Noctua NH-U12S Heatsink Review

Noctua is known for quiet fans and some would say an unorthodox color scheme. They’ve managed to power past their color choices though and have built a reputation as one of the premier cooling manufacturers on the market today. The heatsink we’re looking at today is in their silent series, the Noctua NH-U12S.

Specifications & Features

Noctua has a lot to say about their heatsink and of course it’s all good. For this section, we’ll just quote from their web site and let the specs & features do the talking. The main takeaways are – it’s quiet, it claims 100% RAM compatibility (with the inevitable rare-case caveat) and all modern socket compatibility. It will even fit legacy sockets with a not included, but free adapter kit. Last, but not least, it comes with a solid six year warranty.

Company Line

The NH-U12S is the latest 12cm model of Noctua’s classic U-series single tower CPU coolers, which have received more than 400 awards and recommendations from the international press. The S-version’s 45mm slim shape guarantees 100% compatibility with tall RAM modules and at the same time, its fine-tuned design and the class-leading NF-F12 FocusedFlow™ fan with PWM support for fully automatic speed control allow it to further improve its predecessor’s renowned quiet cooling performance. Topped off with the trusted, pro-grade SecuFirm2™ multi-socket mounting system, Noctua’s proven NT-H1 thermal compound and full 6 years manufacturer’s warranty, the NH-U12S is a complete premium quality solution that combines outstanding performance, quiet operation and excellent compatibility.

Specifications

Socket compatibility Intel LGA2011 (Square ILM), LGA1156, LGA1155, LGA1150 & AMD AM2, AM2+, AM3, AM3+, FM1, FM2 (backplate required)
Height (without fan) 158 mm
Width (without fan) 125 mm
Depth (without fan) 45 mm
Height (with fan) 158 mm
Width (with fan) 125 mm
Depth (with fan) 71 mm
Weight (without fan) 580 g
Weight (with fan) 755 g
Material Copper (base and heat-pipes), aluminum (cooling fins), soldered joints & nickel plating
Fan compatibility 120x120x25 mm
Scope of Delivery
  • NF-F12 PWM premium fan
  • Low-Noise Adaptor (L.N.A.)
  • NT-H1 high-grade thermal compound
  • SecuFirm2™ Mounting Kit
  • Anti-vibration pads and fan-clips for second NF-F12
  • Noctua Metal Case-Badge
Warranty 6 Years
Fan specifications
Model Noctua NF-F12 PWM
Bearing SSO2
Max. Rotational Speed (+/- 10%) 1500 RPM
Max. Rotational Speed with L.N.A. (+/- 10%) 1200 RPM
Min. Rotational Speed (PWM) 300 RPM
Max. Airflow 93.4 m³/h
Max. Airflow with L.N.A. 74.3 m³/h
Max. Acoustical Noise 22.4 dB(A)
Max. Acoustical Noise with L.N.A. 18.6 dB(A)
Input Power 0.6 W
Voltage Range 12 V
MTBF > 150.000 h

