Completely Silent Computer

I’ve been trying to make my computers quieter for nearly three decades.  Custom liquid cooling loops, magnetically-stabilised fluid-dynamic bearings, acoustic dampeners, silicone shock absorbers, you name it.  Well, last week I finally managed to build a completely silent computer.  Without further ado…

DB4a

Say hello to the Streacom DB4 — a 26x26x27cm case that doesn’t have a single fan.  Indeed, it doesn’t have any moving parts at all.  It’s totally silent — 0dB.

If you strip away the top and four (13mm-thick extruded aluminium) side walls, you see a minimal chassis, and a central mounting plate for a mini-ITX motherboard (oriented with I/O pointing down through the bottom of the case).

DB4b

At the time I selected components for the system, there were only four mini-ITX motherboards for me to choose from:

  • ASUS ROG Strix B350-I Gaming
  • Gigabyte AB350N-Gaming-WiFi ITX
  • MSI B350I Pro AC
  • ASRock Fatal1ty AB350 Gaming-ITX/ac

(Astute readers will notice they are all AMD (Socket AM4) motherboards.  The whole Meltdown/Spectre debacle rendered my previous Intel system insecure and unsecurable so that was the final straw for me — no more Intel CPUs.)

I ended up getting the ASRock AB350 Gaming-ITX/ac motherboard:

DB4c

Although any mini-ITX motherboard can — theoretically — be mounted in the DB4, the whole case is designed to be passively-cooled by using heat pipes to transfer the heat generated by the CPU and GPU to the side panels where it can be radiated and convected away.  Careful analysis of the routes the CPU heat pipes would need to take, and clearances required by them, revealed that certain motherboards simply wouldn’t work — components were in the way.

  • The Gigabyte has the ATX power connector at the top of the board for some reason, so that was a massive, insurmountable obstacle.
  • The Asus has a solid bank of SoC VRM caps that the heatpipes would have literally rested on.  Anyone that knows anything about capacitors and heat knows that would have been a recipe for disaster.
  • The MSI has a huge SoC VRM heatsink that would have posed an insurmountable obstacle to one (maybe even two) of the heatpipes.

The ASRock was the only motherboard that could fit the DB4 and (optional) LH6 Cooling Kit heat pipes without much in the way of drama.  All of that will probably make a lot more sense when you see the heatpipes installed:

DB4d

To fully appreciate the minute clearances involved, here it is from another angle:

DB4eYep, literally fractions of a millimetre of clearance in some places.

The DB4 comes with the hardware necessary to shift heat from the CPU to one of the side panels via four heatpipes and a single heat spreader.  In this configuration a 65W CPU can be supported.  By adding the LH6 Cooling Kit, you can connect the CPU to two side panels via six heatpipes and three heat spreaders, and support a 105W CPU.

In such a passively-cooled system, the heat dissipation figures limit the CPUs that can be installed.  For reference:

  • Ryzen 5 2400G 4C8T 3.6GHz — 46-65W
  • Ryzen 5 1600 6C12T 3.2GHz — 65W
  • Ryzen 5 1600X 6C12T 3.6GHz — 95W
  • Ryzen 7 1700 8C16T 3.0GHz — 65W
  • Ryzen 7 1700X 8C16T 3.4GHz — 95W
  • Ryzen 7 1800X 8C16T 3.6GHz — 95W

So a stock DB4 can only support up to a 2400G/1600/1700 — forget overclocking — whilst a DB4+LH6 can support even a 1600X/1700X/1800X — with a little bit of room for overclocking.

Unlike Intel — who only support their sockets for as long as it takes you to unwrap the box — AMD supports their sockets for much longer.  The AM4 will be supported until 2020.  Thus my cunning plan was to start off 2018 with a CPU that can be comfortably cooled by the DB4+LH6, overclock, stress test and monitor thermals for a couple of years, then — if the advantages would be tangible and I feel the need — throw in a more efficient CPU when the last AM4 CPUs come off the production line in 2020, then cruise for the next half-decade or so.

All of that led me to install a 65W Ryzen 5 1600.  Since I have a B350 motherboard, I have the ability to overclock the CPU to 1600X/95W levels without much of an issue.

DB4f

Note:  If you are happy sitting within the 65W thermal envelope, and are not overclocking anything, you could forego the LH6 Cooling Kit.  Because the DB4 heat pipes are shorter than the LH6 ones, and don’t go over the edge of the motherboard, pretty-much all of the component obstruction issues that eliminated the Gigabyte, Asus and MSI motherboards from consideration would no longer apply.  Something to keep in mind if you don’t need the speed but do want some of the features that one or more of those boards may have (but which the ASRock does not).

