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Zalman HD160 Home Theater PC Enclosure

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The HD160 is Zalman’s first more-or-less conventional PC case, designed for a quiet, high performance HTPC. All-aluminum construction, front panel VFD display with MCE remote control, a prominent front panel volume control knob, and a fat price tag to match it all identifies the HD160’s high end aspirations. How high does it reach?

May 17, 2005 by Mike Chin

Product
HD160 Home Theater PC Enclosure
Manufacturer
Zalman Tech Co. Ltd.
MSRP
US$250~300

Zalman’s first entry into the growing HTPC case market is an unabashedly high end affair. The HD160 identifies its lofty sights with all-aluminum construction, front panel VFD display with MCE remote control, a prominent front panel volume control knob, and a fat price tag to match it all. That Zalman would aim high is no surprise; the company’s other cases are the no-holds-barred fanless TNN 500 and TNN 300 models, which we’ve reviewed. Unlike the "exoskeleton heatsink" TNN cases made by this silent computing pioneer, the Zalman HD160 is much more conventional, though it is still designed with low noise operation as a primary goal.

The HD160 comes in a retail merchandizing box. The case itself is packed with two closed-cell foam end caps for shock protection.


Packaged for retail merchandising.


The Zalman HD160 looks like a high end A/V component.

The all-aluminum case is available in natural brushed aluminum, as our sample was, or in anodized black. The unit is quite light, just 4.8 kg. No power supply is included, but there are several accessories.




Remote Control, Install CD, Optical Disk Cover, Batteries, ATX Power Cable Adapter, Other cables and screws, User’s Manual

The case is built close to the "4U" standard, standing 7" tall, and 6.25" without its feet. "U" refers to server rack mount sizing, 1U = 1.75". It doesn’t suffer much from the "too chunky" look. Some of the really ambitious cases such as the Lian Li PC-V880, or Thermaltake Tenor/Bach are over 4U height, which gives them the sumo wrestler look.


Published Zalman HD160 Specifications
Enclosure Dimensions 435mm X 420mm X 160mm (L*W*H)
Net Weight4.8kg
CPU TDPUp to 130W for Quiet Cooling
Construction Material All Aluminum
Motherboard CompatibilityATX & microATX
PSU SupportATX PSU
PCI/AGP Card SupportFull Size
Drive Bays 4 X 3.5" Internal Drive Bays
1 X 3.5" External Drive Bay
1 X 5.25" External Drive Bay
Cooling Components 2 X 80mm Rear Exhaust Fans
ZM-MC1 Multi Connector
Expansion Slots7 Slots
Front I/O Ports2 X USB Ports
1 X Firewire (1394) Ports
1 X MIC
1 X Headphone
Available ColorsSilver & Black
Card Reader17(sic) in 1

Among the key features listed for the Zalman HD160:


Key Features
of the Zalman HD160
Zalman’s StatementsOur Comments
All Aluminum Based Chassis – The entire chassis consists of aluminum unlike other enclosures that solely use aluminum for the front panel.

But is all-aluminum better? We don’t think so: Aluminum Myth.

Optimized Ventilation and CoolingGood.
Excellent Expandability – The 5.25" and 3.5" exposed bays along with the four 3.5” internal bays provide plenty of expansion room. The push-open door style front I/O panel houses two USB ports, 1394 port, MIC and headphone jacks.Good.
VFD & Remote Control – The VFD displays the PC’s operation status while the remote control provides convenient access to various media. Good.
Energy Conservation – The HD160 can be operated at minimum fan speed with Zalman’s silent cooling solutions, consuming less power than regular systems.Surely it’s only a watt or two!
User Friendly Components – USB 2.0 ports, 1394 , MIC, headphone and built-in flash memory reader supporting seventeen types of cards.
– Remote control for enabling multimedia software operation and control.
– Convenient volume knob.
OK.
PCI/AGP Card SupportFull Size
Drive Bays 4 X 3.5" Internal Drive Bays
1 X 3.5" External Drive Bay
1 X 5.25" External Drive Bay
Cooling Components 2 X 80mm Rear Exhaust Fans
ZM-MC1 Multi Connector
Expansion Slots7 Slots
Front I/O Ports2 X USB Ports
1 X Firewire (1394) Ports
1 X MIC
1 X Headphone
Available ColorsSilver & Black
Card Reader17 in 1

Zalman offers some performance data on their website to indicate the cooling capability of the HD160.
Their test system was a fairly minimalist config: Intel Pentium D 830 processor, an ATI X700Pro vidcard, and the standard complement of PSU, HDD, and optical. drive. A Zalman 9500CU cooled the CPU, and a
Zalman VF700
cooled the video card, both at 5V. The voltage of the exhaust fans is not shown, however, nor are any noise measurements given. The temperature results shown are
thus not that useful (and reporting the temperatures to a hundredth of a degree seems absurd given the inherent vagaries of temperature measurements.)


