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Antec NSK2400 / Fusion Media PC Case

April 20, 2006 by Mike Chin with Devon Cooke

Product
NSK2400 Desktop Case

w/SU380 power supply
Manufacturer
Antec, Inc
MSRP
US$99

The NSK2400 is described by Antec as a desktop case, but that terminology suggests a throwback to an earlier era. The cosmetics and styling leave no doubt that this case is designed to blend well into modern audio/video equipment racks. Like most case makers, Antec now offers several horizontal PC cases in their lineup, including the fairly large Overture II and the smaller Minuet II. We have examined these in the past but found them average for noise or cooling. This is a common problem with all the horizontal media PC cases we've seen, examined or reviewed thus far. They are not great for cooling or low noise; usually both are problems. The NSK2400 was designed expressly with both low noise and effective cooling in mind. We know, because SPCR had a hand in its design.

Editor's Note: The NSK2400 is the second result of collaboration between Antec and myself. The P180, introduced about a year ago, is the first. I was the functional design consultant on the NSK2400 / Fusion project, and worked closely with the Antec design team. (Cosmetic design was not my primary concern; thermal and acoustic aspects were.) In the NSK2400, many of the core ideas from the tower-style P180 are adapted to a horizontal layout.

Mike Chin, Editor of SPCR

Some of the key features include:

  • Three thermally separate zones for the motherboard, the hard drives and the power supply.
  • Power supply cooled by outside air completely independent of other components.
  • Hard drives and video card cooled by directed airflow from 120mm exhaust fans in main chamber.
  • Sturdy 0.8mm steel chassis construction.
  • Free-breathing, directed in/out vents for ideal airflow.
  • Soft silicone rubber used for both main chassis feet and hard drive mounting to minimize noise-causing vibration transfer.

The manufacturer's suggested retail price is a bit of a surprise. A case with these features including a 380W PSU offering Active PFC at US $99 seems like a bargain.

A second product based on the same design as the NSK2400 is planned for release later in the year. Called the Fusion, it is aimed at the high end, with a real brushed aluminum front panel, integrated VFD and remote control, and other extra features.

A TOUR OF THE NSK2400

The NSK2400 comes in a colorful retail box, like most Antec products.



The usual box that sells for retail merchandising from Antec.

The case is packed with two closed-cell foam end caps for shock protection. An AC power cord, various mounting screws and an owner's manual are included.



Except for the two 12cm fan grills visible on the right side, the NSK2400 looks much like a minimalist high end audio component.

The front bezel is actually made of plastic, nicely painted with a matte metallic silver finish. It's quite a convincing effect. You have to study it closely to confirm that it is painted plastic and not some kind of metal. The unit feels hefty, as a steel chassis would. The silver portion is actually raised and offset from the black, with not quite an inch high strip of black showing all the way across the front. The visual effect is to make the unit seem lower slung than it really is; the eye sees the silver portion as the main face and tends to ignore the black. The silver/rubber feet complete the high-end audio look.


PUBLISHED ANTEC NSK2400 SPECIFICATIONS

Special Features - Triple-chamber structure to isolate power supply and hard drive heat for cooler & quieter operation

- HDD trays with silicone grommets to isolate drive vibrations

- Large soft rubber/silicone feet to minimize vibration transfer

Cooling System

2 sidemounted 120 mm TriCool™ 3-speed fans
Drive Bays

- Front Accessible

- Internal
4

2 x 5.25

2 x 3.5"
Motherboard up to Micro-ATX motherboards (9.6" x 9.6")
Expansion Slots 4
Front Ports - 2 x USB 2.0

- Audio In and Out
Material 0.8mm cold rolled steel construction
Dimensions & Weight 5.5"(H) x 17.5"(W) x 16.3"(L)

14(H) x 44.5(W) x 41.4(L) cm

17.35lbs/7.78kg (net)

20.5lbs/9.22kg (gross)
Power Supply High-efficiency 380 Watt

ATX12V v2.0 power supply

Universal input

Active PFC and high efficiency design

The case is built to the "3U" standard. "U" refers to server rack mount sizing, 1U = 1.75". Without the feet, the chassis is 5.25" tall; with the feet, it is 6". This is similar to the Zalman HD160, Ahanix MCE-601, and Silverstone LC10/14, all of which are 6" or taller. Some of the really ambitious cases such as the Lian Li PC-V880, or Thermaltake Tenor/Bach are "4U" height, and over 7" tall, which makes them look rather too chunky to be elegant.

One big difference between the NSK2400 and all the other aforementioned cases is that it accepts only up to MicroATX motherboards. This was a conscious decision. The rationale went something like this:

How many peripheral cards does a media PC need? Usually, not more than three: Graphics card, TV Tuner card, and sound card. If the tuner card is a solo version, then a second TV tuner card might be used sometimes, for recording one program while watching others. So four is enough, in most cases — one for the graphics card and three PCI slots for the rest.

The smaller 9.6" x 9.6" footprint of the microATX board opened up new possibilities for compartmentalization and airflow management within the 17~18" width and <6" height target size. You'll see the results as the review unfolds.

THE EXTERIOR

You've seen the front and right side of the case. Here's a shot from the other angle.



