Nowadays, it is relatively easy to build a silent computer. But there is one particular noise that can be hard to eliminate: coil whine. This high pitched hissing or scratching noise is not only highly annoying, but also sounds like something is not working as it should.
In this article I will explain what coil whine is, what causes it and teach you how to find where it comes from. I will also reveal several methods and techniques you can use to reduce and even stop the sound completely.
Before showing you what you can do to stop coil whine, I will first share more information on the topic to help you understand the problem better.
What is coil whine?
Simply put, coil whine is a high-pitched noise caused by vibrations in electromagnetic coils. When a current passes through an inductor (an electronic component), it causes its copper wire to vibrate against its core with a high, audible frequency. This annoying sound is what we refer to as coil whine.
Most of the time, coils vibrate at frequencies that lie outside our hearing range. Only when they vibrate at an audible frequency it becomes a problem.
While coil whine can occur in many types of products and components, it is a particularly frequently occurring problem in modern PC components. Most notably graphics cards (GPUs), power supplies (PSUs) and the voltage regulator modules (VRMs) of motherboards.
What does coil whine sound like?
Coil whine is recognizable by its high pitched sound. It can be described as a high frequency electronic buzzing, hissing or squealing or scratching noise. It does not always sound the exact same, but it is unmistakably recognizable if you are unlucky enough to be familiar with it.
Coil whine vs capacitor squeal
Coil whine sometimes gets attributed to capacitors and gets called capacitor squeal. While capacitors can generate high frequency sounds, in the vast majority of cases, the high pitched sound in your computer is caused by inductor coils.
One way capacitors make sound is when they go bad and expel toxic gas through the top. This can create a high pitched whistling sound that is similar to coil whine. Failing capacitors do not last long and are easily recognizable by bulging or a liquid coming out of the top.
Ceramic capacitors can also make similar sounds due to the piezoelectric effect, but this is not as common in modern PCs as coil whine is.
What is an inductor and what does it do?
An inductor consists of a core with a coil of copper wire wrapped around it. It is also known as an inductor coil. Its job is to store electrical energy in a magnetic field. The core is typically made out of iron or ferrite, which helps increase the magnetic field and inductance.
Depending on what an inductor is used for, it can go by various names, like coil, choke, reactor or solenoid.
One of the jobs of inductors is to smooth out power delivery and make sure that any irregularities are filtered out.
In power supplies you will typically find several larger, open style inductors, whereas on video cards and motherboards you will see many of them in a smaller format encapsulated in tiny boxes to provide power to the main components.
Because the frequency of the current that passes through the coil varies, depending on the load of the system, the coil can start to mechanically resonate. This has the potential to create a high pitched noise.
What causes coil whine?
When current passes through the coils of an inductor, the coil vibrates. In cases where the coil vibrates against the core of the inductor with a frequency that lies in our hearing range, we end up with coil whine.
Depending on the amount of current that passes through, the vibrations can change in amplitude and frequency. As a result, the volume and pitch of the sound change. This is why coil whine might not always be present in your computer. Depending on whether the PC is idle or under load, the high pitched whining can appear and disappear.
It is also possible for coil whine to occur on inductor coils with a bad solder connection to the circuit board, but this is less common.
Can coil whine cause damage?
Even though it might sound like there is some kind of problem with your computer, coil whine is not harmful or dangerous. While it is an annoying and unpleasant thing to deal with, there is no risk of any damage to your PC.
As a matter of fact, coil whine is an indicator that the inductors are working properly. If they were damaged and could not let current through, they would not make any sound at all.
Basically any electronic device has coil whine, it is just not audible in the majority of cases. It is perfectly normal and there is no need to worry about damage.
Does it go away or get worse over time?
It is possible for coil whine to either reduce in intensity or completely disappear over time. Sometimes this happens within days of getting the new GPU/PSU that causes it, other times it can take longer. But there are also cases where it sticks around and does not disappear.
The volume of coil whine is partly dependent on the physical properties of the inductor. These properties can slightly change as you use the PC component, which means that the high pitched sound you hear can move out of your hearing range.
Unfortunately, this also works in the other direction. Coil whine can also get worse or suddenly appear. This can be due to the slight changes in the inductor itself, but also due to software (usually games) that draw a specific power load and cause the inductor to vibrate at a specific frequency.
Can coil whine be fixed?
It is definitely possible to stop or reduce coil whine. There are several methods you can use for this. I have listed them further down the page. It is important to mention that these methods do not have a 100% success rate, so your results can vary.
Which PC components can cause coil whine?
PC components that are mainly responsible for coil whine are the graphics card (GPU), power supply (PSU) and motherboard. Coil whining is worse when more current passes through the inductor coils, and these are the components that have inductors under a high load.
Some specific electronics have more problems with coil whine than others. For example, the Dell XPS 15 and XPS 13 series laptops are notorious for their problems with high pitched sounds. Some MacBooks Pro, like the 2018 MBP15 frequently have it as well.
