If you can remember back to CES 2020, we talked about Corsair getting back into the air cooling game with the A500. Well that CPU cooler has finally arrived and as you can see below it’s one big cooler. It’s bigger than my hand, it’s bigger than my face, and I’m not a small guy. It’s just plain BIG.
Now this is a pretty interesting product from Corsair, because they are typically used to pimping their AIO solutions. However, it seems like air cooling is making a bit of a comeback because it offers good performance, lower pricing, and it’s of a less hassle. What some of you might not remember is that the A500 is not Corsair’s first air cooler. In fact, about a decade ago they launched the A50 and A70 heatsinks targeted towards the entry-level market, and they offered a pretty good price-to-performance ratio at the time.
Fast forward to 2020 and here we are with the A500. At $100 USD this new heatsink really isn’t a budget product by any stretch of the imagination, and it competes against some of the big boys. For example, the Noctua DH-15 Chromax, the be quiet! Dark Rock Pro 4, and the Noctua NH-U12A all go for about a $100 too. We are going to be comparing all of those heatsinks in this review, so Corsair definitely needs to bring their A game to the table.
In the name of full disclosure, Corsair is one of our main sponsors, so they did approach us earlier to make an ad spot for the A500, but we decided to test it thoroughly beforehand. I’m pretty sure you’ve seen a lot other reviews of this cooler by now, but we have actually been working really hard on updating our testing methodologies in order to ensure a more in-depth review with more real-world use case scenarios.
Opening up the package, Corsair gives you a small tool box with clearly labeled mounting kits for AMD and Intel platforms. There is also a full tube of thermal compound, a braided fan splitter cable, and some zip ties. I’ve also got to commend Corsair for including a pretty legit screwdriver. Now even though Corsair included a tube of thermal compound, they have also pre-applied some in a grid pattern. While this looks good for Intel LGA2066 CPUs and AMD CPUs, we noticed that this pattern would overhang Intel’s LGA1151 processors, not that this actually matters.
Moving onto the cooler itself, and honestly it looks pretty different from the competition. Instead of using cheap metal clips for two fans, Corsair is actually using these plastic brackets that can just slide on and off without messing around too much. Also, since the fans are just mounted with screws swapping them out is pretty easy too. When you take out the fans and remove the top bracket you’re basically greeted with a pretty basic cooler with four heat pipes that run up into smaller individual fin arrays. There’s a void in the middle for easier access to the mounting hardware, but that area can also cause issues with constant linear airflow through all the fins.
The heatpipe direct-touch base is also a bit odd too, since Corsair says that the A500 can handle heat loads up to 250W, but this type of design is usually used for coolers with lower ratings. Most of the high-end heatsinks from Cooler Master, Deepcool, be quiet!, and Noctua have more traditional bases and they look really good compared to Corsair’s one. Another issue with this type of base is that it’s very hard to get a good contact between the IHS and the cooler, which becomes pretty evident when you put a straight edge on it or after the heatsink is uninstalled from your CPU. We have seen three A500’s now and every one has a minor base variance like this one, so it isn’t unique to just one sample.
Moving on to installation, and honestly it looks a lot like Noctua’s process, which is a good thing. Installation is pretty straight forward, but there were some challenges too. For starters, the actual size of the A500 is an issue. While the cooler has a familiar dual 120mm fan design, due to the fan mounting system it actually takes up a lot of space, especially when compared to similar coolers like the Noctua NH-U12A. Now that doesn’t cause problems with GPU mounting, but it does have an impact on memory clearance. Noctua doesn’t have that issue since the U12A is slightly offset towards the motherboard I/O area, so it supports taller memory kits without modifying the fan position. Corsair on the other hand is a centered setup, which means that if you have a taller memory kit you will need to move the fan upwards.
Thankfully that’s super easy since it just slides upwards, but it also means a bunch of the fans airflow won’t be getting to where it’s needed. Plus the increased height could cause compatibility problems with some cases. You should also take note that on the AM4 platform you can’t mount this cooler in a vertical orientation, not that you would want to since that would run the airflow contrary to most cases. On the X299 platform things can get pretty tight too, but only between the A500 and GPUs with backplates, or if you have the memory slots fully populated with 8 memory sticks.
Next we are going to move on to testing, but I do want to invite you to make a moment and read about the full process and procedure of our testing methodology. The heat source for our tests is Intel’s Core i9-10980XE at stock settings and also overclocked to 4.5Ghz on all cores. At those clocks we have logged it sucking down just over 210W, which is perfect to test his cooler. We are also trying to replicate a real-world use case scenario, and so we decided to eliminate the open test bench setup, especially with coolers mounted in a horizontal orientation. The reason is that both of those factors can skew results and cover up poor performance. As a result, testing is done in a closed Fractal Design Meshify C2 that’s equipped with two intake fans and one exhaust fan, each operating at a constant 600 RPM.
