Securing the best CPU cooler will protect your machine from overheating and ensure you get the best performance out of your processor. A CPU cooler is vital if you plan on overclocking your machine and unlocking your CPU's untapped potential. There are two types of PC cooling options: air cooling and liquid cooling.
Air coolers are the most common and often the most affordable. They involve a metal heat sink that pulls heat away from the CPU, then a fan is usually used to whip air around the heat sink and get that heat dispersed quickly. The best air cooler we've tested is the Deepcool AS500 Plus. It's a big boy with low noise levels and isn't super expensive.
Liquid or water cooling works by circulating liquid through your system via tubing. It's generally more energy-efficient and quieter, though a custom water cooling loop will be more costly and require some know-how. The Corsair iCUE H170i Elite Capellix XT gives you the best performance and value.
For a cheaper and more straightforward install, go for an air cooler. However consider going down the AIO route if you're excited about all those extra features, like tiny screens. They tend to be more expensive, though, and often require a bit more know-how. Each of the coolers on this list has been thoroughly tested in the PC Gamer test bench, so I can tell you which offers the most optimum CPU cooling under different workloads. If you're looking for other ways to help get rid of hot air, you can check out our guide to the best PC fans.
Best AIO CPU cooler
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There's a whole lot of cooling performance on offer with the Corsair iCUE H170i Elite Capellix XT. If you can look past its absolutely ridiculous name, that is.
This cooler's excruciatingly long name does hint at its massive size, at least. This is a triple 140mm fan cooler, and as such requires plenty of room inside a chassis to mount it. You'll need a gap for a 420mm radiator to sit somewhere, and only some larger or cleverly designed cases can manage it. But in return it can run those three fans relatively slowly, and that means quieter operation, yet with excellent thermal performance.
This is actually the liquid cooler we have hooked up to our test rig right now, and we've found it to be excellent for keeping Intel and AMD's latest CPUs in check. That includes today's best CPUs, such as the Ryzen 9 7950X and Core i9 13900K, which all ran without any issue whatsoever with this cooler attached.
There are smaller sizes available with the same fans and cooler setup as this 420mm beast. The most popular of the lot is perhaps the 240mm version, which should fit most modern PC cases.
If you're looking for over-the-top cooling, however, it's this 420mm liquid cooler that we feel is best for the job.
Deepcool is well known for its capable AIOs at affordable prices, and the Gammaxx L240 V2 is one of the cheaper 240mm coolers on the market. That makes it a great option for users looking to step up from air cooling into the world of AIO cooling.
The Gammaxx 240mm features basic RGB lighting on the pump head and fans. There’s a more expensive ARGB version, should you really want it. Deepcool likes to talk about its ‘Anti-leak technology,’ which seeks to maintain an optimal pressure balance inside the loop. Which certainly can’t hurt.
The Gammaxx 240 can also cool most processors, though, like many of the chip chillers on this list, it draws the line at AMD's Threadripper beasts. But it keeps the rest running with remarkably low noise levels, which is one of the main reasons we recommend it.
At idle, the L240 is effectively silent. As you’d expect, you will start to see an increase in temperatures and noise levels with high TDP processors, especially when overclocking. Our 5800X CPU with PBO enabled is about the maximum we’d consider appropriate for a 240mm cooler. Under load, the fans can and do ramp up quite a bit.
If you’re after a 240mm AIO that’s inexpensive and quiet under less demanding loads, then the Deepcool Gammaxx L240 is a great choice. Sure, its noise levels can get high if you push it hard, but at this price, it comes highly recommended.
Best CPU air coolers
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 spend double the money on a premium single-tower cooler, your cooling performance won't be much 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, has great build quality, a subtle ARGB splash with its own controller, and on top of all that. And finally, it is a 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 with the company's highly regarded Pure Wings 2 PWM fan, with a low 26.8dB(A) noise rating. That means it's very quiet indeed. It feels excellent, too, an indicator of good build quality, and it comes at a low price.
We wouldn't describe the Pure Rock 2 as the most beautiful cooler on the market. But if you have a windowed case, you could consider the black version, which is undoubtedly more attractive than the plain aluminum 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.
Though perhaps this is a touch optimistic, that’s down to the CPU manufacturers and their 'real' TDPs.
The Pure Rock 2 will keep your chip cool and quiet for anything other than high-end CPUs. If you're 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, has excellent fans that are a welcome black color 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 12900K will run quietly while gaming.
The NH-D15 also comes with two 140mm fans, which run slower than their 120mm counterparts, for quieter operation, but move plenty of air. If two of these are too loud for you, you can always remove one if needed. However, if you want to remove both for a truly silent CPU cooler, you'd best look at the Noctua NH-P1 below instead. That's actually designed to run without fans.
But why isn't the NH-15 number one on our list? It's probably overkill for many PC builds, especially if you're running your chip stock. It's absolutely overkill as a straight swap for the stock cooler that comes with many Intel and AMD chips. Perhaps the sheer size of it, too, though that can easily be forgiven considering its excellent performance.
Notably, Noctua has a long tradition of adding support for new sockets, and an investment in an NH-D15 Chromax Black means you'll have a top-shelf cooler that will last you for many years. That said, make sure to check it's compatible with your socket of choice before buying one.
