Before you spend the rest of your budget on a graphics card, you might want to invest in the right heat sink for your CPU first.
But how much do you need to spend exactly? Can you afford both decent cooling and near-silence within your budget?
In this article, we list our top five heat sinks, along with the best budget option.
There are two main types of heat sinks: air coolers and liquid AIO coolers. Air coolers use gas heatpipes and fans to cool, whilst liquid AIO (all-in-one) coolers use a pump, liquid, and a radiator.
Air coolers are popular as they tend to be cheaper than liquid coolers.
However, they’re less efficient, as air is much less thermally conductive than liquid, and radiators make a more efficient cooling system.
In general, the larger the radiator or fans, the better the cooling performance. Some basic models have one fan, but most models have two or three.
Noise is also a major issue when it comes to coolers, as many users prefer a silent or near-silent PC experience, but fans can’t help but produce turbulence.
However, manufacturers have perfected quieter fan blades over the years. Some manufacturers, like be quiet!, prioritize silence over all else in their builds.
The more fans there are, the more likely it is to be noisy, so sometimes you have to sacrifice silence for power, though there are exceptions.
Image credit: Noctua
You can’t beat this much-loved heat sink from the incredible Noctua company for overall performance and value.
You might not have heard of Noctua, but they’re famous in the cooler world for being a small but extremely high caliber cooling manufacturer. All of their products are of a great quality few competitors can match.
In fact, Noctua was the first to produce a dual-tower heatsink, the NH-D14, and it was revolutionary at the time.
The NH-D15 is its successor, and their flagship product. Although it’s an air cooler, it performs in the same league as a decent liquid cooler, representing great value for money.
It makes some minor improvements on the NH-D14, such as bigger 150mm fans and better memory clearance and replacement.
These fans help buck the trend of air coolers being noisy, achieving near silence with giant whisper-quiet fans. Noise levels are just just 24.60dbA max.
Their fans are one of the best out there in terms of design, reaching fan speeds of up to 1500rpm and producing up to 140.2 m³ per hour of air flow. This is 25-30% better than the NH-D14.
It has a six heat pipe dual radiator design, and the aluminium fins are 10mm wider and spaced further apart than its predecessor.
It also comes with an incredible 6-year warranty, which is rare.
This does of course mean it’s rather bulky, pretty much the only downside we can see for this cooler.
The whole thing is 160x150x135mm and weighs 1.32kg.
It may not fit some PC builds, so it’s worth checking first.
The brown 80’s-looking color scheme may also not be for everyone, though some will find it refreshingly different.
It supports Intel LGA 775 – LGA 2066, and AMD AM2 – AM3+, FM1 – FM2+
Image credit: NZXT
This premium liquid cooler is armed with a redesigned pump and hefty 360mm radiator, and will tackle even the most heat-generating processors.
If you’re a gaming enthusiast looking to overclock the hell out of their CPU, this is the heat sink for you.
As long as you can stand the price and it’s compatible with your system, there’s no reason not to buy this top performer.
It supports Intel 1151 – 2066, and AMD TR4, AM2 – AM4, FM1-FM2+. So it even supports Threadripper processors, bringing the two giants together.
It provides not two but three Aer P fans. Even though they’re only 120mm, they can spin up to 2,800rpm.
It clocks just 53C at full fan speeds, over 2C cooler than the Corsair H150i Pro.
Overclocking also doesn’t cause the temperatures to sky-rocket.
Despite the three fans, it still achieves near silence, peaking at an incredible 32dBA. A few other competitors are slightly more silent at the highest fan speeds, but we’re not really talking about anything noticeable here.
The silent mode is particularly effective. Whilst it may increase temperatures by about 2-3C max, it means you won’t be able to hear a thing.
The pump face is attractively mirrored and lit with RGB. The RGB is really something else, with a trippy ring effect.
Their CAM dashboard is rather advanced and lets you look at system memory and storage, as well as the usual cooling and lighting.
Installation is also fairly easy.
Like the NH-D15, you get a top-level 6 year warranty.
It’s a beast, though, at 294 x 120 x 27mm, and weighing 1.28kg.
Image credit: Corsair
The Corsair H100i Pro is another much-lauded AIO favorite.
It’s one of the cheaper liquid heatsinks, since it’s only 240mm. However, cooling-wise it performs almost just as well as most 360mm models. This includes the top-end NZXT Kraken X72. Can you say value?
It’s also less bulky than most, measuring just 315 x 143 x 29mm. It weighs 1.98kg.
It looks great, almost the same as the popular H100 but sleeker with smaller radiator and slimmer tubes, and slightly more RGB.
The RGB lighting isn’t as in-your-face as other models, with the fans being completely non-RGB. Some may think this more sophisticated, and others dull.
The RGB and fans can be controlled through iCue software. Color can be used to indicate temperature, which is always handy.
We love the Zero RPM mode, meaning the fans don’t spin at low loads.
There’s a great 5-year warranty, which doesn’t quite match the NH-D15, but is still excellent.
