The Best Case Fans for your custom PC

Without proper airflow in your PC chassis, the parts will run hotter than they are supposed to. This results in decreased performance. How to fix that? Well, you can start off with some new case fans. If you own a gaming PC and the temperatures exceed a certain limit, both your graphics card as well as processor will begin to throttle down their speed in order to lower heat output. This can happen in the middle of a gaming session, and the last thing you want while playing an intense game of Overwatch or CS GO, is the occasional framerate drop in the middle of a fight. It is incredibly frustrating as a competitive gamer to lose because of unexpected hardware issues, but more importantly- your PC’s components may have a shorter lifespan without adequate cooling.

We have done the research for you, and came up with six of the best PC case fans that you can currently purchase. Before you start shopping, make sure to check the manufacturer specifications for your particular computer chassis. You need to know the exact size of the fan that your PC case supports. Different areas of the chassis will fit fans of varying sizes, and if you get the size wrong it is going to be a hassle. Most popular sizes for PC fans are- 80mm, 120mm, and 140mm. Some larger ATX cases have 200mm fan mounts on the front to support extra airflow, these kinds of cases are great for overclocked air- cooled gaming PC builds.

Without further ado, here are the best case fans you should consider.

 

Corsair Air Series AF120 LED Quiet Edition High Airflow Fan Twin Pack - White

Corsair Air Series AF120 Twin Pack

Overview:

The AF120 is one of the most popular high airflow optimized case fans available on the market. You know it is a quality product because Corsair made it, and their fans as well as AIO liquid cooling systems are some of the best in the gaming industry. The highlight of this fan is its affordable price and incredibly low operating volume.

Features:

This is the “Quiet” LED edition of the AF120 fan, which means it provides slightly less airflow and static pressure than the performance non- LED edition, but also makes 16 percent less noise. For reference, the “Performance” (no LED) edition AF120 fan produces 63.47 CFM of airflow and 1.1mm H2O of static pressure. The Quiet LED version of the AF120 which we are reviewing, makes just 25.2 dBA of noise under load. But this reduced noise comes at the expense of reduced airflow (52.19 CFM vs 63.47 CFM) and less static pressure (0.75mm H20 vs 1.1mm H20). The Performance version runs at a higher speed (1650 RPM vs 1500 RPM for the Quiet LED edition), which is why it produces that extra airflow and static pressure.

Corsair recommends that you need at least 1.2” or 3cm of clearance between the fan and other components within your PC. Since this is an airflow optimized fan, it is not meant to be mounted on radiators, heatsinks, or in front of hard drive cages. For those kinds of applications, you should use the Corsair SP (Static Pressure) series of fans. The AF120 is a 120mm fan and measures 120mm x 25mm. Make sure you have sufficient clearance in your PC case before installing the AF120, as well as a 3-pin connector on the motherboard. Note that while this fan has LED lighting, it lacks PWM speed control.

Pros:

  • Good amount of airflow (52.19 CFM) at extremely low noise levels
  • Simple design, highly reliable
  • Easy to install, comes with the required mounting screws and a voltage step-down adaptor
  • Preinstalled rubber pads to dampen the vibration transferred to your PC case, this reduces overall noise levels
  • Comes with LED lighting, available in following colors- Blue, Purple, Red, and White

Cons:

  • No PWM speed control
  • Doesn’t come with the connectors to attach directly with your power supply, so you need empty 3-pin connectors on your motherboard

Corsair ML120, 120mm Premium Magnetic Levitation Fan (2-Pack)

Corsair ML120 PRO Magnetic Levitation Fan

Overview:

Most case fans use sleeve bearings or ball bearings. Corsair takes things to the next level with their ML series of fans which uses magnetic levitation technology to separate the fan shaft and bearing such that there is nothing but air between them. This results in zero bearing friction as well as reduced noise levels.