The desired look: Clean, crisp lines and a sleek look.

Note the vents on the left. These are the intakes for the PSU chamber. The top vent is an intake designed to help cool the graphics card. All this becomes clearer when the interior is seen.



All the vents you see are intakes —
except for the PSU fan exhaust.

One thing to note about the PSU — it is mounted right side up, but it can be mounted upside down as well. There are mounting holes on the chassis to allow this, as you can also see on the photo below. The reason is so that a 120mm fan PSU will have its intake fan facing up rather than down.



PSU mounting area. Note the rubber feet that provide bottom support for the power supply.



Front bottom right, underside: Note the extensive grill vents on the bottom. These are intakes again.



The right feet: The front one is cosmetically nicer, with a rubber insert in the center;

the back one is all soft silicone rubber.



The top is a flat one piece cover that is bayonet mounted, then locked with a single thumbscrew on the back panel.

THE INTERIOR

Here is what greets the eyes when the top cover is removed. The bottom of the photo below is the front of the case.



Three compartments inside.

The front middle and right is a compartment for two hard drives. Directly behind that is the main chamber for the motherboard which contains the two exhaust 120mm fans. A partition wall divides the front and back compartments, but this wall does not come all the way up to the top; there is a gap of about 1.75" at the top. The left side is partitioned with a full height wall that runs front to back. It holds the power supply and the 2-bay optical drive cage.



This photo shows much of what's discussed in the previous paragraph.

One function of the off-center front-to-back divider is to provide support for the top cover panel. You can see the rubbery grommet strip applied to the top of the divider, which helps to damp the contact against the top cover. The end result is that acoustically and mechanically, the top cover actually behaves like two smaller panels. There are holes in the partitions for routing wiring between all the compartments. One is clearly visible in the photo above. This one allows the opening size to be adjusted, which is very convenient for routing wires through, then closing it up tight to maintain isolation between the chambers. There are two other openings, as shown in the photo below, which is looking down at the center front area next to the HDDs from above. There are also clips for holding wires and little slots equipped with plastic wire ties, all for cable management.



Left slot leads to PSU chamber, below the CD drive tray; right slot goes to motherboard chamber.

The three holes allow cables to be run any number of different ways. With some motherboards, it will be best to run the cables through the front low opening under the CD bays, into the HDD chamber, then into the mainboard area. In others setups, you might split the cables between the front hole (under the CD bay) and the adjustable slot closer to the PSU. There's a lot of flexibility to aid in good cable management in order to reduce the cables' impedance to airflow.

AIRFLOW

As mentioned earlier, the two 120mm TriCool (3-speed) fans are set up for exhaust. For exhaust fans to work, there must be intake vents, and for ideal airflow, the intake and exhaust vents should be roughly the same in area. The location of the intake vents also determines the path of the airflow through the case. Let's see how the airflow paths in the NSK2400 are supposed to work.

The gap between the raised silver portion of the bezel and the black portion, looks like a grill, but this is purely cosmetic. It is not open, and there are no intake vents on the front panel.

There are three main intake vents:

Intake vent 1: The back ~70mm square vent in the back panel is the closest vent and therefore, the most important intake for the fans. The holes on the slot covers in the back also act as intakes if the slots are not filled. The pathway of airflow from the back vent(s) to the fan closest to the back can be adjusted with the use of several simple plastic locking baffles, as shown in the animated GIF below. The baffles can help reduce the airflow shortcut which can occur between the back vent and the nearest fan. Airflow which goes in and out of the case without passing by or through cooling fins is wasted airflow.



Adjustable airflow baffles.
Note speed switch for fan on purpose-designed hook.

Intake vent 2: The slots on the top of the cover are positioned over the PCI slots. The fans will draw air from these slots, and in the process, the cooler outside air will travel at least a little across the graphics card, helping to cool it.



Top cover vent positioned
over graphics and PCI cards area.

Intake vent 3: The bottom of the front hard drive chamber, whose area is ~50% vented, is also a primary intake vent. Because the partition wall between the front and the motherboard chamber is open at the top, the 120mm fans will draw outside air from the bottom vent. Although these vents are farther away from the 120mm fans than the back vent, they are much larger in area; at least as much air will flow through them.



HDD section with vented bottom.

NOTE: It should be noted that for proper airflow, you should plan on having at least a couple inches of breathing room around the sides and the back. It would help greatly if the unit was not placed atop another heat-spewing component.

HARD DRIVE MOUNTING

The last photo brings us to the hard drive bays. Two drives can be accommodated in silicone rubber grommets that eliminate tight physical coupling between the drive and the chassis. This is to minimize vibration conducted into the chassis, which usually increase noise, especially lower frequency noise, by causing the chassis panels to vibrate. These are the same grommets used in two other Antec cases, the P180 and the P150. The drives are vertically mounted, as shown in the photos below.



Undo four screws to remove the top bracket.




Slide the drive on these brackets on the bottom, and atop the bottom silicone rubber grommets.



There is only one correct way to insert the drive, with its "top" facing the motherboard chamber.

Use the supplied long screws with large flanges from the bottom outside first.



