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Antec NSK3300: Quiet Out-of-the-Box

July 27, 2006 by Devon
Cooke

Product
Antec "New Solution"
NSK3300

MicroATX Tower with SFX12V 3.0 compliant power supply
Manufacturer
Antec
Market Price
US$65~100

Over the last few years, Antec has steadily been building a market for quiet-oriented
cases. Antec's collaboration with Mike Chin, editor of SPCR, to build the
P180
and, more recently, the
NSK2400
and the Fusion HTPC cases, is part of this effort, but their noise-centric efforts go beyond a couple of joint products. The
Antec Sonata
was the first to be marketed as quiet case as far back as early 2003, and, more
recently, the P150 / Solo
brought an effective drive suspension system to the masses.

The NSK3300 continues this effort. It uses the dual-chamber design from the
P180 jammed into a box that's the size of a bottom-of-the-line granny computer
from Dell or HP. Just to make this perfectly clear, the case is just 14" tall, substantially smaller than the 17'~19" height of typical mid-towers. There's hardly a desk it won't fit under.

It also lops off a third of the price and includes a "high
efficiency" power supply in the bargain. It's Micro-ATX only — if
you need space for six expansion cards, SLI, or the cutting edge, top-of-the-line
motherboards, the NSK3300 probably isn't for you. On the other hand, fully featured
Micro-ATX boards are easy to come by these days, so it should be perfectly capable
of housing components for mainstream users.



A surprisingly big box for such a small case.

The NSK3300 showed up in a retail box stuffed to the gills with packing
material. In between the two recycled cardboard ends was enough foam to make
a small mattress. There should be no concerns about shipping damage unless UPS
decides to run it through with a forklift.



Packing material everywhere.

SPECIFICATIONS: Antec NSK3300 (from Antec's web
site
)
Case Dimensions
14"(H) x 7.8"(W) x 13.8"(D)
Drive Bays
4 Total

Front Accessible

2 x 5.25" (with one removable HDD bracket), 1 x 3.5"

Internal

1 x 3.5"
Expansion Slots
4
Cooling System
- Up to 3 Fans

- 1 rear 120mm TriCool (standard)

- 2 front 92mm (optional)

- 1 80mm chassis air guide (optional)
Main Board Size
MicroATX (9.6"x9.6")
Power Supply
300Watt

SFX

ATX 12V for AMD™ & Intel® systems
Weight (Net / Gross)
14.4 / 16.3
lbs

6.5 / 7.4 Kg
Motherboards
MicroATX
Special Features
- Side panels

- Front USB Ports

- Firewire Port

- Audio In/Out


FEATURE HIGHLIGHTS: Antec NSK3300 (from Antec's
web
site
)
FEATURE & BRIEF COMMENT
High-efficiency 300 Watt SFX v3.0 power supply

- Universal input

- Active PFC and high efficiency design for superior environmentally-friendly
operation
300W is more than enough for most systems; few manufacturers make
higher capacity SFX models.
Dual-chamber structure separates power supply heat
and noise for cooler & quieter operation
Isolated heat sources
are very important for low noise.
Advanced cooling system:

- 1 Rear 120mm TriCool 3-speed fan

- 2 Front mount for optional 92mm fan
"Advanced"
= a TriCool fan? Seriously, though, given the small main chamber, in/out venting is generous.
4 Drive Bays

- Front Accessible: 2 x 5.25” (with one removable HDD bracket), 1
x 3.5”

- Internal: 1 x 3.5” (or 2 x 3.5” with one in 5.25” bay)
with silicone grommets to isolate drive vibrations
No room for RAID arrays,
but that's to be expected in a MicroATX case. The silicone grommets are
the soft ones found in Antec's P150 and P180 cases.
4 Expansion Slots
Dictated by MicroATX
Front-mounted ports for easy multimedia connections

- 2 x USB 2.0

- 1 x IEEE 1394 (FireWire®, i.Link®)

- Audio In and Out
Standard on all but the
cheapest cases.
0.8mm cold-rolled steel construction
Perfectly adequate for good rigidity given the smaller size of the panels.
Accommodates up to MicroATX motherboards (9.6”
x 9.6”)
The key to its small
size.

