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Home » Reviews » Coolers » Noctua NH-U12A CPU Cooler Review – Best CPU Air Cooler?

Noctua NH-U12A CPU Cooler Review – Best CPU Air Cooler?

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Late Q1 this year, Noctua released the Noctua NH-U12A premium 120mm CPU air cooler. It has the traditional Noctua color theme that many are not a fan of; but superb craftsman ship, high quality and attention to detail are very much present. The NH-U12A features two NH-A12x25 120mm PWM fans and it’s basically a single tower CPU cooler. But what really gets me excited about this cooler is its performance. It’s not a huge and bulky dual tower type cooler like the NH-D14, yet it performs similar to an AIO liquid cooler. And it doesn’t block the RAM slots on an Intel LGA115x and AMD AM4 based motherboards. If you are in the market looking for a CPU cooler, stick around and continue reading our Noctua NH-U12A review below. This could probably be your next (or first) premium CPU cooler.

Noctua NH-U12A review

Noctua NH-U12A Review – CPU Air Cooler Done Right!

First – CPU Air Cooler vs Liquid Cooler; Advantages and Disadvantages

CPU air coolers are nowhere near obsolete these days. A CPU air cooler has several advantages over an AIO liquid cooler. True that an AIO liquid cooler performs generally better than an air cooler, but it’s not always the case. And there are also several disadvantages of using a liquid CPU cooler.

CPU air coolers require minimal maintenance. Dusting off the fan and the heatsink is all you need to maintain it. You could also clean the heatsink to keep its shine. Another advantage of an air-type CPU cooler is that there is no risk of liquid leaking (worst – bursting) in your system’s components. And finally, it is generally cheaper than an AIO liquid cooler.

I can only think of a few disadvantages of using an air cooler. First that it tends to be big and heavy. Second, most air coolers do not perform as good as a liquid cooler. Some do, but generally speaking, AIO or custom liquid coolers are still better when it comes to cooling the CPU, or GPU.

Now, (AIO) liquid CPU coolers look much “cleaner” or less bulky on the system. And by “cleaner”, I mean it is more aesthetically pleasing and there’s no huge chunk of metal sticking out the motherboard, or above your graphics card. However, liquid CPU coolers have risks that an air cooler doesn’t; risks like pump failure and/or liquid leaking out. Not to mention, liquid coolers are typically more expensive than an air cooler.

Pump failures could cause your CPU to overheat, and liquid accidentally leaking can damage the components in your system. So, there is a tradeoff. You get better performance with a liquid cooler, and better aesthetics at the expense of higher price and the risks I just mentioned.

On the flip side, air coolers aren’t as efficient as liquid coolers, but those hazardous risks do not exist with air coolers. Not to mention, it’s a cheaper solution than liquid. Whether you want an air cooler or liquid cooler is totally up to you.

However, I think the Noctua NH-U12A is somewhat the middle ground. It performs similar to a liquid cooler, yet it is not as big and bulky as a two-tower air cooler. It’s not a cheap air cooler as well, but it’s not as expensive as a liquid cooler. Let’s go ahead and take a closer look at this cooler after the specs below.

Noctua NH-U12A CPU Cooler Specifications

Noctua NH-U12A specs

NH-A12x25 120mm PWM fan specs

Packaging and Closer Look

Noctua’s CPU coolers are packaged in a sturdy cardboard box material; with a combination of Brown, White and Blue-highlight on the outer surface of the box. The company has been using this color theme and box material for quite a long time. It’s sturdy and well compartmentalized inside the main box.

Aside from the CPU cooler and two NF-A12x25 PWM fans; the box also includes two low-noise adapter, a 4-pin PWM Y-cable, the SecuFirm2 mounting system for Intel and AMD, a unspecific amount of high grade NT-H1 thermal compound, a Noctua metal case-badge, reading materials and a specialized screw driver that you will need to install the CPU cooler.

The thermal compound included is enough, I guess, for several applications. Don’t quote me on this, but perhaps around 5-10 installations. It’s a rough estimate, give or take, depending on how much thermal compound is applied. Nevertheless, it is plenty enough compared to the CPU coolers in the market.

All the tools that you need to install the NH-U12A are included in the box. Out of the box, the two fans are already attached to the heat sink. But you will have to remove the fans to install the CPU cooler. The CPU cooler measures 158mm in height, 125mm in width including the fans and a depth of 112mm. It weighs 1,220 grams including the two fans.

