Introduction, Specifications, and Pricing
It seems since forever ago when we last saw a strong entry to the high-end CPU air cooler segment from Noctua, but today we are together to have a look at just that. Part of the fifth generation of the line, this latest cooler packs quite a bit of punch into a smaller package than many others need to accomplish similar results.
What we mean to say is that Noctua has increased the surface area of their fin stack, opted for more heat pipes, which enables this cooler to deliver the performance of a 140mm fan-cooled design, without all of the compatibility and clearance issues such coolers tend to have.
Immediately, when reading what the product page delivers, we think back to the D-14 and D-15 coolers, which at their time of release, were the flagship, must-have, cooler designs of the day. On top of that, when it came to air coolers, there was nothing on the planet that could keep up with them outside of liquid cooling options.
It has been a long time since we had such high hopes for a cooler design, where we are feeling that the company is taking all of the right steps to try to smash into the lead with CPU air cooling supremacy. Of course, we do not have to tell you that Noctua coolers are a tad expensive compared to many of the current offerings, but not once have we been let down previously to this, and we expect the same sort of satisfaction this time around as well.
As we take a look at and test the latest cooler to come from Noctua, we will see just how strong of a competitor the NH-U12A is, and whether or not the investment is justified. With stiff competition to the supremacy of air coolers already in place from the likes of Scythe with their budget-friendly designs as well as a multitude of AIOs at the top of the chart, the NH-U12A has a tough climb to the top. Stick with us as we get into the fine details and see if the newest of the Noctua family is the cooler you need to have on your CPU.
Moving into the specifications that Noctua offers on its product page, we see that the NH-U12A fits all sorts of sockets. On the Intel side, it fits LGA115X and LGA2011/2066, but with an additional kit of hardware, it can be made to fit other models as well. As for AMD, the FM sockets are covered as well as all of the AM sockets. Height of the tower is 158mm, its width is 125mm, and the depth of the cooler is only 55mm, but increases to 112mm with both fans attached.
The tower alone weighs in at 760 grams, but again, with fans and clips, the weight jumps to 1220 grams. What comprises this cooler are copper, used for the base and the seven heat pipes, aluminum for the fin array, with solder used for all of the joints, and nickel plating applied to the pipes and the base. As for the TDP, Noctua does not give a hard number, but rather a chart of all current CPUs with icons next to them showing compatibility and potential for overclocks.
Cooling this single-tower design is a pair of NF-A12x25 PWM fans, which are 120mm in size, and used in push/pull on the tower. These fans spin on an SSO2 bearing at speeds as high as 2000 RPM, with the minimum speed being 450 RPM. Airflow is rated at 102.1 cubic meters per hour, which translates to roughly 60 CFM per fan, and we also see the maximum noise level is said to be 22.6 dB(A). The last couple of things worth mentioning from the chart are the notation of the 150,000 hours of fan life, as well as the six-year warranty offered along with the NH-U12A.
As we type this review, we had a look to see if we can locate the NH-U12A in the wild. Even though locations are still a bit limited at this time, we were able to find it at Newegg. It is there that we see the $99.99 price point, which at first glance is a tad expensive. However, if you have ever held a Noctua cooler, you can instantly feel the robustness and professional-grade quality that is rarely there in any other CPU cooler design on the market.
You will have to pay up for the excellence that is Noctua, but we will have to wait for the thermal and audio results before we can assess value overall. At the same time, we do feel what you are about to see is well worthy of your time, as we see what Noctua can do in the more compact 120mm fan cooled product. It competes with much more expensive solutions already at the top of our charts, and the few similar designed coolers that we have raved about for a while now.
There is nothing atypical when it comes to the Noctua packaging. The front of the box sticks to the white, brown, and blue accent we are already used to. With the name of the cooler and a QR-code on the left, it leaves a lot of room for the large image of the base and the Noctua logo to the right. Printed over the image are eight key features of this design, delivering the customer a good sense of what is going on.
The next side of the box has a similar look, but the design has been reversed. This time we see specifications and scope of delivery in the brown section to the left, while the name of the cooler and dimensional renderings are on the right.