Features

NH-U12S Features Award-winning NH-U12 series – The NH-U12S is the latest version of Noctua’s award-winning NH-U12 coolers. First introduced in 2005, the NH-U series has become a standard choice for premium quality quiet CPU coolers and won more than 400 awards and recommendations from leading international hardware websites and magazines.
NH-U12S Features 100% RAM compatibility – Thanks to its slim design with only 45mm fin depth, the NH-U12S will not overhang the RAM slots even with two fans installed. This gives the user full access to the memory modules on all current CPU sockets and guarantees 100% compatibility with tall heatspreaders or optional memory fans.*
NH-U12S Features Classic 120mm tower size for excellent overall compatibility – Standing 158mm tall, the NH-U12S is short enough to fit most modern mid- or high-end tower cases. Measuring 125mm wide (including fan and fan clips), the cooler stays clear of the top PCIe slot on standard ATX or Micro-ATX motherboards, ensuring best compatibility with SLI and CrossFire setups.
NF-A15 NF-F12 120mm Focused Flow™ fan – Recommended by more than 150 hardware publications and thousands of enthusiasts world-wide, the Noctua’s premium quality NF-F12 Focused Flow™ 120mm fan is renowned to combine superb static pressure, excellent heatsink performance and surprising quietness of operation.
NH-U12S Features PWM support and Low-Noise Adaptor – The NF-F12 120mm fan supplied with the NH-U12S supports PWM for convenient automatic speed control through the mainboard. In addition, the maximum fan speed can be reduced from 1500 to 1200rpm using the supplied Low-Noise Adaptor for even quieter operation.
NH-U12S Features Anti-vibration pads and fan-clips for second NF-F12 (optional) – For users who want to achieve even better performance by adding a second, optional NF-F12 fan to create a push/pull setup, the NH-U12S includes fan clips and an extra set of custom-designed anti-vibration pads that allow to off-set the rear fan by 5mm to improve acoustics in dual-fan mode.
NH-U12S Features SecuFirm2™ mounting system – Noctua’s SecuFirm2™ mounting systems have become synonymous with quality, safety and ease of use. Supporting Intel LGA115x (LGA1150, LGA1155, LGA1156), LGA2011 and AMD (AM3+, AM2+, FM1, FM2), the SecuFirm2™ mounting included with the NH-U12S guarantees perfect contact pressure and maximum convenience on all current sockets.
NH-U12S Features Compatibility with past and future sockets – Complying with the open SecuFirm™ standard, the NH-U12S can be made compatible with the older LGA1366 and LGA775 sockets using the optional NM-I3 mounting kit, which is provided by Noctua free of charge. If technically possible, Noctua will also provide upgrade kits for future sockets.
NF-A15 NT-H1 thermal compound – Having received more than 100 awards and recommendations from hardware journalists around the world, Noctua’s NT-H1 is a proven professional grade TIM solution that provides minimum thermal resistance, excellent ease of use and outstanding reliability.
NH-U12S Features 6 years warranty – Noctua products are renowned for their impeccable quality and outstanding longevity. Like all Noctua fans, the supplied NF-F12 features an MTBF rating of more than 150.000 hours and the entire NH-U12S package comes with a full 6 years manufacturer’s warranty.

*Some AMD mainboards violate the 96x114mm keep-out zone specified by AMD, so the NH-U12S can only be used with RAM modules of up to 40mm height on these boards. Please consult our compatibility list for details.

Now that the company has had its say, tis our turn.

Meet the Noctua NH-U12S

The packaging for this heatsink and fan (they included a second NF-F12 fan for push-pull testing) is second to none. This heatsink and fan are going to arrive in pristine condition.

Noctua NH-U12S and NF-F12

Noctua NH-U12S and NF-F12

Starting off with the heatsink and included (single) fan, all of the specs & features you saw above are listed on the box itself.

Noctua NH-U12S

Noctua NH-U12S

Features in a Nutshell

Features in a Nutshell

Features

Features

Specifications

Specifications

Rather than just tossing everything in an accessories box and letting you sort it out, Noctua has kindly arranged everything in individual boxes.

Well Packaged

Well Packaged

There are a lot of accessories on with this heatsink. In the general accessories box you get a small (as in not filled with a lot, not physically small) tube of NT-H1 thermal compound, a low noise adapter (which is totally redundant, this fan is silent already), a long screwdriver that can reach past the heatsink to the mounting screws, clips for a second fan and a case badge. In addition to that, there is everything you need to mount the heatsink to every major AMD and Intel socket type on the market, including but not limited to LGA 1155, LGA 2011 ( both Intel), AM3+ and FM2+ (both AMD).

General Accessories

General Accessories

AMD Mounting Kit

AMD Mounting Kit

Intel Mounting Kit

Intel Mounting Kit

Now the heasink/fan combination itself. The NH-U12S is a very good looking heatsink. Coming from a Venomous X (my only other air cooler), this is a much smaller heatsink, but with five heatpipes and a solid fin stack, the NH-U12S looks and feels very robust.

Noctua NH-U12S

Noctua NH-U12S

Noctua NH-U12S

Noctua NH-U12S

Noctua NH-U12S

Noctua NH-U12S

Noctua NH-U12S

Noctua NH-U12S

Noctua NH-U12S

Noctua NH-U12S

Noctua NH-U12S

Noctua NH-U12S

As you can see, this thing is tightly packed. They’ve managed to fit five heatpipes into a heatsink that’s barely thicker than the fan mounted on it.

Fan Clip

Fan Clip

The top is emblazoned with Noctua’s name & cool owl logo.

