Buyer's Guides

Best Affordable Synthesizers: Superb Synth Action For Under $/£500

Thought owning a great synthesizer would cost you at least one or two grand? Headliner is delighted to shout ‘WRONG!’ loudly and clearly at you. Some might say the golden age of hardware synthesizers was the ‘70s and ‘80s — but, you could argue that we are living in the golden age right now. Not just because there are so many incredible synths being released at an outrageous pace, but there is an enormous range of affordable synths, some of which put the supposedly premium models to shame.

Indeed, the heady days when you had to be a Stevie Wonder or Paul McCartney and needed to drop tens of thousands on a synth are long behind us. The affordable synths below are all below £/$500, kicking off with a synth that you can get for £/50 or so (we’ve listed them from low to high pricing). So, grab that little stash of cash from under your mattress and let’s manoeuvre our way through the best cheap synthesizers money can buy. Tally ho!

Teenage Engineering Pocket Operators

No, you haven’t accidentally stumbled into a ‘best affordable Gameboys’ article — these little numbers really are synths and the most affordable synths at that! In fact, it’s interesting that Teenage Engineering offers such a cheap synth when musicians often decry the cost of their flagship synth, the OP-1 (more on that later). Don’t judge the Pocket Operators on their size or toy-like appearance, they can do a huge amount. The K.O!, one of the most popular models, is a sampler, drum machine and synth packed into a handheld square. The Tonic specialises in dropping beats, and the Arcade produces delightful chiptune music that the name suggests, among the nine(!) varieties on offer.


Korg Volca FM 2

To make the bold claim that one of the top synthesizers can be cheaper than a VST synth in your DAW, you’d better be prepared to back it up. The synth we’re getting at is the Korg Volca FM. Because this box of loveliness will only cost you just upwards of £/$100 if you don’t dip into the second-hand market. This affordable synth harnesses FM synthesis, as it says on the tin, and its style and sounds are a nod to the history-making DX7 from Yamaha. It sounds massive if you put it through a great effects pedal, although the onboard reverb and chorus are very impressive. Cheap as chips, super-duper portable, versatile, there’s a lot to love here.


Korg Volca Modular

You may have seen photos of the pioneers of music synthesis like Delia Derbyshire and their entire walls of modular synths with countless wiring connecting it all, and the thought of trying to assemble it yourself leaves you in a fit of tears (with your bank card crying along with you). Here comes the good news — you can dip your toes into the wonderful world of modular with one of the most affordable synths there is. Our second Volca entry from Korg is a wonderful little analogue box which aims to make learning modular as accessible as possible. “Creating new sounds that don’t exist in the outside world is an unending dream which has continued since the birth of electronic musical instruments” is Korg’s delightful tagline for this cheap synthesizer which is tiny in size and price, but massive in potential.


Behringer Neutron

Perhaps you’ll feel a little intimidated by our next affordable synth. Another synth with no keys?! But don’t worry, the Behringer Neutron is perfectly friendly, generating wonderful paraphonic and analogue sounds. And the great news is it’s affordable for such a high-quality synth, costing less than £/$300. If the world of modular synths piques your interest and you want to dip your toes first (which is strongly recommended, rather than immediately spending lots on modular patches you don’t know how to use) then the Neuron is a great way to do that.


Yamaha Reface CS

Yamaha is one of the world’s greatest keyboard instrument specialists, so they’re right at home in this affordable synths list. The Reface CS is a loving nod to the notorious B.F.G that is the Yamaha CS-80, a legend of a synthesiser thanks to being used by Stevie Wonder, and its sounds are heard throughout Vangelis’ Blade Runner soundtrack. But unlike that gargantuan instrument, the Reface CS fits snugly into your backpack. This little chap is a digital synth with an ‘analogue physical modelling’ engine, and most importantly, it sounds fantastic.

