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Corsair's ML120 Pro RGB fans reviewed

Maglev meets levity
— 8:57 AM on November 16, 2017

For as much as I've written about case and cooling performance in my time, the fans included with most of the cases and radiators that find their way into the TR labs have been good enough that I've never felt any urge to consider premium aftermarket spinners. That's become especially true as silicon process sizes have shrunk and chips have usually consumed less and less power to deliver a given level of performance. The slow-moving 120-mm and 140-mm fans in many modern cases move enough air quietly that only those with special needs really need to consider tearing out the included spinners from those enclosures.

Earlier this year, however, I was shaken out of my broad-spectrum stock-fan reverie by one of Corsair's ML120 fans. In a change of pace from the usual sleeve, rifle, and fluid-dynamic bearings, the ML series of fans uses magnetic-levitation bearings to minimize friction and noise from that component.

A magnetic-levitation fan bearing. Source: Corsair

The Hydro GFX GeForce GTX 1080 Ti I tested a while back relies on an ML120 fan to move most of the waste heat away from its graphics chip (by way of a 120-mm radiator), and I was particularly impressed with that spinner's superb noise character even when I ran it all-out. Today, I'm getting a chance to see what a trio of these spinners can do. Corsair is pairing the laudable performance characteristics of the ML120 Pro with an essential feature for any product worth its enthusiast salt in 2017: RGB LEDs.

Now that I've gotten that little bit of salt out of my system, this move only makes sense for Corsair. The company has told us that whenever it adds RGB LEDs to anything, be it a case, cooler, keyboard, or headphone stand, it sells far more of the RGB LED version than it does of the unilluminated variety. As I've long noted in my reviews of recent motherboards, there are right ways and wrong ways of doing RGB LEDs, and it's far better that we laud the well-executed side of the spectrum rather than stubbornly stick ourselves in the mud about RGB LED-equipped products in general.

In the case of the ML120 Pro RGB fans, Corsair has done things the right way. Each fan starts with the same composite frame with rubber-padded corners that encircles regular ML120 Pros. These frames use neutral black and gray tones that won't clash with other components or carefully-thought-out RGB LED lighting schemes.

The ML120 Pro light show comes from four RGB LED arrays evenly spaced around the fan hub. The light from those diodes diffuses through a frosted white plastic rotor that spins on the aforementioned magnetic-levitation bearing. The result is classy and eye-catching instead of garish and retina-searing.

Each fan accepts PWM signals for speed control. The RGB version of the ML120 Pro can spin at speeds ranging from 400 RPM to 1600 RPM, down somewhat from the plain version's 2400-RPM peak speeds. Thanks to the lighting on board, they also include a proprietary connector cable that plugs into an included six-fan lighting hub. Corsair helpfully points out that fans need to be connected to this hub in sequence. Plug fans into the hub willy-nilly, and the RGB LEDs on fans that end up in non-sequential order simply won't work.

RGB hub on the left, Lighting Node Pro on the right

Hooking the fans up to the RGB hub and powering it with a SATA connector isn't the end of the journey in getting their lights to shine, though. To get there, you'll need to connect the hub to Corsair's included Lighting Node Pro accessory with another proprietary two-pin cable. The Lighting Node Pro is the brains of the operation, as it connects to the host system's motherboard over a USB port and serves as the emissary for signals from Corsair's free Link software utility.

With all these cables and control boxes running everywhere, it's only natural that one might want to install them out of sight—probably behind the motherboard tray in many modern cases. However, the roughly one-foot-long USB cable that Corsair includes with the Lighting Node Pro might limit where one can hide the box in some enclosures (especially those that don't have convenient cable pass-through holes under the motherboard). The company includes a similar USB Mini Type-B cable that's about two feet long with its fancier liquid coolers, and I would have liked to see one of those cables in the box with the ML120 Pro RGB system for greater cable-routing freedom.

The SATA power cables for the RGB hub and Lighting Node Pro are roughly a foot long in their own right, so it might not be necessary to run a dedicated SATA power cable out of the "basement" of many modern cases to the back of the motherboard tray in order to power these components, at least. Still, installing a fully-fledged Corsair RGB LED fan array in a system will present extra cable-routing challenges compared to boring old unilluminated hardware.

Corsair will sell the ML RGB fans in two different sizes and a variety of packages. A single ML120 Pro RGB fan will carry a $35 suggested price, and a single ML140 Pro RGB (the 140-mm version) will run $40. Those fans aren't really useful , though. Corsair really expects that builders will purchase a three-pack of ML120 Pro RGBs or a two-pack of ML140 Pro RGBs with the RGB hub and Lighting Node Pro included first, and then expand those systems as needed.

Buying in bulk first, as one will need to do in order to get any use out of these spinners' lighting, offers a price advantage for the ML120 Pro RGBs that we're testing today. The three-pack of ML120 Pro RGBs with a hub and Lighting Node Pro in the box will run $120 at retail, while the two-pack of ML140 Pro RGBs with supporting hardware will run $99.99. That arrangement still makes these fans among the most expensive around, so we'll see in just a moment whether the ML120 Pro RGBs earn their keep, at least.