Digital Piano Buying Guide

Buying Guide
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A lot of people purchase a digital piano instead of an acoustic piano. Why? It is much more affordable, more portable, and is a good reproduction of the original acoustic piano. But there are some features to consider when buying a digital piano. Some of them are adjustable key action, 88 note key board, pedal, and more.

Today, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of digital piano brands. They come in a wide variety of features, capabilities, and different prices. The quality of sounds vary depending on what sound source and method the manufacturer uses. Which digital piano to purchase depends on which features or capabilities are important to you. If you are beginner who wants to self-study, a digital piano that comes with an app overloaded with video tutorials, or comes with music sheet may be a good choice. No matter what level you are, though, it is recommended that your digital piano be with weighted keys.

Do you want to know more about the features to consider when purchasing a digital piano? Here are some of them.

1. Size and Weight

Check out the size of every digital piano model that you are interested in. It should fit the spot where you want to use it. If you do not have a lot of space and intend on putting away while not in use, you would want a simple keyboard style piano that you can put on a table and practice rather than purchasing an exclusive stand for it.

Whatever the size is, digital pianos make sound like piano since that's the purpose of digital pianos! However, the quality of sound is different based on various factors, among which size is one. With larger spaces available around console cabinets, larger speakers can be accommodated in better positions, which results in better sound. If a wood cabinet is available, sympathetic resonance from it may create better sound, too.

Weight is another aspect of the digital piano that you need to consider. If you are planning to carry it for some performance, you need a light portable one. In case you need to move around the house or are not sure where to put your digital piano in, it is helpful if it is light weight for easy move.

However, in general, the higher the model is, the heavier it is. If you are looking for a high quality digital piano, you would need to expect it to be about 80 to 100 lbs. There are models that weigh a few hundred pounds if you go premium models. Considering that a typical upright acoustic piano weights about 300 to 400 lbs. and a heavier one going up to 800 lbs., however, you can see how light weight and portable digital pianos are.

2. Finishes

When you think of a piano, you'd think of a black color grand piano or a console piano. There are digital pianos with similar wood-grain finishes and the polished ebony finish. If you want a little different colors, brown or even white color is available, too.

Depending on where you want to put and how your new piano blends in with other furniture pieces you may have, a desired color of your digital piano may vary. A traditional black shiny finish may go well with your traditional room design while a modern design with white color may be better for your room.

3. Keys

Keys are probably one of the most important factors in deciding what digital piano you want to purchase because the feel of the keys is very important as you practice playing the piano.

If you need a great digital piano, you need to invest in a model that has 88 keys. Whether you are a beginner or have had experiences playing one, digital pianos with 88 keys are the best option. That way, you can play and create all of the songs you want. Having 88 keys is also important if you have plans to switch from a digital to an acoustic piano so that you can be used to it.

In fact, professional pianists would not consider one a "digital piano" unless it has 88 weighted keys, which brings up another important factor, weighted keys.

Each key of the acoustic piano is connected to a lever that makes a hammer strike the strings inside the piano. This is why you can feel weight each time you press down a key.

To guarantee that you can play any kind of piano, you must press keys with similar pressure, even though there are no strings or hammers inside. This is the main point of a digital piano with weighted keys.

Therefore, when buying a digital piano, choose a brand or model that has weighted key action. To make sound on an acoustic piano, you need to press keys harder than, for example, playing an organ or typing on a computer keyboard. There should be some resistance to the keys when pressing the keys. Otherwise when you switched to an acoustic piano, you cannot make proper sound. By using a digital piano with weighted keys, your fingers can be strengthened and skills can be developed just like you would be practicing on an acoustic piano. The keys of most of digital pianos are fully weighted, however, there are also models that come with semi-weighted keys. It is recommended that you choose a digital piano with weighted keys in full.

On top of keys being weighted, it is even better if keys are graded, which means that as notes go further down, the resistance to your touch increases. The lower the note is, the heavier it is to touch. In other words, the higher the note is, the lighter it is.

You may also want to consider models that have touch-response keys. Great digital pianos have sensors to perceive the speed in which keys are pressed to generate volume accordingly. Keys with touch-response can create more accurate sound similar to an acoustic piano. More affordable models will include a volume knob that ascertains the note volume regardless of how forceful or light the user plays the unit.

There are a good number of digital pianos with 88 weighted keys. Examples are the Yamaha P115 Digital Piano, Casio PX860 Privia Digital Piano, and Kawai ES110 Portable Digital Piano.

Key width is another thing to consider. The standard width of a typical acoustic piano is about 23 mm. But not all pianos have same exact width but if they are approximately 23 mm, they are good to go. If it is much narrower than 23mm, find another keyboard with the approximate width.

Make sure that each key of the digital piano is of standard width. You would not want to experience difficulty when you’re ready to play a real acoustic piano. Avoid buying cheap keyboards that look like a toy with narrow keys.