The looping feature is a great asset to have and is one of the joys of playing on the CS. You can tweak and edit saw, square and triangle waves for hours on end, as well as top-notch onboard effects and sound editing tools. After grumblings about the inability to save presets, Yamaha released Soundmondo, an app for saving presets, and then sharing with other Reface players of the world.


Yamaha Reface DX

Yamaha isn’t getting out of your face just yet. Here is another fabulous member of the Reface range, this time based on the game changer synthesizer that was the Yamaha DX7, the instrument that heralded a digital synth revolution after years and years of analogue being top dog. In 1986, the DX7 was used in 40% of the number-one US singles. With the Reface DX, you have access to recreations of those legendary sounds for less than £/$300. The DX7 is notoriously complex to use, whereas this Reface is much easier to get going with. Like the CS, the looper feature is fantastic, it’s nice and portable and sounds excellent.


Behringer Odyssey

An epic affordable synth of Homeric proportions? That can be found in Behringer’s take on the classic ARP Odyssey. This is a controversial one, as Korg also has its own version of the Odyssey, however many users report much preferring the larger keys found on this Behringer take. The 1970s original can be heard in the music of Abba, Kraftwerk, and the incredible sound laboratory of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. This update is still fully analogue, also keeping the sequencer and arpeggiator, a multi-effects section, and a series of filters that you can push into overdrive.


IK Multimedia Uno Synth Pro

You need to know about the Uno Synth Pro. It delivers top-notch synthesis that won't break the bank and is easy to take with you wherever you go. It's a perfect starting point for anyone diving into the world of analogue synths, offering a ton of sound possibilities with its white noise generator, three analogue VCOs and three oscillators. Unlike other analogue synths in this price range, the Uno Synth Pro gives you a wide range of sounds that sound incredible. Plus, if you're on a tight budget, a smaller desktop version is available, though it trades traditional keys for touch keys.


Arturia MicroBrute

Affordable synths take a brutal turn. Sonic wizards Arturia are well established as the go-to synth heads for brilliant synthesizers that won’t result in nervous calls from your bank, and the MicroBrute, coming in at just under £/$500 fits that bill very well indeed The smallest member of the ‘Brute family is semi-modular, a monosynth, and you can spend joyful hours generating square, triangle and saw waves individually or simultaneously. If you’re seeking that trademark analogue growl and grit, you will have a hard time finding a more powerful affordable synth than the MicroBrute. Be sure to play with the Brute factor control, which sends everything into delightful overdrive.


Arturia MicroFreak

Arturia is back, and this time to get freaky. Before playing it, some are put off by the flat touch keys, but once you’ve tried them out, you soon realise they are one of the quirks that make the MicroFreak so deeply unique. It’s a digital synth, however, the inclusion of analogue filters means you get to play with both worlds. The arpeggiator is brilliant for such a small machine, and the ‘spice’ and ‘random’ features make arpeggiating incredibly fun. Arturia offers free updates, so more presets and features are constantly on the horizon. At just above £/$300, it’s time to give those flat keys a second chance and immerse yourself in the MicroFreak’s universe.


Novation Bass Station II

In your journey through music-making, you might've heard a pro tip: if there's one sound that should be analogue, it's the bass. Novation’s Bass Station II nails that deep, gritty bass vibe like a champ. But here's the surprise: it's not just about the bass. This synth doesn't get enough credit for its ability to craft beautiful leads in the higher ranges too. Plus, it's loaded with features: killer arpeggiator, versatile filters, powerful oscillators, and seamless sequencing. Keep in mind that it's a monosynth, so if polyphony is a must-have for you, you'll need to explore other options. Otherwise, it's an impressive analogue powerhouse at a price that won't break the bank.


Korg Minilogue XD

Just under £/$500, this analogue polyphonic synth packs all the punch we've come to expect from the Japanese powerhouse that is Korg. Its sequencer is a beast, and it's made strides from the original Minilogue with enhanced effects and a customisable multi-engine that'll keep you tweaking endlessly. Unlike some synths in the sub-£/$500 range, the Minilogue XD comes pre-loaded with fantastic presets, perfect for when you need a killer synth sound on the fly without spending ages shaping waves. New additions to the XD include dual-CV inputs for linking up with modular gear and a damper pedal jack.


