The Swedish tech and design company Teenage Engineering is known for lots of things — helping create the look and feel of devices like the Playdate and the Nothing Phone, creating outrageously expensive voice recorders coveted by every reporter you know, building knobs and buttons better than anyone else — but above all it’s a music company. And it’s now launching its latest music device: the EP-133 KO II synthesizer. (The name doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, so we’re going to call it the KO II.)
The KO II is something like a higher-end version of the Pocket Operator, the extremely cool and customizable $59 synthesizers Teenage Engineering launched in 2015. The Pocket Operator line has been a huge hit for Teenage Engineering, and the company now sells a wide range of these minimalist music-makers that let you make and mix music from anywhere. At $299, the KO II is not exactly an impulse buy, but David Eriksson, Teenage Engineering’s co-founder and hardware lead, says he hopes it can still appeal to people who just want to use it for fun. It’s meant to live somewhere between the Pocket Operators and the OP-1, the company’s iconic — and $1,400 — synthesizer.
That explanation, though, assumes a kind of roadmapping that Eriksson says was absolutely not the case. The KO II was created purely out of necessity. “It was kind of an insurance project when the chip crisis happened,” he says. Supply chains were hugely constrained during the pandemic, and even in the summer of 2022, the Teenage Engineering team couldn’t get some of the parts they needed to make the company’s other synths. So as an experiment and a hedge against further shortages, the team reversed their design process and essentially placed an order for a year’s worth of whatever parts they could find before actually deciding how those parts would fit together. The team also worked to set up a new production line in Barcelona, so they could control the whole process themselves.
The only real plan at the beginning, Eriksson says, was to make a bigger Pocket Operator that cost less than $300. What they ended up with is, well, pretty much that. The device itself is a handsome gadget-y panel of buttons, knobs, and connectors with a small rectangular screen up top. Its keys are clicky “like an accountant-style calculator,” Eriksson says, and are force-sensitive so you can change what you play by pressing harder or softer.
The KO II has 64MB of memory, which is both a little and a lot: it’s obviously not a computer’s worth of storage, but it’s plenty to store a few songs and some works in progress. “It’s a good limitation,” Eriksson says. “We believe with this kind of thing that you should make music and finish your songs. If you offer too much storage… you kind of give the user the option to finish later.”
To help you make those songs, the KO II has 999 slots for different samples, an internal microphone for recording your own sound, plus Teenage Engineering’s typically wide set of instruments to play with. (About half the device’s storage will come filled with pre-recorded samples, drum tracks, and other sounds that Eriksson and his team spent months creating and assembling.) You can plug it in with a USB-C cable or use four AAA batteries on the go. The KO II can connect to MIDI devices, plug into your computer, or work with just about anything with a 3.5mm jack.
From a music-making perspective, the KO II is much more capable than a Pocket Operator. Eriksson says he hopes you can use the KO II to make entire songs, and that Teenage Engineering made some of the buttons and knobs orange so you can more easily find them while you’re live-DJing on a dark stage.
At the same time, though, he also thinks this could be an easier device for new users than even the Pocket Operator. “We tried to write the manual for a user that has never touched a synth,” he says. “We talk about, like, ‘sampling is when you record a piece of audio,’ instead of assuming you know what it is.” From the company famous for making ultra-luxury products only affordable to a few and only understood by professionals, the KO II is a turn toward the mainstream. Sick beats and better buttons for everybody.