Zalman’s Own Test Results



CPU



VGA



System



PSU



Room


57.42°C

52.59°C

35.31°C

32.51°C

30°C

THE EXTERIOR

You’ve seen the front and left side of the case. Here’s a shot from the other angle.


The extensive i/o panel is hidden behind a drop down door.

Note the vents on right side, near the back. This is the intake vent for the PSU. There is a top vent as well, and it can be seen better in the photos below.

The two back panel 80mm exhaust fans are mounted with the usual screws and large rubber grommets; the latter look substantial enough (and not too compressed) to have some effect in reducing fan vibration transfer into the case.


Only the two 80 fans are exhausts —
all other vents in the case are meant to be intakes.

The top vent is directly over the CPU area. It can be closed or open, or set to any position in between as shown in the animated GIF below. A small coin or slot screwdriver can be used to make this adjustment. This vent is in line with Intel’s recommendations for a fresh air vent for their TAC (Thermally Advantaged Case) specification, but the HD160 lacks the additional vent for VGA cooling that TAC also specifies. Probably because it’s adjustable, the vent does rattle a bit when the top panel is tapped.


Top intake vent is adjustable.


Almost ubiquitous stylized feet, with a rubber insert in the center.

The bottom panel has two intake vents, one at the front directly beneath the hard drive cage, and the other just in front of the PSU area.


The top of the photo is the front of the case.

THE INTERIOR

The top panel is secured with five machined screws, two on each side and one on the back. A gasket runs across the perimeter, presumably to help reduce vibration conduction. The underside of the top panel vent has two screws which can be tightened to keep the its action from being too sloppy. As mentioned earlier, the vent rattles a bit when the top panel is tapped.


The top is a flat panel secured by five machined screws. Note damping gasket along its perimeter.
The white box
holds accessories, screws, etc.

The photo below shows the optical drive bay, which is atop the front panel I/O block. Directly behind that is a series of slots which are close to the PSU area. To the right is the back of the VFD and hard drive cage, with intake vents below the cage.


Left slot leads to PSU chamber, below the CD drive tray; right slot goes to motherboard chamber.


PSU mounting area.

A standard ATX12V power supply is meant to be mounted sideways in the back right corner of the case. The rubber-cushioned tab in the center of the photo above is used to jam it up against the right side panel. The PSU is mounted on a separate plate first, which allows it to be mounted to the case. That is the procedure; the PSU cannot be mounted without removing the plate from the case and attaching it first on the PSU.

There are several PSU installation options:

1. A 120mm fan intake PSU, with the fan facing either direction.

A. With the intake fan facing the side vent, you’d have a completely self-contained cooling system for the power supply, like in the Antec NSK2400 or Antec P180 cases.

B. With the intake fan facing the interior of the case, the increased airflow from the PSU fan maye help to cool components, especially the CPU. The expense would be higher temperatures within the PSU itself and a risk of the PSU fan ramping up in speed at a lower load than with option A. The side vent then becomes blocked and useless. The vents on the bottom just ahead of the PSU become the closest fresh air intake for the PSU.

2. An 80mm fan PSU can also be used. In this case, the bottom vents visible in the photo above become the fresh air intake for the PSU, but some of the heat in the case may also exhaust through the PSU. Again, there is a risk of the PSU fan ramping up in speed at a lower power load than with option 1.A.

Here’s a drawing from Zalman that illustrates the target airflow design for the case.


The arrow from the front refer to vents on the bottom of the case under the HDD cage.
The arrow that seems to originate from the optical drive area refers to the bottom vent in front of the PSU.
The role of the top panel opening is not illustrated here.

HDD CAGE DETAILS

The hard drive cage looks simple enough, but it’s actually a bit of a pain to work with.


The HDD cage is a bit awkward to work with.

