Beauty is only skin-deep

Akai AX80

I considered making this review have only one sentence. That sentence would have been the one that now occupies the subheading territory. Beauty is only skin-deep basically describes the Akai AX80 on every level to me. I pined after these for some time. That vacuum fluorescent display (VFD) is one of the coolest looking things ever in the world of synthesizers and I’d have put it up there with the prettiest synths out there.

So – to my surprise, back on May 23rd, 2017, one of these popped up locally, plus a bunch of other gear, for $300 (see photo below for what I received). I couldn’t believe it. And for once – I was the one who connected with the seller first. I rushed over and picked up the cache of gear. Of course, the AX80 was in extremely poor shape. The VFDs were basically non-functional, it was badly dented in the back, buttons didn’t work, many of the keys didn’t work, and one of the keys was busted.

My excellent find. Akai AX80, Yamaha TQ5, Korg EX800, Yamaha RX17, Paia ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ monosynth

What did I do? Well, I traded a local technician all of the other gear (A Yamaha TQ5, Korg EX800, Yamaha RX17, and some Paia monosynth) in exchange for repairing the AX80. Looking back, that was a pretty incredibly stupid move. I should have just paid to repair the AX80, but please remember that decisions are never based on the one event (i.e., repair X gear with $$$). The reality is that I was two months away from my first child being born and was incredibly nervous about our financial situation surrounding raising children (I mean, have you see what daycare costs? When my daughter was an infant, it cost $1800 per month to send her). So, I felt very guilty for having picked up all this gear to begin with and thought the best way to mitigate costs was to pay for repairs by trading for other gear. Also – pretty much all of that gear had issues as well. The TQ5 didn’t have a power adapter to even try, the EX800 had issues, the RX17 had been a delightful circuit-bending project for someone who got off on torturing electronics. That gear was probably more hassle than they were worth (…I tell myself, knowing full well I could have probably gotten a lot of money for them).

Hang on a second

What the heck is up with gear being so severely trashed? How does this happen? It almost seems like you have to try to destroy your gear to get it into such bad shape. I know people play live shows and “sh*t happens” and all that, but like, please, just care for this stuff. You are the steward of your gear while it is in your possession. Someday, when the King returns, you’ll obviously have to give it back, and you don’t want that stuff looking the way Minas Tirith looked when Aragorn reclaimed the throne, do you?

Akai AX80 rear panel

Ok, back to my review. What the hell am I even reviewing at this point. Ah yes; the AX80. I knew there was a reason I wanted to forget and delay the inevitable. There honestly isn’t even a ton to say about the AX80. I could summarize with a few lines for you:

  1. Don’t buy it.
  2. The filter sounds like it sat in the deserts of Tatooine for 30 years and then crushed by a sandcrawler for effect.
  3. No reason to buy it other than “it looks pretty.”

Yeah, that’s my review of it. But let me expand further. I never got along with the Akai AX80 at all. I thought the filter had a ton of personality that I didn’t like. The whole synthesizer just reminded me of that story where you see someone from afar and just think how beautiful and perfect they are and how you could never possibly be with them, but then you succeed and actually get to date them. Then before you know it, a year has gone by and you’re sitting down to dinner at Don Pablo’s after they’ve told you the flowers you got them were utter crap and you realize you can’t stand to look at their face any more. Their voice irritates you to no end and you’d give anything to never see them again.

I think that summarizes my experiences perfectly.

My unit had a strange artifact. The VFD had alternating bands on each bar that made it look a bit wonky. I don’t know what caused that and neither did the technicial working on it. I wasn’t particularly bothered by it, but I was also somewhat concerned that these displays were way too fragile and could break at any time if I looked at it wrong.

VFD Akai AX
Akai AX80 VFD issue with alternating bands in each bar.

There’s a mod that’s worth getting (here) that improved MIDI implementation and made it possible for me to create this iPad layout for MIDI Designer Pro 2 (here). Apparently that layout has been downloaded 359 times. I feel sorry for that many people right now.

I listen back to this and think – maybe I was wrong about the AX80. But you know what, for some reason – the AX80 is among the very few synthesizers I have not at all regretted selling. Sure, some day when it’s worth $5,000 I will then tell myself I made a huge mistake by selling it. But that too would only be for superficial reasons. Money or beauty. The sound just never appealed to me in any way. Strangely, when I listen to Roland Jupiter-6 demos, it absolutely reminds me of the Akai AX80. They both sound terrible to me. I don’t think I’ve heard any demo of the Jupiter-6 that I thought was good, but I’m not spending the $6,000 to find out for myself.

A year passed. I tried to like the AX80. I tried and tried and just never could do it. Eventually, I posted it for sale. Someone offered me an Elektron Analog Four for it. I thought, why not. That trade was the reason I’ve ever actually done a live-show with my synthesizers. I guess that will be for another review though.

Akai AX80

6 out of 10
Akai AX80 front panel
Sound
3/10
User Interface
6/10
Aesthetics
10/10
Price
5/10

Pros

Beautiful

Unique

Cons

Very dry sound

Fragile VFD

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Jim B

SO true – I’ve played with them in and was completely unable to “connect” with it – but agree it looks amazing.