Can we build a PC that’s quiet and cool without sacrificing performance—or spending a fortune?
Anyone can build a gaming PC. Seriously, it’s easy. Minus a few technological bits of know-how here and there, there’s really nothing that tough about buying the fastest components you can afford and slapping them in whatever chassis you happen to have on hand. Done, right?
Maximum PC never shies away from a challenge, however, and Sr. Associate Editor Nathan Edwards has upped the ante for this month’s build-it. One of the key problems of building a tricked-out rig is that you’re sure to increase the ambient volume of the system as you increase its power. But I’m not here for a trade-off: No, I’ve accepted the challenge to build a gaming system that’s as quiet as a mouse.
Spoiler: It’s a lot harder than it seems.
- Case Silverstone PS05 $50
- PSU Corsair AX850 $190
- Motherboard Asus P6P58D Premium $285
- CPU Intel Core i7-930 $300
- CPU Cooler Thermaltake Jing $60
- RAM Corsair TR3X6G1600C7 DDR3/1600 6GB Kit $125
- Optical Drive Plextor PX-805SA $100
- Boot Drive WD VelociRaptor 600GB $280
- Storage Drive Seagate Barracuda XT 2TB $170
- GPU EVGA GeForce GTX 480 $450
- GPU Cooler Zalman VF3000F $65
- Fan Controller NZXT Sentry LXE $60
- Soundproofing Foam FrozenCPU Dampening Material $20
- Misc NoiseMagic NoVibes III Hard Drive Silencer $23
- OS Windows 7 Professional 64-bit OEM $140
Total for Sound-Dampening Parts (incl. case): $278
Total for PC: $2,318
Choosing the Right Hardware
The backbone of my proposed gaming PC is fairly standard: a Core i7 CPU paired with an Nvidia GTX 480 videocard. That is more than enough to frag my friends in any title I toss at it, and more to the point, if you already own a PC you want to hush, these are parts that a Maximum PC reader could very well have. Of course, you don’t need these exact components—though the total cost of my silenced rig exceeds $2,000, the cost for the sound-damping materials (including case) is less than $300, and you can easily apply those materials to the PC you already have.
There’s no shortage of devices that promise awesome performance at an ultra-low acoustic profile. My plan was to stick as many quiet-themed products in my PC as possible—including a silent CPU cooler, an aftermarket cooler for my videocard, quieter fans, and as much acoustic padding as I had room to mount into the case.
But that’s not all. For comparison’s sake, I also decided to build a rig inside of Fractal Design’s R3 chassis—a $120 case that arrives on your doorstep pre-configured for silence (see review here). Besting this quiet beast was my secondary goal.
Jing With two 12cm fans to push air over the heat fins, it’s a much quieter cooler than the stock Intel model that came with our CPU.
This aftermarket GPU cooler replaces the hot-
and-noisy stock cooler of our EVGA GeForce GTX 480 with something larger and quieter.
The inside of our case looked a lot cleaner before we inserted the PCB for our fan controller (and its tangle of fan cables and temperature probes).
Rubber mounting pegs rather than screws cut down on fan-vibration noise.
Putting It All Together
Staring at an empty case can be a daunting moment for the would-be soundproofer. Every part of the building process must be meticulously planned to avoid inducing rage and/or headaches caused by backtracking. The last thing you want is to try tacking acoustical foam all around a chassis once you already have your parts and wiring in place. I cannot think of a greater frustration than that, save for stripping the super-tiny screw on a videocard. More on that later.
Because of this, it’s really important to start this kind of build by determining how much soundproof padding you’re going to need and where you’re going to place it. You can pick up acoustical foam in a variety of configurations and sizes. Without getting too much into the intricate details, a simple rule of thumb is that more foam equals more soundproofing. Yes, you can buy super-fancy foam packs that are composed of multiple layers of various densities, but a single ordinary (albeit thick) density is fine.
Mounting the foam in my case was a relatively simple process. Next, I installed two 12cm fans into the chassis, using their included rubber fasteners rather than metal screws to adhere them to the case. The more I can cut down on unnecessary vibrations, the better.
You have to be careful, yet firm, when pulling the rubber fasteners through the fan and case. Too much pressure and you’ll rip the rubber fastener in two.
Although I intended to use some Yate Loon D12SM-12C fans, the 1,500rpm Silverstone fans that shipped with my chassis actually turned out to be a little quieter in an impromptu head-to-head contest. As always, the rear fan on the case was installed to push air out of the case, with the front fan sucking air in across the hard drive bays.
The Jing’s two fans pop off easily, which is good because you can’t install the cooler when they’re mounted.
I tossed in the system’s standard DVD burner to reward myself for my efforts thus far before tackling the elephant in the room: the aftermarket Thermaltake Jing CPU cooler that I picked up to replace the stock Intel cooler. Thoroughly describing how to install this particular add-on would require an article in itself. The short version is that it involved such enjoyable tasks as using two different cleaners to wipe thermal goop off the CPU; installing all sorts of screws, dividers, and other such accessories just to mount this behemoth of a cooler; and replacing one such mission-critical screw upon finding that it had snapped off within one of the mounting brackets. Thank [deity of your choice here] for spare parts.