According to Noctua’s list of compatible CPUs, the NH-U12A can comfortably handle the latest flagship mainstream CPUs from AMD and Intel; the Intel Core i9-9900K and Ryzen 9 3950X. Of course, anything lower than these CPUs can be cooled by the NH-U12A as well.

The NH-U12A is basically the 5th gen of the company’s U12 series. But this one features a completely redesigned heatsink; now with 7 heatpipes and increased fin surface. According to the company, although it has a 120mm body design, it can match the performance of a 140mm sized CPU air coolers, even dual tower type.

The base and heatpipes are copper, while the cooling fins are aluminum. The joints are soldered properly so that heat would transfer from the base to the aluminum fins efficiently. Finally, nickel plating is applied to avoid or minimize corrosion.

The NF-A12x25 PWM fans included with the NH-U12A are fantastic fans. They are highly optimized fans, runs very silent and simply a product of state-of-the-art engineering. Unlike the other fans I have held in my hands before, the NF-A12x25 feels premium and solid. The fan blades are noticeably thicker and feels robust. It’s simply on another level. You can read more about its feature from Notua’s site here.

Unfortunately, there is no black version of this fan yet. I hope Noctua will release a black version. The company does have black fans, in the form of the NF and industrialPPC fans. But the is not on the same level as the NF-A12x25 and the industrialPPC fans, though powerful, are quite loud.

Above is a closer look at the NH-U12A heatsink without the fans. I like how Noctua makes their heatsink. It’s just so clean and well crafted. You do get what you paid for, and I think they have the right to slap that word “premium” on their products.

Installing The Noctua NH-U12A CPU Cooler

The Noctua NH-U12A features the company’s SecuFirm2 mounting system. It’s basically compatible with Intel’s LGA 115x, LGA20xx and AMD’s AM4 / AM3 (+) / AM2 (+) and FM1. It’s easy to install, but I recommend you install the mounting system first on the motherboard, before you install the motherboard on a case or chassis.

Once the mounting system is installed, you can install the heatsink or do it later. It does take a decent amount of space and you don’t want something obstructing while you work on the case or install other components. That’s why I prefer to install the heatsink together with its fans later.

Another great feature of this CPU air cooler is “100% RAM compatibility on LGA115x and AM4”. Even with both fans installed, the front intake fans do not obstruct with the RAM slots on an Intel 115x and AMD AM4 based motherboards. As you can see from the photos above, there is still a space, so tall DDR memory is not an issue.

However, Noctua does mention that on LGA2066, the rear fan will overhang the RAM slots on the left-hand side of the socket, so RAM modules should not exceed 42mm in height. And In cases with more than 158mm CPU cooler clearance, the rear fan can be moved upwards to make room for memory modules taller than 42mm.

Noctua NH-U12A CPU Cooler latest pricing and availability:
For US: available on here
For UK: available on Amazon UK here
Noctua NF-A12x25 PWM Fans available here.
Noctua NT-H2 Thermal Compound available here.

Test Setup

Our test setup for testing the Noctua NH-U12A CPU cooler includes the following components below. I didn’t use Noctua’s NT-H2 thermal compound as shown on the photo above. I only used the parts that came with the box.

Operating System: Windows 10 Pro 64bit ver. 1809
Motherboard: MSI MEG Z390 ACE
Processor: Intel Core i7-8700K
CPU Cooler: Noctua NH-U12A
Memory: Corsair Vengeance Pro RGB DDR4-3000MHz
Graphics card: NVIDIA GeForce RTX 2060 Founders Edition
Storage Drives: WD Black SN750 NVMe SSD, Crucial MX500 2TB
Power Supply: Seasonic 850W Prime Titanium
Chassis: Thermaltake Core P5

Noctua NH-U12A Benchmark Results

The Idle Temperatures

Noctua NH-U12A idle stock temperature

The screenshot above is when the system is on idle. There’s very low to no load at all. The CPU is also running at stock, and the everything is set to auto including the fan curve. The fans run at around 400 to 450 RPM at this state. Since the fans are running this slow, it would be better if they were not running at all and cool the CPU passively. Just like the 0dB feature on the newer graphics cards today.

Noctua NH-U12A idle temperature overclocked CPU

Overclocking the Core i7-8700K to 5GHz with a voltage of 1.35V bumps the idle temperature by 2° to 3° Celsius higher. The system is still in idle state, but somehow there are spikes in the temperature as you can see from the line graph above.