Features:

If you want the absolute best, look no further- Corsair has you covered with their brand new ML120 PRO fans. These don’t use traditional bearing design, and instead rely on magnetic levitation to float the fan shaft within the hub. In order to understand the benefits of magnetic levitation you need to take a look at what regular case fans use for bearings. The cheapest type of bearing is sleeve bearing, these are basically two lubricated surfaces sliding against each other. They start out quieter that other types of bearings, but also have the shortest lifespan and progressively get louder with time until they fail suddenly in the middle of operation. Then you have ball bearings which are more expensive and slightly louder, but they have a much longer lifespan and retain their “out of the box” noise level much longer. Then you have hydraulic bearings which are a modified type of fluid bearing, these use the fans own rotation to create a pressure field that stabilizes the shaft and provides lubrication. Magnetic levitation takes things one step further by using electromagnets to create a magnetic field inside the fan hub that levitates the bearing above the motor housing. This eliminates bearing noise and friction completely, although you still have resistance from the spinning fan blades and resistance from the magnetic field itself.

The ML120 PRO series is available in a variety of configurations- Plain, single color LED, and RGB. We recommend either the plain or the single color LED versions because not only are they cheaper compared to the RGB edition, but they also produce more airflow and static pressure. The RGB edition is quieter because it spins at a lower RPM compared to the other ones, but generates 47.3 CFM of airflow compared to the 75 CFM of the other versions. It also has a maximum static pressure of just 1.78mm H20 compared to the 4.2mm H20 of the plain and single-color LED variants. One thing to note about the ML120 series of fans is the centralized location of the 4 LEDs, unlike cheaper fan designs which place the LEDs on the outer circle. The centralized LED location results in a much more uniform and visually appealing lightshow. The build quality on these fans is extremely good, and they come with removable corners and preinstalled rubber noise isolation pads. All ML120 PRO fans support PWM speed control. The RGB version has a range of 400 to 1600 RPM, and comes with its own SATA powered LED controller hub. The other versions have a range of 400 – 2400 RPM, this extra speed is why they generate more airflow and static pressure compared to the RGB edition.

Pros:

  • Impressive balance between airflow and static pressure compared to SP or AF series fans
  • Great built quality, removable corners with rubber noise isolation pads
  • PWM speed control
  • Centralized LED lighting, distributes the color much better across the translucent blades
  • Fairly quiet under load

Cons:

  • More expensive, even when you compared them to premium fans from reputed brands like Noctua or Cooler Master
  • The RGB edition sacrifices performance for visuals

Noctua 120mm, Anti-Stall Knobs Design,SSO2 Bearing PWM Case Cooling Fan NF-S12A PWM

Noctua NF-S12A Case Fan

Overview:

Ask any PC building forum or gaming enthusiast about Noctua, and you will hear nothing but praise. This company makes quality products that run silently and last forever- everything a gamer needs. Although Noctua fans are slightly expensive, they will probably be the last fans you ever buy.

Features:

The Noctua NF-S12A series of 120mm case fans is available in 3 different versions- you have the FLX, PWM, and ULN. The first one (FLX) has a maximum speed of 1200 RPM, and uses a 3-pin connector. It can run at 900 RPM with the included Low- Noise adapter, or at 700 RPM with the Ultra Low- Noise adapter. The ULN or ultra low noise version of the NF- S12A features a lower current draw compared to the other two models, which means that it spins slower resulting in less noise. And while the PWM and FLX versions are already super- quiet at just 17.8 dBA each, the ULN takes noise levels down to 8.6 dBA. You will barely hear this fan even if it is under full load, and there is nobody else in the room. For reference, 10 dBA is the amount of noise made by rustling leaves, or a person breathing. The ULN version of the Noctua is even quieter than that!

And you get a low noise adapter with the NF- S12A ULN version which lowers its speed even further, down to 600 rpm. We are reviewing the PWM version of the NF- S12a which uses a 4-pin connector and can vary its speed all the way from a standstill to 1200 rpm with incredible precision thanks to PWM technology. This fan or any Noctua fan for that matter, does not have LED lighting or fancy styling. In fact, Noctua fans are considered to be some of the ugliest fans in the entire PC hardware industry. But Noctua doesn’t care about looks, because for them form follows function. So if you really, really care about looks and have a tempered glass side panel along with other LED fans in your gaming PC, this fan may not fit in with the rest. But if you want a fan that boasts impressive performance, will last for eternity, and runs quieter than any of its competitors- the NF- S12a is for you. Noctua uses a bunch of technology and really clever design to make its fans the best in the industry. To know more about their technology, look here.

