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The best CPU air coolers excel at pulling dangerous heat from the best processors, but that’s the one real thing they all share in common. Faster CPUs, and overclocked CPUs, require more cooling, while slower and stock CPUs can get by with less. Small cases call for low profile coolers, while some PC builds can accommodate massive coolers with three or more fans. Aesthetics also come into play, as some coolers come equipped with flashy RGB lights to improve the overall look of your build.
If you think you might ever want to overclock your CPU, then it’s important to take that into account when choosing your CPU air cooler. The stock cooler, a budget cooler, or a low-profile silent fan might be fine for a stock CPU, but you’ll want to be ready with extra cooling if overclocking is in the cards. Similarly, some CPU coolers are upgradeable, with the ability to add an additional fan if the situation ever calls for it.
Looking at the heat output of your CPU and the thermal design power (TDP) rating of an air cooler can help you get on the right track, but keep in mind that it’s better to have more cooling capacity and not need it than to need more cooling capacity and not have it. The best CPU air cooler in one situation is likely to underperform in another, so keep your hardware in mind when making your decision.
Our top pick for the category is the Nocuta NH-D15 Premium at Amazon. It's a well-known brand in the air cooling space that offers an ideal mix of value and performance. You should also take a look at our list of the best AIO coolers if you want to more dramatically overclock.
For all others, read on to see our list of the best CPU coolers.
Fans are somewhat adjustable for clearance
Too big for some cases
Blocks some expansion slots
Lots of parts
The Noctua NH-D15 premium CPU cooler isn’t flashy, but it gets the job done for a decent price. This CPU air cooler features a six heat pipe design with a dual tower design and two 140mm fans. It can also operate in single fan mode if your heat disposal requirements aren’t that high and you need the extra clearance for nearby RAM.
There are a lot of great CPU air coolers out there, but the Noctua NH-D15 is an easy recommendation as the best overall due to excellent performance coupled with an attractive price tag. This air cooler is ready to cool down your overclocked CPU, works with a massive variety of sockets due to using the SecuFirm2 mounting system, and even provides a decent amount of flexibility in terms of clearance due to the way you can mount the fans in several different positions.
The main drawback of the Noctua NH-D15, and Noctua fans in general, is that they aren’t much to look at. If you have a window in your case, and you’re looking forward to showing off a flashy build, the beige-and-brown color scheme of this CPU air cooler won’t impress anyone. It’s also too big for some cases, so make sure that your case has room for this beast before you pull the trigger.
Seven heat pipes
Excellent cooling efficiency
Easy installation (tools included)
May block an expansion slot
Louder than some competitors
The Cryorig R1 Ultimate takes our runner-up pick for Best Overall, just barely being edged out by the less expensive Noctua NH-D15. This CPU air cooler has a massive seven heat pipes in the classic two-tower design, with two big 140mm fans that provide enviable cooling efficiency. If you have a bit of extra room in your budget, it’s actually worth looking at this cooler as a mild upgrade to our overall top pick, although the increased cooling capacity and more attractive design won’t be enough to move the goalposts for everyone.
Installing a CPU air cooler shouldn’t be a difficult experience, and Cryorig helps ease the process with clearly marked parts bags and a screwdriver that’s sized appropriately for the hardware. This cooler is designed to work with a wide variety of both Intel and AMD sockets, so organizing the hardware is clearly labeled bags is a nice touch.
The Cryorig R1 Ultimate isn’t the flashiest cooler out there, but it is more visually appealing than our overall top pick. It’s also a bit noisier and has a tendency to block some expansion slots, but it’s hard to argue with performance, and this is one CPU air cooler that won’t fail to impress in that department.
Good thermal performance
Too tall for some cases
Interferes with some RAM
Somewhat confusing to install
Only one fan
The Cooler Master Hyper 212 Evo is the gold standard in budget-priced CPU air cooling. While its thermal performance can’t touch the best air coolers on this list, it does a fantastic job for a cooler with such an affordable price tag. With four cooling pipes in single tower design and a single 120mm fan, this CPU air cooler provides more than enough cooling for just about any stock CPU, and can even handle some overclocking if you’re careful about temperatures.
