This week I finally moved all of my hard drives to the fileserver that I'm going to put in the closet and got a chance to test all of my hard drives (borrowed one from my dad though) in a quiet environment just to get an impression on how loud they really are, see how sound signatures vary from model to model, sample to sample and manufacturer to manufacturer. I had 4 hard drives in my main system and my hope was that if I leave just one in it will be quiet enough for me.
This is by no means an objective review, I just did it for my own pleasure and thought that some of you may be interested in the results. I listened to all of the hard drives in succession, giving particular attention to the two of my 2504C's. The only other sources of noise in the room was fan in Seasonic S12-600 PSU, softmounted YL D12-SL fan at 6V to cool CPU and GPU and a UPS which has a faint buzz. However idle noise from hard drive was by far the dominant source of noise in the room, all of the other noise sources were inaudible in comparison. I only tested for idle noise. I did not test for seeks because all of my tests were done without loading windows and I didn't test for vibrations since most of SPCR'ers decouple their hard drives anyway. Be aware that there is a sample difference and that my 2504C may not be as loud as yours, also that newer 2500JB from WD may have a slighly different sound signature from the old one.
The list of contenders:
1. Seagate Barracuda IV 40GB (IDE, 1 platter)
2. Seagate Barracuda IV 80GB (IDE, 2 platters)
3. Seagate Barracuda 7200.8 300GB (IDE, 3 platters)
4. Seagate Barracuda 7200.8 400GB (SATA, 3 platters)
5. Western Digital 2500JB 250GB (IDE, 3 platters) this one has older silver casing but it does have fluid bearings
6. Hitachi 7K250 250GB (IDE, 3 platters, refurbished from RMA)
7. Samsung 2504C 250GB (SATA, 2 platters, sample 1)
8. Samsung 2504C 250GB (SATA, 2 platters, sample 2)
9. Hitachi 2.5 laptop drive 40GB (IDE, number of platter unknows, 4200RPM)
Well, I'll start with the loudest. The loudest were clearly WD 2500JB and Hitachi 7K250. Not only they had the loudest idle noise of all 3.5" drives, they also had a kind of annoying high pitched whine. It was nothing like the whine coming from old ball bearing drives, but it was loud enough nonetheless.
The next closest contendants were Seagate Barracudas 7200.8, 300 and 400GB varieties. They actually surprised me with their relatively low noise levels, I expected them to be much louder since both of them have 3 platters, the same as WD and Hitachi. Nevertheless, despite all the FUD floating on SPCR about seagates lately, seagate has delivered once again. I only wish I had a 250GB model which features 2 platters to test it against 2504C. Interestingly enough while the idle noise from 300GB stayed the same, the noise coming from 400GB version was inconsistent - the noise signature varied ever so slightly, oscillating every second or two. It was a little bit annoying, but I think you wouldn't have heard it once the drive was inside the case.
The next come 2504C's. These are two platter drives, both with NIDEC motors. There isn't much to say about them, the idle air whoosh was softer than any of the drives above, and much more pleasant to the ear. However both models had a somewhat annoying high pitch frequency. It was quiter than high pitch whine coming from WD and Hitachi, but it was also higher in frequency which made it more annoying had it not been so high. However, despite this high pitch frequency I would say that subjectively I prefer their sound signature to any of the above drives. The drives had the same idle sound, but the high pitch sound coming from one of the drives was louder. It wasn't much but I'm sure of it since I switched between two drives perhaps 5-8 times to make absolutely sure it wasn't my imagination.
Well, as you can guess, among the 3.5" drives the Barracuda IV 80GB was unmatched. It is still the quitest 7200 RPM drive today, much much quiter than even 2504C. First, it had the most pleasant air whoosh of the bunch - it was much softer than anything I've tested and it was also quiter. There was also none of that high pitched sound coming from samsungs either. I simply love that drive. Unfortunately it's getting too slow for me, windows takes probably 30-45 seconds to load windows up after I enter my password (subjectively, 2504C feels twice as fast). It's also too small as it can't even hold my music collection. Therefore I'm upgrading to 2504C, RIP Barra IV.