Heatsink Top

Heatsink Top

Regardless of which mounting kit you use, the heatsink mounts very easily with two Phillips head screws. This part is hard-mounted on the heatsink and spring-loaded so you get even, centered mounting pressure every time.

Base Mount

Base Mount

The base is finished well and nickel-plated like the rest of the copper parts. It is not a mirror finish, with minor C&C markings, which some argue may even be better than a mirror finish, because it allows the thermal interface material (TIM) to get in those tiny grooves and do its job better.

Bottom Finish

Bottom Finish

As mentioned, they also included a second Noctua NF-F12 PWM fan for push-pull testing. This fan is packaged just as nicely as the heatsink itself.

Noctua NF-F12 Fan

Noctua NF-F12 Fan

Fan Specificaions

Fan Specifications

Fan Build

Fan Build

NF-F12 Fan

NF-F12 Fan

The fan and its accessories come in a plastic tray. The four chess pawn looking things at the top are rubber grommets that allow you to mount the fan isolated from your chassis if you use it as a case fan. Extreme quiet is a theme with Noctua and they give you all the accessories you need to work toward the goal of silence.

Fan & Accessories

Fan & Accessories

The fan comes with very important wiring accessories. There is a 4-pin PWM extension wire, the (as mentioned, redundant) low noise adapter and the very important PWM splitter. This handy tool splits the power, ground and PWM signal to both fans, but only sends the RPM sensor wire to one of the fans. The splitter is well thought-out unlike most generic 3-pin splitters out there that require you to live with a) incorrect RPM readings or b) pulling the RPM sensor wire out yourself.

Included Wiring

Included Wiring

Now we get a look at the fan itself. Some love them, some hate them but there are very few who are absolutely neutral about Noctua fan design. Not the fan design itself, which is superb, but the colors. There is one noctua fan combination – beige with maroon. You don’t like it? You can get someone else’s fan. However, with their reputation and smart design this color scheme can end up being a badge of pride in people’s cases. The big departures from your run-of-the-mill fans are the angled frame behind the fan (which Noctua says better directs the airflow) and both the varied angular distances and vortex control notches that they say reduces noise. One thing I can say with certainty is that, on their own, these fans are absolutely silent. Operating via PWM, they can go as low as 300 RPM for even quieter operation. At full speed, all you hear is the whoosh of air with a hint of fan motor.

Noctua NF-F12

Noctua NF-F12

Noctua NF-F12

Noctua NF-F12

Noctua NF-F12

Noctua NF-F12

When you put two of these fans on the NH-U12S, you’ve got more fan than you do heatsink.

Noctua NH-U12S + NF-F12

Noctua NH-U12S + NF-F12

Noctua NH-U12S + NF-F12

Noctua NH-U12S + NF-F12

Noctua NH-U12S + NF-F12

Noctua NH-U12S + NF-F12

The mounting system is simple and quite self-explanatory. On socket 1150, you put the backplate through, install four plastic spacers, put the brackets on and affix them with thumbscrews. It really couldn’t be much simplier. The only easier mount would be AMD boards and perhaps socket 2011, both of which already have the backplates installed.

LGA 1155 Mount Installed

LGA 1155 Mount Installed

After the brackets are mounted, you put your thermal paste on and screw the heatsink down with the two Phillips head screws. Clip the fan back on and you’re done.

Cooler Installed

Cooler Installed

Their claim of RAM compatibility definitely applies to the regular ATX-sized Maximus VI Extreme. This is a standard socket 1150 configuration, so unless your socket area is reduced beyond that recommended (nay, demanded?) by Intel, you can bet any RAM will fit here, no matter how tall.

Test System

The test system for this review consists of a Haswell-based setup with two overclocks, one very minimal and one much more aggressive.

CPU Intel i7 4770K
Overclocks 4.0 GHz @ 1.15 V 4.8 GHz @ 1.30 V
MB ASUS Maximus VI Extreme
RAM G.Skill TridentX DDR3-2600
Heatsinks Noctua NH-U12S
Noctua NH-U12S with 2x Fans
Thermalright Venomous X
TIM Arctic Cooling MX-2
Ambient Thermometer Tenma 72-7715

While 0.15 V might not sound like much, that combined with an 800 MHz overclock translates to much higher temperatures, especially on the Haswell platform. These CPUs are difficult to keep in check thermally, especially on air cooling. The Venomous X only has one more heatpipe, but there is a whole lot more surface to dissipate the heat they draw from the CPU. The fan that resides on the Venomous X is a Delta AFB1212SH, which is not quiet by any stretch when turned up. However, at 50% it is fine and about as quiet as the two Noctua fans turned up to 100%. When you turn it up though, it is exponentially louder than the Noctua fans. I tried to find lesser fans to use on it but Thermalright’s fan clips require open corners on the fans and when testing that one, nothing else I had would work.

