Lian Li projects a certain image: Classy, sexy, and very expensive. Quiet doesn’t come to mind, but Lian Li seems to be trying: The PC-101 is billed as a “Classical Silent” case. What does that mean? We’re always skeptical that an aluminum case can be made quiet… but this time, we are pleasantly surprised.
July 7, 2006 by Devon
| Lian Li PC-101B
"Classical Silent" Mid-Tower Case
Li Industrial Co., Ltd.
Lian Li’s US distributor
Lian Li specializes in high end aluminum computer cases, and they have a reputation for being
good at what they do. SPCR posted a reader review of the
Lian Li PC-V2000 two years ago, but we’ve never actually tested any Lian Li cases in the SPCR lab until the smaple at hand, a PC-101, which Lian
Li bills as one of their "Classical Silent" chassis’.
Like most Lian Li cases, the PC-101 is made of thick aluminum. That makes for
a very light case, but it also provokes the issue of resonance. The light weight
of the material means that it transmits vibration quite easily, and such vibration
is often audible. Nevertheless, we’re interested to see what Lian Li’s engineers
have come up with to address the problem. Have they made an effort to fix it,
or is the PC-101 silent in name only?
"Design to be Cool!": Be an engineer — all the cool kids
are doing it.
Appearance is one of the things Lian Li is best known for. The PC-101 is no exception; it’s designed
with great attention to detail, somewhat like an expensive automobile. It’s even available in multiple colors; black with aluminum
trim or aluminum with black trim — your choice.
Personally, I think it looks like… a fridge.
SPECIFICATIONS: Lian Li PC-101
5 x 5.25" external bays
6 x 3.5" internal bays (removable HDD brackets)
|3 x 12 cm ball
– patented removable cooling kit
– CPU air duct for 12cm fan
– Air Duct for PSU fan
|ATX & pentium
4 (max size: 12"x9.6")
| 2 x USB 2.0
1 x IEEE 1394 x 1;
1 x MIC
1 x EAR
| 210 x 460 x
490mm (W x H x D)
Weight (Net / Gross)
|9.2kg / 10.6kg|
DESIGN AND LAYOUT
By height, the PC-101 is classified as a Mid-tower case, but it’s a very big
mid-tower. The extra space is in the depth; the case is actually deeper than
it is tall. It should fit under a full-sized desk, but it will probably be a
tight fit wherever it is placed.
The extra depth is worth mentioning because a little extra space for airflow
is needed behind and to the right of the case. The intake vent for the main
chamber is located on the back of the chassis, and the main exhaust on
the right panel. This is important: It means that case cannot be placed flush
against the right wall of the desk, as it would be a typical computer desk.
The mesh on the front panel is an intake for cooling the hard drives.
Note the vent on the right panel; this is the main exhaust.
An inverted ATX layout positions the power supply at the bottom and the motherboard
on the left panel.
Although the PC-101 is ATX compatible, Lian Li has tinkered with the classical
ATX layout by inverting it. We’ve seen this done before in the PC-V2000,
and also in Silverstone’s TJ-06,
although every implementation seems to be a bit different. Like the Lian Li V2000 and unlike the TJ-06, the location of the power supply vis-a-vis the motherboard is conventional; it is on the side closest to the CPU, not the PCI slots. This means the PSU is at the bottom, and the cables that connect to the motherboard do not need to be any longer than normal.
Inverting the motherboard
means that the CPU is now located underneath the expansion cards, which
means that it no longer has to deal with heat rising off of a power hungry graphics
card or two. In addition, the heat producing components on the expansion cards face up, which means that
heat will not be trapped underneath them.
The centrally located fan is an intake that blows fresh air directly
over the CPU socket.
The fan grill uses the same wire mesh found on many speakers, and is quite restrictive.
A thoroughly unusual airflow design has obviously been built around the inverted layout, which
throws the traditional ATX case airflow scheme out the window. For starters, the power supply
no longer plays any role in cooling; it is isolated from the main components
in a separate chamber, much like the PSU chamber in the
Antec P180. The power supply itself is not inverted; if a model with a bottom
mounted fan is used, it is still mounted so that the fan ends up on the bottom.
