The hardware chosen was picked to reflect that of a relatively modern computer system that an enthusiast may own. The configuration of the system is as follows:
Noctua's NT-H1 thermal compound was used for all CPU cooler testing results. In our last thermal compound roundup, we found it to be one of the best performing thermal compounds tested. Application of the thermal compound was done as recommended by the installation guide provided by the cooler manufacturer. If no method was recommended, then a pea sized amount was applied to the center of the CPU's heatspreader (with pressure from the installed cooler to spread it).
We employ an open test bed (not installed in a case). This is to remove positive/negative factors that a case can apply to coolers depending on design. Keep in mind that temperatures achieved in this article will be lower than what a user will achieve when the cooler is installed in a case. The ambient environmental temperature is maintained at 24 degrees celcius (plus/minus 1 degree celcius).
CPU temperatures are recorded using OCCT. Since the temperature of each core is recorded individually, the average of these measurements is used to represent the 'Average' measure in the results. The highest temperature recorded during testing among the individual cores is used to represent the 'Maximum' measure in the results. Stress testing measurements are conducted using OCCT's CPU Test with the Small Data Set. This is left to run for 30 minutes. Idle measurements are taken 30 minutes after the the stress test has been completed (same method as the 'Average' stress test results).
The following motherboard configuration was used:
First off, when running at full speed, the fans on the H100 are relatively loud. When running at low speed, they are quiet. They're even a little quieter than the Noctua fans on the NH-D14 and NH-C14. The pump itself gives off a bit of noise, but barely any unless you put your ear close to it. With our test system running with stock settings, the H100 performs exceptionally well. At high speed, it's the best CPU cooler we tested so far. At low speed, it's performs the same as Noctua's NH-D14, which is the best air cooler we've tested.
With the increased heat load from our overclocked configuration, the H100 is still the best when running at high speed. At low speed, it falls behind the two top performing Noctua air coolers.
At the time of this article, Corsair's H100 liquid CPU cooler costs approximately $100US. This makes it around $20 more than Noctua's NH-D14, which before this review was the best performing CPU cooler that was tested here. So is that extra cost worth it?
The downsides of high performance air cooling are fairly common between the products that make up this category. In order to achieve high levels of performance, heatsinks need to be very large. Big heatsinks make it difficult to access the area around your CPU socket, cases need to be deep enough to fit tall coolers, and ports/connectors can be blocked on some motherboards (with restriction of use of RAM with tall heatspreaders common). Liquid coolers don't suffer from these design issues.
On the other hand, liquid coolers have their own downsides. They add another point of failure with pumps and the possibility of leaks. The ability to easily mount a radiator sized for 2x120mm fans depends on which case the cooler is installed in.
What it all comes down to is what you want to achieve and what the other components of your computer system is composed of. Air coolers and liquid coolers both have their own sets of benefits and downsides. If you do end up choosing a liquid cooler, we found Corsair's H100 to be an excellent choice. It's only slightly more expensive than top-end air cooling solutions, and it has the potential to offer a higher of cooling performance with the option of ultra low noise output. Corsair made the H100 liquid CPU cooler a complete package that is easy to install and use out of the box. It should appeal to those who have never had any past experience with liquid cooling, but want to make the jump. Corsair's Hydro Series H100 Extreme Performance Liquid CPU Cooler earns our Editor's Choice award.