Whether you sleep near your PC, do something with your PC where it helps to keep noise to a minimum, or just like some peace and quiet, having a PC that isn’t audibly distracting can be important.
This list provides five important things to remember when you want to choose parts for a quiet, unobtrusive PC.
1. You don’t necessarily need a “quiet” case.
With companies such as Fractal Design, be quiet!, Corsair, Silverstone, and Nanoxia selling “quiet” or even “silent” cases, you might be led to believe cases like those are always the best option for a quiet PC. For some specific examples of these, you can take a look at the second chart on our case recommendation page. However, there is still another way: A case with great airflow.
Rather than trying to block off any noise, you can try reducing it instead through better temperatures brought by a high-airflow case, such as the Silverstone RL06 Pro or the Fractal Design Focus G Mini (Micro ATX). As airflow improves, and your CPU and GPU’s temperatures go down, you can safely relax the fan speeds of your CPU cooler and your graphics card, as well as the fan speeds of your case fans. That’s not to say a “quiet” case can’t also have good airflow—the be quiet! Dark Base Pro 900 Rev. 2, for instance, offers nice airflow for a “quiet” case—just that the airflow of such cases tends to be unimpressive.
A “quiet” case might also make annoying noises more bearable, but this likely isn’t a concern if you are already choosing parts for discreet operation and don’t have a coil whine issue.
That said, it’s still recommended to look at case reviews. GamersNexus case reviews look at CPU and GPU temperatures, and measure noise levels. Hardware.info does a variety of temperature and noise measurements on cases, as well. And remember: Lower dB / dBA is better, and every 10 dB / dBA is considered to be roughly two times louder or quieter. Also keep in mind that noise level measurements are not comparable between different reviewers, due to the different testing methods and distances they use.
2. Noise quality matters.
In addition to noise levels, it should also be considered how a noise actually sounds. For example, is the noise a pleasant, constant, lower-frequency hum (good)? Or is there clicking or whirring noises (bad)? Is the sound high-frequency, like that of a whine (bad)? If you can, try to find videos or audio recordings of any component with a fan, as well as hard disk drives, to ensure the sound it makes will not stand out.
3. You can’t rely on noise level specifications.
A common mistake new builders make is using noise level specifications of CPU coolers and fans. In truth, these specifications show little relevance in the real world. Reviews show inconsistency among noise levels between different products when considering their noise level specs. Even among different options from the same brand, it is common to see noise level differences that are inconsistent with the noise level specs.
Thus, it is best to not rely on these and instead find reviews that measure and compare noise levels between products in a consistent manner. (For this purpose, check out some of the review sites linked in the PSU section, below.)
4. Liquid coolers aren’t necessarily the best choice.
Closed-loop liquid coolers provide a higher performance ceiling over conventional heatsink-fan coolers. However, even some of the quietest liquid coolers aren’t usually as quiet as the quietest heatsink-fan coolers, and the fans typically have a poor “noise quality.” Even if you were to replace the fans, there is still another problem: the pump. The pump is always running, and will get louder as it ramps up when you put your CPU under load. In addition, the pump itself tends to have poor “noise quality” and may be a source of annoyance depending on how important this issue is to you.
That said, it is still possible to buy a very well-performing liquid cooler like the NZXT Kraken X72 or Arctic Liquid Freezer 240 and set a fan curve that is non-aggressive. But you’ll need to have a large enough case to support one of those–and one of them may still come at a cost of noise quality over a high-quality heatsink-fan cooler (such as one from Thermalright, Scythe, be quiet!, or Noctua).
5. Pay special attention to the power supply.
A common feature in higher-end power supplies such as Corsair’s RMx series and SeaSonic’s PRIME Titanium series is a semi-passive fan mode. This feature means a power supply’s fan will fully turn off if the power supply measures a low enough internal temperature (note that, despite what marketing material might indicate, most power supplies control the fan based on temperature only). This feature helps greatly when not doing anything that heavily loads your CPU and GPU, ensuring the power supply doesn’t make a peep much of the time you use your PC.
Of course, a semi-passive mode isn’t a necessity for a quiet power supply–some power supplies such as Bitfenix’s Whisper M series don’t have it, but may still have a good, quiet fan and a relaxed fan curve. Budget-oriented power supplies tend to use mediocre-quality fans and usually have strong fan curves that may make the power supply noisy.
All that said, it’s still best to look at reviews. Look at power supply reviews from Tom’s Hardware and TechPowerUp, as they include detailed noise level testing as well as comparative graphs of power supplies of the same wattage. KitGuru also does some limited noise level measurements. As a quick reference, it is also good to look at Cybenetic’s power supply database, as they also do detailed noise testing and have certifications that rank power supplies according to the noise levels they measured.
Now you know a good bit about what you should know when building a nice ‘n quiet PC. This doesn’t cover the obvious stuff like choosing a CPU cooler and graphics card based on noise levels in reviews or opting for SSDs only for storage, but you should now be much better off when making your decisions. Now go forth, read some reviews, and and pick your parts!