Conventional wisdom has it that those in the market for a high-end CPU cooler ought to buy a Noctua.
There's merit to that line of thinking, as the Austrian firm's cooling solutions have routinely set a high bar for others to match, and though you can expect to pay a premium, owners rarely begrudge spending extra on a product that oozes quality and is designed to stand the test of time.
Excellent performance, top-notch build quality, quiet operation and comprehensive bundles are hallmarks of the Noctua range, but there has historically been one recurring drawback; the coolers and fans only came in a brown-and-beige colour scheme that stood out like a sore thumb. We've lost count of how many times readers have asked "do they come in black?" so we're pleased to finally say "yes, yes they do."
The revamped variants, dubbed chromax.black, were introduced at the tail end of 2019 and promise the "same signature quiet cooling performance with a sleek stealth look." Fans might view the alternate colour as blasphemy, but we disagree; the all-black model of the NH-D15 is beautifully made, and the time that Noctua has taken in introducing this model was evidently well spent.
Everything including the fans, anti-vibration pads, fan clips, heatpipes and fin arrays has been given the all-black makeover, as too have the mounting parts. Noctua's fit and finish is, as expected, of a high standard, and the black coatings on all the various parts are so well matched that the cooler comes across as a single large item. It's more matte than glossy, too, helping give it a modern, trendy aesthetic, and it goes without saying there are no gaudy LED lights.
The calls for a widely-compatible colour scheme have been answered, but other than that, the chromax.black has plenty in common with the regular NH-D15 reviewed back in 2014. That means half-a-dozen copper heatpipes, a dual-tower design with 150mm-wide aluminium fin-stacks, and a pair of black NF-A15 PWM fans that are among the best in the business. As always, low-noise adapters are included in the bundle, along with a y-splitter cable, and you get a good-sized tube of Noctua's own NT-H1 thermal compound, as well as the peace of mind of a comprehensive six-year warranty.
There might be a snag, however, in that the NH-D15 remains a sizeable beast. Overall dimensions of 165mm (H) x 150mm (W) x 161mm make it one of the largest air coolers you can buy, and at 1.3kg with both fans attached, it is a hefty piece of kit. All the mounting equipment required for the latest Intel and AMD sockets (except for Threadripper) is included, but do double-check clearance before taking the plunge.
Noctua makes available precise compatibility measurements, yet on our Asus ROG Crosshair VIII Formula X570 motherboard, it's a closer fit than we'd anticipated. As pictured above, the gap between the top PCIe x16 slot and the cooler is miniscule, and when reinstalling our graphics card - a Sapphire Nitro+ RX 5700 XT - the Noctua fan clips make contact with the card's chunky backplate. It's that tight.
RAM compatibility isn't straightforward, either. Noctua officially quotes 64mm of clearance thanks to the recessed lower fins, but that only applies in single-fan mode. Add the second fan and maximum memory heatsink height is reduced to just 32mm. With our G.Skill Trident Z Neo in situ, we've been forced to attach the front fan in a higher position that spoils the overall appearance and isn't ideal for performance.
Size, inevitably, is the NH-D15's most obvious impediment, however if you can fit it in, installation using the tried-and-trusted SecuFirm2 mounting kit is for the most part painless. On our AM4 platform, the process entails swapping the motherboard's pre-installed cooler retention module in favour of Noctua's mounting bars, applying a dab of thermal paste, and then fixing the heatsink in place using the supplied screwdriver. Better yet, Noctua provides handy video guides for installation on AMD AM4, Intel LGA115x and Intel LGA2066.
Are there any other drawbacks to consider? Well, firstly, for all the good work that Noctua has done with the sleek-black appearance, we're bemused to find part numbers coded onto the tops of the fans. They can be rotated to hide the oversight, though the fan cables will then protrude from the top.
Secondly, and more importantly, the stylised variant attracts a further premium. Whereas the classic NH-D15 is readily available for £80, the chromax.black retails at around the £95 mark. That makes it one of the most expensive air coolers that money can buy, and puts it close to decent AIO territory. Makes us wonder, can air be as effective as liquid on a 16-core Ryzen 9 3950X processor? Only one way to find out.