HDD installed.

Another aspect of the HDD location and the venting below it is that as long as at least one of the 120mm fans in the case is spinning, the HDD will benefit from cooling airflow across its surface. When only one drive is used, it is best for cooling to mount it closest to the motherboard chamber, as shown above.

OPTICAL DRIVE CAGE

It's a sturdy 2-bay box which drops into place via bayonet mounts. It does not get screwed down, gravity keeps it in place. The drive cage also has two round rubber pads that press against the top cover when it's installed. This is perfectly secure. No specific cooling is provided for the CD drives, but they get some benefit of airflow from the PSU just behind.



2-bay CD drive cage.

PSU COOLING

The NSK2400 takes advantage of the horizontal layout by using left side intake vents for the power supply. It's an very short path to the PSU intake vents. Because PSU is in its own separate chamber, no heat from the rest of the system can make its way into the PSU, only cooler outside air. This means a thermally controlled fan will be much less likely to ramp up in speed, as the PSU will run cooler even under high load. Better cooling also means improved longevity for any electronic component. If you decide to change the stock PSU and use a 120mm fan PSU, it can be mounted upside down so that the fan faces upwards.



PSU has its own dedicated intake vents.

SU380 POWER SUPPLY

The included power supply is an Antec SU380, and the spec sheet calls it a "New Solution Power ATX 12V
for AMD & Intel systems
". At the time of writing, this PSU can only be found in the NSK2400, and Antec appears to have no plans to make it available
as a separately packaged retail product. The PSU is cooled by an 80mm fan in a "straight-through" airflow configuration, much like Antec's NeoHE. It's a modern design, with full active power factor correction and auto-ranging AC input voltage.



PSU label: All the safety agency approvals and clearly marked output ratings.

The SU380 was fully tested using our PSU test system, and we decided to post a separate review of it to go with the other power supply articles and also to keep the length of this article down. Here's the link to the Antec SU380 review.

The most important results of the PSU testing:

  • The base noise level is low but not the best, measuring 24 [email protected]
  • The PSU fan ramped up only when the intake temperature reached 32°C.
  • The PSU ran quite cool; it's a good candidate for a slower, quieter fan swap.
  • Efficiency is quite high, well above 80% in the 150W~300W range.
  • Voltage regulation was excellent, as was Power Factor, which just just about perfect.

THERMAL & ACOUSTIC TESTING

Thermals and noise comprise the core of most SPCR equipment reviews. Several system variants were installed and tested in the NSX2400. The base components were:

DFI RS482 Infinity MicroATX motherboard

This new ATI Radeon Express 200 chipset model from DFI has the most flexible and user-adjustable BIOS we've seen on any microATX board, comparable to the best of the full-ATX boards. It allows the CPU core voltage to be manually set without disengaging Cool'n'Quiet, which simply applies the manual voltage adjustment to the various CPU power states. It allowed the X2 4800+ to be undervolted by 0.1V throughout the testing, for very modest power consumption in every load. It has no fans.

AMD Athlon 64 X2 4800+ processor

AMD's current second fastest desktop processor, one small step down from the flagship FX-60, this dual-core sample has a rated TDP of 85W. Previous testing showed it easily undervolts by 0.1V or more, with resulting power draw at full load of just ~60W at the 2x12V motherboard socket. It is overkill for a HTPC, but we're trying to push the envelope for thermal and noise testing in this new case.

OCZ Technology Gold PC4000 2 x 512MB DDR matched dual channel memory.

Zalman CNPS7000CU CPU heatsink / fan

It's been around so long that words like venerable apply to this product. At a measured 20~21 [email protected] (at 5V, which is where it was set throughout testing here), it's not the quietest HSF, but it's quite good, good enough for this application. It also worked well to keep the AMD processor cool.

Samsung SP2504C 250GB SATA 3.5" hard drive

Our preferred quiet 3.5" desktop reference measures 21~22 [email protected]

The hardware assembly took several hours, including fiddling time (to examine parts carefully) and the time needed to stop, plan out photos, take and check them, and so on. If photos were not being taken, it would be a surprise if complete hardware assembly took more than an hour. It's straightforward, except perhaps when you have to decide how to route the wires. There are many options, and we ended up doing some trial and error for the sake of learning.

One interesting aspect of the power light: It gets its electric juice directly from the PSU via a 4-pin connector.



Base system configuration in NSK2400: The tidy wiring was pretty easy to achieve.



One fan was removed and blocked off with the supplied plastic vent cover.

The same screws are used for the fan and for the cover.

Windows XP Pro SP2 was installed and fully updated, and our usual gamut of software tools installed:

  • SpeedFan
    4.27
    for CPU and other hardware monitoring.
  • CPUBurn for processor stress testing.
  • Rthdribl provides a steady high load to the GPU in a reduced window, allowing the nVidia GPU temperature gauge to be seen (on the monitor screen).

Other tools:

ACOUSTICS AROUND A MEDIA PC

Just a quick, relevant digression about the acoustic environment and desired functionality of the media PC. The way a media PC is used is substantially different than the average desktop PC. The most important differences are noted below.