Thermalright VenomousX

Thermalright VenomousX

Noctua NH-U12S

Noctua NH-U12S

When installing TIM, I always use the pea-sized dollop in the middle of the CPU method. Ignore the stuff off to the side, that’s just me trying to wipe off what was still on the syringe to keep the cap clean. The NH-U12S spread the paste evenly every time. There is one far corner of the CPU that looks like it isn’t exactly flat. This ES 4770K could probably benefit from a lapping.

"Pea" MX-2 Application

“Pea” MX-2 Application

Thermal Paste Spread

Thermal Paste Spread

Thermal Paste Spread

Thermal Paste Spread

So far so good, let’s see how it performs.

Methodology

To keep things on an even keel, I tested with the fans set at 50% at idle and then at 4.0 GHz, with the fans both at 50% and 100% under load, all set manually with software (ASUS’ AISuite III). At 4.8 GHz, the software wouldn’t allow the fans to run less than 100% because of how hot the CPU was running. The CPU core temperatures were logged with CoreTemp while I manually wrote down ambient every 30 seconds using the Tenma 72-7715 with a K-type thermal probe. Each different scenario was loaded with Prime 95 small FFT test for three minutes while results were measured. The heatsink was mounted three times to eliminate the possibility of thermal paste application errors. All results ended up very near each other, but there were small variances between the runs. One constant is that there is a huge delta between the coolest and the hottest cores on this CPU, to the tune of 9-10 °C. That has nothing to do with either of these heatsinks and it has the same problem on water. Once the data was collected, I took an average of the ambient and averaged all the core measurements. Then I used the average ambient temperature to calculate the difference between ambient and 25.0 °C. Then the average maximum core temperature and the average of all core temperature averages were both normalized to 25.0 °C. In the charts below, “Avg. Load” means the average of all core temperatures, normalized to 25.0 °C ambient. “Max load” means the highest average core temperature, normalized to 25.0 °C.

Performance

The first overclock is a mild 4.0 GHz. I set the voltage at 1.15 V manually so it would be a known quantity.

4.0 GHz / 1.15 V Testing

4.0 GHz / 1.15 V Testing

As expected just from the sheer size difference, the Noctua is out-performed by the Venomous X, but it does pretty well for itself. When you add a second fan, there is a palpable difference in temperatures as well, more so with the fans at 50% than 100%. However, now’s the time to talk about noise. Here, let me give you a sub-heading.

Noise!

Author’s Note, 8/16/2013: Please see the comment below with regard to this issue. It may not be as bad as I thought due to reviewer error.

Author’s Note II, 8/21/2013: I received a board back to test this on and indeed, the thicker anti-vibration spacers do a great job of eliminating the annoying buzzing sound. The fans aren’t silent, but together they are a whole lot quieter than the single Delta fan used on the VenomousX. Thus, you can completely disregard the three paragraphs below, as they no longer apply. I’m leaving them in (indented so they are differentiated from my properly updated opinion) so we can all see the result of not reading your instruction manual!

The Noctua fans are designed for and accomplish extremely quiet operation. However, silence is not obtained with a pull fan on this heatsink. In its stock, single push fan configuration, the NH-U12S is indeed near silent, all the way from the minimum 300 RPM up to 100% operation. Unfortunately, there is some bad turbulence on the rear fan when you use it that introduces what can only be described as a humming. It’s not too loud – definitely not as loud as the delta fan at 100%, but it’s not as quiet as these fans are capable of running.

I first thought it was the fan, but when the fan isn’t pulling on this heatsink it is as silent as it should be. The noise level is roughly equal to that of the Delta fan at 50%, so it’s still quiet, but the noise is there and, frankly, it’s annoying. The Delta fan’s noise isn’t annoying, it just…is. This humming coming off the pull fan is definitely annoying.

