SPCR's 2010 CPU Heatsink Test Platform [Updates: 10 April & 31 May]

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These recordings were made with a high resolution, lab quality, digital recording system inside SPCR's own 11 dBA ambient anechoic chamber, then converted to LAME 128kbps encoded MP3s. We've listened long and hard to ensure there is no audible degradation from the original WAV files to these MP3s. They represent a quick snapshot of what we heard during the review.

These recordings are intended to give you an idea of how the product sounds in actual use — one meter is a reasonable typical distance between a computer or computer component and your ear. The recording contains stretches of ambient noise that you can use to judge the relative loudness of the subject. Be aware that very quiet subjects may not be audible — if we couldn't hear it from one meter, chances are we couldn't record it either!

The recording starts with 10 second segments of room ambiance, then the fan at various levels. For the most realistic results, set the volume so that the starting ambient level is just barely audible, then don't change the volume setting again.


Changing our platform to a more power hungry setup has revealed the weaknesses of top-down coolers. It hasn't however, created any new winners. The heatsinks that excelled today also did so on our old test platform, though the increased range of results has created more separation, making it easier to proclaim one cooler better/worse than another. We look forward to building on these results throughout the following months as we have several interesting and intimidating heatsinks in the lab awaiting testing.

#1 Prolimatech Megahalems (Street Price: $60~$65 without fan):

There is very little to say about the Megahalems and we mean that in the best possible way. It topped the charts of our old test platform and remains unbeaten on our new platform. It's a large heavy cooler with an excellent mounting system and can be found for $60. That's a reasonable amount for a topnotch heatsink.

#2 Thermalright Ultra-120 extreme (Street Price: $55 without fan, $70 with fan):

The Ultra-120 eXtreme was once a champion at SPCR, but has since lost its top billing to the Megahalems. However, placing a close second is hardly shameful considering it has been two and a half years since its release. It has a simple and secure mounting scheme and is more widely available than the Megahalems. Its only fault is its slightly poorer performance than other heatsinks in its class when the fan speed is dialed back to very low levels. LGA1366-compatible models can be purchased for as low as $55 at various e-tailers.

#2 Noctua NH-U12P (Street Price: $55~65 with fan):

The NH-U12P is a classic heatsink that has withstood the test of time very well. It has a solid backplate mount and is an extremely versatile cooler performing well with both high and low airflow. On our overclocked test platform, the temperature only rose 7°C when the fan was undervolted from 12V to 7V, the smallest difference of the entire field. The stock fan does sound a bit annoying at full speed, but it undervolts well and conveniently ships with a 7V and 9V in-line 3-pin adapter. It can be found for $55 online which is a very good deal if you decide to keep the fan.

#4 Scythe Mugen-2 (Street Price: $35~$40 with fan):

The Mugen-2 lost to the NH-U12P by a hair, only being edged out by a slim margin with our reference fan at low speed. It does suffer from one major flaw though: installation is very troublesome with the final mating between the backplate and heatsink requiring the motherboard to be flipped upside down. Of the 8 coolers in this roundup, the Mugen-2 is the only one that requires motherboard removal to unmount, even temporarily for a processor upgrade or a fresh application of thermal compound. This inconvenience may be worth it though, as it is an extremely proficient cooler, ships with a very quiet fan, and can be acquired as little as $35. It is far and away the best value of the bunch.

#5 Thermalright Ultra-120 (Street Price: N/A, discontinued?):

The smaller brother of the Ultra-120 extreme performed fairly well, a few degrees off from elite status. The 6-heatpipe U120E posted results 5°C better than the 4-heatpipe U120.

#6 Zalman CNPS10X Extreme (Street Price: $70~$80 with fan, $60~$65 for the plain 'Quiet' version):

The CNPS10X Extreme unfortunately does not perform like a $70 heatsink. It trailed the Ultra-120 by about 5°C with our reference fan at 12V and 9V, and at 7V it failed to prevent our overclocked i7 from throttling. Performance and price isn't its only weaknesses either. The mounting method for LGA1366 does not use a backplate. Instead, a plastic retention frame is screwed on and the heatsink mounts to that. And while the stock fan sounds fairly decent when undervolted, it cannot be replaced without modification. Zalman also sells the CNPS10X Quiet which is basically the same cooler but with standard fan mounting and without the Extreme's fancy fan controller. At $60, it's a better deal, but still a questionable value when you consider the alternatives.

#7 Scythe Kabuto (Street Price: $45~$50 with fan):

On the Pentium D test platform, the Kabuto was the best top-down cooler tested, and rivaled the elite tower heatsinks. On an i7, it can do the job, but with far less proficiency. When we overclocked the i7, the Kabuto came within 15°C of CPU throttling with our reference fan running at 12V and couldn't prevent it from happening at 7V. Like the Mugen-2, it comes with a very nice fan, but like older Scythes, it uses pushpins to mount. For $45, we'd rather buy the Mugen-2 and pocket the difference.

#8 Noctua NH-C12P (Street Price: $65~$70 with fan):

The NH-C12P was edged out by the Kabuto by only a couple of degrees, but they were both equally poor compared to the tower heatsinks tested. Blowing hot exhaust air out to the side is far more efficient than pushing it down toward the PCB, especially when the CPU temperature gets very high. We should also note that our power consumption measurements did not change when when using either down-blower, so the extra airflow did not improve VRM efficiency. On a board like the Asus P6T SE, with ample VRM cooling, it would appear that these types of heatsinks have little practical value. If that wasn't enough of a deterrent, there`s also the $65 price-tag.

A cautionary note should be sounded regarding the results from our new heatsink test rig: The differences that show up in our testing will not be as relevant if your CPU is a typical sub-100W TDP model. This is not to say the 8th ranked heatsink will perform as well as the top ranked heatsink if you use it with a 65W TDP processor. But while the 8th ranked heatsink will allow an overclocked i7 to overheat and throttle if you run it with a fan under 700rpm, it will cool a 65W processor perfectly well. In essence, the new test rig is most useful for those who are running hot CPUs. Depending on reader response, we may add an undervolted CPU test run to make the reviews 100% relevant no matter how hot or cool a CPU you run.

FLASH! See important 10 April 2010 Postscript overleaf.

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Articles of Related Interest
CPU Heatsink Test Platform, 2006-2009
ZEROtherm Nirvana CPU Cooler
Smallish LGA775 Heatsink Roundup - Part 2
Scythe Top-Down Coolers: Kabuto vs. Zipang 2
LGA775 Low Profile Heatsink Roundup
Scythe Mugen-2 CPU Cooler
Scythe Katana 3: Same slant, new version

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