I gotta admit: as a guy who started his tech-reviewing career reviewing computer cases, I’m a bit spoiled these days. I’ve used several of the best enclosures on the market from several manufacturers, and I heartily recommend spending as much on a good case as possible.
Not everybody wants to spend hundreds of dollars on a PC chassis, though. For some people, the case is just a metal box with some holes in it and a couple of spinny things inside that move air through those holes. The cheaper that box is, the better. Go too cheap, though, and you might end up with a flimsy, noisy hovel of a case that’s hard to build in.
Playing that sort of reverse-blackjack with pricing and value is a tough game to win for the frugal PC builder, but Cooler Master and Zalman have both introduced products in the past few months that might be budget-friendly winners: Zalman with its Z9 Neo, and Cooler Master with its MasterBox 5. We’ve got both of these cases in the lab now, so we figured we’d pit them against one another in a budget-box double feature.
Zalman’s Z9 Neo rings in at a $70 suggested price. Despite its relatively low price tag, it comes with a sharp-looking white exterior, a large side-panel window, and a whopping five 120-mm fans inside. (Zalman also offers a black version of this case for $10 more.)
A fan grille on top of the Z9 Neo hides two 120-mm fans that light up with blue LEDs. The Neo also offers two USB 2.0 ports and two USB 3.0 ports on its top panel, more than many cases can boast. Blue LED accents ring those USB ports, leaving no doubt about the places where users can plug in peripheral devices or flash drives. For some reason, however, these blue LED rings light up even while the system inside is off. Some might find this behavior annoying if they have to have the Z9 Neo share their sleeping space.
Around front, the Z9 Neo comes with a noise-dampening front door, an uncommon feature even on cases that cost much more. A dust filter cleans up the air coming in through the two 120-mm intake fans, although one has to pull off the entire front panel to remove and clean this filter. That panel is bound to the case with its USB and front-panel wiring, so builders will need to be careful when removing the dust filter for cleaning.
Turning over the Z9 Neo reveals a quartet of rubber feet and a pull-out dust filter for the power supply’s fan. Nothing special here, but nothing to complain about, either. Zalman’s feet do keep the Neo a fair distance off the floor, which might be important to those with high-pile carpeting.
Around back, we get a glimpse at the Neo’s single 120-mm exhaust fan, and its seven expansion slots. No surprises here, either. Now that we’ve seen the Z9 Neo’s exterior, let’s tour the MasterBox 5.
Cooler Master is keeping busy these days by revamping its sprawling product lineup with a more unified design language and modular features. The company is bringing those improvements to the budget builder with its MasterBox 5. This case is available in the white finish you see above and a black version with a mesh front panel. Both cases sell for about $70 on Newegg right now.
The MasterBox may not be quite as decked-out as the Z9 Neo, but it still comes with a pair of 120-mm fans, a windowed side panel, and a sharp-looking smoked-plastic front panel. The MasterBox also boasts a wide-open interior that evokes Fractal Design’s Define S, one of our favorite budget cases.
Unlike the Z9 Neo, the MasterBox 5 has a solid top panel that reduces the number of potential spots where builders might install a radiator. That’s not a huge issue for these budget cases in general, though. We think it’s unlikely that budget builders will be putting $100 closed-loop CPU coolers in these babies. The MasterBox’s front I/O panel offers a pair of USB 3.0 ports, a mic jack, and a headphone jack. While the Z9 Neo has more ports, we imagine the MasterBox’s complement will be just fine for most builders, as well.
There’s no dust filter behind the MasterBox 5’s easy-to-remove front panel, but Cooler Master does include one 120-mm intake fan. We’d have preferred this fan be installed on the upper mount at the front of the case, since we think that moving air over the graphics card in a system is much more important than keeping 3.5″ storage devices cool these days. Builders can choose the most appropriate fan position for their own preferences, at least. A 240- or 280-mm radiator up to 50 mm thick can slip in behind these front fan mounts, as well. That setup is handy, since it means the entire radiator stack doesn’t have to consume precious space inside the main chamber.
The MasterBox 5 is supported by a pair of sturdy plastic feet, each of which rest on a pair of small rubber pads for noise and vibration reduction. The Cooler Master case has a pull-out dust filter for the power-supply fan, as well. Once again, nothing special here, but we’re glad to see features like these becoming standard in even the more affordable cases out there.