Criteria



Media PC



Normal PC



Location


On equipment rack, near TV / stereo

On desktop next to monitor on on floor under / beside desk


Application


Play & record music and video, play games; usual PC functions
secondary.

Office, creative, engineering, scientific and communication
work; gaming and other entertainment functions usually secondary


User Position


Typically at least 2 meters away.

Typically not more than 1 meter


Overall Acoustics


Background, the PC noise, noise from other A/V equipment, conversation, and the music/soundtrack playing from TV/stereo speakers

Background + typing noise + noise generated by PC, perhaps background music

In a nutshell, the media PC is usually situated near the TV, which is usually at least six feet away from the seated viewers. The noise in the room includes whatever is being played through the speakers of the A/V system, plus any noise made by other audio/video gear. From first hand experience, we know that...

Many digital TV boxes and PVRs contain a noisy hard drive and fan(s). The HDD is usually on all the time, as long as the unit is plugged in. This means the noise is there all the time, whether you're using the gear or not. There is no real care in ensuring low acoustics; we've measured nothing lower than 25 [email protected]; it's more typically closer to 30 [email protected] or higher because the HDD is hard mounted to the chassis, and the chassis then makes whatever it's sitting on resonate.

Many high end A/V receivers (and not so high end) contain a fan that runs almost all the time. This is usually not as intrusive as the HDD noise in the digital TV boxes and PVRs, but still measure at least 20 [email protected]

Almost all rear projection TVs require at least one cooling fan to be on constantly. The speed of this fan does usually vary with internal temperature, which naturally goes up the longer the TV is left on. The typical noise of these TVs (with the speakers muted) is around 30 [email protected]

30 [email protected] is about the absolute minimum level needed for intelligibility of speech, given typical dynamics when the TV, movie or game sound is turned on. Typical levels are much higher, with peaks reaching ~60 [email protected], and averaging at least 40~45 [email protected] This depends a great deal on viewer / listener habits, hearing sensitivity, housing setup, etc.

In general, sound levels for movies are much higher, likely 10~20 dBA higher for both average and peaks. This is also true of music listening: Most people prefer higher levels for better realism. Typical peaks from an A/V system playing music probably reach 80 [email protected], with the average being perhaps 10~15 dBA lower (depending on the type of music, of course.)

These are broad generalizations to try and get a handle on the acoustic environment for a media PC. Suffice it to say that we believe the acoustic environment for a media PC will almost always be much louder than for other types of home PCs. Its noise will be masked by the sound from the speakers — at least until you hit the mute button, at which point the PC and other A/V equipment noise may become very much audible.

At the same time, if the HTPC is in a multfunction room, but you still want quick and instant access to its media functions, then it will have to stay on. Then the idle HTPC noise will be there for you to hear whenever you are in the room, whether you're using the equipment or not. This is true for most systems even when the computer in standby mode.

TEST RESULTS

Ambient conditions in the 20' x 10' room were 20 dBA and 22°C throughout testing. Idle measurements were taken 5~15 minutes after boot or reboot, whenever none of the temperatures had changed for 5 minutes. Load measurements were taken after >20 minutes of full load.

System Configuration #1


Baseline Config #1
(one stock 120 fan @ low)


Load



AC



CPU



Board



Hard Drive



SPL




idle



45W


32°C

35°C

34°C

28 [email protected]


Rthdribl


88W


43°C

36°C

34°C


CPUBurn x2



118W


53°C

37°C

34°C

The first reaction upon hearing the system was, "This is too loud for SPCR!" But, on the other hand, perhaps only when the mute button is pressed.

The noise came from the stock Antec 120mm TriCool fan (even on low), the Zalman 7000 fan (at 5V), the PSU fan, and the hard drive. At close proximity, there was also some low frequency noise that actually went away when the cover was removed. This means it did not come from the case cover vibrating; rather, it's the air resonances in the case subtly excited by the various noise makers.

It's odd, but perhaps as a result of this resonant effect, the TriCool 120 seems to sound a bit louder in this case than in either the P150 or P180. We tried three different TriCool fans to make sure it wasn't a simple case of sample variance.

The cooling was excellent on all counts. The hard drive was very well cooled; it ran >10°C lower than on the desktop in free air. The temperature on the PSU was not monitored, but its exhaust never felt more than moderately warm, and its fan never ramped up from default.

System Configuration #2

The obvious change was to swap out the stock 120mm TriCool fan for a Nexus 120 and run it at 7V.


Config #2
(one Nexus 120 fan @7V)


Load



AC



CPU



Board



Hard Drive



SPL



idle



45W


32°C

35°C

34°C

24 [email protected]


Rthdribl


88W


45°C

38°C

34°C


CPUBurn x2



118W


57°C

40°C

34°C

The difference in perceived noise was quite dramatic. This was much quieter than Config #1.

There were some small increases in temperatures, but overall, they were quite minor. The low frequency noise mentioned earlier was pretty much gone. If the system was under my desk as a tower-style PC, the noise would be quite acceptable. Seek noise was somewhat more audible than before due to the lower overall noise, but it was very minor. The limitations to further noise reduction was now the power supply.

