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Noctua NH-D15 CPU Cooler Review

AkG

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With the advent of easily installed, quiet and high performance all in one water coolers like Corsair's Hydro series, the lay of the land has changed for air-based CPU heatsinks. Many don't find them as versatile or able to deliver same same excellent results but technology on the heatsink front hasn't stood still and Noctua's new NH-D15 is meant to effectively close the gap between air and water.

The market where the D15 finds itself in is a cluttered one with literally dozens of options regardless of what your preferences are. Where Noctua has always distinguished themselves as designing some of the quietest coolers around and that's something unique when it comes to higher performance solutions. In an effort to deliver water-like results, it's often a race to the bottom of the acoustics pile but that may change with the NH-D15


In many ways the D15 is a very close cousin to Noctua's groundbreaking NH-D14 and improves in several areas that were deemed in need of revision to deliver optimal cooling. With that being said, regardless of the improvements this is still a $100 heatsink and for that kind of money buyers have access to the Corsair Hydro H80i and H100i. Those are some serious competitors.

Noctua does add some value to their overall proposition with a number of included high quality accessories. There’s the usual SecuFirm2 mounting system, a small yet full syringe of Noctua’s thermal compound, a Y adapter to attach the included fans to a single motherboard header and Low / Ultra Low Noise adapters.


Noctua’s NH-15 is an absolutely massive cooler and while that will likely be beneficial due its impressive thermal mass, compatibility benefits are firmly in the water coolers’ realm. It is so massive that it even makes a Phanteks TC14PE look normal sized in comparison. Weight is another concern since with three fans installed we’re looking at about 1.5KG hanging off a motherboard.


In order to obtain a broadly compatible design while maximizing size, Noctua took the D14 template and modified it as necessary to work optimally with their newer NF-A15 fan. As such the D15 is a dual tower cooling solution with two massive fin arrays and an insane amount of heatpipes. Those heatpipes are centered within each fin array in a straight, evenly spaced row. This ensures that each heatpipe is properly cooled by the large two fin arrays and no heatpipe is partially blocked by any other.

As an added bonus (and just like the D14 before it) this design also means the heatpipes are actively cooled by the D15’s fans' air movement instead of relying solely upon the fin array like some less advanced coolers do.


Looking closely at the sides of the cooling towers, a distinct double U-shape quickly becomes evident. This distinctive layout allows for fans to be mounted on both sides of the array so the D15 can accept up to three fans. This means fans can be moved slightly higher or lower on the array in order to improve compatibility with a broad range of cases and motherboards.

The Noctua NH-D15 relies upon two NF-A15 fans but has the abilities to use any 120mm fan, in up to three fan configurations. The NF-A15 may not be as powerful as the F12 Noctua produces, but its unique 140x150mm design does get the job done. At full speed it moves 67.7 CFM at a moderate 1.51mm of static pressure. This is slightly more airflow (65CFM) at a higher static pressure (1.21mm) than the 140x140 NF-P14-FLX which the D14 comes equipped with.


After removing the fans the very first thing which stands out is the large amount of changes incorporated into the two cooling arrays when compared to the older D14. While very advanced for its time, the D14's slab sided fin array simply relied upon a saw tooth pattern to 'cut' the air in order to lower static pressure requirements. In this regards the D14 was somewhat successful, however it did need high static pressure fans to really shine.

The new D15's fin setup should be much more forgiving to lower static pressure fans like the NF-A15. It utilizes a design that is very similar to that of the U14S which also uses the A15. IN this case there’s a deeply sloping ‘V’ profile on each side of the two cooling arrays which helps channel the airflow and remove any dead zones created by the fan’s hub.

Another feature of the D15's fin array, and something the U14S didn’t receive, are the extra strict cooling towers. Having two very deep fin arrays may increase cooling performance but it also brings up issues with ram clearances. In order to accommodate as many motherboards and ram height profiles as possible, while retaining excellent cooling abilities, each of the D15's fin arrays has a large notch cut out of its bottom portion. This notch allows the installation of RAM modules after the D15 is in place. It’s a brilliant solution.


Make sure as much heat is transferred to the heatpipes and then on to the fin arrays, Noctua has once again opted for a thin solid copper, chrome plated base that has each of the six heatpipes welded directly to it. This is a tried and true approach that was fully expected as Noctua has spent a lot of years perfecting this particular design. It also has one of the best quality finishes we have seen in a long time.
 
