Buyer's Guides

10 Of The Best Classic Synthesizers: Vintage Gems that Shaped Music History

While we are in a golden age of hardware synths, with new synthesizers, models and emulations being announced on a weekly basis, many synth-lovers still obsessively scour places like eBay and Reverb to see if there’s an affordable deal on the all-time classic synthesizers.

While it is a wonderful thing that newer synth companies like Arturia and Behringer are producing much more affordable synths and the legendary names like Korg and Roland are now doing the same — there’s a certain romance (and challenge) that some musicians just can’t resist when it comes to going after the classic synthesizers from the ‘70s, ‘80s and beyond, especially when they are convinced it’s the best synth of all time that they are buying.

But what is the best synth of all time? Particularly bearing in mind that most of the aforementioned new synths are, more often than not, loving recreations of the classic synthesizers of old. If you are going to dip into the vintage, which can be very expensive, it’s important to be armed with knowledge of which names and models to look out for. So with that said, here is the Headliner take on the best classic synthesizers. Note that these are ordered from the lowest average price (affordable in vintage synth terms) ranging up to the most expensive.

Casio CZ-101

In a world of Korg and Roland synths, you would be hard-pressed to argue that this charming little chap is the best synth of all time. That is beyond the point however, the Casio CZ-101 is included here to prove that you can purchase a vintage synthesizer without selling all your near-and-dear possessions. Besides the fact you can pick one up, second-hand, for around £/$150-300 (it’s very important to note that prices will start to jump quite dramatically from here), it’s rare as a portable synth, one entry below resembles a church organ. If you want classic digital synth sounds without emptying your savings account, then say hello to our little friend.

Korg DW 8000

Our next entry not only proves you don’t have to spend too much on buying a classic synthesizer, but that it is possible to buy one from one of the most legendary names in synthesis. A very underrated synth despite having the Korg name attached, the DW 8000 is a hybrid analogue-digital synth with a huge bank of wonderful presets to keep vintage synth nerds happy. The arpeggiator is a joy to use (if you don’t mind a more straightforward one), and it has the lovely claim of being the first classic synthesizer to have digital delay across its bank of sounds, which sounds beautifully wonky in the way only a classic synth can. Like every synth in this list, prices do vary greatly, but it is possible to get one of these for £/$500 or even less if you look diligently.

Yamaha DX7

After many years of analogue, analogue, and more analogue, the Yamaha DX7 came along and changed the game. It claims its place among the most famous synthesizers thanks to being the first wildly successful digital synth, among the best-selling of all time, using FM synthesis. While early adopters struggled to program their own sounds on this new technology, its presets quickly became the thing of legend and in 1986, it could be heard across 40% of the number one singles in the US. On the other side of the spectrum, it became vital to the ambient music of Brian Eno.

As people clamber over each other to buy the classic synthesizers that are 100% analogue second hand, it would be churlish to ignore this synth that made history. And it is possible to buy one for around the £/$500 mark.

Roland Juno-60 and Juno-106

The 60 and 106 models of the fabled Roland Juno both had to be included, as the debate over which of the two is best looks unlikely to ever be settled. The Juno-60 can be heard in the music of Eurythmics, Wham!, and Enya, and its successor, the 106, was used by the likes of Vangelis, Tangerine Dream, and by modern-day acts such as Chvrches. Besides being plastered all over ‘80s music, their price on the second hand has been driven up in recent years after being championed by artists such as Nils Frahm, Sigur Rós and Metronomy.

An important thing to note is that the Juno-60 has a truly beautiful arpeggiator, which was replaced by a portamento effect when the 106 was released and ended production of the Juno-60. The 60 was the synth that put polyphonic synth sounds in the hands of the masses, not just rich musicians. When people think of the greatest analogue synth sounds, many music fans’ minds will naturally dart to the Juno. The 60 seems to average around the two grand mark, whereas there are current listings for the 106 below £/$1000.

Korg Arp Odyssey

Not all of the classic synthesizers on this list have been reissued to be sold today, but Korg’s Arp Odyssey can be purchased directly from their website without doing the big secondhand song and dance. An original model will set you back at least a grand, whereas the reissued hardware is much more affordable.

That said, affordability is part of this famous synthesizer’s history, developed as Korg’s answer to the Minimoog, with the aim of being more affordable, portable, and offering greater ease of use upon its release 1972 until 1980. Thanks to great demand from synth heads, the reissue came in 2015. One of the first polyphonic synths to be released, stick on Gimme Gimme Gimme by Abba and you’ll hear a beautiful lead melody from this relatively small classic synthesizer.