Pros:

  • The quietest case fan you will ever own
  • Lasts for an eternity
  • Extremely well-built
  • Comes with all the accessories you need- noise isolation rubber mounts, screws, 30cm extension cable, Low Noise Adapter, a 4-pin Y cable, and 4 vibration compensators
  • 27 CFM of airflow, and 17.8 dBA of noise in standard mode, and 49 CFM in Low Noise Mode with just 10.7 dBA of noise (comparable to a pin drop or normal breathing sound)

Cons:

  • Slightly expensive compared to other 120mm case fans
  • Industrial looks, no flashy LED lights or cool colors

Cooler Master SickleFlow 120 - Sleeve Bearing 120mm Blue LED Silent Fan for Computer Cases, CPU Coolers, and Radiators

Cooler Master SickleFlow Case Fan

Overview:

What do you do when you only have 5 bucks to spend on a brand-new case fan, but don’t want to end up with some cheaply built fan from a brand you have never heard of before? In that case (pun intended), you need the Cooler Master SickleFlow 120.

Features:

Low on cash? Need a 120mm airflow- optimized case fan from a renowned manufacturer? Cooler Master has your back with their SickleFlow 120, and this is as cheap as it gets with case fans. Not only does it boast decent performance figures, but is also covered by a 2- year warranty. Cooler Master managed to keep costs low by using a long- life sleeve bearing instead of ball bearings. The LED lights (all 4 of them), are mounted on the outer circle instead of the fan hub. This means that the color is not distributed as evenly compared to the Corsair ML series fans, but this type of design helps lower production costs and in the end you are getting an LED case fan at a super cheap price. Better than having no LEDs at all right?

The technical specifications are impressive when you consider the cost of this fan. At its maximum RPM of 2000, this fan will generate up to 69.7 CFM of airflow and 2.94mm H20 of static pressure. Those figures surpass that of the Corsair ML120 RGB edition, for a fraction of the price. Operating noise is 19 dBA, although this noise spec was probably not recorded under full load. The performance figures don’t exactly correspond to real- life performance under varying levels of humidity, ambient temperature, and load. These fans are not built to the same standards as the Noctua or Corsair ML series, and therefore will not be able to retain their out of the box performance and noise levels for very long. Corsair and Noctua offer 5 and 6 year warranties on their premium products, whereas this fan has a 2-year warranty.

Pros:

  • Impressive airflow and static pressure for a really cheap price
  • Can be used on air cooler heatsinks, and in front of hard drive cages because of its relatively high static pressure (2.94 mm H20 at 2000 rpm)
  • 4 LED lights, located on the outer circle
  • 50,000 hour life expectancy

Cons:

  • Uses sleeve bearings, so it will not last as long as a Noctua or Corsair ML120 fan
  • Lighting isn’t well distributed across the fan blades because of the location of the LEDs
  • Doesn’t have any anti-vibration rubber pads on the corners, or noise isolation mounts like the Noctua NF-S12a

Frequently Asked Questions-

 

Static Pressure vs High Airflow

There are two types of PC fans- high airflow optimized fans, and high static pressure optimized fans. Most PC case fans are airflow optimized types, whereas static pressure optimized fans are used on heatsinks, radiators, etc. So what is the difference between the two? Airflow optimized fans are designed to shove more air per unit of time, which is why they are often marketed with CFM numbers that show how much cubic feet of air the fan can blow per minute. Static pressure fans on the other hand, are designed with the purpose of cramming air through densely populated areas of the computer chassis. They create more pressure on the exhaust side compared to airflow optimized fans.

So while airflow fans shove more air per unit of time, static pressure fans blow that air much harder. Why does this matter? Well, in a PC you have fans in different spots. The one at the back of your case is in a relatively uncrowded spot with no restrictions to airflow whereas the ones on the front might be obstructed by air filters and hard drive stacks. So you want high static pressure fans on the front in order to blow that air harder, so that it makes it way through the air filter meshes and hard drive cage. Same applies to heatsink and radiator fans- they are optimized for high static pressure. If the fan is unobstructed and just has to blow as much air as possible, you want a high airflow fan like the one at the exhaust side of the case. Airflow fans have sharper blade angles, whereas static pressure fans have flatter blades with less space between each blade.