As for components, high-end Nvidia like the GTX 1080/1070 and RTX 2080/2070 series graphics cards regularly have coil whine, especially under high loads (more on this later).
This does not mean that other video cards do not experience this problem. It is a widespread issue that can not be narrowed down to specific models, certain brands or even specific types of components. Any component with inductor coils can end up experiencing it, but some tend to have it more than others.
How to find where the high pitched sound comes from
As we discussed above, coil whine in a PC is nearly always caused by the GPU, PSU or motherboard. Usually in that order of likelihood. So when we are trying to locate the source of the sound, these are the first places to look. Or listen, technically.
So, how can we tell which component in our computer is creating the high pitched sound?
For that, we can use several different methods.
Locating the sound by ear
Figuring out where in the computer the coil whine comes from can be tricky. Usually, there is a lot of background noise from fans that makes it difficult. One way to make it easier is to use a funnel-like device to block out these background sounds.
For this, you can use a piece of rolled up A4 paper, a straw, or an actual funnel. Hold it up to your ear and point the other end at an area you want to isolate. This will direct the sound of that area into your ear and partly block the surrounding noise.
Start with listening to the graphics card, then the power supply, then the motherboard. Wherever the coil whine is the loudest, that component is the likely culprit.
Swapping out components
If you are not able to locate the coil whine by ear, you can try swapping out the components that might be causing the issue. When you replace the component that is responsible, the high pitched sound should disappear.
Of course, this does require you to have some spare components at hand. Buying an extra video card or power supply can be an expensive solution, unless you are able to return them to the store afterwards.
If you do have extra components, start with replacing the video card. If that does not work, try swapping the power supply.
The motherboard is harder to replace, but if you have swapped both the GPU and PSU already, the motherboard VRM coils are probably what is causing the sound.
Once you have found the component that causes the issue, it is time to fix the coil whine.
How to fix coil whine
There are several ways you can reduce or stop coil whine. None of the methods have a 100% success rate though, so it will be a process of trial and error. I have divided the methods below in software and hardware categories.
Things to try first
These are several things you should try first before continuing with the actual solutions.
Return/replace the component under warranty
If the GPU/PSU/motherboard is still under warranty, you can simply return it through RMA (return merchandise authorization) and get a replacement. Some manufacturers cover coil whine under warranty, but most do not. You can usually find whether they cover it under warranty on their website.
While you might expect that replacing the component with an identical model will give you the same problem, this is not necessarily the case. The microscopic tolerances on a particular coil could have been off, or there might have been a problem with the specific batch of coils that was used. The replacement component likely uses a different batch of coils.
Using the warranty/RMA option can save you a lot of hassle in trying to troubleshoot and fix the problem yourself. There is no guarantee that it will work, it can’t hurt to try.
Wait a while
Alternatively, you can wait for a couple of days (or for as long as you can stand to listen to the sound) to see if the coil whine disappears by itself. Sometimes it gradually decreases as the coil ‘wears in’, and after a day to a couple of weeks it can be completely gone.
The goal of these software fixes for coil whine is to change the frequency the inductor coils oscillate at. This is done by changing the power draw of the video card or motherboard. This in turn also affects the amount of power the PSU supplies.
Raising the frequency the coils oscillate at from, for example, 15.000 Hz (within the 20 Hz – 20.000 Hz human audible range) to 22.000 Hz, causes the coil whine to completely disappear.
Limiting the framerate
One way to limit the amount of power a video card or system draws is to limit the number of frames per second (FPS) that the GPU outputs. Sometimes, games and other software have no upper cap to the FPS set.
This is the reason that the high pitched sound is often noticeable during loading screens and title menus of games. The framerate is sometimes uncapped during these moments and you can end up with 200+ FPS.
A higher FPS means more power and more current passing through the inductor coils and therefore more coil whine.
Limiting the framerate can be done in different ways:
Enabling V-sync / G-sync / FreeSync
Turning on V-Sync (or G-sync / FreeSync if your monitor supports it) in-game is the easiest way to deal with coil whine. It is a method that often works. It synchronizes the FPS of a game with the refresh rate of the monitor.
For example, if you have a 60 Hz monitor, the game caps the maximum FPS at 60.
V-sync can increase input lag, so if this is something you want to avoid, you might want to look at the next method.
Using a frame limiter
Another option is to use a frame limiter to limit the framerate. This option is occasionally found in games, but is always accessible in your video card driver settings. Using the frame limit option in nVidia control panel or AMD Radeon Settings lets you do this.
Changing fan speeds
Some people have found success in dealing with coil whine by changing the default fan speeds of their GPU. What this essentially does is change the operating temperature of the components on the video card.
The microscopic vibrations of the coils can decrease when the inductor contracts or expands more due to a higher or lower temperature.
