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Acoustic pianos are big, heavy, and expensive. They go out of tune, the volume can't be turned down, and the sound can't be changed. Despite your best efforts, you're probably not going to be able to squeeze your grandmothers baby grand into your dorm room.
This buying guide has been updated for February 2019 - a few notable pianos have been added and a few have been removed. Enjoy!
Luckily for you, there's the digital piano. Sampled from the worlds best grand pianos, digital piano technology has come a long way.
When sitting down to sample the recent weighted key digital pianos, we're consistently blown away by the realistic sound quality and natural feel. The weighted keys, professional grade sound, and low cost make them the perfect alternative to the classic acoustic piano.
This article provides you everything you need to know to select the best digital piano.
Selecting the appropriate digital piano can be a daunting task. Whether you are an experienced pianist, or just beginning, there is a digital piano that you will surely love. We'll first outline a few features to consider when buying a digital piano. Then we'll provide you with a few of our recommendations at each price point.
Here's a summary table for anyone in a rush.
Everything You Need To Know About Buying A Digital Piano
There's a surprisingly large divide between imitation electronic keyboards and a respectable digital piano. If you are going to be working exclusively with a DAW (digital audio workstation), you'll want to stay focused on the smaller midi electronic keyboards. If instead, you want the beautiful, realistic sound of a digital piano, here's what to look for:
Why Buying Anything With Less Than 88 Keys Is A Mistake
The number of keys on a digital piano may not seem like that big of a deal, but take it from me, a lack of keys will only end with frustration. A lot of music is written for acoustic pianos with 88 keys. You don't want to find yourself two years down the road pulling your hair out as you try to play Mozart's Rondo alla Turca on a 61 key keyboard.
The number of keys is crucial if you want to play pieces that were written for acoustic pianos.
I highly recommend purchasing something with 88 keys. While a smaller number of keys will result in a smaller footprint, the limitations will outweigh the benefits. Only buy smaller keyboards if you completely understand the limitations and are happy with size reduction. If you are a beginner go with 88 keys - while you may not take advantage of the full range in your first year you will need the extra keys as you progress.
The exception is with young children. If your child is just beginning they won't need the full 88 keys. Going with a 61 key keyboard will be much more manageable.
Don't Be Fooled By Pianos Offering Huge Soundbanks
The sound of your digital piano will be determined by two factors: sample quality, and speaker quality. For those who are not familiar with sampling, the term sample refers to the audio recording that is used to create the piano sounds. Typically, an acoustic piano will be recorded in a studio and the sounds transferred digitally to the piano.
The quality of these records is one half of equation when it comes to sound quality. The higher-end digital pianos will typically use samples from famous grand pianos. The attack and sustain will be meticulously crafted in order to accurately simulate actual acoustic pianos.
It's common for digital pianos to offer hundreds of digital samples of all kinds. Don't be fooled. I recommend finding a piano that focuses the memory capacity on a high-quality set of piano samples rather than hundreds of obscure instruments you will never use. Higher priced pianos will have a larger memory bank that allow for high-resolution samples to be used. I personally never use more than three different sounds on my digital piano.
Focus on find a piano that has high-resolution acoustic piano samples. These should be directly sampled from high-end acoustic pianos.
The other half of the equation is the speakers. Manufactures typically won't provide a lot of information regarding the internal speaker setup of digital pianos. Therefore, it can be difficult to really compare different models on speaker quality alone. Unsurprisingly, speaker quality will be directly correlated to the price of the piano.
If you are unhappy with speaker sound quality you can always use external speakers. However, this will require additional planning and audio equipment.
Why You Need To Pay Attention To Your Outputs
The piano outputs are going to be determined by a case by case basis. Does the piano have the option for headphones? Is there midi output for your computer? Does it have AUX out for audio recording? These are all questions that you may not consider initially, but are all good features if you are looking to branch out into other avenues.
If you foresee yourself recording your piano you'll want to know what output options you have. Typically, digital pianos will have an AUX out either in the form of a 3.5 mm AUX cable, or 1/4'' stereo phono cables. Depending on your piano you may need an audio interface to connect to your computer. Alternatively, you can purchase a condenser microphone.
A condenser mic will provide a natural warmth to your recording. However, keep in mind that the room can potentially have adverse effects when recording with a microphone. Reflections within the room can muddy your recording and result in an unnatural reverb. If you want a professional recording I'd recommend recording into an audio interface or use a condenser mic in an acoustically treated room.
You may also come across digital pianos that output midi. Midi will not carry any audio information from the digital piano itself. Rather, it will only send midi information that can be used to control VST plugins on your computer. Unless you have top-of-the-line VST plugins this usually results in a decrease in sound quality.
The benefit of recording in midi is you have much more flexibility in terms of editing the recording. You can drag and drop the notes to change them whenever you wish. You can also play with the note length, pitch, velocity, and a number of other factors. This is a great way to record music in general but the quality of sound you get from VST isn't always the greatest.
If it sounds like midi is the right choice for you I'd recommend purchasing a midi keyboard - far less expensive and usually much smaller!
