One of the deepest, wide-ranging, psychedelic and mind-expanding rabbit holes you could ever hope to venture down is the wonderful world of synthesizers. From monophonic to polyphonic, modular to semi-modular, analogue, and digital, there truly is a synth out there for everyone. ‘Not for everyone, I can’t afford a synthesizers,’ I hear you cry. Wrong! We are truly in a golden age of synthesizers where some brands and models cost the same or even less than software synths for your DAW.
That said, the synthesizer at the top-end of this article costs more than a small used car, which goes to show how massive and varied the world of hardware synths has become, with demand showing no signs of decreasing and companies announcing new models on a very regular basis.
From the end of the ‘60s and onwards, synthesizers irrevocably changed music forever. They did go through a wobble in the early during the ‘00s, when software synths and VSTs reached a point in the technology which, to many people’s ears, sounded as good as the hardware they were based on. But a time came when many realised synths on a screen could never replace the joy of getting your hands on a real synth, and editing the sounds live with its onboard knobs and faders.
That said, the amount of choice in 2024 can be bewildering, so Headliner is here to lovingly guide you through finding the best synth for your enjoyment and needs.
Korg Volca FM 2
If you’re going to make the claim that one of the top synthesizers can also cost you less than a VST synth in your DAW, you of course need to back it up. And it’s the Korg Volca FM that has our back in this regard. Because this little box of joy will only cost you just north of £/$100, if you buy it brand new. As the name suggests, this top-rated synthesizer harnesses FM synthesis, and its look and sounds are a nod to the legendary DX7 from Yamaha. It sounds absolutely huge if you put it through a great effects pedal, although the onboard reverb and chorus are pretty fantastic as is. Cheap as chips, as portable as a synth can be, and incredibly versatile, there’s a lot to love here.
Perhaps you’ll feel like you’ve been thrown in the deep end with our second best synth contender — maybe the modular wiring and lack of keys is even a tad frightening. But don’t worry, the Behringer Neutron doesn’t bite, instead generating wonderful paraphonic, analogue bleeps and bloops. It’s also relatively affordable for such a high-quality synthesizer, costing less than £/$300. If you’re intrigued by the world of modular synths and want to dip your toes first (which is highly recommended, rather than immediately spending lots on modular patches you don’t know how to use) then the Neuron is a brilliant way to do that.
Yamaha Reface CS
Big synth sounds in your face! Any list that involves keyboards would feel a little strange without piano//musical instrument/motorbike specialists Yamaha. The Reface CS is based on the Yamaha CS-80, a legend of a synthesizers thanks to being used by Stevie Wonder, and its sounds are heard throughout Vangelis’ Blade Runner soundtrack. That synth, though, was an absolute giant, whereas you can chuck the Reface CS into a backpack. This little guy is a digital synth with an ‘analogue physical modelling’ engine, and for a great price and size, it sounds fantastic.
The looping feature is a certified winner and is one of the joys of playing on the CS. Like the Arturia Brute range, you can tweak saw, square and triangle waves to your heart’s content, as well as phenomenal onboard effects and sound-shaping tools. After complaints about the inability to save presets, Yamaha released Soundmondo, a dedicated app for saving presets, and then sharing with other users also. Neat!
IK Multimedia Uno Synth Pro
This is a seriously good synth, you know. The IK Multimedia Uno Synth Pro has given the world one of the top synthesizers that is both affordable and portable. And within its price are an array of features that other hardware manufacturers expect you to pay double or triple as much for. A wonderful entry point into the world of analogue synths, the Uno Synth Pro offers so much sonic potential with a white noise generator, three analogue VCOs, and three oscillators that put this analogue beast firmly in your control. Unlike some fully analogue synthesizers at this sort of price point, the UNO Synth Pro has a huge range of synth sounds at your disposal, and they sound absolutely stunning. To make it even more affordable, there is a desktop-sized version, if you don’t mind swapping the full keyboard keys for touch keys.
Arturia MiniBrute 2
Our best synth list takes a brutal turn. French sonic wizards Arturia are one of the go-to companies for brilliant, top synthesizers that won’t result in nervous calls from your bank, and the MiniBrute 2 is no exception, coming in at just under £/$500. This member of the ‘Brute family is semi-modular, and you can wile away the hours generating beautiful square, triangle and saw waves individually or simultaneously. If you’re looking for that authentic analogue growl and grit, you will struggle to find a more powerful machine at this price than the MiniBrute. Don’t forget to play with the Brute factor control, which sends everything into delightful overdrive. For a more affordable but still formidable option, check out the smaller MicroBrute.
Novation Bass Station II
Bass in your face, London!! Or wherever it is you’re reading this from. At some point in your music-making journey, you may hear a producer or engineer say that, if you can only have one sound be analogue, make sure it’s the bass. And for that all-encompassing, thick and gritty analogue bass, Novation’s Bass Station II is one of the top synthesisers for this use case. And, despite how phenomenal it sounds in the bassier regions, it’s an underrated synthesiser when it comes to generating beautiful leads in the higher registers. And the features are incredible, with a brilliant arpeggiator, filters, oscillators, and sequencing. It is a monosynth, so look elsewhere if your synth being polyphonic is the deal-breaker for you. Otherwise, it’s an astonishing analogue beast at a great price point.
