Review: Quiet HDDs by Samsung, Hitachi & Seagate

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It was established early on that all of these hard drives idle at a noise level well below 30 dBA @ 1 meter, where my old Heath SLM has no resolving power. Rather than resort to close-field microphone techniques and come up with yet another set of non-standard acoustic measurements that cannot be easily compared, I opted to go with careful extending listening analysis. These tests were repeated many times with rest periods in between over the course of many days to minimize the role of human perception error. It was tedious, but necessary.

Another caution: Please note that the noise analysis results are relevant only for the specific samples tested. While one would expect quality assurance from hard drive makers to be of a high level, I have personally heard audible variances in specific models from a variety of HDD brands. Because all of the hard drives reviewed here are relatively quiet and grouped fairly tightly together, even small differences in noise could impact the ranking results.

Test Platform

The system used as the test platform for these hard drives consisted of:

The following software was used during testing. All are linked from SPCR's Software page under Useful Web Links on the main menu:

  • DTemp - simple, highly useful utility to monitor hard drive temperature available from the S.M.A.R.T. features in these drives
  • SiSoftware Sandra v. 2003.3.9.44 -- to run benchmarks and put the drives into seek mode consistently
  • HD Tach 2.61 -- to run HDD benchmark analysis

The test environment, as usual, was the converted kitchen that is SPCR's test lab: hard reflective surfaces and a very low noise floor allows all kinds of noises to be heard easily, especially in the evening.

Acoustics and Vibration

Each drive was installed in turn as the second drive in the test platform system. It was physically placed on a massive cabinet counter, and the system turned on to get the drive running. While in operation, the drive was allowed to lie loosely on the countertop. Varying amounts of pressure was also applied with the fingers to the top of the drive, and acoustic effects listened for. Each drive was also picked up and held in the hands, as well as placed on soft foam damping to consider only acoustic effects (apart from vibrational ones). The listening was done with the drive in idle as well as in seek.

The noise was divided into four distinct components:

  • Vibration: Identified by Seagate as being the parameter that most dominates HDD-caused noise in most PC systems, it can be manifested in many different kinds of sounds. Typically it causes low level buzzing that is often not noticed until eliminated -- and then subjectively, is as if an acoustic fog has been lifted.
  • Idle noise: This is the minimum noise of the drive in operation, composed largely of broadband noise (shhhhhhhh) and some low frequency elements associated with the drive spindle rotation. Somehow, this is the least intrusive or annoying part of the overall drive noise.
  • High frequency noise: Probably considered the most annoying of all hard drive noises, most drives of 7200 rpm spindle speed or faster are characterized by this whine, typically at 8~16 kHz. Even trace amounts can be very annoying because of its psychoacoustic impact and its high directionality: A simple movement of the head can cause the highly directional sound to come in and out of audibility, causing a dynamic stuttering effect that drives some people nuts.
  • Seek noise: It usually sounds like grinding or chattering. The quality of the noise varies considerably, but not everyone hears it as a serious annoyance. This is especially true for IT "old timers" who are used to listening for the seek noise as an assurance that the computer is doing work. The main issue here is how much louder than the idle noise it is: The bigger the contrast between idle and seek noise, the more annoying and noticeable it usually is.

The table below summaries the results of this arduous listening analysis. Rather than trying to give a quantitative value to the noise level, which is an incredibly difficult thing to judge, I ranked each drive in the order of noise performance, 1 being the quietest (best) and 4 being the loudest (worst). It is not that hard to judge, "This is louder than that." But to say "This is 10% louder than that" (with any accuracy) is almost impossible. There were some ties on individual parameters, but the overall SCORE (sum of the individual parameter rankings) are consistent with my subjective impressions for the relative noise levels of the drives. It should be noted that the real differences in noise levels among the 4 drives were small.

Barracuda IV 40G
Samsung SP1604N
Hitachi 180GXP 120G
Hitachi 180GXP 60G

Noise Details

Seagate Barracuda IV: That the Seagate should come out on top is no surprise. The single-platter model is truly quiet. It is only in the seek category that the Barracuda IV was bettered. Even with the acoustic management of the Barracuda IV set for maximum damping, I've always found its seek noise to be easily heard, perhaps in ontrast to the very low idle noise.

Samsung SP1604N: The Samsung turned in a very credible performance as the noise runner-up. While exhibiting slightly higher noise overall, its high frequency whine noise seemed even lower than that of the Barracuda IV, although this could not be clearly confirmed. It was when the Barracuda IV was turned off, and then the Samsung turned on that one sometimes got the sense of a slight absence of high frequency noise. But when listened to it by itself, the whine could only be heard at trace levels from the 'cuda at distances under 6 inches.

The seek noise of the Samsung was vanishingly low, and their claim of a mere 0.2 Bel rise from idle seems justified. This lack of dynamic noise activity means that while the Barracuda IV has slightly lower overall noise, it may be easiest for the Samsung drive to become psychoacoustically transparent, for its noise to fade into the background for most people.

Htachi 180GXP: Both models were marred by high frequency noise. There was simply no getting around that noise. It was not at a very high level in the 120G model, but plainly audible. The whine was more marked in the 60G model, which was a surprise. Perhaps it was the lower broadband idle noise of the 60G model that made its whine more audible? The vibration level of the 120G model was excellent, clearly the best of all the drives. The comparatively higher vibration exhibited by the single-platter 60G model makes me suspect that perhaps this unit was not quite representative of the norm. Single-platter units usually have less vibration than multi-platter ones.

Still, these Hitachi drives are definitely quieter than other high performance drives that have passed through the SPCR labs in recent weeks. That includes models by Maxtor and Western Digital, which were far noisier. Those units are not in this roundup because there is no point -- I have yet to hear any models from either Maxtor or Western Digital that were quiet enough for me to consider using in a quiet PC. (Having said that, I must also add that I certainly have not heard all the available models.)

The issue of the "head reset" or calibration in the Hitachi and the "chirping" noise that it makes is real. It has been discussed in the SPCR forums, as well as at Storage Review. I did hear this noise a few times, but it did not happen often. I doubt I heard it more than 3-4 times in total, which is much less often than reported by those who have discussed it. It is an odd noise, significantly louder than any other noise the drive makes. How annoying it is will depend greatly on the user.

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