Another option is to use a keyboard amplifier. This option is for those who are going to be jamming with friends or want to play for a small crowd. Here's an article outlining my favorite picks for keyboard amplifiers.
Polyphony - The Biggest Thing Beginner Pianists Miss
The term polyphony refers to the number of individual notes the instrument can produce at one time. For illustration purposes, if you have a piano with a polyphony of 2 you would be limited to sustaining two notes at once. If you were to hold down the two notes while trying to press a third no sound would be produced.
If possible, a polyphony of 128 is the ideal amount, although 64 would be acceptable for beginner to intermediate players. Polyphony becomes especially important when using the piano with a lot of sustain. Advanced pianist will require higher polyphony to play sustained runs up and down the piano. The good news is most digital pianos will offer a polyphony of 128.
Untangling The Different Styles Of Touch Response
Touch response will determine the dynamics and expression of the piano. Digital pianos typically fall into one of five camps: no touch response, touch sensitive, semi-weighted, weighted and hammer action.
Both touch sensitive and weighted options will have a dependency on strike velocity - the measure of force you strike the key with. In other words, the loudness, attack, and expression of the note can be controlled by how hard you hit the key. The touch response of digital keyboard is meant to simulate the hammer striking the strings in an acoustic piano.
In acoustic pianos pressing the key softly will result in the hammer will striking the string in a quiet manner. Press firmly and the hammer will strike the string more aggressively, resulting in a loud, forceful sound.
- No touch response
The least expensive option. You will usually find this type of touch response on cheap keyboards. The key is weighted using a spring and is not sensitive to how hard you press. I wouldn't recommend this style of keys for a digital piano. A lot of the expression of your playing will come from subtle changes in your velocity. There is no sense in limiting yourself right from the start.
The exception here is for children. Young kids don't yet have the hand strength required to use fully weighted keys. They also won't need the extra feature of touch sensitivity.
- Touch Sensitive
Usually found in less expensive keyboards, the keys will have no weighting yet will have touch sensitivity. You will be able to control the velocity of the note as in weighted keys but the keys will feel nothing like an acoustic piano. This style of touch response is usually found in mid-range midi keyboards. It's designed for those who aren't looking for the acoustic piano feel but still want to control the expression of their playing.
Semi-weighted keys are the middle ground between weighted keys and spring-loaded keys. It combines the spring-loaded mechanism with the addition of light weights attached to the keys. This provides a light to moderate resistance when pressed, and a measure of rebound control once the key is released.
Has a similar feel to acoustic pianos. Each key will be fully weighted with a similar response as acoustic pianos. This is a great option for beginner and intermediate players.
- Hammer Action
Similar to weighted keys but more refined. Hammer action keys are designed to replicate the non-linear feeling of acoustic piano keys due to the weight of the hammers. This usually results in the lower end of the keyboard requiring more force compared to the higher frequencies. Different companies will have slightly different hammer action calibrations base upon different models of pianos. I recommend any experienced player look for hammer action keys as these will offer the closest experience to actual acoustic pianos.
Other Features To Look Out For
Anyone who has had someone learning piano in the house can attest to how annoying the first few years can be. It can be very distracting to hear someone stumbling through the repetitions required to advance their learning. This is where digital pianos save the day. By either turning the volume down or plugging in a set a headphones, you can practice for as long as you want without disturbing those around you.
Most digital pianos will come with a headphone jack, but if this is a primary concern it's always a good idea to double check.
Again, another area where digital pianos outshine their acoustic counterparts. There are a number of digital pianos that have built-in learning capabilities. Whether this comes in the form of an external app, or on the digital piano console itself, the ability for beginners to blow through the learning curve with guided lessons is another big draw for going digital.
If this is something you are interested in, I recommend checking out The One Smart Piano. It uses an external app connected to your tablet to guide you through lessons. It also uses LED lights on the keys for additional guidance. Lots of good reviews from beginners with this one! Keep in mind that the app works best with a tablet computer.
Pedals and Accessories
You'll want to pick up a sustain pedal if your piano does not come with one. This is a must-have for every level of player. For intermediate and advanced players you'll want to start looking at the soft and the sostenuto pedals. Some of the more advanced pianos will have this option, but most you will have to buy an external pedal set.
There are a number of complete piano packages available. These will include a stand, headphones, and a stool. It's usually cheaper to buy these in one package so keep an eye out. It will also ensure complete compatibility with all your accessories.
What are you looking to get out of your piano? Are you looking for a portable keyboard you can drag along to jam sessions? Are you looking for something small to fit in a dorm room? Or are you looking for a piece of furniture? Each style of piano will have its strengths and weaknesses. There are plenty of options to choose from so keep the end goal in mind.
If you are looking for something to use onstage you'll want something without built-in speakers. You can check out our picks of the top stage pianos here. If you need something that is both portable and used in the home there are hybrid models. However, if you want something more permanent that has a finished look go for a piano/stand combination.
The video below does a great job in summarizing what we've talked about below. Have a watch if you prefer to digest your information in video form.
Digital Pianos Under $200 - Great For Beginners
Digital Pianos Under $1000 For Intermediate Players
You can check out a few more of our favorite picks if you are looking for a piano in the under $1000 price range here.