Cooler Master's MasterBox 5 and Zalman's Z9 Neo each offer a unique riff on the budget ATX mid-tower. The MasterBox 5 adopts some of the modular DNA from Cooler Master's more expensive cases, while the Z9 Neo offers more of a brute-force cooling approach in a sleek package. We were curious to see which of these approaches would win out in our tests, and the answer may depend on where a PC builder's priorities lie.
We think Cooler Master's efforts to take its modular philosophy downmarket pay off handsomely. The MasterBox 5 is one of the easiest cases to build in that I've ever used at any price. Aside from its slightly balky 3.5" hard-drive bays, the MasterBox has a masterfully-designed, flexible interior that makes building and cable-routing a snap. The MasterBox's cable-routing holes might not have the rubber grommets of more expensive cases, but its cut-outs all feature rolled edges to prevent shredding or slicing of delicate cables. I never found myself wanting for a particular cable-routing hole or tie-down, either. Cases aren't usually subject to dynamic stresses, but the MasterBox's solid build quality is confidence-inspiring.
Once a system is inside the MasterBox, its two included fans sound quite good for 120-mm spinners, and it's easy to set up for quiet running at idle and under load. So long as builders pick up a motherboard that can control three-pin fans, they can expect solid cooling performance and polite noise levels from the MasterBox. Even better, Cooler Master delivers all this goodness for $10 less than our past budget favorite for an ATX mid-tower, Fractal Design's Define S—and for budget builds, every dollar saved matters. So long as one can live without the Define S's extensive provisions for liquid-cooling hardware, the MasterBox 5 is a great pick for a budget build. We're happy to hand it the coveted TR Editor's Choice award.
In the opposite corner of our budget-box ring, the Zalman Z9 Neo offers glimpses of greatness that are tempered by some rough edges. We appreciate the Neo's clean lines, spiffy window, and LED accents, but the riveted-in PSU shroud and hard-drive cage inside make building a system in this case more difficult than it otherwise might be. We're also baffled by Zalman's choice to include mostly Molex-powered fans in the Neo, even if we do get a lot of them for the case's $70 price tag. That generous complement of fans offers superb cooling performance when the system inside is running all-out, but they make the case quite loud at idle, and their noise character isn't great, either.
For folks who value cooling performance above all else, the Neo is a solid choice, but Zalman would have a real performance-per-dollar winner on its hands if it replaced the Neo's Molex-powered fans with three-pin spinners. Being able to control fans using motherboard headers is table stakes for any case vying for greatness in 2016, and despite the Z9 Neo's many virtues, Zalman's choice of fans makes the Neo feel more like a case from 2006. Fans are simple to swap out, though, and if Zalman were to substitute three-pin fans all around in a future version of the case, the Z9 Neo would be easy to recommend at its price point. For now, we'd only suggest the Neo to folks who are seeking maximum cooling performance for the buck, noise be darned.