Despite a single tower design and just four heat pipes, the Cooler Master Hyper 212 Evo is a big unit, so it isn’t suitable for some smaller cases. It can also interfere with some RAM, although the fan can be slid up a bit to make room in some cases. It also comes with the hardware necessary to install on a number of Intel and AMD sockets, although the documentation in the box is somewhat lacking, so first-time installers will experience a bit of a learning curve.
If your CPU didn’t come with a stock cooler, or you want a decent upgrade with an extremely affordable price tag, then the Cooler Master Hyper 212 Evo is probably the air cooler that you’re looking for.
Nearly silent operation
Excellent thermal performance
May interfere with RAM or PCIe slots
The Be Quiet! Dark Rock Pro 4 is a massive exception to the general rule that AIO liquid coolers are quieter than air coolers. This cooler is designed with special baffles and uniquely engineered fan blades to produce as little sound as possible, to the point where you almost have to hear, or not hear, it to believe it. Its thermal performance is also top-notch, so you don’t have to sacrifice that key factor just to have some peace and quiet. This is an expensive cooler, but that’s just the price you pay for this kind of quality.
In addition to innovative noise-dampening features, this cooler boasts seven heat pipes in a fairly traditional double tower layout, with two big Silent Wings fans. It also comes with universal installation hardware that’s a bit difficult to wrap your head around at first, but the included documentation is adequate in terms of explaining the complicated installation process.
Aside from the price tag, the only real drawback to this cooler is that it’s massive, to the point where it doesn’t fit in smaller cases, you may need low profile RAM, and it may also interfere with an expansion slot depending on the layout of your motherboard. If you’re looking for a quiet CPU air cooler with excellent thermal performance though, this one can’t be beaten.
Limited cooling capacity
Limited socket support
The Noctua NH-L9i is an exceptionally compact air cooler with surprisingly decent thermal handling and an affordable price tag. This is a fantastic option if you’re working with limited space and your CPU doesn’t run that hot, but you’ll have to look elsewhere if you have an Intel CPU with higher than 65-watt TDP. It’s fine below that, but you’ll run into heat issues if you push it.
Unlike some of the more universal options on this list, the Noctua NH-L9i fits a limited selection of Intel sockets and isn’t designed for use with AMD. It does offer better performance than stock Intel coolers though, so it’s a direct upgrade if you have a stock cooler. It does an admirable job of dissipating heat for a cooler of its size, and it also runs fairly quiet in comparison to the larger two fan options. Since it’s so compact and low profile, this cooler is a great choice for smaller cases and makes a great option for a lot of home theater PC (HTPC) builds.
Visually interesting design
Similar thermal performance to stock coolers
Not suitable for overclocking
Somewhat difficult installation
The Cooler Master MasterAir G100M is a visual spectacle that’s tailor-made for people who want to show off a flashy build. This low profile CPU air cooler not only looks different from the competition, but its UFO-shaped build also works differently, pulling air from the top down and forcing it to flow over other components of the motherboard after cooling the CPU.
While it looks great, the MasterAir G100M is actually a sidegrade from most stock coolers, and it isn’t suitable for overclocking. It’s a great option if you want to replace your boring old stock cooler with something flashier, and its low profile design also makes it an excellent option for small profile cases and HTPCs, but you’ll want better thermal handling if overclocking is on the menu. If you want something that looks great and offers decent baseline performance, then this one is hard to beat.
Good clearance for RAM and PCIe
Excellent thermal handling
The Deep Cool Assassin III is a high-performance CPU air cooler that’s designed specifically to provide adequate clearance for your other hardware. It isn’t perfect for every single situation, but it does provide excellent compatibility with RAM and PCIe slots, making it unlikely to interfere with either your RAM or your video card where a lot of competitors would cause issues.
This air cooler features seven sintered heat pipes in a traditional two-tower design, with two massive 140mm fans, so it provides excellent thermal handling. It’s a great option if your CPU runs hot or you’re looking to overclock, as it can handle up to 280W TDP, all while providing a decent 54mm of RAM clearance and boasting a thin profile that’s unlikely to interfere with your video card.
The Deep Cool Assassin III is designed to provide good clearance to nearby components, but it’s also quite tall. That means it isn’t suitable for smaller cases, but it’s an excellent option if your case has room.
