For many enthusiasts, Noctua represents the gold standard in CPU coolers. The Austrian company has been in business for less than a decade yet has developed into a firm favourite among high-end users who will accept nothing but the very best.
You could argue, however, that getting to the top is the easy bit: staying there is the real challenge. And in a business that's as competitive as CPU coolers, besting your earlier efforts is often easier said than done. Noctua bagged numerous awards with its enthusiast-grade NH-D14, but said cooler was released way back in 2009, and it's taken some time for the firm to follow-up with this year's upgrade, the NH-D15.
Priced at a jaw-dropping £78 - roughly £13 more than the NH-D14 - this is Noctua's new flagship and it's arriving in retail stores as we speak. Over four years is a long time to wait for a cooler revision, but as you might imagine, Noctua is adamant that the best things come to those who wait. According to the manufacturer it took "more than three years of continuous development, countless thermal simulations and over hundred samples to come up with a substantial improvement in efficiency."
"Staying true to our policy of not releasing anything we're not 100 per cent satisfied with, we had to accept some delays in order to squeeze out the last few per cent of performance, but now we're proud to finally release the NH-D15 as a worthy successor to the venerable D14," says Mag. Roland Mossig, Noctua CEO.
Expectations are high and the NH-D15 gets off to a good start with presentation and packaging that's a cut above many of its competitors. Inside the main box, the cooler, second fan, accessories and mounting kits are all individually packaged. It's neat, tidy and secure, and it makes it easier for the end user to find exactly what he/she needs.
As is the case with most Noctua solutions, there's plenty included as part of the bundle. In addition to the heatsink are two 140mm NF-A15 PWM fans, SecuFirm2 mounting kits for the latest Intel and AMD sockets, two low-noise adapter cables, a Y-splitter cable, a good-sized tube of Noctua's own NT-H1 thermal paste, detailed installation manuals and a long screwdriver. You'll also find a token Noctua case badge and a spare set of screws in case you decide to mount the second fan to your chassis instead.
Accessories are all well and good, but what you're really paying a premium for is the high-quality, dual-tower heatsink. Measuring 165mm (H) x 150mm (W) x 135mm (D) in size, this huge stack of aluminium fins incorporates six copper heatpipes, soldered joints and a nickel-plated finish.
Noctua's build quality is of a high standard throughout, and there are subtle improvements that are said to improve overall efficiency. This time around, the fin stack has been widened from 140mm to 150mm, and heatpipe spacing has been increased to help spread heat distribution over a larger area.
You can, of course, pay considerably less for giant coolers (Deepcool's Lucifer is testament to that), but with Noctua you tend to get that extra level of attention to detail. The mirror finish on the copper contact plate is about as close to perfect as it gets, and both 140mm fans are outfitted with anti-vibration pads and proprietary low-noise technologies such as inner surface microstructures and a stepped inlet design.
Noctua rightly markets the NH-D15 as a "deluxe choice for overclockers and silent-enthusiasts alike," and the latter audience will appreciate the low-noise-adapters included in the box. Attach them to the fans and the maximum speed is reduced from 1,500 RPM to a quieter 1,200 RPM.
What we're most fond of, however, are the recessed lower fins on both sides of the cooler. RAM clearance was always a potential stumbling block with the NH-D14, and it's good to see that an effort has been made to circumvent any such problems with the new release.
Installation has always been one of Noctua's strong points and the NH-D15 continues that trend by being surprisingly easy to install. You come to expect complications with a cooler of this size - we certainly had our fair share with be quiet!'s Dark Rock Pro 3 - but with the NH-D15 it's clear sailing from the get-go.
On an Intel platform, you simply attach the backplate to the rear of the motherboard using standoffs, a pair of mounting brackets and four bolts. With that underlying base in place, apply a bit of thermal paste and attach the heatsink using two screws. There's plenty of room between the fin stacks, so there's no trouble actually reaching the screws, and heck, Noctua even provides the screwdriver. It's hard to imagine installation being any easier, and you can have the NH-D15 up and running in a matter of minutes. Orientation can be changed if needed (horizontal or vertical), and thanks to the recessed lower fins, RAM-slot clearance shouldn't be too much of a hindrance - even on quad-channel LGA2011 boards.
The only small issue we ran into during installation was that the outer 140mm fan had to be attached at a higher point, as a result of our tall Corsair Vengeance Pro memory modules. Other than that, we can think of only one possible stumbling block: Noctua's coolers are still an acquired taste from an aesthetic point of view. The colour scheme is a key part of the company brand, but beige and brown isn't for everyone. We can't fault the NH-D15's quality - it's even backed by a class-leading six-year warranty - yet we do wish it came in black.
Still, presentation, build quality, ease of use and aesthetics are all secondary concerns. In order to meet our lofty expectations and justify the £78 price tag, Noctua needs to deliver outstanding performance. Let's see if the NH-D15 can live up to its billing.