The material of keys is also worthy of note. The distinct feel of ivory and ebony of keys on acoustic pianos is replicated on some models while other use plastic keys. If you play for an extended period of time, your fingers sweat and may slip while playing with plastic keys. For beginners, this may not be of importance, however for serious players, it is probably better to have ivory and ebony feel keys.

The keys are probably the most important aspect in any digital piano. Best is that you try an acoustic piano if you have access and experience what the real acoustic piano feels like. If you do not have access, visit local music instrument stores if available nearby and try and see how heavy keys are. Then, go to local stores that sell digital pianos and try them and see how the keys feel compared to the feel of acoustic pianos. You would want whatever feels right for you.

4.  Headphone Jacks, Speakers and Amplifiers

One of the main reasons why people choose a digital piano over an acoustic piano is that people want to play the piano without disturbing others at night or neighbors if you live in an apartment. You can certainly lower the volume, but if you can listen to your performance through headphones, there is no need to worry about lowering the volume of your digital piano.

For players to listen to their performance through their ears, all digital pianos have headphone connections available. When players are listening through headphones, of course, no sound comes out from the digital piano, which means onboard speakers are silenced.

The size of the onboard speakers vary depending on the model. Some have powerful speakers and amplifiers built in while there are models, though in a small number, that do not have onboard speakers. Those without onboard speakers are primarily used for professional musicians who carry their digital pianos to the venues of performance where external speakers and amplifiers are connected.

If you intend on practicing at home, such powerful speakers may not be necessary for added cost; onboard speakers and standard headphone jacks may be the only connection necessary. On the other hand, if you plan on performing at different venues, you would need Aux output capability for connecting to external speakers and amplifiers, which is not available on all models.

5. Voices (Tones) and Effects

You see the word "voices" or "tones" when you are in the market of a digital piano. Voices mean sounds from different musical instruments and sometimes vocal sounds built in digital pianos.

Available sounds differ in each model. Voices, of course, include piano sound, however, some models offer multiple sounds from different pianos including a grand piano. Other voices typically included are sounds from electric piano, guitar, string instruments, wind instruments, organ, harpsichord, percussion, and ensemble, for example, of string and brass instruments.

If your sole purpose of purchasing a digital piano is to practice piano, you may not be interested in additional voices. However, there may be times when you would want to play together with violin to see what it is like; in such case, additional voices would be handy.

Another additional feature that is typically available in digital pianos is effects such as reverberation, jazz, rock, chorus, and so on. Again, if you intend on using your digital piano as an alternative to an acoustic piano, you do not need so many effects. The quality of these extra voices vary, too, that if you want a particular sound, it is best that you make sure that the sound is one of the tones included and see how the quality is.

6. Split / Duo / Duet, Dual / Layer Modes

This is another point in specifications that you see and may wonder what the functions are.

Depending on the manufacturer, the function may be called differently, however, the "Split," "Duo," or "Duet" modes mean the capability to split the 88 keys into half and let two players use the instrument at the same time. For example, one person plays the left side while another person plays the right side such as in the case where the teacher and the student play together, using two equal ranges side by side. Or two pianists play duet together.

"Dual" or "Layer" function is instead of splitting the keyboard, to sound different instruments over the other. The player play the piano and violin sound can be put on top of your piano sound, for example.

7.  Piano Sound and Polyphony

Piano tones in digital pianos are generated through the process called sampling in most cases. Sounds of piano are carefully sampled and recorded to be reproduced later when the keys are depressed.

The method to sample each tone varies from a manufacturer to manufacturer and a lot of technologies are involved, among which damper resonance and string resonance are some. If you are technically savvy and want to learn further, you can find more information on how sampling is done in each manufacturer.

The more complex sounds are, more time it takes to produce the sounds and more memory is needed, which means the price is likely to go up because of the technologies and process it takes to produce higher quality sounds and a larger memory required to store all the sounds.

Polyphony is another term you see in specifications of digital pianos and it is one measure to gauge the quality or level of digital pianos. The number represents how many sounds can be made simultaneously. On a stand alone piano without any pedal use, normally, 10 notes can be played at one time with five fingers of each hand. With digital pianos, you can layer different instruments. Add effects, use pedals, and record at the same time. How many sounds could be heard at the same time? A lot! Then, you would need a lot of tones to be sounded simultaneously.

It depends on how you want to play your digital piano, but typically, it is said that 64 polyphony is enough for most people who are beginner to intermediate levels. If you are an advanced player or want to do ensemble with orchestra or percussion instruments, for example, you'd probably want higher than 64.

8. Pedals

A traditional acoustic piano has three pedals: soft, sostenuto and sustain. To have an authentic experience of acoustic piano playing, it is recommended that all three pedals present, however, you may not need all three pedals.

There are models with one pedal, in which case, most likely it is a sustain pedal (which may be called a damper pedal) that is included because it is the most frequently used pedal among three.

Half-pedal operation, meaning you step on the sustain pedal half way on an acoustic piano, may be available in some digital piano models, but not all of them. Since digital pianos are "digital," everything is either on or off. The sustain pedal is either turned on or off and there is no half on, however, some models offer a half-pedal function with a touch of a button.

