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_756w_80c

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_756w_80c_p

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!

146 thoughts on “Completely Silent Computer

  1. Congratulations tp69! The article details how miners made it difficult to procure components for the build, but the irony is that the miners might be specifically interested in this build for its power efficiency.

    A decade ago, I was obsessed with fans and at one point I had more than 10 in my workstation. The noise it created kind of resonated with me, like I would be able to tell when the job was CPU intensive, HDD or GPU; I guess it felt more lively!

    But after the smartphone boom, I got more adhered to power efficient, noise less systems (Smartphone/Tablet/SBC’s/Chromebook) & after the meltdown spectre (pun intended) my adherence got reinforced.

    Anyone looking for low-cost completely silent yet portable system in laptop form-factor can take a look at Chromebooks, now that Google has announced Linux apps support it’s usefulness would tend to grow.

  2. I know the sort of sounds you’re talking about and, to be honest, I thought that I would at least be able to hear the power supply hum. That’s not the case though. I can press either ear directly against the walls of the DB4 and I hear… nothing. I can take off the top cover and shove my head in as far as I can and I hear… nothing. Neither can the wife. Neither can three friends (two of whom are musicians) who’ve stuck their heads in the case when it was under full load. I know a sample size of five isn’t definitive, but it’s not just one person’s opinion. This computer really is totally silent… even in the dead of night.

    Younger human ears are better at picking up high frequencies than older human ears though, so there might be some youngsters out there that might be able to hear something. I don’t know. It’s not something that I can easily test.

    In the same vein, maybe a really expensive microphone or meter would be able to detect some sort of noise. But even if it could, it wouldn’t make any difference — if humans can’t hear any noise then it doesn’t matter. The best microphones I have only go down to about 30dB and they can’t pick up anything. I’ve enquired about super-sensitive mics but can’t justify spending “a couple of grand” on one, or “a few grand more” constructing an anechoic chamber, just to find out.

    At the end of the day this computer is in a house occupied by two specific humans — neither of whom can hear any noise coming from it day or night. I’m happy with that. Very happy. 🙂

  3. Nice setup. Hope you don’t have any passwords written down on those post-it notes. 😉

    I can totally relate to what you say. I also ‘needed’ the fastest/latest/biggest I could afford — up until about 2011 when I realised that CPUs had become so fast I was hard-pressed to keep them busy (the i7-2600K was just plain awesome). Since then faster clocks have been pretty-much pointless (for what I do), so I started placing more of a value on cores/threads. Now that AMD sorted that out my computational needs can be met by mid-range processors and the need for overclocking has evaporated. With performance “solved” the most important thing to me — looking forward — is lower energy consumption and open-source architecture.

    Lower power consumption translates to lower cooling requirements and that opens the door for alternative cooling solutions. Passive cooling eliminates the need for fans entirely — which solves noise and dust problems at the same time. Add SSDs and M.2 NVMe form factors into the mix and we’re looking at radically different ‘computers’ than the (mid-)towers of old.

    Things really have changed in the last seven years or so. It’s great!

  4. I feel for you. I hate noise too.
    But I found a better solution.
    Ear plugs. Macs ear plugs cost 5 usd for 50 pair.
    It makes the whole world silent. Not just my computer. And it Doesn’t take 3 decades to get to. It takes couple days maybe to order and delivered from amazon.
    Great work though. But next time maybe, think differently. Don’t change the world. Change yourself. It’s easier and tends to extend to other parts of your life too.

  5. Interesting. Very interesting. I watched the video tour and Qubes OS definitely has some nice features. I use(d) Parallels for VMs on the Mac, but it’s not a bare-metal hypervisor like Xen/Qubes OS.

    Thanks for the heads-up!

  6. Yep, using the walls of the case as a heat sink is great if the computer sits on a desk — not so good if it sits on your lap. I have two Apple laptops so I know what you mean on that front — although upgrading the (circa 2012) MacBook Pro to 8GB of RAM and a 120GB SSD really, really made a big difference to both responsiveness and also how hot the machine runs (and thus how often the fans come on).

    I consider your Mac Pro to be the spiritual successor to the Power Mac G4 Cube — a computer I lusted after when it was released, but simply could not afford to buy.

  7. I’m not sure that passive builds are the best choice for most gaming rigs. The GPU Cooling Kit that Streacom offers bonds the GPU to a single wall of the case and can dissipate 75W max. That limits you to a GTX 1050 Ti (or equivalent). Fine for a whole stack of “e-sports” titles but if you want to play something more demanding, then you’ll need to mod it.

