When it comes to keeping CPUs cool, everyone gets excited about the latest dual-tower air cooler and massive 360 mm AIO. But what if you don’t have the space in your case for such large cooling solutions? Well, that’s where the best 120 mm AIOs come into play.
While 120 mm AIOs aren’t the quietest CPU coolers, their small size and good cooling performance make them great for compact builds with tight clearances and little room. We’ve picked out a few of our favorite 120 mm AIOs in a variety of categories for your consideration. Let’s get started.
The Best 120 mm AIO CPU Coolers
The Arctic Liquid Freezer II 120 is the smallest AIO in the company’s well-received line of AIO coolers. For the unaware, Arctic’s Liquid Freezer II line has made a name for itself with excellent performance, affordable pricing, silent operation, and high-quality materials. In that regard, the Liquid Freezer II 120 is no different.
The core feature that sets the Liquid Freezer II 120 apart from its competition is its thicker radiator. Measuring 38 mm (1.49 inches), it’s five to 10 millimeters thicker than most other 120 mm AIOs. This gives the radiator additional surface area, which improves its cooling performance.
Here’s the Liquid Freezer II 120 cooling an overclocked AMD Ryzen 7 3700X, up against 120 mm competition.
74 degrees Celsius is quite impressive, considering how warm the 3700X can get when overclocked. It’s not too far behind NZXT’s 240 mm Kraken X53 and performs slightly better than the 120 mm Kraken M22. It even manages to equal the Azza Blizzard 360 mm AIO, which is no mean feat.
But let’s focus on the Arctic vs. the NZXT Kraken M22. A single degree Celsius isn’t anything to shout about, sure. Where the Arctic impresses, though, is the fact that it manages to do this while being significantly quieter than the Kraken M22:
Unfortunately, STS Tutorial didn’t record any objective measurements of the Arctic’s noise levels. But considering that Gamers Nexus measured the M22 at 45.8 dBA, we can deduce that the Arctic’s noise levels are in the mid-30s dBA.
The Arctic Liquid Freezer II 120 also comes equipped with a tiny VRM fan on the pump block. While it seems like a gimmick, testing on the larger models shows that the VRM fan does work to reduce VRM temperatures slightly. The real-world benefit is debatable, but it will help move some extra air in a cramped SFF case, which can only be a good thing.
As with its bigger cousins, the Arctic Liquid Freezer II 120’s biggest downside is the complete lack of RGB. It’s arguably a bit boring-looking and definitely not the AIO cooler for you if you demand ARGB bling.
Lack of RGB aside, the Arctic Liquid Freezer II 120 is an easy recommendation for the performance-minded. Its combination of low noise, excellent cooling (for a 120 mm AIO), and affordable price makes it one of the best buys in this product category.
Looking for something with a bit more visual appeal than the Arctic? If that’s the case, consider the Cooler Master MasterLiquid ML120L V2. The ML120L V2 is a high-performance 120 mm AIO cooler that manages to look great and run cool without blowing your ears off with fan noise.
The Cooler Master MasterLiquid ML120L V2 has enough headroom to handle a CPU that’s, on paper, just a bit too much for it. Pokde.net found that it could keep an overclocked Intel i7-5820K running at 80 degrees Celsius, lower than some high-end air coolers from Noctua.
While this is impressive, note that we wouldn’t recommend this combination. Consider this an example of what the AIO can do, and not a suggestion to pair a sub-$70 CPU cooler with a nearly $400 (at launch) CPU.
What’s impressive about these numbers is that the ML120L V2 manages them without having to run fast, super-loud fans. 38 dBA is more than acceptable even by air cooler standards and shouldn’t be a problem even for the pickiest users.
One area where the Cooler Master AIO cooler has a definitive advantage over the Arctic is in RGB. The ML120L V2 comes with RGB LEDs in its pump block, and the included SickleFlow 120 RGB fan.
The Cooler Master ML120L V2 is ARGB compatible and works with the standard motherboard control suites. It also has a remote if your motherboard doesn’t support ARGB. We wouldn’t recommend using the ML120L on a non-ARGB motherboard, though: the controller is Molex-powered and has to stay inside your case. This makes changing colors a pain.