Big and gaudy, just the way we like our CPU coolers.
Why go aftermarket, you ask? By slapping an ungodly large dual-fan cooler over the Intel Core i7-930 CPU, I believed I could achieve stronger cooling without having to crank the device’s fans to ear-splitting revolutions.
I slapped the cooler onto the CPU, then screwed the whole assemblage—motherboard and all—onto the chassis using the case’s built-in mounts. At this point, it appeared that I had reached the halfway point in our little adventure. The sweet silence of raw gaming power was in my grasp!
How to Install Acoustic Foam
Sticking a hunk of acoustic foam in one’s case is far easier than it might appear at first glance. Cut the foam to the desired length, remove the adhesive, and let ‘er rip.
Soundproofing foam, meet case door. Case door, meet soundproofing foam.
Now, where do you stick the material? Anywhere you’d like—provided you aren’t covering any active ventilation areas, like the cut-out holes used by a spinning fan. I stuck soundproofing foam to the top, bottom, sides, and front of my chassis. The more foam you use—or the thicker the material—the more you’ll be able to keep errant noise from escaping.
Simply peel back the adhesive backing on your foam to begin—careful, it’s sticky!
One caveat: Make sure you measure how much wiggle room you have to work with. Slap a full 2 inches of foam on the side panel of your case, for example, and you might not be able to actually get the panel on.
Gently apply foam to the case, ensuring that you don’t (accidentally) cover any ventilation holes or mounting bits.
I opted to try out some NoiseMagic No-Vibes III hard drive silencers for the rig, in the hopes that every little bit of sound-dampening available would allow the system to achieve top-notch results. Hard drive vibration, after all, can have an impact on the acoustic profile of a PC. However, I only ended up using the kit on one of the two hard drives—the 2TB Seagate Barracuda XT storage drive.
Though it looks like a futuristic torture device, the NoiseMagic No-Vibes III is really more like a hammock for your drive.
Why’s that? The other drive, a 600GB WD VelociRaptor, is a 2.5-inch device mounted on a 3.5-inch cooling bracket affectionately known as an IcePak. And the rubber-based drive tray that I used to stash it in my Silverstone PS05’s drive bay was more than adequate for preventing extraneous noise. Turning the drive on added nothing to the case’s overall noise.
Glorified rubber bands suspend your hard drive so it never touches metal. No metal-on-metal contact, no vibration. No vibes, no noise. Got it?
Also, using one of the NoiseMagic No-Vibes III drive silencers turned my 3.5-inch device into a 5.25-inch extravaganza. I’d much rather keep the system’s primary drive nice and cool in the proper drive bay area of the case—right in front of a fan—as opposed to the fanless 5.25-inch bay section.
…And Then The Fun Began
Using the same logic as I did for the CPU cooling, I opted to pick up Zalman’s aftermarket VF3000F cooler for the system’s Nvidia GTX 480 graphics card. A flashy heatsink coupled with two 92mm fans for cooling should, in theory, allow the card to hit lower temperatures and cut down on the GTX 480’s infamous noise production.
I’ll go over how one actually installs an aftermarket cooler in a moment. Just know that it is a far more difficult process than that of an aftermarket CPU cooler. With the GTX 480 in particular, it’s maddening. As other online forum posters have noted, Nvidia has really applied a ton of torque to the super-tiny screws it uses to connect the videocard’s proprietary heatsink to its circuit board, so much so that I completely stripped one of the screws when trying to remove it from the graphics card.
The worst thing about NZXT’s Sentry LXE is its medusa of cables and thermal probes.
What do you do in this kind of a situation? Cry. Because nothing short of drastic measures—including an attempt to superglue a screwdriver into the bored hole that was once a Phillips head—is going to get that screw out. In my case, I strapped on my +10 Goggles of Bravery, took a brief detour down to the hardware store a few minutes before it closed, and picked up a drill and a 1/16-inch bit. I bored a hole through the screw while visions of destroyed electronics and angry editors flashed through my head.
The new GPU cooler ended up working out just fine. I then attached the cable for its fans—and every other fan in the case—to my final, secret weapon: the NZXT Sentry LXE five-fan controller.
Yes, Virginia, that’s a touch-sensitive display. Control your fans with your fingers to totally customize your cooling.
The beauty of this device is twofold: It provides detailed precision over exactly how much juice the cooling devices receive and, more importantly, it does so via a wicked touch-screen panel that you can stash just about anywhere you’d like. With but the press of a finger, you can adjust your fans for any situation.
How to Install an Aftermarket GPU Cooler: Very Carefully
An aftermarket GPU cooler is exceedingly complicated to install, and you run the risk of bricking your card if you do it wrong. Here’s the gist: You unscrew the stock heatsink on the card via the super-tiny screws on the underside of the card. Take care not to bend or otherwise grip your card too tightly and, for the love of all things holy, be gentle—but forceful—when removing the tiny screws.