    I’ve seen folks buying third-party straight heat pipes, bending them so the GPU can be bonded to the back wall, and then installing more powerful graphics cards. A 1060 is a 120W TDP card so yeah, I think you probably could cool that using two walls (and maybe some extra ventilation through the top cover). Not so sure about 1070s and higher, though.

    But hey, it all depends on the type of games you play and the graphics settings you are happy using.

  8. Ha ha hah! I feel you — I really do. 🙂 Up until now whenever I upgraded or replaced a computer I’ve just identified the most noisy component and improved that. Chattering drive heads, vibrations from HDDs spinning, fan bearing noise, turbulence and unwanted static pressure from grilles, fan blade design chopping the air — it goes on and on. Unfortunately, whenever I eliminated some source of noise, my ears seemed to get more sensitive and I’d hear something else. Not any more!

    I’m still coming to terms with the fact that my pursuit of silence has finished. It’s over. There’s no no sound left to eliminate. There’s nothing more I need to buy. This combination works. The silence is amazing — almost surreal.

    A passively-cooled case and SSDs. Do it if you can — you’ll never look back.

  9. The C64 was the first computer I personally owned. You need to remember the Datasette and the 1541 5.25″ floppy disk drive though — they made a fair bit of noise. Although not integral to the computer, the MPS802 dot matrix printer was a screeching banshee! Ah, good old days!

  10. But the rest of the world doesn’t make annoying noises that I want to block out — only the computer does. I still want to hear the birds tweeting in the trees and the wind blowing past the awnings and the rain hitting the roof and the ice-cream truck driving by and my wife chuckling at something she’s watching and the cats running along the floor and the microwave oven heating a meal and the kettle finishing its boil. I’m not trying to disconnect from the rest of the world — I’m trying to reconnect to it.

  11. Great build and write up – i would love to have an excuse to do something simalar

  12. Please keep in mind that AMD is not free from the Intel Management Engine craziness. They have their own version of it called AMD PSP.
    As sad as it is, I would lean towards considering all x86 produced in the past decade unsuitable for high-security personal use.

  13. I would lean towards considering all x86 produced in the past decade unsuitable for high-security personal use.” — Agreed. Sad but true.

  14. I’ve owned nine SSDs since 2011 — Kingston, SanDisk, Corsair, Crucial, Samsung — none of which have ever made any noise that I have been able to hear. When I did the first rsync backup of the current system it was ~850GB in size. I specifically had the top cover open and literally put my head inside the case trying to detect any noise. Nothing.

    Maybe you’re young? Maybe you have really, really good hearing? Maybe you have noisy or defective SSDs? I don’t know. All I do know is that I move 15–20GB datasets between the Samsung 960 Evo NVMe M.2, the 860 Evo SATA and tmpfs on a daily basis and I can’t hear anything.

    I don’t have your ears or your gear, so I can’t claim to know what you are hearing. The best I can do is accurately describe what I have, try and hear. Make of it what you will. YMMV.

  15. Unless I’m mistaken I don’t think the 2700X has an integrated graphic chip. If you want your media server to be able to read video files, you’ll need an additional GPU.

  16. All content is streamed to devices and I access it only through Teamviewer, so I was wondering it I really needed one. Anyway, I just went ahead and had a completely fanless new media server/transcoding rig built with an i7-8700, a NoFan CR95 and a Thermaltake P1 open case so my Ryzen flirtation has come to an end. But I am still following this build and comments because I am completely fascinated by how much maximum computer horsepower can be harnessed in fanless rigs,

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

  18. 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.

  19. Incorrect. The 2013 Mac Pro had a fan. It was quiet — usually — but not silent.

  20. 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 !

  21. 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.

  22. That’s great! I look forward to reading it. Use all the photos and text you want.

  23. 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.

  24. Thanks Abishek! Yes, I think the era of roaring dinosaurs is over as the masses move to smaller, quieter and more efficient devices. Content producers will still need large, powerful beasts, but content consumers — not so much.

    I really like the idea of the Chromebooks, and have supported them in the past, but now that we know Google is thoroughly evil… well… pass.

    For personal security we need transparency, and that means open source software and hardware.

  25. Yep, you could. An empty Airtop case costs ~US$800 though — which is double, nearly triple the DB4. And the looks… well… it is what it is — purely a personal preference, but not my cup of tea.

    Great thermals though!

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