Retail cards still suffer from the issue

In the initial reviews of the AMD Fury X graphics card we reported on some annoying coil whine. Does it still exist with the retail cards?

In our review of AMD's latest flagship graphics card, the Radeon R9 Fury X, I noticed and commented on the unique sound that the card was producing during our testing. A high pitched whine, emanating from the pump of the self-contained water cooler designed by Cooler Master, was obvious from the moment our test system was powered on and remained constant during use. I talked with a couple of other reviewers about the issue before the launch of the card and it seemed that I wasn't alone. Looking around other reviews of the Fury X, most make mention of this squeal specifically.

Noise from graphics cards come in many forms. There is the most obvious and common noise from on-board fans and the air it moves. Less frequently, but distinctly, the sound of inductor coil whine comes up. Fan noise spikes when the GPU gets hot, causing the fans to need to spin faster and move more air across the heatsink, which keeps everything running cool. Coil whine changes pitch based on the frame rate (and the frequency of power delivery on the card) and can be alleviated by using higher quality components on the board itself.

But the sound of our Fury X was unique: it was caused by the pump itself and it was constant. The noise it produced did not change as the load on the GPU varied. It was also 'pitchy' – a whine that seemed to pierce through other sounds in the office. A close analog might be the sound of an older, CRT TV or monitor that is left powered on without input.

In our review process, AMD told us the solution was fixed. In an email sent to the media just prior to the Fury X launch, an AMD rep stated:

In regards to the “pump whine”, AMD received feedback that during open bench testing some cards emit a mild “whining” noise.  This is normal for most high speed liquid cooling pumps; Usually the end user cannot hear the noise as the pumps are installed in the chassis, and the radiator fan is louder than the pump.  Since the AMD Radeon™ R9 Fury X radiator fan is near silent, this pump noise is more noticeable.  
The issue is limited to a very small batch of initial production samples and we have worked with the manufacturer to improve the acoustic profile of the pump.  This problem has been resolved and a fix added to production parts and is not an issue.

I would disagree that this is "normal" but even so, taking AMD at its word, I wrote that we heard the noise but also that AMD had claimed to have addressed it. Other reviewers noted the same comment from AMD, saying the result was fixed. But very quickly after launch some users were posting videos on YouTube and on forums with the same (or worse) sounds and noise. We had already started bringing in a pair of additional Fury X retail cards from Newegg in order to do some performance testing, so it seemed like a logical next step for us to test these retail cards in terms of pump noise as well.

First, let's get the bad news out of the way: both of the retail AMD Radeon R9 Fury X cards that arrived in our offices exhibit 'worse' noise, in the form of both whining and buzzing, compared to our review sample. In this write up, I'll attempt to showcase the noise profile of the three Fury X cards in our possession, as well as how they compare to the Radeon R9 295X2 (another water cooled card) and the GeForce GTX 980 Ti reference design – added for comparison.

Sound Testing Setup

First and foremost, none of us claim to be experts on sound or sound monitoring. (Allyn might be, but he isn't writing this.) As such, what you'll see here in today's story is our quick thoughts on the sound levels emitted by a handful of graphics cards, how those sounds look empirically and then how we react to them viscerally.

In an attempt to try to reproduce the sounds for our readers to experience them along with us, and also to later import sound files into Audacity for a little evaluation, we recorded each of the graphics cards using our Zoom H6 recorder – a high quality device that is able to pick up more precise and wide ranging audio than a phone or basic sound level meter.  We set the microphone on a stand and left it 8-inches from the side of the graphics card while running.

While I realize that this recording is not exactly how the sound will emanate from inside your chassis of choice, the truth is that any number of cases will change the sound in any number of ways. Cases with fan openings on the side panel might echo the sound around and make it louder; those with sound dampening material might lessen the deep sounds of air movement while doing nothing for the high pitched frequencies of the Fury X pump. To eliminate all of these "ifs", we decided to go right to source, then present the data and let the users evaluate it for themselves.

Also, what you use to playback the WAV files will affect your response as well. Are you trying to hear it on cheap notebook speakers or a high quality 7.1 channel setup? Do you have the bass turned up or the treble? Do you have studio monitors with a perfectly flat frequency response? All of this will alter how YOU hear the sounds that WE recorded and may differ from how I hear them directly while sitting next to the GPU test bed. In short, what we want you to do is listen to the files and videos in this story but also to trust what we are telling you from an editorial perspective.

Sound Results

Our results will be presented both visually and in the form of a downloadable WAV file.

Let's just dive into this; below is a WAV file that includes six different video cards cut together in a specific order.

Download WAV File
Download WAV File with +12 db gain

The audio you hear goes:

  1. AMD Fury X (review sample)
  2. AMD Fury X (retail card 1)
  3. AMD Fury X (retail card 2)
  4. AMD R9 295X2
  5. GTX 980 Ti Reference (idle)
  6. GTX 980 Ti Reference (load)

Waveform of the downloadable file

For all intents and purposes, both the AMD Fury X graphics cards and the R9 295X2 run at the same sound levels and sound profiles in idle as they do under a full gaming load. So while those cards are only heard one time, the GTX 980 Ti with its reference cooler is much louder under load and is thus presented both ways in this evaluation.