Controller issues aside, though, the Cooler Master ML120L V2 is an impressive 120 mm AIO CPU cooler that trades blows with our number one pick, the Arctic Liquid Freezer II 120. Choosing between the two is mostly a matter of taste and price more than anything else, and we’d be happy to call either one the best 120 mm AIO.
If the Cooler Master MasterLiquid ML120L V2 doesn’t quite work for you, SilverStone might have the answer. Its PF120-ARGB is the smallest unit in its new PermaFrost range of CPU AIOs. It boasts a glossy pump block and ARGB logo combined with competitive cooling and noise performance, making for a compelling package overall.
AnandTech tested all three models in the SilverStone PF series with their simulated thermal load and found that all three turned in decent numbers. The PF120-ARGB posted a 12.6-degree Celsius delta with their simulated 150 W load, running at max speeds:
Turning the fans down to a more reasonable level raised the delta to 18 degrees Celsius, which is still perfectly acceptable. Noise levels were excellent, too, measuring 36.1 dBA at maximum fan speed. Overall, you shouldn’t have any temperature or noise complaints with the PF120-ARGB as long as you stick to a mid-tier six- or eight-core CPU.
If the Cooler Master ML120L V2’s pump block is relatively restrained for an ARGB CPU cooler, the same can’t be said for the PF120-ARGB. It has a glossy finish and lights up with SilverStone’s snowflake logo when powered up. On balance, we’d take the Cooler Master AIO, but we know more than a few people who’d prefer the extra lighting of the SilverStone unit.
The biggest disadvantage of the SilverStone PF120-ARGB is the price. At around $90, it’s a bit more expensive than the Arctic and Cooler Master AIOs without necessarily justifying it on any objective levels. It’s probably an easy stretch if you prefer the pump block’s aesthetics. If they’re not of particular concern, though, we’d recommend checking out the Arctic or Cooler Master AIOs first.
4. EVGA CLC 120
Let’s not beat around the bush here: EVGA’s CLC 120 is far from the best 120 mm AIO. It’s noisy and only offers middle-of-the-pack cooling performance. But it does have one thing in its favor: a very keen discounted price.
Over the past few months, we’ve noticed that the CLC 120 has regularly been available for $40. That’s half the SilverStone PF120-ARGB’s price and around $30 cheaper than our top two picks. While it doesn’t excuse its shortcomings, a $30 savings definitely helps make them easier to live with.
Speaking of shortcomings, let’s start with the EVGA CLC 120’s cooling performance:
At maximum fan speed, the EVGA CLC 120 posts a 41 degrees Celsius delta over ambient when cooling an Intel i7-5930K running at 3.8 GHz. Turning down the fan speeds increases the temperature, with the CPU topping out at 57 degrees over ambient at 1050 RPM.
The only reason you’d want to turn down the fan speeds is the CLC 120’s almost unbearable noise at the fan’s 2500 RPM maximum. The CLC 120 measures 54 dBA at maximum fan speed, which is significantly louder than the other AIOs on our list. You could try reducing the fan speeds in BIOS, but that’d probably worsen the already mediocre cooling performance.
At full price, the EVGA CLC 120 is one to avoid. But a low price often makes it easier to overlook a product’s flaws, and that’s the case here as well. And despite its unremarkable performance with an i7-5930K, the CLC 120 will probably do fine with a lower-powered rig in a small form factor (SFF) or home theater PC (HTPC) build.
This is the most conditional of recommendations, as it relies on the $40 sale price being a regular occurrence going forward. While the sale price has been frequent enough that we’re comfortable naming this a value pick, we’d still recommend you grab a unit sooner rather than later.
If you’re familiar with 120 mm AIOs, you’re probably wondering why a couple of popular CPU coolers from Corsair and NZXT aren’t on our list. While they’re still decent AIOs, we feel that they’re a lot harder to recommend in 2021. Let’s discuss why.