When it comes to the top synthesizers that fall into the ‘affordable’ category, Arturia’s MicroFreak is quite an astonishing little bit of kit. For some, the main hurdle is getting past the flat touch keys, but once you’ve played on them a bit, you quickly realise they are just one of the quirks that make the MicroFreak so unique and joyful. It’s a digital synth, but the inclusion of analogue filters mean you get to harness both worlds. The arpeggiator is outrageously good for such a small machine, and the ‘spice’ and ‘random’ buttons make arpeggiating as fun as you can imagine. Arturia offers regular, free updates, so more presets and features are always on the way. And it only costs you just above £/$300 — if your budget is higher, its MiniFreak older sibling has a real keyboard, more keys and even more brilliant features.
Korg Minilogue XD
Korg — put some respect on the name. And equally worthy of respect is the Minilogue XD. Just shy of £/$500, this analogue polyphonic synth harnesses all the power we’ve come to expect from the Japanese brand. The sequencer is a monster, and other ways in which the XD has improved on the original Minilogue are its effects and multi-engine, which you can customise until the cows come home. Unlike some synths in the below $500 range, the Minilogue XD is loaded up with fantastic presets, which is good news when you just need a great synth sound on the fly, rather than needing 30 minutes to shape a wave to perfection yourself. Other newcomers to the XD edition are dual-CV inputs so you can link this ‘Logue up to modular gear, and a damper pedal jack.
Roland Juno X
The original ‘80s Juno synthesizers from Roland were already firmly in the synth hall of fame (Take On Me by A-Ha, anyone?), but have enjoyed a big resurgence in recent years after being championed by ambient artists such as Sigur Rós and Nils Frahm in their recordings and performances. The downside? Buying a vintage Juno will set you back at least three grand. Fear not — if you don’t mind digital emulations of vintage analogue synths, then say hello to Roland’s Juno X. Only costing you a third of the vintage price, the design is a lovely nod to the originals, and it reproduces their famous chorus effects and wobbliness brilliantly.
Some love the Juno line the most for its lush pad sounds, and the Juno X is one of the top synthesizers in this ballpark. If you can’t stomach going digital, but don’t have the liquid assets for a second hand Juno-60 or 106, we’d recommend checking out the Roland JU-06A sound module, a 100% analogue recreation of both the 106 and 60, only smaller and even cheaper than the Juno X.
Like the nine-headed serpentine monster it is named after, ASM’s Hydrasynth is a multi-faceted, roaring beast with sounds worthy of an epic Greek mythology movie score. Its unique offering in the best synth conversation is that it doesn't merely identify as a digital synth, instead using ‘digital wave morphing’ technology. If that doesn’t mean much to you, the key point is it sounds positively Herculean. Just a few of its fantastic features include five looping envelopes, five LFOs, onboard reverb and delay, eight polyphonic voices, and even an amp module. A very addictive synthesizer.
Korg Wavestate MKII
Big waves were made in the ‘90s when the rapidly expanding dance/electronic scene was bolstered by the introduction of wavetable synths. And it’s only right that Korg get people crazy for it once again, as one of the pioneers in this realm of the top synthesizers. The Wavestate MKII should have you covered with its 96 voices, expanded memory from the original, and ridiculously huge sequencing powers. It’s an absolutely heavenly sounding digital synth that you might just fall in love with.
We now tune into a different FM frequency as we head deeper into our best synth compendium. Elektron is known best for its drum machines, and the Digitone looks like a drum machine also. In fact, it is a drum machine. But it’s also a synthesizers. If you’re confused, the simplest way to put it is the Digitone is a little FM synth box that does virtually everything. You can create full beats, tracks and songs (just overlay some vocals in your DAW afterwards). Its size means you can have it in the studio and with you on stage too. If, for you, a synth doesn’t have to be a keyboard instrument, rather a do-it-all device, once you deep dive into the Digitone, you may struggle to return to your day-to-day life thereafter.
Any best synth list worth its salt should expect to see pioneers Roland appearing a few times, and this time they register with the System 8, a mega-modern instrument that many musicians have said is as close to the perfect live-performance synth as you can get. It uses the company’s ACB (Analogue Circuit Behaviour) tech to digitally mimic some of Roland’s most legendary instruments from the history book. You can choose from Plug-Outs from the official website, which includes sounds from the Juno-106 and the Jupiter-8. Included effects are delay, chorus (the classic Juno chorus, no less), flanging, reverb, distortion, bitcrusher and more.
Not only is ‘Moog’ very pleasing to say out loud, it’s also a name that carries huge weight in the realm of the best synthesisers. We’ve been neglecting the analogue fans with the last few entries, so here is a synth that’s both gloriously analogue and semi-modular. The design is a thing of beauty; with lovely touches of colour with its 32-note keyboard, modulation wheels and various knobs. It has its own spring reverb module, which is a superb inclusion. Usually, vintage-sounding synthesisers like these would put you in several years’ worth of credit card debt, however the Grandmother is in a very similar price range to the digital emulators in the last few entries. Very hard to argue with that.
