Quiet Liquid Cooled Gaming PC Build Guide

Do-It-Yourself Systems | Silent PC Build Guides
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Most of the recent SPCR silent gaming PC build guides were initiated with a clear set of goals we brought to each project: For example, a mid-tower ATX system incorporating the quietest GTX 980 with sub-20 dBA SPL at full load. Or a mini-ITX system suitable for LAN events with similar gaming and acoustic performance. The components were then sought out, and once collected, assembled, with the usual iterative fine tuning for optimal quiet and cooling.

There have been one or two exceptions where a particular product or some external stimulus got a project started. The NCASE M1 build was spurred by the simple fact of having one on hand: It's a hard-to-get, unusual and expensive case, and it was a challenge to make a powerful gaming system in such a small case. The second was our first MicroATX gaming build, which was initiated by my personal fascination with the Corsair Carbide Air 240 case.

This build is another exception. It was initiated by an invitation to review an AMD Radeon R9 290 graphics card equipped with a full-cover watercooling block. The invitation from VisionTek came just as we were planning out the entire series of gaming builds for late fall and winter. Further discussion proved VisionTek were willing to supply the other components for a discrete watercooling system and a CPU watercooling block to complete the package. Could the VisionTek CryoVenom R9 290 be the basis of a quiet, discrete, entirely water cooled system? Our limited experience with water cooling told us the pump would be a huge challenge to silence. But for a super-hot graphics card like the R9 290, 290X or any recent dual-GPU top dogs from either nVidia or AMD, especially in a multi-card rig, watercooling looked close to being the only viable option, never mind the noise level. It was a challenge we could not resist.

That's how this quiet watercooled gaming PC build guide project began. We had never even looked closely at a discrete watercooled PC before, never mind build one. Diving into the deep end seems an apt phrase here.

CryoVenom R9 290 LE is most impressive. Click for 1280px image.


Since SPCR has never covered VisionTek products in the past, it seems appropriate to introduce the company.

Visiontek was founded in 1988 and became a major supplier of peripherals and memory products for computers in the US. According to its web site, Visiontek currently "offers state-of-the-art, graphics cards from AMD, memory, solid state drives, power supplies, candyboards, gaming network cards, TV tuners, and more to the computing industry, with branded products still found at major retailers, distributors, PC system builders, and e-commerce sites across North America."

VisonTek's partner for watercooling technology is EKWB (EK Water Blocks) of Slovenia, a renown specialist in computer watercooling products for more than 15 years.


A big portion of any build guide is a discussion of component option for the build. In this case, only one graphics card was considered, the CryoVenom R9 290 LE which initiated the project.

The R9 290 GPU has been around for just over a year, long enough for it to have been thoroughly tested by many web tech review sites. At stock clocks, the R9 290 ranks a bit higher than nVidia's GTX 780 but trades blows with the much newer Maxwell-core GTX 970, losing by a hair more often than not. Huge AMD price cuts since the GTX 970 and 980 introduction last fall have positioned the 290 at some 10% lower price than the $330~380 GTX 970.

The cooling block covers all the hot elements on the R9 290 card. The quality of machining is top notch. The back panel cover occupies two slot spaces for all the output ports but the card itself is probably slim enough to fit into the space of a single slot.

The PCB gets support from a full size, thick backplate made apparently from anodized aluminum.

The full designation of the product is VisionTek CryoVenom® R9 290 Limited Edition Graphics Card (900698). This is an AMD Radeon R9 290 with 4GB GDDR5 factory-fitted with a full cover water block from EKWB. The card came with an individually signed test report certifying it to be stable with the GPU overclocked 19% to 1127 MHz, and memory overclocked 18% to 1475 MHz. OC capabilities should push this 290's performance past the stock 1 GHz clock of the 290X even with the latter's 9% advantage in the number of stream processors. It probably allows the CryoVenom 290 to edge past the GTX 970. Of course, at such clock speeds, this card will also exceed its nominal 275W TDP and the 290W TDP of the 290X. This is where the nVidia Maxwell architecture GPUs actually have their greatest edge: 165W TDP for the GTX 980 and just 145W for the 970. Devotees of silent computing need no more information to know the R9 290 is much harder to cool quietly than the GTX 980/970. Liquid cooling of the entire card certainly looks worthwhile given the ~300W thermal load.

The CryoVenom R9 290 LE is a most impressive device to behold and examine. The base that mates with the GPU, VRM and RAM is made of nickel-plated copper, while the rest of the waterblock is machined from clear acrylic, with an additional aluminum plate possibly for additional heat conduction. Liquid tubing can be attached from either side of the card — or both sides as necessary. A ~2.8mm thick anodized aluminum plate which covers the entire backside provides excellent rigidity and resistance to PCB flexing.

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