Noctua NH-U12S chromax.black Heatsink Review

Great cooling performance and low noise. An excellent heatsink for the AMD Ryzen 3000 Series.

After over six years of use, it was time to put my faithful desktop gaming system out to pasture and to build a new one. Like many others building systems recently, I decided to step back over to the red team and put together a Ryzen 3000/X570 system this time around.

All the rave reviews of AMD’s new Zen 2 architecture were not exaggerated in my opinion – The new system is very responsive and feels much faster than the second generation Intel i7 processor it replaced.

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My initial impressions of AMD’s new heatsinks were positive as they are quite impressive looking – much taller and heftier than Intel’s boxed heatsinks. Even their screw and spring based mounting system is far superior to stock heatsinks of the past. This heatsink seemed so promising that this was one of the first builds I have ever done where I had no plans to replace the stock cooler.

When I powered on the system for the first time, I was appalled by the terrible acoustic profile of the wraith spire fan. At its full 3000 RPM it’s unbearably loud and to make matters worse, Gigabyte’s default PWM fan profile had the fan constantly spinning up and down in response to temperature changes. I was so annoyed by the fan cycling that I just gave up and created a custom profile forcing the fan to about 50% until the CPU reaches a very high temperature. I actually preferred the constant annoyance of 50% to the horrible spinning up and down that would happen all the time. The cooling performance wasn’t horrible, but I just couldn’t handle the fan. I think I used the system for about an hour before I was determined that I needed an aftermarket cooler.

Noctua was kind enough to provide me with a review sample of their NH-U12S chromax.black edition heatsink to try out today.

Noctua

noctua_200x200pxNoctua is an Austrian company well known for their low noise fans and high-end heatsinks. I’ve been using Noctua heatsinks for ages. In fact, I reviewed some of their original heatsinks and fans many years ago when I used to write hardware reviews. This included their original NH-U12P, the NH-C12P and the smaller NH-U9B. Back then, I praised them for their high-quality construction, near silent operation, excellent mounting hardware and most importantly – excellent cooling performance. That was over ten years ago, and it seems that Noctua is still very well respected for all the same reasons today.

Their gear has always been pricey compared to the competition, but when it comes to Noctua, you get what you pay for.

Noctua NH-U12S chromax.black

Noctua’s NH-U12S has been out for some time now, and it seemed to tick all of the right boxes for me. It is what Noctua calls a “classic sized” 120mm tower heatsink, designed to be somewhat slim and and sized to ensure compatibility with a variety of systems and motherboard layouts.

For this new Ryzen system, I wanted to try Noctua’s new chromax.black edition of the NH-U12S. Although I don’t mind Noctua’s signature beige/brown fans, I was excited to see their new all-black chromax version. Given the tempered glass window on my Fractal Design C case, I thought the all-black heatsink and fan would look pretty slick and match the look of the system beautifully.

With a matte black coating on the entire heatsink as well as a black NF-F12 fan, the NH-U12S chromax.black heatsink would look at home in any modern system.

You can find a full list of specifications on the Noctua NH-U12S product page but here are a few highlights:

Dimensions (h/w/d): 158mm/125mm/71mm
Weight: 580g (755g with fan)
Fan compatibility: 120x120x25mm
Materials: Copper base and heat pipes, aluminum fins. Soldered joints and nickel plating.
Socket compatibility: Intel LGA2066, LGA2011-0 & LGA2011-3 (Square ILM), LGA1156, LGA1155, LGA1151, LGA1150 & AMD AM2, AM2+, AM3, AM3+, FM1, FM2, FM2+ (backplate required), AM4

The NH-U12S has enough cooling power for just about any CPU you could throw at it and is compatible with pretty much all modern CPU sockets. For a full list of compatible CPUs from Intel and AMD, click here.

At only 71mm thickness (with the fan attached) and a weight of 580g, this is a very manageable heatsink that isn’t overly large or heavy.

Unboxing

Let’s get this box cracked open and see what is inside.

The NH-U12S comes packaged in a sturdy cardboard box with a full list of specifications on the back. Inside, you’ll find a box containing all of the accessories.

I’ve been very impressed with the way Noctua packages up their heatsinks. They use almost nothing but cardboard in their packaging aside from a small plastic bag for some of the accessories. It’s always great to see a company that strives to use recyclable materials in their packaging – no styrofoam, padding or unnecessary plastics are found here.

