Face-Off: The Kraken X61, Reserator 3 Max Dual, And NH-D15

Compact liquid vs. big air gets even bigger as companies attempt to cope with higher CPU core counts. We pit our biggest air-cooling sample against two equally massive liquid coolers to see who has the best cooling, lowest noise and greatest value.

We've been drawing comparisons between closed-loop liquid coolers and socket-mounted heat sinks for years, and the reasons for picking one or the other have grown in proportion to cooler size.

Lower cost, reduced maintenance and improved portability remain the rationale for choosing a closed-loop solution instead of custom-installed liquid coolers. But even after consigning open-loop liquid to the most hardcore enthusiasts, we must concede that closed-loop kits face some of the same obstacles. Systems sporting large heat sinks also reduce cost and increase longevity compared to closed-loop liquid, and longevity can also be considered an eventual maintenance issue.

It might seem, then, that big heat sinks win the debate before we even start testing, and that closed-loop coolers need to significantly outperform big heat sinks in order to justify their existence. Yet, most of our tests conclude that there’s no performance gain in adding a pump to your cooling system when the radiator is no larger than the heat sink it replaces. Why would anyone even bother with closed loops, then?

A look at today’s contenders reveals at least two of those answers!

CPU Cooler Features
Air Cooler
Specifications
Noctua
NH-D15
Liquid Cooler
Specifications
NZXT
Kraken X61
Zalman Reserator
-3 Max Dual
Height6.4"Thickness1.1" (2.2" w/fans)3" (Combined)
Width6.0"Width5.5"5.5" w/Brackets
Depth5.3" (6.4" w/fan)Depth12.3"10.8"
Base Height1.7"Pump Height1.3"1.5"
Assy. OffsetNone (1.1" w/fan)ControllerSoftwareNone
Cooling Fans(2) 150 x 25mmCooling Fans(2) 140 x25mm(2) 120 x 25mm
Connectors(2) 4-PinConnectorsUSB/SATA/3-PIN1x 4-Pin, 1x 3-Pin
Weight48 OuncesWeight45 Ounces48 Ounces
Intel Sockets115x, 2011Intel Sockets115x, 2011, 1366115x, 2011, 1366
AMD Sockets4-bolt RectangularAMD Sockets4-bolt Rectangular4-bolt Rectangular
WarrantySix YearsWarrantySix YearsOne Year

Who would hang a three-pound cooler off their processor interface, knowing that it’s going to turn into a wrecking ball as soon as the machine gets shipped somewhere? We’ve seen smaller coolers than these break off from the motherboard, smashing surrounding components. That’s a lot of equipment to lose.

And then there’s the matter of clearance. System builder and graphics guru Don Woligroski was forced to take a hacksaw to his high-end memory in order to fit a big CPU cooler into his System Builder Marathon machine. That move earned him the temporary title Hacksaw Don, and the fact that I actually specified DIMM clearance (base height, thickness and assembly offset) in my review of the cooler he used erased any sympathy he might have otherwise garnered.

The only reason we often see “big air” in our System Builder Marathon configurations is because it’s cheaper. Whenever large heat sinks are big enough to outperform closed-loop liquid, we’re left warning readers that their PCs must be handled gingerly. We’ve even been forced to disassemble our completed boxes prior to shipping after one of our winners fell victim to the wrecking-ball effect on a cooler less than half this size.

All of this means that a performance win by Noctua’s NH-D15 would necessitate a flurry of caveats in our final recommendations. NZXT and Zalman better step up!

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35 comments
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  • tom10167
    Nice article, though the NH-D14 at only $75 seems like the best value.
  • F0lterknecht
    Would have liked to see the numbers for push/pull on the AIOs :-(

    Take 4 reference coolers and you can stick 2 of them to the NH-D15 to keep the noise measurements fair ... .
  • F0lterknecht
    I mean 4 fans ofc
  • F0lterknecht
    I mean 4 fans ofc
  • op8
    which is why I always use test bench style cases so you dont have to worry about warping during transport.
  • Amdlova
    put another Fans on the noctua and blow away those water coolers. Noctua make good products. And you never will move your cage with this heavy weight 760T If wanna move something you will spend money on Alluminium (silver stone, lian li, etc).