DESIGN AND LAYOUT

The NSK3300 shares the same silver-with-black-trim color scheme as the
recently released Solo
— and most of Antec's recently released cases.
The silver bezel is raised from the front of the frame, allowing the smooth
fascia to coexist peacefully with the intake vents that surround it. The bezel
is slightly smaller than the case itself and the silver color attracts the eye,
casting the illusion of being smaller than it actually is and effectively hiding
the air vents behind it. This is a considerable aesthetic update over Antec's previous SLK series,
which now look quite dated.



The silver-and-black color scheme is common to many of Antec's recent cases.

The primary intake is through the front bezel, which is vented all around its
perimeter, except for the top. The individual holes themselves are small, but
the total area is large enough to provide a balance of airflow from the front
and rear vents. Much of the air is likely to come in through the bottom, where
the venting is more open than the rest of the bezel. The vent is raised about
half an inch from the bottom of the case to prevent it from being blocked by
deep carpeting.

Soft silicone feet (like those used on the P180, P150, Solo, NSK3300 and Fusion) should help reduce vibration from being transmitted from
the case. This can help reduce noise if the system rests on a resonant surface
or a hard floor.



A large portion of the bezel is open at the bottom, and

soft silicone feet reduce vibration transfer.

Airflow in the top chamber is provided by the 80mm fan in the SFX12V power supply. This unit looks very much like several Seasonic SFX models we've seen and examined in the past, and given Seasonic's obvious involvement in Antec's NeoHE power supply (and the one found in the NSK2400), there's little reason to doubt that it is indeed made by Seasonic. This is a good thing; chances are, this SFX is quite efficient, and pretty quiet.

A single TriCool
120mm fan mounted on the back panel moves air through the main chamber. The TriCool is standard in most Antec cases,
and features three selectable speeds. The lowest speed is acceptable for use
in a quiet system, although quiet enthusiasts will probably still find it too loud.

There are also a few secondary vents on the back panel. The PCI slots are
vented, and there is a smallish vent above the expansion slots. They will act as intakes or exhausts, depending on the airflow pattern that results from other fans and/or components in the system. They should help keep the video card a bit cooler.



The layout looks traditional from this angle, although the size of the power
supply is unusual.

INSIDE

An unusual feature of the NSK3300 is the way it disassembles.
Both side panels and the top panel are removable, giving access to three sides
of the system. The two side panels are locked in place by the top panel, which
is secured with a pair of thumbscrews. When the thumbscrews are removed, the
top panel slides backwards and lifts up, giving access to the power supply chamber,
which also contains both optical bays and a single 3.5" bay.



The first step to disassembly: Remove the top panel.

Gaining access to the main chamber is as simple as lifting the side panel up
and out — no screws involved. (This setup is identical to one used in a Superpower Landmark Polaris II chassis. How do we know? A highly modified, >5 year old sample of this case houses one of the lab computers.)



The side panel lifts off easily once the top panel is removed.

TOP CHAMBER

The intake for the top chamber is the lower drive bay, which is just as open
as the fan vents below. If both bays are occupied, there is effectively no air
path through the front panel, leaving the top panel vent as the only air intake
for the power supply. This vent is rather small and restrictive. It's hard to
imagine that the power supply will remain quiet under load when it is starved
for air in this way, so it is probably advisable not to use the second drive
bay. Given that Antec has included hardware to mount an internal 3.5" drive
in the same space, it seems unlikely that they expect it to be used.

The top chamber is just wide and tall enough to fit a pair of 5.25" optical
drives. The SFX power supply is mounted upside down, with the fan facing upwards.
There is only about half an inch of clearance above the fan, which is less than
ideal for airflow. The cables from the power supply pass through a small hole
between the chambers, which can be closed off with a plastic cover.

For some reason, the cables are routed across the width of the case —
twice. The first time, in the top chamber, is shown in the photo below: The
cables sprout from the power supply on one side of the case, and must travel
across the floor of the chamber to get to the access hole. In the bottom chamber,
the cables must be routed back across the width, meaning the cables travel the width of
the case a second time. The cables
are prevented from lying flat against the base of the top chamber and precious cable
length is wasted.



The bag of screws occupies the 3.5" bay.



Cables enter the main chamber about well above the surface of the motherboard.

MAIN CHAMBER

The main chamber just barely has room for a MicroATX motherboard. With the
exception of the floppy bay, there are no drive bays in the front half of the
case, allowing the depth to be shortened significantly. There is room for a
single hard drive on the bottom of the case, mounted in the same manner as the
bay in the top chamber. Once a hard drive is installed in the bottom of the
main chamber, at least one of the three PCI slots will be blocked; depending
on the card, it might make two slots unusable.



