After trying to build a completely silent gaming PC by going through various “silent” cases, which focus on hiding noise rather than getting rid of it’s source, I decided to try a different philosophy: There’s no need to hide noise when there is none to begin with. In order to achieve this, I realized that there may be no need for a case at all. In fact, having a case means having more fans in order to create airflow (and noise) in order to keep the inside cool. Rather than enclosing the hot air, why not let the components freely sit in room temperature?
The following build is my open air computer that I’ve been using for the past year or so. It is COMPLETELY SILENT (i.e., inaudible) from my sitting position of about 3-4 feet away during both normal light workloads and intensive workloads like gaming. Fans are set to never spin up (not that they really can) so there is no rise in noise levels at any time. Without further ado, read on for the build.
UPDATED 2015-11-08: Changed from using a GTX 780 to GTX 980 and put the system below the desk. Now it is completely silent under any load!
Below I list each of the main components I used in the build along with my reasoning. For some parts, I may recommend something different than what I currently use, as better alternatives may have been released since I built this machine.
Case: Dimastech Nano Bench/Test Table
Dimastech makes, in my opinion, the best looking and most sturdy computer test benches. Unlike those from other companies like Lian Li, the Dimastech benches come as mostly a single piece with minimal assembly required. The Dimastech Nano is my preferred choice, as it supports mATX and Mini-ITX motherboard sizes. Dimastech also has a variety of larger test benches if you want to use larger motherboards.
These test benches are able to support optional fans with arms placed over any part of the system for additional cooling help if needed. The only downsides are the lack of front-panel connections (through there is an optional front USB 3.0 connector and you can always add a 3.5″ or 5.25″ bay panel) and figuring out the wiring for the power button, where this chart will be useful (Source: The House of Geeks):
Power Supply (PSU): Rosewill SilentNight-500 500 Watt
The power supply can be one of the most difficult components to silence as its hard (and potentially dangerous) for end-users to change the stock parts. Thus, I try to go with fanless PSUs to eliminate any noise from fans. With an open air test bench case, there is less worry that hot air will be trapped in the PSU, causing it to overheat. However, many test benches (including the Dimastech) do have the PSU positioned underneath the rest of the system, which may not be optimal with rising hot air. Still, there is enough clearance under the motherboard in the Dimastech benches to allow the PSU some room to breathe.
My choice is the Rosewill SilentNight-500 500W power supply. I’ve tried the Seasonic SS-520FL 520W twice, but both units seemed to exhibit audible electrical noise. The Rosewill has had no or much lower electrical noise, to the point that I can’t hear any from a foot or two away.
Motherboard: ASUS Z97I-PLUS Mini-ITX
This is going to be an Intel build, as I prefer their CPU performance and power consumption compared to AMD processors. I chose the ASUS Z97I-PLUS because I wanted a full-featured yet tiny motherboard since I wouldn’t be using any expansion slots other than for the graphics card. Mini-ITX boards also are more likely to come with built-in wireless and Bluetooth, which is not a necessity, but nice to have for some Bluetooth accessories like keyboards or wireless headphones.
ASUS motherboards also tend to have really nice fan control capabilities (FanXpert) compared to the competition, but you can use any mATX or Mini-ITX motherboard you want, as long as it does NOT have active cooling fans.
Memory: Crucial Ballistix Tactical 16GB (2x8GB) DDR3-1600 Low Profile
RAM typically doesn’t make any noise, so you can use any type you like. The main thing to pay attention to is whether the height of the RAM interferes with the CPU cooler. To prevent any clearance issues, I like to go with low profile memory, which is even lower than standard. The Crucial Ballistix Sport Very Low Profile is what I would normally go with, but the Crucial Ballistix Tactical 16GB (2x8GB) DDR3-1600 Low Profile happened to be on sale for less at the time I put the build together.
Processor (CPU): Intel Core i5-4590S
The Intel Core i5 series is probably the best price-to-performance CPU for most gamers, as the i7’s additional threads do not give most games much advantage. I’m using the Intel Core i5-4590S, which is a 65-watt TDP Haswell CPU. I would recommend using the currently available architecture when your system needs to be built, whether that is Skylake or something else, as they tend to get more energy efficient over time.
I chose to go with the S series because of the lower 65-watt TDP, and because it is sufficient for my needs as I have no intentions of overclocking. Even if you go with the regular 95-watt part, overclocking is probably a bad idea if you are trying to aim for a silent system.
CPU Cooler: Scythe Kotetsu Universal CPU Cooler (SCKTT-1000)
The Scythe Kotetsu is both affordable (compared to a Noctua, for example) and highly rated at SilentPCReview. Although it comes with a fan, I found it was not silent enough for my needs (i.e., can still be heard) even with speeds lowered, so I ended up using 1 fan from the Fan choice below. Note that the fan attachment mechanism may not work for different kinds of fans, as it doesn’t for my chosen fan. Instead, I used some Stretch Magic to tie the fan to the heatsink.
The CPU is really not that hard to cool, even without a fan. Before switching to the Scythe Kotetsu, I used the giant NoFan CR-95C, which worked just fine in keeping my CPU at an acceptable temperature. However, that heatsink is so big that it interfered with the first PCI-E slot (and especially my chosen GPU cooler), which means I had to use a secondary slot in the mATX motherboard I had at the time. Since I’m now using a Mini-ITX board, there is no such option, so I switched to active, but silent, cooling for the CPU. The temps are also generally lower as well (idles around 36°C with the fan listed below), so there is no real benefit to a fanless CPU cooler unless all fans can be eliminated from the system (including the GPU cooling, which is impossible at the moment).
