Antec’s Sonata ATX case

Manufacturer Antec
Model Sonata
Price (Street) $100
Availability Now

I‘M GETTING OLD. Very old. I know this because my tastes in computers are changing in ways I never could have anticipated—ways that are scary to a guy like me. And let me be clear, I am the guy who always has to have the fastest computer possible for anything close to a sane amount of money. I’m the prototypical overclocker, the guy who gets a kick both out of going fast and out of having saved a buck in the process. I want my computer to impress people in a way that is slightly menacing. Back in the day, my dual Celeron 300A rig was overclocked to 504MHz and had—count ’em—fourteen fans going full tilt all the time, inside a giant tower case that could have easily housed a family of four. We didn’t have brushed aluminum cases or neon yet, but I made sure I had as much cooling power as CPU power.

Over time, fourteen fans came to seem a little excessive, and I found I could get a killer-fast PC into a mid-tower case with just a few well-placed cooling fans and have plenty of headroom for overclocking my Athlon XP.

But nowadays, I am thinking scary thoughts. Terrible thoughts. I am, at times, almost completely absorbed by the thought of making my computers quieter, whatever the cost. Those Pentium 4 Extreme Edition processors? Not for me; too hot. Maybe I could go for a dually system—the holy grail of those desiring creamy smooth PC performance—but what about the noise? Two CPUs generate lots of heat. Maybe I won’t.

At times, I think my Centrino-based laptop has become my favorite computer. I mean, I really, really like it, more than a guy should like a computer with yesterday’s performance and virtually zero expandability. And I like it especially because it’s almost completely silent.

Next thing you know, it’s time for dentures and Depends, and I’m drooling into the keyboard of a Macintosh G5. Fortunately, Antec has brewed up a concoction to soothe the ears of geezers like me in the form of the Sonata case. This deep black mini-tower ATX enclosure has the style to make a young man excited and the serenity to make an old man weep for joy.

What does a Sonata look like?
Antec decks out the Sonata in what it calls a “piano black” finish. To my eye, it looks more like a black automotive paint job, but whatever you call it, it looks good.


The Sonata’s “piano black” finish gives it a unique style

Open the front door panel, and…

…you’ll find three 5.25″ external drive bays and two 3.5″ bays, neatly covered when the door’s closed to prevent leftover beige peripherals from spoiling the effect. I’ve heard several complaints about the sturdiness of the door itself, though. Whack the door real good on accident, and the hinges tend to break. This may be one of the Sonata’s biggest weaknesses. Fortunately, Antec sells replacement front doors via its website for seven bucks.


Rails nestled cleverly in the drive bay cover

The Sonata’s front drive bays use a rail mechanism for mounting 5.25″ drives, and rails are provided. These are screw-on rails, not the goofy tension-based types that are always popping off of the drive, and I happen to think they are the way to mount 5.25″ drives—a much superior alternative to taking off both sides of the case and reaching a screwdriver into a drive cage, that’s for sure.

A single, slide-out metal cage houses both 3.5″ drives. This custom bit of kit works just as expected, without too much hassle or fuss. The fit is solid. You will, however, have to disconnect cabling to both devices in order to swap one of them out.

 

Open the pod bay doors, Hal

The slit opens to reveal… laser cannons! The mirrored plastic cover situated just below the drive bays opens to reveal a cluster of ports one might find useful on the front of a PC. From left to right, they are: two USB ports, a Firewire port, an audio-in jack, and an audio-out jack. The cover itself is flanked by a pair of clear, textured casings that each reflect light from a blue LED. This will blind your pets.


Frisky’s corneas are toast


Witness the power of this fully operational battle station!

Some folks will think the blue lights are stylin’. If you don’t, I suppose it’s always an option to disconnect the power leads to these lights and be done with them.

On making those ports work
Your mileage may vary on hooking up peripherals to the front ports of the case. Most folks will probably succeed at getting everything working. The USB ports connected fine to the USB header on my Asus SK8N motherboard, although the connectors are those annoying types where each pin is separate and must be attached on its own. Works with any sort of motherboard, but sure is annoying to install. I spent what seemed like several hours in surgery during my install, though the patient did manage to survive. I wish Antec had provided connectors with pinouts for a couple of common USB header layouts.

The audio ports, on the other hand, were impossible, but it’s not Antec’s fault. My M-Audio Revolution 7.1 sound card lacks any kind of expansion header. This card has nearly disappeared from stores, so I doubt you’ll have this problem. Had I used the integrated audio on my motherboard, connecting the ports would have been simple. And for audio, Antec provides a connector with separate individual pins, plus a connector with the commonly used Intel-style pinout. As it should be.