It’s in two parts: A U-shaped part that screws over a base. Fours screws on opposite sides attach the two parts together. The other two sides of the base have holes through which screws attach the cage to the bottom of the case. You might be able to see in the photos that the base has two pads and a pin through each pad to simply hold the bottom edge of the drive in place. Two screws through the top secure the drive. Three drives can be accommodated, with very tight spacing between them.


The metal tabs and the pins both make contact with the HDD.
The cage mounting hole on the far side becomes covered when the HDD is installed.

The bottom pads and the top rubber grommets are meant to mechanically decouple the drive from the cage, but there are problems with this arrangement.

  • The little tabs for each drive make contact with the drive, hence "short-circuiting" the soft bushings.
  • There’s still metal-to metal contact between the pins at the bottom and the HDD.

The manual suggests removing the entire cage, mounting the drives, then screwing the cage back in place. What it doesn’t tell you is that if a drive is mounted in either of the two edge positions, a screw to attach the cage becomes blocked. You can’t secure the cage at all. It also doesn’t tell you that you need a fairly long shaft (~6"), magnetic Philips head screw driver to access the cage mounting screws.


Base part of HDD cage.

The only ways to make this work is to use just one hard drive and mount it in the center position, or to leave the base in place, removing only the top U-shaped part to mount the drives. It’s fiddly, but it is doable.

VFD POWER

Another potential problem with the HDD cage is that it blocks access to the terminals on the VFD to power it up. The photo below shows the location of this pair of pins; the HDD cage needs to be removed completely to fit the VFD power connector.


Access to VFD power connection requires removal of HDD cage.

Another related issue is where the VFD feed voltage comes from. Remember the ATX Power Cable Adapter pictured on the first page? Well, it’s simply an ATX cable extender with a single pair of breakout leads. The output voltage is 5V, and it comes from the 5VSB (5V stand-by) line, as shown in the photo below. We’re not thrilled with this arrangement, as the extra contacts may cause some voltage drop by the time the juice gets to the motherboard. Users of many modern PSUs that have just 2A capacity on the 5VSB line might be wise exercise a bit of caution about overdrawing from that line (with lots of USB devices, for example).


ATX breakout lead to power the VFD.

OPTICAL DRIVE BAY

The trouble with mounting continues with the optical drive. You might be able to spot the problem just by examining the photo below: The optical drive cannot be adjusted for correct positioning at the front panel while it is actually in place. There is no way to access the screws that lock the optical drive down. The best way to deal with this is to install all four screws for the optical drive loosely. Put the cage in place, and position the drive. Tighten the two screws you have access to. Then you can take the cage out, tighten the other two screws, and reinstall. You need to remove the cage once, but once is all that is necessary.

There’s also an additional HDD mounting bay at the top of the optical drive cage. It is equipped with the same rubber grommets as the ones at the top of the main HDD cage. However, given the absence of any airflow vents nearby, a hard drive in this location is likely to get very hot, and we would not recommend using this drive bay.


Optical drive bay and front panel I/O assembly.

The front of the optical drive bay needs to be worked on in order to match the brushed aluminum bezel. Zalman provides a machined brushed aluminum cover piece to replace the plastic one on the optical drive.


Looks nice when done, but the doing is not fun.

The front plastic lip of the disk tray on most optical drives can be removed without damage if you work carefully, but as they all differ a bit, you have to examine the drive and figure it out for yourself. Usually there’s a couple of clips or tabs that hold the lip in place. Once the piece is removed, then the aluminum cover piece can be placed. It’s backed with a strip of double sided tape. We ended up using another layer of double sided tape atop the existing one to make things work. The fact that all this has to be done while the front/back position of the optical drive is adjusted to align its front to that of the case makes things quite tedious. Again, it’s not impossible to do, but it is certainly very fiddly and annoying, even for those who have lots of experience assembling systems.

THERMAL & ACOUSTIC TESTING

Thermals and noise comprise the core of most SPCR equipment reviews. Several system variants were installed and tested in the Zalman HD160. The base components were:

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+ processor
AMD’s current second fastest desktop processor, one small step down from the flagship FX-60, this particular 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 motherboard socket. It is overkill for a HTPC, but we’re trying to push the envelope for thermal and noise testing in this new case.

OCZ Technology Gold PC4000 2 x 512MB DDR matched dual channel memory.

