Thermalright Ultra-120 eXtreme: Heir to the CPU Cooling Throne

Cooling
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TESTING

Testing was done in accordance with our unique heatsink testing methodology, and the reference fan was profiled using our standard fan testing methodology. A quick summary of the components, tools, and procedures follows below.

Key Components in Heatsink Test Platform:

Test Tools

  • Seasonic Power Angel for measuring AC power at the wall to ensure that the heat output remains consistent.
  • Custom-built, four-channel variable DC power supply, used to regulate the fan speed during the test.
  • Bruel & Kjaer (B&K) model 2203 Sound Level Meter. Used to accurately measure SPL (sound pressure level) down to 20 dBA and below.
  • Various other tools for testing fans, as documented in our standard fan testing methodology.

Software Tools

  • SpeedFan 4.32, used to monitor the on-chip thermal sensor. This sensor is not calibrated, so results are not universally applicable; however,
  • CPUBurn P6, used to stress the CPU heavily, generating more heat that most realistic loads. Two instances are used to ensure that both cores are stressed.
  • Throttlewatch 2.01, used to monitor the throttling feature of the CPU to determine when overheating occurs.

Sound pressure level (SPL) measurements were made with the fan powered from the lab variable DC power supply with no other noise sources in the room. The ambient conditions during testing were 18 dBA and 22°C.

Load testing was accomplished using CPUBurn to stress the processor, and the graph function in SpeedFan was used to make sure that the load temperature was stable for at least ten minutes. The fan was tested at four voltages: 5V, 7V, 9V, and 12V, representing a full cross-section of its airflow and noise performance.

MEASURED TEST RESULTS

Thermalright Ultra-120 eXtreme with Nexus 120mm fan
Fan Voltage
Noise
Temp
°C Rise
°C/W
12V
23 dBA
34°C
12
0.15
9V
20 dBA
36°C
14
0.18
7V
18 dBA
39°C
17
0.22
5V
<18 dBA
46°C
24
0.31
Load Temp: CPUBurn for ~20 mins.
°C Rise: Temperature rise above ambient (22°C) at load.
°C/W: Temperature rise over ambient per Watt of CPU heat, based on the amount of heat dissipated by the CPU (measured power of 78W).
Noise: SPL measured in dBA@1m distance with high accuracy B & K SLM

The Ultra-120 eXtreme performs admirably. At 5V, the temperature is acceptable, while at 7V (effectively inaudible), the temperature rose only 17°C above ambient. When the fan voltage is cranked up further, it really begins to stand out, with a paltry load temperature of 12°C above ambient at 12V, while only generating 23 dBA of noise at one meter. It's an excellent candidate for heavy overclocking with a high airflow fan.

The acoustic characteristics of the Nexus 120mm fan have been documented extensive in previews articles and reviews, so a detailed analysis of the noise will not be provided here. Listening from a distance of one meter in our quiet lab, it is very quiet at full speed, barely audible at 9V, and completely inaudible below 7V. The noise is smooth and low and motor noise is almost nonexistent below 9V. In the 7~9V range where it is most likely to be used, the dominant noise is a slight whoosh of air turbulence.

There was a question from one of SPCR's editorial review board members whether the tighter fin spacing makes the Nexus 120 (or any other quiet fan) sound louder with the U120E than with a heatsink like the Ninja where the fin spacing is much less dense. We can report that at least with the relatively low RPM and airflow of the Nexus fan, even at 12V, there was no measurable difference in SPL or audible difference in the turbulence noise. With a higher airflow fan, however, the tighter fin spacing could lead to higher turbulence noise.

COMPARABLES

Fan Voltage
Noise
Ultra-120 eXtreme
Scythe Ninja
Ultra-120
°C Rise
°C/W
°C Rise
°C/W
°C Rise
°C/W
12V
23 dBA
12
0.15
14
0.18
15
0.19
9V
20 dBA
14
0.18
16
0.21
17
0.22
7V
18 dBA
17
0.22
17
0.22
21
0.27
5V
<18 dBA
24
0.31
21
0.27
26
0.33

There are really only two serious competitors: The Ultra-120 and the Scythe Ninja. Both heatsinks were tested previously with the same reference fan on the same heatsink testing platform, so direct comparisons can be made. The Ultra-120 eXtreme surpasses its predecessor by about 3°C at all four fan voltage levels. It can't quite compete with the Ninja with the reference fan at 5V, but this is only a useful comparison if you are considering passive cooling, as the noise difference between 5V and 7V is indistinguishable from all but the closest of distances. The Ultra-120 eXtreme really starts to shine at 7V where it matches the Ninja's performance, before overtaking it at 9V and 12V. The extra airflow definitely helps the transfer of heat through the relatively tight fin spacing.

NOISE RECORDINGS IN MP3 FORMAT

Nexus 120mm fan: 5V-7V-9V-12V, 5s Ambient between levels: One Meter, One Foot (30cm)

HOW TO LISTEN & COMPARE

These recordings were made with a high resolution, studio quality, digital recording system and are intended to represent a quick snapshot of what we heard during the review. Two recordings of each noise level were made, one from a distance of one meter, and another from one foot (30cm) away.

The one meter recording is intended to give you an idea of how the subject of this review sound 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. For best results, set your volume control so that the ambient noise is just barely audible. 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 one foot recording is designed to bring out the fine details of the noise. Use this recording with caution! Although more detailed, it may not represent how the subject sounds in actual use. It is best to listen to this recording after you have listened to the one meter recording.

More details about how we make these recordings can be found in our article: Audio Recording Methods Revised.


FINAL CONCLUSIONS

The installation system is simple, and very secure. Owners of older socket 754/939/940 platforms will have to buy extra mounting hardware to use the Ultra-120 eXtreme, but it's unlikely such users would be willing to pay for the very best in air cooling for their semi-outdated systems, so this is a minor issue.

Compatibility is fairly good, considering the sheer size of the heatsink. The majority of potential problems are related to the eXtreme's height or width. Large gaudy northbridge/VRM heatsinks may cause headaches, but the bigger potential problem is interference with components "north" of the motherboard; specifically, the power supply or the front-to-back support crossbar found in many cases. In most setups, the preferred orientation is "east-west" (with the fan blowing towards the rear of the case). If incompatibility forces the U120E to be installed in "north-south" orientation, the air coming off the CPU is blown towards the power supply and may cause its internal fan to speed up and become noisier under load.

Thermalright does not ship a fan with their products, which increases its total ownership cost, but most silencers will want to pick their own anyway. Keep in mind the fan should come with open corners for the Thermalright fan clips to hook onto — otherwise get your hacksaw (or other tool of choice) ready for some fan modification.

The Thermalright Ultra-120 eXtreme is not a revolutionary new product, but a slight tweak on a previously successful design. They took a simple, brute force approach by only adding additional heat pipes and it worked, though not by leaps and bounds. Its tight fin spacing still hurts performance with ultra low airflow (a Nexus 120 at a ridiculous 5V), but otherwise, it is the best performing heatsink we have reviewed to date, and therefore the new cooling king at SPCR. For just how long remains to be seen, as Thermalright has created another monster, the IFX-14, which we hope to scrutinize soon.

Pros

* Unprecedented performance
* Secure mounting mechanism
* Can cool well with a very quiet fan
Cons

* No fan included
* Very large and heavy
* Expensive

Our thanks to Thermalright, Inc. for the Ultra-120 eXtreme sample.

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Articles of Related Interest:

Recommended Heatsinks
SPCR's unique heatsink testing methodology
SPCR's standard fan testing methodology
Scythe Ninja
Thermalright Ultra 120

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