It’s compatible with Intel 2011 – 2066, and AMD AM2 – AM4.
The only downside is noise levels peaking at 44dBA.
However, this is only at full loads. In this it falls behind the Kraken mammoth, but you are getting a much cheaper, smaller model.
And you can’t really blame it, with its smaller 120mm fans running at an incredibly fast 2400+rpm.
Temperatures are impressive, though, with max temps reaching an ice cold 61.5C at load.
It’s also easy to install, with decent cable and tubing lengths.
Overall a great all-round liquid option.
Image credit: Cooler Master
Another liquid heatsink, this is another one that punches above its weight, or should we say size. It’s a 240mm model, but with a similar cooling performance to the much larger Raijintek Orcus 360, a 360mm model with 3 fans.
It also beats the NZXT Kraken M22 and Dark Rock Pro 4 in terms of cooling at 100% load, which is staggering.
The ML240R comes with a large pump and 2 120mm fans with 9 transparent blades. These go up to 2000 rpm according to the manufacturer, but can actually go higher in practice.
However, in terms of noise the M22 is quieter (and of course the be quiet! model is too). But noise levels are still only 35dbA at 100% load, which is considered less than silent. Minimum levels are just 6dBA.
Overclock it, though, and it will pass the 40dbA mark, and will be noisier than a lot of models.
This model has been superseded by the Cooler Master MasterLiquid ML240P, but the actual performance gains aren’t worth the price in our opinion.
Although it’s not going to win any awards for top dog, this is all the power you need for cooling a decent CPU, at a great price.
Many approve of the design, with an all-black sleek look and large, RGB-filled pump. The RGB lights can be controlled by a handy LED controller.
The size is another plus, measuring just 275 x 118.5 x 27 mm. It should fit in most modern cases. It’s easy to install, though there is a fair amount of cabling to deal with.
At 1.237kg, it’s not the lightest, though.
It’s compatible with Intel LGA 775 – LGA 2066, and AMD AM2 – AM4, FM1 – FM2+.
Unfortunately, it only comes with a 2 year warranty.
Image credit: Cooler Master
This is a perfect mid-range air cooler option that’s still powerful enough for a lot of gamers looking to push slight to moderate overclocks.
It’s a sleek-looking black single-tower. Two transparent 120mm Air Balance fans running up to a speedy 1800rpm, along with 57 fins, make it a steady performer.
The four copper heatpipes bend in a U-shape to make direct contact with your CPU.
It’s compatible with Intel 7115x, 1366, 2011x, 2066, and AMD AM2 – AM4, FM1 – FM2+.
It’s smaller than the other air coolers beasts on our list, measuring 158.8 x 132.4 x 58.2mm, so it’s more likely to be compatible with most builds.
The RBG lighting is very full-on, stunning if you like some bling. The LEDs are around the fin stack, rather on the fans, aswell on the side and top of the model.
It’s addressable, and as a nice trick it can take temperature readings via the RGB lighting, and change color to alert you to changes (blue for cool, red for too hot).
At this price and that fan speed, you can’t expect near silence. Noise levels weren’t bad at normal speeds though, but are definitely louder than most at high loads, reaching 36.6dBA at load.
Temperatures reached 73.8C at 50% speed, but only 65.8C at 100% speed, which is much better.
It’s a bit of a pain to install, with a slightly over-complicated mounting system. Lining up the screws on the mounting bar with the holes is fiddly.
Image credit: Cooler Master
The Cooler Master Hyper 212 Evo was always one of the most popular budget air heat sinks, and for good reason.
For the money, this series generally outperforms all the competition.
The new RGB Black Edition is a welcome release in the latest of minor updates, with a sleek black look and now RGB lights.
A brushed aluminium top plate on top of the cooling towers is a nice touch.
It’s generally well-designed, still boasting a quad-pipe heat design with Direct Contact Technology and stacked fins.
The translucent fan is an improved 9-blade 120mm which spins up to 2000rpm.
It’s fully compatible with all the usual Intel and AMD sockets (except Threadripper, of course).
It’s small and light, with dimensions of 120 x 79.6 x 158.8 mm, and weighing just 0.59kg, and installation is straight-forward.
An extra fan bracket is also included, so you can configure it to be push/pull if you wish.
Temperatures were 70.7C at load, not the coolest but nothing to worry about.
At this bargain price it’s obviously not going to be the quietest of coolers, and at full fan speeds there’s no getting around that it’s rather noisy.
However, at 50% or less it’s great because of the single fan. This means it’s actually quieter in some cases than it’s mid-range cousin, the Cooler Master Masterair MA410M, reaching just 27.7dBA over the MA410M’s 36.6dBA!
It comes with a 2-year warranty, perfectly acceptable in this price bracket.
The big question is can you get away with using this? It’s suitable for most mainstream builds, but won’t be able to do battle with top chips like the Ryzen 9 series, or Core i9s.
It’s great if you want to get a little better performance than your stock cooler, or if your chip doesn’t come with a cooler at all.