The power supply is raised above the floor of the case to accommodate this.
Although there is a fan in the traditional position behind the CPU socket,
the fan is designed to blow into the case, providing the CPU with cooler outside air.
Tower heatsinks that are designed to blow towards the back of the case need
to be reversed for use in the PC-101.
The exhaust vent is larger than the exhaust fan, and is quite unrestrictive.
Hot air is exhausted through a large vent in the right panel that is located
directly over the expansion slots. The vent is larger than the 120mm exhaust
fan, and the position of the fan can be adjusted as needed. The fan is set back
into the chassis so that it is closer to the expansion cards. The airflow is
meant to pass between them, not above them. A small duct ensures that hot exhaust
air does not get recirculated before it leaves the chassis.
I/O ports are located on the top of the case.
The front I/O ports are located on the top of the case, inset a couple
of centimeters from the front bezel. This is meant to make the ports accessible
without needing to bend down to find them, but it also means that the top of
the case needs to be accessible — a low hanging desk drawer could require
the case to be pulled out of the desk for the ports to be usable. Of course,
with the extended depth of the case, this may already be necessary.
The top bay has a stealthed cover so your drive doesn’t interrupt the silky
blackness of the fascia.
Stealthed faceplates are provided for a floppy drive and a single optical bay.
This is fortunate, since it is very difficult to match any drive to the anodized
black or aluminum finish of the front bezel. Additional
faceplates can be purchased from Lian Li. A
memory card reader is also available in black or aluminum finishes.
This intake is very restricted, especially when the front door is closed.
At the bottom of the bezel is an intake vent that is supposed to provide
outside air to the drive chamber. However, this vent is so constricted that it
is unlikely to be effective. With the door closed, the only way for air to reach
the fan is through tiny air holes that run the sides of the door. Then, the
air must pass through a highly restrictive vent cover and a filter before it
reaches the drives.
A ball-bearing latch holds the door securely closed.
Note the line of tiny air holes down the side of the door.
The door feels substantial, made from 2mm thick aluminum, and it opens and shuts
smoothly. The door is held shut by a ball-bearing
latch like those found in high-end cabinetry. It is details like these that
makes people willing to pay extra for a Lian Li case.
The side panels are held on by a single spring-loaded thumbscrew.
The photo below illustrates how the system works. This is the same system found
of the PC-V2000, and doubtless many other Lian Li cases as well. A steel hasp
allows a padlock to be attached to prevent unwanted access in public places.
Our feelings about the quick release system were mixed.
Unscrewing the thumbscrew was the easy part. Once the panel was free, however,
it still needed to be lifted up and out of the guide track at the bottom of
the case. The panel was often quite stiff, and removing it sometimes required
a little force. This led to the occasional skinned knuckle, as our fingers got
caught between the panel and the top of the case. Putting the panel back had
its own challenges; aligning the panel properly often took a couple of tries
before it would slide into place. The system is probably an improvement
over basic screws but maybe it is over-engineered;
a latch like the one on the
Antec Sonata would have been easier and just as secure.
The panels themselves were like the door: Surprisingly heavy and
sturdy for aluminum. Lian Li does not specify the thickness of the material
used (they specify very little it seems), but it appears to be about 2mm thick, like the door.
Thanks to the thick material, the panels felt as rigid as any steel panels we
Unfortunately, the quick release system did not hold the panel
as tightly as it could have. Rapping on the panels with our knuckles produced
an audible rattle, and there was a small amount of give that allowed the panels
to move against the frame.
A single thumbscrew on a spring secures the side panel for easy removal.
At a cursory glance, the PC-101 resembles the Antec P180: A chamber at the
bottom isolates the power supply and drives from the rest of the system, and
the motherboard tray is blocked by paraphernalia extending from the back panel.