Now, as you have probably noticed in the paragraph above I said 80GB. This came as a surprise for me too, but the 40GB version of Barracuda IV was actually louder than 80GB version. Both had the same idle whoosh sound, but for some reason 40GB had a very high frequency squeal. Both versions squeal when they spin up, but with 80GB the squeal goes away once the drive spins up to full speed, but it doesn't go away on 40GB version. Peculiar, but what can I say, sample variance can be pretty significant as I've already seen with 2504C.
The last one is 2.5 40GB laptop drive from Hitachi. I don't know how many platters it has or if it has ball of fluid bearings. When I first turned it on, I was amazed at how loud it was. It had the loudest high frequency pitch of all drives tested, louder than WD, Hitachi or 2504C. It was also pure tone, and extremely high frequecy. Perhaps that was an old drive with ball bearings which would explain the squeal, but as far as I know laptop drives adopted fluid bearings much faster than their desktop counterparts so it's unlikely. The high pitch was so loud that I wouldn't have even thought of using the drive in my PC. Then I remembered that I had a packing shell from OEM raptors which are made of porous white foam. The bubbles are bigger than what you're used to with your regular foam though. I quickly stuck the drive in and lo and behold, it made an unbelievable difference. The high pitch is all but gone and the idle noise is reduced by 75%. From being the loudest, the drive quickly became the quitest one. If I insulated the drive even further and put it inside the case I'm absolutely sure that would have made the drive completely inaudible. So if you're completely serious about hard drive noise laptop drives in an enclosure are the only way to go. Unfortunately laptop drives don't cut it for me. First, they are slower than desktop drives, second, the capacity is typically very low, and third, they are expensive. If I were to buy laptop hard drives, I'd need to buy 80GB 7200RPM one for boot drive and 160GB 5400 for the storage drive. Both of these drives are extremely expensive and would have cost me $500 together, I simply can't fork out that much money when samsung 2504c with similar capacity and faster still cost one fifth of that.
In conclusion (if any can be drawn from the testing such as this one) no 3.5" hdd is quiet enough for me. They are all loud, even the quitest of the quietest aka Barracuda 4. I could use an enclosure, but I value the safety of my data too much to use one and I'm not rich enough to buy two laptop hard drives. So I'll have to live with HDD noise. There is definitely a sample variance among hard drives, it can be relative small as shown with 2504C and it can be pretty big as it happened with Barracudas IV. If I were to buy another large capacity hard drive I'd go with seagates as in general they are quiter than WD and Hitachi. Of course the newer WD/Hitachi models may be quiter, but it's probably unlikely. Three platter large capacity samsungs of up to 400GB are still unavailable here, so I cannot say anything about those. If the testing results can be extrapolated, I'd say they would have a smoother air whoosh, but are going to have high pitch frequency like 2504C too. However that's just an educated guess. For sound purists laptop drives in a 'SmartDrive' enclosure are the way to go. They are going to be completely inaudible, but most people already knew that.
PS during the testing I found couple of unrelated things about my PC:
1. My Seasonic S12-600 makes a ticking sound
I would replace the fan in it but for one I don't have any fan with appropriate RPMs and two, I don't want to void the wararnty. Fortunately, when testing the HDD idle sound was much louder than PSU ticking, so hopefully that won't change once I put HDD back into case.
2. My exhaust Yate Loon went bad so I'll have to replace it, but it's softmounted so I'l have to take out motherboard along with all extension cards
3. When copying data from one hard drive to another my motherboard makes a hissing sound. I also think it makes it when scrolling web pages with lots of graphics and watching videos, but I think it's limited only to those three instances. So hopefully I can deal with it, otherwise I'd have to either replace motherboard or move to entirely different platform altogether, which I don't want to do.