WOLF retro DESIGN REVIEW. 8th April 2020
A retro review looks at products that are at least over ten years old from a present-day WOLF design perspective. While the technology and fashion of the period influence design, and are taken into consideration, great design ideas will transcend their eras to be timeless.
Interesting and factual information may be provided, but our review aims to deliver insight from the perspective of a designer’s mind and eyes.
Blue and bold.
As with most reviews the focus is on the design and its evolution with the synthesizer. The functioning systems and sound quality are not necessarily considered.
The EX5 was first released in a in 1998, and at that time featured more than any other Yamaha synth that came before. It combined four different tone generators together with sampling capabilities. While none of it was particularly new in technology, the combination of many things made it a very powerful workstation and still in use today.
Price and Availability.
They are generally available on the second hand market and worth about $1000 (Aust). Expect to pat up to $1500 for a mint example with expansion and original Hard case.
In celebration of the new Millennium, Yamaha released a special silver coloured version in the year 2000. Known as the EX5S it was limited to only 500 units.
There is also a smaller EX7 which was nearly identical except for having less polyphony and one less octave.
First impression/ Delight
It’s a big synth with bold presence well suited to the amount of power it holds within. Visually there is nothing particularly out of place or that stands out. Everything looks very familiar in terms of controls and layouts. It borrows more from the SY99 than its W5 predecessor. Visually it almost completely ignores the W series and feels more like an evolution of the SY99.
Exterior Design Review
The most notable physical difference is the colour. Yamaha’s first blue synthesizer came in 1996 as the CS1X and then in 1997 they used blue again in their AN1X. The EX5 was thus the 3rd and last usage of blue known to date. The blue in the EX series however is slightly darker, more metallic and with a slight sheen.
While looking more like an evolution than a revolution the EX5 does introduce new knob controllers under the LCD screen and a ribbon controller under the 3 controller wheels on the right side. These subtly suggest that there is more available than ever before and invites you to explore.
The layout is significantly improved over the W series, with consistency and clarity. While it’s a relatively simple looking machine at first there are some significant breaks form tradition. The symmetry of left and right end panels was interrupted for the first time. The corner details are all identical but Yamaha introduced a subtle but big “swoosh” shape on the left end. It’s almost as if they realised that this synth was going to be rather thick and chunky and so tried to find a way to soften its bulkiness. Whether or not it actually slenderizes the machine is debatable, but the EX5 would have little character without it. Perhaps that was why the choice of blue in the standard version was necessary, in order to help it stand out.
Yamaha also brought back the bevel shape between the front panel and the keyboard section as done on both the DX7 mk2 and all the SY synths (except the SY85). The bevel on the EX synths however is significantly larger than ever before.
Curved ends that soften visual bulkiness.
An interesting lip detail that turns the corner
The EX5 maintains the same large smooth and flat expanses of metal as with both the SY and W series synths. However, the EX5 does somehow feel stronger in build as if the metal and plastic is thicker. We think this is an illusion created by the thickness of the machine and the stepped layering seen on each corner.
While the screen has not increased in size to be more competitive with KORG and Roland it does seem brighter and clearer with a yellow colour that is reminiscent of the DX7 mk2. All the controllers feel excellent and affirm quality.
The surface has a very slight graininess.
The EX5 feels great overall. It’s well built and has an air of confidence about it. All the buttons feel nice to press and when we studied them closely, they appear to be sized like those on the SY99 with texture from the W5 and a wavy shape added on top- a proper design evolution. The alpha dial is minimalistic and sits with just a slight protrusion from the surface. While we think it should be larger the screen is nice and we are glad to see that Yamaha finally decided to make those tiny “F” buttons immediately below the screen a little less tiny than those on previous generations.
Yamaha introduced round controller knobs with their CS series and we think its good that they were carried over to the new flagship synthesizer. Those on the EX synths are slightly larger and feel both smooth and weighty.
At 20kg this was Yamaha’s heaviest synthesizer to date and while not as long as the W5 that came before, it is almost a whole centimetre thicker. Those bulky ends are not easy to hold or grip like most previous models so this is not an easy machine to move around. We warn that it’s a risky one-person task given its weight and size.
Desirability / Collectability
Many EX5 owners are reluctant to get rid of their machine even though they are over two decades old. These are solid beasts that are still very powerful. Good examples seem to hold their value and the rack mounted EX5R is particularly sought after for its practicalities as a tone module. A good EX5 in Mint condition is a potential future classic. While not as rare as the silver Millennium edition, we think it’s in fact more attractive with its metallic blue paint. The original hard case is rare and hard to find, so seriously consider one to accompany your EX5 if you ever find one for sale.
WORD OF THE WOLF
The EX5 was the true successor to the SY99 and puts the W5 (that replaced the SY99) to shame. Its big, heavy and not too exciting to look at, but worthy as a flagship. Yamaha did do their best to meet expectations and built a flagship synth that summed up all their best knowledge and technologies gained over the last decade. In a way it remained true to Yamaha’s design ethos to keep what worked and improve what didn’t. The Volume slider for example is still the exact same design first seen four generations earlier in the DX7 mkII. Perhaps it was a sentimental gesture or maybe good design simply perpetuates? The “Swoosh” which seems purely decorative was perhaps also a nod to the VL1 which lends technology to the EX and also had a curve in its end panel design.
We think the blue is more interesting than the limited-edition silver variation. It’s actually a unique paint that can look quite dark, grey or bright and blue depending on the lighting.
The manuals came in 3 languages and were rather colourful.
Japanese manuals had different coloured covers.
The EX5 came with these 4 demonstration disks, sealed mint in plastic sleeves.
In Asia the disks had blue graphics
The EX5 also came with this Sound & Utility CD-ROM
The original factory hard case is particularly rare and generally only seen in Japan. The EX5 was the first synthesizer case we know of that had two carry handles on one side. It also marked the beginning of Yamaha hard cases with their three tuning forks in a circle logo in front of the name YAMAHA.
Left– The Japanese EX series brochure. Right- The English EX series brochure
The EX5 could expand it’s memory with this optional accessory.
The EXFLM1 came in a very elegant box with cool EX5 graphics
Left– The Japanese EX series brochure. Right- The English EX series brochure
Inside the 1998 Japanese catalog we can see clearly that the EX synths was being sold alongside the W series synths in 1998.
The Japanese 2000 product catalog is the only official literature we know of that shows the limited edition Silver EX5
EX5 on the cover of Future Musics’s may 1998 magazine.
The Japanese June 1998 edition of Keyboard Magazine had a complete EX5 guide with an exclusive supplement manual.
WOLF DESIGN EXCELLENCE SCORE = 6.7
The information in this review is intended for informational or educational purposes to provide readers an understanding of how something may be seen from a certain design perspective. In this case it is from the view point of WOLF DESIGNS. As design is subjective this review should only be considered as an independent opinion. Information further to being of an opinion is provided to the best of our knowledge based on our own research at the time of doing the review. We cannot be held responsible for any inaccuracies or inconsistencies and reserve the right to change or update any content as appropriate.
The final responsibility of the design resides with the original manufacturer.