The paraphernalia consists of the exhaust fan and its mounting system, and an
airflow guide to ensure that as much air as possible passes over the CPU. Both
of these must be removed before a motherboard can be installed. Fortunately,
removal is fairly painless, as both are held on with thumbscrews.
The bottom chamber is important for noise: Isolating the power supply from
the main sources of heat in the system ensures that it doesn’t heat up as quickly,
which means that the PSU’s internal fan can spin more slowly. The isolation
is not as complete as in the P180: A large hole between the two chambers is
bound to let some hot air into the lower chamber.
Drives and the power supply are separated from the main chamber by a metal
The motherboard tray cannot be removed, but is open enough that it doesn’t
need to be.
Unlike many Lian Li cases, the motherboard tray is riveted in place and cannot
be removed for separate installation. This is not a problem, as there is
ample space to work, and cable routing cannot be done with the motherboard outside
the case anyway. (We did have one gripe with the motherboard tray: None of the holes for motherboard
standoffs were marked, leaving us to guess and test which standoffs needed to
be installed for our motherboard.)
There’s plenty of airflow through the drive bays.
Airflow through the bottom chamber is fairly unrestricted, and the drive bays
can be removed if they are not needed (perhaps because a suspension system is
used, or to accommodate a water-cooling system). However, as mentioned, the
actual intake is quite restrictive, and a high pressure (read: noisy) fan is
likely to be needed to provide adequate airflow.
The fan in the lower chamber is held on by the same spring-loaded thumbscrews
as are used on the side panels.
There are three identical 120mm fans, all of which bear the Lian Li name with
no indication of the original manufacturer. They are each rated for 0.27A,
which suggests they are medium or low speed. Lian Li’s spec sheet identifies
them as ball bearing fans.
The fans are Lian Li branded.
The fans have standard three-pin plugs that are compatible with most motherboards.
Two of them also come with Molex adapters that will feed the fans 12V.
Two of the fans come with Molex adapters.
Although the fans themselves are identical, they are all mounted in different
ways, so it is worth looking at each individually. The intake fan is screwed
directly to the chassis A bracket for the airflow guide is screwed to the fan.
The guide itself can be tilted in and out to accommodate CPU coolers of different
The airflow guide is attached to the fan itself, and can be removed by
undoing the thumbscrews.
Although the exhaust fan blows out the side vent, it is mounted on an assembly
that hangs off the back panel. Lian Li calls the assembly a "patent removable
cooling kit", which implies that they intend to sue anyone else who
makes a case with a removable (and adjustable) fan without paying them a royalty. Whether it’s original enough to justify the patent, it’s certainly unusual.
The assembly allows the position of the fan to be adjusted forwards and backwards
Here it is, the "Patent Removable Cooling Kit".
The fan has about two inches of room for adjustment, and is secured to the
frame using thumbscrews.
The frame of the assembly is attached with thumbscrews, which is fortunate,
since it needs to be removed to install the motherboard. The frame is damped
with dense foam pads that are meant to help prevent vibration from being transferred
to the frame of the case. The foam is not especially soft, and does not look
especially effective, but every little bit helps.
Dense foam pads reduce the vibration transferred to the case.
Moving down to the front intake fan, similar pads are used to decouple the fan assembly
from the front bezel. These pads are thinner than the ones used for the exhaust
assembly, and look even less effective. Luckily, the fan itself is mounted with
soft silicone grommets that do a good job of decoupling the fan from the aluminum
frame. These grommets alone should make the bottom fan the best damped fan in
The front fan gets silicone grommets.
The fan is mounted on an aluminum bracket that attaches to the case using the
same spring-loaded thumbscrews used to attach the side panels. The bracket also
supports a thick air filter.
Fan and filter, side by side.
The filter in place.
Motherboard and Cable Routing
With the exception of the unlabeled holes for the standoffs, installation of the
motherboard went smoothly. The exhaust fan assembly and the airflow guide
were not hard to remove or replace, and the extended depth of the case made it easy to
maneuver the board into place.
