Last month, Noctua sent us the new NF-S12A 120mm series of case fans for review. These fans are the 3rd generation of Noctua's S12 series 120mm fans, succeeding the previous S12B. The new S12A is designed for use with low impedance builds - balancing static pressure, airflow and noise for installation in cases where there are minimal or no obstructions to airflow.
Please note: For the purpose of this review, we are looking at how the product is intended to be used - as such, we have elected not to test it with radiators or heat sinks because there are other options (NF-P12 & NF-F12) from the manufacturer at around the same price point for those purposes.
In our opinion, the outgoing Noctua S12B is still one of the more acoustically pleasing fans going around. When Noctua offered to send us the full range of S12A variants for review, we jumped at the chance.
In our previous review of the NF-F12 and A14 and A15 fans we saw the engineers at Noctua implement some extensive enhancements over previous products. When we first saw the A14, we wondered how long it would be until we saw an update to the 120mm S Series - as it turns out... not long.
Our review package comprised of:
- 2x NF-S12A FLX
- 2x NF-S12A ULN
- 2x NF-S12A PWM
These fans are all marketed as case fans and although you could use them with a radiator or heat sink, Noctua also provide the purpose build NF-F12 at the same price. We have previously reviewed the NF-F12 and found it to have a great noise to performance ratio with both heat sinks and a H100 water cooling system.
Cosmetically, the S12A fans all look the same as each other with the most obvious difference being the 4 pin header on the PWM model.
As with previous products from Noctua, the packaging, the product build quality and accessories are exceptional. You can definitely see why the price is higher than some of its competitors. The accessories and cable sleeving stand out but the value for the extra money becomes more apparent when you look at the smooth action of the fan itself, the implemented efficiency technology and anti vibration/noise measures.
Choosing the right fan
The S12A FLX version operates at 1200, 900 and 700 rpm if you use the included noise/voltage adaptors. This means that you can set up your airflow to suit your build regardless of if you need high airflow with minimal noise or moderate airflow with little to no noise at all. This would be our choice if you just need a case fan for general use and are not concerned about fan noise. If you don't have many 4-Pin PWM headers on your motherboard, we recommend this version for it's flexibility. If you have a manual fan controller, the noise adapters are somewhat redundant - for those who just want to "set and forget" the adapters will be great.
The S12A ULN is not as flexible as the FLX version and operates at either 800 or 600 rpm but its practically silent - in fact we did a few blind tests and couldn't tell if it was running or not without looking at it. The ULN at 800 was not audible over the ambient 18 dB(A) in our office, at 600rpm, we had to put our ear within 20cm to really hear the air movement. If you have a HTPC or want a super quiet setup, we recommend the S12A ULN.
PWM fan controllers and software are now more widely implemented. Motherboard vendors have stepped up with their software offerings. It has never been easier for enthusiasts to setup profiles to control the speed of their CPU fans or chassis fans. The S12A PWM operates at a range of 300rpm to 1200rpm which makes it very versatile - and very quiet when running at its lowest speed. Noctua include a low noise adapter so that you can electrically limit the maximum speed of the PWM to 900rpm. For system builders with newer motherboards and an excess of 4 Pin PWM fan headers, the S12A PWM seems to be the logical option from our perspective. This version is inaudible at idle (300rpm) but has the capability to ramp up to 1200 rpm if your system needs more airflow - and will do it on the whim of your PWM profile so you don't need to setup any adaptors or adjust a manual fan controller.
If you are looking for a CPU cooler fan, we acknowledge that the S12A FLX or even PWM could do the job but would strongly recommend the NF-F12 at only $4 more.