As far as memory goes, I went with a Corsair Vengeance LPX CMK32GX4M2Z2400C16 32GB (2x16GB) DDR4 kit.

cmk32gx4m2z2400c16-l

I’ve never had a problem with Corsair Vengeance LPX RAM.  This specific kit was on the QVL for the motherboard and an overclocker was able to push his kit to 3200MHz on exactly the same motherboard as I have, so I was confident that I could get a nice memory overclock with minimal effort — subject to the silicon lottery, of course.  Since this machine isn’t for gaming, and isn’t running an APU, really high memory speeds aren’t as important to me as large amounts of RAM.

DB4gDB4h

SSDs are the only totally silent storage option, and I got rid of my last HDD more than seven years ago, so this system was always going to have SSDs.  The only question was “Which ones?”

Since the motherboard has an M.2 slot on the back, I decided to go with a 1TB Samsung 960 Evo NVMe for the main drive and a 1TB Samsung 860 Evo SATA for the backup drive.

I would have preferred two NVMe drives (to cut down on cable clutter), but the ASRock motherboard only has one M.2 slot.  The Asus motherboard, on the other hand, has two slots but (as mentioned before) that is not compatible with the LH6 Cooling Kit.  Ah well — compromises of some sort often need to be made.

For what I will be doing with this computer, fast transfer rates and a life expectancy of at least seven years is what I am after from these drives.  I only really need ~600GB of space, so by over-provisioning a couple of hundred gigs I can let wear-levelling do its thing and make seven years an easy target to hit.

Even though this system is not meant to be a gaming rig, there’s no harm in putting in the best GPU you can without blowing the thermals.  The GPU Cooling Kit allows up to a 75W GPU to be modded and cooled via heat pipes and spreader to a single wall.  That pretty-much limits you to the GTX 1050 Ti and below if you prefer Nvidia cards — like I do.

The GPU I wanted was the MSI GeForce GTX 1050 Ti Aero ITX OC 4GB but my parts supplier ran out of them literally as I was assembling my online order.  With no idea when supplies would be restored (thanks to the cryptocurrency mining craze), I went with my second preference of an ASUS Phoenix GeForce GTX 1050 Ti 4GB:

DB4j

Whilst both GPUs fit into the space, the MSI was a few centimetres shorter than the Asus.  None of the dual-fan 1050 Ti GPUs had even the remotest chance of fitting.

After removing the fan, shroud and heatsink I cleaned up the GPU itself, applied fresh thermal paste, then fitted the GPU Cooling Kit:

db4k.jpeg

The final step was to pop heat sinks onto each of the four VRAM chips:

DB4l

Power testing of a wide range of 1050 Ti cards reveals that they do indeed pull the full 75W when under load, so I’m at the limits of the GPU Cooling Kit and there’s no room for overclocking the GPU (even if I wanted to).

To power all this I installed a Streacom ZF240 Fanless 240W ZeroFlex PSU:

DB4i

I researched the power draws of the various components and worked out that the power budgets on all rails — except the 12V rail — had plenty of headroom.  The 12V rail can theoretically hit ~85% of the 168W max capacity if both the CPU and GPU are running at 100%.  Normally I prefer to leave myself a lot more headroom than that, but since this system is not meant for gaming, and I can’t actually think of any other scenarios where I’m likely to max out both at the same time, I’m not really concerned.  (If it does become an issue then I can install a SFX PSU with minimal effort and buy myself more headroom.)

Over the years I’ve also come to appreciate PSU efficiency curves, and recognise that ‘idling’ systems with large PSUs is a horrible waste of energy.  To get the most out of your PSU you should size it so that your typical usage falls in the 25-75% range.  The ZF240 has an efficiency rating of 93% and I think my selection of components will let it achieve such levels on a regular basis — given my historic and anticipated usage patterns.

Low power consumption is an especially important issue if you plan on going off-grid.  Since that’s a goal we have in the 2–4 year time frame, and this computer will be used much longer than that, it makes sense to aim for high efficiency and low power consumption at the same time.

DB4m

Final remarks…

The pursuit of silence can be costly and this build certainly was — ending up just shy of AU$3,000.  If cryptocurrency miners weren’t inflating prices all over the place, it probably could have come in closer to $2,400 — still a fair bit, but not eye-watering.  Nonetheless, the price is less than each of my last three systems and it manages to achieve what none of them ever did:  Complete and utter silence.

This computer makes no noise when it starts up.  It makes no noise when it shuts down.  It makes no noise when it idles.  It makes no noise when it’s under heavy load.  It makes no noise when it’s reading or writing data.  It can’t be heard in a regular room during the day.  It can’t be heard in a completely quiet house in the middle of the night.  It can’t be heard from 1m away.  It can’t be heard from 1cm away.  It can’t be heard — period.  It’s taken nearly 30 years to reach this point, but I’ve finally arrived.  The journey is over and it feels great.

