Is the Radeon R9 290X a noisy graphics card?

We take a look…

AMD Radeon Logo 2013When I originally wrote my Radeon R9 290X review a couple weeks ago I didn’t have enough time to comment on the noise output. For the last few days I’ve been playing with a decibel meter and taking notes. As most of you are already aware by GPU standards the R9 290X and R9 290 are loud GPUs under full load. Comparisons have even been made to such GPU noise legends as Nvidia’s GTX 480 or the FX 5800 Ultra. But for what it’s worth I don’t believe that the noise levels that the R9 290X produces are a deal breaker for prospective buyers. Let me show you why.

Let’s step back from the noise debate for a moment and consider the use case of the average gamer. Thanks to Steam’s online survey we know that most gamers have a single (likely 1080P) monitor. Chances are their gaming PC is kept in their bedroom or in a nearby office space. They are also very likely to use a full-size keyboard and a five button mouse. They probably sit at a desk and in most cases their computer will be located under their desk near their feet. This average gamer probably uses a swivel chair when he games because swivel chairs are awesome.

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Now for the important part, there are two major ways that gamers hear the sounds of favorite video games: headphones or a discrete sound system. In the case of a headphone setup I sincerely doubt that the level of noise produced by the R9 290X even in Uber mode would be enough to tangibly impact the experience of said gamer.  Expensive headsets have what’s called noise canceling and while the value of that technology is debatable it has been proven very effective at reducing or eliminating noise from jet turbines. Which is coincidentally what some commentators have been referring to AMD’s cooling solution as.

Cheaper headsets rely on sound damping material around the edge of the speaker to block noise. There’s actually not a lot of material on those headsets but it’s enough to block or lessen most high and some medium spectrum noise. Extreme high spectrum noise and extreme low spectrum noise are generally considered to be the most annoying types of noise. GPU fans are largely incapable of producing low spectrum noise, but the fans that humans consistently find most annoying are those that produce lots of high spectrum noise in an erratic pattern. Thus wearing a set of headphones will largely mitigate the impact of that annoying fan noise due to the design of modern headphones.

Discrete sound systems on the other hand won’t block or counter any fan noise coming from your computer. I personally have a cheap 2.1 system from Logitech that I use on my personal gaming computer. Using an R9 280X sample I have with a cooling solution that is quiet enough to be indistinguishable from the background noise in the room I set the volume level of my computer to the point where it was loud enough for me to hear all of the sounds that Battlefield 4 produced without exceeding that point of full sound fidelity. Then I swapped the Radeon R9 290X into my system and set its constant fan speed to 55 percent which is the maximum allowed fan speed when the card is switched into Uber mode.

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While the noise the R9 290X produced was palpable in a quiet room when I began playing Battlefield 4 with the sound system at the level that I dialed in previously the fan noise was imperceptible to me and in no way impacted my game play experience. If that level of noise had bothered me though, I would have taken the same approach whether the noise was coming from my girlfriend or my GPU by turning the volume up on my speakers.

Of course everyone’s hearing is different, but for those gamers whose hearing is sensitive enough that the noise produced by a R9 290X would bother them, it seems illogical to work under the assumption that they would even consider using an air-based cooling solution on any of their GPUs rather than a water cooling solution. Especially in the case of the R9 290 where a comparable solution with a lower noise profile is $100 more expensive.

Looking back in time the high-end GPU market has never really been beholden to noise or even power consumption issues. The purchasers of graphics cards like the Geforce GTX 9800 GX2 and the Radeon HD 7990 are a testament to this fact. More to the point though there is only really one make or break metric for high-end GPUs and perhaps GPUs in general: the price to performance ratio.

A little bit of thoughtful analysis and common sense can go a long way. In the case of the R9 290 it’s clear that the level of noise produced by this GPU isn’t high enough to nullify the card’s price/performance advantage over the competition. Are GPUs with quiet multi-fan coolers preferable to louder blower style coolers? Definitely. But I have yet to use a GPU that I felt was so loud that it detracted from my gaming experience and reviewing AMD’s Radeon R9 series GPUs has not changed that.S|A

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Thomas Ryan is a freelance technology writer and photographer from Seattle, living in Austin. You can also find his work on SemiAccurate and PCWorld. He has a BA in Geography from the University of Washington with a minor in Urban Design and Planning and specializes in geospatial data science. If you have a hardware performance question or an interesting data set Thomas has you covered.