Digital Piano Buyer’s Guide
Buying a piano can be a significant investment, so it’s worth making sure you spend your money wisely. Although reading other people’s reviews can be helpful, it’s worth remembering that what works for one person may not work for someone else. After all, we live in different spaces, we have different tastes, and our levels of ability vary hugely. So in this article I will focus on what different factors you need to consider when deciding on a piano that will hopefully be uniquely right for you.
Size & Shape
This may be the least exciting element of your decision, but it’s vitally important. After all, the wrong size piano may not fit in your home! And, even if it does fit, you don’t want it to stick out like a sore thumb.
The beauty of digital pianos is that the actual circuitry and speaker systems are generally fairly small, unlike in an acoustic piano, where the size of the cabinet is critical to the volume and quality of sound that the piano makes.
This has led to some stylish slim-line pianos coming onto the market, ideal for smaller or more minimal homes.
Generally digital pianos that come with a stand are known as “upright”. These are larger and a little more cumbersome than the alternative, and can look more like one expects a traditional piano to look.
Those that don’t come with a stand are known as “portable” or “stage” pianos (most portable pianos do however have a stand option, and all will happily sit on a stand or desk / table). These are, as you’d guess, more portable, so a better option if you’re not looking to just leave the piano in the same place.
Ask yourself: do I want the piano to dominate the room or blend in? Will I need to move the piano about much? Will the piano compliment the rest of my furniture?
(Still struggling? Try using Casio’s Augmented Reality app which shows you what your piano will look like in situ.)
Needless to say, sound quality is one of the most important factors to consider when purchasing any sort of musical instrument. When it comes to digital pianos, the quality of the sound you hear is affected by two factors: the speakers and the internal processor.
Higher-end digital pianos feature an array of different speakers to more closely mimic the sound of a real acoustic piano (which is no mean feat, considering an acoustic piano is effectively a huge speaker itself!). These will often include a sub-woofer to accurately represent the bass rumble of the lower notes. More budget digital pianos may only have two small speakers, meaning they are unable to convey the full range of tones and timbres one would hear in an acoustic piano. Note, however, that most digital pianos feature a headphone output, and the responsiveness to tonal variation will then depend on the quality of your headphones (top tip: buy decent headphones!).
Aside from the quality and quantity of speakers, the other major factor affecting a digital piano’s sound quality is the internal processor; the circuitry and algorithms that translate what you do on the keyboard to the sound that comes out of the speakers.
What with computer processing power becoming cheaper and more compact, there has been huge progress on this front in the last 10-20 years. It used to be that a digital piano simply played back recordings (known as “samples”) of real piano notes being played, so if you played middle C, it would trigger a recording of middle C. The thing is there are near-infinite ways of playing even just middle C – hard, soft, quickly, slowly, pedal on, pedal off etc. – and notes played on an acoustic piano also interact with each other in complex and beautiful ways.
For this reason, most modern digital pianos attempt to recreate the inner workings of a piano as accurately as possible, and a lot of what you pay for when you buy a higher-end digital piano is the quality of this circuitry. Yamaha call their technology “Grand Expression Modeling” and Roland call theirs “PureAcoustic Piano Modelling”, but look past the snappy marketing buzzwords, because generally there is some very clever technology that will result in a digital piano not just sounding like but feeling like a “real” piano.
So your piano looks great and it sounds great, the next question is how does it feel?
The keys on acoustic pianos made before the 1970s were often made of ivory, which has a distinctive feel. However, there is (rightly so!) now a global ban on the trade of ivory so nowadays most piano keys are made from some sort of plastic. This is where the variation begins as there are many sorts of plastic!
The most recent Yamaha Clavinova pianos have what they call a GrandTouch keyboard – “highly absorbent synthetic-ivory white keys and synthetic-ebony black keys prevent slipping even during extended play and feel just like those of a grand piano”. To really know what this feels like, it’s important to try the piano out. Lower-end digital pianos have keys that are made of inferior plastic so can be sticky and get in the way of playing. Higher-end pianos feature keys that will encourage you to play more!
Aside from the feel of the keys themselves, it’s worth testing the weight of the keys. Playing an acoustic piano involves hitting a key which moves a hammer which strikes a string. The best digital pianos have technology that mimics this feel, even to the extent that the higher up keys are lighter to the touch and the lower keys are heavier.
Your piano looks great, sounds great, and feels great; what else can it do? This is where digital pianos really come into their own…
Some of the features you should look out for are as follows:
- Extra Sounds: a range of sounds from strings to drums and everything in between can open up the creative possibilities of your new instrument.
- Bluetooth Connectivity: this can allow you to stream music from your device to the piano, either to use as a backing track or just to use those great speakers as a hi-fi system!
- Practice Features: Yamaha CSP pianos feature “Stream Lights” over the keys to help you learn pieces. Other digital pianos have similar features (sometimes accessed with an app – see below) which help you or your children learn.
- Rhythm Backing Tracks: having something to play along with can really liven up your playing. Most backing tracks will follow the chords you play and include different parts to keep things interesting.
- Audio Recording: Listening back to your playing is a great way to improve. Some models also feature multi-track recording, so you can layer different parts and instruments on top of each other.
- Associated Apps: Yamaha’s Smart Pianist app allows you to delve into the deeper settings of your piano, take piano lessons, and even turn your favourite songs into piano scores. Casio’s Chordana app helps you to learn popular songs and load MIDI files.
You may wonder why I’ve left what is possibly the most important question to last. The reason is that it’s important to first identify the features that matter most to you, find the appropriate model, and then, if this is outwith your budget, scale back features until you’re within budget.
A digital piano should be a very well-considered purchase as it will take a central place in your home, and could help you and your family develop a hobby or talent that will bring joy for years to come. A decent instrument will make it all the more likely that you keep playing, so it’s worth having a decent budget. If the product you set your heart on is outwith your budget, you can always check our finance schemes to spread the cost.
Hopefully this article has helped you identify the main factors to consider when buying a digital piano: the size and shape, the sound, the feel, the extra features and, of course, your budget.
We wish you all the best in your search, and invite you to spend as long as you need trying out pianos in any of our stores and asking questions of our knowledgeable and friendly team.
Hope to see you soon!