Official AMD product
The AMD Wraith Spire Cooler is a fantastic budget option if you have a compatible AMD CPU. This unit comes with an attractive RGB light ring and illuminated AMD logo that will light up red and white, respectively, if you power it up normally and don’t have the capability to take advantage of advanced RGB lighting. It’s important to note that while these are official AMD fans, they aren’t available at retail. These coolers are typically available from builders that replaced them with higher performance aftermarket units.
There are two scenarios where the AMD Wraith Spire Cooler might be the right choice for you. If your AMD CPU didn’t come with a stock cooler, or if it came with a non-RGB cooler, then this is definitely worth a look. Thermal handling is adequate for stock situations, making this cooler a good choice if you aren’t planning on overclocking your CPU.
The Thermalright Le Grand Macho RT is a massive beast of an air cooler that’s capable of handling enormous amounts of heat. With seven heat pipes and a heat sink that’s larger, without a fan installed, than a lot of heat sink fan combos, this air cooler has a tremendous amount of surface area to dissipate heat. With a powerful 140mm fan, it’s capable of handling up to 300 watts TDP, making this the go-to CPU air cooler if you’re trying to overclock your CPU and experiencing trouble with heat.
Despite its massive size and excellent performance, the Thermalright Le Grand Macho RT actually has a pretty decent price, especially considering the fact that it comes with the powerful Thermalright TY-147B fan. The only real downside to this air cooler is its size, which is just too big for some cases. Even in large cases, it’s so big that there is usually only space for the one fan, and you may run into clearance issues with your RAM and PCIe slots.
The bottom line here is that if thermal performance is your top concern, the ThermalRight Le Grand Macho RT is a fantastic option.
Option to add third fan
Good RAM clearance
Only 120mm fans
The Scythe Fuma 2 is an excellent CPU air cooler if you’re having trouble with clearance issues or working with a somewhat smaller case, and it even has the option to improve it’s already impressive thermal handling with a third fan. This cooler is capable of handling a lot of overclocking situations, making it a strong contender for a second runner up for Best Overall if we had such a category.
This CPU air cooler features six heat pipes in a two-tower design, but it’s configured a bit different from the usual. The pipes are offset, and the front fan is slimline, allowing you to install any RAM you like on one side without worrying about clearance. On the back, the heat sink is notched out to provide a decent amount of clearance for RAM on that side as well. And since this only uses 120mm fans, it’s short enough to fit most cases.
If you find yourself needing additional thermal candling capacity in the future, you have the option to install a third fan on this cooler. Going with a full 120mm fan will cause clearance issues with some RAM, but that’s the tradeoff for adding additional thermal handling after the fact. You won’t need it in most cases, but it’s there just in case.
It’s tough to choose the best CPU air cooler out of so many fantastic options, but the Noctua NH-D15 Premium (view on Amazon) is solidly in the first place. It’s compatible with a massive range of CPU sockets, it’s easy to install, and it’s even fairly quiet. If you have a bit more room in the budget, and you need some extra thermal handling capacity, our runner up, the Cryorig R1 Ultimate (view on Amazon), is also an excellent choice. It’s a little loud and on the expensive side, but its performance speaks for itself. We also love the Scythe Fuma 2 (view on Amazon) if you’re working on more of a budget or you have clearance issues.
With over 10 years of experience writing how-to and review content, and two decades of experience building custom rigs, Jeremy Laukkonen knows a thing or two about choosing the right CPU air cooler.
Overclocking - Whether or not you plan on overclocking has a huge impact on finding the best CPU air cooler for your computer. If you’re on a budget and won’t overclock your CPU, then you can get by with one of our budget-conscious options. If overclocking is in the cards, or you have a powerful CPU and just want to hedge your bets against overheating, then look for a unit with a good thermal design power (TDP) rating.
CPU Socket - Some CPU air coolers are designed to work with a specific CPU socket, while others come with a variety of mounts and spacers to accommodate a wide variety of different sockets. Before you settle on an air cooler, make absolutely certain that it will work with your CPU socket and motherboard.
Clearance - Of equal importance to socket compatibility is clearance, or whether or not there’s enough physical space in your case. If you buy a cooler that’s too big for your case, it’s back to the drawing board. Similarly, you’ll need to look for a high clearance cooler if your RAM is mounted right next to your CPU. Other components, like PCIe cards, can also get in the way of especially large air coolers.