After several weeks of researching what systems work best for a home studio environment, I finally had the bright idea of just diving in and building a custom PC for my particular needs. The system was designed to run DAW software for recording sessions, as well as tackling everyday home computing & web browsing. My goal was to build a quiet but robust system under $800 that has the potential for upgrading later. Since I won't be doing any serious gaming with this build, a dedicated graphics card wasn't needed. (NOTE: I didn't include the prices for the monitor and peripherals, since I either already had them from my previous setup, or they were given as a gift.)
(These are the main components. Check out the reviews section for more detail on the rest.)
Case: Xigmatek Nebula
- When you're working on a mini-ITX build, very often your component choices will depend on the case you choose. The restrictions you run into when dealing with a small form factor build is part of the process, but I like to think that limitations breed creativity. With that said, I chose this case primarily based on aesthetics. It's just a damn good-lookin' case. I wanted something minimalist, but durable. I initially thought airflow might be a problem in this case, but heat levels are not drastic with this build. The included rear exhaust fan moves a surprising amount of air and manages to stay pleasantly quiet. Cable management is another story though, and I'll go into that a little later.
CPU: Intel Core i5-4460 Quad-Core (3.2 GHz)
- Multi-core processing is very important when running potentially resource-intensive software like a DAW. I knew I was going to want at least 4 cores, and I ruled out any unlocked SKUs because I didn't have a need for overclocking with this build. I set out to find the best overall i5 for the price, and I honestly think this is it.
CPU Cooler: Noctua NH-L9x65 w/ Noctua NF-A9 PWM Fan (92mm)
- Going into a mini-ITX build, the one thing you can count on is that space will be limited. My Xigmatek case mounts the PSU directly above the motherboard, so there was only going to be about 80mm of height clearance for a cooler. The plan was to maximize the performance I could get out of those 80mm. As you can imagine, there aren't a ton of options. I ended up going with this Noctua combo. Absolutely no complaints on this setup so far.
Motherboard: ASUS Z97I-PLUS
- Mini-ITX is probably the most intriguing form factor to me, for many reasons. It's endlessly fascinating how many features and components manufacturers manage to pack into a 170x170mm square. This ASUS board had all the features I needed, but the thing I appreciate about this one is that third fan header (most boards only have 2). My color choice for the RAM was largely based on this board's gold accents.
Memory: Corsair Vengeance 8GB DDR3 1600MHz (2x4GB)
- You can't go wrong with Corsair RAM. Since I had the room, I went with the slightly taller Vengeance memory. 8GB has worked perfectly for my needs so far.
Power Supply: Corsair RM450
This one might've been a vanity buy, as I could've easily gone with a CS-series Corsair PSU, but I just really love the build quality of this thing. The zero-RPM fan mode is also a wonderful feature. Not surprisingly, this unit is pretty darn heavy.
PRO-TIP: Don't skimp on your power supply! A good PSU will last a considerable amount of time, maybe even going between different PC builds over the years. Invest in what you need. (Most of us will never need 1000+ watts of power.)
Storage: Samsung 850 EVO 120GB SSD & WD Green 1TB HDD
- SSD for OS and main programs, and HDD for storage. Everyone deserves the speed of an SSD. Once you know what that's like, you won't want to go back, trust me.
While gathering all of my parts, I usually like to read as many reviews as possible for components I've never worked with. Pretty much every review I came across for the Xigmatek Nebula noted how difficult and/or non-existent cable management was for this case, so I tried my best to tailor my setup for better cable routing. Passive airflow in this case was going to be very important, and I didn't want the forest of cables I was seeing in some review builds to be an issue for me.
After installing the CPU, cooler, and RAM, I plugged everything in outside of the case to make sure the system posted correctly. No problems there! The Noctua cooler just barely has enough room between the DIMMs and VRM, which is actually something I love about mini-ITX PCs. I would also recommend connecting the WiFi card wires to the card before installing the motherboard into the case.