On the back, it is more of that same styling we have seen so far, but the brown area is now used for a bit of a back story on the NH-U12A, what it is cooled with, and what the idea was behind the design in the first place. The story is then repeated in seven other languages so that all of the Noctua markets can understand the concept.
The remaining side panel covers many a feature. Out of the ten features shown, things like 140mm performance from a 120mm cooler stands out, as does the full RAM compatibility, dual fans, soldered interfaces, awesome SecuFirm 2 hardware, and that if your CPU is not listed as compatible, Noctua can and will rectify that for free.
While the top of the box is nearly identical to the front panel, there is one thing that sticks out like a sore thumb. The metallic sticker that sits to the right of the features is new, and shows how proud Noctua is of the "140mm class performance in 120mm size."
We do see, in many instances, where internal packaging is more of an afterthought, but with a Noctua cooler, delivering you the cooler in the same terrific shape it left the factory in, is just as important. The cooler is resting in a box with multiple layers of cardboard around it to keep it from being crushed or dented. As for the hardware, it comes in the same partitioned box that we have seen over the last few years, making assembly that much easier on the user.
Noctua NH-U12A CPU Cooler
The front view of the NH-U12A is mainly of the maroon and tan 120mm fan and the unfinished industrial look of the exposed fan hub at the center of the nine blades. These fans have prominent rubber pads on all corners, which keep the fan from vibrating against the fins but also help isolate the fan clips as well.
From the factory, the fans are offset in height but are likely due to trying to improve on memory clearance behind the cooler for those with quad-channel memory systems. Between them is a stack of fifty aluminum fins, of which the ends have been bent over to trap all of the air flowing through the tower from escaping. Below the tower are a set of seven, nickel-plated, copper heat pipes, which seems like a lot for a single 120mm fan based cooler.
The back of the tower is also covered with a fan, a matching NF-A12x25 PWM fan to what we saw on the front. Below that fan, we can also see how the pipes are gently bent to make it through the base and into the fin array, and get a sense of the offset orientation as well.
As we look at the left side of the cooler, it is a mirror image of what was found on the other side. With little left to talk about visually, we will take this time to mention the braided cables coming from the fans as well as the ease of using the clips with the mounting groove very close to the leading and trailing edges of the fins.
The top of the NH-U12A takes all of the questions away from how the heat pipes are oriented inside of the fin stack. With three sets of two pipes following each other and a single pipe in the middle on either side, the staggered layout offers a good flow of air to all of the pipes, and with all soldered joints, heat transfer from the pipes to the fins is improved over pressed on fins.
Removing the fans allows us to have a look at the edge design of the fins. The fins start flat, then offer a skinny groove, before running into the three teeth before leveling out again. At either side, this can be seen, and in the middle, the fins curve inward to create a valley for building air pressure before flowing through the tower.
The top of the base of the cooler is made of a chunky block of aluminum, onto which the crossbar of the SecuFirm 2 mounting hardware is already attached. At either end of the bar is a screw which is spring-loaded, and is what adds all of the socket mounting pressure.
The seven heat pipes are also soldered between the aluminum top portion as well as this nickel-plated copper base. There are machine marks left in the contact area, and the base is intentionally convex to go along with the typically concave CPU IHS.
Accessories and Documentation
For those looking to use this cooler with an Intel processor, this is the kit you need. Across the top are the black plastic spacers that the top brackets rest on, the four nuts to secure the top brackets, and for those with LGA2011/2066 motherboards, there are four standoffs specific to those sockets. At the bottom are the pair of top brackets on either side of the LGA115X backplate, which sports washers around the posts to isolate it from the motherboard.
AMD users need a different bit of kit to get the cooler adequately installed. At the top are a couple of sets of spacers, the lighter ones for AM2/3 and FM sockets, while the darker set is specific to AM4. Along with the provided screws and the top brackets installed to the factory backplates, you are all set with this hardware to get the cooler attached.