    1 kg of cooler for 12kg of corsair monster.
  • op8
    which is why I always use test bench style cases so you dont have to worry about warping during transport.
  • Crashman
    1335368 said:
    put another Fans on the noctua and blow away those water coolers. Noctua make good products. And you never will move your cage with this heavy weight 760T If wanna move something you will spend money on Alluminium (silver stone, lian li, etc). 1 kg of cooler for 12kg of corsair monster.


    It weighs less than the Aluminium case to which is was compared:
    http://www.tomshardware.com/reviews/atx-pc-cases-caselabs-merlin-sm8-corsair-graphite-760t-thermaltake-urban-t81,3865.html
  • middlemarkal
    where is the thermaltake ultimate ?
  • envy14tpe
    Not a fan of liquid cooling but results like these are getting me to come around. However, the noise and price are the last two things that need to be fixed.

    I mean Corsair's top coolers, H100i or H105, are getting fans replaced which adds $$$. I'd rather put more money into the mobo or consider a custom loop at that point. Really wish the H100i was included in trial. None the less, keep up the great articles.
  • chenw
    Jeez, all those water coolers and they still can't beat the premium Noctua HSF?
  • xyriin
    I've been using closed loop coolers for years now and never going back. Sure they're a bit more expensive than air coolers but better performance and less physical stress on the board.

    Plus the cost difference isn't that bad. You'll be buying two less case fans anyway as the radiator fan combo will replace two case fans you'd have to buy in an air setup anyway. Additionally, your air cooler case fans have to be top notch because your air cooler is dumping all that heat directly into the case and board chipset overheating is also a real thing.
  • dovah-chan
    How about an AIO kraken G10 roundup? A lot of cards can usually be maxed out on a 120mm 25mm thick radiator. Even dual GPUs can run quite cool on a single 120mm radiator.
  • chesteracorgi
    To all the fanboys of Big Air: Motherboard manufacturers don't build their products to withstand a constant 1kg + shearing force. If you mishandle a Big Air rig it will crack the motherboard, but even if you don't mishandle it the motherboard will crack over time. Small cracks may not affect performance, but then again it is hard to detect when a small crack in a PCB will cause electrical leakage or failure.

    If you are building for longevity Small Air (for non-over clockers) and CLCs are worthy trade offs for the difference in cooling. But if you truly want to OC then get liquid nitrogen and spend $10 K + on cooling alone.
  • ubercake
    The AIOs are really good when it comes to shipping a system, they keep a clean look to the system, they are extremely easy to work around and they give performance like the top-end air coolers. I started using them in 2010. Because of their performance and reliability, I no longer consider using air coolers unless they are stock in the least expensive of systems I build. I also always only buy those AIOs with 5+ years of warranty.

    This is a good review. I'm going to try an X61 as my next cooler on my gaming PC. I do agree with another poster here though as I'd like to see this compared with a Corsair H110 (also 140mm fans).
  • InvalidError
    Those HSF with brackets that screw into the base block from under make me nervous: if you cross-thread or over-tighten the screws, they may break or get ripped out of their holes after attaching the HSF to the motherboard due to the amount of leverage between the motherboard attachment points and the block's screws themselves.

    I am far more comfortable with retention bars that go across the top of the base block like the 212s' do. With the screws at the ends of the bars, the screws have a 1.5:1 mechanical advantage instead of a 20:1 disadvantage, making them far less susceptible to bumps even before accounting for the extra flex in the bar itself which would absorb some of the shock as well, reducing stress on the screws that much further.
  • gamebrigada
    Have the X61 in my current build. Love the looks and design. Everything felt premium putting it in. Didn't really have any other choice as my case didn't have room for anything even slightly thicker, and it looked great in my NZXT case.

