Digital pianos

When I’ve decided to buy a new thing, I love doing the research. I can, and usually do, spend months slowly getting to grips with the state of a market before I spend a money on something. It’s the kind of slow investigation that one can short circuit by relying on a site like Which? or The Wirecutter’s, but recently I’ve been looking into digital pianos, a niche that gets little mainstream coverage.

In some respects the digital piano market is similar to that of digital cameras. Both devices are computerised versions of older analogue ones. Both markets are dominated by Japanese companies. And the price ranges are similar: most people will be happy with a piano or camera costing a few hundred pounds, but there is plenty of scope for those who want to spend thousands on something better.

The difference between the digital piano and camera markets is their size and, consequently, the disparity in online coverage. If you’re after reviews of a particular new camera you have plenty of choice. But pianos? No. And trying to understand the piano market, and what’s thought to be good, is much more difficult.

Information sources

I’ve hardly found any sites that offer regular, decent reviews of digital pianos, never mind the in-depth comparisons and recommendations that’s normal for more mainstream products.

Early on I came across UK Pianos, a shop in Enfield, UK, whose website looks a bit ropey but which appears to have a huge amount of information, and has a free PDF guide to pianos that’s worth a look.

But then I came across AZPianoNews.com which has lots of reviews written by one guy, Tim, including this scathing review of the Classenti digital pianos which I’d noticed on UK Pianos. It seems that these are only sold by UK Pianos and AZPianoNews’ thinks it’s all a swizz, although he hasn’t actually played them.

This made me more wary of UK Pianos’ recommendations. And then I found the Piano World forums and this thread which has a broken link to an alarming 2006 Daily Mirror article about Graham, who runs the site, that can be found here. All of which was, rightly or wrongly, enough to put me off UK Pianos.

So, back to AZPianoNews, a rare source of reviews! However, I was struck that Tim seemed very reluctant to offer direct advice to people in the comments, asking them to phone him before they buy a piano anywhere. It has the smell of being more of a sales business than it initially seems. Recently the posts have become increasingly about why you should contact the author for LOWER PRICES, rather than straight reviews. This made me feel wary of that site too.

Aside from Digital Piano Reviews, which so far only contains two brief reviews, that’s all I found in terms of online reviews, which surprised me. There can’t be many expensive products so lacking in online coverage, but I guess the slow market — few people ever buy a piano, and those who do probably don’t upgrade them often — means there’s not much demand.

While writing this, I came across Piano Buyer which has a free online guide to buying all kinds of pianos, which is regularly updated. If you’re going to buy a piano, its guide to buying a digital piano will be worth a read. The site also has a way to search for pianos with particular features. It’s not very in-depth about individual pianos but at a glance it seems like a good overview.

And so, the best place to get a good feel for the market is the Piano World Digital Pianos - Synths & Keyboards forum. After a few days there, and reading the frequent “I want to buy a digital piano, what should I get?” threads, you start to get a sense of the lie of the land. It is very useful indeed. A representative each from Kawai and Casio are frequently, and fairly impartially, taking part in discussions, which is to be commended. God bless clunky old forums.

 Digital emulating analogue

Going from no knowledge of a market to having a feeling for what’s out there and, hopefully, what’s good and bad, is what I love about this research. Often my knowledge is only good for a brief time period — once I’ve done the research, and then bought the thing, I don’t keep up with the market and before long I’m out of date.

Digital pianos in general have, from what I can tell, improved a lot over the past decade or so. The aim is to emulate an acoustic piano as closely as possible and it seems as though they’re getting closer, although even an expensive digital won’t quite match up. Even if the action and sound are brilliant there is, I imagine, something about acoustics — physical objects hitting other objects, sound vibrating around a chamber of wood and metal — that’s hard to emulate with even the best chips and speakers.

But this is also a strange thing. Digital pianos, with all their possible precision, are trying to emulate complicated analogue devices, all of which vary wildly. Each piano brand varies in its style — one might tend to require slightly more pressure to depress its keys, for example — and each acoustic piano model within a brand will vary, just as digital pianos do. And then, given the vagaries of all those parts and materials, each individual piano will be a little different to one that’s ostensibly identical. This video showing the manufacturing of a Steinway grand gives an idea of the complexity and hand-craftedness of an acoustic:

I find it fascinating that so much effort goes into emulating a very analogue, traditional and physical piece of machinery. The sound that comes out is a sample of one or more acoustic pianos, playing from a chip through some speakers, and this is activated by a mechanism that’s as close as possible to the “real” mechanism, apart from the fact a keypress doesn’t result in a string being hit with a hammer. Despite the electronics, the device must feel as analogue as possible, with the output being a complex digital response to varying human touch.

Here’s a side-on view of an acoustic grand piano key mechanism (top) with Kawai’s top-of-the-range digital Grand Feel action, with “the longest key-front pivot length in the industry” and “triple sensor key detection”:

Kawai Grand Feel mechanism

There are multiple layers of simulation. Even looking just at the surface of the piano keys themselves, these vary from one digital piano to another. They are all, I assume, trying to simulate acoustic piano keytops, which in turn are, presumably, trying to simulate no-longer-used ivory and ebony. Casio make a big deal of their new “Ivory Touch” key tops which, for all I know, are incredibly accurate simulations of traditional ivory, but are so three-dimensionally grained that they felt more like a cheap plastic copy of woodgrain, and less appealing than the smooth matt plastic other manufacturers are using.