The main compartment is quite cramped.



No front drive bays, so the two intake vents are plainly visible.

The front bezel pops off quite easily; three clips on each side of the front
panel are accessible with the sides removed. The vents on the front sheet metal
look open enough that airflow is hardly restricted. There is room for a pair
of 92 mm fans to be mounted if they are needed. Unlike many other Antec cases,
there are no dust filters anywhere.



The panel under the bezel is suitably open and unrestrictive.

INSTALLATION

Motherboard and Cable Routing

The small size of the NSK3300 is a selling point, but that doesn't make for
an easy installation. We found it impossible to install our test board without
removing either the floppy bay or the hard drive bay on the bottom of the case,
preferably both. The fact that the bottom-mounted drive bay is only about half
a centimeter tall should give you some idea of how cramped the interior is.



A tight squeeze.

The massive Zalman CNPS9500
heatsink
that is a part of our regular test setup just barely fit in the
case, blocking most of the access hole for routing cables between the two chambers.
Some creative cable management was needed to route the cables.



Clearance for the top of the heatsink was ~2mm.

The problem was exacerbated by the painfully short cables on the power supply,
which needed careful attention to fit on our particular board. It took a minute
or two to coax the main ATX cable into position on our DFI RS482 Infinity MicroATX motherboard, which admittedly has some odd connector locations. Some
of the fins on the Zalman heatsink were bent in the process. We had similar
problems routing several other cables, including the SATA cable for the drive
that we mounted in the bottom drive bay, which fit with no slack to spare.



The bent fins on the heatsink are a result of an ATX cable that is too short.

PSU Details

The bundled power supply is Antec branded, bearing the model number SU-300.
It is a small 300W SFX power supply that is adequate for just about any system
that would fit in the case. The NSK3300 is simply not big enough to fit the
dual CPU or dual GPU systems that require more than 300W. As mentioned before, it bears more than a passing resemblance to the Seasonic SS-300SFD we reviewed a while back.

The PSU is fairly quiet at idle but poses no challenges to the silent leaders, the Seasonic S12s and Antec NeoHEs. It may be good enough provided
the system doesn't draw enough power to force an increase in fan speed. We
estimate the default noise level at 22~23 [email protected]

As mentioned, the cables are short and limited in number. That's not
a big problem, since the total number of drive connectors matches the total number
of drive bays. However, there is no PCI Express connector, which means that
powerful video cards will need an adapter — reducing
the total number of connectors available. The cable length means that it is
more or less impossible to manage cables beyond simply plugging them in.



Power supply specifications.

Hard Drive

Although Antec recommends installing the hard drive in the top chamber, we
elected to use the lower chamber in hopes that the drive would receive more
airflow in this position. With an optical drive installed, conditions in the
top chamber are quite cramped.

The installation process is the same regardless of which drive bay is used.
Special long shank, wide head screws fit through soft silicone grommets, that
dampen vibration from the drive. These are the same grommets found in the P150
and P180 enclosures, and, aside from custom modifications and the full suspension
found in the P150, they are the most effective means of reducing vibration-induced
noise that we know of. The screws fit into the bottom of the drive, and
can be hand-tightened without a screwdriver, although you may prefer to use
a stubby Philips head.



The drive rests on soft silicone grommets at the bottom of the case.



Drive screws come through the bottom of the case.

THERMAL & ACOUSTIC TESTING

Thermals and noise comprise the core of most SPCR equipment reviews. Two variations
of the same system were installed and tested in the Antec NSK3300. The base
components are listed below. They are the same components used in our recent
reviews of the Zalman HD160
home theater case
and the
Lian Li PC-101
, so these cases will be used as reference points. Note that,
because the NSK3300 includes a power supply, the Seasonic S12-330 was not (and
could not) be used. The stock power supply is louder than the S12, and this
probably affects the results.

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


Not long ago, this was AMD's current second fastest desktop processor, one
small step down from the flagship FX-60. This particular 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.

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

Samsung SP2504C
250GB SATA 3.5" hard drive

A quiet 3.5" desktop reference. It measures 21~22 [email protected]

Other components included:

AOpen Aeolus PCX6800GT-DVD256 video card with Zalman VF900 VGA cooler at 5V. The SPL of this HSF at 5V measures 20 [email protected] It sounds a bit like a whispery rubbing of paper.