With most ITX builds, the order in which you install your parts can vary a lot based on the case. If you're building in the Xigmatek Nebula, I would recommend installing the I/O shield and motherboard first, as it can be a bit of a tight fit if the PSU is already mounted. There isn't a lot of vertical space for long screwdrivers in this case, so opt for shorter drivers if you can.
Before installing the PSU, I connected all the cables to the unit first so I could start getting a better idea of how I would lay out the cables within the case. Planning out your cable routing becomes more important when you're working in a smaller case. With the PSU installed, there were really only 3 cables I ended up using: ATX (MB), EPS (CPU), and one SATA (for the drives). I knew that the ATX and EPS connectors were going to be the toughest to organize, but the SATA power connector actually fell into place rather nicely.
I tried my best to scrunch up the ATX cable into a decently out-of-the-way bundle and secured it with some zip-ties. The EPS cable was an interesting puzzle, but the location of the 8-pin power connection on the motherboard essentially forced me to route the cable through the side of the case. I ended up figuring out a conveniently creative "zig-zag" pattern for the cable, bending and folding it until it fit snugly into the case's side rails. Fun stuff!
All the other cables (SATA data, front panel, USB, LEDs) routed very nicely around the front of the case, mostly due to the excellent header layout on the ASUS board. The power/drive LED cables are a bit longer than they really need to be in this case, but some strategically placed zip-ties take care of that. There are actually a decent number of tie-down points in the Nebula, so zip-ties will definitely be your best friend when building.
And that's basically it! With some well-planned cable management, good airflow in this case is a breeze (pun definitely intended). I didn't use a GPU in this build, but there's plenty of room for one (up to 200mm) if I choose to add one later. Thank you for reading!
The 4460 has so far handled everything well, including some very light gaming without a GPU (20-30 fps on Heroes & Generals, nothing great). What I love most about this processor is that it runs cool. Even under load with my audio software (Reaper), I've never seen temps go above 45'C, and idle temps are a chilly 28-30'C on average. High temps are something we all want to avoid, but it's especially important in a home studio build where you don't want your fans ramping up and increasing noise levels. You could spend another $10-$15 for the extra 0.1 GHz gain of the i5-4590 if you wanted, but the tiny difference in performance would not be worth it in my opinion.
Noctua is well-known for quality cooler setups, and this particular cooler was in the 92x92mm footprint I was looking for. I replaced the 14mm fan with the NF-A9, which is a little beefier (25mm thick), and it fit perfectly onto the heatsink. Total height after installation was 76mm, just under the 80mm limit for my case, and good enough to allow some additional airflow between the cooler and the PSU.
Not much you can say about Corsair RAM, it just works! The DIMMs come stock underclocked at 1333MHz, which works just fine for me, but you can definitely bump them up to the full 1600MHz in the UEFI if you need it.
An exceptionally fast SSD that's just plain reliable. I highly recommend the 850 EVO series.
The WD Green drives generally run cooler, quieter and more power efficient than most HDDs, which for some implies lowered performance. While that's probably true compared to a Black or Red WD drive, I haven't really noticed that much lowered performance in terms of everyday use. Go Green!
An extremely robust PSU that just oozes quality. 450W model is more than enough for most modern single-GPU builds. (The unit is very heavy, so expect a substantial amount of added weight to your case.)
Upgraded to Windows 10 pretty much immediately. Whatever your opinion of Microsoft's latest OS, it's been pretty solid for my purposes so far.
This fan has been ultra-quiet in my build, especially among most 92mm fans. Combine this with the Noctua NH-L9x65 for a beefy yet tiny cooling setup for mini-ITX.
Nothing fancy, but this 1080p ASUS IPS panel gets the job done and is perfect for most entry-level users. Anyone wanting a sleek, bezel-less design without the over-hyped frills will love this monitor.
My absolute favorite of the K-series keyboards. If you don't mind the lack of a num-pad and can splurge on a keyboard, I would recommend this.
Hands down the best wireless mouse out there right now for creatives. Side-scroll wheel is a must, and something I'm glad they brought back from previous generations.
The M40s are in my opinion the most neutral sounding of Audio-Technica's M-series, which is generally what you want for mixing. I previously had the ATH-M20s.