Now, the important thing to note is that this does not occur in any noticeable quantity below 75-100% fan speed. It’s there and you can notice it if you listen for it at 50%, but it’s not what I would consider a problem. Once cranked up to 100% is when the humming reaches annoyance levels. It should also be noted I’m working on a test bench. Inside a case, you could probably hear this but it would not be very annoying and certainly a lot quieter than this Delta screamer at 100%. All things are relative, but since this is a review, you should know about the pull fan turbulence issue. Ok, back to results.

Performance (Continued)

Cranking a 4770K up to 4.8 GHz and 1.3 V will really put a hurting on any air cooler and neither of these are exceptions.

4.8 GHz / 1.30 V Testing

4.8 GHz / 1.30 V Testing

As you can see, once up at this level, the Venomous X does a better job coping with this kind of heat than the NH-U12S does. That is far from surprising, considering the size and fan differences. It’s also important to note that, even with a 25 mm thick fan, the Thermalright offering does not allow you to put RAM in the first slot on this (and most other) motherboards. That’s one of the big selling points of the Noctua heatsink and it doesn’t disappoint in that department.

Final Thoughts & Conclusion

The first thing we should go over to frame a conclusion is pricing. The Noctua NH-U12S will run you $69.99 shipped at Newegg. That does sound like a high-ish price for a heatsink until you consider the fact that it comes with a NF-F12 fan worth $24.99. You pay a decent price for the goodness the Noctua engineers have come up with. So, really, $70 for this heatsink & fan isn’t bad for what you get.

Regrettably those engineers didn’t do such a great job sound testing one of these superb fans in a pull configuration on this heatsink. Thus, I do not recommend buying the heatsink plus spending an additional $25 on a pull fan. Just buy the heatsink itself and be happy with its quiet operation. Repeat Author’s Note: Please see the comment below with regard to this issue. It may not be as bad as I thought due to reviewer error. Repeat Author’s Note II: Please see the subsequent comment after I have tested as outlined by Noctua. Considering the improved temperatures and now quiet operation, I believe I am comfortable rescinding the push-pull avoidance comment. Purchase a second fan to get the gains shown in the temperature graphs if you feel they are worth the $25 extra for the second NF-F12.

Ultimately, that’s what this heatsink does, and does it pretty well. It cools your CPU with a reasonable overclock and does so very quietly. If you don’t mind noise and you want cooling at all costs, there are better choices, like a Megahalems for the same price; though you’ll need to buy a fan to go with it. However, if you want a strong cooler that operates silently, stays out of your RAM’s way, includes a great fan, and comes complete with a six year warranty, the Noctua NH-U12S is a good heatsink for your money.
Overclockers_clear_approved - Jeremy Vaughan (hokiealumnus)

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Discussion
  1. hokiealumnus
    I have to (sheepishly) add a note to this review and will test whenever my 1155 board comes back from RMA. According to Noctua, in the instructions that I failed to read about adding a second fan (see the manual here), you have to use thicker anti-vibration spacers on the pull fan. Obviously, I did not do this or I would have told you. So, there will now be an author's note to see this comment and further testing on the noise issue will come when I get the board back.

    Thanks to Noctua for pointing this out so promptly, I look forward to testing to see what improvement it makes!


    BUMP!

    Added to the performance section re: Noise

    Added a link to this comment and the following to the conclusion:

    Thanks to Noctua for pointing that out and their patience while I addressed the issue.
    Nice review hokie!

    The pull issue with the nf-f12 pwm fan is quite well documented already (as shown by the testing from ocn's Tator Tot and others).

    It's a great push fan, the best in noise/pressure/airflow for heatsinks or rads but when setup in pull it introduces that noticeable hum you speak of.

    I'd love a few nf-f12's in black and white personally :D
    Excellent review, Hokie. I've read other reviews of this cooler plus the NH-U14S. I've been seriously impressed with the -U12S as well as the -U14S and I would be hard pressed to choose between the two. Both seem to be so good that the final decision boils down to RAM clearance.

    Thanks for the review, Hokie.
    I have to (sheepishly) add a note to this review and will test whenever my 1155 board comes back from RMA. According to Noctua, in the instructions that I failed to read about adding a second fan (see the manual here), you have to use thicker anti-vibration spacers on the pull fan. Obviously, I did not do this or I would have told you. So, there will now be an author's note to see this comment and further testing on the noise issue will come when I get the board back.

    Thanks to Noctua for pointing this out so promptly, I look forward to testing to see what improvement it makes!