Ah, Dave Smith Instruments — it’s quite remarkable how such an unassuming name has left such an immeasurable impact on the music industry as we know it. Designed in 1977, you can hear the original instrument across Michael Jackson’s Thriller, in Madonna’s Like A Virgin, and in Radiohead’s Kid A, to name a very select few examples. Many will vehemently tell you this is the best synth out there, not least because it was the first synthesizers with programmable memory.
This fourth edition of the Prophet-5 is the same globetrotting synth, but with features that bring it into 2024 such as USB connection, and aftertouch and velocity on the keys. Sequential have lovingly kept the original design, as well as many of the beloved 1978 presets. If you feel you are worthy of one of the all time best synthesizers (and you should!) then don’t listen to false prophets and give this instrument a go.
The Oberheim name alone has a strong claim when it comes to the top synthesizers debate, as they’ve been pioneering synthesis technology since 1969, much longer than some of the newcomers listed here. But are they still cutting it today? Well and truly, with the OB-X8 being testament to that. With eight voices of fully-analogue polyphony, stacks of modulation potential and VCOs (voltage-controlled oscillators), the OB-X8 is a top-rated synthesizer for very good reason. You instantly get the iconic Oberheim sound straight out the box, with all the trademark warmth, soaring pads and excellent leads.
Waldorf Quantum MK2
One of the most beautiful examples of a synthesizer that harnesses and balances the powers of digital and analogue is the Waldorf Quantum. We have officially transcended the best synth conversation and arrive at the pearly gates of sound design heaven. Because at your disposal is wavetable, granular, subtractive and resonator synthesis. The LFOs, filters, modulators and oscillators are a synth nerd’s dream. Unlike some part-analogue instruments, the Quantum has a fantastic touch-screen display, so you can visually see your sound editing. The eight voices of polyphony are stunning, and you can add lots of onboard effects, including EQ, reverb, drive, phaser, chorus and more. Superb stuff.
First things first, if you want a Moog One, you’d better really want one. Because if you don’t get it second-hand and go for the 16-voice edition, it will cost you close to 10 grand. And no, that isn’t a typo. You’ll be relieved to hear then, that rather than debating whether or not this is the best synth, let’s rather say that the Moog One delivers the ultimate synthesiser experience. The hype was quite immense when it was announced as Moog’s first polysynth in 35 years, and it’s safe to say the Moog One is a truly timeless synth. The front panel alone has an outrageous number of knobs and switches. If you love analogue then welcome to dreamland, as you indulge in three analogue VCOs with frequency and ring modulation, filters, an analogue noise generator, a built-in mixer, three envelopes and four LFOs. Put it this way, imagine how the perfect synthesizer might sound in your mind, and the Moog One will likely exceed that.
How to choose your synth, and how much to spend
So, as it turns out, there are a lot of great synthesizers these days. Perhaps you can’t choose between them and want them all (also known as gear acquisition syndrome), but your bank balance is wagging its finger at you. Here are the all-important ways to whittle your decision down to a shorter list.
Firstly, is it important to you if a synth is digital or analogue? If you’re not sure, you can read further into this, and there are plenty of comparison videos out there for you to compare and make your own decision. Only you can decide which is best for you, as there isn’t an objective answer regarding which is better; it really is a preference thing. The original synthesizers were analogue, and some people will always cherish that, while some prefer the digital style. When you’re building your music setup, one great approach is to be pragmatic and own some analogue instruments and digital ones also — of course, the digital sounds can all be VSTs on your computer. Choose your own adventure here.
Another big one is choosing a mono versus polyphonic synthesizer. This, thankfully, is a much easier thing to consider. A monophonic synth can only play one note at a time. If you try playing a chord with three fingers, only one note will be heard nonetheless. So, if playing big, lush-sounding chords on ambient pads is precisely what you’re after, you’d better make sure you get a polyphonic synth. If you’re just looking for lead melodies and big bass lines, there are mono synths that excel at this. As with above, do your listening homework before investing!
Some synthesizers offer presets, while others don’t. If you want to unbox your synth and have presets ready for you so you can get playing without spending a bit of time turning knobs and editing filters etc, then be sure to do your homework on that one. However, for some, sound design is the true joy of synthesis and presets feel like a waste of time. Again, each to their own in this department.
Hopefully, this buyer’s guide makes the case that you don’t need thousands of pounds or dollars to spend in order to enter the joy of synth-playing. The above list is listed from lowest to highest price, and the most affordable ones at the beginning are excellent synths. It should also go without saying that the Korg Volca FM is a wonderful little box, but limited in what it can do when you put it up against the Moog One. If your budget is lower, the best advice is to start with what you can afford, and you can always gradually upgrade your setup later down the line. But you will likely find yourself using the affordable synths again and again, as you will still find them to be of such quality and use in many applications.
Synth lovers, we salute you! All the best wishes to you as you seek out your dream synthesizer companion.