We are in a new golden age of remarkably affordable synthesizers with extraordinary sonic power.

But can you get something genuinely decent for under $500? Definitely!

You might have to ignore some of the classics, some of the larger keyboard synths and workstations, but there are really solid choices that will only cost you a few hundred. I’ve done another article on cool synths for under $200, so if your budget is really tight, you might want to check that out. In this one, we’re going to look in the $200-$500 range.

Here is our quick list of the best cheap synthesizers:

  • Cre8audio East Beast
  • Behringer Crave
  • Yamaha Reface FM
  • Arturia Microfreak
  • Moog Mavis
  • 1010 Music Nanobox Lemondrop and Fireball
  • Modal Electronics COBALT5S

Cheap synths FAQ

How much does a good synth cost?

Robin Vincent

Synths are remarkably affordable these days and can start at under $100. However, if you had $200 to $500 to spend you could get yourself a really decent synth that would enable you to make music and design your own sounds.

What's a good beginner synthesizer?

Robin Vincent

If you want to learn about how synthesizers work, then get the Mavis from Moog. It’s designed and built by the same people who make the classic Moog synths and has everything you need to start making sounds, understand filters and routing and get into patching.

Is an analog synth better than a digital synth?

Robin Vincent

No, because they can be very different and have different strengths. For traditional synthesis, you can’t beat the warm sounds of analog electronics, but for creative uses of complex technology, digital synths are all over it. The simple answer is that both are brilliant.

Cre8Audio East Beast

The East Beast is a fascinating semi-modular synthesizer. It has a straight forward analog architecture with a great sounding oscillator, devastatingly good filter and then an LFO and envelope for modulation. It’s dead easy to use and does exactly what you expect a little synth to do, until it doesn’t.

Behind the scenes is a really interesting digital control system. It runs an arpeggiator that can evolve into a sequencer, it modulates between oscillator waveforms and modes on the filter, and it provides randomisation and other modulators to wire in via the patch bay.

It’s designed by Pittsburgh Modular, who usually makes high-end modular synthesizers. Cre8audio has enabled them to put their expertise into a funky little desktop synth that’s cheaper than most Eurorack modules. The PGH Filter is particularly good with a smooth sound all the way round without rolling off as you pump up the resonance.

East Beast is a superb little synth. It will get you into patching, and with MIDI, CV and Eurorack compatibility it can grow with you. It’s only $249

Cre8audio East Beast

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Behringer Crave

Behringer has a lot of great cut-price synths to choose from. Their recreations of classics like the Model D, Pro-1 and Cat are superb and worth checking out. But for this list I’ve chosen the Crave. It’s compact, fun and full of the sound of classic synthesizers.

Crave is a single oscillator analog semi-modular synth. It has a solid ladder filter, simple envelope and LFO for modulation and a very useful keyboard and sequencer. There are a lot of patching possibilities with 18 inputs and 14 outputs giving you access to all sorts of processing and routing that’s not possible on the front panel.

You have triangle and square waveforms to play with and the 24dB filter is seriously fat and ready for bass lines. Behringer has this thing where you can chain up more than one synth to use them together to increase the polyphony. So there’s some interesting expandability there.

The Crave costs only $229 and is the cheapest in this roundup.

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Yamaha Reface DX

The Reface range from Yamaha takes on a couple of classics synths and reworks them into a simple, easy-to-access format. It’s one of the few synths on this list that has a regular keyboard. There’s a virtual analog one, an electric piano one and an organ one, all of which are great. But for this entry I’m looking at the Reface DX FM synth that’s modelled after Yamaha’s own DX7.

First of all, it’s not a DX7. This is based more on the 4-operator DX-100 and DX-21 and then it greatly simplifies the interface. It comes with 32 choice presets that are immediately pleasing and definitely classic. The interface gives you control over 12 algorithms and continuously variable feedback controls. You can switch between frequency control, ratios, level, algorithms and feedback, pushing the FM engine wherever you want to go.

The Reface FM is designed as a portable keyboard and so has a really long battery life and a pair of speakers with bass-reflex port technology. You get high-quality mini keys covering three octaves, and out the back, you have proper audio, sustain pedal and MIDI connections.

For $299 this is a neat little synth.