Samsung SP2504C 250GB SATA 3.5" hard drive
Our preferred quiet 3.5" desktop reference measures 21~22 dBA@1m.

Seasonic S12-330 PSU, new sleeved version
A very quiet 120mm fan power supply.

Other components included:

AOpen Aeolus PCX6800GT-DVD256 video card with Zalman VF900 VGA cooler at 5V. The SPL of this HSF at 5V measures 20 dBA@1m. It sounds a bit like a whispery rubbing of paper.

Zalman CNPS7700CU CPU heatsink modded with Nexus 120 fan
At a measured 21 dBA@1m (at 12V, which is where it was set throughout testing here), this modded HSF very quiet and offers decent performance.

Zalman CNPS9500 CPU HSF
The model used in Zalman own testing of this case, pretty quiet at 5V, and more effective cooling than the 7700.

The system assembly took some three hours, including fiddling time (to examine parts carefully) and the time needed to stop, plan out photos, take and check them, and so on. Even if photos were not being taken, it would have taken a couple hours to complete assembly. The installation of the drives and the PSU are all quite fiddly. Cable routing options are not great, even though a couple of adhesive-backed plastic cable hooks are provided. Most of the extra cabling was stuffed beneath the optical bay drive.


System with Zalman 9500 HSF in the HD160 case.


Bit of a cable mess around the HDD area.

Windows XP Pro SP2 was installed and fully updated, and our usual gamut of software tools installed:

  • SpeedFan
    4.27
    for CPU and other hardware monitoring.
  • CPUBurn for processor stress testing.
  • Rthdribl provides a steady high load to the GPU in a reduced window, allowing the nVidia GPU temperature gauge to be seen (on the monitor screen).

Other tools:

ACOUSTICS AROUND A MEDIA PC

Just a quick, relevant digression about the acoustic environment and desired functionality of the media PC. The way a media PC is used is substantially different than the average desktop PC. The most important differences are noted below.



Criteria



Media PC



Normal PC



Location


On equipment rack, near TV / stereo

On desktop next to monitor on on floor under / beside desk


Application


Play & record music and video, play games; usual PC functions
secondary.

Office, creative, engineering, scientific and communication
work; gaming and other entertainment functions usually secondary


User Position


Typically at least 2 meters away.

Typically not more than 1 meter


Overall Acoustics


Background, the PC noise, noise from other A/V equipment, conversation, and the music/soundtrack playing from TV/stereo speakers

Background + typing noise + noise generated by PC, perhaps background music

In a nutshell, the media PC is usually situated near the TV, which is usually at least six feet away from the seated viewers. The noise in the room includes whatever is being played through the speakers of the A/V system, plus any noise made by other audio/video gear. From first hand experience, we know that…

Many digital TV boxes and PVRs contain a noisy hard drive and fan(s). The HDD is usually on all the time, as long as the unit is plugged in. This means the noise is there all the time, whether you’re using the gear or not. There is no real care in ensuring low acoustics; we’ve measured nothing lower than 25 dBA@1m; it’s more typically closer to 30 dBA@1m or higher because the HDD is hard mounted to the chassis, and the chassis then makes whatever it’s sitting on resonate.

Many high end A/V receivers (and not so high end) contain a fan that runs almost all the time. This is usually not as intrusive as the HDD noise in the digital TV boxes and PVRs, but still measure at least 20 dBA@1m.

Almost all rear projection TVs require at least one cooling fan to be on constantly. The speed of this fan does usually vary with internal temperature, which naturally goes up the longer the TV is left on. The typical noise of these TVs (with the speakers muted) is around 30 dBA@1m.

30 dBA@1m is about the absolute minimum level needed for intelligibility of speech, given typical dynamics when the TV, movie or game sound is turned on. Typical levels are much higher, with peaks reaching ~60 dBA@1m, and averaging at least 40~45 dBA@1m. This depends a great deal on viewer / listener habits, hearing sensitivity, housing setup, etc. In general, sound levels for movies are much higher, likely 10~20 dBA higher for both average and peaks. This is also true of music listening: Most people prefer higher levels for better realism. Typical peaks from an A/V system playing music probably reach 80 dBA@1m, with the average being perhaps 10~15 dBA lower (depending on the type of music, of course.)

