How to build a quiet PC
December 27, 2021 1:53 PM   Subscribe

As a possible 2022 project, I'd like to build a PC I can use for high-end gaming and home theatre, but the two PCs we have at home run hot and put out a great deal of fan noise, especially when playing GPU-intensive games, and it is almost too much with headphones. One PC has been put in a separate room with wiring run out to an adjoining room, to limit noise. So this might be a fruitless question, but I am jealous of how quiet my various Apples run and am wondering what the state-of-the-art is in noise dampening in homebrew PCs. Is AIO water cooling quieter than air-cooling for CPUs? Are there specific brands of fans and power supplies that run whisper quiet (within, say, three feet or so)? Are there ways to cool a GPU, as well, to minimize other sources of noise?

Empirical data (decibels-at-some-distance, for instance) are welcome for comparison purposes.
posted by They sucked his brains out! to Computers & Internet (16 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Is AIO water cooling quieter than air-cooling?

Yes, very much so. My AIO is basically silent. But... It's all in the fans. You could swap fans for quiet ones on any pc. Fans are cheap. There are websites that review fans and coolers by noise.
posted by bbqturtle at 2:02 PM on December 27, 2021 [1 favorite]

If a low-end-gaming & home theatre machine is acceptable, you could do that without a dedicated GPU. e.g. get some ryzen CPU with integrated graphics, add a case & PSU designed to run quietly.

Another thing to consider for your existing PCs is how the fan controllers are configured in the BIOS. I recently upgraded my desktop computer and flashed the motherboard BIOS to the latest revision -- after the BIOS update the fans in my machine were constantly running much louder than before, whereas previously I could barely notice them. It took a few hours of careful tweaking in the BIOS to adjust how the fans were controlled so they weren't noisily running full speed all the time. I don't play high-end games so the cooling needs for e.g. browsing metafilter are very modest.

Another possible source of information:
posted by are-coral-made at 2:23 PM on December 27, 2021

Response by poster: A lot of search engine results point me to marketed or promoted products, so I was hoping to get advice more along the lines from expertise here from those who build PCs and would be familiar with this problem (and the best products currently used to solve it). Discrete graphics would be a requirement. Sorry, not intending to thread-sit; just trying to clarify what information I'm hoping to find. I realize this is a tall ask.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 2:27 PM on December 27, 2021

Best answer: I would look at the kit at Quiet PC. They're a PC builder specialising in... well, quiet PCs. My experience is that if you get yourself a case with decent soundproofing and good quality fans, along with a quiet PSU, that's where almost all of the noise can be removed. I wouldn't monkey with water-cooling. I'm not able to hear any sound at all from my gaming PC, which sits about 18" from me for a lot of the day. But then, even if you do get a little bit of fan noise when you're playing graphically intensive games, you're not going to hear it over the sound from the game, presumably.
posted by pipeski at 2:45 PM on December 27, 2021 [1 favorite]

There used to be a site call that covered exactly this sort of thing. It's defunct now but some advice I remember from that site was that Noctua fans are excellent. They were the gold standard. Some other models/brands were competitive but I don't remember which off-hand. Seasonic was similar for power supplies.

For the rest a big air cooler for the CPU with one or two quiet fans (120mm or more) with adjustable speed work well and there are lots of good options.

It's hard to hang that much thermal mass off of a graphics card so the trick there is an AIO liquid cooler mounted on the GPU with a fan or two (again 120mm) works wonders. OEM coolers that usually have a card-sized heatsink with fans that blow air back into the case but the AIO's radiator should be able to be mounted on the edge of the case where the fans are blowing the hot air outside the case. So an AIO water cooler on the GPU tends to result in lower CPU and system temps generally without doing anything else. Which means the rest of the system needs fewer fans and/or running at lower speeds.

I had that setup on my previous system with a GTX 1060ti and the temps at idle and load were within a couple degrees of each other so I was able to set the fans to run a minimum speed where they were nearly silent and they stayed there no matter what I was doing.
posted by VTX at 2:55 PM on December 27, 2021

I've been using Shuttle computers for many, many years, and they are very quiet by design, if not quite silent.

They are hardly gaming rigs, but equipped with a video card (instead of using the motherboard's built in video output) it might be good enough for you.

For anyone wondering, AIO = All In One.
posted by intermod at 3:15 PM on December 27, 2021

I have one of the Quiet cases mentioned above, with a couple big quiet noctua case fans as well as a big heat-sink based noctua cooler. Never played any heavy games on it but it’s quiet enough for the recording studio even when running 10+ channels of audio with multiple plugins.
posted by aspersioncast at 3:19 PM on December 27, 2021

Fanless PCs exist and are (virtually) silent, but "high end gaming" excludes them. Bigger fans at lower RPMs will move a given amount of air more quietly. Liquid coolers can help dissipate a given amount of power with less noise, but come with their own hassles you may not like.

All else being equal, fans with quality bearings are far quieter for a given level of performance. Noctua fans are spendy but very, very good.