The universal bits found in the hardware box are as follows. There is a full-size tube of NT-H1 paste suitable for many applications, a screwdriver to help with mounting the hardware as well as the cooler, and also a metal case badge. When it comes to the fans and connectivity, Noctua supplies not only a Y-splitter cable so that one motherboard fan header can power both fans, but they also include a pair of NA-RC14 low noise adapters which reduce the maximum voltage of the fans for even less noise.
While many manufacturers will throw together some instructions, which mainly consists of images and little text to go along, Noctua goes the other direction. Not only are the renderings easy to follow, but the text answers all questions. Going a step further, Noctua also separates the various types of installs into three manuals, reducing any confusion when it comes to getting the NH-U12A installed.
Installation and Finished Product
Since the backplate is all one piece, all we had to do was turn the motherboard over, align the studs with the holes, and ensure the notch of the backplate was at the bottom to clear the CPU retention mechanism screw. From here, we flip the motherboard right side up again and continue on.
After sliding the black risers over the studs, we made sure to install the top brackets on top of them with the bows outward. Once set into place, you take the four knurled nuts and secure the top brackets to the backplate. At this point, you should have a solid and secure hardware assembly with no movement.
To access the cooler mounting screws, you will need to remove the fans to access them. Alternate sides every three to five turns until the springs are fully compressed and the screw runs out of threads. Also be sure to apply paste under the cooler, as we did, but forgot to mention as the first part of this series of steps.
Now that the NH-U12A is installed on the motherboard, and we take a peek past the memory to see what it looks like, we are pleased to see the fan is sitting behind the RAM with no hassle. The cooler does indeed look compact like any other 120mm air cooled CPU tower, but hopefully, the performance is better than what one would assume this cooler could produce.
In front of the NH-U12A, we see that memory clearance, no matter how tall the heat spreaders may be, will not cause one single issue for mainstream motherboard users. For those using HEDT systems, Noctua does mention a potential issue behind the cooler but states there is 42mm of room there.
As we step back to have a look at the rest of the clearances, we have no issues with the motherboard screw access, but the depth of this design does start to infringe on the 8-pin connection, but it is not impossible to access. From this view, we can also see that RAM behind the cooler will have to ride under the fan, and is why the limitation is mentioned.
With the NH-U12A now mounted inside of the chassis, we always have, and still, do like the industrial look of the Noctua coolers. While many complain about the color combination, not one person does not know who made it at a glance. Of course, Noctua does also offer options for cloaking their coolers under covers and offers black fans, but that does also increase the overall price.
Test System Setup, Thermal Tests, and Noise Results
Chad's CPU Cooler Test System Specifications
- Motherboard: ASUS ROG Maximus VIII HERO (Intel Z170) - Buy from Amazon / Read our review
- CPU: Intel Core i7 6700K - Buy from Amazon / Read our review
- Memory: Patriot Viper 4 3000MHz 4X4GB - Buy from Amazon / Read our review
- Graphics Card: MSI GeForce GTX 1060 6GB OC - Buy from Amazon / Read our review
- Storage: Corsair Neutron XTi 480GB - Buy from Amazon / Read our review
- Case: INWIN D-Frame - Read our review
- Power Supply: Thermaltake Toughpower DPS 1050W - Buy from Amazon / Read our review
- OS: Microsoft Windows 10 Home 64-bit - Buy from Amazon
- Software: RealTemp 3.70, AIDA64 Engineer 5.75.3900, and CPU-z 1.77.0 x64
To see our testing methodology and to find out what goes into making our charts, please refer to our CPU Cooler Testing and Methodology article (October 2016) for more information.
Using the default CPU speed, we went forth with the testing and found the NH-U12A delivered a 56-degree result, which seems good until you look a bit closer. As far as single 120mm fan cooled towers, both the very old NiC C5 and the new-ish Windale 6 can do better. Third place in its class isn't bad at any rate, but it is seventh place overall in air cooling results.
Adding more heat to the situation with the overclock applied, we see that the NH-U12A comes in with a 71.75-degree result, again, in seventh overall with air coolers. Sadly, everything that can best it, outside of the NH-D15 is also more affordable.