These are broad generalizations on the acoustic environment for a media PC. Suffice it to say that we believe the acoustic environment for a media PC will almost always be much louder than for other types of home PCs. Its noise will be masked by the sound from the speakers — at least until you hit the mute button, at which point the PC and other A/V equipment noise may become very audible.

If the HTPC is in a multfunction room, but you still want quick and instant access to its media functions, then it will have to stay on. Then the idle HTPC noise will be there for you to hear whenever you are in the room, whether you’re using the equipment or not. This is true for most systems even when the computer in standby mode.

TEST RESULTS

Ambient conditions in the 20′ x 10′ room were 20 dBA and 22°C throughout testing. Idle measurements were taken 5~15 minutes after boot or reboot, whenever none of the temperatures had changed for >5 minutes. Load measurements were taken after >20 minutes of full load.

Configuration #1 represents a fairly high performance system with an AMD X2 4800+ at its heart, one of the fastest dual-core desktop processors money can buy. The Asus 1600XT is one of the highest performance fanless video cards available.

DFI RS482 Infinity MicroATX motherboard
AMD Athlon 64 X2 4800+ processor
OCZ Technology Gold PC4000 2 x 512MB DDR matched dual channel memory
Asus Radeon EAX1600XT Silent/TVD/256M PCIe video card
Samsung SP2504C 250GB SATA 3.5" hard drive
Seasonic S12-330 PSU

Zalman 7700Cu heatsink modified w/ Nexus 120 fan, @12V


System Config #1


Load



AC



CPU



Board



Hard Drive



SPL



idle


75W

32°C

34°C

31°C

24 dBA@1m


CPUBurn x2


+ Rthdribl

187W

58°C

40°C

31°C

The overall noise of the system was quite modest, though far from inaudible. The stock 80mm exhaust fans on the back panel were surprisingly quiet, especially given our experience with previous Zalman fans, which were almost all judged too noisy with intrusive acoustic signatures.

The noise from the Samsung HDD was quite audible, especially in seek. The damping grommets and pads for the HDD did very little to lower the noise, which was both sharp and loud, somewhat amplified by the aluminum panels. In this aspect, the Zalman HD160 case was considerably more audible than the recently reviewed Antec NSK2400 case with virtually identical components (and a swap of the Antec stock fans for a quieter Scythe fan). The difference could be clearly attributed to the HDD noise, which was more subdued in the NSK2400.

The cooling was fine on all counts. The hard drive was very well cooled;
it ran >10°C lower than on the desktop in free air. The temperature
on the Seasonic S12-330 PSU was not monitored, but its exhaust never felt
more than moderately warm, and its fan never ramped up from default.

Configuration #2 was a still higher performance
system. Two components were swapped: The video card and the heatsink fan.
The AOpen Aeolus PCX6800GT-DVD256,
one of the workhorses around the SPCR lab, was outfitted with a Zalman
VF900 VGA cooler
run at 5V. The SPL of this HSF at 5V measures 20
dBA@1m. Zalman’s own CNPS9500 heatsink/fan,
with the fan run at 5V, took the place of the older 7700. It’s slightly noisier
than the modded 7700.


System Config #2


Load



AC



CPU



Board



Hard Drive



SPL



idle


89W

33°C

35°C

31°C

25 dBA@1m


CPUBurn x2


+ Rthdribl

208W

54°C

37°C

31°C

The measured noise hardly changed, but because the noise signatures of both the ZF900 GPU cooler fan and the 9500 CPU cooler fan are more obtrusive than that of the Nexus fan modified 7700 heatsink, our subjective reaction was that it seemed louder than the measurements indicated.

The change of video cards increased the overall power draw (and heat in the case) by about 20W at full load, but the CPU and board temperatures actually improved, due to the high cooling performance of the 9500 heatsink and its higher airflow.

Configuration #3 was a more serious attempt at minimizing noise, heat and power. We swapped out the CPU for an Athlon 64 3000+ and dispensed with the video card, opting to use the onboard ATI200 graphics, instead. We went back to the quieter modded Zalman 7700 heatsink/fan. We also swapped the Seasonic S12-330 for the recently reviewed picoPSU + 120W power brick.

