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My wife has recently started learning to play the piano and needs something at home on which to practise. I'm inclined towards a digital piano as it is more practical (Mainly space but also no tuning required and transport).

Knowing very little about pianos myself, what should I be looking for in purchasing a digital piano? At the moment she is very much a beginner, but I wouldn't want to purchase something that will limit her too soon.

Some specific questions:

  • How important is the number of keys?
  • What should I look for in the keys to get a good real piano feel?

What else should I look out for? Is there any reason to strongly oppose a digital piano?

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3 Answers 3

up vote 29 down vote accepted

Digital pianos really have come a long way from where they were 15 years ago, when I started playing.

I started on an unweighted 61-key touch-sensitive keyboard (touch-sensitivity is, by the way, essential, but implied on the weighted keyboards. You cannot play classical piano music even remotely musically without touch sensitivity. Organ music is a different story). It's great for playing "Mary had a little lamb" and even "Fur Elise", but when you start hitting the more involved classical repertoire, you need to have weighted keys; it's simply too hard to play without the proper resistance. It's impossible to play more advanced classical pieces on this keyboard, because you run out of keys. The last major drawback was that it made playing on real pianos very difficult, since it doesn't let the student develop the musculature required for playing for long periods of time on a real piano (I'm only talking a half hour, here). That's because while they're often used as such, unweighted 61-key keyboards are not designed for use by classical pianists; they're designed for use as synthesizers. I still have this keyboard, and whenever I have to rock out a Katy Perry or a Taio Cruz, that's the instrument I turn to.

I then bought a piano, but from the sounds of it, the piano itself and the upkeep are way too expensive at the moment. I will say that I never bothered to keep it in tune (I've tuned it maybe 3 times in 10 years), and I regret that irresponsibility every day. That being said, it still works! The greatest drawback is the noise level; pianos are LOUD! With keyboards, at least, you can pop in headphones, and it'll be mostly silent (you still have to deal with the thumping of the keys, but it's tolerable).

My latest keyboard purchase was a Yamaha Portable Grand. It's an 88-key fully weighted keyboard. Keep in mind that fully-weighted is just what it means: it feels like a real piano and is heavy as anything (My estimate is 50-60 pounds; I feel that portable should have been in quotes on the packaging). It sounds beautiful and never requires tuning. This particular keyboard has something like 500 voices (which is actually useless; I never use anything except the stock piano voice, and occasionally an organ). This is the sort of keyboard you'd want for advanced classical pieces. The only major problem that I have with this particular keyboard is that the sustain does not last as long as in a real piano. This leads to sloppy pedal work, which does require a little bit of concentration to adjust for. The other minor issue is, as I mentioned before, the weight.

It's worth noting that not all fully weighted keyboards are that much of a pain; I am in particular a fan of Casio's Privia line. They're lighter, and I wish that I had picked that one up. I have not played with them enough to be able to comment on whether or not they have the same issue with the sustain pedal (It took a year before I noticed it on my own keyboard).

Finally, halfway between unweighted and fully weighted keyboards, you have half-weighted or semi-weighted keyboards. I personally hate the action, but I hate it less than I hate unweighted keys. I have successfully played somewhat intense classical pieces on them, and if it'll save a few hundred bucks on the cost of a new keyboard, it might be worth it. When it comes to picking an action, make sure your wife plays it and likes how it feels; that really is the most important factor. When I was buying a piano, my parents dragged me around to three or four warehouses full of pianos so that we could find one with an action that I liked. (By the time I found a handful of good pianos, my fingers were very, very sore!)

Lastly, you'll need to choose the number of keys your keyboard will have. Your choices will include 44, 61, 76, and 88 keys. More keys means harder to move (my 88-key keyboard is depressingly close to as tall as I am), but also means less technically limiting. That being said, I don't think that I've ever used all 88 keys on my keyboard at once. I will reiterate, though, with a 61-key keyboard, you will eventually run out of keys and it will make practicing advanced pieces harder.

Make sure that you get a footswitch with your keyboard. You will need them for pedaling on many, many pieces. I don't believe that springing for a "piano-style" pedal will make a difference for beginners; it's mostly useful for half-pedaling, which is a technique that comes along later. But there are a lot of inexpensive ones out there, so if you really want it, it won't hurt!