Your case can make a big difference in noise level. Partly, by being more efficient at getting cool air in and hot air out, and partly by incorporating materials that block sound. Fans are (relatively) cheap, so I'd attack that side of the problem first.

If you are using headphones, consider over-the-ear isolation headphones. You can get 25dB of passive noise blocking that way without spending a fortune. (dB work on a logarithmic scale, so that's "a hell of a lot" in layman's terms. It's comparable to products sold as hearing protection to people firing rifles.) If your PC is still too loud to hear your game or movie after that, what you have is not a gaming PC, but rather a shopping trolley full of saucepans being pushed down a stairwell.
posted by sourcequench at 3:39 PM on December 27, 2021 [1 favorite]

When choosing graphics cards, if you can find one to choose from, generally look for something with three fans or two very large fans. Bigger fan = more air moved per revolution. I currently have a EVGA RTX 3070 FTW and it's not loud at all even under maximum load and I am very sensitive to noise.

My previous second hand GTX 980 was virtually silent at idle, but when challenging it, it starts roaring.

There are manufacture provided and third party software for controlling your graphics card fan settings. If you're comfortable letting them get warmer than recommended, you can scale back fan speeds. Likewise with slightly higher end motherboards; there are peri-BIOS settings where you can set speeds for various case fans in response to onboard temperature sensors.

The CPU fan - there are aftermarket coolers. It's been a few years since I upgraded my CPU, but the slightly higher end AMD CPU came with a better (and quieter) fan than a slightly lower end CPU of the same class.

Power supplies also have sound profiles listed in their specs, and there are PSUs that are designed to minimize noise output.

Good advice above about upgrading fans/ choosing larger whenever possible.

A big case fan or two will help lower the heat of the CPU/ GPU so the relatively smaller fans on them don't have to work as hard.

Fans also get "gunky" over time and get louder. You can swap them out for new ones, or - usually - you can peel off the central sticker to reveal an access port that you can drip a pin-tip of very light oil into. Clean the blades with a qtip and 90%+ isopropyl alcohol.

Choose cases with removable dust filters - and remember to clean the prefilter and real filters. It'll keep your new fans operating quiet for longer.

There are also cases that come with baffles and such, but your easiest bet is to move large amounts of air with a low number of large fans to take the load off of the small fans.

Liquid cooling is a thing, but it's messy and expensive, and the pump will make some noise. You can mitigate that by having a very large coolant reservoir so you can move it around at a lower velocity.

AIOs are sometimes quieter because they can operate with passive cooling (no fans) - but the more CPU/ GPU power you want, the more waste heat they'll produce that needs to be removed.
posted by porpoise at 3:59 PM on December 27, 2021

Since you mention Apple, while they do put a lot of thought into design and are quite good at using those large aluminum cases to help dissipate heat, another thing to consider is that many devices that appear to be nearly or completely silent are also leveraging thermal throttling. When the components reach a set temperature, performance takes a hit (usually CPU/GPU speeds are throttled back) until cooling measures are able to catch up, and temperatures fall again.
posted by xedrik at 10:28 PM on December 27, 2021

Best answer: Linus Tech Tips recently (September 2021) reviewed MonsterLabo's "The Beast" featuring a full passive cooler that can cool 400W. Case only options are out, but some prebuilts may be available, or get them configured at your local distributor.
posted by kschang at 6:26 AM on December 28, 2021

I used Noctua case fans on my last build (admittedly 7 years ago) and never felt the need to look for anything better. I can't offer any actual data, just some anecdotal support for Noctua.
posted by under_petticoat_rule at 8:33 AM on December 28, 2021

What you're after is doable without much trouble, or at least the only trouble will be getting the hardware this stupid year.

We have a PC in the living room hooked up to the tv, targeting 1080p60. Even going full-tilt, it's basically inaudible from the chair maybe 7 feet away. Maybe a tiiiiiny "whoosh" sound that's quieter than a pedestal fan on low or the ceiling fan in the next room, again when it's going full-tilt.

Fractal Define C case w/ metal side panel (no glass)
I *think* it's using the stock Fractal case fans but won't promise that I didn't swap in Noctuas
Ryzen 3800x

Noctua NHU12S cpu cooler -- The usual line with coolers that I've seen from Gamer's Nexus or LTT is that a big-ass air cooler like that or an NHD15 (IIRC that wouldn't fit in the case) will be quieter than most but not all AIOs.

Air-cooled GTX1070 but I don't remember the specific kind -- I did search for the quietest 1070
Seasonic Focus650 power supply
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 10:36 AM on December 28, 2021

Response by poster: Linus Tech Tips recently (September 2021) reviewed MonsterLabo's "The Beast" featuring a full passive cooler

This is more along the direction of answers I am looking for, thanks!
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 10:46 AM on December 28, 2021

I was hoping to get advice more along the lines from expertise here from those who build PCs and would be familiar with this problem

Might I recommend posting in /r/buildapc or asking on the /r/buildapc discord?
posted by bbqturtle at 7:49 AM on December 30, 2021

Response by poster: Sure, thanks!
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 2:05 PM on December 30, 2021

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