We rated, reviewed, & compared some of the best CPU coolers on the market. The guide is broken down into two sections: the best air-based CPU coolers & the best closed-loop liquid coolers.
If you don’t plan on overclocking and you don’t mind the look of a stock CPU cooler, it is not absolutely necessary to go out and get an aftermarket CPU cooler. However, CPU coolers really aren’t that expensive (especially if you go with an air CPU cooler) and they can give you better cooling and help put the finishing touches on a nice-looking build.
In this guide, we’ll take a look at the best CPU coolers for gaming for 2021 and beyond. We have looked at six different air coolers and six different closed-loop liquid coolers.
For liquid coolers, the absolute best-case scenario for extreme builders is a custom loop liquid cooling setup. However, these aren’t as simple and straightforward as the closed-loop options currently available and are really only items that people looking to do some extreme overclocking, or people who really want to build something aesthetically superior should look into.
And, for the most part, air coolers compete fairly similar to closed-loop liquid coolers, despite costing less. Although, if you’re going for a really clean look, perhaps nothing can accomplish that more than a closed-loop liquid cooler.
Ultimately, if you aren’t planning on going with a custom liquid cooling setup, but you want something a little more than the cheap stock fan that your CPU will come with, this guide will help you make the best choice for your needs.
Our Top Picks for the Best CPU Coolers
The table below represents our top choices for the best CPU coolers across various use cases and price points. We’ve chosen our pick for the best air CPU cooler, the best AIO cooler, the best value AIO, the best budget air cooler, and the best budget AIO cooler.
NZXT Kraken X73
EVGA CLC 280
ARCTIC 34 eSports
*To read more about our picks for the best CPU coolers listed above, just click the “Read Review »” button to hop to our overview on that cooler. You can also keep scrolling to find more air and AIO options.
FAQ: Questions to Ask Before You Choose A CPU Cooler
If you’re in the market for a new CPU cooler and you’re unsure of what you should be looking for, in this section, we’ve highlighted a handful of the most commonly asked questions about CPU coolers. So, whether you want to know what a CPU cooler does, or you’re debating between whether you should get an air cooler or a liquid cooler, the questions below will point you in the right direction.
1. What Does A CPU Cooler Do?
So, CPU coolers serve the role of removing heat from your processor so that your processor can keep functioning properly.
There are two types of CPU coolers: air CPU coolers and liquid CPU coolers.
Air CPU coolers draw heat away from your processor with the help of a large heatsink and a fan (or two). Liquid CPU coolers draw heat away from your processor with liquid, a radiator, and one or more fans.
2. How Do I Choose A CPU Cooler?
- Compatibility with your other components
- Your budget
- Your aesthetic demands
There are a variety of compatibility issues that you need to be aware of when you are choosing a CPU cooler. The first one is whether or a not a specific cooler is compatible with your other components. Certain CPU coolers are designed to only work with a specific set of CPU sockets. Nowadays, most CPU coolers come with different brackets that make it compatible with most modern CPU sockets. However, you shouldn’t just assume that a CPU cooler will work with your motherboard socket.
Clearance issues can also be a concern for some air coolers that have a larger heatsink. We’ve discussed those potential issues in the section below.
The other thing to consider is how much you have to spend. Whether you’re upgrading the cooler on an older system or you’re building a brand new PC, your budget will determine what kind of CPU cooler you can get. For most, the stock cooler that comes with the processor (although, some processors do not come with a stock cooler) is decent enough for casual use.
However, if you want to get better thermals on your CPU, an upgraded third party cooler is worth considering. If you have between $20-$50 to spend, you will be limited to a third party air cooler. If you have more than $50 to spend, you can opt for either a higher-end air cooler or a liquid cooler.
And, while a higher-end air cooler will outperform most similarly-priced 120mm or 140mm AIO coolers, aesthetics will also play a role in what CPU cooler type will work best for you. Some people like the cleaner look that a 120mm AIO cooler offers, while other prefer the looks of a nice-looking air cooler.