Drive cables pass through this hole.
The hardest part was cable management. Except for a small hole between the
two chambers for SATA cables, all of the cables had to be routed through an
awkwardly positioned hole directly below the CPU heatsink. The main problem
is that the hole is several inches over the motherboard, meaning that cables
could not be routed flat against the motherboard tray. Instead, they hung awkwardly
in the air, cluttering the area behind the CPU heatsink.
Limited clearance between the edge of the motherboard and the bottom of the
Installing the power supply was straightforward. The power supply
was screwed onto a mounting plate, then loaded into the case and secured with
thumbscrews. Next, an airflow guide that directs the exhaust airflow away from
the intake fan was clipped on. Simple as that.
The mounting plate eases installation, and allows an airflow guide to be
Once again, the most difficult part was routing the cables. There is only about
an inch of clearance around the power supply, and once again, the cables could
not be routed against the bottom of the case. Instead, they had to be folded
sharply across the inner face of the power supply. This would place the cables
immediately in front of the intake vents if an 80mm power supply was used. With
our Seasonic S12-330, they merely blocked off one of the minor vents. There
was very little room for spare cables; we ended up stuffing them in the empty
drive by next door.
Very little clearance around the power supply.
We ended up using the empty drive bay to store spare cables,
but things would have been more difficult if the bay had been needed.
Installation of the hard drives is just as streamlined. Four special screws
are attached to the drive outside the case. Then the drive is slid into one
of the bays two tabs a flicked down to secure it in place. No troubles trying
to align screw holes or fitting the drive into a tight drive bay. The whole
installation took less than a minute.
Special screws allow drives to fit the pre-installed drive rails.
The drive slides into place, and is secured with this tab.
Simple as it is, the drive mounting system is not without drawbacks. There
is no direct metal-to-metal contact, which means that the drives do not benefit
from any conduction cooling. The front fan will almost certainly be necessary
to ensure adequate drive cooling. We would have liked to see some kind of damping
to reduce vibration noise from the drive. As it is, the drives are completely
hard-mounted, and high vibration drives are quite likely to contribute to system
THERMAL & ACOUSTIC TESTING
Thermals and noise comprise the core of most SPCR equipment reviews. Several
system variants were installed and tested in the Lian Li PC-101. The base components
are listed below. They are the same components used in our recent review of
the Zalman HD160 home theater case, so that case will be used as a point of
DFI RS482 Infinity MicroATX motherboard
This new ATI Radeon Express 200 chipset model from DFI has the most flexible and user-adjustable BIOS we’ve seen on any microATX board, comparable to the best of the full-ATX boards. It allows the CPU core voltage to be manually set without disengaging Cool’n’Quiet, which simply applies the manual voltage adjustment to the various CPU power states. It allowed the X2 4800+ to be undervolted by 0.1V throughout the testing, for very modest power consumption in every load. It has no fans.
AMD Athlon 64 X2 4800+
Not long ago, this was AMD’s current second fastest desktop processor, one
small step down from the flagship FX-60. This dual-core sample
has a rated TDP of 85W. Previous testing showed it easily undervolts by 0.1V
or more, with resulting power draw at full load of just ~60W at the 2x12V
OCZ Technology Gold PC4000 2 x 512MB DDR matched dual channel memory.
Samsung SP2504C 250GB SATA 3.5″ hard drive
A quiet 3.5″ desktop reference. It measures 21~22 dBA@1m.
Seasonic S12-330 PSU, new sleeved version
A very quiet 120mm fan power supply.
Other components included:
A heavy duty heatsink for a hot processor, this is an effective cooler even
undervolted to 5V. It measures 23 dBA@1m.
The system installed…
…and the case reassembled.
Windows XP Pro SP2 was installed and fully updated, and our usual gamut of software tools installed:
Ambient conditions were 24°C and 17 dBA.
