How to choose the best digital piano for home use or stage/studio performance that matches your skill level, music and budget
Digital pianos have made huge advances in recent years making their high quality sound and relatively low cost a great alternative to acoustic pianos for many players. Due to the range of functions and features they offer, finding the right digital piano for your purposes can initially seem a little daunting.
If you’re not sold on purchasing a digital piano versus a traditional acoustic piano, here are some advantages to consider:
Convenience/portability - Digital pianos are much lighter and usually more compact than acoustic pianos. Even console models that have a cabinet resembling a traditional piano generally weigh far less than their acoustic counterparts. Most models can be easily broken down for storage while digital pianos designed for stage performance will easily fit in your vehicle when you hit the road.
Cost - Digital pianos generally cost far less than their acoustic counterparts. Maintenance beyond dusting is pretty much a non-issue with digital pianos whereas acoustic pianos require tuning from time to time—a costly service.
Volume/Versatility - A traditional piano generates a certain volume range depending on how hard you strike its keys. Digital piano volume is easily controlled over a wide range and silent practice is possible using headphones on most models—a blessing for the rest of your household. With the extensive sound sets built into digital pianos, you can easily add drums and percussion, woodwinds, brass, and many other sounds to your performance.
Recording capability - Most digital pianos allow you to record your performance, which can be an advantage when you’re learning to play and want to review how you’re progressing. Recording and sequencing capabilities are also important if you plan to create your own songs.
Connectivity - Most digital pianos have MIDI capability allowing you to connect to computers and recording equipment. Many have a USB port making connections with all kinds of audio gear simple. Some models accept flash memory cards so you can transfer music to other devices and computers.
Here are the key considerations:
Your experience/skill level - If you’re an absolute beginner, a low-cost model with some built-in learning tools may well suffice until you’re ready to step up to a more advanced digital piano. On the other hand, if you’re an intermediate or advanced pianist, you’ll likely want to be more selective about touch response and velocity sensitivity discussed under Digital Piano Features below.
Check the dimensions - Make sure the piano will fit in the space(s) you have in mind. If you’re purchasing the piano for a child, check if the keyboard height is appropriate. (Adjustable stands, or in a pinch a phone book under the pedal(s), can help solve any mismatches.)
Portability/storability - If you expect to store the digital piano or travel with it, check the weight and the ease with which it can be broken down.
Before we delve into the various types of digital pianos that are available, there are a couple of critical areas to cover: their touch and sound.
One of the main differences between pianos and electronic keyboards is the feel of the keys. Piano keys have resistance resulting from their mechanical components including the wooden hammers that strike the strings inside an acoustic piano. If you’re transitioning from a traditional acoustic piano, the degree to which a digital piano mimics an acoustic piano’s action makes a big difference in its playability.
Weighted and semi-weighted actions have a response more like that of a traditional piano. Hammer action adds actual mechanical hammers to enhance this response even more. A small hammer embedded in the key gives you a subtle “thunk” when it’s played simulating the response of an acoustic piano’s keybed.
The best keybeds are sometimes identified as being “fully weighted.” They also will have graduated weighting so that lower octave keys have greater weight imitating the heavier hammers and strings found in acoustic pianos. This is usually referred to as “graded hammer action.”
Another important factor is touch or velocity-sensitivity. The best digital pianos are capable of sensing subtle differences in velocity that determine the attack and volume of each note. Low-cost digital pianos often have volume level switches, which are a giveaway that they don’t have real velocity-sensitivity. (Better quality digital pianos also have volume controls in the form of a knob or slider that adjusts the overall output of the piano. But momentary volume on models with velocity-sensitivity is determined by how hard you strike each key.)
The sound of an acoustic piano depends on the quality of its components, while digital pianos primarily depend on the samples used to create their sounds. The digital technology used to capture and reproduce the samples of various pianos and other instruments plays a role in how well the digital piano will emulate those instruments. Generally, higher end digital pianos contain more digital memory allowing them to reproduce high-resolution sounds with greater realism that closely emulates the sound of acoustic instruments.
In judging sound quality, pay special attention to the sustain and decay of the notes as well as the overall realism of the sounds. Another factor that affects the overall sound is the quality of the amplifiers and speakers used in digital pianos.
Polyphone refers to the number of individual notes or tones the piano can produce at once. At a bare minimum, you should have 32-note polyphony while 64-note polyphony is more adequate for creating complex sounds. The highest quality electronic pianos deliver 128-note or 264-note polyphony.
While it may seem like a big deal that today’s pianos often include hundreds of sound samples from instruments like accordions, organs, synthesizers, flutes and so on, once the novelty wears off, you’ll likely find yourself sticking to the more basic piano sounds. Having hundreds of tones and effects to choose from can turn into a distraction. That said, some effects such as judiciously used reverb can help enhance the sound. The ability to play with backing instrumental tracks can also increase the fun factor.
Many digital pianos come with helpful learning tools including lessons that can take you from a raw beginner to a more accomplished player. Displays that show the chords being played as well as various lighting schemes that help beginners pick out melodies and chords can be helpful. A built-in metronome is useful to improve your rhythmic ability. Some models allow the keyboard to be split into sections so that a student and teacher can share one keyboard while playing in the same octaves.
Generally speaking, if you are looking for a piano for home use, you will want to make sure your instrument has a built-in amp and speakers that produce a pleasing sound with adequate volume. If you are looking for a digital piano for live performance or recording in studio settings, be sure it has the output options for connecting to PA systems, external amplifiers or recording consoles.
Other features to look for depending on how you plan to use the piano are a headphone jack and USB port for connection to your computer.
Pianos intended for home use may be console pianos, or be housed in a standard electronic keyboard format—with or without stands. Digital pianos for home use include many of the same components as those designed for the studio or stage, but always have built-in speakers.
Console pianos are housed in a more traditional cabinet designed to blend in with household furnishings.
There’ is a wide spectrum of in-home models available that span a broad range of quality and prices.
Stage digital pianos are designed to be more mobile and versatile than console pianos and target musicians who regularly travel to different venues and/or studios. They do not have cumbersome cabinets, and usually have more voices, effects, and connectivity options than digital pianos intended for home use. Generally their sound engines are of a higher quality to meet the demands of the pro performer.
Like home digital pianos, however, stage pianos are available at a wide range of price points and capabilities, so that there you should be able to find a model that matches your performance needs and budget.
Korg’s SP-280 is a basic stage digital piano with a modest price tag. It features a full, hammer weighted keyboard and built-in amplification in a lightweight design for easy transportation. It comes with a black metal stand that folds and attaches easily. With line out, MIDI and headphone connectivity, it makes a good choice for performance in smaller venues and a great addition to the home studio.
The Korg SP-280 has well-regarded sounds and is easy to transport.
A damper pedal is included, and an optional pedal unit can provide soft and sostenuto pedal effects as well. Its 30 voices are more than enough for a more traditional player and both its concert grand and vintage electric piano voices get high marks. Weighing in at just 42 lb. including the stand, it’s very portable.
Take a tour of the Korg SP-280’s impressive sounds.