This whole setup is put under very strict temperature conditions. The ambient room temperature is maintained at 22°C, and testing only begins once the interior case temperatures have stabilized at 25°C. Another important thing to note here is that all of our results represent the best temperature after two separate mounts, since there are a ton of variables when it comes to installing coolers. We wanted to make sure that a bad installation doesn’t impact results. Finally, we are using the Arctic MX4 thermal compound for every test. If you’re wondering, there’s only about a 1°C difference between Corsair’s stock compound and the MX-4.
We are going to start things off with the stock CPU speeds and the default fan profile from our ASUS X299 motherboard, which by the way dynamically increases fan speeds as temperature rises. In this scenario the A500 puts in a very respectable result. It beats the NH-U12A and Dark Rock Pro 4 by a narrow margin, but it trails the less expensive NH-U14S. Now unfortunately to achieve that result it’s also the loudest cooler here, but also remember that under 30 decibels is still pretty quiet from about two feet away.
Once we bump up the fans to a constant 1,000 RPM it becomes pretty obvious that in the stock test the A500 relies on higher fan speeds in order to get those lower temperatures. By comparison, the other heatsinks actually see their temperatures reduced in this test. To Corsair’s credit the A500 actually becomes the quietest option, but you need to sacrifice temperatures to get there.
Now with the fans going full out at 2,400 RPM the A500 is able to beat the NH-U12A, but it is also beaten by a bunch of coolers that operate at lower maximum speeds. Also, remember that the NH-U12A’s fans are rated for a maximum 2,000 RPM, which is 20% lower than the A500’s, but it only loses by 3°C. At full speed this thing is loud, like really loud, to a point where it almost matches the Kraken X62.
Now onto overclocked testing, which will really put Corsair’s claim to the test, and this is the reason why we named the CPU test system “The Widowmaker”. The heat pushed out by this overclocked Core i9-10980XE is just insane, and the A500 couldn’t handle it. It was all overwhelmed in less than 10 minutes and ended up reaching the 110°C CPU throttle limit. Another thing you will see in these overclocking tests is the NH-U14S getting closer to its thermal saturation limit and getting beaten by the NH-U12A. That cooler’s single 140mm fan that was so good in stock testing just isn’t enough anymore.
Switching to acoustics, and we see a hard fail for the A500. It’s running at 100% fan speed according to these decimal readings, and it’s super loud. On the other hand, the NH-U14S and NH-U12A were also running at 100% fan speed, but they actually pass this test. Since the A500 failed in the first test, it was going to fail here as well, and it only took 2 minutes for it to reach critical temperatures. It’s really amazing to see the Noctua NH-U12A avoiding throttling, though I would never actually run my CPU at 101°C. In our full speed test I was hoping the Corsair cooler would pass, but unfortunately this was a complete fail again.
At this point in testing we wanted to try out one more thing to test out a theory about the A500’s poor performance. Obviously, the Core i9-10980XE is one of the hottest running chips around, especially when it’s overclocked, but according to Corsair the A500 is rated for 250W which is the same rating as the other coolers in this comparison. However, they spanked the A500 pretty hard. Our idea was to install the Noctua A12 fans from the NH-U12A onto Corsair brackets. You see the A500 fans are optimized for static pressure and they are usually used for pushing air through super dense air radiator fins. However, this heatsinks fins aren’t super close together and that void in the middle could cause problems for airflow movement. The A12 fans have a lower static pressure rating, but they can move a lot more air at lower RPMs too. Let’s check it out.
At stock CPU settings there is a massive temperature drop when running the new fans at 1000 RPM. Moving on to the overclocked settings, now the fans are at full speed, the Corsair is still beaten by the competition but those two Noctua fans allow it to hit lower temps and completely avoid throttling. That’s pretty impressive, but it paints a bleak picture with respect to Corsair’s fan choice.
While the numbers really do speak for themselves I guess it’s time to wrap up this review. It’s pretty obvious that the A500 is designed to compete against similarly priced alternatives, but only on lower TDP processors. As you saw from our baseline testing, this cooler did reasonably well at stocks settings, but when you start pushing things – specifically overclocking – that’s where this cooler starts to fall apart.
Overall, the Corsair. A500 is simply louder, hotter, and every bit as costly as the other coolers on the market rated for 250W. Regrettably, that’s just not good enough to be competitive in this market filled with the Noctua NH-U12A and NH-D15 and the be quiet! Dark Rock Pro 4. In fact, you can even buy a Noctua NH-U14S along with an extra fan for about the same price as the A500. Now I do have to give credit to Corsair for thinking out of the box for implementing this slide-on fan bracket mechanism. It’s pure genius and it’s come in clutch for us when we were installing coolers inside a case. I think this is by far one of the best ways to mount a fan instead of relying on clips, it’s just an awesome feature. If you really like the looks of this cooler, and if you don’t have a lot of space in your case for one of the bigger coolers like the Noctua NH-D15, then maybe just maybe the A500 could be for you, but it wouldn’t be my first choice.