The purpose of the best CPU cooler is just that, to keep your CPU from overheating, ensuring you get the best performance. If you’re dipping your toes into the wild world of overclocking, a CPU cooler is essential for you to maximize your CPU’s untapped potential. Though even if you’re running your parts stock, it’s still good practice to pick up a cooler that can offer the lowest temperatures for the lowest price.
There are two types of cooling options: air cooling and liquid cooling. Air coolers are still just about the most common of the two chilling methods. A metal heat sink pulls heat away from the CPU and then blows it away with a fan. or directly cooling the chip itself.
Liquid or water cooling circulates liquid through your system via tubing as a cooling method which is more energy-efficient and a lot quieter. If you’re feeling courageous, you could also create a complete custom water cooling loop, which can include GPU and CPU cooling. Still, that way lies tube-bending and a lot of installation effort and cost—not recommended for first-time PC builders.
Both have advantages and disadvantages, so we’ve chosen the best from our respective guides: the best AIO cooler for CPUs and the best CPU air cooler. Generally, though, air coolers are cheaper and simpler, while AiO and other liquid coolers can be more expensive but come with extra features, even tiny screens.
Each of the coolers on this list has been thoroughly tested in the PC Gamer labs so we can tell you which ones offer the most optimum CPU cooling for your dollars under different workloads. If you’re looking for other ways to help increase your system’s cooling performance, you can check out our guide to the best PC fans.
In the world of liquid cooling, EK is a name that needs little introduction. The EK Basic series focuses on value for money and performance. Plus, it doesn’t feature any RGB at all. If this appeals to you then the EK AIO Basic 240 is well worth a look. Its absence sure helps to keep the pricing down too.
The EK Basic 240 really stands out thanks to its build quality. It just feels hefty and well built. The included EK- Vardar fans are very good and have a wide operating speed range. It’s good to have some high-speed headroom on tap if you need it. Most of the time it stays essentially silent.
What really impresses us is the cooling performance on offer. We find it goes very close to 360mm levels of cooling capability, It does get noisy if you try to push an overclocked Rocket Lake CPU, but then pretty much every other cooler does too.
The EK-AIO basic 240 is perfect for builds with a stealthy focus or closed case builds where lighting doesn’t matter. With its build quality and high performance, it’s a cooler that you can surely set and forget, out of sight, out of mind and out of earshot.
Deepcool is well known for its capable AIOs at affordable prices, and the Gammaxx L240 V2 is one of the cheaper 240mm coolers on the market. That makes it a great option for users looking to step up from air cooling into the world of AIO cooling.
The Gammaxx 240mm features basic RGB lighting on the pump head and fans. There’s a more expensive ARGB version should you really want it. Deepcool likes to talk about its ‘Anti leak technology’ which seeks to maintain an optimal pressure balance inside the loop. Which certainly can’t hurt.
The Gammaxx 240 is capable of cooling most processors, too, though like many of the chip chillers on this list it draws the line at AMD’s Threadripper beasts. But it keeps the rest running with remarkably low noise levels, which is one of the main reasons we recommend it.
At idle the L240 is effectively silent. As you’d expect, you will start to see an increase in temperatures and noise levels with high TDP processors, especially when overclocking. Our 5800X CPU with PBO enabled is about the maximum we’d consider appropriate for a 240mm cooler. Under load, the fans can and do ramp up quite a bit.
If you’re after a 240mm AIO that’s inexpensive and quiet under less demanding loads, then the Deepcool Gammaxx L240 is a great choice. Sure, it’s noise levels can get high if you push it hard, but at this price it comes highly recommended.
The Corsair H60 has been around for some time. Over the years it’s seen its tubing, fan, pump and mounting upgraded. The 120mm AIO form factor won’t suit everyone, but those who require a compact cooler to suit something like a small volume ITX build will find it can perform as well as a decent mid-range air cooler. Notably, it lacks RGB, though there is some white lighting around the head.
The H60 V2 is well suited to processors under about the 95w level. Sure, it will be beaten out by a decent tower cooler or AIO with a larger radiator, but their dimensions often rule them out of SFF builds. Heat is the enemy of an SFF system, so the H60’s ability to eject hot air outside the case will benefit the whole system. Corsair includes its SP PWM fan, which operates at speeds of between 600 RPM (at which level it really is silent) up to 1700 RPM. It becomes clearly audible at that point.
The Corsair H60 V2 is perfect for a compact system. It’s affordable and should outperform most low-profile air coolers and doing so without having to resort to unreasonable noise levels. It won’t suit a high core count or overclocked processor, but then you shouldn’t expect it to. With the right partnering components, it’s an easy recommendation.
