With thermals so key to performance, the best CPU cooler is a vital component for your gaming PC. That’s true whether you’re sporting an AMD or Intel chip at the heart of your machine. And, while some processors do still come with stock CPU coolers, if you want to get the most out of your PC then a third-party chip chiller as an absolute must.
CPU coolers generally come in two varieties. The first is an air cooler, which comes with a big metal heat sink that pulls heat away from the CPU, then blown away by a fan. Before you pick an air cooler, you need to consider your CPU socket type, RAM clearance, your PC’s case dimensions, and the airflow in your machine.
The other, more extravagant option is liquid cooling, with the most common being the AIO (all-in-one) variety. Liquid cooling is often a more efficient choice and can lead to some flashy-looking components with wild RGB lighting options and even OLED screens. If you’re feeling especially courageous, you could also create a full custom water cooling loop, which can include GPU as well as CPU cooling, but that way lies tube-bending and a whole lot of installation effort—though the result of all that work is pretty cool.
We’ve tested each of the coolers below in our PCG test rigs, so we can tell you which can deliver the optimum CPU cooling for your money. And you don’t have to spend a fortune on a full water-cooling loop either, FYI. 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.
Best CPU coolers
Corsair was one of the first hardware manufacturers to bring all-in-one liquid coolers to market. It only fits that its latest cooler has dethroned our previous king. The H115i has always been a strong contender for the throne of best liquid CPU cooler, only narrowly beaten by NZXT’s Kraken X62.
The updated H115i Platinum is a definite improvement, but NZXT’s infinity mirror CPU block design was and remained one of the most beautiful RGB implementations we’ve seen in any product. It wasn’t until seeing Corsair’s latest contender, the H115i Platinum, that we’ve been able to let the Kraken go.
For now, though, it’s all about the excellent Corsair AIO. The H115i Platinum is available in black or white with a set of addressable RGB LED fans and CPU block. It’s a real head-turner in any build and has excellent software and performance to back it up.
It may be one of the most expensive air coolers we’ve tested, but Noctua’s flagship NH-D15 is our top choice for high-end air coolers. Based on the company’s award-winning D14, the NH-D15 performs just as well as a handful of all-in-one liquid coolers and even beats a few of them both in performance and noise levels. The cooler features a dual tower heatsink and comes with two high airflow 140mm fans.
Even working at 100 percent, the cooler ran quieter than just about all of its competitors. If you aren’t a fan of liquid cooling or don’t have the space to mount a radiator, the NH-D15 is about as good as it gets for air cooling. The only downside we could find is its bulkiness, which could cause problems with tall RAM module clearance.
EVGA’s latest CLC liquid coolers are our favorite mid-range pick because of their excellent performance per dollar. Matching cooling of the latest chip-chillers from Corsair and NZXT, the 240mm CLC costs a fraction of the price while only sacrificing a few features. The included fans can get very loud at full speed, but we found the cooler to run well enough without ever reaching those levels.
While you won’t get the fancy addressable RGB lighting you’d find in NZXT, Thermaltake, or Cooler Master’s latest designs, the EVGA CLC does have the same sleeved tubing and a single RGB light on the pump head that can be controlled through the software. If you don’t care for all of the bells and whistles, EVGA’s CLC 240 offers exceptional performance with little compromises.
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.
The Noctua NH-P1, however, is capable of coping with relatively high-end CPUs, and running them at, or very close to, their standard performance. 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.
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.
Corsair was one of the first manufacturers to bring all-in-one liquid cooling to the masses. Nearly a decade after the company first launched its Hydro series, Corsair is once again leading the charge with the updated H60 as our top choice for liquid cooling on a budget.
Often priced $20 cheaper than our best high-end air cooler, the 120mm H60 offers nearly identical thermal and noise performance at a fraction of the cost. The updated cooler features a white LED illuminated pump head, 120mm radiator, and one of Corsair’s latest 120mm PWM fans. Our tests put the performance of the new H60 far ahead of its other 120mm competitors and even in line with a few 140mm and 240mm coolers.
Cooler Master’s budget-friendly Hyper 212 CPU cooler has been around for well over ten years now. With experience like that, it comes as no surprise that the newer Hyper 212 Evo has become a renowned pick for affordable performance. Priced around $30, the latest update to the Hyper 212 Evo features four direct contact heat pipes, an improved aluminum heatsink, and a 120mm high airflow fan.
From our testing, we found that the Hyper 212 Evo reduced CPU temperatures by up to 20 degrees celsius when compared to stock cooling. Another added benefit is that the cooler itself isn’t a lot larger than a stock one, meaning it tends to stay out of the way of larger RAM modules. With such a low price point, we can’t find any reason why we’d stick to a stock cooler over this.
When you’re looking for the best liquid cooling options available, efficiency and effectiveness for heat dissipation are of utmost importance. The best way to approach this is to use a radiator with the largest surface area possible. For most modern mid-sized cases and full towers, this means a 360mm radiator. Equipped with three 120mm fans, these coolers take up quite a bit of space and can be relatively costly compared to a single 120mm liquid cooler.
Cooler Master’s 360mm MasterLiquid ML360R is our favorite choice. It features a beautiful CPU block design with a muted centerpiece logo, making for a spotless lighting setup. Combined with three addressable RGB fans, the ML360R cools well and runs quietly while providing some sexy lighting for your whole build.
These are the current best CPUs for gaming to build your rig around.
The GamerStorm Deepcool Assassin III may sound like someone’s terrible username, but it’s an impressively big air cooler. This wide boy houses twin cooling towers, seven heat pipes, and a pair of quiet 140mm fans. And with such large fans, and plenty of cooling surface this is an impressively performant air cooler too.
For way less than $100, you can get yourself a quiet CPU cooler with exceptional thermal performance. Surprisingly, there’s no RGB lighting, making the Deepcool Assassin III a rather tame looking piece of hardware despite the flashy name. Though if you’re chasing the more restrained aesthetic for your gaming machine, this quiet, stealthy chip chiller could be the dark horse of all our picks for best CPU cooler.
Best CPU cooler FAQ
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.
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. Until AMD released its Wraith coolers (and then took them away again), we’d never recommend a stock cooler to any PC gamer. Still, those on tight budgets now don’t necessarily need to consider an aftermarket air cooler. 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, and the water pump is often well insulated so there isn’t a great deal of noise from them either.
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 quietest of all would be an entirely passive cooler, one with no moving parts whatsoever. Though 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 certainly 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 most vain is obviously the aesthetic—not having a hulking great 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 a full water-cooling loop.