Zalman CNPS9500
CPU HSF


A heavy duty heatsink for a hot processor, this is an effective cooler even
undervolted to 5V. It measures 23 [email protected]

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

  • SpeedFan
    4.28
    for CPU and other hardware monitoring.
  • CPUBurn
    for processor stress testing.
  • ATI Tool provides
    a steady high load to the GPU in a reduced window, allowing other tools to
    be in use at the same time.
  • RivaTuner
    allows the core temperature of the GPU to be monitored over time.

Other tools:

TEST RESULTS

Ambient conditions were 24°C and 18 dBA. It is summer, and the lab is a few degrees warmer than in winter. This has an effect on both thermals and noise, especially thermally speed-controlled fans.

The system was initially configured without the VGA card installed so that
the system could be as quiet as possible. The CPU fan was undervolted to 5V,
and the system fan was set to "Low". Various other configurations
were tried in turn to see how the case responded to changes in airflow and system
heat. Details of each configuration are listed in the table below.

Antec NSK3300 Configuration Details
Configuration
CPU Temperature
GPU Temperature
System Power Draw
Noise Level
#1
- CPU Fan @ 5V

- System Fan @ L
Idle:

32°C
N/A
Idle:

42W
CPUBurn:

56°C
CPUBurn:

135W
CPUBurn:

26 [email protected]
#2
- CPU Fan @ 5V

- System Fan swapped

for Nexus 120mm @ 5V
Idle:

33°C
N/A
Idle:

42W
CPUBurn:

60°C
CPUBurn:

141W


CPUBurn:

24 [email protected]
#3
- CPU Fan @ 5V

- System Fan swapped

for Nexus 120mm @ 5V

- PCIe video card added
Idle:

38°C
Idle:

54°C
Idle:

85W
CPUBurn:

66°C
CPUBurn:

59°C
CPUBurn:

191W
CPUBurn:

28 [email protected]
CPUBurn +

ATI Tool:


65°C
CPUBurn +

ATI Tool:


74°C
CPUBurn +

ATI Tool:


216W
CPUBurn +

ATI Tool:


30 [email protected]

Configuration #1

The dominant sources of noise
in the system were the system fan and the power supply. Even so, the system
was surprisingly quiet without requiring any special tinkering. Unlike most
cases where we have to undervolt the stock fans to make the system even
moderately quiet, the NSK3300 achieved a noise level of 24 [email protected] without any
special modifications.

The noise character was also quite good. Most of what we could hear was the
soft whoosh of airflow; aside from a low growl, there were few pure tones
to speak of. Much of the noise at idle came from the TriCool fan.

With the CPU under load, the roles of the two noisemakers was reversed: The
power supply became more dominant and noticeable as its fan increased in speed,
while the system fan receded into the background. The quality of noise did
not change appreciably; the deep, humming growl may have gotten slightly louder,
but the dominant noise was still the whoosh of airflow at a slightly more
urgent pace.

We were pleased to note that, although the power supply did begin to get
noisier when the system was under load, the increase was limited to a relatively
minor 2 [email protected] Our test processor, an AMD X2 4800+, is one of the hottest
AMD processors currently on the market, and represents far more heat that
is likely to be generated by a midrange system. It should not be difficult
to select a slower processor that does not cause an increase in noise.

Thermally, the NSK3300 was good enough to prevent our processor from overheating,
which is really all that is needed. Comparisons with the Lian Li PC-101 and
the Zalman HD160 were too close to call given slight variations in configuration,
noise level, and ambient temperature. All three cases ended up with the CPU
in the high 50's — an expected result given the combination of processor
and heatsink.

Configuration #2

It is difficult to know how to improve the NSK3300 beyond its stock configuration.
Pushing the noise level to below the ambient noise level would require several
modifications that are beyond the scope of what most users are willing to
do. However, there was one easy modification we could perform: Swapping the
system fan for a Nexus 120 mm at 5V. This effectively takes the system fan
out of the equation as far as noise is concerned, as the fan is practically
inaudible from a distance of one meter.

This change had very little effect on the noise, although we did measure
a drop of ~1 [email protected] Subjectively, the most significant change was not the
volume but quality of noise, which was no longer so turbulent. The lack of
air noise uncovered the low hum that could be heard in the previous configuration,
bringing it to the forefront. Overall, we were not sure whether or not the
change was an improvement; the slight decrease in noise was paid for in a
noise character that was rougher and more irritating.

