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.
Corsair Link lights up our lives
RGB LED components are nothing without software to control them, and in the case of the ML120 Pro RGBs, that duty falls to Corsair’s Link utility. On top of its system-monitoring capabilities, Link can be used to customize various settings of Corsair’s wide range of compatible peripherals, including PSUs, heatsinks, entire fan-control hubs, and more. For the ML120 Pro RGBs, we get control over lighting color and eight prebaked animation effects.
To take control of the ML120 Pro RGBs, it’s first necessary to tell the Lighting Node Pro that you want to control ML fans specifically on the channel they’re connected to. Presumably, the Lighting Node Pro works best with only one type of fan connected to each hub. Selecting a different fan type from the menu of available options will set the entire channel to control that type of fan; there’s no per-port customization from the RGB hub. Choose the wrong fan type and you probably won’t break anything, but your connected peripherals may act weird or not work at all.
Link’s eight prebaked lighting effects are reserved rather than rave-ready. Static displays a single solid color. Blink flips the fans’ LEDs on and off at any of three speeds, and it can alternate between two selected colors or a random sequence. Color Pulse gently ramps the lights on and off, and it can alternate between two colors or a random sequence, as well. Color Shift smoothly runs the gamut back and forth between two colors, or it too can shift among random colors. Rainbow sets all four LEDs on each fan to the same color as they shift through the various colors of the visible spectrum. Rainbow Wave does the same thing, but each fan cycles through the spectrum using their individual RGB LEDs instead. Temperature lets you define three colors linked to temperature ranges from any one sensor Corsair Link can detect. Sequential lights up each LED on each fan in series, creating a kind of spiral or pinwheel effect. Most of these profiles allow for three animation speeds.
Overall, I’m pleased with the animation smoothness and color saturation that the ML120s produce. The fans don’t have any trouble with tough “in-between” colors like oranges, and they can even produce a convincing white in a pinch.
One slightly clunky design choice in Link is that it’s not possible to group illuminated devices in the interface and change them as a unit. Link does have a “Copy To” function that can apply a lighting effect configured for one device to a number of selected devices with a couple of clicks, and it does remember the devices you’ve copied lighting behaviors to in the past, so it almost works like a grouping feature. Still, it’s not quite one-click convenience.
Corsair also seems to expect that users of its RGB LED products won’t want to sync up their lighting with motherboards or other components in a system. The company hasn’t developed a universal RGB LED sync standard of its own yet, nor has it opened up its own components to external RGB LED control sources (outside of one RGB LED RAM kit). That means the ML120 Pros will always require Link to be installed in order to modify lighting patterns or colors, and those patterns or colors won’t (and can’t) occur in sync with any lighting governed by a motherboard or other control source yet. This walled-garden approach may change eventually, but it’s inconvenient now. It also doesn’t help that Corsair RGB LED peripherals controlled by the company’s Utility Engine, like the K70 RGB keyboard I have from some time back, can’t sync up with Link-controlled peripherals or vice versa.
The RGB LED-obsessed may also be disappointed to find that Corsair doesn’t offer any kind of custom animation programming for the Lighting Node Pro yet, as it does for its peripherals in its CUE software. To be fair, there’s probably not a powerful ARM microcontroller inside the Lighting Node Pro as there is in the company’s RGB LED keyboards, so custom programming opportunities may be limited. Still, folks with an extremely particular vision for how they’d like their RGB LEDs to look will need to content themselves with Corsair’s eight included lighting patterns for now.
Our testing methods
This may be the first time we’ve ever reviewed fans in and of themselves at The Tech Report. That said, I have what I believe is a useful test method for gauging the performance of these spinners. It just so happens that AMD sent us a monster 360-mm radiator to go with its Ryzen Threadripper CPU duo, and the fine folks at Gamers Nexus have pioneered a simple method for comparing fans and heatsinks in their testing: run the fans or coolers you’re testing at the same speed and see what noise and temperature numbers come out the other end. The elegance of that approach is inarguable, so I’m employing it here, as well.