The system was initially configured without the VGA card installed so that
the system could be as quiet as possible. The CPU, exhaust and front intake
fans were all undervolted to 5V, and the rear intake was left off entirely,
since the fan on the CPU heatsink looked like it might be enough. Then, various
combinations of hardware and fan configurations were tested to see how the case
responded to the various changes.
Various Lian Li PC-101 Configuration Results
CPUBurn Only: 39°C
CPUBurn Only: 39°C
With only the Zalman 9500 at 5V to cool it, the CPU was just barely within
its thermal limits. The system showed no sign of instability, but difficulties
in obtaining a stable measurement for the maximum CPU told us that it was
just on the edge of thermal runaway. Several times we recorded what we thought
was a stable temperature, only to look again a short time later to see that
the temperature had increased by a couple of degrees. The total system power
also increased as the processor heated up.
The system was quieter than we had expected. Despite
four fans running, the noise was kept to an acceptable growl with very little
of the characteristic aluminum ringing. Much of the noise came from the hard
drive in the form of a deep hum at 120 Hz. The fans themselves were quite
smooth and could not be identified individually.
Although the system never crashed, the CPU was clearly struggling for air in Configuration
so we decided to turn on the intake fan to see if we could do a better job
of cooling the processor. It made a difference; the load temperature was reduced
by 5°C to 54°C — an acceptable, if not optimal, level.
The additional fan had an adverse effect on system noise.
The perceived increase was louder than the 2 dBA@1m increase that we measured,
mainly because we could now hear the dreaded aluminum hum quite clearly. The
additional noise was a medium-frequency pure tone that was much more difficult
to tune out than the low growl from Configuration
For the third configuration, we added a graphics card of moderate power:
Our old standby, the AOpen Aeolus PCX6800GT-DVD256, this time modified with Zalman a
VF-900 VGA cooler at 5V. We also disabled the intake fan again, in hopes that
the processor’s position would prevent it from being affected by the additional
50W of heat. This is directly comparable to Configuration
#2 in our review of the Zalman HD160.
Once again, the processor toed the edge of its thermal tolerances, reaching
a toasty 61°C without crashing. That’s significantly higher than the HD160
achieved in the same test, but it is difficult to say how different it actually
is because the CPU temperature sensor was so sensitive. For the record, the ambient
temperature was also 2°C lower when the HD160 was tested.
Another sign of thermal stress was the instability of the power.
At full load, the peak power fluttered up and down by as much as 20W, making
it impossible to take an accurate measurement. This occurred only
when CPUBurn was running alone; when ATI Tool was thrown into the mix, the
power variances stopped, even though the total system power was higher. The cause
of the fluttering was unclear; perhaps the VRM modules that supply power to
the CPU were overheating. We are not confident that the system could have
sustained the heavy test load indefinitely. Eventually, we ended up doing
the test a second time, recording the peak power early on before it had a
chance to start fluttering.
GPU cooling was stellar, thanks mostly to the excellent VF-900 VGA cooler.
The peak temperature of 76°C was well below the maximum allowable temperature
for the card. However, it was also almost ten degrees higher than any temperature
was saw when we reviewed the
cooler — no doubt because it had to deal with the exhaust heat from
With only CPUBurn running, the system sounded more or less the same as Configuration
#1: A low growl that was quite inoffensive. The VF-900 was not a significant
factor in system noise. However, once ATI Tool had been running for a short
time, the fan in the power supply (a Seasonic S12-330) quickly sped up,
becoming the main source of noise in the system and bringing the measured
noise level up to 30 dBA@1m in the process.
The questionable cooling in Configuration #3 meant that we had to
turn on the intake fan again. Once again, this brought the CPU temperature
down to an acceptable level, but the noise had the same pure tone as was heard
in Configuration #2.
The most interesting result of turning on the fan was how it affected system
power. Power consumption under load dropped by about 5W, whether or not ATI
Tool was running. Even better, there was no sign of the fluttering power consumption
that was seen in the earlier test. This lends credence to the theory that
the VRMs were overheating, since the intake fan provides better cooling to
the VRMs than the heatsink does alone.