A quick experiment consisting of turning all the fans off briefly except for the PSU fan revealed that in the NSK2400 case, the noise of the PSU from the front is somewhat lower than when the PSU was on the test bench. The fan points away from the sound level meter. It measured ~23 [email protected] Without changes in the PSU, this is the lowest noise level we can expect.

System Configuration #3

This time, we went back to the stock TriCool fan — not one, but both of them. Everything else stayed the same.


Config #3
(both stock 120 fans @ low)


Load



AC



CPU



Board



Hard Drive



SPL



idle



46W


32°C

33°C

28°C

29 [email protected]


CPUBurn x2



119W


49°C

36°C

28°C

The noise level went up only a bit compared to one fan, in both measured and subjective terms. A decibel is difficult to hear. When you get right up to the box, especially on the right side where the fans are, the increase in noise seems bigger, but from a meter away, it's quite small. Notice how all the temperatures dropped, especially the CPU and the hard drive. The HDD benefits greatly from the intake airflow created by the fan closest to it.

System Configuration #4

How about when a real video card is used instead of the onboard graphics? The Radeon 200 onboard graphics chip does a very good job, but lots of people will want more. We chose the Asus EAX1600XT Silent/TVD/256M fanless card that survived the two hour thermal torture chamber for our recent review. This is an ideal HTPC card with good performance and lots of features, including a breakout I/O box for composite and S-Video signals. We estimated its power demand to be 18W in idle and 46W at full load.



With fanless Asus EAX1600XT video card.

Sharp eyed readers might notice the business card taped to the plastic airflow baffle on the back panel. It was intended to block off the 1.5~2" of space that's open below the baffle so that more of the airflow from the back vent would make it to the HSF before getting blown out the side fans. We're still not sure whether this had any effect.


Config #4
(Asus 1600XT vidcard, both stock 120 fans @ low)


Load



AC



CPU



Board



Hard Drive



SPL



idle



69W


32°C

33°C

28°C

29 [email protected]

Rthdribl

124W

42°C


36°C

28°C



CPUBurn x2



142W


49°C

36°C

28°C

Rthdribl
+ CPUBurn x2


161W

53°C

39°C

28°C

Unfortunately, the Asus card does not have a thermal sensor, so we cannot report its temperatures. It never misbehaved in any way, showing no sign of overheating whatsoever throughout the testing, which included >30 minutes of Rthdribl.

The AC power draw of the system jumped by over 20W at idle, and the load with Rithdribl went up 36W. So the system had considerably more heat to deal with. There was no change in PSU fan speed.

Surprisingly, there was also no change at all in any of the temperatures, which suggests that the system could be run quieter without risk — either with one fan or two slower quieter fans. Did we try that? No, we decided to leave that delight to you and upped the ante instead.

System Configuration #5

We went over the top with an older video card that still has lots of gaming power, and generates plenty of heat. An AOpen Aeolus PCX6800GT-DVD256 is one of the workhorses around the SPCR lab. It's gone through more torture and heatsink swaps than any vidcard should ever be subject to. This time, we strapped on a Zalman VF900 VGA cooler with fan to it, and ran the fan at 5V. The SPL of this HSF at 5V measures 20 dB[email protected] It sounds a bit like a whispery rubbing of paper.



Zalman VF900 HSF on AOpen 6800GT PCIe vidcard.

This configuration was by far the most powerful and the most demanding, thermally. We also pushed it the hardest. One nicety: The AOpen card has a thermal sensor which the nVidia driver can access.


Config #5
(AOpen 6800GT vidcard, both stock 120 fans @ low)


Load



AC



CPU


GPU


Board



HDD



SPL



Idle



85W


33°C

49°C

35°C

28°C

29 dBA

@1m

Rthdribl

133W

35°C


64°C

38°C

28°C



CPUBurn x2



159W


52°C

49°C

38°C

28°C

Rthdribl
+ CPUBurn x2


200W

55°C


66°C

41°C

28°C

It's a reasonable estimate that this GPU draws some 30W at idle and at least 55W under full load. Its temperatures stayed modest throughout testing. We've never observed any misbehavior from this card till well over 80°C. The CPU and board temperatures went up a bit, but again, they were well within safe limits.

Even with long term steady 200W AC power input, the power supply fan never ramped up. The separate chamber and closely positioned intake vents worked very well.

The noise between this config and the last was really too small to measure. It may have been higher, but from a meter away, you could not hear the increase.

System Configuration #6

The final configuration was an attempt to drop the noise level down to a much lower level, swapping out any components necessary to do so. Here's what we did:

>>Remove both stock fans, block the front fan vent again, and put in a Scythe 120mm fan at 5~6V on the back position. This fan has a Fluid Dynamic Bearing, much like the ones used in quiet hard drives, is very smooth and quiet, and moves a bit more air than the Nexus 120.

>>Go back to the fanless Asus EAX1600XT Silent/TVD/256M video card. There's no need for a hot gaming card in this media PC machine.

>>Use a Zalman 7700AlCu heatsink modded with a Nexus 120 fan, run at ~7V. The cooling performance not really improved, but it is smoother sounding, and slightly quieter.