While I already mentioned that everyone's experience with a WAV file is going to differ based on the playback device, the results in our office are very distinct.

First, the AMD Fury X sample that we received from AMD for review is the quietest of the three Fury X cards we tested – by a lot. I don't think we can claim that AMD did that on purpose (attempting to give the media "golden samples" when it comes to sound quality) but it's clear that what I heard and commented on in the review was not as bad as it gets. You might have to turn up your speakers a bit to hear it, but if you are in a quiet location, you'll definitely make out the high pitched sound I was referring to.

The second Fury X card (retail card 1) has a much louder sound too, which includes both a high pitched whine as well as a consistent buzz to it. The buzz did not seem to change in relation to game frame rate like a coil whine would, but the sound is somewhat similar. The third Fury X (retail card 2) has a lower tone to it, but it still has the tell-tale high pitched sound of the pump behind it.

The 295X2 does not appear to have any kind of high pitched pump noise. Unlike the Fury X, it does have a fan located on the center of the card that is spinning fast enough to generate air noise and a softer buzzing sound.

For the GeForce GTX 980 Ti, at idle the card has an excellent sound profile. There is no high pitch and there is very little air movement to generate noise. Under load, that definitely changes. The GTX 980 Ti and its blower fan design moves a lot of air! The sound is definitely louder than the AMD Fury X cards, although the tone is radically different.

This level comparison from Audacity shows us the typical sound levels from all six portions of the sound file above. Pay attention to the blue lines more so than the green colored-in bars as those indicate the peaks of the sound's loudness. You can definitely tell that our review sample of the Fury X is the lowest sound level of the three Fiji cards we have in-house and, even though the retail Fury X (card 1) had a more "annoying" sound than the other two, its loudness falls in the middle. The 295X2 is louder than all three Fury X cards even though it doesn't have anything resembling the high pitched noise of the new flagships.

The GTX 980 Ti is incredibly quiet at idle but has the "loudest" sound level under a full gaming load.

Let's see if the sound profiles tell us anything else.

AMD Fury X (review sample) Frequency Breakdown

The AMD Fury X sound profile looks like this. There are spikes all over the place here including one at around 1900 Hz, where a sample generated tone appears to match the whine of the Fury X cooler's pump.

AMD Fury X (retail card ) Frequency Breakdown

The first retail AMD Fury X has a similar sound profile to the sample before (note that the scale on the left hand side of loudness changes from graph to graph – sorry!). At right around 1900 Hz, we have another spike that reaches -37 db.

GeForce  GTX 980 Ti Reference Cooler (Load) Frequency Breakdown

We can go ahead and assume that at idle we'll see only good things on the 980 Ti reference card but what about under load? The first thing you'll see is that the frequency breakdown is a lot smoother and more evenly distributed, without the spikes that permeate through the Fury X results. Those spikes are what allow some particular frequency to stand out over the others and is why the GTX 980 Ti sounds so different, although perhaps louder, than the Fury X cards.

Closing Thoughts

There are few things to take away from this testing. First, the currently selling and shipping AMD Radeon R9 Fury X cards do not include any kind of fix for the pump whine or sound levels of the cooler. Though AMD tells me that we just had a miscommunication or misinterpretation of the comments they shared with us prior to our NDA, I think it is at the very least fair to say that AMD was hoping to deflect the issue on launch day. Now that retail cards are out and end users (not just us) are getting their hands on them, I think its obvious that the sound issues are more of a problem than AMD would like to admit.

Second, the sound of the Fury X cards is very different than the sounds you are used to seeing associated with current flagship graphics cards. Even though the NVIDIA GTX 980 Ti reference cooler is louder than the Fury X under a gaming load, the high frequency of the sounds we are hearing on the Fury X make it more annoying and grating. Everyone's tolerance for this kind of thing is going to be slightly different, but all three people in our office agreed that we would rather hear the more "white-noise-like" sounds of air movement at a constant rate than the high pitched squeal that AMD is dealing with.

Also, it is worth noting that the high frequency sound from the Fury X cards is constant, even when idle and in Windows. Gamers with headphones or speakers blaring while playing some Witcher 3 or Project Cars will likely not hear any of the sounds of the louder flagship cards we are looking at today. But when browsing reddit, or PC Perspective of course, the Fury X pump will still whine at you when the GTX 980 Ti cooler would output much less sound.

I continue to stand by my assertion that the AMD Fury X cooler has a frustrating high pitched whine that is likely avoidable with some more control over the production quality. It seems clear now as well that if AMD has in fact issued a fix for this issue with its partner Cooler Master, the first waves of Fury X cards do not include it, so buyer beware if you are sensitive to this kind of complaint. Does it change my overall opinion of the Fury X as a gaming card? Maybe slightly, but not by much. Hopefully AMD will be able to supply us with a true fix soon and we can start to see gamers getting those updated cards in their hands as well.

UPDATE 1 (7/2/15): It looks like pumps with a different sticker on them might have actually have a changed sound profile!