Yamaha Reface

Arturia Microfreak

The Microfreak is a bit different. It’s a hybrid of a digital oscillator and an analog filter all wrapped up in a weirdly engaging touch-plate keyboard. It looks fascinating and is a lot of fun to play.

The Microfreak can handle up to 4 notes being played at once through the one filter which can be everything from mellow to on fire. The digital oscillator gives you an expandable range of waveforms, styles and possibilities that are as zany as you want them to be. You’ll find your regular waveforms of course, but also formants, robots, noise, wavetables, strings and bings. It’s extremely versatile and yet very simple to use with just Timbre and Shape controls to craft your perfect waveform.

It has a couple of envelopes, one of which will loop as an LFO in addition to the dedicated one. You can route them into all sorts of places via the Modulation Matrix. The arpeggiator and sequencer are excellent and have lots of realtime performance features you can drop in for added variations. The keyboard registers both the placement of the fingers and the pressure giving you more expressive aftertouch control.

You also get over 300 presets, CV/Gate and MIDI outputs and a whole load of fun for $349.

Arturia Microfreak

Moog Mavis

If you love that Moog sound, then the Mavis is the most authentic and affordable way to join the Moog family. The Mavis is a monophonic semi-modular synthesizer built by Moog Music. It features a single VCO with a variable waveshape, a VCA, LFO, the awesome ladder filter and, completely unprecedented for Moog, a wavefolder.

Mavis comes in a kit form so you’ll need to put it together first. Don’t worry, it doesn’t include any soldering, just a few screws and nuts to attach before putting it in the case. It comes with some fabulous artwork that doubles as the manual.

In use, you’ve got some nice modulation options that make full use of the ADSR and LFO and can combine them to modulate the oscillator or filter. The LFO can also vary its shape between triangle and square waves. The wavefolder acts as a separate module that you patch into in the patch bay. It comes with a bunch of card overlays that show you exactly how to patch and set the knobs for a number of fabulous sounds. The keyboard comes in very handy but sadly there’s no sequencer.

The Mavis offers a genuinely thoughtful synthesizer experience that radiates that Moog vibe for $349.

Moog Mavis

1010Music Nanobox Lemondrop and Fireball

I’m putting the striking Lemondrop and Fireball synths together because they are very similar in how they work and only differ in the sound engine department. As digital minisynths, these two boxes are awesome.

Lemondrop is a tasty granular polyphonic synthesizer. It has 4 voices, 2 granulators and an oscillator. You can morph and shape your slices and grains via the touch screen display, scrubbing possibilities throughout the loaded wave files. It can generate lush environments, glitchy textures and big pads.

Fireball is a polyphonic wavetable synthesizer that uses the touch screen to modulate, morph and warp the waveforms. It has 8 voices, two wavetables and an oscillator. It can do pads, atmospheres, cutting leads and fat basses.

What’s common to both other than the touch screen interface is the pair of filters, envelopes and LFOs. There’s a sequencer for modulation and 6 onboard effects that can be chained into 12 possible combinations. You can load your own samples or wavetables and connect via MIDI or USB for better control.

The Nanobox synths are a pair of interesting and different sound generators that give you simple control over the sort of sounds that you usually find in much bigger digital synthesizers. They are $399 each.


Modal Electronics COBALT5S

The Cobalt 5s is a remarkable synthesizer. Based on the sample virtual analog engine as the Cobalt8 it has 5-voices of pure class combined with a simplified interface and decent 37-key keyboard.

The sounds in this synth are brilliant. They have a warmth and liveliness that you’d usually associate with proper analog gear, and the 5S captures it perfectly. The range of tone is amazing. It has 40 algorithms that dictate how the virtual waveforms are put together and then give you macro control over how they interact. You can spend a lot of time designing sounds simply through the oscillators.

But once you venture out into the larger synthesizer, you’ll find a spectacular 4-pole morphing multimode ladder filter and 11 modulation sources with 41 possible destinations. It has a massive sequencer for up to 512 notes and a polyphonic mode for sequencing chords. There are 4 lanes of parameter automation and extensive hands-on control, including an interesting pressure pad for extra expression. There’s even a software app to get you deeper into the details.

The COBALT5S is the closest you’ll get to that big-synth vibe for under $500, and you should be able to pick one up for $399.


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