The last configuration that we tried was simply to turn off the front intake
fan. Throughout the testing, the hard drive temperature had been disappointingly
high for a drive with direct airflow, so we were a little apprehensive about
removing the fan, but we decided to do it anyway. Surprise! Turning off the
front fan had no effect on the temperature of the drive. The
noise measurement did not change either, and, although the noise character
lost a little bit of its fullness, the subjective difference was not large.
This suggests that, at 5V, the front fan did not generate enough pressure
to draw air through the numerous restrictions in front of it. In effect, it
was generating extra noise without helping cooling. This is disappointing,
since it means that a noisier fan is needed to push air through the drive
chamber. While our single drive was fine without airflow, a multiple drive
setup would almost certainly require it.
On the topic of drives, the hard-mounted drive was one of the worst offenders
from an acoustic point of view. Not only did the drive produce a significant
amount of noise from the vibration is passed to the chassis, but the seeks
were sharp and sounded like they were amplified by the case. Our SPL
data bears this out; we measured the P120 drive at 23~24 dBA@1m in free air
when we reviewed it. That
should have meant that that seeks would be barely audible in the PC-101, but
this was not the case. Instead, we measured the system noise at 30 dBA@1m
when the drive was in use. The MP3 recording below demonstrates how intrusive
the seek noise could be.
HOW TO LISTEN & COMPARE
These recordings were made
The one meter recording is
The one foot recording is
More details about how we
make these recordings can be found in our short article: Audio
Recording Methods Revised.
The Lian Li PC-101 is a decent starting place for a quiet computer. It
may well be the quietest aluminum case we’ve encountered thus far. Despite all our
reservations, we were impressed at how little effort it took to build a pretty
quiet system in it.
That’s not to say it’s not without its flaws. The rear intake fan would benefit
a lot from some form of soft-mounting. Given that both of the other two fans
are soft-mounted, it’s puzzling why Lian Li didn’t just do this themselves.
As we saw, that fan is necessary to get the most out of the case, even with
a CPU fan that is pulling in the right direction.
On the other hand, the processor we chose is a fairly hot one; it would have been
be much easier to keep things cool if we had not chosen one of AMD’s hottest
processors. It would have been better for the system as a whole,
since the VGA card(s) are in the path of the CPU heat exhaust.
The restrictions around the front intake were terrrible. This was the reason that slowing the
fan had no effect on the temperature of HDD. Removing the filter — which is the only one in the
system and therefore somewhat superfluous — would be a good first step to improving airflow in the lower chamber.
The hard-mounted drive cages are also less than ideal, though it is difficult
to fault Lian Li when such mounting is the norm. The drive cages
are easily removable, allowing a customized suspension of foam bed to be used.
In truth, these flaws are easily addressed, and are common to a great many
other cases. However, Lian Li’s high pricing may work against it.
For US$200 this case should be closer to perfection, not just workable. In a $100 case, a
few acoustic drawbacks are acceptable; after all, silencing is difficult to
achieve without careful optimizations and lots of experience.
The best part of the PC-101 are the details. Little things like thumbscrews
for everything, a clever drive mounting system, stealthed drive bays,
and a spring-loaded door latch. The thick aluminum panels and a sexy appearance
don’t hurt either. Bottom line is, if you’re looking for a case with noise as
your first requirement, one of Antec’s steel cases is a better place to start. On
the other hand, if you want to know whether it’s possible to build
a quiet system in a PC-101, the answer is a positive yes. For all our complaining,
we were still able to build a quiet system in the PC-101 without much effort.
This is the first aluminum case we’ve ever been able to say that about.
* * *
Articles of Related Interest
SilverStone Temjin TJ-06
SilverStone Temjin TJ-07
Zalman HD160 Home Theater PC Enclosure
A Reader’s Report: Lian-Li PC-V2000 Tower
Antec P180: The Whole Nine Yards
Cases: Basics and Recommendations
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