It sounds really obvious, but also make sure that your keyboard comes with its own speakers! Some professional keyboards will not have built-in speakers; they assume that you're going to use a keyboard amp, and so putting onboard speakers would add weight and complexity unnecessarily. To clarify, you really don't need a keyboard amp at this stage of the game, so steer away from these keyboards.

Good luck picking your keyboard. If I've left something out, let me know!

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11  
For the number of keys, definitely go for 88 keys. This way, you are certain to be able to play the entire classical repertoire, except maybe for a couple of pieces composed for the rare 88+ keyboard. –  Raskolnikov Jun 26 '11 at 17:12
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I'd imagine the shipping and handling on a fully weighted keyboard to be killer! But it's fairly important to try the keyboards before buying; it's an investment that will stick with you for years! –  Babu Jun 27 '11 at 3:01
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The only slight amendment I would make is about the speakers - I know your wife is just starting but I haven't heard a piano with built-in speakers, even at the scary prices, that sounds any good. I would rather go with the option of plugging into an existing hi-fi stereo or a fairly decent set of headphones, than miss out on all those deep juicy bass notes! Failing that a half decent set of PC speakers should sound better than a lot of the built in ones. Otherwise it can be a little unsatisfying no matter how well you are playing. Granted I am a bit of a snob about these things tho... –  Addsy Jun 30 '11 at 12:32
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@Babu fair enuff. Yeah I know I am generalising horribly by saying that all the on-board speakers are rubbish, maybe there are a few models out there with decent ones. I just find that if the sound that you are making is not satisying (or in the case of the worse offenders painfully tinny), its hard to get excited about playing and that excitement is what its all about - practice shouldn't be a job that needs to be done but rather a treat to be enjoyed! –  Addsy Jun 30 '11 at 16:54
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One thing missing: make sure you like the default piano sound, because you'll living with it for a long while. –  Brian Slesinsky Jul 22 '11 at 5:32

Tim Praskins reviews ALL major models on his Piano News Blog, with a ton of information on "digital pianos and what to know when shopping for one".

From a recent (2011/08/17) entry:

Yamaha has descriptive words such as Intelligent Acoustic Control (IAC), GRE, Smooth Release, Linear Graded Hammers, and Soundboard Speaker. Roland has SuperNATURAL Piano, Kawai says Progressive Harmonic Imaging, and Kurzweil says Triple Strike Piano. But for me as someone who has played hundreds of different digital pianos over the years, words are meaningless because at the end of the day, your enjoyment level will not be based on words, but on reality instead.

  • Does the piano you purchased feel like and sound like a piano to you?
  • Does it make you happy when you play it and hear it?
  • Will it reproduce the kind of music you like when you play the piano?

Those are the real questions that you need to ask when purchasing any piano. Descriptive words used to define technologies and various models do give you a point of reference, but you must judge a piano by its own merit and not by the words used to describe it, that's all I'm saying.

One thing Roland and Kawai digital pianos offer this year is the grand piano key action feature call "escapement or let-off." This is the slight hesitation or notch as the key is depressed very gently about 1/2 of the way down on a baby grand or grand. Roland and Kawai have reproduced that feel in some of their nicer digital pianos including the Roland HP302 (discount priced at $2499) and the Kawai CN33 with synthetic ivory keys (discount priced at $2199), but Yamaha has not done that on any of their digital pianos. I happen to like that feature (I play acoustic baby grands quite often) and am personally disappointed that Yamaha did not do that in any of their digital pianos. Yamaha does advertise that the CLP440 (retail $3899, discount priced about $3000) has "Real Grand Expression" (see display specs below). Well honestly, that's not possible without the escapement/let-off mechanism feature and Yamaha doesn't have that. If you really want a "grand piano like feel" on a digital piano, you gotta go to Roland or Kawai for that.

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Considerations

  • Touch sensitivity (this is a must)
  • Number of keys you usually use
  • Polyphony - the higher, the better if you play anything remotely complex
  • Whether you need lots of sounds or really only piano sounds
  • Size and weight if you plan on traveling with it.
  • Built in drums/accompaniment or not (good for practice, more fun than a metronome)
  • Built in speakers if you don't have an amp
  • Quality, reputation of the maker and price
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1  
Welcome to the site! This is a good answer, but could be improved if you added some more detail to each item. –  Ben Alpert Jul 20 '11 at 4:47

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