One thing we were sure of was that the much slower fan had a significant
effect on temperatures. The processor temperature rose to 60°C, right
on the cusp of overheating. For some reason, though, the power supply did
not seem to ramp up as much during this test. The result is reflected in the
lower measured noise level under load.

Configuration #3

Our last configuration made a hot system even hotter by throwing a video
card into the mix — a GeForce 6800GT cooled by a Zalman VF900 at 5V.
Like the CPU cooler, this cooler is quieter than the rest of the system, and
is unlikely to affect the noise level in the system. The new graphics card
doubled the amount of heat in the system at idle — the system now drew
85W from the wall instead of 42W.

At idle, this change had no effect on noise at all; the measured noise jumped
back up to 24 [email protected], but we did not notice any subjective change. However,
this was not the case under load, when the addition power required by the
card caused the power supply to ramp up to the point where it was difficult
to consider the system quiet any longer. Perhaps this change was not all that
significant; after all, the only time a 3D card is likely to be used is during
gaming, when game sound is likely to drown out the sound of the computer in
the background.

Adding the new graphics card had a significant effect on cooling. The CPU
jumped up to 66°C — stable, but not a safe temperature for long-term
use — even when the graphics card was not in use. Presumably, upping
the voltage on the Nexus fan would be enough to reduce the temperatures to
an acceptable level; an increase to 7V or 9V could probably have been done
without affecting noise.

The video card itself showed every indication of being properly cooled. As
with the CPU in Configuration #1, the thermal results for the VGA card
were too close to the Lian Li and Zalman cases to draw any conclusions about
which case is better for cooling.

(Editor's Note: These are only a few of the many configurations that could be used. With three fan mounting positions, the number and variety of ways to configure this case is limited only by the user's imagination. Setting a Nexus fan to 7V, for example, or adding one or two quiet 92mm input fans.)

MP3 RECORDINGS

Antec NSK3300, Config 1 (System Fan @ L): 24
[email protected]:
One Meter,
One Foot

Antec NSK3300, Config 2 (Rear Fan swapped to
Nexus @ 5V): 23 [email protected]:
One
Meter
, One
Foot

COMPARATIVES

Lian Li PC-101, Config 1 (No Intake Fan): 24
[email protected]:
One Meter,
One Foot

Lian Li PC-101, Config 2 (Intake Fan @ 5V): 26
[email protected]:
One Meter,
One Foot

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 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 short article: Audio
Recording Methods Revised
.

CONCLUSIONS

Whether or not the NSK3300 is appropriate for you depends on how well you fall
into the mainstream market segment that Antec is targeting. If you're building
a monster gaming rig, a stealthy recording machine or an blistering overclocker,
the NSK3300 isn't for you.

On the other hand, if you're building an ordinary system that needs to
be quiet — not silent — and you need to do it on a budget, the NSK3300
could be just the thing. An out-of-the-box noise level of 24 [email protected] (matched
with the proper components, of course) is very competitive, especially considering
that the power supply chamber can probably prevent the power supply from ever
ramping up in an ordinary system.

Size is also likely to play a factor. The NSK3300 is MicroATX only, which means
that prospective users will need to be interested in building a small system
— without resorting to a SFF system.

If the case's biggest strength is its noise level out-of-the-box, its weakness
is its out-of-the-box power supply which has trouble staying quiet under heavy
load and short cables. Given the dearth of good quality, quiet SFX-compatible
power supplies, it's probably wise to avoid planning a power-hungry system around
the NSK3300. (Editor's Note: On the other hand, the too-small
top panel vent for the top chamber and higher than normal ambient temperature
in the lab might be responsible for much of the PSU fan's ramp up.)

The NSK3300 is a good low-cost quiet case option. It can currently be found starting from ~US$65 — pretty good for a case and power supply combo. It isn't the quietest or the coolest
case that we know of, but all of the alternatives are significantly more expensive.
For many users, 24 [email protected] out-of-the-box might be good enough for its price. It's an intelligent and logical addition to Antec's line of cases.

Many thanks to Antec
for supplying the NSK3300 sample.

* * *

Articles of Related Interest

Zalman HD160 Home Theater
PC Enclosure


Lian Li PC-101: Aluminum *Can* be Quiet!

Antec P180: The Whole Nine Yards

Antec P150 mid-tower case w/ Neo HE 430 PSU

Antec SLK3000B mid-tower case

Cases: Basics and Recommendations

* * *

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