Building a Quiet Water Cooled Gaming PC – Part 1: Choosing a Case

I’ve been building desktop PCs for a long time, but a constant obsession of mine that I have never been able to get just right is the balance between noise and power. Simply put, I want silence and the ability to run a higher-end GPU at the same time. To achieve this goal, I’m going to attempt to build a custom water cooled PC for the first time.

A Brief History

My previous experiences with water cooling were 2-fold: an old Koolance case with water cooling built-in (back when they were still selling such systems) and the original Zalman Reserator 1. The latter turned out to be the only time I managed to achieve an effectively silent computer that I really couldn’t tell was on by the noise. Unfortunately, the pump failed on me after a few months and I remember having a heck of time trying to twist off the bottom base to get it out (that thing is on TIGHT!).

My most recent computer was housed in a Fractal Design Define Mini, which is a very nice case for silent computing. However, the GTX 670 video card was far too noisy under load, even though I had one of the quietest versions: the ASUS DirectCU II model. Although it is relatively easy to build a fanless, and thus silent, computer without a dedicated graphics card, I think water-cooling may be the easiest solution to silence powerful and hot GPUs.

Choosing a Case: The NZXT H440


In the first part, I’ll talk about the case I decided to go with for this build: the NZXT H440, which was announced as CES 2014 and is currently up for preorder. The case won’t ship until the first week of February for the white version, while the black (the one I ordered) is supposed to go out the second week.

I won’t go over all of the details of the case here, but you can check out a very thorough video review from OC3D TV here:

The main reasons I really like this case include:

  • Affordable: The price is only $120. Compared to some of the alternatives listed below, this is a great value.
  • Minimalist Design and Colors: I like how smooth and plain the front and top panels of the case are. The white version looks great, but I choose the black one to better blend in with the rest of the black furniture and equipment in my home office. I’m not sure how I feel about the red along the edges yet, but it does match the ASUS ROG series of motherboards, which I will probably get.
  • Low Noise Series: This case is part of NZXT’s low-noise series of cases, which means it was designed with silent computing in mind. The noise-reducing foam on the sides, front, and top of the case should help with the goals of building a silent computer, although the included fans (which are 3 x 120mm and 1 x 140mm NZXT FN V2 fans) may or may not be the best performers. I will likely replace them with something a little slower and quieter along with using a fan controller to under-volt.
  • Integrated 10-Port Fan Hub: Speaking of fans, the case has a fan hub included which allows easy wiring of 10 fans to a single power source. This makes it very convenient to under-volt all of them at the same time too, although it would have been better if it was a fan controller as well (that would likely raise the price, so it is understandable why they didn’t make it one). I will probably end up using only 6 or 7 of them, mostly on the radiators.
  • Support for TWO 360mm Radiators: Because the case includes no 5.25″ drive bays (which I have no use for), it allows mounting a 360mm radiator not only on the top (supposedly thin ones only), but also on the front (any thickness should work here). With this much radiator space, it hopefully means the 6 120mm fans attached to them can run very slowly and quietly.
  • Back Panel Lighting: The case has a switch in the back that illuminates the back panel connectors for the motherboard and expansion slots. When I saw this feature in the video, I was blown away, thinking why someone hasn’t done this before! Well, maybe they have, but it’s the first time I saw it and I have to say it is an ingenuous idea. I can’t count how many times I’ve had trouble seeing the ports and labels on the back panel in my relatively dim room.
  • PSU Shroud, Drive Bay Shield, and Window: The PSU is completely invisible and the shroud extends all the way to the shield for the drive bay area, which looks really nice. The window also only shows components up until the shield. While some may want to show off things like the water pump, radiators, and reservoir, I actually don’t mind covering them up. I think it will make for a cleaner look, while also absorbing some of the pump noise with the noise-reduction foam.

Here’s a couple more videos of the NZXT H440. First, from LinusTechTips:

And then from eTeknix (featuring an NZXT representative explaining the case and telling us the shipping timeframes):

The Alternatives Ruled Out

In my original search for a great water-cooling case, I considered the following cases but ruled them out for the reasons listed:

  • Fractal Design Arc Mini R2: This was my main choice for a while, primarily due to having good radiator support in a relatively small space, as well as the low price. I also like the simple design of the Fractal Design cases. However, I was concerned that since it was designed mainly for high airflow, the case would not be silent enough. Also, the case is not that deep, and I wasn’t sure if I could fit the pump and reservoir I wanted (which I’ll go into in a future post) along with a long video card, which most of the higher end cards tend to be. The ATX sized Arc Midi R2 was ruled out because it is outdated compared to the Arc Mini R2 or the too large Arc XL (e.g. SSD mounts required removing the motherboard, for instance, which was corrected with the use of brackets on the newer Arc Mini R2 and Arc XL).
  • Case-Labs Mercury S3 / S5: I briefly considered the Case-Labs cases (S3 is the Mini-ITX while S5 is Micro-ATX), which many say are the best water cooling cases available. They may very well be, but they are also really big and really expensive. I didn’t want to spend $300+ on the case alone, and I really didn’t need all of the customization and component support options provided by these cases. After all, my goal wasn’t to build a massive overclocking machine, but a silent one.
  • Phanteks Enthoo Luxe: I heard about the Enthoo Luxe, a smaller version of the critically acclaimed Enthoo Primo, before I learned of the H440, even though both were announced at CES 2014. At the time, the features of the Luxe really stood out, including the PSU shroud, fan hub, and even a padded bracket for a water cooling pump. It seemed like this case was really designed for easy water cooling, and it was also relatively affordable at the $140 expected price point. However, the release date is in March, and I didn’t really like the aesthetics all that much (I don’t really need bright colored lights everywhere). However, because I was impressed by the features of this case, I immediately took to the H440 as it seemed to have many of the same features. I guess you could say that the Enthoo Luxe prepared me to meet and fall for the H440, so for that I thank it.

Waiting for the H440

As mentioned, the H440 is expected to ship the second week of February. Hopefully there aren’t any delays, but in the mean time, I’ve been trying to get the rest of the cooling and system components. Finding a good deal on system parts often means waiting for sales to pop-up, but I won’t wait too long after I get most of the goods. The next part in this series will come after some of the parts arrive. Until then, tata!

2014-06-11 UPDATE: Part 2 is now up! Read Building a Quiet Water Cooled Gaming PC – Part 2: Water Cooling Components

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