  • AMD A64 3000+, Venice Rev. JH8-E3. TDP is 44.1W, and TCaseMax is 57°C
  • DFI RS482 motherboard
  • ATI 200 Onboard Video
  • OCZ PC4000 2 x 512MB DDR matched dual channel memory
  • Zalman 7700CU heatsink modded with a Nexus 120mm fan @ 12V
  • 2 x 80mm Zalman case fans @ 5V
  • Samsung Spinpoint P120 250GB hard drive
  • Samsung CD-RW drive

System Config #3


Load



AC



CPU



Board



Hard Drive



SPL



idle


39.5W

30°C

32°C

31°C

23 dBA@1m


CPUBurn x2


72.6W

45°C

36°C

31°C

Despite the dramatic reduction in power consumption, the only reduction in noise came from the elimination of the S12-330’s 120mm fan, which is pretty quiet anyway, so the actual noise reduction was modest. The acoustic "bottlenecks" here was the hard drive, followed by the two 80mm exhaust fans.

The Adjustable Top Panel Vent gave mixed results. All the results above were with the vent fully closed. Opening it up did not really change temperatures much. The changes were just 1~2°C. With the exhaust fans at 5V, there was not much intake impedance even with the top vent closed. Opening the top vent simply meant that less air was pulled in through other, more distant vents. This might increase HDD and VGA temperature a bit, but the CPU cooling didn’t really improve. Our assessment is that the top vent is worth playing around with, but unless you have a much hotter CPU than the one used in the test system, your results probably will not differ much from ours. Noise did not increase audibly with the vent open.

ANALYSIS

The cooling qualities of the HD160 case are good, roughly on par with that of the recently reviewed Antec NSK2400. The latter probably has a slight edge, especially at lower noise levels, given the much greater air-moving capacity of its dual 120mm fans compared to the Zalman’s 80mm fans. Regardless, the cooling capacity of the HD160 is better than the remainder of the other HTPC cases we’ve tested thus far, which admittedly is not an extensive list:

The thermal solution for the power supply is simple and effective, even though it’s really workable only with a 120mm fan PSU. As long as a decently efficient PSU with a quiet fan is used, there’s little risk of the power supply fan ramping up to become a major noise source. You must ensure a certain amount breathing room for the intake fan of the PSU on the right side, however; probably at inch is the minimum, and two inches are much better. As with all HTPC cases, fully enclosed A/V equipment cabinets are not recommended because some access to outside air is necessary for adequate cooling.

The cooling for the single drive in the main HDD cage was quite good. However, putting three drives in that position is probably unwise. The spacing between the drives is so tight that only the bottom edges of the drives would get any airflow, and the temperatures would go much higher than with one or two drives. If using two drives, you should leave the middle space empty.

Acoustically, the HD160 is a bit of a mixed bag. The stock 80mm fans are quite good at 5V, around 20 dBA@1m; we didn’t bother much with higher voltage settings, as there seemed to be plenty of airflow even at 5V. The fan measured 36 dBA@1m at 12V.

Like other aluminum chassis we’ve reviewed, there’s a tendency to higher levels of audible humming from the hard drive, due to the much lower density of aluminum compared to steel. A 7200 RPM hard drive’s primary harmonic is at 120Hz, and this is a frequency where many cases have internal cavity and panel resonances. The HD160 is no exception. The hard drive’s seek noise comes through loud and clear as a thrumming with considerable low frequency content. It is considerably sharper and more noticeable than with the Antec NSK2400, which has the benefit of better HDD damping and a denser, heavier steel chassis.

If the HDD could be better damped, much of the aluminum’s acoustic weakness could be overcome, but the HD160’s hard drive cage doesn’t allow much in the way of suspension options. It’s simply too small and too tight for better damping materials or mechanical decoupling techniques to be applied easily.

The third recording below, of the system booting up, gives you a pretty good idea of what the HDD noise sounds like.

MP3 Sound Recordings of Zalmn HD160 Test System Configurations

Zalman HD160 Test System Config 1 (24 dBA@1m)
Stock 80mm fans at 5V, Seasonic S12-330, Samsung HDD, Zalman 7700 HSF on 12V

Zalman HD160 Test System Config 2 (25 dBA@1m)
Stock 80mm fans at 5V, Seasonic S12-330, Samsung HDD, Zalman 7700 HSF on 12V, ZF900 HSF at 5V on 6800GT vidcard

Zalman HD160 Test System Config 1 during startup (24~29 dBA@1m) (689kb file)
Stock 80mm fans at 5V, Seasonic S12-330, Samsung HDD, Zalman 7700 HSF on 12V

Sound Recordings of Other Comparative Cases

Unfortunately, we have few recordings of cases, and even fewer of HTPC cases. Here’s a mix of cases in various configurations from past reviews.

