note: I'm deliberately asking only about the cost issues because "which is better" is far too subjective and would be closed!

I would like to get a piano for my home, to learn on and play for my own amusement. I am wondering in the short, medium and longer term if an electronic or traditional piano would work out more economical. I hope one day to be competent but by no means any kind of virtuoso. I'd certainly consider buying second hand, in fact with a real piano I'd probably prefer it.

If you can't give a definitive answer, what at least are the issues to consider with both options, especially in terms of future/ongoing costs I might not be aware of?

If you are looking at used acoustic pianos, you can find them from anywhere from a few hundred to tens of thousands of dollars. For under $1000, the market is very much buyer beware. Unless you have access to an expert, or are buying from someone you trust to know the instrument’s history, and who tells you that the instrument has been well cared for and kept in tune, I’d stay away from discount second-hand instruments. An expert’s take can be found at http://piano.about.com/od/buyinganinstrument/tp/buying_used_pianos.htm.

New starts around $3000, but at that price point, the quality suffers, and the instrument may not be able to hold its tune after just a few years, and may also start having issues like sticky keys, and overall a poorer quality playing experience. Figure a minimum of $5000, and more likely closer to $10,000 if you want to get a new piano of a quality that will last for a few decades. You also need to factor in the cost of tuning and maintenance, which should happen once or twice a year. You can find a list of MSRPs (not actual prices paid) at http://www.bluebookofpianos.com/pin.html.

A good quality, well cared for acoustic piano will last for decades, but over that time, you will spend hundreds (at least) on tuning and maintenance. A poor quality or unmaintained piano will deteriorate within a decade, although it may be reclaimable for a significant chunk of money.

With digital pianos, you can find low end full size weighted keyboards new for around $300. At this price, the instrument will have characteristics that keep you from advancing as easily as you like, usually things that limit you in expressiveness. It would probably take you a few months to a year to start reaching these limitations. But it will be reliably in tune, and will probably last as long as a $3000 upright, maybe longer. The more you pay, the better the quality. For $800-$1200, you can get an instrument that won’t limit most casual players, although the instrument quality keeps on increasing as you pay more. I'd expect any decent digital piano to last a decade at minimum, baring things like water spills and unprotected power surges. Check the manufacturer's warranties for their estimates. Maintenance costs should be near zero on a digital piano.

Some digital pianos are reported to suffer from low quality speakers, so you may want to invest in a sound system as well, which could add $100 or so to your cost. But this is optional, and you can make the purchase at any time in the future.

Which is more economical depends on the quality of the piano you want to get. You could buy a keyboard with piano sounds really cheaply. Reading you question it seems like you want to have something a little more serious though.

If you want to get your hands on a piano very cheaply, you could check a site like Ebay/Craigslist.

I don't know here you live, but in The Netherlands there is a site called "Marktplaats" (Marketplace) which is a second hand market. There are many people that offer their piano on there for free, simply because it is such a large instrument, and they don't use it anymore/don't have enough space left. All you would have to pay is cost for moving the piano and then the cost for tuning it.

This is a very cheap way to get your hands on a serious piano.

Taking tuning into the equation (about two times a year), a quality keyboard would be cheaper in the long run, but if you get very serious, you might want to upgrade that again too.

All in all it really depends on the quality you want from your piano.

  • In terms of a real piano. I think "just a piano" would be good enough as long as the keys and dampening all work. It rather seems to get an electronic piano, you pay a fair amount just to get keys which feel right, whereas any real piano will feel like a piano?! – Mr. Boy Jan 13 '15 at 11:43
  • True, an electronic piano which feels 'real', gets expensive quick. There is a considerable difference between real piano's though, they play very differently. A real piano usually feels better than a cheap keyboard though. – JFelix Jan 13 '15 at 11:54
  • That was my impression especially since as you say, you can get a piano free or less than the cost of moving/tuning it. Thanks – Mr. Boy Jan 13 '15 at 12:15

Both have pitfalls that can cause what looks like a good financial deal into a bad one. Electronic keyboards vary widely in key feel, and no matter how casual a player you may be, the more you vary from true piano action, the less satisfactory the key board will be. That said, there are some fairly economical models with decent key feel. Look for some used Yamahas, which can be picked up for a bargain sometimes. Be sure to get your fingers on it before buying.

Acoustic pianos also vary in quality, so, although it is possible to pick up an excellent instrument that someone needs to discard, it is also possible to invest in an instrument unworthy of even your time. For instance, look out for spinets, which are usually the cheapest type to buy, but rarely produce an agreeable tone at whatever price. For any model, consult someone in the know before going to the trouble and expense of moving an acoustic piano to make sure it is both tunable and repairable. I have seen lovely old pianos whose tuning pins just won't hold pitch. Again, that is no bargain, even if provided at no cost.

None of my instruments are top of the line. They were all bought on a tight family budget. But I was lucky enough to find instruments whose sound I love. I would invite you to seek something that makes you happy to play, whether acoustic or electronic, at whatever price point you can afford, before making that long term commitment.

Oncosts for a studio piano will be more as it will need tuning at approx £40-£50 sterling ideally once or twice a year. The comparative costs of each is too subjective for any more in this answer.

  • Are there other costs to factor in like repairing 'dead' keys, or are those uncommon when well-treated? – Mr. Boy Jan 13 '15 at 11:08
  • Rarely do keys 'die'. Sometimes get 'killed' by maltreatment. – Tim Jan 13 '15 at 11:43

You asked about costs. Keep in mind while the acquisition costs can be as low as the cost to move a real piano (you can get them for free) there are greater costs associated with maintenance and future moving of a real piano. You can be sure if the costs is low or free for a real piano, it will at the very least need to be tuned. That may cost $75.00 to $100 if there are no repairs needed in order to be able to get the piano tuned and playing properly. Then keep in mind, if you ever move, you will have the expense of moving a real piano. One of the reasons slate pool tables and real pianos are often "free" is the owner's do not wish to pay the costs of moving them. A digital piano can be moved by yourself and will not require professional tuning. Bottom line - real piano may be less expensive to acquire, but more expensive to render it playable and maintain play-ability over time and move in the future.

From the view point of pure economics, electronic keyboard is probably unbeatable. Even if it would fail after some time, a year, you can buy a dozen of them the price of even cheap acoustic (cheapest electronic Yamaha NP 31 B - $ 315, cheapest acoustic Yamaha B1 PE - $4320, same shop).

Only the most expensive electronic devices may cost that much, but the cost of expensive acoustic piano is $19970 in that shop. Five expensive digital pianos may be enough for your life without any need to repair them, and it is possible to buy the newest model at the time of replacement.

Strongest argument for the acoustic piano seems to be the quality, not the price.

The price of high quality digital keyboards are very reasonable and and the features have improved over the years. I would check out the Yamaha P series, or comparable Casio, especially the P-115 which has weighted keyboard, sampled sound of their Grand Piano, and the features of a digital keyboard for less than $600. And it is portable!

One consideration is what you need four years from now when your playing had improved.

The only economical instrument is the one you'll keep playing. Anything else is a waste of money. So it's important to find an instrument that you will stay eager to sit down with.

If you are having house- or roommates, this can be a huge factor in being reluctant to fool around. So unless that is not an issue (do you know when everybody is away regularly?) check out instruments you can practise on silently (there are even acoustic pianos you can do that with but they tend to be on the rather expensive side).

But you really need an instrument which you will enjoy, tactically and from the sound and further possibilities. What this means specifically, depends to a large degree on your own taste and priorities.

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