Graphics Card (GPU): NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980
I’m currently using a GTX 980 that I upgraded to recently from a nVidia GeForce GTX 780. The 980 runs much cooler and faster than the 780, so the Maxell line of nVidia GPUs are a good choice up to the 980 level. The GTX 970 and 980 have TDPs of 145W and 165W, compared to the 250W of the GTX 780 or 980 Ti. Even with 250 watts of power consumption, the GTX 780 seemed to be doing alright with the GPU cooling solution below. Thus, a GTX 970 or 980 should be both more powerful yet run cooler, making them great choices.
I would be cautious in trying the GTX 980 Ti, as it seems to consume a few more watts of power than the GTX 780, despite having similar TDPs. I would not recommend AMD cards at this time, including the new Fury X, as their power consumption is generally higher than nVidia’s.
GPU Cooler: Prolimatech MK-26
I wrote a post a while back about using this cooler to silence your video card. The Prolimatech MK-26 is quite amazing in that it allows even a GTX 780 with a 250W TDP to be cooled using silent fans (see below) under load and only reach 80°C (idles around 31°C). With my current GTX 980, temperatures stay below 70 degrees with most games I’ve tried, making it run even cooler! The Prolimatech MK-26 is what enables this system to be a gaming computer.
There is also a black version of the MK-26 available, which I happen to be using. Since this will require replacing the stock heatsink on your GPU, I would make sure that the brand you buy allows such modifications without voiding the warranty.
Fans: Noiseblocker NB-Multiframe M12-S1 120mm Fan (QTY: 3)
Ideally, fans are the only noise-making component in the system. There are many fans out there that can be run silently by undervolting or lowering their speed, and there are just as many that claim to be silent when they really aren’t. You can read the many excellent fan reviews at SPCR to find the fans that work best for you, but I decided to go with the Noiseblocker M12-S1, which is a very low noise and low speed fan. Instead of getting a fan capable of higher speeds (and thus more noise) to be used under load, I do not want my fans to ramp up at all as the goal is to build a completely inaudible system.
This build requires at least 3 fans, although more can be used if desired (the ASUS Z97I-PLUS only has 3 fan headers though, so you’d need to use a splitter or hub). 2 fans go on the GPU cooler and 1 is for the CPU. By running the fans at between 500-600 rpm, I find that they are inaudible from 3-4 feet away, which is my normal sitting position. This is also the speed at which the GPU temperature under load was measured. To prevent the speeds from increasing, all the fans are set to only spin up when the CPU reaches the highest allowed temperature in ASUS FanXpert, which rarely happens. Even if they do spin up, going with a low-speed only model like the M12-S1 ensures they are still quiet.
The main downside to the M12-S1 is that they are quite expensive. If they are out of your budget, there are likely to be cheaper alternatives that can be run silently as well if you look around.
Storage: Samsung 840 Evo 1TB 2.5″ SSD
Silent storage is very easy these days: just use an SSD! Any SSD will do, as long as the balance of capacity, price, and performance meet your needs. I happened to have a Samsung 840 Evo, which I’ve been continuing to use as the only drive in my system since I got it.
What about bigger storage needs, you ask? That’s what a NAS (Network Attached Storage) is for. It may not be possible to make an affordable silent NAS until 2016 or later, but I recommend buying or building a NAS and putting it somewhere that is not in your main office/media room to keep the noise out. I recommend (and have) a Synology, as I find they have the best UI and ease-of-use by far.
- Case: Dimastech Nano Bench/Test Table
- Power Supply (PSU): Rosewill SilentNight-500 500 Watt
- Motherboard: ASUS Z97I-PLUS Mini-ITX
- Memory: Crucial Ballistix Tactical 16GB (2x8GB) DDR3-1600 Low Profile
- Processor (CPU): Intel Core i5-4590S
- CPU Cooler: Scythe Kotetsu Universal CPU Cooler (SCKTT-1000)
- Graphics Card (GPU): nVidia GTX 980 or nVidia GTX 970
- GPU Cooler: Prolimatech MK-26
- Fans: Noiseblocker NB-Multiframe M12-S1 120mm Fan (QTY: 3)
- Storage: Samsung 840 Evo 1TB 2.5″ SSD (Recommended: Any SSD)
Is It Really Silent?
As I mentioned, this build is COMPLETELY SILENT. There were two issues before, but they have been fixed.
Firstly, some fans may exhibit some motor noise depending on the speeds. The M12-S1 fans I have are generally very good about this, but there can be some noise that travels more than a couple feet depending on your hearing sensitivity. However, I’ve found that putting the computer under my desk to one side completely muffles this noise.
Secondly and more importantly, the GTX 780 I had unfortunately exhibited coil whine under load, which is a high-pitched squeal-like electrical noise. I tried the card with several different PSUs and motherboards, and there is no way to stop it. This coil whine is NOT the same as the kind you get when you are sitting on a game’s menu screen running at 4000 fps without Vsync. This coil whine happens no matter what the framerate is, and it seems cannot be fixed nor muted by a separator.
Many graphics cards these days exhibit this issue, but there are cards that don’t! The GTX 980 I am using now has 0 coil whine under any load, which means my build is completely silent now at all times. With completely inaudible fans and an open air test bench case, this build allows any electrical noise from the GPU to be heard loud and clear, so finding a graphics card without coil whine is extremely important.
Conclusion: Open Air Can Work With The Right Parts
An open air build can be completely silent if the right parts are chosen. This build can achieve this if we can find 1) fans with no motor noise if run at low speeds and 2) graphics cards with no coil whine. Slight fan noise can be dealt with by using a separator or proper placement (highlighting an advantage of having an enclosed case), but GPU coil whine is a bigger problem (even an enclosed case likely wouldn’t mute it completely).
If you are looking for a relatively powerful computer capable of gaming and heavy workloads without making any noise, give this build a try!