Another aspect of simulation is how the pressure required to depress a key varies along the keyboard — a lighter touch is required for higher notes than lower notes. Digital pianos have this variation which originally comes from the different pressures required to activate mechanisms that necessarily vary in a fully analogue, acoustic instrument. I imagine that traditional analogue piano manufacturers try to minimise this variation somewhat, but are restricted in what they can achieve by physics. Digital pianos, without the restrictions of hammers and strings must, in turn, emulate these oddities which they could avoid if they wished. It’s as if your computer’s keyboard required the pressure of a typewriter to actuate a letter, and adjacent keys had a tendency to jam together, all in the name of authenticity. The difference, of course, is that no one is using a computer because they can’t afford a typewriter, or using a computer so that they’ll become a better typewriter operator. Whereas a digital piano is solely about simulating an acoustic piano as accurately as possible.

In some respects — mainly physical — this is another similarity with digital cameras: Digital SLRs still look much like their analogue forebears (which were latterly somewhat computerised anyway), and smaller cameras will emulate the sound of an audible shutter they don’t have. Digital cameras, like digital pianos, have largely inherited certain physical qualities from their analogue forbears.

However, looking beyond their physical characteristics, digital cameras and pianos differ in what they’re trying to achieve. Digital cameras are free to improve on analogue cameras, not just with the addition of features, picture modes, and measuring tools, but in the images themselves. Aside from Instagram-style filters, digital cameras aren’t trying to simulate analogue film; they are, in general, trying to capture the most accurate representation of reality. This is different to trying to faithfully emulate analogue film. If digital camera manufacturers reach a point where they’ve equalled the resolution and qualities of, say, large-format film, they’re not going to stop. There is no ultimate quality digital camera manufacturers are aiming for.

So, while most digital cameras inherit physical analogue characteristics, but are free to surpass old analogue results, digital pianos are much more restricted. The target of digital piano manufacturers might vary — all those subtly different makes and models of analogue instrument — but they’re still trying to simulate a definite target. There’s no meaningful chance of making a digital piano that sounds better than an analogue piano. It can be more reliable, customisable or controllable. It can be cheaper, lighter and smaller. But the best digital piano can never produce a better piano sound than the best acoustic piano. So, as technology improves, the sound of digital pianos is improving in ever smaller steps towards known targets. Which must make for an interesting, and probably increasingly difficult, market to be in.

The market

The main digital piano brands are Yamaha, Kawai, Korg, Kurzweil, Casio and Roland. You probably shouldn’t consider anything else, particularly if you have any eye on selling it in the future. Each make will have its adherents, but Yamaha and Kawai seem the most well thought of — both also make acoustic pianos which, I guess, might make their digitals better. I get the sense Casio have recently improved, and are taken a little more seriously than they once were, but from a low, if inaccurate, “Casio just make digital watches” base.

There are two main physical forms of digital piano: cabinets, which look something like a traditional upright acoustic piano (but with a lower top); and slabs, which look more like what you might think of as a synthesizer — they need a separate stand. Slabs, or “stage pianos”, might have built-in speakers, but sometimes require an external amplifier and speakers.

Even the simplest, most focused, digital piano will include multiple other sounds (different pianos, organs, and other instruments) and probably a variety of rhythms. They’ll usually have a metronome and adjustments for things like reverberation and other effects. They might also have ways of splitting the keyboard (to play two sounds at once), recording facilities, in-built lessons, USB sockets, etc, etc. Aside from these extra features, the differences in “piano-ness” are mainly due to: the touch of the keys; the quality of the samples used; the number of notes that can sound at once (polyphony); and the quality of the speakers. This is simplifying somewhat — there are more subtle factors — and the way all of these interacts with each other makes it hard to determine which models are better or worse.

As well as standard digital pianos, with in-built sounds, there are also “virtual pianos”. You buy a keyboard that can’t generate any sound on its own, plug it into a computer, and run piano emulation software on that, outputting the sound through headphones or amplified speakers. The Kawai VPC1 seems a popular choice for a keyboard, with a very realistic action. Software piano brands include Pianoteq, Synthology and Galaxy. I get a sense that the Synthology Ivory American Concert D and the Galaxy Vintage D are the most well thought of. They all require a reasonably modern computer to avoid any latency between keypress and sound (something ASIO4ALL can apparently help with). But you might be able to get away with plugging into only an iPad and running something like iGrand Piano. All of this appeals to the geek in me enormously — so many settings to fiddle with! — but I avoided it because I wanted playing piano to be something very separate from my daily, and often frustrating, computer fiddling.

Back to “real” digital pianos. I imagine that the sweet spot in the wide price range for most people is going to be around the £800 (US$1250) mark. But, even after months of trying to get a handle on this market, I’m unable to answer the question I started with: “How much do I, with a particular level of skill, need to spend on a piano?” When you’re starting out a cheaper digital piano will be fine. But as you get better, and you can use more skill and subtlety, the limitations of a low-end model will restrict what you can do. But how do you know how much you should spend to give yourself some growing room? I have no idea.