3. Will Any CPU Cooler Fit in My Computer?
Larger liquid cooling radiators won’t fit in every case either. So, before you drop ~$150 on a 360mm AIO cooler, you need to make sure that the case you’ve chosen can accommodate a 360mm radiator.
Some bulkier air coolers might also conflict with memory kits that have tall heat spreaders. So, if you’re going to buy a bulky air cooler, it would be a good idea to choose some lower-profile memory to ensure that no conflicts exist.
4. Is Water Cooling Better Than Air Cooling?
If you don’t have a lot of money to spend on a CPU cooler, you’ll probably be limited to a budget-friendly air cooler.
If you have a larger budget, you can opt for either a higher-end air cooler or a liquid cooler.
If you have clearance restraints because you’re building a mini gaming PC, you’ll probably be limited a low-profile air cooler or a smaller AIO cooler.
If you want to go extreme with your setup, you might want to consider putting together your own custom liquid cooling loop.
If you’re still on the fence on whether or not liquid cooling or air cooling would be better for you, check out our guide Liquid Cooling vs. Air Cooling: Which Style CPU Cooler is Right for You?
1. Noctua NH-D15
The best high-end air CPU cooler
- Dual 140mm Fans
- Intel & AMD
- 6.5-Inches Tall
- 6-Year Warranty
High-quality components, excellent cooling, and amazing noise control. The Noctua NH-D15 is one of the few air coolers that can actually match up to the cooling power of a closed-loop liquid cooler, and it does so without putting a hole in your wallet.
Setting up and installing the cooler is incredibly simple as it will easily fit on any AMD socket, and accepts all Intel sockets released after 2011, including the LGA 2011. The cooling is provided by two Noctua NF-A15 140 mm fans, installed in a standard two-fan push-pull configuration. And, there is the option to add a third fan, as well.
The fans come with automatic speed control and won’t rev up until your CPU needs the extra speed, thus keeping system noise to a minimum when not under load. When under load, the fans can hit speeds up to 1500 RPMs to help keep your system cool. And all of this happens while keeping the sound levels under 24.6 dB-A. And if you install the low noise attachment (included), the noise levels go further downwards to just 19.2 dB-A.
The NH-D15 measures 165mm x 150mm x 161mm (height, width, and depth.) There is also an impressive 6-year limited warranty on this cooling unit.
Overall, if you’re looking for one of the CPU coolers on the market and you’d prefer an air cooler over a custom liquid cooling setup or an AIO, then the Nocture NH-D15 is an option we’d recommend considering.
2. NZXT Kraken X73
The best large AIO CPU cooler
- Triple 120mm Fans
- Intel & AMD
- 15.5-Inches Long
- 6-Year Warranty
The NZXT Kraken X73 is an excellent option for anyone who has a large budget and is looking into a case that can hold a 360mm radiator. It also comes with three NZXT Aer P radiator fans that can operate between 1,600-2,800 RPM and it has a bunch of RGB lighting options.
NZXT clearly stands by their Kraken series AIOs, as they all come with 6-year warranties—which is longer than all of the other AIO coolers on this list.
The cooler also comes with longer tubing that will help you fit it inside larger full tower cases and it is compatible with all modern Intel and AMD sockets.
The Kraken X73 does come in at a premium, though, costing a little under ~$160. That’s pretty much to be expected for a 360mm AIO, though. But, if you don’t have the budget, or you’d rather get a more affordable 280mm or 240mm option, you probably won’t lose too much cooling performance overall.
3. EVGA CLC 280
An excellent value AIO cooler
- Dual 140mm Fans
- Intel & AMD
- 12.2-Inches Long
- 5-Year Warranty
Despite the fact that EVGA’s CLC series is the company’s first attempt at producing an AIO liquid cooler, they have done an exceptional job of delivering three coolers that can compete with companies who have been making closed loop coolers for years.