Noctua NH-U12A idle temp increased fan speed

Cooling the CPU passively or at minimal fan speed is okay, but for those who wants their CPU to stay cool as possible, you can bump up the speed to around 1500 RPM or 75% fan speed. As you can see from above, the idle temps went down to 36° Celsius. One the screenshot above, the CPU is running at stock by the way. In overclocked settings, expect temperature to go down as well, only a tad higher than 36° Celsius.

The Full Load Temperatures

Noctua NH-U12A full load temperature stock CPU

Now here comes the real test. Running the system at full load for around 17 minutes, we can see that the CPU temperature is just around 60 Celsius. The Core i7-8700K is running at 4.3GHz with a core voltage of 1.2V.

If you increase the fan speed a bit, we can see that the temperature goes down further to around 56°-57° Celsius. If you are using an open-type chassis or test bench, you may hear the fans humming. But, it will be (almost) inaudible on a closed-case setup.

Noctua NH-U12A full load temperature overclocked CPU

Finally, above you see the CPU running at full load and overclock to 5GHz all cores with 1.35V. The Noctua NH-U12A was able to handle the heat of the CPU quite well. Hovering at around 71° Celsius (only) is quite impressive considering that it’s just an air cooler.

Noctua NH-U12A vs Corsair H100i RGB Platinum

We compared the performance of the Noctua MH-U12A vs the Corsair H100i RGB Platinum (a 240mm AIO liquid cooler). Below are the full load stock and full load overclocked CPU benchmarks of the Corsair H100i.

Corsair h100i rgb platinum temp full load STOCK Corsair h100i rgb platinum temp full load overclocked

In full load stock configuration, the CPU was running at around 57° Celsius with the Corsair H100i. While with the Noctua NH-U12A, the CPU was running at around 60° Celsius. That’s not bad at all, considering the difference is just 3 Celsius.

Meanwhile, when the Core i7-8700K is overclocked to 5GHz @ 1.35V, the Corsair H100i manages to cool the CPU with a temperature of 69° Celsius. The Noctua NH-U12A is close at 71° Celsius, with a difference of around 2° Celsius only. That’s a really impressive performance for an air cooler if you ask me. Time to warp up this review then…

Pricing and Availability

The Noctua NH-U12A CPU cooler is now available and comes with a manufacturer’s suggested retail price of $99.90 USD or £89.95 EUR. The Noctua NF-A12X25 PWM can also be purchased separately with an MSRP of $29.90, if you want additional fans. Noctua is so confident with their product that they’re offering a 6-year manufacturer’s warranty for the entire package. Meanwhile, the supplied NF-A12x25 fans feature an MTTF rating of more than 150,000 hours. Retail prices do change, so for latest pricing, availability and where to buy; check out the links below.

Noctua NH-U12A CPU Cooler latest pricing and availability:
For US: available on here
For UK: available on Amazon UK here
Noctua NF-A12x25 PWM Fans available here.
Noctua NT-H2 Thermal Compound available here.

Noctua NH-U12A CPU Cooler Review

Noctua NH-U12A CPU Cooler Review Conclusion

I’m very impressed with the performance of the Noctua NH-U12A overall. As you have seen in our test results, it was able to rival an AIO liquid cooler. And it’s not just a typical AIO liquid cooler, it’s the Corsair H100i RGB Platinum, a 240mm high performance AIO liquid CPU cooler.

The NF-A12X25 PWM fans are quite impressive as well. They perform quite well while staying almost inaudible most of the time. It is a very silent fan indeed, and I hope Noctua would produce a black version of this fan.

Speaking of black version, Noctua did released a series of new all-black CPU cooler. Unfortunately, a black NH-U12A is not one of them. You can check the new Noctua CPU cooler here.

I haven’t tested a push-only configuration, or single fan only, in this review. But I’m confident that a single fan would also work well in cooling a mainstream CPU. The temperature might be a few degrees higher compared to a push-pull setup, but I don’t think it would be that far.

At the end of the day, I can’t find any fault or reasons not to recommend the NH-U12A. It is simply one of the best, if not the best CPU air coolers released recently. Perhaps, you may find the color of the fans not to your liking, but you can always replace them with your preferred fan. Note that performance may be affected if you change the fan.

It’s a bit more expensive compared to other 120mm CPU air coolers in the market, but you do get what you paid for. The NH-U12A is a premium CPU cooler with two premium and very silent fans included. You simply can’t go wrong with it, not unless your setup is quite unique or over the limits of the NH-U12A.

thepcenthusiast editor's choice award

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