Around the £800-900 mark there are several pianos that seem to get recommendations: Yamaha S51, YDP-161, YDP-162 and P-155 (a slab); Kawai CL 36, CN-24 and ES 7 (a slab); Roland F-120; Casio PX-850 and AP450. And, of course, there are others that are cheaper or more expensive.

Picking between them is tricky. After a certain point, personal preference plays the deciding factor, and the only answer is to go and try them out.

Trying them out

Living in London I was able to try out pretty much any piano I wanted, all within a few minutes walk of each other. If you’re fortunate enough to be here too, then you can try out several Yamahas at Chappell of Bond Street, on Wardour Street in Soho, and then wander over to Denmark Street. There you can have a play on some Casios in Musicroom and Rolands and Kawais in Rose Morris.

I was dubious about what I’d get out of trying different pianos. I hadn’t touched a piano in a couple of years and hadn’t played regularly for a long, long time. How could I possibly tell how “realistic” a digital piano was? What criteria could I use to judge whether one was better for me than another?

But I was surprised how different they felt and sounded (I took some decent headphones so I could compare sounds more fairly). Some models sounded more like real pianos than others, and less like recordings of pianos. And some felt nicer to me than others — less loose, materials that appealed more, different amounts of bounce when letting go of a key, etc.

I don’t have much other advice, other than to take your time and try a load of pianos out (as well as making for some consistency, headphones help conceal one’s terrible playing from other shoppers). If you can’t play at all, ask a salesperson to play for you and listen to how the pianos vary. But still try them yourself, and see what feels best to you.

However, if you have a strict budget, I’d suggest not trying out any piano that is priced beyond it. In general, you get what you pay for, and chances are a more expensive instrument will be better than anything within your budget. The affordable front-runner you identified will suddenly sound under-par by comparison, and possibly lead to you increasing your budget and waiting longer until you can afford, say, a Kawai CA 65, which I can attest is very nice.

And so, finally, we find another similarity between digital pianos and digital cameras. There is plenty of scope for someone to spend more money than they really need on a device, in the hope it will make up for any shortcomings of talent.

Postscript

That was were this post originally ended, but that is rather abrupt.

I did end up buying the aforementioned Kawai CA 65, from Rose Morris, which cost about twice my original budget. That warning was the voice of experience. I figured that seeing as I could afford to wait longer and spend more money that this would be best in the long term, and avoid any post-purchase “If only I’d spent a bit more then…” regret. There is no reason for me to have spent more money than I eventually did.

The piano arrived in a large cardboard box, like a coffin for an unusually round person. It was big. And very heavy. Assembly was manageable — a matter of putting the base together and, with help, heaving the main unit on top. The resulting piano seems very large in the living room. And it sounds great, although I almost always listen through headphones. I don’t currently need most of the features — I just wanted a decent piano — but the option to have a drum track as a metronome, instead of the standard ticking, is much nicer when trying to keep some jazz on track.

Having spent so much money, and taken up so much space, I have felt obliged to practise every day, which I’ve mostly managed so far, the most regular practise I’ve had since I was a child. A few weeks in and I’ve already got noticeably better at the couple of pieces I’ve been concentrating on, but should probably find a piano teacher I like soon, in an effort to avoid falling into bad habits, and to make the most of practise. But for now, it’s lovely to be playing again.

Postcript 2

Occasionally people reading this email me to see if I have any further thoughts. I’m more than happy to do my best to answer queries (although I don’t know much more than is written here). But I also thought I’d post an update, after some time with the Kawai CA 65. This is from one email I sent to a reader a few months back:

I still like the CA65. It still feels like “too much” piano for me, as I’m not that good a player and don’t play that often, so I wonder if I maybe should have spent less money on a not-quite-as-good model. I mostly play with headphones and it sounds really good — I sometimes have to lift one of the earpieces to check it’s coming through the headphones, because it sounds like I’m in a room with a real piano being played. [I use some old but decent open-backed Sennheiser headphones.]

If I unplug the headphones the piano doesn’t sound quite as good to me — the headphones are good quality and I guess the CA65’s in-built speakers can’t quite match up. It sounds a bit more like a recording of a piano being played on a stereo, rather than a real, live, vibrating piano. It’s not terrible, and I’d get used to it, but that is a definite difference between this and an acoustic. Maybe plugging it into a good amp and speakers would make a difference.

But I love the feel of it — both the action of the keys and the feel of their surface. Some of the other pianos I tried seemed too plastic-like in different ways, but I like the very slightly textured, matt surface of the Kawais.

I sometimes wonder if I should have got a slab like the ES7, because a cabinet piano seems pretty big in our small room. Especially as I play with headphones most of the time, maybe a slab would have been good enough for me, less bulky, and less expensive.

So I have a few tiny reservations, some of which are “it’s too good for me!”, so that’s pretty good going.

(4 January 2015)

28 Jul 2013 in Links

On this day I was reading