Around back, the MasterBox hides a 120-mm exhaust fan and seven expansion slots. In a neat touch, Cooler Master includes a vertically-oriented expansion slot next to the main seven so that builders can put brackets for stuff like extra USB ports at the rear of the case without blocking a slot on the motherboard.
Here are all the essential specs of the Z9 Neo and the MasterBox 5 in convenient tabular form:
|Zalman Z9 Neo||Cooler Master
|Type||ATX mid-tower||ATX mid-tower|
(W x H x D)
|8″ x 19.3″ x 19″
(203.2 x 490.2 x 482.6 mm)
| 8.7″ x 18.7″ x 19.7″
(220 x 475 x 500 mm)
|ATX, microATX, Mini-ITX||ATX, microATX, Mini-ITX|
|3.5″ drive mounts||2 2.5″/3.5″ combo sleds||2 2.5″/3.5″ combo sleds|
|2.5″ drive mounts||2 dedicated
2 2.5″/3.5″ combo sleds
2 2.5″/3.5″/5.25″ combo cages
2 2.5″/3.5″ combo sleds
|5.25″ drive bays||2 2.5″/3.5″/5.25″ combo cages||N/A|
|Fan mounts||2 120-mm or 140-mm front fans
3 120-mm or 2 140-mm bottom fans
1 140-mm rear fan
|2 120-mm or 140-mm front fans
1 120-mm rear fan
|Radiator mounts||2 120-mm top mounts
2 120-mm front mounts
1 240-mm top mount
1 240-mm front mount
|2 120-mm or 140-mm front mounts
1 240-mm or 280-mm front mount
1 120-mm rear mount
|Included fans||2 120-mm Zalman front fans
2 120-mm Zalman top fans
1 120-mm Zalman rear fan
|1 Cooler Master 120-mm front fan
1 Cooler Master 120-mm rear fan
|Front panel I/O||2 USB 3.0 ports
2 USB 2.0 ports
|2 USB 3.0 ports
|16.5″ (420 mm)||16.2″ (410 mm)|
|Max. CPU cooler height||160 mm (measured)||167 mm|
|Gap behind motherboard||0.7″ (17 mm)||0.9″ (23 mm)|
Without further ado, let’s get inside these cases and see what they have to offer the system builder on a budget.
Letting it all hang out
Pull the windowed side panel off the Z9 Neo, and you’re greeted with a layout that’s becoming more and more typical in modern cases. The Neo has a (non-removable) power-supply shroud that runs nearly the full length of the case. It conceals both the PSU and the pair of 3.5″ bays that the Neo offers. A pair of stamped-in mounts for 2.5″ storage devices sit to the right of the motherboard tray. These mounts are just that, though—the Neo doesn’t have slip-in or screw-in trays for SSDs like some other cases do. That setup might make storage devices harder to install here than they might be with cases that have separate trays to work with. Zalman also includes five rubber-grommeted holes that allow builders to route cables from behind the motherboard tray into the main chamber for a cleaner build. Two of these grommets will be covered up by ATX motherboards, though.
Five 120-mm fans ring the Z9 Neo’s motherboard tray: two on the front panel, two on the top panel, and one at the rear. That’s an unusually generous complement of stock fans for any case. For some reason, however, Zalman chose to power the front and top fans with four-pin Molex connectors, not the three- or four-pin motherboard header connectors we see on most every other modern fan. For perspective, the last PC case I owned that had Molex-powered fans inside was Antec’s good old Nine Hundred, circa 2006. Zalman’s choice of Molex fans means that builders can’t tie the speeds of most of the Neo’s spinners to changes in system temperatures—they’ll be equally noisy at all times. Some folks may not be bothered by this fact, but we think that once you’ve set up a system with motherboard fan control, it’s hard to go back to the older, noisier way of doing things.