The NH-U12S chromax.black edition is a really nice looking heatsink. I love the black coating, which is not overly glossy and doesn’t attract fingerprints. The heatsink is solidly built with thick, sturdy fins and a good hefty feel to it. At only half a kilogram, it isn’t terribly heavy and its thin width should keep it away from tall RAM modules.

Heatpipe spacing is quite good and they are evenly distributed across the fin area. Noctua also solders each fin to the heatpipes for better heat dissipation.

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The base plate is made of copper but coated and polished. The finish is excellent and appears to be completely flat.

The black NF-F12 fan uses Noctua’s awesome fan clip mechanism, which I have spoken highly of in the past. They are super easy to attach/detach and hold the fan securely.

Noctua’s NF-F12 PWM fan spins at 1500RPM at full speed. There are many special design features to keep noise down, and most importantly to ensure that whatever noise the fan does make is less bothersome. The fan is also designed for high static pressure – making it well suited for heatsink and radiator use. Some of the features can be seen visibly – including special cutouts on the frame and blades. You’ll also notice the very small gap between the frame and the blades. If you’d like to learn more, you can find detailed information on the fan on the NF-F12 product page.

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The NH-U12S comes with a very generous accessory pack. Very well-written instructions with clear diagrams are included for all socket types, as well as brackets, standoffs and an Intel backplate. Everything you need for installation is included – even a tube of Noctua’s high quality NT-H1 thermal paste.

The NH-U12S comes with one NF-F12 fan but comes with clips for adding an additional fan that can be purchased separately.

Installation

I’ll be installing the NH-U12S on my new AMD Ryzen system with the following specifications:

CPU: AMD Ryzen 3600X (95W, 6 cores, 12 threads)
RAM: 2x16GB Trident Neo DDR4 (3600MHz, CAS 16)
Motherboard: Gigabyte Aorus Pro Wifi (X570 chipset)
Case: Fractal Design Define C (Tempered Glass, standard included 120mm case fans)
SSD: 1TB Sabrent Rocket NVMe drive (Gen-4)
Video Card: Gigabyte branded Nvidia Geforce RTX 2070 “Super”
Power Supply: Seasonic Focus 750W Platinum

Noctua’s very clear instructions guided me through the process without issue.

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The only accessories required for AMD socket installation are two metal brackets, four washers and four screws. There are separate holes on the brackets for AM3 and AM4 sockets. There are white coloured spacers for AM3 installation – grey is for AM4.

The brackets were very easy to install and clear all capacitors and VMR components without any difficulty. AMD’s stock metal backplate is not replaced as it is sturdy enough. I did not have to remove the motherboard from my case for this install – it was very simple to do in the case. Even if I didn’t have access to the backplate, it could still be done without much difficulty.

Once I had the bracket on, I applied the NT-H1 thermal paste and secured the heatsink. Noctua recommends installing the heatsink without the fans attached and then adding them back on afterward. The two spring-loaded screws on the heatsink are tightened down evenly until they can’t be tightened any more – it doesn’t get any easier. I’ve always been a big fan on Noctua’s heatsink mounting systems and the NH-U12S does not disappoint.

Performance

Since I don’t have a large collection of heatsinks to compare the NH-U12S against, I was more interested in seeing the type of improvements that could be obtained when comparing to AMD’s included Wraith Spire heatsink.

When one buys an aftermarket heatsink, the goals are usually to have better cooling performance combined with lower noise. Although it was pretty clear that the NH-U12S would deliver on both these fronts, I wanted to see just how much of an improvement could be seen.

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Although idle temperature isn’t something most people are interested in, I think it is important because this is the type of scenario your system will spend most of its time in. Being able to keep your temperatures down at idle means that your PWM controlled fan speed may also stay lower, which results in lower noise levels.

As you can see, the Noctua heatsink does not disappoint. With a single fan, it is a full 10 degrees cooler than the wraith spire in Gigabyte’s “quiet” PWM profile. This was managed with a mere 300RPM fan speed. A second fan shaves an extra degree here.

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At 100% full load, neither the NH-U12S nor the Wraith Spire were able to keep their fan RPM below maximum. This is not unexpected, so I’m only including 100% fan speed results under load. Here, we see a similar picture. The Wraith Spire cooler managed to keep the Ryzen 3600X just nine degrees shy of its maximum temperature rating of 95 degrees. This was with it screaming along at an incredibly painful 3000 RPM. The NH-U12S bested this result by over 13 degrees with a single fan and by 16 degrees with dual fans. Not only was cooling performance much improved, it did so at a much lower noise level. Although there is a slight advantage with two fans, it may not justify the extra cost and noise.