Moog Minimoog

We hope you’re prepared for a fairly dramatic increase in price as we encounter one of the most famous synthesizers of all time. That fame comes from the fact that Minimoog’s design has influenced and inspired almost every synth ever released. With all prior synthesizers being modular synths that seemed reserved to scientist-type composers and musicians, it was the Minimoog that gave synths the mass-appeal we know today. Its portability also saw synths finally moving from studios to live performances. The best synth of all time debate may never be settled, but the Minimoog has a very strong claim. The reissue Model D will set you back approximately five grand, while a vintage model will likely set you back quite a bit more.

Sequential Prophet 5

If your classic synthesizer buying decision hinges on which famous songs and albums use said synth, are Madonna’s Like A Virgin and Michael Jackon’s Thriller hitting the mark for you? There will be a few mentions of how these classic synthesizers had a huge mark in the sand moment, and the Prophet 5 was the brilliant invention of Dave Smith John Bowen in 1977 which allowed users to save all their sounds, tweaks and edits into an onboard memory for the first time ever.

This was a big moment in synth history, and the Prophet 5, having met this massive gap in the market, began immediately selling out despite its four grand price tag. Memory aside, it still sounds jaw-droppingly good all these years later and is so joyous to play. A reissue will cost you from £/$2500 upwards, whereas a vintage Prophet has a crazy price range with listings going from five grand up to tens of thousands.

Oberheim OB-Xa

As these classic synthesizers get more and more expensive, they become quite a bit bigger also. Oberheim is a name befitting a large instrument, and the analogue subtractive OB-Xa became mega popular from its 1980 release. Easily the most famous example of its sound is the opening synth lead melody in Jump by Van Halen (which must surely be appearing in your head now), while also being championed by a huge variety of artists such as New Order, Prince, Queen and Miles Davis. Some even say its release as a polyphonic instrument at the beginning of the ‘80s was a death sentence for the monosynths that came before.

Yamaha CS-80

What an absolute monster…meant in the nicest way possible! Its size is, quite frankly, absurd, and it is notoriously hard to get a hold of. If you were feeling unkind, you could say it looks faintly ridiculous, and users have often derided the fact it only takes a slight change in room temperature to throw the thing out of tune. So, with all that said, how on Earth does the Yamaha CS-80 enter the best synth of all time conversation?!

Because it is undoubtedly one of the great heroes of classic synthesizer history. Vangelis, one of the biggest synth proponents there ever was, called it the most important synth he ever used, and it was vital for his original music for both Blade Runner and Chariots Of Fire. It is one of the most expressive synth instruments the world has ever seen. And for that, you need to be willing to part with tens of thousands of pounds. Delivery will likely cost you at least a grand as well. The CS-80 is no joke, it turns out.

Roland Jupiter-8

While an original Roland Jupiter-8 would be quite a bit cheaper for you to acquire than a Yamaha CS-80, we’re listing it highest because there’s a more than remote chance of you actually being able to feasibly get one (there are only a tiny handful of CS-80s listed for sale online, in disparate parts of the globe). That said, if you decide the Jupiter-8 is the one for you, get ready to shell out somewhere around 20 grand for it.

In which case, you’d hope it has had a whole host of famous users. Well, how about ABBA, Duran Duran (used all over Hungry Like The Wolf and Save A Prayer), Marvin Gaye, Pet Shop Boys, and Ultravox for starters. It’s been referred to as the world’s first professional analogue synthesizer, and was the first instrument that could split the keyboard into two voices. Huge, thick sounds that are unmatched.

Buying a vintage synthesizer versus a modern one

Now that we’ve discussed some of the bonkers pricing of these classic synthesizers, you may now be wondering if a modern-day synth might not be such a bad idea after all. There are certainly pros and cons in both scenarios.

A big thing to consider is that many of the new synths being released in the last ten years are either direct emulations of the classic synthesizers, or are often at least taking significant inspiration from them. So the purists would argue that you’re best off going to the source.

It’s deeply subjective though, as some would equally argue that software synths in a DAW sound just as good as the real thing these days. Some of the digital emulation hardware synths really do sound fantastic and many listeners say they struggle to tell the difference.

This leads us to the analogue question: if you feel you need a classic vintage synthesizer, do you actually just want an analogue synthesizer? Perhaps you just want that trademark warmth, grit and character that many associate with analogue hardware synths — and there are some brilliant, newer models such as the MicroKorg and the Arturia MicroBrute and PolyBrute, all of which are much more affordable options (unless you can find a really good deal on the Casio and DW 8000 above!).

That said, if it becomes possible for you to own one of the wonderful classic synthesizers above that have played such a huge part in music history, then go for it. It will likely be the start of a beautiful friendship with your synth. Bear in mind you may have to make a trip or two to a specialist vintage synth repair shop in your time, but it’s all part of the quirky joy of classic synthesizers. Bonne chance to you as you embark on your synth quest.

Further reading:

Best synthesizers in the golden age of hardware

Getting started with modular synths