The Deepcool AS500 received worthy attention when it was released, but the AS500 Plus with its additional fan elevates it to the point where it can compete with any single tower cooler on the market. At the same time, it undercuts competitors in price. There aren’t many dual fan ARGB supporting coolers at this price. Even if you spent double the money on a premium single tower cooler, your cooling performance won’t be a lot better.
Its cooling ability belies its compact dimensions. Only more expensive dual tower coolers beat it, and even then, not by a whole lot. Its dual fan design no doubt helps. It’s also surprisingly quiet. Even when pushed hard the cooler doesn’t get excessively loud. Cooling and low noise levels are welcome, then add to that great build quality and subtle ARGB good looks and there’s nothing to complain about. It even comes with its own ARGB controller, and there’s a white version too if you like.
The Deepcool AS500 Plus punches above its weight (and price). It cools very well, it stays quiet, it’s got great build quality, a subtle ARGB splash with its own controller and on top of all that. And, finally, it is great value relative to many dual fan single tower coolers. Short of stressing it with a heavily overclocked high-end processor, the AS500 Plus ticks all the boxes. Highly recommended.
If the brand name didn’t already give it away, the Be Quiet Pure Rock 2 really is quiet! It’s a single tower cooler equipped with the company’s highly regarded Pure Wings 2 PWM fan which carries a low 26.8dB(A) noise rating. That means it’s very quiet indeed. It feels really solid too, an indicator of good build quality and it comes in at a low price.
We wouldn’t describe the Pure Rock 2 as the most beautiful cooler on the market. But if you do have a windowed case, you could consider the black version which is certainly more attractive than the plain aluminum finish of the base version. The Pure Rock 2 is primarily designed to cool – unseen and unheard. It’s rated to cool CPUs with a 150W TDP.
For anything other than high-end CPUs, the Pure Rock 2 will keep your chip cool and quiet. If you’re not interested in bling and want something that’s a step up from bundled coolers, the Pure Rock 2 is a fantastic choice. It will cool out of sight, mind, and earshot.
The Noctua NH-D15 Chromax Black is considered by many to be the best air cooler on the market. We love it too, and it’s an easy inclusion on our list of recommended coolers. It performs brilliantly, it’s got excellent fans that are a welcome black colour instead of that rather unsightly beige and maroon (sorry, Jacob), its build quality is fantastic and Noctua’s packaging, accessories and documentation are second to none.
Really, only 360mm AIO coolers outperform it. If you want an air cooler that can handle any consumer CPU on the market, you might find one to match the Noctua flagship, but you won’t find anything that truly beats it.
Under normal operation the NH-D15 can be considered truly silent. When pushed hard it becomes louder than you might expect, such as you might get when hammering out an AVX load, but we don’t mind having some optional cooling headroom when you need it. Even a 5GHz+ Core i9 12900K will result in quiet running while gaming.
The NH-D15 also comes with two 140mm fans, which run slower than their 120mm counterparts, for quieter operation, but move plenty of air. If two of these are too loud for you, there’s always the option of removing one, if need be. If you want to remove both, however, for a truly silent CPU cooler, you’d best take a look at the Noctua NH-P1 below instead. That’s actually designed to run without fans.
But why isn’t the NH-15 number one on our list? It’s probably overkill for a lot of PC builds, especially if you’re running your chip stock. It’s absolutely overkill as a straight swap for the stock cooler than comes with many Intel and AMD chips. Perhaps the sheer size of it, too, though that can easily be forgiven considering its excellent performance.
Notably, Noctua has a long tradition of adding support for new sockets, and an investment in a NH-D15 Chromax Black means you’ll have a top shelf cooler that will last you for many years. That said, make sure to check it’s compatible with your socket of choice before buying one.
The best passive CPU cooler
These are the current best CPUs for gaming to build your rig around.
The Noctua NH-P1 is certainly a niche CPU cooler, but it’s also an exciting one in that it shakes up what a completely silent chip chiller is capable of. Previously, if you wanted a passive cooler you would either have to pair it with an underpowered processor, or you would have to seriously limit the clock speed of your chip.
From a glance, you might see nothing more than a hulking CPU cooler, but the Noctua NH-P1 is far more exciting than that. As a passive design, it requires no fan to keep your CPU at a stable temperature. Yes, even while gaming. And if you hadn’t already guessed, that’s a pretty big deal for silent PC builds. The NH-P1 is capable of cooling even high-end CPUs using only natural convection. That’s sort of what makes it a big deal in the cooling world. It does this through a design that’s vastly disparate from your usual chip chiller.
Essentially, this is a passive cooler that can actually keep a decent gaming processor powered up. We’ve tested the NH-P1 on our Core i7 10700K open test bench—which has no fans, and therefore completely unoptimised airflow—and while it may throttle on seriously CPU intensive benchmarks, it absolutely flew on our standard gaming tests.