If you are after a silent — not just quiet, but silent — daily driver, then I strongly recommend a passively-cooled case, heat pipes and solid state drives.  Eliminate the moving parts (e.g. fans, HDDs) and you eliminate the noise — it’s not that complicated.  It also doesn’t need to be really expensive (my system requirements were not ‘average’ so please don’t infer from this post that all DB4-based systems are as expensive).  Silence (and a perfectly respectable computer) can easily be had for half the price.

That’s about it, methinks.  If you have any questions or would like more details (about any aspect of this build) to be added to the post, fire away in the comments.

Cheerio!

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126 Responses to Completely Silent Computer

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  3. Joshua Heard says:

    If you wanted to build a machine for gaming, what changes would you make to this design?

    • Tim says:

      The walls of the DB4 can only passively extract so much heat from your CPU/GPU so a DB4 is probably not the best choice for “graphically demanding” gaming. The 1050 Ti should give you pretty good results in 1080p “e-sports” titles, but if you want high levels of detail, higher FPS, or 1440p, then you really need to step up to something like a GTX 1060 — and that means a 120W TDP. The only way to cool that would be to get some additional (third-party) heat pipes, an additional heat spreader, and bend the pipes so they run from the GPU behind the motherboard and bond to the back wall (which otherwise only has the PSU connected to it, so is pretty cool). Do that and you should be able to get about 90% of the performance out of the 1060 before it thermally throttles. Clamp your Max FPS down to something ‘sane’ (like 75) and you may avoid thermal throttling completely.

      Instead of 32GB of 2400MHz DRAM, I’d get 16GB of 3200MHz instead. 16GB is plenty for gaming and the extra speed/stability out of the box will help a little bit as well.

      As mentioned elsewhere, a Ryzen 5 2600 is a great choice right now, and can be adequately cooled by just the stock heat pipes, so forget the LH6 Cooling Kit. The shorter stock pipes give you more mobo options. Pick one with better VRMs (maybe the Asus ROG Strix X470-I Gaming) and the audio connectors you need to match your surround sound system.

      Oh, and since it’s for gaming, consider the black DB4 instead of the aluminium one. 😉

      Having said all that I, personally, won’t be doing any meaningful amount of gaming on this. My i7-2600K/GTX 1060 6GB is now my dedicated gaming rig. I’m planning on building an acoustically-insulated gaming pod in the shed and the case that houses the above (an Antec P180) will be located outside the pod… where noise won’t be an issue. Might even get rid of the case entirely and just mount everything onto a sheet of aluminium checker plate. Gaming rigs run hot — that’s just the way it is — and fans are actually a really good way of getting rid of large amounts of heat (my Noctua NH-D15S does an excellent job). Since you neither want to be where the heat is nor the fans are, I think the best solution is to put a wall between your gaming space and your gaming rig. That’s just my opinion, though.

  4. Doug says:

    Hell in 2013 Apple introducded a MacPro that was silent.

  5. Tim, I’ve written a blog post for hackaday.com about your quiet computer build, and it ought to be published once the Editors schedule it in a couple of days. I thought I’d give you a head’s up about it. Nice work !

  6. Austin Wright says:

    0dB(SPL) is not totally silent, since dB implies a log scale. 0dB(SPL) is 20 micropascal, which is very, very, very quiet.

    It’s probably not even that quiet though, since there’s mains hum and other electromagnetic energy being dissipated.

    • Tim says:

      There are many forums out there where folks who want to endlessly debate minutiae can go to while away the hours. This is not one of them.

      One dictionary definition of ‘0dB’ is the threshold of hearing. One dictionary definition of ‘silent’ is producing no detectable sound or symptom. I choose those definitions. You are free to choose different definitions, if you want, but I choose those.

      I have accurately described the circumstances under which I and others are unable to hear any noise coming from this computer. As far as we are concerned it is silent. Not quiet. Not very quiet. Not very, very quiet. Not very, very, very quiet. Silent. Any sounds it may be producing are beyond the ability of five different humans to detect.

      Are there young people out there with exceptional hearing that may be able to hear some noise? I’m sure there are. Could I move this computer into the anechoic chamber at my old Uni and then pick up a hum? I reckon I could. Could a $2,000 sound meter be used to pick up something? Maybe — buy one, send it to me and we’ll find out. All of that is irrelevant though.

      ‘Silent’ and ‘0dB’ are interchangeably used by regular folk (and, indeed, graphics card manufacturers like Asus and MSI) to describe devices that make so little noise that they cannot be heard by average humans with normal hearing in quiet domestic environments. My computer is such a device.

      Will my DB4 emit 0dB (SPL) and stay silent forever? I don’t know. Sometimes, as electrical components age, they can make more noise. I’ve had PSUs develop hums, and a GPU develop coil whine before. The same might happen with one or more of the components I’ve used in this system. Time will tell. If it happens, I’ll be sure to let everyone know.

