Completely Silent Computer
I’ve been trying to make my computers quieter for nearly three decades. Custom liquid cooling loops, magnetically-stabilised fluid-dynamic bearings, acoustic dampeners, silicone shock absorbers, you name it. Well, last week I finally managed to build a completely silent computer. Without further ado…
Say hello to the Streacom DB4 — a 26x26x27cm case that doesn’t have a single fan. Indeed, it doesn’t have any moving parts at all. It’s totally silent — 0dB.
If you strip away the top and four (13mm-thick extruded aluminium) side walls, you see a minimal chassis, and a central mounting plate for a mini-ITX motherboard (oriented with I/O pointing down through the bottom of the case).
At the time I selected components for the system, there were only four mini-ITX motherboards for me to choose from:
- ASUS ROG Strix B350-I Gaming
- Gigabyte AB350N-Gaming-WiFi ITX
- MSI B350I Pro AC
- ASRock Fatal1ty AB350 Gaming-ITX/ac
(Astute readers will notice they are all AMD (Socket AM4) motherboards. The whole Meltdown/Spectre debacle rendered my previous Intel system insecure and unsecurable so that was the final straw for me — no more Intel CPUs.)
I ended up getting the ASRock AB350 Gaming-ITX/ac motherboard:
Although any mini-ITX motherboard can — theoretically — be mounted in the DB4, the whole case is designed to be passively-cooled by using heat pipes to transfer the heat generated by the CPU and GPU to the side panels where it can be radiated and convected away. Careful analysis of the routes the CPU heat pipes would need to take, and clearances required by them, revealed that certain motherboards simply wouldn’t work — components were in the way.
- The Gigabyte has the ATX power connector at the top of the board for some reason, so that was a massive, insurmountable obstacle.
- The Asus has a solid bank of SoC VRM caps that the heatpipes would have literally rested on. Anyone that knows anything about capacitors and heat knows that would have been a recipe for disaster.
- The MSI has a huge SoC VRM heatsink that would have posed an insurmountable obstacle to one (maybe even two) of the heatpipes.
The ASRock was the only motherboard that could fit the DB4 and (optional) LH6 Cooling Kit heat pipes without much in the way of drama. All of that will probably make a lot more sense when you see the heatpipes installed:
To fully appreciate the minute clearances involved, here it is from another angle:
Yep, literally fractions of a millimetre of clearance in some places.
The DB4 comes with the hardware necessary to shift heat from the CPU to one of the side panels via four heatpipes and a single heat spreader. In this configuration a 65W CPU can be supported. By adding the LH6 Cooling Kit, you can connect the CPU to two side panels via six heatpipes and three heat spreaders, and support a 105W CPU.
In such a passively-cooled system, the heat dissipation figures limit the CPUs that can be installed. For reference:
- Ryzen 5 2400G 4C8T 3.6GHz — 46-65W
- Ryzen 5 1600 6C12T 3.2GHz — 65W
- Ryzen 5 1600X 6C12T 3.6GHz — 95W
- Ryzen 7 1700 8C16T 3.0GHz — 65W
- Ryzen 7 1700X 8C16T 3.4GHz — 95W
- Ryzen 7 1800X 8C16T 3.6GHz — 95W
So a stock DB4 can only support up to a 2400G/1600/1700 — forget overclocking — whilst a DB4+LH6 can support even a 1600X/1700X/1800X — with a little bit of room for overclocking.
Unlike Intel — who only support their sockets for as long as it takes you to unwrap the box — AMD supports their sockets for much longer. The AM4 will be supported until 2020. Thus my cunning plan was to start off 2018 with a CPU that can be comfortably cooled by the DB4+LH6, overclock, stress test and monitor thermals for a couple of years, then — if the advantages would be tangible and I feel the need — throw in a more efficient CPU when the last AM4 CPUs come off the production line in 2020, then cruise for the next half-decade or so.
All of that led me to install a 65W Ryzen 5 1600. Since I have a B350 motherboard, I have the ability to overclock the CPU to 1600X/95W levels without much of an issue.
Note: If you are happy sitting within the 65W thermal envelope, and are not overclocking anything, you could forego the LH6 Cooling Kit. Because the DB4 heat pipes are shorter than the LH6 ones, and don’t go over the edge of the motherboard, pretty-much all of the component obstruction issues that eliminated the Gigabyte, Asus and MSI motherboards from consideration would no longer apply. Something to keep in mind if you don’t need the speed but do want some of the features that one or more of those boards may have (but which the ASRock does not).
As far as memory goes, I went with a Corsair Vengeance LPX CMK32GX4M2Z2400C16 32GB (2x16GB) DDR4 kit.