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AkG

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Setup and Installation (Intel/AMD)

Setup and Installation (Intel & AMD)



The D15's installation procedure is surprisingly straightforward given the heatsink’s size and the fact that the NH-D14 was a bit of a pain to get set up. Just remember it only supports Intel sockets 2011 or 155x on the Intel side but an 1366 mounting system can be ordered through Noctua.

Noctua has once again used their excellent SecuFirm 2 mounting system which implements a simple three-step installation approach on Intel systems. It consists of a backplate, some spacers, two alignment arms and a retention system that’s been pre-installed onto the heatsink. The backplate itself is easy to install, though it doesn’t have any double sided tape to hold it in place. This does necessitate some wrangling but not a huge amount of frustration provided it you install everything on a flat surface.

On top of this backplate, four long retaining bolts are installed onto which a quartet of white spacers are placed to ensure adequate and even mounting pressure can be applied. This also strictly limits the amount of over-tightening, virtually eliminating motherboard or CPU damage.

The bolts and spacers act as a sturdy platform for the primary mounting bars. These act as a bridge between the mounting holes and each has a single threaded bolt which provides a unified point for heatsink installation. Actually installing these couldn’t be easier since Noctua provides thumb screws and their own screwdriver while the spacers firmly hinder any over-tightening.


The next step is to actually install the cooler itself which involves removing the pre-installed centrally located A15 fan, aligning the handy integrated spring-loaded bolt system and then tightening down the whole affair. With that done all that is left is to reinstall the central fan, and decide on whether or not you wish to install a third fan.


Unfortunately, just like the D14 before it Noctua has made it abundantly clear that while you can use three fans this cooler was designed with two fans in mind. Namely the lack of included vibration dampening material for a third fan, or even wire brackets to mount a third fan makes it pretty clear the designers’ never intended for another fan to be installed.


Thanks to the rather generous cutouts in the fin arrays, we doubt many consumers will run into any significant problems with all but the tallest of RAM modules. Because the two large cooling towers expand upwards, there shouldn’t be any issues with motherboard heatsinks either.

The only real installation issue associated with the D15 is its weight. This cooler is heavy and we would strongly recommend you run the D15 in dual fan mode.


AMD Install


On the AMD side of things, the installation very similar to the Intel process, albeit with an extra necessary step: the standard AMD plastic retention ring needs to be removed while leaving the backplate where it is.


To modify the standard backplate to accept the D14 the plastic tube-like washers have to be threaded over the bolts on the top side down into the backplate. With this down you then install the two AMD retaining brackets.


With all this accomplished you then prep the CPU, apply some TIM and gently lay the D14 cooler in place. The pre-installed metal tabs with spring loaded screws on the base of this cooler do not have to be removed and replaced with AMD ones as the customization / retrofitting is not needed. The different size brackets we just installed a moment ago take care of any nonsense like that for you.


Once again those large cutouts in the heatsink fin array do make the difference between a decent installation process and a great one. Most AMD users shouldn’t have issues with this large cooler when it comes to both RAM and chipset cooling tower compatibility. This really does help justify the D15's higher asking price and we certainly would not recommend the D14 knowing just how much easier the D15 is to work with.
 
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AkG

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Stock & High Speed Fan Performance Results

Stock Fan Performance Results






The D15 is obviously a better CPU cooler than the D14 it replaces and considering just how good the D14 is, that really is saying something. Noctua certainly should be proud of what they accomplished as it sets the bar for low noise, air based designs awfully high. Put simply, in stock configurations the D15 is easily one of the best air based options available right now.


High Speed Fan Performance Results





This is a dual tower cooler and while you can technically use it in single fan configurations you really don’t want to do that. By the same token, at moderate and stock heat loads the difference in performance is not as significant as we would have thought. This cooler really does have thermal mass and thus performance potential to burn.
 
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AkG

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Dual & Triple Fan / Air vs Water Results

Dual & Triple Fan Results




It is unfortunate that due to its unique design philosophy the Noctua NH-D15 is unable to mount standard 140mm fans. This does put it at a significant disadvantage compared to Phanteks TC14PE and many other dual tower coolers already available on the market. By the same token the D15 can easily mount 120mm fans and the number of high performance 120mm fans - which are not buzz saw loud - are more numerous and much easier to source.

