested in bling and want something that's a step up from bundled coolers, the Pure Rock 2 is a fantastic choice. It will cool out of sight, mind, and earshot.
The Noctua NH-D15 Chromax Black is considered by many to be the best air cooler on the market. We love it too, and it's an easy inclusion on our list of recommended coolers. It performs brilliantly, it's got excellent fans that are a welcome black colour instead of that rather unsightly beige and maroon (sorry, Jacob), its build quality is fantastic and Noctua's packaging, accessories and documentation are second to none.
Really, only 360mm AIO coolers outperform it. If you want an air cooler that can handle any consumer CPU on the market, you might find one to match the Noctua flagship, but you won’t find anything that truly beats it.
Under normal operation the NH-D15 can be considered truly silent. When pushed hard it becomes louder than you might expect, such as you might get when hammering out an AVX load, but we don’t mind having some optional cooling headroom when you need it. Even a 5GHz+ Core i9 11900K will result in quiet running while gaming.
So why isn't it number one on our list? Its expense, and the perhaps sheer size, are the only things that count against it. Notably, Noctua has a long tradition of adding support for new sockets. An investment in a NH-D15 Chromax Black means you'll have a top shelf cooler that will last you for many years.
The Cryorig C7 has been on the market for some time, but it's been updated to support newer sockets. It’s perfect for a truly compact small form factor system thanks to its 47mm height and adherence to 'keep-out' zones, where it will not interfere in any way with other system components.
The C7 destroys the stock Intel cooler. It's rated for up to 100W but is better suited to 65W class CPUs up to about six or eight cores. This leaves it a bit of headroom for turbo bursts. If you're overclocking, or using a high core-count processor, you can give it a pass, but that's to be expected. With the right CPU it will stay surprisingly quiet for its compact size. Its top flow design will help to cool the VRM and M.2 SSD, too, something that can be neglected in compact systems.
The Cryorig C7 is a niche cooler, no doubt about it, but for the tiniest builds, the cute little C7 does an admirable job. If you want a little bit of extra TDP headroom, there are copper and graphene coated versions that feature TDP ratings of up to 125w, though they're more expensive. The C7 is a great choice for the smallest form factor systems.
Noctua’s NH-P1 passive cooler is very much a niche product, and one that fans of quiet computing have been looking forward to for some time. It's expensive, bulky, and generally limited to CPUs in the 65W range. Sounds like a dud? Hell no. its appeal may be limited, but if you're a user who values silence above anything else, then the NH-P1 will be exactly what you're looking for.
The NH-P1 is a great match for something like an AMD 5700G. That way you could omit a discrete GPU and play e-sport titles in silence. The NH-P1 will keep this class of CPU boosting to its max, but only if you have at least some airflow. The chances are you have a rear case fan that's just a few cm away from it anyway. If you want, you can still opt to attach a fan, too. Though true passive cooling, without any system fans, would require dropping to 35W class CPUs.
The NH-P1 is built for a specific purpose. Fans of quiet computing will love it. If you sleep near your PC or run a lounge room media centre, the NH-P1 will go a long way to ensuring that your PC is truly silent. Clearly it's not meant for everyone though.
Read our full Noctua NH-P1 review.
Keeping your CPU cool is vital, but so is overall system cooling. A cooler like the Be Quiet Dark Rock TF 2 blows air downwards, which helps to keep hot running M.2 drives, and your vital motherboard VRMs running cool. This is something that can often be overlooked in AIO cooled systems that lack good airflow over the motherboard, particularly if you have a GPU heating up your speedy NVMe drives, too.
The Dark Rock TF2 performs much like other single tower air coolers, and though it's on the pricey side, it's not unreasonably so given the inclusion of two high quality fans. Its ability to mount a fan above or below the heatsink (or both) adds a lot of installation flexibility. You can use it in all kinds of systems from powerful gaming PCs through to compact SFF systems.
In the Be Quiet tradition, the Dark Rock TF 2 is very quiet, particularly under low loads and with a rating of up to 230W, it can handle all modern CPUs, though heavy overclocking will really be beyond it.
Downward blowing coolers have fallen out of favour compared to tower coolers, but with one or more hot PCIe 4.0 SSDs to cool, a motherboard needs decent airflow too. The Dark Rock TF 2 can be thought of as a system cooler, and not just a CPU cooler.
CPU air cooler FAQ
Which is better, AIO or air cooler?
Anyone looking at picking a cooler for their rig asks this question: Air or water cooling? Water cooling tends to be viewed as the premium solution, but air cooling remains perfectly viable unless you’re into heavy overclocking with higher core count CPUs. Air coolers are generally cheaper, more reliable and simpler. Yes, they can be bulky relative to an AIO but radiators are also bulky and require large cases too. With air coolers you don’t have to worry about the (admittedly very small) possibility of leaks or pump failure. Noise levels are highly dependent on the fans used but if you choose wisely, there’s no reason an air cooler won’t be as quiet or even quieter than an AIO due to the lack of pump whirr.
Are CPU air coolers effective?
A high TDP processor or CPU overclocking will require something big to absorb and dissipate all that heat. But a dual tower or dual fan model will be just as capable of cooling as an all-in-one liquid cooler.
If you want something quiet, a big cooler with a high cooling capacity will also suit, but pay attention to the noise levels and RPM rating of its fans. Then you get into things like your case size. You’ll need to go with a more compact cooler if you're running a mini system, so look at the dimensions.
There's also an argument to be made for downward blowers. The components around your CPU, such as the power circuitry and NVMe SSDs, can get hot and throttle if they're not properly cooled. And with a liquid cooler they get no help, but a good downward blowing CPU air cooler will not just chill your processor, but other parts on the motherboard too.
How do I pick a CPU air cooler?
There’s so much to consider. It would be easy to simply go for the biggest one you can get, but that ignores case constraints, the TDP of your processor, your budget, and aesthetics. At least you can rest assured that our picks will serve you well with the appropriate accompanying hardware.
The best cooler is one that you can install in your particular rig, give it a stress test under a high heat load, tune the fan curves if necessary and then forget about it. RGB models excepted, a good quality air cooler is unseen and never draws attention. You know you’ve made a good choice when you’ve gone months happily gaming away or doing whatever it is you do on your system with barely a thought about your cooling.
What CPU sockets do air coolers work with?
Not all coolers support all CPU sockets. Cooling for AMD Threadripper CPUs can be tricky for example. Also, Intel 12th Gen LGA1700 compatibility is becoming a topic of discussion. So, if you’re planning on building an Alder Lake system, pay close attention to the list of supported sockets. Stock from earlier in 2021 will definitely lack support. You can expect manufacturers to offer compatible mounting kits and updated SKU’s but if you’re planning on upgrading to 12th Gen, make sure you check with the retailer or manufacturer to ensure your choice of cooler includes LGA 1700 support now, or if it will in the future.
Stay Cool Gamers!