Making the Firewire port—err, IEEE1394 port, that is—work proved most challenging, until I ran into this little gem on Antec’s website:

I can’t get the FireWire port on my Sonata to work, but everything seems to be connected properly?

We found a mistake on the Sonata 1394 cables. The mistake is the positive signal (+) and negative signal (-) has been switched.

Eureka! That explains some things. I expect most of the Sonatas on store shelves now have Firewire cables with corrected labeling. However, you may want to check and be sure.

 

Sonata’s recipe for silence
Around back, the Sonata’s real magic is revealed.


Nice rear

Here you can see the enclosure’s two fan openings, one in the power supply, and the big momma below it for a massive 120mm low-RPM fan. This big beast pushes 79.06 CFM at a peak of only 2000 RPMs. Antec says the fan puts out 29 dB of noise.


My, that’s a big fan

Antec’s TruePower 380W power supply garnered an Editor’s Choice award here at TR a while back. The TruePower 380S unit in the Sonata is a special, single-fan version of the TruePower 380W that’s not sold separately. Both the power supply fan and Big Bertha are speed-controlled by the TruePower 380S, which has an internal temperature sensor. The TruePower directs the fans to speed up or slow down depending on internal case temperatures.

This arrangement makes for a very quiet case, especially when the system isn’t under extreme loads. I found the TruePower 380S did a good job of knowing when to turn up fan speeds in response to rising case temps. The numbers produced by the sensors on my motherboard via Motherboard Monitor tended to correspond pretty well to the decisions the TruePower 380S makes about raising or lowering fan speeds. And the numbers were quite decent. After an overnight Folding session inside the relatively warm Damage Labs underground complex, my CPU temp rarely cracked about 136 degrees Fahrenheit. (That’s about 57 degrees Celsius, for you freaks and weirdos.)

My system, for the record, has an Asus SK8N motherboard, Opteron 146 processor, Radeon 9700 Pro graphics, 2GB of RAM, Sony DVD RW drive, and a Western Digital JB-series hard drive. Its thermal load should be similar to most mid-to-high-end setups these days.

How quiet is the Sonata? Well, we couldn’t simply place the Sonata in quiet room, stand a few feet away, and measure it with our sound level meter, because the Sonata doesn’t register. Too quiet. So I held the meter (Extech model 407727) up close to the case and measured it. What’s more, I measured the sound level and idle and under a full CPU/GPU load (running [email protected] and the ATI “Chimp” demo). To provide some context, I also measured a few systems in other cases, including an Antec SX-830 (with an Athlon XP 2100+), a Shuttle XPC SN41G2 (with an Athlon XP 2800+), and a CoolerMaster WaveMaster (very similar to my system, but with an Athlon 64 FX-51). All of the systems are fairly typical configurations, and I avoided extra noise from things like busy hard drives or screaming GeForce FX Dustbusters. Here are the results.

I didn’t take “load” readings on the SX-830 because practically nothing in the system adjusts fan speeds under load, anyhow. The thing is just that loud all the time. The WaveMaster system doesn’t have an OS installed yet, unfortunately, so I wasn’t able to take readings under load for it, either. Nevertheless, these numbers should give you a decent idea how the Sonata compares to some other common cases.

During the tests, I couldn’t get all the fans in the Sonata to remain at the fastest speeds. The system just doesn’t get hot enough to trigger a steady run at the highest speed setting, even under heavy load for an extended period. However, I did manage to measure the Sonata during some short bursts at top speed. From the front, it hit a peak of 54.9 dB, and around back, the peak was 62.5 dB. If you happen to load up the Sonata with something really hot, like dual Opterons or an Intel Prescott, the system running full tilt may get nearly as loud as your average mid-sized ATX enclosure.

What you should take from these numbers is that the Sonata barely whispers during normal use, and isn’t terribly noisy when the system is really churning on something. Also, importantly, the Sonata projects much less sound out of the front than out of the back. Given typical placement in a typical room, where one’s computer desk backs up to a wall, that matters. Subjectively, the Sonata more than makes good on these numbers. It is easily the quietest ATX or small-form-factor case I’ve ever used.

However, the Sonata isn’t quiet perfection. When I popped a graphics card with a noisy fan (bad bearing, I think) into my system, the Sonata’s quiet fans and clean design didn’t seem to help mask the noise from that fan much at all. And when my DVD RW drive spins up, the Sonata can’t do much to dampen its whine. You will need to choose your other system components wisely in order to build a silent PC.