Most of the times, pedals come separately and you attach them. Plastic light-weight ones tend to move around on the floor when you use. If you want to avoid such slippage on the floor, it is advised that the piano have a stand where pedals can be fixed.

9. MIDI Capability and USB Port Availability

MIDI is the acronym of Music Instrument Digital Interface, a language for music communication among digital equipment including computers. MIDI is a set of commands that specify what notes are played when at what loudness.

Some digital pianos have a USB port so that the piano can be be connected to the computer through its USB port. This capability may be referred to "USB to Host" in digital piano specifications. Some may have MIDI ports on the digital piano side that connects to a USB port on the computer.

By connecting your digital piano to the computer, you can perform almost anything using different pieces of software on the computer to edit, notate, record any performance played on the digital piano. There are many types of educational software, too.

As opposed to "USB to Host," there is "USB to Device" capability. This is where you use a USB flash device as an external storage. You can keep your performance on the digital piano in a flash drive. Recordings can be saved in .wav format or sometimes in MP3 format. A USB flash drive can store files of additional rhythms or voices downloaded on the Internet, which you can use on the digital piano. This capability may be important to you if you want to store your music in a flash drive and use on the computer or utilize other files available online.

10. Educational Support

As discussed above, if you can connect your digital piano to the computer, you can use a variety of educational application to help you learn how to play the piano. Some digital pianos come with educational programs built in so that you can play along to practice. Songs may be preloaded or lessons are available or you may need to use online programs. Although the value in learning from a real person, a teacher, cannot be replaced by software, if you do better by self-learning or budget or time to take lessons is a concern, educational support available on the digital piano you purchased can be very useful.

For example, Casio PX860 Privia Digital Piano has renowned Alfred programs incorporated in the pianos.

11. Other Features (Recording, Microphone, etc.)

There are many other functions that may be present in digital pianos beyond what is mentioned above. Some that may be of interest to you would be recording.

Digital pianos often offer a recording function where you can record your performance. It is useful in listening how you played for improvement. Teachers can utilize this feature for their students to point out what could be corrected. Recorded songs may be used for you to play a duet or you may want to record your performance to share with friends.

As mentioned above, if your digital piano can be connected to the computer, you may not need this feature, however, MIDI is a set of commands and cannot reproduce exactly what you played; the tone characteristics will not be recreated. If you want to record in high quality format, you would want to record using the recording capability on the digital piano.

Another feature that you may be interested in is to have a microphone connected to the digital piano. By doing so, you can sing and some models may be able to add some effects to your voice.

Almost all digital pianos have a metronome feature built in, however, the range of speed may be different from a model to model. It is by no means a deciding factor, but a metronome is a very useful tool you would need in practicing playing the piano.

As technology advances, some digital pianos now have Bluetooth capability to connect your digital piano to the Internet. There will be more applications available online and subsequently your can perform more activities on the digital piano.


Pay for what you will really use

Some digital pianos come with different features and sounds and other extras; they can come with lights, buttons, and hundreds of instrumental sounds. It can be tempting to purchase these kinds of features, but over time, they will not be used.

You will be more likely use acoustic piano the most with some other commonly used tones such as acoustic bass, digital bass, jazz organ, and string guitar. Make sure that you pay for the features that you will actually use in the long run.

Who is the digital piano for?

Think about who is using the piano. Is it just you who is a beginner or an advanced player? Or are multiple members of the family going to use? What is the level of each person? What is needed for a beginner is different from an advanced pianist. It is best to consider the most advanced player when looking for the best digital piano.

There are many digital piano brands and models today and identifying which one is good can be a challenge. This is why it’s important to consider the above mentioned features to help you sort out the digital piano that suits your needs.

Check out some popular models

Casio PX860 BK Privia Digital Home Piano

This Casio Digital Home Piano is made of 56 white keys and 32 black keys, each of which simulates ebony and ivory textures. The hammer response feature imitates the mechanism found inside an authentic acoustic piano. It produces excellent sound with sympathetic resonance and soulfulness.

To enhance performance, you can choose from among 18 instrument tones to accompany your piece.

Yamaha P115 88-key Weighted Action Digital Piano

This 88 key digital piano has an outstanding key action provided by Yamaha’s GHS (graded hammer standard). Every key press is the same experience you’d find in an acoustic piano.

The sound is perfect too. It has the Pure CF Sound Engine, an imitation of Yamaha’s CFIIIS grand piano engine. It produces remarkable dynamics and expressiveness that is almost the same as an acoustic piano.

Kawai ES110 Portable Digital Piano

Kawai is a well-known company in the music world, who has been producing excellent acoustic pianos. This new ES110 has a new graded hammer key action for 88 keys and also has a new speaker system.

It has both split and layer modes to let the student and the teacher share the keyboard side by side or enjoy layering different tones from 19 voices that are built in.

A major advantage over other models at this price range is that this model has a Bluetooth capability. With superb sound at 192 polyphony and other features, this model offers tremendous values at an affordable price.

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