 

How Many Case Fans do I Need?

This depends on the type of hardware that you are running, the quality of the fans, the case you are using, and the level of noise that you deem tolerable. More fans don’t automatically make a system cooler. In fact, some experiments have shown that too many fans can negatively impact system temperatures. And you also run the risk of an extremely loud PC if you cram a lot of fans into it. You can check out this video for more info on how many fans is appropriate for your specific PC.

 

What are PWM fans?

PWM is the technology used to regulate fan speeds in modern PCs. It requires a 4-pin connector, as opposed to the 3-pin connectors you will find in cheaper models. PWM fans have the ability to operate much more silently compared to non-PWM models, since the pulse width modulation technology helps them achieve a much wider range of speeds with extremely precise control at all times. Modern motherboards come with at least one 4-pin PWM port, which you can use to connect things like LED strips, water cooling pumps (AIO CPU coolers), or RGB PC case fans. Premium gaming motherboards have 4 to 6 PWM hubs, and allow you to connect multiple fans and LED lighting strips. The system monitors load on the CPU and motherboard, as well as the temperatures through various sensors on the board. Depending on the temperature, it signals the fans to spin faster or slower. You can customize fan speeds at various load levels in your motherboard BIOS, or through fan control software on your desktop. Non PWM fans can also vary their speed, but not to the same degree as PWM fans. To learn more about PWM fans check out this page.

 

Positive vs Negative Air Pressure

Positive air pressure is when there is more air entering your PC case, than there is air leaving it. This setup means that you have more air being sucked in by the intake fans than there is air being blown out by your exhaust fans. This creates a pressure inside your case that is higher than atmospheric pressure. In a negative air pressure setup, there is more air exiting the case compared to incoming air. With this setup you have created a region of low pressure in your case which means outside air will try to flow in through the vents and holes of your case. A negative pressure setup results in a couple degrees less heat, but at the expense of extra dust accumulation on the case. You will have to clean the air filters more often, and there will be dust on the internals that you need to get rid off before it hampers system performance. With a positive air pressure setup you risk running slightly hotter, but at least you don’t have to clean the case as frequently. Learn more about positive vs negative pressure in PC cases over here.

 

Is RGB Worth It?

RGB fans look pretty but they also cost more. So you need to decide if the extra cosmetic appeal is worth a few more bucks per fan. If you are building a system that is focused on achieving the maximum performance with a given budget, you need to conserve as much money as possible by using the bulk on your CPU and graphics card. Next in line is the memory and storage, followed by the motherboard and power supply. If you have a decent case along with a decent CPU cooler and a good aftermarket graphics card, any mid-range case fan will do just fine. The most premium ones tend to have fancy features such as RGB lighting that can be programmed through software. If you are splurging a couple thousand dollars on a high-end gaming rig and have money to spare on looks, go for it. They provide no performance advantage, and a well-built Noctua will always run quieter than some tricked out lightshow from a Chinese company you have never heard of. So if you are purchasing RGB fans, make sure to buy a model made by a reputed brand such as Corsair, Thermaltake, or CoolerMaster. The cheap RGB fans cut corners on quality of the core components in order to have the lights.

 

 

Which One Should You Buy?

If you are looking for the absolute best of both worlds, you can’t go wrong with the Corsair ML120 PRO series of fans. We recommend the LED models because they are barely a dollar or two costlier than the base version, but offer truly impressive lighting. Unlike fans like the Cooler Master SickleFlow 120 which have the LEDs on the inside of the frame, the ML120 PRO LED fans have the 4 lights located right inside the fan hub. This leaves less space for the shaft and blades, but Corsair managed to get away with it thanks to their clever engineering and innovative fan blade design. This innovation results in superior lighting, the illumination is spread evenly across the entire surface of the fan as it is spinning and creates a much better lightshow at all times, day or night. The performance figures are impressive, and noise is low. PWM speed control is supported on all Corsair ML120 fans, and they are guaranteed to last very long thanks to the unique magnetic levitation bearing system. If you want something less flashy than the ML120 PRO LED and even quieter, get the Noctua NF- S12a. It may look weird, but does its job really well and you will barely hear it operating even when it is spinning at max speed.