With two and a half degrees left in the tank with the supplied fans running at full speed Noctua's NH-U12A jumps into fourth place for any of the air coolers listed. While most of the competition here is comprised of more expensive AIO solutions, all of the better performing air coolers are either a much bigger overall design or uses 140mm fans to gain the advantage.
Noise Level Results
With the pair of 120mm fans spinning at 950RPM during the standard stock run of the testing, we found them to deliver just 24 dB into the room. Inside of a chassis they will never be heard at this point, and while not the best results we have ever seen, they are still right there in the mix at the top of the chart.
Testing with an overclock applied adds more heat, and in turn, the PWM signaling increases to spin the fans faster. At this time, still under PWM control, we saw the fans top out at 1400RPM and sending 28 dB into the room. Again, if inside of a closed chassis, this is not able to be heard, and even in the open air, you have to be within six inches of the cooler to listen to the light hum.
Giving the fans a chance to run free with 12V going to them all of the time, we saw readings of 2050RPM. At this time, the noise increases into the audible level, even if inside of a chassis, but just barely, with the 35 dB, we heard from them in testing.
Out of the gate, once we looked at the NH-U12A as we spun it around in our hands, we thought it a brilliant design, and one that should be able to not only outpace many of the CPU air coolers in the chart but maybe even keep up with the NH-D15.
While the results are better than average and good for a cooler of this size, we are left pondering how to attack this part of the review. On the one hand, the performance is impressive, and if you stay under the control of the PWM circuit, the mix of performance and lack of noise is quite pleasing. At the same time, we have coolers like the FSP Windale 6 and the Thermaltake NiC C5 that throws a wrench into the gears.
One of these coolers also delivers ear-bleeding levels of noise to accomplish its thermal results, but as for the Windale 6, it either matches or bests the NH-U12A in both performance and sound. All the same, we have to give credit where credit is due, and it has been a long time since we have been this excited to test a cooler to see how it mixed in the charts to attempt 120mm fan cooled supremacy in CPU air coolers.
What it comes down to in the end is that if we had the Windale 6 in one hand, and the NH-U12A in the other, if priced equally, there is no doubt that the Noctua cooler is beefier and built much better. Even though the way in which the hardware is assembled to the motherboard and the cooler being mounted is similar, the SecuFirm 2 hardware is again beefier and higher quality.
Of course, the Windale 6 uses a thicker set of fins and a single fan, while the NH-U12A uses two fans on a slimmer tower, they are within 12mm of each other in-depth. Call it fanboyism, call it brand loyalty, call it whatever you want, but in the end, we still want the NH-U12A over it, as we tend to gravitate towards high-end components just like everyone else does. That being said, there is no way to deny that one can get similar or better performance with similar audio results for less money.
As much as we want to love on the NH-U12A and tell you that you should run out and get this over any other 120mm fan based single tower cooler, the fact is, that the NH-U12A will cost $99.99 to obtain. While we are used to the top-tier tax of Noctua coolers and fully expected this level of pricing, the results in the charts make it a tough pill to swallow.
Considering that pesky Windale 6 cooler released at $45, and likely can be found on sale, and even though the NH-D12A is a top ten air cooler, and trades blows with much more expensive AIO solutions, the bar was already set. On the flip side, the feel from the time the box arrives, through getting your hands-on the product and looking over all of the goodies is a much better experience than with the other cooler and can be something overlooked by many.
However, we do feel that to be competitive on a level we could thoroughly recommend, we would need to see the NH-U12A for somewhere around $80 or less. In that range, the extras pay for themselves, and the extra steps taken to deliver a build quality superior to just about everyone else's cooler would be more palatable. As it stands, we strongly recommend you check out the NH-U12A, but with all parts of the puzzle now together and taking all of the information in, we can't rightly give it an Editor's Choice award.
The Bottom Line
The NH-U12A does what it says, and can compete with coolers much larger and with larger diameter fans. However, the cost is a premium some may not be willing to spend when better performance can still be had for quite a bit less!