For this test, we’re asking the ML120 Pro RGBs to move the heat from an overclocked AMD Ryzen Threadripper 1950X CPU out of a standard 360-mm Asetek all-in-one liquid cooler. At 3.9 GHz across all of its cores and with a Vcore of about 1.2V, the 16-core, 32-thread 1950X is a formidable challenge for any heatsink, and its soldered heat spreader means that it should transfer its waste heat into our closed-loop cooler with aplomb.
It’s no good to assess the performance of the ML120 Pro RGBs in isolation, so I selected a trio of Cooler Master MasterFan Pro 120 Air Balance 120-mm spinners from my parts shelf. These fans have a three-way switch that lets the system builder choose the upper limit of the fan’s PWM range: 1300 RPM, 2000 RPM, or 2500 RPM. Since we’re going all-out with this test, I shifted the switch to its Performance mode for a 650-RPM-to-2500-RPM range. Three of these Cooler Master fans would run a builder about $50 on Newegg right now, so they’re significantly less expensive than the RGB LED Corsair trio we have on the bench today.
Here are the full specs of our test rig:
|Processor||AMD Ryzen Threadripper 1950X|
|Motherboard||Gigabyte X399 Aorus Gaming 7|
|Memory||32GB (4x8GB) G.Skill Trident Z DDR4-3600|
|Graphics card||EVGA GeForce GTX 1070 SC2|
|Storage||Intel SSD 750 Series 400GB|
|Power supply||Seasonic Prime Platinum 1000W|
|CPU cooler||Thermaltake Water 3.0 Ultimate 360-mm|
|OS||Windows 10 Pro|
Thanks to AMD, Gigabyte, G.Skill, Intel, and EVGA for helping outfit our test systems with some of the finest hardware available.
To see just how well each trio of fans performed, I ran the Prime95 Small FFTs stress test on our test system for at least 20 minutes before checking the CPU’s Tdie temperature in HWiNFO64. I performed spot checks of my testing environment during these tests by using a calibrated thermometer to ensure that ambient temperatures didn’t stray more than a couple degrees F (1° C) from our 72° F (22.2° C) starting temperature. If temperatures rose or fell too much, I applied the necessary countermeasure with my furnace or by cracking a window to the mid-forties (about 7.2° C) air outside.
Revolution for revolution, the ML120s take a lead when our contending trios are both running at 1000 RPM, and by no small margin. It’s entirely possible that Corsair’s spinners are better-optimized to deliver more of their rated static pressure at lower RPMs. The MasterFans would seem to need more oomph to deliver similar cooling performance.
Unleash both fans at 100% speeds, and the MasterFan trio pulls slightly ahead of the ML120 Pro RGBs on thermals alone. Cooler Master’s spinners knock almost 10° C off their speed-contstrained result, but they’re also spinning 150% faster than they could in our fixed-speed testing. What may be more impressive is that Corsair’s spinners come within 1.3° C of the Cooler Masters while only spinning 60% faster than they were with a leash on.
Cooling performance is just one line on a fan’s calling card, though. Low temperatures are no good if the fans producing them deafen the user in the course of keeping power-hungry components chilly. Let’s see just how much noise these fans make while cooling off our Threadripper 1950X.
To measure the sound levels our test system produced with each trio of fans on board, I used the Faber Acoustical SoundMeter app running on an iPhone 6S Plus at a distance of one meter from our test bench. I measured noise levels at idle, with the fans running at the same 1000-RPM speed, and with each fan trio running all-out.
At idle, both of these fan sets have enough PWM range to be practically inaudible at their minimum speeds. The Cooler Master fans produce a very mildy audible low-pitched hum at a regular working distance, while the ML120 Pros exhibit just a tiny bit of buzzing from their motors that’s only audible way up close to the fans themselves. At the decibel levels I measured at idle, most any perturbation in the outside environment will be louder than the sounds these fans produce. I’ll give a slight edge to Corsair’s spinners here, but it’s a slight one.
With both fans running at a constant 1000 RPM, though, the ML120 design really struts its stuff. On my test bench, the only sounds from the ML120 Pros were a gentle whoosh of air moving and a tiny hint of high-pitched motor noise. That impression is bolstered by our 33.3 dBA noise measurement at one meter. Honestly, even the sound from the pump on our liquid cooler is more prominent than the sound of these fans under these conditions. Recall that these fans cool exceptionally well at these speeds, even with an overclocked Threadripper 1950X dumping heat into our rig’s 360-mm radiator, too. This is truly impressive performance.
