Whether you’re an eager new learner or a seasoned pro, buying a digital piano is a cost-effective investment in musical learning and enjoyment. Plus keyboards now sound and look much more like the acoustic piano that sat in your grandmother’s parlour, not like the artificial-sounding models of the past.
This innovation has also produced a dizzying variety of digital pianos to choose from. Don’t be afraid—decide what you need from your piano, learn a bit of the terminology, and settle on your budget. Then you’ll be ready to purchase your very own instrument and get started on realizing your creative dreams.
Why Buy a Digital Piano?
Cost is the number one reason to buy a keyboard instead of an acoustic piano. The initial cost is lower and you won’t be shelling out for maintenance. Regular pianos need tune-ups plus occasional repair. Keyboards, on the other hand, need zero maintenance. They may break down but people tend not to bother with repairs—it’s often cheaper to buy another.
Keyboards and digital pianos also sound increasingly realistic. Though they still can’t replicate the projection of a traditional instrument, the quality of tone has greatly improved.
Digital pianos are becoming more stylish too. It’s now possible to buy a unit that doesn’t have that undesirable ‘techie’ look. You can even buy empty shells that allow you to pop in your keyboard and instantly replicate the look of a traditional piano. Nix the shell and you have an instrument suited to smaller spaces.
For those who are concerned about noise, digital pianos allow you to plug in your set of headphones and practice without disturbing others. They also allow for greater privacy—you won’t have to reveal your version of Moonlight Sonata until you’re truly ready!
Know Your Musical Goals
It’s easy to narrow down your options by deciding what you want to get out of your piano purchase.
- New Learner: Choose a basic model with few features. This ensures that if the habit doesn’t stick you won’t have shelled out too much. If you or your kids become more serious about playing you can always upgrade to a professional-level instrument later on.
- Advanced Player: Invest in higher-end models that mimic realistic piano key action, have higher-quality keys, and which produce authentic sound.
- Professional Player: Those who need a keyboard for composing, song writing, and live performances will want a workstation keyboard, especially if you need a variety of voices and backing tracks. If you plan to play live look for models with internal amplifiers.
- Features-Lover: Digital pianos have plenty of cool features these days so decide which one(s) are essential. If you love music education apps, look for USB plug and play output. Or if you’d like to play along with lesson songs, look for models that play MIDI files.
- Budget-Conscious: Decide how much you’re willing to spend. Fortunately you won’t need to buy a $4000 piano to get a quality instrument. If your budget is $500, then buy the best model in that price category you can afford.
What to Look For in Your First Keyboard
If this is your first keyboard purchase, look for a model with the following features:
- Full-size keys (not mini)
- Variety of rhythms and sounds
- Weighted keys
- 81 keys
There are plenty of keyboards with hundreds of cool features. Think back to your musical goals. If you or your little ones are beginners, these features won’t be of great use. As a rule don’t buy a piano with plenty of options (buttons, dials, knobs, or sounds) unless it’s extremely expensive—cheap pianos with lots of features have usually compromised on overall quality. It’s more important to have good keys and sound.
Key number and weight are important too. You’ll probably encounter pianos that have 61 unweighted keys. It seems like this type of instrument would be a better fit for a younger, inexperienced learner. In reality you’ll do your child a favour if you spring for the full meal deal. Kids benefit by gaining the strength to play weighted keys early on. They’ll also learn to use their peripheral vision while committing to memory a mental map of the board. Changing from a shorter to longer unit disrupts this process.
- Sound: Test the sound to make sure it resonates realistically. The notes should also change according to how much pressure you apply to the key. The keys should be weighted appropriately too, meaning that they will feel lighter toward the treble section and heavier towards the bass section.
- Display: The keyboard’s interface should be simple to use, clear, and well lit. The controls should be a snap to use, robust, move smoothly, and placed so that they are easy to manipulate.
- Footswitch: All pianos should come with a footswitch; you will need it for almost all piano music. Buying a piano-style pedal is really only necessary for advanced players who need to do half-pedaling.
- Keys: Digital pianos usually have plastic keys but wood can be found in higher-end models—they provide a slightly better tactile experience. Ivory substitutes can be found in some models as they provide better grip for those performing technical pieces.
- Speakers: Speakers are essential. Only professional keyboards won’t have in-built speakers as it’s assumed you’ll opt for a keyboard amp. Non-professionals won’t benefit from these types of models anyway. Many keyboards come with two speakers but look for models with four or more for optimal sound.
- Polyphony: This refers to the number of notes your piano can play at once. For example, a piano with 64 note polyphony would max out if you played all 64 keys at once. Sixty four polyphony is often enough or 128 for those who want to use stereo samples.
- Samples: The best pianos have individual pitches recorded for each key while the lesser ones merely deviate from a few recorded tones. All digital piano makers claim realistic sound so at the end of the day what really matters is if you think it sounds realistic. Test out a few samples and see what you think.
- Price: Beginners can find great pianos starting at $500 with $1000 being the absolute max. Intermediates can expect to pay around $1500 for a digital piano with better sound and feel quality plus some extra bells and whistles. Professional-level units will cost between $2500 and $5000 and give you a realistic acoustic piano sound and quality key action plus plenty of features.
The beauty of keyboards is partially in their portability. However, it’s now possible to buy a furniture-style cabinet that mimics the look of a baby grand or upright piano.
Cabinets typically come in white, black, or brown and polished or satin finishes. Small baby grand cabinets can be particularly attractive, though if cost or space is an issue they might not be the best choice. Be wary of choosing a piano on look alone. A piano that looks great and sounds awful will not make you very excited to practice your instrument!
You’re likely to see brands that are cheap and impressive but skimp on quality. Examples of digital piano brands include Casio, Adams, Roland, Kohler, Samick, Kawai, Omega, Yamaha, Korg, Kurzweil, Viscount, Suzuki, Adagio, and Williams.
Yamaha is often a favorite of digital piano players. The CS300 is great for those with a larger budget and the P-140 is a dream for penny pinchers. Their higher-end Clavinova line offers a more realistic feel and sound though it’s not portable.
Casino offers a wide variety of models for beginners and intermediate players. They produce solid entry-level pianos though sound quality isn’t top-notch. Roland has excellent, high-end keyboards but it offers less choice in models.
Do your research and read product reviews of the particular brand and model you’re considering. It’s possible that even if a model is from a well-known company it might not be better than others or perfect for your piano-playing needs.
Also helpful to keep in mind: a more expensive piano isn’t automatically better. For example, Yamaha’s Arius YDPV240 is around $2000 and has the same quality of GHS key action as their $600 version. A Yamaha YDP181 or YDP142 gets you upgraded GH key action (found in their higher-end models) for about $1700.
Just remember, the piano that’s the best fit for you should have the proper balance of price, construction, technology, and reliability. Weigh your options and consider what feels and sounds best to you. We hope that you love your new digital piano or keyboard. Happy playing!