Behind its motherboard tray, the Z9 Neo offers just 0.7″ (17 mm) of cable-routing space. From this view, we can also see the Z9 Neo’s non-removable hard drive cage and its two snap-on sleds. This non-removable drive cage leaves about 4″ of room between the front of the power supply and the edge of the cage for cable routing and storage—not a lot, as these things go. Zalman strangely doesn’t offer a specification for the maximum CPU cooler height inside the Neo, but our measurements suggest that towers as tall as 160 mm should fit inside without issue. The Neo can also accept graphics cards as long as 420 mm.
Stripping down the MasterBox 5 reveals a mostly wide-open interior. Cooler Master has hopped on board the PSU-shroud trend, but unlike the Neo’s metal cover, the MasterBox’s modesty shield is made of plastic and pops out with the turn of a thumbscrew. Cooler Master also includes a generously-sized cable-routing hole in the top of the MasterBox’s shroud that could be useful for graphics card power connectors or other bulky cabling. Zalman’s take only has pass-throughs for small cables like front-panel USB and audio connectors. Cooler Master also stamped a screwdriver-access channel into the MasterBox’s rear wall, a nice touch that many cheap cases (including the Z9 Neo) lack.
Even if it doesn’t have the extensive modular features of its MasterCase siblings, the MasterBox at least offers an “if you don’t like it, you can remove it” approach. The dual-drive 3.5″ cage can be removed with the twist of a single thumbscrew, and the aforementioned PSU shroud is similarly simple to get out of the case. The single included SSD caddy can be placed in any of three positions. Cooler Master only includes two fans with the MasterBox 5, but at least they’re both wired for three-pin motherboard fan headers. Other than those basic features, the MasterBox is mostly wide-open inside, which might herald an easy build.
Behind the motherboard tray, the MasterBox 5 offers 0.9″ (23 mm) of cable-routing space, more than both the Z9 Neo and even the Define S. The MasterBox also offers zip-tie loops at practically every location one might want to secure a cable bundle. Since the MasterBox’s 3.5″ drive cage can be placed in two positions—one that makes room for a front-mounted radiator and one that doesn’t—the MasterBox gives builders a generous 6.5″ of room for PSU cable-stashing by default.
Building ’em up
Building a system inside the MasterBox 5 is about as frustration-free as it gets. Once the power supply shroud is removed, the MasterBox’s interior becomes a roomy and unobstructed place to build a PC. To simplify the cable runs inside, I moved the MasterBox’s SSD tray from its default location on the “pegboard” area in front of the motherboard tray to the alternate mounting location on top of the 3.5″ drive cage. I also moved the intake fan to the upper mounting location at the front of the case to improve airflow to the graphics card.
Those simple changes aside, I had no trouble getting any cables where I needed them to go, and I never found myself wanting for a zip-tie point behind the motherboard when I needed one. The one slightly annoying part of the build was wrestling a hard drive into Cooler Master’s tool-free 3.5″ drive trays. The tray isn’t wide enough and doesn’t bend enough to truly let the drive snap in. Instead, I had to slide the rubber-dampened pin out of the tray a bit to get the drive’s mounting holes aligned before pushing it all the way back in—a process that took a bit of trial and error before the drive was fully secured. Cooler Master already had a winning design for these trays in the MasterCase series, so I’m not sure why it reinvented the wheel here with an inferior setup.
Overall, the MasterBox is one of the easiest cases to use that I’ve ever had the pleasure of building in, and the resulting build is clean and unobstructed.
Zalman’s Z9 Neo, on the other hand, presents a few challenges for the PC builder that the MasterBox 5 doesn’t. Its non-removable power supply shroud and fixed hard-drive cage require the builder to take some time and think out PSU cabling needs beforehand, because once the PSU is inside the case, there’s no practical way to add more modular cables. Those fixed features of the interior don’t leave much room for spare cables, either.. A non-modular PSU might require even more cable-stuffing than is evident in our test build. While Zalman’s basic layout works, it doesn’t make life easy, as the MasterBox’s does.
While we’re typically fans of cable grommets in cases that have cable pass-throughs from behind the motherboard, Zalman’s grommets are tiny and prone to popping out of their associated holes. Getting those grommets back in place when they’re full of cables is no fun at all. We’d also have preferred that the dedicated set of grommets in the motherboard tray be switched out for a pair in the top of the PSU shroud for more direct cable-routing to the graphics card’s twin PCIe connectors. Zalman does deserve praise for including hook-and-loop cable ties along the most likely path for the major cables in a system, though.