At 35.3 dBA, the MasterFan trio might not seem much louder than the Corsairs at 1000 RPM, but they have a prominent bass tone to their sound that stands out more than the broad-spectrum whoosh of the Corsair bunch. Though they’re still quiet, the MasterFans aren’t as eerily unobtrusive as the Corsairs are at the same speed. You definitely get the sense that the system is on and working when the MasterFans are operating.
Run these fans at full speed, however, and there’s no contest. The 50.4 dBA the MasterFan trio produces at speed is simply too loud to ignore, and that prodigious noise level comes with a variety of unpleasant characteristics. The low-pitched hum I’ve noted from the fans becomes especially prominent at full speed, and it’s joined by an almost rattly note and an out-of-phase interference pattern that sounds like a sort of wub-wub effect. In short, you get a racket when you push the MasterFan 120s to the max.
The ML120 Pros at 40.7 dBA just sound like more air moving. You might be able to pick out a slight high-midrange tonal character from the ML120s at speed, but that’s the only flaw in an otherwise unobjectionable performance. The sound of the ML120s at speed fades into the background so easily that I left our stress test running for 20 minutes longer than I intended, simply because our test system didn’t sound particularly strained.
To be fair, it’s worth noting that the MasterFans can run about 900 RPM faster than the Corsair spinners can at full speed, so a Corsair win was almost guaranteed in this department. In general, though, a 10-dBA change in noise levels means that the perceived volume of a sound is doubled compared to the quieter source. That fact should drive home just how good the ML120s are in practice. For all their sound and fury, the MasterFan 120s only keep our CPU 1.3° C cooler than the Corsairs do at full speed. For 10 dBA less from my system, that’s a trade I’d happily make.
Corsair’s ML120 Pro RGB fans blend the purely practical innovation of magnetic-levitation bearings with a purely cosmetic augmentation: RGB LEDs. We’d normally expect a product to suffer for such vanity, but the ML120s defy expectations and lose nothing for their blinkenlights.
The ML120 Pro RGBs don’t avoid one scourge of the RGB LED craze, though: a proliferation of cabling and lighting-control hubs that will have to go somewhere in a system. While the fans and hub both have enough cable length to hide most of the wiring mess behind a motherboard tray or in a lower chamber, the short USB cable that Corsair includes with the Lighting Node Pro controller could limit the hub-hiding options a builder might have for that component in a given case.
Corsair’s insistence on a walled garden for its fan-control software and lighting hubs also rubs me the wrong way. There’s little to complain about with Corsair’s Link software in isolation, but in a world where motherboard-powered RGB LED synchronization utilities like Asus’ Aura Sync and Gigabyte’s RGB Fusion are gaining momentum, buyers might be frustrated by the fact that they’ll need to keep two separate utilities capable of two entirely different sets of lighting effects installed for their RGB LED-bedecked systems. Corsair Link doesn’t extend even the slightest bridge to those sync utilities yet.
At $120 for the turn-key three-pack we tested, the ML120 RGB trio is among the most expensive 120-mm fan kits on the market today, if not the most expensive such kit around. I think they earn their keep, though. Not only are these fans exceedingly pleasant-sounding—possibly the best-sounding 120-mm fans I’ve ever laid ears on—our revolution-for-revolution testing with another trio of premium 120-mm fans shows that Corsair’s spinners are more effective at keeping CPU temperatures in check while staying quieter than our competitive pick. One might expect compromises on any one of these points for the ML120s to turn in such excellent results, but a relatively low maximum speed is their only concession to higher-performance (and much louder) fans.
If you demand a no-compromises fan that looks as cool as it runs, the ML120 Pro RGB should be at the top of your list. These spinners sound great, they cool well, and their RGB LEDs look top-notch. Sure, they’re expensive, but it’s rare that one product can do everything so well. It’s only natural, then, that the ML120 Pro RGBs go home with an equally rare TR Editor’s Choice award.