Noise

To check the noise level of the cooler, I measured sound levels (in dBA) one foot (12 inches) from the case side panel. For reference, with the computer powered off, the background noise level was 27.5 dBA.

graph-3 Please keep in mind that decibels measurements are a logarithmic scale. An increase of 10dB over a given value is approximately twice (100%) as loud. That said, at 44.8dB, the Wraith Spire is approximately 60% louder than the NH-U12S at full speed! Even with two fans, the NH-U12S is still about 40% quieter. At idle, even two fans can simply not be heard above the other fans in the system. Very impressive!

More important than these objective measurements are the subjective ones. I personally find the acoustic profile of the NF-F12 fan to be much more tolerable than that of other fans. Most of the sound it makes is just that of air rushing through the fins – I don’t hear anything that sounds higher-pitched like fan motor noise.

I’d also like to call out that Noctua’s NF-F12 fan really only starts to get audible above 50% rotational speed. This means that below this speed it remains very quiet and can barely be heard above the other fans in the system. Minor changes in RPM done via PWM fan profiles are done without being noticeable. As I mentioned earlier, the Wraith Spire’s constant spinning up and down was extremely annoying to me – this was not a problem at all with the NH-U12S.

Other Accessories

For years, fans of Noctua’s heatsinks would have to accept their rather plain styling and unique brown and beige fan colour scheme. Although many (myself included) didn’t mind the signature styling, others have been asking Noctua for years to offer plain black fans or fans of other colours. This first came in their lower-cost Redux line that used grey/black instead of brown/beige instead. Today, they are now offering not only black heatsinks and fans, but also a wide range of accessories to customize the appearance of their gear.

Noctua was kind enough to send along a second NF-F12 fan and an assortment of anti-vibration pads and a unique heatsink cover dubbed the NA-HC1 chromax.black.swap. 

The NF-F12 chromax.swap fan comes with “swappable” rubber anti-vibration pads in several colours including black, red, green, blue, yellow and white. You can purchase these rubber anti-vibration pads in these and other colours separately as well. I personally like the dark grey ones. Looks aside, they are very functional, are held on securely and are way better than the rubber fan mounts used in the past.

It’s great to see Noctua offering so many aesthetic options for their products. Keep in mind that the NH-U12S chromax.black edition heatsink comes with only one fan and black anti-vibration pads.

The NA-HC1 heatsink cover is basically a small metal hat that covers the exposed heatsink thermal pipes and provides a cleaner look. There are reversible plastic inserts that can be installed to change the colour scheme of the cover.

Installing the cover is very easy. You simply clip on the plastic piece and then the cover is held in place magnetically. Keep in mind that it does make the heatsink slightly taller but I didn’t have any issues in my Fractal Design Define C.

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I personally like the clean look of the cover.

Conclusion

Overall, I am very happy with the Noctua NH-U12S chromax.black heatsink. Noctua has taken the classic NH-U12S design, added a beautiful black finish to the entire heatsink and has provided numerous options for customization. In the usual Noctua fashion, the build quality and materials used are top-notch. This heatsink is leaps and bounds better than AMD’s large retail cooler in every respect. It is able to cool much more effectively and does so at only a fraction of the noise level. Noctua’s AM4 mounting system is very simple to use and provides a very sturdy mount. Although this isn’t Noctua’s most potent air cooler, it provides excellent performance given its smaller dimensions and lower weight. Noctua’s included NF-F12 fan has excellent acoustic properties and is inaudible at lower RPM. At full speed it’s noise is not at all offensive and has great cooling potential when needed.

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About the only criticism I can provide is the elephant in the room – price. There seems to be some issues with availability here in Canada at the moment so prices may be inflated somewhat. From what I can see, the chromax.black edition seems to sell for a little over $100 CAD at the moment. For those with low to mid-range CPUs, this can be a bit hard to swallow – shelling out $100 to cool a $300 CPU may make you think twice.

That said, the NH-U12S chromax.black really is a very high quality heatsink and I believe you do get what you pay for. If size is not an issue, Noctua’s much more potent NH-D15 isn’t far off in price and could be a good alternative for you.

Pros:

  • Slim design ensures compatibility in a wide variety of systems.
  • Excellent mounting system.
  • Great cooling performance for AMD Ryzen 3000 series CPUs.
  • Excellent low-RPM fan cooling performance and noise levels.
  • Beautiful black finish and lots of options for customization.
  • Good accessory bundle including high quality thermal paste and RPM reducing adapter.

Cons:

  • Expensive.

A big thanks goes out to the folks at Noctua for providing this review sample!

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