The Corsair H60’s main problem is how loud it is. Its 52 dBA of noise makes it difficult to recommend in light of newer, quieter AIOs. The SilverStone PF120-ARGB, for example, is about 16 dBA quieter at its maximum fan speed. It’ll still do a decent job cooling a modern mid-tier CPU, but it’s not one we’d recommend over newer, quieter AIOs.
The same goes for the NZXT Kraken M22, really. The M22 at least performs well, offering similar cooling to the Arctic Liquid Freezer II 120 in STS Tutorial’s testing. Like the Corsair AIO, though, it’s let down by the 46 dBA of noise coming from the fan and pump. Unless you really want an NZXT AIO cooler to pair with your NZXT components or just like the look of the NZXT’s mirror-finish pump block, you’re probably better off with the Arctic.
Now, you might be thinking that our budget pick EVGA CLC 120 is also noisy and mediocre at best. And that’s true. But the EVGA’s regularly on sale for $40, while the Corsair and NZXT still sell for around $80. At $80, they’re just not worth the drawbacks compared to newer 120 mm AIO coolers.
Before You Buy
120 mm AIOs vs. Air Coolers
120 mm liquid CPU coolers have often been criticized for being louder and more expensive than air CPU coolers without offering enough extra cooling to make up for it. While there’s an element of truth to this (particularly for older 120 mm AIOs), it isn’t always the case:
This particular test shows the ML120L V2 besting the Noctua NH-D15, one of the most high-end air CPU coolers you can get right now. That’s impressive, especially considering the ML120L V2 is also cheaper than the Noctua. In this test, the ML120L V2 disproves the common criticism by being cooler and cheaper than air coolers.
However, that’s not the end of the story. OCinside.de tested the ML120L V2 with a lower-powered Ryzen 7 1800X and found that it struggles to compete against even a moderately-priced air CPU cooler like the Arctic Freezer 34 eSports:
Differences in testing methodology undoubtedly have something to do with this inconsistency. That said, the main takeaway is that 120 mm AIOs aren’t consistently better than air CPU coolers. This makes the disadvantages of a liquid cooler, such as the risk of catastrophic failure and limited service life due to permeation, harder to accept.
If you want an AIO liquid CPU cooler for the improved cooling and component compatibility they offer, our recommendation is to skip the 120 mm offerings and go straight for a 240 or 280 mm AIO. They will consistently outperform air CPU coolers and have extra thermal headroom for serious overclocking.
That doesn’t mean a 120 mm AIO cooler is entirely irrelevant, however. Let’s discuss that next.
Are 120 mm AIOs Worth It?
While 120 mm AIOs don’t make much sense in mid- or full-tower cases, they start coming into their own once you enter Mini-ITX and SFF territory. Sure, there are a few capable low-profile air CPU coolers (like the Noctua NH-L9x65) on the market now, but they still rely on airflow to keep your CPU cool.
Airflow is a relatively straightforward proposition in standard mid- and full-tower cases. However, the cramped layouts of SFF cases offer a much more significant challenge. A lack of ventilation and tightly packed interiors make SFF cases a nightmare for cooling. So, if you’re building in one of those, a 120 mm AIO cooler might be a better choice.
The H60 easily outperforms the competition here. Its 66-degree Celsius CPU temperature is significantly lower than the rest, all of which measure in the mid-to-high 70s. If low temperatures are your priority, 120 mm AIO coolers are the best option for an SFF case.
Even the best 120 mm AIO coolers aren’t necessarily the best buys for an average system. Depending on factors such as your CPU, ambient temperatures, and workloads, you may find that an air cooler can offer similar or better performance. And there’s always the much better 240 and 280 mm AIO coolers if you want to get really serious about liquid-cooling your CPU.
But 120 mm AIO liquid CPU coolers still have their place in SFF PCs where space is at a premium and airflow is less than ideal. Any of the top three picks in our list will be great in a compact case, although we’d probably pick either the Arctic Liquid Freezer II 120 or Cooler Master MasterLiquid ML120L V2 first.