Powerful computer components often run hot, which requires loud fans or expensive liquid to cool them, bringing us to a central conundrum of the PC Power lifestyle—we want a big, powerful PC, but we want it to make as little noise as possible. Not only do noisy computers make it more difficult to relax, but there’s a principle at work here—you should be the master of the space where you put your PC; you must bend it to your will, not the other way around.
This month, we decided to do just that and build a supremely powerful rig, then smother its noise output as best as we could. We haven’t built a PC like this in a while, so the project gave us the chance to check out some new gear specifically designed for quiet computing, including a fanless CPU cooler from Zalman, a case fan from a company that usually only operates in Europe, and a closed-loop liquid cooler built for video cards. We stuffed it all into a “new to us” case from Fractal Design, and then tried to overclock the PC because, well, that’s what we do here.
Starting out, we figured the thing that would probably make the biggest difference in our build (besides the components, of course) would be sound-absorbing panels. This would allow us to have some fans inside the system, as building a fanless PC with any amount of horsepower is simply impossible. Therefore, we went with Fractal Design’s Define R4 —a mid-tower known for its sonic excellence and balance of price and features.
We also liked the idea of a fanless CPU cooler, as Zalman had recently released its FX100 cooler , and it would mean a major element of our machine would be totally silent even when running at full speed. The only problem is it would also pretty much guarantee that we wouldn't be able to overclock due to heat buildup, which is always a problem with fanless coolers. Zalman also sent us a 92mm fan that could be dropped into the center column of the heat sink if we ran into cooling issues. Zalman labels the fan as “optional” for those running socket 2011 or 1133, but we would add “overclockers” to that list, as well. A company named Be Quiet had just sent us two 14cm Silent Wings 2 case fans, one of which we slapped in the front of our case for some additional airflow.
In the GPU department, we happened to have an Nvidia GeForce GTX 680 with a closed-loop water cooler from Arctic Cooling that includes a 120mm radiator and fan, so we used that since it’s just what the rig-doctor ordered. Rounding out our components was a quiet PSU from Cooler Master, a solid-state drive from OCZ, a 1TB Caviar Black hard drive from WD, and a couple of sticks of RAM from Corsair.
|Case||Fractal Design Define R4||
|Case Fan||Be Quiet Silent Wings 2 14cm||$20|
|PSU||Cooler Master 800W Silent Pro Gold||$150|
|CPU||Intel Core i7-3770K||$325|
|GPU||Nvidia GeForce GTX 680||$450|
|GPU Cooler||Arctic Cooling Accelero Hybrid||$110|
|RAM||Corsair Vengeance 2x 4GB||
|SSD||OCZ Vertex 4 128GB||$125|
|Hard Drive||WD Caviar Black 1TB||$90|
|OS||Windows 7 64-bit OEM||$100|
We didn't want to sacrifice video card performance to achieve low noise, so we got creative. Not long ago, we installed an Arctic Cooling Accelero Hybrid closed-loop liquid cooler on an Nvidia GeForce GTX 680 (these don't run as toasty as comparable AMD cards like the Radeon HD 7970, making our job a little easier). The Hybrid is basically like a Corsair H100 , but designed for GPUs. Since we awarded it a 9 verdict and Kick Ass award for running so cool and quiet, it made sense to tuck this puppy into our build. The Fractal Design case we chose had an unoccupied 120mm fan grill on the bottom of the case, next to the power supply, perfect for our Hybrid’s radiator and fan ( image A ). It's difficult to hear noise coming through the bottom of a case, so we used that to our advantage.
We were looking forward to working with the Fractal Design Define R4 case for more than just its built-in sound-dampening panels. It's also about an inch wider than normal, so there's more room behind the motherboard tray for cable management. (The extra width also leaves room to add a 140mm radiator to the rear exhaust fan, but we don't need that feature this time.) In addition, the drive cages have preinstalled rubber feet designed to absorb the vibration of a mechanical drive's moving parts ( image B ). We also decided to remove the upper drive cage, which was secured with a couple of thumbscrews, to increase airflow in the middle of the chassis where our GPU is located. Besides, we didn't need the second drive cage since we were fine just using the three bays in the lower cage. The power supply mount also has rubber feet, and a gasket in the rear that helps with sound absorption and dust prevention.
Even though the case includes one intake fan and one exhaust fan, we wanted a third case fan to help provide some airflow to our fanless CPU cooler. The R4 has two intake fan mounts in the front, and we weren’t worried about adding an extra fan to a “quiet PC” because the added noise would be muffled by sound- dampening material. We used the unoccupied lower mount to install the Be Quiet Silent Wings 2 fan, which is like the R4's stock fans in that its blades are shaped to reduce turbulence.
To install it, we just pressed on the fan grill to pop it open, affixed the fan to the included cage, then snapped it shut—no tools needed ( image C ).