>>Replace the stock Antec PSU for a Seasonic S12-330. The three lower powered S12 models are still quiet champs among fan-cooled PSUs, over two years after their introduction. The Antec NeoHE might be slightly quieter at start, but the S12 has a proven reliable record and its fan usually stays at lower speed up to higher temperatures. 20 [email protected] is about as good as it gets.



Quietest config: A Scythe 120mm fan @6V and a Seasonic S12-330.

The results?

The noise level dropped to level that's just about competitive with fanless systems. Except when the selected HDD was seeking long and hard, this system is quiet enough that most people would be happy to have it on their desk (to their right). Use a quiet notebook drive and suspend it, and you wouldn't even have HDD seek noise issues.

FYI, using clothing elastic to suspend two notebook drives vertically exactly where the 3.5" drives are supposed to go is so easy that we'll leave it up to you to try and report back in our forums. (There's lots of information about HDD suspensions all over SPCR.) With perpendicular recording technology starting to come on stream, notebook drive capacity is rising at the same rate as standard 3.5" drives, and we'll see drops in price soon.

The CPU temperature was higher than in any other configuration, but still within spec. Again there was no sign of any misbehavior from the video card. As expected, the PSU fan never changed speed or noise.


Config #6
(Asus 1600XT vidcard, one Scythe 120 fan @ low)


Load



AC



CPU



Board



HDD



SPL



Idle



68W


33°C

36°C

32°C

21~22 dBA

@1m

Rthdribl

142W

55°C


40°C

32°C



CPUBurn x2



161W


59°C

43°C

32°C

It's worth considering the cost of this configuration:

  • The Antec NSK2400 is currently being sold for an average for about US$80, according to the SPCR/Pricegrabber information on these pages.
  • A Scythe 120mm fan sells for under $10.
  • A Zalman 7700 + Nexus 120 fan runs perhaps $45.
  • A Seasonic S12-430 can be had for ~$80, but it's overkill, and the S12-330 is acoustically very similar and has plenty of power enough to do the same job. The S12-330 can be found for ~$50.

So the total is $80 for the case, plus $105 in additional parts, or $185. An unused Antec SU380 PSU probably has some resale value, however. It's highly efficient, and fairly quiet. Perhaps you could get $30~40 for it. Which brings the outlay down to $145~155 for a HTPC case, PSU and CPU cooler you can leave running all the time and not be bothered by the noise (unless you live in a tomb).

You could also just swap out the Antec stock 120mm fan for a quieter one and swap out the fan in the SU380 PSU for a quieter 80mm fan. Of course, this would void the warranty on the PSU, and expose you to some risk of damage and/or injury.

Is this configuration over the top? Yes, for most folks. As soon as you start watching TV, movies, or playing music, the sound from the speakers will drown out even 30 [email protected] noise from the media PC. Some people have 30 dBA as normal ambient background noise! So 22 [email protected] is nice, but not necessary except if you like leave your PC on all the time in a room you sleep in (an energy no-no!) or press the mute button then sit there and listen for the computer noise.

NSK2400 NOISE RECORDINGS

MP3 Sound Recordings of Antec NSK2400 Test System Configurations

Antec
NSK2400 Test System Config 1 (28 [email protected])


One TriCool fan on low, Samsung HDD, Zalman 7000 HSF on 5V, stock PSU

Antec
NSK2400 Test System Config 2 (24 [email protected])


One Nexus 120 fan at 7V, Samsung HDD, Zalman 7000 HSF on 5V, stock PSU

Antec
NSK2400 Test System Config 6 (21-22 [email protected])


One Scythe 120 fan at 6V, Seasonic S12-330 PSU, Samsung HDD, Zalman 7700 + Nexus 120 fan on 5V

Antec
NSK2400 Test Config (23 [email protected])


No case fans, Samsung HDD, Zalman 7000 HSF on 5V, stock PSU

Sound Recordings of Comparative Cases

Unfortunately, we have few recordings of cases, and even fewer of HTPC cases. None, in fact. So here's a bit of a random sampling of various cases in various configurations from past reviews.

Shuttle SD11G5 Pentium M SFF system at full load w/ notebook drive, single fan: 23 [email protected]

Zalman TNN-300 w/Samsung P80 3.5" HDD: 23 [email protected]

Antec P180 "Hot Potato" Config 4: 25 dBA/1m

Intel P4-3.8, AOpen 6800GT vidcard, WD Raptor HDD, Seasonic S12-430 with one TriCool fan on low on back panel.

HOW TO LISTEN & COMPARE

These recordings were made with a high
resolution studio quality digital recording system. The microphone was 3" from
the edge of the fan frame at a 45° angle, facing the intake side of the fan to
avoid direct wind noise. The ambient noise during all recordings was 18 dBA or
lower.

To set the volume to a realistic level (similar to the original), try playing the Nexus 92 fan reference recording and setting the volume so that it is barely audible. Then don't reset the volume and play the other sound files. Of course, tone controls or other effects should all be turned off or set to neutral. For full details on how to calibrate your sound system to get the most
valid listening comparison, please see the yellow text box entitled Listen to
the Fans
on page four of the article
SPCR's Test / Sound Lab: A Short Tour.