EVGA offers their closed loop coolers in sizes of 280mm, 240mm, and 120mm.
The coolers didn’t originally come with support for AM4 motherboards right out of the box, but they do now come with AM4 brackets. So, if you do want to use these coolers on a Ryzen-based build, you can definitely do so.
In terms of cooling performance, the 280mm option does offer the best thermals. However, if you are working with a case that doesn’t support a 280mm radiator, the 240mm option will work well, too.
Also, like the other top AIO coolers out there, EVGA’s CPU blocks contain EVGA’s logo and it is RGB friendly. And, if you have an EVGA graphics card with RGB lights, you can actually sync the two items together.
Ultimately, in our review of EVGA’s CLC series, we determined that they offer some of the best price-to-performance in liquid cooling currently on the market.
4. ARCTIC 34 eSports
The best value air cooler
- Dual 120mm Fans
- Intel & AMD
- 5.9-Inches Tall
- 10-Year Warranty
The ARCTIC Freezer 34 eSports is our choice for the best value air CPU cooler currently on the market. For just under $50 you get an insanely quiet air CPU cooler that comes with dual 120mm fans that can operate in a range of 200 to 1,800 RPM.
The design of the ARCTIC Freezer 34 eSports is also worth noting as not all air coolers are as nice-looking as this bad boy is. The heatsink itself is all black and the fans are also all-black, but come with either white, yellow, green, or red accents.
At 4.8″ x 4.0″ x 5.9″, this air cooler is a bit on the bulky side. However, it is compatible with most RAM heatsinks and in most mid-tower or larger cases.
ARCTIC also offers an insane 10-year warranty on the Freezer 34 eSports cooler. While air coolers do typically last a long time, most companies don’t back their products with that long of a warranty. As an example of that, the next highest warranty on this list is 6-years (the Noctua NH-D15).
Overall, if you’re looking for a really good value air CPU cooler that looks nice, performs well, and is backed by an incredibly long warranty, then the ARCTIC Freezer 34 eSports edition cooler is the option for you.
5. CM MasterLiquid ML120L
The best budget AIO cooler
- Single 120mm Fan
- Intel & AMD
- 6.2-Inches Long
- 2-Year Warranty
If you’re looking for a budget-friendly AIO cooler the Cooler Master MasterLiquid ML120L is worth checking out. At just under $70, it is one of the cheapest 120mm AIO coolers on the market. And, while 120mm coolers typically lag behind even moderately-priced air coolers, they do offer some unique features that make them worth considering over an air cooler…
First, many prefer the aesthetics of AIO coolers over bulky air coolers. And, secondly, for anyone looking to build a mini gaming PC and are limited on how tall of a CPU cooler you can put in your build, a smaller AIO cooler might end up being your only option.
So, if either of those scenarios apply to you, a budget-friendly 120mm AIO cooler like the Cooler Master MasterLiquid ML120L is an excellent option. Along with its low-profile design and solid cooling capabilities, it also comes with an RGB fan and an RGB block to help you system stand out.
Ultimately, though, no 120mm AIO cooler is going to offer extreme cooling performance. However, they provide adequate cooling in a compact design at an affordable price. So, if that’s what you’re looking for, the ML120L is a great option.
Which CPU Cooler Style is Right for You?
The first decision you need to make when choosing a cooler for your new gaming computer build is whether or not you’re okay with sticking with your stock cooler or if you need something a little bit more powerful.
Then, if you have decided you want a better CPU cooler, your next step is to decide whether or not you want an aftermarket air CPU cooler, a closed-loop liquid cooler, or if you want to build your own custom liquid cooling setup. (For more information on the differences in cooler styles, check out our guide on liquid cooling vs. air cooling.)
And, if you are looking for an air cooler, or a closed-loop liquid cooler, this guide will help you find an option that will work for you.