We decided to skip an optical drive, since they can make a lot of noise when they spin up, and just installed Windows from a USB stick. For our OS we naturally wanted a solid-state drive since they have no moving parts and make no noise, so we went with an OCZ Vertex 4 because it's one of the best performers at 128GB and its size is sufficient for our OS needs. The Define R4 allows you to install two SSDs underneath the motherboard tray, between the board and the case. But the screws go through the top of the tray ( image D ), so the motherboard needs to be removed to install the drives. For simplicity’s sake, we installed the SSD next to the mechanical drive in the lower drive cage, as its slide-out trays have screw holes for SSDs. There was enough room between the back of the drives and the side panel that right-angle SATA cables were not required.
We really liked the idea of using Zalman’s new fanless CPU cooler for this build, since it’s totally silent and would go a long way toward minimizing our machine’s sound output—after all, the CPU cooler, along with the GPU cooler, is responsible for the lion’s share of the noise a system emits. Since we already had the GPU on a liquid diet, silencing the CPU too should make our machine so quiet not even a bat could hear it. Of course, we also wanted a high-performance machine, so we were taking a bit of a gamble on whether a fanless cooler would work, but we figured it was worth a try.
Since it’s a passive cooler, the Zalman is absolutely massive. This made plugging things in around the CPU socket tricky, as the cooler mostly obstructed the 8-pin motherboard power connector ( image E ). The CPU fan header was also completely out of reach (Zalman bundles an optional 92mm ZM-SF2 fan). You can install the cooler with the fan before putting your motherboard in the case, but then the cooler blocks the 8-pin connector. With the fan plugged in, we had to tilt the board about 30 degrees to wrestle the 8-pin cable into its socket.
Power supplies are another area where we can eliminate noise. When your system starts demanding a lot of power, that power amounts to a lot of heat going through the PSU. Its fan may have to spin pretty hard to keep up, so you want a PSU with a fan that won't create a lot of turbulence when you crank it to 11. We began our build with a Cooler Master 720-watt Silent Pro M2, and as its name implies, it's designed to operate quietly. We'd used it in a previous build, so we could confirm it would not emit more than a low hum. It seemed like a no-brainer to drop in our Define R4 case.
Unfortunately, the M2 was about a half-inch too long, and didn’t leave enough room for the Accelero Hybrid radiator, which we mounted on the bottom fan grill next to the PSU. It seemed simpler to just get a different PSU rather than mount the Hybrid where its fan would be easier to hear. We had several other options on hand and ultimately chose the Cooler Master Silent Pro Gold ( image F ) because it has received positive reviews for its silent operation.
Although it took time and some creativity to fit the FX100 fanless CPU cooler into the Define R4 case (due to the cooler’s unusually large dimensions and the case’s midsize stature), it was able to keep our Core i7-3770K in the mid-70s Celsius with Prime95 running its most challenging test (in-place large FFTs). That’s not too shabby for a fanless cooler, especially considering that our CPU was running eight threads at 100 percent load. If you place a high premium on low noise and don't care about overclocking, this cooler may fit your needs, assuming you can wedge it into your chassis. In retrospect, we would have preferred either a smaller cooler or a larger case, as this particular combo provided woefully little clearance between the top of the motherboard and the top of the case, making connecting the 8-pin power cable up in the corner of our mobo a major chore. Many full-towers fit that description, and Fractal Design makes a full-tower version of this case called the Define XL R2.
After we installed the FX100’s optional 92mm fan (found at Frozencpu.com for $18), CPU temps were about on par with similar-size “skyscraper” coolers like the Noctua NH-D14 or the Phanteks TC14PE, with idle temps in the low-to-mid 30s Celsius and load temps in the high 60s, and it operated about as quietly. We were also able to get a stable overclock of 4GHz (from a stock speed of 3.5GHz). Going higher created noticeable fan noise when the system was under load, even with the sound dampening in the R4.
Putting the Accelero Hybrid radiator on the bottom of the Define R4 chassis gave us the quietude we had hoped for, even when running GPU benchmarks. The Hybrid device includes a small fan blowing on the card, so the memory and voltage regulation modules didn't overheat. Since this fan didn't have to cool the GPU, it didn't have to work nearly as hard, so it stayed nice and quiet.
Overall, this build was one part cooling experiment, and one part PC-building exercise. Though our final system was dead quiet, it took us awhile to get there, thanks to the quirks of the fanless cooler and the stringent low-noise requirements we set for ourselves. Given a second shot, we'd go with a standard CPU air-cooler with fans first, or water cooling. Maybe next time we’ll cool both the GPU and the CPU with water, and maybe even try something as exotic as an exterior radiator/reservoir.
|Premiere Pro CS6 (sec)||2,000||2820 (-29%)|
|Stitch.Efx 2.0 (sec)||831||836|
|3DMark 11 Extreme||5,847||3390 (-42%)|
|x264 HD 5.0 (fps)||21.1||15.5 (-26%)|
|ProShow Producer 5.0 (sec)||1,446||1427 (-1%)|
|Batman: Arkam City (fps)||76||49 (-35%)|
Our current desktop test bed consists of a hexa-core 3.2GHz Core i7-3930K @ 3.8GHz, 8GB of Corsair DDR3/1600, on an Asus Sabertooth X79 motherboard. We are running a GeForce GTX 690, an OCZ Vertex 3 SSD, and 64-bit Windows 7 Professional.