Now that we’ve put our test system inside both of these cases, let’s see how they do when it’s time to keep that system cool.
Our testing methods
Here are the specifications of our case-testing system:
|Processor||Intel Core i5-6600K|
|Motherboard||ASRock Z170 Extreme7+|
|Memory||G.Skill Trident Z DDR4-3000 16GB (2x8GB)|
|Graphics card||Asus Strix Radeon R9 Fury|
|Storage||Kingston HyperX 480GB SSD
Western Digital RE3 750GB 7200RPM
|Power supply||SeaSonic Platinum SS-660XP2|
|CPU cooler||Cooler Master Hyper D92|
|OS||Windows 10 Pro|
Our thanks to ASRock, G.Skill, Asus, Kingston, and Cooler Master for their various contributions to our testing system. Thanks to Cooler Master and Zalman for contributing these cases for review, as well.
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
To control the MasterBox’s pair of fans, we set up a custom fan curve to our tastes in ASRock’s A-Tuning software. We also set up a custom fan curve for the Cooler Master Hyper D92 CPU cooler in that software. We linked fan speeds to our test system’s CPU temperature. Since the Zalman only has one firmware-controllable fan, we hooked it up to our motherboard and set a custom fan curve for it, as well.
Here are the results of our testing cycle, plotted over time:
And here are the minimum and maximum temperatures from each testing phase:
Thanks to its large complement of stock fans, of which four out of five are running at full speed at all times, the Z9 Neo keeps a couple critical components of our test system quite a bit cooler than the MasterBox 5 does. The Zalman case keeps our test motherboard a full five degrees C cooler than the MasterBox can under load, and it opens up a seven-degree-C gap over the Cooler Master case when we look at graphics card temperatures.
We don’t usually worry about motherboard temperatures unless they’re really out there, but that graphics card temperature result is worth keeping an eye on. The dynamic voltage and frequency scaling algorithms on modern graphics cards can be exceptionally sensitive to temperature, so a cool graphics card may be more important now than ever.
Such large cooling performance differences are uncommon to see with today’s cases, generally, thanks to the fact that we usually leave fan control up to the motherboard for noise, vibration, and harshness reasons. We could probably improve the MasterBox’s performance by setting a more aggressive fan curve in the ASRock firmware at the cost of more noise. Regardless, Zalman’s brute-force strategy of running lots of fans flat-out does bear fruit in our performance tests. Now, let’s see what kind of noise levels these two cases produce while cooling our test system.
Here are the noise levels of the Z9 Neo and the MasterBox 5, measured at idle and under load. We measured these levels at four locations around the case from six inches away using the Faber Acoustical SoundMeter app for iOS.
Whatever control over noise levels the Z9 Neo’s single three-pin fan might offer is blown away by its four sleeve-bearing fans. Those fans produce a high-midrangey tonal hum instead of the broad-spectrum sound quality that might otherwise redeem them. Since they’re connected directly to our test system’s PSU with Molex connectors, they offer no speed control whatsoever. We suppose the one argument for this setup is that the sound of our test system changes only mildly when moving from idle to load conditions, but the Neo’s high noise floor is difficult to live with given our experiences with the plethora of quiet cases in the TR labs.
The MasterBox 5 is much more pleasant to be around than the Z9 Neo at idle, simply because we were able to lower its fan speeds to a reasonable level using our motherboard’s firmware fan controls. There’s nothing fancy about the pair of 120-mm fans that Cooler Master bundles with the MasterBox, but they practically disappear into the background at idle, and their noise character at speed is largely a broad-spectrum one. High marks for Cooler Master. The only audible sound from our test system at idle is that of the motor of our ancient Western Digital RE3 750GB hard drive.
Under load, the MasterBox 5 stays noticeably quieter than the Neo, even if the Asus Radeon R9 Fury graphics card inside is working harder to stay cool than it does in the Zalman case. The Asus DirectCU cooler on this graphics card is one of the better ones around, though, so the extra broad-spectrum noise from the Fury isn’t bothersome. If anything, there might be some extra headroom to crank up the speed MasterBox’s fans in our motherboard’s firmware.
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.