FINAL THOUGHTS

The Antec NSK2400 was designed to be a thermally and acoustically advanced case for home theater PC. In our analysis, it successfully achieves this goal. The one compromise it makes is the limitation to a MicroATX motherboard. A year ago, this might have seemed too much of a limitation for the enthusiast, but with the broad trend towards smaller computer gear, enthusiast-friendly boards like this new DFI RS482 are becoming more commonplace. There are more capable microATX boards appearing all the time.

Whether this case does a better job of keeping components cool and quiet is not possible to judge without a large number of current HTPC cases to examine, but there's no question it's the best of the horizontal desktop cases we've reviewed to date. The fans and power supply that come as standard equipment are chosen for good all-around functionality rather than the lowest noise, and err on the side of greater cooling. Given the acoustic conditions in which HTPCs operate, the stock setup might actually be perfectly quiet enough for many users. But it's not difficult to make it much quieter than stock.

The best thing about the NSK2400 for the PC enthusiast is its native cooling ability, which comes from carefully design airflow paths that are built right into the mechanical design, vent placement and the separated thermal zones. The dual-fan setup, the separate PSU chamber, and the HDD mounting system allow for lots of experimentation and options, just as intended by design. Enthusiasts are going to have fun with this case. (For example, what system of components could you cool in Config 6 with two Nexus or Scythe 120mm fans at 5~7V for total noise of 22~23 [email protected]?)

In fact, after revisiting the VGA temperatures in System Configuration #5, this case may deserve a tentative recommendation as a quiet gaming case. It does everything the P180 does, on a smaller scale, but it addresses one issue better than the P180: Cooling for hot VGA cards. Sure, it doesn't allow SLI to be used, but given how few people actually use SLI, it could find a good niche in the gaming market.



Unless you can match the silver front, a black optical drive is the only aesthetic choice.

The
appearance of a case is always subject to interpretation. We think the front panel design looks cool, and the silver paint against the black elsewhere echoes high end A/V gear. The aluminum trim
feet and the icy blue LEDs work. The only downside is the absence of stealthed optical bay covers, as the silver front will be hard to match. A black face optical drive looks OK, as it complements the black line on the bottom bezel. Perhaps stealthed optical bay covers are too much to ask for in such a modestly priced case.

Which brings us to the issue of value. As mentioned earlier, the SPCR/PriceGrabber search engine results on this page show an average selling price of ~US$80. Should there be any question of value at this price? We don't think so. In fact, we think this is an amazing deal.

PROS

* Excellent airflow / thermal design

* Thick, sturdy steel construction

* Built-in HDD silicone rubber grommets

* Cable management hooks

* Very good stock PSU

* Good silver paint job and front bezel design

*
Attractive dimensions and lean lines

* Great price

CONS

* PSU fan could be quieter

* TriCool fans could have slower, quieter "slow" position

* Stealth optical drive bay covers would have been really nice

* A couple inches of space needed on both sides for adequate cooling increases real space requirement

Much thanks to Antec
for the NSK2400 sample.

* * *

Articles of Related Interest

Antec SU380 power supply review

SilverStone LC-11 media PC case

Antec P180: The Whole Nine Yards


D.Vine 5 HTPC Case by Ahanix


Zalman TNN-300 Fanless PC Enclosure System

Shuttle SD11G5: Pentium-M SFF PC

Hush ATX fanless PC

* * *

Discuss
this article in the SPCR Forums.

POSTSCRIPT - Dec 20, 2006:
THE FUSION

POSTSCRIPT

December 20, 2006 by Devon
Cooke

Back in April, we mentioned that the NSK2400 would be joined by a high end
cousin called the Fusion, which has now been released. The Fusion is aimed at
the lucrative HTPC market, so the differences are more stylistic than technical.
The internal layout and cooling characteristics have not changed — they'd
be tough to improve — and all but one of the changes are visible externally.

What are the changes? Most of them are integrated into the new front bezel,
which sports the following improved characteristics:

  • It's made of brushed aluminum instead of painted plastic, with all the visual
    class that this implies.
  • There is a large, smooth-rolling volume knob.
  • The top optical bay is now occupied by a two line VFD.
  • The bottom optical bay comes with a stealthed, brushed aluminum cover.
  • A Firewire port has been added to the front panel.

In addition, there is one other change: The included power supply is rated
for 430W instead of 380W, though it comes from the same product line. The new
model number is SU-430, and, like the
SU-380
, it appears to be manufactured for Antec by Seasonic. Noise and voltage
regulation were more or less identical to the SU-380, so we
refer you to that review
for information about how the power supply performs.
One caveat: For some reason, our sample's +12V Aux cable was only 12" long
— a far cry from the 25" cable that came with the SU-380. 12"
is too short — our test system required a cable extender before we could
hook it up.

All together, the new features bump the price up by about double. Online prices
for the Fusion are centered around US$170, though it can be found for as low
as US$120 and as high as US$300. That's about right when you consider what you
get. Most of the increase comes from the VFD and the heftier power supply. Stand-alone
VFDs start around US$50 and can be difficult to find.



The graphic design of the box looks inspired by Microsoft's Media Center
theme.