That chip is slightly over Noctua’s own recommendations for the NH-P1, but you can check out its compatibility centre to see whether your CPU will be supported by this chonky chip chiller.
Sit the NH-P1 side-by-side with the NH-D15 we recommend in the best air cooler guide above, and you’ll notice they’re oriented differently. The heat pipes are actually longest along their horizontal axis, which will undoubtedly impact heat dispersion due to the reliance on gravity for a heat pipe to function. Noctua has also expanded the heat pipe layout to more evenly distribute the heat across the surface area, and each one is soldered to the fins to ensure a continuous connection over time between the two different metals forming the cooler: copper for the base and heat pipes and aluminum for the fins.
And yes, it is big. The RAM clearance is fine, as Noctua has engineered it to sweep away from dual-channel DIMM slots, but it’s still going to take up a whole lot of space in your chassis. If you want to get the most out of it, you’re also going to need some decent airflow in your case, too. Unless you’re going for a completely fanless vibe, that is.
The Noctua NH-P1 is well-designed, impressively powerful passive cooler that could well keep your gaming PC quiet. Though it’s not going to do anything for that noisy graphics card, I’m afraid.
Read our full Noctua NH-P1 review.
Best CPU cooler FAQ
How do I choose the CPU cooler that’s right for me?
If you aren’t sure whether you need an air cooler or a liquid cooler, it comes down to budget and compatibility. The first thing to check is whether a cooler supports the socket on your motherboard, and offers a sufficient mounting solution. Most coolers today are compatible with AMD’s AM4 socket and Intel’s latest LGA 1700 socket, and should include the prerequisite parts to install them inside the box. Some older coolers, perhaps second-hand ones, may not support the latest chips, however.
The other thing to be on the lookout for is whether a cooler is sufficient for your CPU. A certain amount of energy is wasted by your CPU as heat, and that needs to be dissipated effectively. A cooler does that, but some high-end processors require better cooling to keep temperatures low. Coolers often come with TDP ratings denoting what TDP of CPU they can sufficiently chill, but it’s not always this straightforward. Some CPUs require larger contact points for adequate cooling, such as AMD’s Threadripper chips, while Intel’s 12th Gen CPUs often hit power draw much higher than their stated TDP.
Basically, just be careful to check out what sort of chip a CPU cooler is rated to cool, especially if you’re planning on overclocking.
Those on tight budgets now don’t necessarily need to consider an aftermarket air cooler. Until AMD released its Wraith coolers (and then took them away again), we’d never recommend a stock cooler to any PC gamer, but they’re a good stand-in when money is tight. Still, it’s best to replace these with something beefier eventually, and if you have a little more spending room, liquid coolers can offer a whole lot more—from advanced RGB lighting to intelligent software control.
Some of you may be wary about putting liquid near your expensive components, but rest assured all of the coolers recommended in this guide are backed with excellent warranties that will cover you in the event of a manufacturer failure—a colossal leakage is an infrequent occurrence, anyways.
Is liquid cooling quieter than air cooling?
In general, an all-in-one liquid CPU cooler will be quieter than an air cooler mounted directly on top of the processor itself. That’s because the fans attached to the cooling radiator are generally larger and can therefore spin slower than an air cooler. The water pump is often well insulated, but there can be some noise from this part, however.
But there are large air coolers with big heatsinks and large fans that can compete well with the noise generation of an AIO liquid cooler. The Noctua NH-D15, for example, has two 140mm fans and is very quiet in operation. The quietest of all would be an entirely passive cooler, one with no moving parts whatsoever. However, those can’t always cope with the most hot and heavy CPUs.
Do I need liquid cooling if I don’t overclock my CPU?
Liquid cooling can undoubtedly give your processor the thermal headroom it needs to run comfortably overclocked, but there are other reasons you might want to have an AIO in your system. The vainest is the aesthetic—not having a huge hulking heatsink clogging up your chassis when there’s a Perspex peephole to show off your components is often desirable.
That can also play into having a smaller chassis entirely. Liquid coolers can often give you the thermal performance to run a high-spec CPU in a small chassis where you’d only otherwise be able to fit a weaker, small form factor air cooler.
How does liquid cooling work anyway?
The coolant passes through a closed-loop via a plate that’s attached to your CPU, and in combination with the attached radiator and fan, it cools the CPU. It’s simple and a hundred times easier to install than an entire water-cooling loop.
How do you test CPU coolers?
Like most components, choosing the right CPU cooler depends on several variables, including performance requirements, case compatibility, budget restrictions, and aesthetics. To find the best CPU coolers, we test performance using Prime95 and a mixture of modern PC games for extensive stress testing. Our top selections were made based on thermal performance, noise, value, and overall feature sets.