Orange Tenori-On not as delicious as you'd think

CNET Editor Donald Bell offers his hands-on impressions of the Yamaha Tenori-On O music sequencer.

Photo of the Yamaha Tenori-On O
"Beep. Beepity-beep. Boop." Donald Bell/CNET

Some things are just better left as eccentric indulgences. A plastic, nightstand version of Stephen Hawking's Chronophage' Corpus Clock wouldn't have the same meaning as the original (I'd still buy one, of course). Likewise, a plastic, toy Star Wars lightsaber isn't in the same league as a hand-tooled replica.

At an original asking price of $1,200, 2008's Tenori-On music sequencer definitely falls into the "eccentric indulgence" category. But if you're a self-described electronic music nerd (why yes, I am), the sequencer's hand-brushed magnesium body, unique portability, and performance-oriented design, made the cost justifiable.

Not content with Tenori-On sales trickling out MIDI-worshiping electronic music producers, Yamaha set out to create a less expensive plastic model, lacking a few bells and whistles. The end result is the Tenori-On "O," a $699 take on the original dressed in white plastic and an orange LED grid.

As someone who's had the pleasure of spending a few days with both versions of the Tenori-On, I have to say that the "O" doesn't hold the same appeal to me as the original. In cutting corners to produce a low-cost (relatively speaking) Tenori-On, Yamaha also cut out a little of the instrument's soul.

Personally, I felt that the biggest breakthrough the original Tenori-On made was finally giving electronic musicians an instrument that was entertaining to view from an audience perspective. When you perform electronic music from behind a laptop or a rack of synthesizers and drum machines, it can be difficult to engage an audience with what you're doing to create the sounds they're hearing. The Tenori-On, by including a grid of lights on both sides of the device, treated audiences to a show of lights and acted as a window into the artist's perspective.

Unfortunately, the Tenori-On "O" only lights up on one side. From an audience perspective, it just looks like you're poking at a white Frisbee. Sure, you could lay the Tenori-On flat on a table, but if you're going that route, a comparably-priced Monome controller offers more flexibility.

Then there's the power issue. With the original, you could throw in six AA batteries and walk around the house like some kind of techno minstrel. But with the Orange, you have to keep the Tenori-On plugged into the wall. It sounds like a small complaint, but turning an elegant portable instrument into just another wall-wart shackled drum machine is a big change. In my own experience, having to accommodate a power cord eliminated a lot of the serendipity I had with the original--composing on the couch, or showing it off when friends dropped by.

Finally, there's the completely subjective feel of the device. As anyone whose held an iPod or Macbook can attest, there's just something about the cold, solid feel of metal that makes a gadget feel personal and enduring. Sure, the change from brushed magnesium to white ABS plastic brings the cost down, but the end result feels much cheaper than I'd like for a $700 product. At this price, the Tenori-On "O" is still an extravagance, and still needs to feel like one too.

To make a long story short, my time with the Tenori-On "O" only succeeded in reminding me how cool the original Tenori-On was. On the upside, Yamaha still sells the original (now called the Tenori-On "W") and recently reduced its price to $999. It's still an eccentric indulgence, but I wouldn't want it any other way.

 

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