People occasionally email me to ask which digital piano they should buy. I’m not really an expert, but I can give some tips.
There are too many brands and models to go into details, but here are some things to keep in mind:
Stage piano vs. cabinet piano
Some digital pianos are meant for performing. These are called “stage pianos”. They are extra sturdy yet light enough to carry around (if you have a strong roadie ).
Stage pianos often don’t have built-in speakers and are limited in features. If you want to get one, you’ll probably also need to buy external speakers and a stand to put it on.
My advice: if you are going to perform in a band (or carry around your piano a lot) then get a stage piano. Otherwise, don’t.
Most amateur-at-home-players will want to get a digital piano in a nice cabinet. It will look good in your living room, doesn’t need any additional equipment, and has excellent speakers built into it.
Very simple: get the best you can afford. There will always be better pianos with more features, but if you don’t have the money for it, then it’s no use fretting about it.
That being said: do max out your budget. More expensive pianos really are worth the money. You might not use all the additional features, but higher-end digital pianos simply sound better.
If you quickly tire of the sound of your new piano, then you’re less likely to play it and that would be a shame.
Touch vs. sound
The “touch” of the piano — how the keys feel when you press them — is more important than the sounds the piano produces.
If you find a piano that sounds wonderful but feels horrible to play, don’t buy it!
You can easily add new sounds to a digital piano by connecting an external sound module (such as the Yamaha Motif rack, which has over a 1,000 additional voices) or even your computer.
However, you can’t change the touch of the piano.
Digital piano manufacturers are always trying to figure out better ways to simulate the sound and feel of a “real” acoustic piano. Just as different types of acoustic pianos sound and feel different, so do digitals. Pick one that satisfies you on both counts.
The Casio Privia series is a good budget option. Casio has a reputation of producing “toys” instead of real instruments, but their digital pianos are actually quite good — and very affordable.
If your budget is under $1,000 then give Casio a try. I know several people who are quite happy with their Casios.
MIDI controller + computer
If you have a good computer, then an alternative to buying a digital piano is the combination of a “MIDI controller” and virtual piano software.
A MIDI controller is like a digital piano except that it has no sound generation hardware. Instead, you use your computer to produce the sound.
The disadvantage of this method is that you always have to turn on your computer to play piano, but for some people this may not be an issue.
These are the features your digital piano should have at the very least:
Weighted keys. Electronic keyboards have organ-type keys that don’t offer any resistance when you press them down. Pianos, on the other hand, have weighted keys that are quite heavy.
If you want to (learn how to) play the piano, you want weighted keys.
88 keys. That’s the size of a full piano. You can get away with 76 keys, but 61 keys is the absolute minimum.
If you’re a beginner you can get by with 61 or 76 keys, but when you move into more advanced repertoire, 88 keys is what you want.
A sustain pedal, also called the damper pedal. The pedal is an essential part of piano playing.
Electronic keyboards usually don’t have a pedal (although you might be able to hook one up), but a digital piano should.
Higher-end models have more than one pedal but they are only for advanced playing. So is “half-pedaling” — you probably won’t use it if you’re not a concert pianist.
MIDI. This allows you to connect the piano to the computer or to external sound modules to give it more sounds.
Some digital pianos only have a USB connector so you can hook it up to the computer, but not to other MIDI devices.
Cheaper pianos only have MIDI OUT for sending MIDI data but not a MIDI IN for receiving data.
I recommend a piano that has both the round 5-pin MIDI OUT and MIDI IN connectors, and a separate USB connection.
Polyphony. As high “polyphony” as you can get. The polyphony of an instrument tells you how many notes can sound at once.
If your piano has 16-note polyphony then playing more than 16 notes at the same time will cause some notes to drop out, which isn’t very nice to hear.
If you think 16 notes is a lot, then consider this: Stereo sound cuts polyphony in half. If you “layer” two voices (for example piano and strings) you’ll use twice the notes. Big arpeggios with the sustain pedal pressed down will sound a lot of notes at the same time.
I recommend at least 64-note polyphony and preferably 128 or more.
A music rest, so you have a place to put your sheet music. Usually this comes with the piano, but on some stage pianos this is an optional accessory.
Any other features, such as a “sequencer” that allows you to record your playing, auto-accompaniment, sound effects, and so on… are great to have, but pay special attention to the above list.
Places to get more information:
- The Piano World Forums have many discussions on digital pianos
- Harmony Central for user reviews of all kinds of musical gear
- The book “How to Buy, Play, and Enjoy a Digital Piano” by Dan Starr. I haven’t read it but I hear good things about it.
The main tip: go to a handful of different music stores in your area and play on a wide variety of digital pianos and acoustic pianos, even the ones outside your budget.
Get a feel for the differences between them, what you like and what you don’t like.
Don’t rush! You don’t want to be stuck with an instrument that you don’t feel like playing.
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