    I'm not sure those numbers on the pump are doubled up. When that puppy cranks up to full blast it makes a hell of a rattle. I have a 5960x cranked up to 4.4ghz. With a full prime95 load running at just over 70C that thing start screaming. I have mine sitting on my desk and I can feel the vibrations throughout. The cam software is complete junk, even though they've come a long way since I got it. I've had it report temps below freezing on my proc... The weird thing is the liquid temperature is consistently higher than the temperature on the proc.
  • Dogsnake
    If you are a builder that plans on an extreme/push the envelope overclock where noise is not an issue then a custom closed loop with bleeding edge coolant formulation may be the way to go. These all in one out of the box products are aimed at the more middle of the road performance oriented builder. The units in the comparison are direct competitors. The liquid offerings still do not present a slam dunk for their use. Put a fan controller on the Noctua and ramp up to a comparative Db level and see who wins the cooling race. Or better yet turn down the wet heads to the noise level of the air head and watch out for smoke. Until the closed loop products improve big air will be the overall winner for me. You may get a few degrees improvement but does it give you longer component life, higher O.C. or any other system benefit? I think not. If I were to need to ship my system or move it a distance I would pull the hard drives, remove the Noctua and provide some sort of packing/protection for the items remaining internally.
    What builder having spent their coin on a performance system would not take the time to do the same? Closed loop looks kul as they improve the noise/cooling/price ratios I will surely be an adopter. Until then I remain an Air Head.
  • gamebrigada
    Quote:
    If you are a builder that plans on an extreme/push the envelope overclock where noise is not an issue then a custom closed loop with bleeding edge coolant formulation may be the way to go. These all in one out of the box products are aimed at the more middle of the road performance oriented builder. The units in the comparison are direct competitors. The liquid offerings still do not present a slam dunk for their use. Put a fan controller on the Noctua and ramp up to a comparative Db level and see who wins the cooling race. Or better yet turn down the wet heads to the noise level of the air head and watch out for smoke. Until the closed loop products improve big air will be the overall winner for me. You may get a few degrees improvement but does it give you longer component life, higher O.C. or any other system benefit? I think not. If I were to need to ship my system or move it a distance I would pull the hard drives, remove the Noctua and provide some sort of packing/protection for the items remaining internally. What builder having spent their coin on a performance system would not take the time to do the same? Closed loop looks kul as they improve the noise/cooling/price ratios I will surely be an adopter. Until then I remain an Air Head.


    I like the idea of water so I can stick the radiator on the exhaust on my case and be done. No weird hot air streams going weird places. In my case It was air or AIO. Midtower with dual water cooling? Good luck doing custom in there. I also prefer the look, although my old coolermaster V8 is still the best looker out there. Nothing beats the "Thats your f'ing CPU cooler?" from everyone that ever looked in my case.
  • firefoxx04
    I just bought the D15 for $85 on newegg. It went out of stock shortly after and is now priced at $100.

    I think its worth it over the D14 considering it has the newer fans. It wont beat the D14 by any large margin but thats fine by me. The cooler is very quiet, as shown in the test results. It was a bit hotter but not by any crazy amount, plus the better coolers were more expensive and louder.

    If I had to buy one of the AIOs, it would be the NZXT simply because of the 6 year backing. The Zalman comes with a lame 1 year warranty. The 6 year on the noctua and nzxt is what really matters to me.
  • qlum
    I do think the AIO's have some potential that has not been explored much. They can run pretty much completely silent when you don't oc your cpu, my cooler master one has its fans turned off in the fan controller when I don't oc and the pump turned low enough not to be audible which in my case means the hard drives are by far the loudest component in the case. when I don't oc.
  • iam2thecrowe
    1796090 said:
    Jeez, all those water coolers and they still can't beat the premium Noctua HSF?

    If by "premium" you mean oversized and ugly, then sure. Personally i would not have an oversized ugly cooler hanging off my motherboard, nor would it fit in my case.
  • dovah-chan
    I am thinking of moving away from my own Corsair H100i. It's because I'm getting sick of everyone and their mom having the same AIO as me. More than likely going to go full custom loop one of these days. Sure it's a lot more money, but I'll certainly pay a premium for sleek looks that is unique to pretty much me only. (besides the sparse few who can afford it)

    Dang I sound like an elitist :T
  • RedJaron
    699111 said:
    Not a fan of liquid cooling but results like these are getting me to come around. However, the noise and price are the last two things that need to be fixed.

    Same here. Liquid's usually not worth it to me either, but products like the Kraken are definitely changing my mind.