Note the sheer size difference between the card’s stock heatsink (far left) and our aftermarket cooler on the right. Goodbye, noise!
You’ll have to clean off the GPU (rubbing alcohol works great) and likely apply more thermal paste to it and to any of the other raised components that touch your new heatsink. You’ll also have a complicated series of washers, standoffs, and screws to fiddle with as you mount your new cooler in place—this varies based on the aftermarket cooler you’re using. No matter what, be careful: A videocard is a delicate object. Snap off or otherwise bump the wrong electronic element, and you’ll find yourself with a $300 coaster… or worse.
Taking a videocard down to its raw components—a circuit board and chip, in this case—is an extremely delicate process. You can easily brick a PC part.
So, How Did I Do?
Ultimately, my silent build was both a win and a loss. My work did indeed improve acoustical performance over my default Maximum PC test bed, which has stock coolers, no aftermarket accessories, and standard fans in an NZXT Panzerbox case. Using a Digital Sound Level Meter by Extech Instruments—which starts its measurements at 40 decibels—I clocked significantly higher sound readings from all measured portions of the Panzerbox chassis versus
my customized rig.
Extech’s 407727, which we found in the Lab, is a good sound-level meter, but it can’t match ultra-sensitive professional models, which cost about 40 times the price.
I also beat the results of the exact same system built in the soundproofed R3 case from Fractal Design, although not by quite as much as I had hoped, save for the hurricane of sound coming from the rear of the Fractal’s chassis.
Fractal’s R3 case is a crafted beauty, offering easy installation and preset soundproofing material for folks looking for a good off-the-shelf, silenced solution.
However, here’s the kicker: My system did not perform nearly as well against either rig in the recorded temperature tests. What I gained in acoustical excellence, I traded off in higher temperatures. This fact couldn’t have been made any clearer than when I ran an unofficial test to see if I could kick up the thermal performance of my hand-built rig. I cranked all of the system’s internal fans (save for the aftermarket GPU cooler) to maximum and my recorded temperatures still couldn’t match either my test bed or the Fractal R3–based system.
Sounding It Out
There are three key elements that you have to concern yourself with—above all others—when crafting a quiet PC: acoustic foam, fans, and the case itself. I think I did the best job possible with the foam, although I can appreciate the design of the pre-configured-for-silence Fractal R3. Because that case has a front door with side vents, air can be drawn in from the sides of the front panel while enabling the interior of the door to be fully covered with acoustic-damping foam.
Regardless, were I to do it again, I’d roll my own chassis in a heartbeat. However, next time I’ll select a chassis that allows me to use larger fans across all measured areas. A larger fan, after all, allows you to push more air at a lower speed, giving you the best of both worlds: less noise and increased cooling. I would also give myself more room for even thicker soundproofing foam where possible, to ensure the best possible trade-off of exposed space for cooling versus completely covered space for silence.
The noise levels of the aftermarket GPU and CPU coolers met my expectations. But I was surprised by the CPU cooler’s lack of, well, cooling. I wasn’t expecting a miracle, but I did have hopes that it would perform better than the stock cooler. I suspect a lack of external airflow into the case to be the primary culprit—with only one intake fan, the PS05 is hard pressed to provide the intake the Jing cooler needs. GPU temperatures weren’t recorded with the aftermarket GPU cooler, since we removed the onboard temperature sensor with the stock heatsink.
Just about any case can be quieted with the use of sound-damping materials and anti-vibration mounting—our Silverstone PS05 is quiet, but doesn’t look stuffy.
I would veer away from using special mounts for hard drives, preferring instead the simple rubber fasteners that give you some protection against vibration without forcing you to stash your hard drive in a different-size bay entirely. I’m not sure the trade-off of cooling loss versus potential acoustic savings was worth the effort or cost.
Overall, I’m pleased with my results. My system’s temperatures were a touch higher, but it’s a small price to pay for a stacked rig that purrs like a kitten when I fire it up. The NZXT fan controller single-handedly made this challenge a success, if for nothing else than allowing me to test cooling against acoustics on-the-fly. I highly recommend adding it to the top of your shopping list. The bottom line is that silence doesn’t come easy, and a truly noiseless PC doesn’t ever come cheap.
|Sound-Dampened PC||Fractal R3 PC||Stock PC|
|CPU Temp (idle)||47.25||39||36|
|CPU Temp (Max)||83.75||77.75||76.5|
|GPU Temp (idle)||No Reading||40||36|
|GPU Temp (max)||No Reading||92||85|
|HDD Temp (Barracuda)||37||26||24|
|HDD Temp (Raptor)||33||25||26|
All temperatures measured using HWMonitor. CPU temps measured after an hour of inactivity and an hour of full CPU load. GPU temps measured after two successive iterations of the Heaven benchmark at maximum settings. Acoustics measured using Extech 407727 SLM at 6 inches from center of panel. Min and max levels recorded; “low” indicates sub-40dB.
Never Built a PC Before?
Your case, motherboard, and cooler all come with useful instructions, but be sure to check out our most recent step-by-step guide at http://bit.ly/bldcreed.