The best passive CPU cooler
You might see nothing more than a hulking CPU cooler at a glance, but the Noctua NH-P1 is far more exciting than that. As a passive design, it requires no fan to keep your CPU at a stable temperature. Yes, even while gaming. And if you hadn't already guessed, that's a pretty big deal for silent PC builds.
The NH-P1 is capable of cooling even high-end CPUs using only natural convection. That's sort of what makes it a big deal in the cooling world. It does this through a design vastly disparate from your standard chip chiller.
Essentially, this passive cooler can keep a decent gaming processor powered up. We've tested the NH-P1 on our Core i7 10700K open test bench—which has no fans and therefore completely unoptimized airflow—and while it may throttle on seriously CPU-intensive benchmarks, it flew on our standard gaming tests.
Compare the NH-P1 to the NH-D15(Noctua's high-end CPU cooler, and you'll notice a few differences between the two. The most immediate is the density and thickness of the fins that make up most of the cooler's large size. These fins act as the fundamental heat dissipation method for an air cooler, and strangely the NH-P1 comes with fewer than the tightly packed NH-D15.
The NH-P1 also features a grid of cut-outs horizontally through the more relaxed design, which again should help airflow naturally flow across the cooler and, importantly, sap away the heat transferred into the fins from the heat pipes.
The heat pipes are undoubtedly of major importance here. Sit the NH-P1 side-by-side with the NH-D15, and you'll notice they're oriented differently. The heat pipes are the longest along their horizontal axis, which will undoubtedly impact heat dispersion due to the reliance on gravity for a heat pipe to function.
The NH-P1 is a niche product with particular use cases, with some drawbacks.
It's unlikely to unlock your chip's maximum potential, and it can't be paired with a hulking triple-fan enthusiast graphics card for a good reason. All of which will rule it out for many.
But what if the NH-P1 is not a CPU cooler to fit all PCs? A silent, failproof, or dust-proof design with far more capability than underpowered passive designs of the past is a massive win for PC builders limited by circumstance. And all it takes is being a little smarter about how you piece your machine together to get it all working relatively harmoniously without even a whiff of active cooling.
Read our full Noctua NH-P1 review.
Best CPU cooler FAQ
How do I choose the CPU cooler that's right for me?
If you aren't sure whether you need an air cooler or a liquid cooler, it comes down to budget and compatibility. The first thing to check is whether a cooler supports the socket on your motherboard and offers a sufficient mounting solution. Most coolers today are compatible with AMD's AM4 socket and Intel's latest LGA 1700 socket and should include the prerequisite parts to install them inside the box. However, some older coolers, perhaps second-hand ones, may not support the latest chips.
The other thing to consider is whether a cooler is sufficient for your CPU. Your CPU wastes a certain amount of energy as heat, and that needs to be dissipated effectively. A cooler does that, but some high-end processors require better cooling to keep temperatures low. Coolers often come with TDP ratings denoting what TDP of CPU they can sufficiently chill, but it's not always this straightforward. Some CPUs require larger contact points for adequate cooling, such as AMD's Threadripper chips, while Intel's 12th Gen CPUs often hit power draw much higher than their stated TDP.
Just be careful to check out what sort of chip a CPU cooler is rated to cool, especially if you're planning on overclocking.
Those on tight budgets now don't necessarily need to consider an aftermarket air cooler. Until AMD released its Wraith coolers (and then took them away again), we'd never recommend a stock cooler to any PC gamer, but they're a good stand-in when money is tight. Still, it's best to replace these with something beefier eventually, and if you have a little more spending room, liquid coolers can offer a lot more—from advanced RGB lighting to intelligent software control.
Some of you may be wary about putting liquid near your expensive components, but rest assured all of the coolers recommended in this guide are backed with excellent warranties that will cover you in the event of a manufacturer failure—a colossal leakage is an infrequent occurrence, anyways.
Is liquid cooling quieter than air cooling?
Generally, an all-in-one liquid CPU cooler will be quieter than an air cooler mounted directly on the processor. That's because the fans attached to the cooling radiator are generally larger and can therefore spin slower than an air cooler. The water pump is often well insulated, but there can be some noise from this part.
But there are large air coolers with big heatsinks and large fans that can compete well with the noise generation of an AIO liquid cooler. The Noctua NH-D15, for example, has two 140mm fans and is very quiet in operation. The quietest of all would be an entirely passive cooler with no moving parts whatsoever. However, those can't always cope with the hottest and most heavy CPUs.
Do I need liquid cooling if I don't overclock my CPU?
Liquid cooling can undoubtedly give your processor the thermal headroom it needs to run comfortably overclocked, but you might want an AIO in your system for other reasons. The vainest is the aesthetic—not having a huge hulking heatsink clogging up your chassis when there's a Perspex peephole to show off your components is often desirable.
That can also play into having a smaller chassis entirely. Liquid coolers can often give you the thermal performance to run a high-spec CPU in a small chassis where you can only fit a weaker, small-form air cooler.
How does liquid cooling work anyway?
The coolant passes through a closed loop via a plate attached to your CPU, and in combination with the attached radiator and fan, it cools the CPU. It's simple and a hundred times easier to install than an entire water-cooling loop.
How do you test CPU coolers?
Like most components, choosing the right CPU cooler depends on several variables, including performance requirements, case compatibility, budget restrictions, and aesthetics. We test performance using Prime95 and a mixture of modern PC games for extensive stress testing to find the best CPU coolers. Our top selections were based on thermal performance, noise, value, and overall feature sets.