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Our testing methods
Here are the specifications of my test system:

Processor AMD A10-7850K
Motherboard Asus Crossblade Ranger
Memory 8GB AMD Entertainment Edition DDR3-1600
Graphics card Zotac Nvidia GeForce GTX 660 Ti AMP! Edition
Storage Kingston HyperX 120GB SSD
Samsung Spinpoint F1 750GB HDD
Power supply Cooler Master V550
CPU cooler Cooler Master Hyper D92 (air)
Cooler Master Nepton 240M (liquid)
OS Windows 8.1 Pro

Thanks to Fractal Design for the Define S, and to Asus, AMD, Kingston, Zotac, and Cooler Master for their hardware contributions, as well.

The Define S's opponent in today's tests is Corsair's Obsidian 450D. I'll be using identical coolers and radiator mounting locations in the Corsair case.

I used the following applications in my tests:

Our case test cycle consists of the following phases:

  • 10 minutes idling at the Windows desktop
  • 10 minutes running the Prime95 Small FFTs CPU torture test
  • 10 minutes running Prime95 and the Unigine Heaven GPU benchmark
  • 10 minutes of cooldown time at the Windows desktop

Cooling performance
Here are the results of my cooling tests, plotted over time:

And here are some minimum and maximum temperatures from each testing phase:

For the most part, the Define S hangs right with the Obsidian 450D in cooling performance. One case might best the other by a couple of degrees here and there, but neither one delivers a knockout on the cooling front. I'd be happy to rely on either of these cases to keep my system chilly.

The one area where the Obsidian 450D appears to be a better performer than the Define S is SSD temperatures with the Cooler Master Hyper D92 CPU cooler installed. Here, the 450D manages a seven-to-nine-degree C advantage. Strangely, that gulf doesn't carry over to the Nepton 240M results, where the two cases pull much closer together. That makes me think my results are a bit of a fluke—we'll have to re-test the 450D at some point to see whether those numbers remain consistent.

Noise levels
Here are the Define S's noise levels at idle and load, along with the Obsidian 450D's:

Subjectively, the Define S is quieter than the Obsidian 450D with an air cooler inside, probably due to the excellent numbers measured up top. At idle, and with the ModuVents installed, the case is 2-3 dBA quieter than the 450D in most areas, save for the right side. The plain plastic front panel allows more noise to escape in testing than the Define R5's foam-backed front door, but the difference isn't honestly that noticeable without looking at my sound meter.

Removing the Define S's top panels to install a radiator allows more noise to escape from the top of the case at idle, putting it about even with the 450D, but it's more polite under load.  Installing the radiator at the front of the case would probably help even more, though it might hurt GPU temperatures.

One area where the Define S stands alone is in its suppression of hard drive motor noise. I'm not sure why, but I'm betting that the thumbscrew-secured 3.5" drive sleds dampen vibration better than the slide-in units common in other cases. In fact, the Define S is the first case I've tested that hasn't buzzed at all due to sympathetic vibrations from hard drive motors. A generally quiet case is no good if it occasionally makes a piercing racket, and the Define S is consistently quiet, not just most of the time. Bravo, Fractal.

Overall, I wouldn't mind either of these cases under my desk, but I'd give a slight edge to the better-insulated Define S. The 450D's more open front and top panels (and its extra 140-mm fan at the front of the case) can allow more system noise to escape, and hard drive motor vibrations can cause sympathetic buzzes and rattles in the 450D, as well.

As for the Define R5, it benches a little quieter all around than either of these cases, but it suffers from hard drive buzz, too, which mars its otherwise excellent performance. Until I reviewed the Define S, this buzz was par for the course, but Fractal has set a new bar for itself here. Hopefully the Define R6 features better drive noise dampening.