In all but the most demanding scenarios, the Thermalright Peerless Assassin 120 and its almost identical SE version will perform just as well as the best CPU coolers on the market, while remaining just as quiet, for less than half the price.
Starting at just $36, the cooler uses 6 copper heat pipes, two 120mm fans spinning at up to 1550 RPM, and a split-tower design to make sure that less air is lost along the way. Thermalright is a seasoned and somewhat forgotten company, but with such price differences between the Peerless Assassin and their competitors, concerns about warranty for the fans are arguably moot.
In most systems, the only reason not to give Thermalright a shot is if you have extremely tall RAM modules (more than 51mm). In that case, you should spend some more on the similarly performing Scythe Fuma 2 Rev. B ($66), which offers complete RAM clearance thanks to its asymmetrical shape.
The heavyweight champions
If you want to fully utilize one of the most power-hungry mainstream CPUs, you’ll need one of the most massive coolers. Starting at $65, the DeepCool AK620 offers the best value with two 120mm fans that can reach 1850 RPM.
If you want the very best, you’ll struggle to find an air cooler that performs as well as the Noctua NH-D15 with two 140mm fans ($100) at their max RPM of 1,500. Historically, the most controversial (and defining) aspect about Noctua’s coolers has been their color scheme. These days, though, you can get the NH-D15’s Chromax.Black version for $10 more.
If you value acoustic efficiency over top cooling performance, then you can’t beat the Be Quiet! Dark Rock Pro 4 ($90). The cooler comes with two fans: one 135mm in the middle, and one 120mm on the outside for improved RAM clearance. When all fans spin at the same speed, the Dark Rock Pro 4 cools slightly better than the NH-D15 thanks to its 7 heat pipes, but only the 120mm fan is capable of spinning at 1,500 RPM — the 135mm one is limited to 1,200 RPM.
More compact alternatives
If you aren’t running any of the most power-hungry mainstream CPUs, you can also go with a more compact and lightweight cooler. In this case you have several good options, including the Be Quiet! Pure Rock 2 Black ($45), Arctic Freezer 34 eSports Duo ($53) and Noctua NH-U12S Redux ($47).
If you want to build a powerful system that also moves around a lot, you should check out the Noctua NH-U12A ($110), which uses two 120mm fans and a compact single-tower design, but makes up for that with 7 heat pipes and a max RPM of 2,000.
Budget coolers that are much better than stock
AMD’s Wraith Spire is surprisingly good for a stock cooler, nearly matching Cooler Master’s venerable Hyper 212 Evo, now selling at $45. On the other hand, Intel’s stock coolers and AMD’s Wraith Stealth are meant to be replaced by those who want to get the most out of their CPU.
If you want to improve upon what your stock CPU cooler offers for as little money as possible, here are 3 proven choices:
- Vetroo’s V5 offers 5 heat pipes and a 120mm ARGB fan for $35.
- ID-Cooling’s SE-214-XT offers 1 less heat pipe, but sells for $20.
- If you don’t want RGB, the Thermalright Assassin X120 starts at $20 without it.
You may think that AMD’s Threadripper CPUs are harder to cool than most mainstream CPUs, because of their extra cores, but in fact their larger surface area makes up for those as long as the cooler is designed to utilize it. That’s why Noctua is able to get away with a single 140mm fan and a compact design in its $90 NH-U14S TR4-SP3, possibly the most acoustically efficient cooler for AMD Threadrippers.
If you still prefer a split-tower design, the Dark Rock Pro 4’s TR4 edition is almost identical to the one recommended above, and usually costs the same as its competitor ($90).