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  19. phraxoid says:

    Really nice build and write up! I’ve grappled with PC noise for years, opting for watercooling systems to reduce noise. Fully passive is something I have never tried but this has got me thinking now!!!

    • Tim says:

      Thanks! I grappled with noise for decades, so I know what you mean. At the end of the day the only true fix is to eliminate moving parts. In 2018 passive cooling and SSDs make it possible. So long as you aren’t trying to build a high-end (hot) gaming rig, a system like mine should serve you well. Thanks to cases like the Streacom DB4, you don’t need to be an elite hacker with mad modding skillz either. 😉

      I hope you can give a silent system a shot. Fair warning though: Once you’ve used a completely silent system for a while, you’ll never go back.

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  23. nevr0sed says:

    Hey TP69 !

    Great article and big thank you in sharing how you managed to make a completely Silent PC. It hasn’t been as long as you trying to find the ‘perfect’ solution but I have been searching for an article as yours for a couple of years.

    You mention that your build isn’t for gaming. I am not a hardcore gamer, but I occasionally enjoy to boot-up Windows and play some games. I have found all the parts you have in your build, and was wondering if the cooling of the GPU would be sufficient for some rare (2-3h) gaming sessions ? I am not planning in overclocking the GPU.

    If I manage to get this working, I will then migrate my ‘home-lab’ to a complete silence as well.

    Great stuff, and thanks again for this article

    Chess

    • Tim says:

      I’m glad you found it useful.

      The limitations with gaming have less to do with how long you can play and more to do with how graphically demanding the games are. A single case wall can dissipate all the heat that a 75W GTX 1050 Ti can produce when running flat-out — so if your game (with settings that are acceptable to you) runs fine on a 1050 Ti, then you can play it all day long on a DB4.

      If you don’t already have a 1050 Ti (or equivalent) then I’d suggest going to YouTube and doing a search for “1050 Ti benchmarks”. You might get lucky and someone may have already benchmarked the game(s) you play. Benchmarks normally display the settings they used, so it can give you an idea about what to expect if you go down this route and help you decide if it’s worth doing or not.

      To be clear: I didn’t said that this system can’t be used for gaming. I just said that I — personally — won’t be using this system for gaming. Any game that can be played on a 1050 Ti can be played on a DB4. That’s actually a huge number of games. 🙂

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  25. jrr01 says:

    Beautiful case, thanks for outlining the project so well. It inspired me to build my own,

    I’m almost done with the build, but for whatever reason the video isn’t giving me a signal. A couple questions:
    1) Did you plug an eight pin connector into the motherboard, or just stick with the four pin power connection; and
    2) Did video output give you any trouble?

    I bought a second mobo, both are behaving the same, indicating to me I’m doing something wrong.
    I plugged the GPU into another system and got video, so I don’t believe it’s that. No CPU pin bends that I note.

    I think I’ll test against a different set of memory (bought the Corsair pair you’d spec’d out), and a different GPUs if they’ll be willing. I’ve done about half a dozen builds, but this is my first mini-ITX board, and I’m not sure where I’m going wrong here.

    • Tim says:

      I’m glad it gave you some inspiration — not so happy to hear you’re having issues.

      The ZF240 PSU only has a 4-pin connector (not an 8). It is plugged into the motherboard as shown in this image (which you should be able to click a couple of times for the high-resolution version):

      (Sorry about the angle, it’s really hard to get a phone and light in there now that it’s closed up.)

      I have a BenQ XL2720Z (27″, 144Hz) display that I have connected to three different systems, so the 1050 Ti is connected to the monitor using DVI (simply because the monitor’s DP and HDMI ports are already taken). The video signal has always been picked up by the monitor — as long as DVI is specified as the source on the monitor, of course.

      To be honest, I haven’t tried any of the other output ports on the card.

      PS: I just rebooted and poked around in my UEFI BIOS for a bit. About the only thing I saw in there that might be responsible for no video output was the Fast Boot mode (in the Boot menu). Make sure that’s Disabled. I seem to have vague recollections that only very specific combinations of hardware and OS are compatible with that option, and mine wasn’t one. No video was supposedly a symptom if you enable it with an incompatible setup.

  26. Pedro Alexandre says:

    Hi
    How about your GPU temperature?
    Thank you

    • Tim says:

      I haven’t had a chance to do thorough GPU testing so far. What I do know is that the GTX 1050 Ti scores ~9200 in glmark2 and that when I peg the GPU at 100% with pure OpenGL workloads (simulation visualisations) the GPU temperature tends to stabilise in the 47–49°C region in a room with an ambient temperature of 20°C.

      So at this point I’d say 100% GPU loads reach equilibrium temperatures of Ambient + 28°C (±1°C).

      That’s about the best info I can give you right now.

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