More importantly the stock fans do offer very impressive levels of performance and it will only be a small subset of consumers who wishes to swap them out for more high performance 120mm fans. As with all things in life there are trade-offs with any design, whether or not Noctua made the right design decision really will be up to you and your particular needs.

Moving on to triple fan results it is obvious that Noctua has made large strides in improving their 'stock' fans' performance, but compared to what other massive coolers can do Noctua still has a long ways to go in this regards. By the same token the results of three NF-A15's aren't bad per se, but the increase in weight will be rather hard to justify given the moderate increase in performance.


Water vs Air Results


We do not make it a habit to compare 'apples' to 'oranges' but considering the Noctua D15's asking price is dangerously close to what water based AIO units cost we do feel it necessary to actually compare this air based CPU cooling solution to water based units. This is what we found out.


As you can see, the Noctua D15 certainly does not dominate like it does in our typical air tests but the results are still very good. This is especially true considering some of these AIO uinits cost more than the D15. However, the difference in price between them is not as extreme as it should be. Noctua certainly have made a great air cooler, but at this price range it is starting to get harder and harder to justify with so many great water coolers out there.

Obviously if you are interested in insane cooling performance, a stock D15 is not as optimal choice as that of water. Noctua really needs to work on the pricing aspect of their coolers as its price premium is now a lot harder to justify considering AIOs are now 'mainstream'.
 
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AkG

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Sound Testing

Sound Level Testing


<div align="center">
<img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/Air_Cooling/D15/noise.jpg" border="0" alt="" />
</div>

Noctua fans and coolers have always excelled at this test and the D15 is no exception. Put simply it is as quiet a cooling solution as it is powerful. This also goes a long way towards justifying its cost against the higher end water coolers out there.
 
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AkG

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Conclusion

Conclusion


Noctua has always been known as a company that creates some awesome, highly engineered cooling solutions but there’s always a cost associated with their relentless pursuit of perfection. In the NH-D15’s case, this cost is twofold; it is expensive relative to its competitors and the amount of space needed for installation could be a turnoff to some. However the D15 still manages to be one of the best air coolers around, one that will become a gold standard upon which others will be judged.

The innovation starts from the installation process which, despite the D15 being a monstrously large cooler, is quite easy. Noctua has built in carefully designed notches which aides in the installation of memory modules even after the heatsink is in place. That’s a major advantage over the NH-D14 which needed every millimeter it could spare in order to deliver optimal results. The only concern here is weight but that’s taken care of by an innovative backplate design that spreads out any potential pressure points.

In the transition from D14 to D15, Noctua has created what is easily the most sophisticated twin tower design we have seen to date. It sports a massive amount of raw thermal mass and some innovative improvements over the previous generation. This evolutionary approach doesn’t depart in any major visible ways from the previous generation but there are enough changes that performance improvements have been realized at every heat load. More importantly, the D15’s superiority over other air coolers has been achieved while utilizing some of the quietest fans on the market.

Silence may be golden but in terms of absolute performance, despite the NH-D15’s relatively high price of $99 it often falls behind from a number of perspectives when compared against comparably priced all-in-one water coolers. While Noctua’s mega heatsink may not be hard to install and it doesn’t take up an exhaust fan port, but the 120mm / 140mm AIOs have it beat in the installation and compatibility department. Also, while those water-based units do need slightly higher fan speeds to achieve their lower temperatures, for the most part they aren’t noticeably louder when installed into a case and temperatures are significantly better than there air-based counterparts. In many cases their fan speeds can also be fine tuned via software as well so the D15 is fighting an uphill battle on a number of fronts.

While the NH-D15 may not be a good fit for anyone with a smaller enclosure and its performance isn’t quite up to all-in-one water cooling levels, this is one of the best air-based heatsinks on the market. Noctua has found a way to incorporate broad memory module compatibility with a design that is deceptively simple to install and boasts a whisper quiet acoustical profile. That’s an achievement that very few competing products have been able to attain.

<div align="center"><img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/akg/Air_Cooling/D15/dam_good.jpg" border="0" alt="" /></div>
 
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