Power limiting, overclocking, underclocking and undervolting
Other ways in which you can alter the power draw of your graphics card and system are changing the power limit, overclocking, underclocking and undervolting your card. For this you can use some of the other settings that are available in MSI Afterburner or equivalent software.
These methods can also be used to deal with coil whine of motherboard VRMs, but to do this you will need different software.
Given that these are more advanced methods, I recommend that you research them and only do them if you know what you are doing.
In short, anything that changes the power draw of the component that causes the coil whine can potentially solve the issue.
Some methods (decreasing the power limit, underclocking) do limit performance however. In my opinion, with current graphics card prices, that should not be something you have to do to enjoy your hardware in silence.
Aside from software solutions, there are also hardware related methods that you can use to fix or reduce coil whine. These are typically more costly to do (either money or time-wise), but they do tend to give a more permanent solution.
Moving the computer further away
We might as well start with the simplest solution, moving the PC further away from the ears. High-frequency sounds, like that from coil whine, decrease in volume rapidly over distance. Moving the computer an extra meter away from you can make a big difference in making the noise inaudible.
Obviously, this is only possible if you have enough space. And if the length of the external cables allows it. Often this isn’t an option, but when it is, it is relatively easy to do.
Securing the inductor coils
On the other end of the spectrum we find the most radical option, securing the coils in place. This involves coating the inductor in a non-conductive material like hot glue. Its goal is to prevent the inductor coil from vibrating at all.
Typically this is done with insulating varnish, epoxy or hot glue. As long as the liquid is non-conductive and it dries up after a while, it should be okay. When it works, it basically creates a permanent fix.
This is a method that is hard to do on graphics cards and motherboards nowadays though, because they do not use open toroidal inductors. Instead, they use inductors that are enclosed in small boxes with a dampening material.
Needless to say, this dampening material doesn’t always work very well. Especially when cheaper inductors were used. But without being able to open the inductors up, it is impossible to add hot glue or varnish to the coils.
This method also voids warranty, so unless you have tried all other possible solutions first, I don’t recommend doing it.
Insulating the PC with sound dampening foam
If stopping the coil whine does not work, then preventing the noise from leaving the computer case can be a valid solution. The easiest way to do this is with high-density sound dampening foam. Insulating the case with it helps absorb a good bit of the high frequency sound waves.
Case with sound insulation
In some situations, sound dampening foam is not enough to stop coil whine. For example, if you have a particularly thin and/or open computer case, stopping the high frequency sound from escaping can be an uphill battle.
Replacing the entire case with one that is designed for silence minimizes the amount of coil whine that reaches your ears, and sometimes makes it completely inaudible.
As an added benefit, it also reduces sound from fans and hard drives.
Replacing the power supply
Regardless of which component is causing the coil whining, replacing the power supply of the computer has the potential to fix the issue. ‘Dirty’ power from a low quality or faulty PSU can create problems further down the chain, like in the GPU or motherboard.
Similarly, a different PSU might output a slightly different voltage on the rails, causing the coils to vibrate at a different frequency.
Going with a high quality power supply reduces the risk of ending up with coil whine, but it is by no means a guarantee. The majority of power supplies seem to deal with it, but some more than others.
In my experience, the EVGA Supernova series PSUs have relatively few problems with coil whine (and are silent in general).
Noise cancelling headphones
To circumvent the coil whine altogether, you can also use a pair of sound dampening or active noise cancelling headphones. The foam cushioning of ear pads typically does a good job absorbing high frequencies.
Nowadays, you can find a pair of decent noise cancelling headphones for a reasonable price.
What can you do to prevent coil whine?
It is practically impossible to guarantee not getting coil whine, but it is certainly possible to reduce the risk of ending up with it.
The best way to do this is to research the product that you are about to buy. Read the reviews of the product and make sure that there aren’t many complaints of coil whine. You can search for the product + “coil whine” in Google to check.
It is not always possible to check reviews however, like when you want to buy a brand new product, for example. In that case it can help to buy from a manufacturer that is known to cover coil whine under its warranty, like EVGA.
Buying from stores with good return policies can also help. I know that Amazon and B&H are not difficult when it comes to things like this. But for other vendors like Newegg and Best Buy it might be different, it is best to verify their policies before buying.
Modern computer components like graphics cards are complicated devices. Their parts operate at many different frequencies. When these frequencies interact they can intensify other frequencies. This can cause certain parts to oscillate in ways that are hard to foresee during the design process.
Coil whine is an annoying problem that unfortunately is common in modern hardware. Any PC building enthusiast is likely to deal with it at some point. Luckily there are several ways in which the high frequency sound can be reduced or even completely fixed.
- What coil whine is and what it sounds like
- What an inductor is
- The causes of coil whine
- How to find where the high pitched sound in your PC comes from
- Different methods to fix coil whine
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