I’ve never had a problem with Corsair Vengeance LPX RAM. This specific kit was on the QVL for the motherboard and an overclocker was able to push his kit to 3200MHz on exactly the same motherboard as I have, so I was confident that I could get a nice memory overclock with minimal effort — subject to the silicon lottery, of course. Since this machine isn’t for gaming, and isn’t running an APU, really high memory speeds aren’t as important to me as large amounts of RAM.
SSDs are the only totally silent storage option, and I got rid of my last HDD more than seven years ago, so this system was always going to have SSDs. The only question was “Which ones?”
I would have preferred two NVMe drives (to cut down on cable clutter), but the ASRock motherboard only has one M.2 slot. The Asus motherboard, on the other hand, has two slots but (as mentioned before) that is not compatible with the LH6 Cooling Kit. Ah well — compromises of some sort often need to be made.
For what I will be doing with this computer, fast transfer rates and a life expectancy of at least seven years is what I am after from these drives. I only really need ~600GB of space, so by over-provisioning a couple of hundred gigs I can let wear-levelling do its thing and make seven years an easy target to hit.
Even though this system is not meant to be a gaming rig, there’s no harm in putting in the best GPU you can without blowing the thermals. The GPU Cooling Kit allows up to a 75W GPU to be modded and cooled via heat pipes and spreader to a single wall. That pretty-much limits you to the GTX 1050 Ti and below if you prefer Nvidia cards — like I do.
The GPU I wanted was the MSI GeForce GTX 1050 Ti Aero ITX OC 4GB but my parts supplier ran out of them literally as I was assembling my online order. With no idea when supplies would be restored (thanks to the cryptocurrency mining craze), I went with my second preference of an ASUS Phoenix GeForce GTX 1050 Ti 4GB:
Whilst both GPUs fit into the space, the MSI was a few centimetres shorter than the Asus. None of the dual-fan 1050 Ti GPUs had even the remotest chance of fitting.
After removing the fan, shroud and heatsink I cleaned up the GPU itself, applied fresh thermal paste, then fitted the GPU Cooling Kit:
The final step was to pop heat sinks onto each of the four VRAM chips:
Power testing of a wide range of 1050 Ti cards reveals that they do indeed pull the full 75W when under load, so I’m at the limits of the GPU Cooling Kit and there’s no room for overclocking the GPU (even if I wanted to).
To power all this I installed a Streacom ZF240 Fanless 240W ZeroFlex PSU:
I researched the power draws of the various components and worked out that the power budgets on all rails — except the 12V rail — had plenty of headroom. The 12V rail can theoretically hit ~85% of the 168W max capacity if both the CPU and GPU are running at 100%. Normally I prefer to leave myself a lot more headroom than that, but since this system is not meant for gaming, and I can’t actually think of any other scenarios where I’m likely to max out both at the same time, I’m not really concerned. (If it does become an issue then I can install a SFX PSU with minimal effort and buy myself more headroom.)
Over the years I’ve also come to appreciate PSU efficiency curves, and recognise that ‘idling’ systems with large PSUs is a horrible waste of energy. To get the most out of your PSU you should size it so that your typical usage falls in the 25-75% range. The ZF240 has an efficiency rating of 93% and I think my selection of components will let it achieve such levels on a regular basis — given my historic and anticipated usage patterns.
Low power consumption is an especially important issue if you plan on going off-grid. Since that’s a goal we have in the 2–4 year time frame, and this computer will be used much longer than that, it makes sense to aim for high efficiency and low power consumption at the same time.
The pursuit of silence can be costly and this build certainly was — ending up just shy of AU$3,000. If cryptocurrency miners weren’t inflating prices all over the place, it probably could have come in closer to $2,400 — still a fair bit, but not eye-watering. Nonetheless, the price is less than each of my last three systems and it manages to achieve what none of them ever did: Complete and utter silence.
This computer makes no noise when it starts up. It makes no noise when it shuts down. It makes no noise when it idles. It makes no noise when it’s under heavy load. It makes no noise when it’s reading or writing data. It can’t be heard in a regular room during the day. It can’t be heard in a completely quiet house in the middle of the night. It can’t be heard from 1m away. It can’t be heard from 1cm away. It can’t be heard — period. It’s taken nearly 30 years to reach this point, but I’ve finally arrived. The journey is over and it feels great.
If you are after a silent — not just quiet, but silent — daily driver, then I strongly recommend a passively-cooled case, heat pipes and solid state drives. Eliminate the moving parts (e.g. fans, HDDs) and you eliminate the noise — it’s not that complicated. It also doesn’t need to be really expensive (my system requirements were not ‘average’ so please don’t infer from this post that all DB4-based systems are as expensive). Silence (and a perfectly respectable computer) can easily be had for half the price.
That’s about it, methinks. If you have any questions or would like more details (about any aspect of this build) to be added to the post, fire away in the comments.