Also, the TruePower has a limited number of fan speeds, and it’s apparently not very sophisticated about controlling the transitions between them. Sometimes, when I’m working at the computer, the ambient temps and the load from my computer will conspire to create a fairly stable temperature inside the Sonata that’s right on the threshold between one fan speed and the next. Then, Big Bertha back there starts transitioning up and down between two fan speeds. Quickly. Although the Sonata is much, much quieter than my last computer or any typical ATX enclosure, these transitions can be nearly as annoying as a loud computer—more so, perhaps, for some folks, because of the changes in pitch.

This is, in my book, the Sonata’s greatest weakness as a piece of equipment designed to make one’s workspace a more enjoyable place to be. It’s no deal killer—not by a long shot, because the Sonata’s a huge step in the right direction, but there is room for improvement in this area. Ideally, the Sonata would have infinitely variable fan speeds and some reasonably smart control logic to minimize the distractions created by fan speed changes. However, I’d settle, for starters, for a measure of user control, ideally through software-selectable temperature/fan-speed thresholds.

 

Behind the music
Fortunately, the Sonata is more than just a pretty face and a low-key personality; it’s also a darned robust case for its size. You can crack it open to get a look around by removing the side panel, which is secured by a pair of thumbscrews and a latched handle. I really, really like thumbscrews, so let’s get a close-up of one of those babies.


Thumbscrews rule

I like thumbscrews so much, I wish Antec had provided thumbscrews everywhere it’s practical, including the screws that secure AGP and PCI cards, like I’ve seen done on some high-end modders’ cases. Would be nice.

The Sonata does include its own measure of nice touches, though, including a washable plastic dust filter that slides of the bottom of the case, like so:


Filter in

Filter out Antec recommends cleaning the filter with some regularity to keep airflow as free as possible. My office here isn’t terribly dusty, and I bet mine could go six months between cleanings, easily. Other places I’ve lived would probably require monthly cleanings, though, so your mileage may vary.


The filter with a couple of months’ worth of dust on it

Once you get inside the Sonata, you’ll find room for a standard ATX-sized motherboard, but nothing much more than that. I measured the motherboard space at roughly 11.25″ wide and 10.5″ deep. Server-class WTX boards are out of the question in here.

The workspace itself feels fairly spacious because of Antec’s smart drive arrangement. All four of the Sonata’s internal 3.5″ drive bays run perpendicular to the drives situated in external bays, so no cable clutter intrudes from the internal drives into the space where lengthy AGP cards generally live.

Antec’s slide-out drive cages are very handy, and they contribute to Sonata’s quiet temperament by isolating drive vibrations from the rest of the case. If you look closely at the picture above, you can see the undersides of the rubber grommets through which screws pass to secure the drive. There is no metal-on-metal contact between the screws and the drive tray. The drive’s weight is suspended on top of the rubber grommet, with plenty of cushion. This noise dampening measure makes so much sense, I’m surprised Antec didn’t use it more extensively throughout the Sonata. Instead, Antec seems to rely to good fit and solid construction do most of the work.


The finished product: with the right external drives, it looks great
 
Conclusions
I do have a few other nits to pick about the Sonata. Black cases inevitably show dust much more prominently than plain beige or brushed aluminum. This shiny finish shows fingerprints like mad. I’d like to see Serial ATA power connectors on the power supply. Also, the power supply leads could benefit from some sheathing to keep things tidy. The Sonata doesn’t quite have all the right cosmetic touches one would want in a case with a side window. That’s a shame, because I don’t think adding a window would diminish the Sonata’s whispery silence in the least. (Some might argue the about the style points involved, though.)

Overall, none of these minor quibbles can dampen my enthusiasm for everything Antec got right with the Sonata. This is a unique case concept executed well, and the Sonata manages to serve as a much-better-than-average mid-tower ATX enclosure, too. Antec needs to work on a way of moderating fan speed transitions, so they don’t become a distraction. Beyond that, I’m a happy old geezer.

In fact, far from making me feel older, the Sonata has restored some of my excitement over standard ol’ ATX-sized cases. You see, I’ve also been pretty taken with these newfangled small-form-factor boxes because of their slick designs and relatively quiet cooling. Now, however, those little toasters seem rather noisy next to a Sonata-based PC. And they won’t hold four TV tuner cards for my uber-TiVo box, either—let alone facilitate any dual-Opteron fantasies. The Sonata will do all that and more, and it looks just as slick as a Shuttle XPC. Why bother with the toasters? 

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