The Fusion is shipped in a colorful retail box that takes its visual cues from
Microsoft's Windows Media Center Edition. The blue background and colored icons
fit perfectly with the MCE interface.



A sleek brushed aluminum finish.

The change from plastic to aluminum is subtle — the painted plastic in
the NSK2400 did look very good — but it shows itself as a soft, reflective
sheen that no plastic can match. A word of warning though: Like all brushed
aluminum, the surface was susceptible to fingerprints, which are certain to
accumulate around the optical bay and the power buttons.

The volume knob, the VFD, and the stealthed drive bay help complete the appearance
of class. Somehow, the Fusion looks more "finished" than the NSK2400,
despite the oddity of having a volume knob on the front of a PC.



The glamor shot.

Functionally, the new bezel doesn't change much, but there is one thing that
may require caution. The stealth bay may cause headaches for some people, since
it is not adjustable and not removable. On top of that, the drive bay does not
allow the bottom drive to be adjusted forward and back, so if you have an unusually
shaped drive, a replacement may be in order. The same goes for drives with an
oddly placed eject button; if it's not reasonably close to the lower right corner, the pass-through button on the front may not work properly.

VFD

The VFD (Vacuum Fluorescent Display) is what really sets the Fusion apart from
the NSK2400, but it is a surprisingly basic model: Two lines of 16 characters
each, with no remote control or IR sensor. It requires one USB port — internal
or external — and is powered by the otherwise useless floppy header from
the power supply.



This HTPC sponsored by...



The back side leaves plenty of room for tucking cables out of the way.

The VFD was sourced from a Korean company called Sound
Graph
— known for iMon and iMedian HTPC software. Similar VFDs can
be found in many HTPC cases from Silverstone, Cooler Master, Thermaltake, and
others. The device driver is Windows only, though some
enthusiasts have created their own driver for Linux
.

The interface for the VFD is quite simple, and is designed more for ease of
use than wide customization. The driver applet allows the user to choose what
is displayed on the VFD from a limited range of options — Graphic EQ, System
Info, Media Info, Email Check, Headline News, World City Time & Weather,
and a custom "Stand-By" message — but there is no real way of
controlling when each category is displayed. The Graphic EQ is visible whenever
media is played, and presumably the e-mail function will interrupt whatever
is showing when e-mail arrives, but it's not at all clear when and how the other
categories get displayed.

For a regular system, the software worked pretty much as expected. Whatever
we selected was displayed, and the software had no problems reporting the track
information and EQ data from Winamp. All was not perfect however, especially
where the volume knob was concerned. The driver applet does not allow the volume
knob's functionality to be tweaked or disabled. Why would you want to do that?
Not everyone would, but if you're familiar with the ins and outs of Kmixer,
WDM, ASIO and S/PDIF, you might want to keep reading...

The volume knob always controls the Main Output in the System mixer. It is
designed to work with any WDM audio driver. However, the volume knob did not
work with the ASIO driver that we tested — for the simple reason that ASIO
output bypasses Windows' system mixer. That in itself would not be noteworthy
if it were not for the fact that ASIO output was impossible while the VFD software
was running. That is a problem, since ASIO (or Kernal Streaming) is necessary
to pass Dolby Digital or DTS signals out to an external receiver via S/PDIF.

There were other oddities as well. Even when the WDM driver was used, the S/PDIF
output did not work as expected. Our testing revealed that the VFD software
added a duplicate signal into the S/PDIF output that was controlled by the Fusion's
volume knob and could be heard even when the external receiver was muted (how?!??).
Conversely, when the Fusion knob was cranked to zero, the original signal could
still be controlled externally. When both signals were active, the resulting
output was very VERY LOUD.

The obvious solution to these problems is simply to disable the volume knob,
but — as noted — the software does not provide a way to do this. As
a result, the only way were were able to restore functionality was to disable
the VFD software altogether — and lose the ability to use the VFD.

So, we turned to alternate solutions... We were frustrated to discover that
Soundgraph's
stand-alone iMon software
(from which the Antec driver is derived) did not
work with the Fusion VFD. This is a pity, as the stand-alone version allows
greater control over the display, including the use of plug-ins for additional
programs (mostly other media players). As a last resort, those with programming
experience may be interested in downloading the
iMon VFD API
and writing their own driver.

CONCLUSIONS

So, is the Fusion worth paying double the price of the NSK2400? If you like
the gimmick effect of the VFD, by all means. It's fun to play with, and the
information that it provides at a glance may be quite useful, especially if
the driver can be improved. If you don't want (or can't use) the VFD, the only
real reason to get it is the visual appeal. The larger power supply is a nice
touch, but it's unnecessary for the MicroATX HTPC systems that will fit in the
Fusion.

So, ask yourself: How important is style in your HTPC? Is a brushed aluminum
finish and a stealthed drive bay worth an extra US$80? For a high end home theater,
the extra premium is peanuts compared to the cost of the rest of the components
(which explains why there is a market for $300 HTPC cases), and style is probably
very important. And that's the key: The Fusion is a high end part, and
it commands a high end price. If you're not in the high end market, you're better
buying the NSK2400 and spending the extra money on something more important.

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