Comparative: Antec
NSK2400 HTPC Case – Config 6 (21-22 dBA@1m)

One Scythe 120 fan at 6V, Seasonic S12-330 PSU, Samsung HDD, Zalman 7700 + Nexus 120 fan on 5V

Shuttle SD11G5 Pentium M SFF system at full load w/ notebook drive, single fan: 23 dBA@1m

Zalman TNN-300 w/Samsung P80 3.5" HDD: 23 dBA@1m

Antec P180 “Hot Potato” Config 4: 25 dBA/1m
Intel P4-3.8, AOpen 6800GT vidcard, WD Raptor HDD, Seasonic S12-430 w/ one TriCool fan on low.

HOW TO LISTEN & COMPARE

These recordings were made with a high
resolution studio quality digital recording system. The microphone was 3″ from
the edge of the fan frame at a 45° angle, facing the intake side of the fan to
avoid direct wind noise. The ambient noise during all recordings was 18 dBA or
lower.

To set the volume to a realistic level (similar to the original), try playing the Nexus 92 fan reference recording and setting the volume so that it is barely audible. Then don’t reset the volume and play the other sound files. Of course, tone controls or other effects should all be turned off or set to neutral. For full details on how to calibrate your sound system to get the most
valid listening comparison, please see the yellow text box entitled Listen to
the Fans
on page four of the article
SPCR’s Test / Sound Lab: A Short Tour.

FINAL THOUGHTS

The Zalman HP160 is a reasonably successful first try at a quiet, high performance HTPC case. The styling is quite nice, as is the basic build quality. The provided remote system works fine with Windows XP Pro, and it is MCE (Windows Media Center Edition) compatible. The volume control on the front panel was not tested; it works in MCE.


MCE remote works OK in Windows XP.

The cooling performance is quite good, roughly on par with the recently reviewed Antec NSK2400. It does have the advantage of accepting full ATX size motherboards, unlike the mATX limitation of the NSK2400. The 80mm fans that come as standard equipment are pretty quiet and probably blow enough air for most system at 5V. The supplied nifty adapter (4-pin Molex to dual 5V and 12V fan headers) makes it easy to get 5V for the fans from any power supply as well.

Ergnomic issues during assembly were annoying, but not impossible to overcome. The most niggly problems were encountered while mounting the optical drive, its faceplate, the hard drive and the VFD power cable. We expect better in an enthusiast case that’s priced as high as this one.

The lack of proper HDD damping is more significant. It basically means that unless you use a 2.5" laptop drive and suspend it with elastic in the HDD cage, the limit to how quiet you can make a system in the HD160 will always be the vibrations conducted so efficiently into the case by the hard drive(s). With the large top panel and the low density of aluminum, such vibration will result in increased audible noise.

We did experiment a bit with damping. Applying a firm hand (palm down) on the top of the case does help damp the noise a bit, but a lot of HDD-induced thrumming is still audible, which suggests that many other panels in the case are also vibrating in sympathy with the hard drive, not just the top panel. Still, 24~25 dBA@1m may be perfectly good enough for most users for a HTPC system, for reasons discussed earlier in the section Acoustics Around a Media PC on page 5.

For those who seek a full-featured HTPC case with an integrated MCE remote, support for full ATX motherboard, excellent cooling performance, decent acoustics, and the visual appeal of a brushed aluminum facia and panels, the Zalman HD160 certainly fits the bill. If your acoustic requirements are as stringent as ours, you could try some modifications — including external location of the OS drive by using eSATA, damping materials and so on — or keep waiting for that perfect HTPC case to materialize.

PROS

* Good airflow / thermal design
* Nice looks
* Built-in VFD with MCE remote control
* Quiet stock fans
* Front panel I/O w/ card reader

CONS

* Price
* Niggly assembly problems
* Poor HDD damping results in vibration noise

Much thanks to Zalman USA for the HD160 sample.

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Articles of Related Interest

Antec NSK2400 HTPC case
SilverStone LC-11 media PC case
D.Vine 5 HTPC Case by Ahanix

Zalman TNN-300 Fanless PC Enclosure System
Shuttle SD11G5: Pentium-M SFF PC
Hush ATX fanless PC
Cases: Basics & Recommendations

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