Korg microKORG

If you’re seeking an affordable synth that can recreate some of the most recognisable leads, pads and bass sounds of the last several decades, you needn’t search further than the microKORG. It’s been with us since 2002, and comfortably remains one of the most impressive models that can be labelled a cheap synth. Using digital virtual analogue technology, it has 37 keys, onboard effects that include delay and chorus, and you can even buy it in its vocoder edition, if the spirit of Bon Jovi is within you. As well as an extensive range of brilliant presets, the world of waveforms are at your fingertips also if you wish to craft your own sounds.


Modal Electronics COBALT5S

The COBALT5S might be one of the most unassuming instruments on this affordable synth list, but beyond its nice, understated look is ginormous sonic potential. Another virtual analogue synth that does a fantastic job of digitally mimicking classic analogue sounds, it’s a five-voice polysynth with sound-shaping algorithms, and 40 of them in fact. The 37 keys cover the needs of those who aren’t looking to get concert pianist performances out of their synthesizers, and the onboard cross modulation, waveform morphing and ring modulation is very much worth the price of admission.


Teenage Engineering OP-Z

We mentioned earlier that Teenage Engineering isn't everyone’s idea of an affordable synth company, because their flagship product, the OP-1 could only be called a cheap synth if you have a bottomless trust fund. The OP-Z, however, just sneaks into this list, costing £499 if you buy it new from Teenage Engineering’s official website. That price is justified as you’re not merely investing in a synth, but also a very handy sampler and sequencer. The latter lets you load up 16 tracks and 16 steps. The onboard sounds and effects are very impressive. To put it simply, it’s a joy to create full tracks on such a little device, without dropping two grand. If the OP-Z has been on your wish list but out of reach, the OP-Z could fill that gap for you.


Arturia MiniFreak

Do some astute shopping and you can get yourself a MiniFreak for below £/$500. It creeps into this affordable synth by a whisker, but we’re so glad it has. If you thought Arturia’s MicroFreak sounded impressive enough, its older sibling takes everything up several notches. Plus, if you tried the former’s flat keys and can’t get past them, the MiniFreak gives you physical keys to play on. One very noticeable addition are the two touchstrips to the left of the keyboard, which can act as pitch and modulation wheels, or they can be used to increase the ‘spice’ and ‘dice’ features, among other very fun things. And in a very unique offering, bundled is a free software version of the instrument, MiniFreak V, so you can take all the fun to your DAW.


Buying an affordable synth vs saving up for a premium synth

If you’re still feeling insecure about buying such affordable synths instead of one of the big boys, don’t worry, years of conditioning will do that to you. Now, the purpose of this section isn’t to lie to you and say that buying a MicroFreak is the same as buying a Prophet 5. The above synths are incredible, but their affordability is partly because they are smaller and, in most cases, more limited in what they can do versus the more expensive ones.

That said, the amount of things the above synths can do at such a great price point really is quite incredible. This is why they make such brilliant starting points for a person’s synth journey. Do you really want to spend several thousand on a huge synth that will take up loads of space, or are you better off spending a few hundred on one of the brilliant items above first and trying it out? This way, you can dig deep and find out exactly what it is you’re after from synthesizers in terms of sounds and features.

It’s important to get out of the mindset that there is one synth out there that will fulfil your every musical desire. There are many people out there who own some of the greatest synths of all time and still suffer from gear acquisition syndrome, often wanting to add more instruments to their collection.

And with all that said, many of the above synths put some of the more expensive models to shame, so there is no harm in starting out with one of these. Most importantly of all, synths are meant to be fun, so get out there and enjoy yourself.

Further Reading:

Best synthesizers

Best vintage synthesizers