I have always hated playing even nice keyboards, because I want to play them as a piano. The problem is always the same... the sustain is not at all like it is on an acoustic piano. I don't care about all the synthesizer options. I just want a piano which can be played through headphones and takes up less space, but still have the sustain needed to enjoy it as I would playing an acoustic piano.

Is there anything out there that will accomplish that? I am willing to spend more to get that.

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    Do you mean as in long-sounding notes or the sustain pedal or something else? Have you tried digital pianos? You know, the kind that even looks almost like an acoustic piano? – nonpop Dec 23 '12 at 20:31
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    Are you missing the sympathetic ringing of the strings of unpressed keys? – Ulf Åkerstedt Dec 24 '12 at 21:01
  • @slim: I haven't actually measured but it does seem to be the case for many digital pianos, especially when comparing low notes with those of a grand piano. The first 10 or so seconds are good but then the volume starts to diminish a bit too quickly. – nonpop Dec 27 '12 at 11:07
  • @nonpop I suggest you measure it, to verify that your mind isn't playing tricks on you. 10 seconds seems like an impossibly long sustain to me; there's no technical reason a sampled/synthesised piano note should be short (now that storage for samples is cheap) and developers put a lot of effort into making faithful simulations. – slim Dec 27 '12 at 22:10

If by "sustain" you mean resonance (sympathetic ringing of strings, as Ulf Akerstedt says), the closest you can get is a digital piano whose notes are recorded samples of the notes on a high-quality acoustic piano. The acoustic piano's resonance is recorded with the sampled notes. It's not exactly the same but it has a lot more richness than a synthesized sound.

If by "sustain" you mean "sustain pedal," that's pretty simple to determine. Check the input jacks of the instrument to see if there is one marked "Sustain." Usually it's a 1/4" jack. That's where a sustain pedal plugs in. The pedal might come with the instrument or you might have to buy it separately. They usually cost around US $25.

If by "sustain" you mean "decay time" of the sound (the time it takes the sound to get softer and softer and eventually stop), many keyboards and digital pianos allow you to modify the decay time, either as an option on its own or by changing a reverb setting. More reverb = longer decay time.

I don't know if we are allowed to recommend brands here, but any instrument's documentation should say whether notes are synthesized or sampled, what the sample source is, decay and reverb options, and whether sustain pedal is an option. Check out those details as you shop.

To save money: avoid instruments with more computer capacity than you need (e.g. built-in sequencers or other DJ software), and look for instruments that are just the keyboard part and a simple folding stand, not the full piano-like cabinet structure.

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    I just want to point out a couple things which may easily go unnoticed if one just looks at documentation: First, some sample-based digital pianos emulate sympathetic resonance, some don't, and there are differences in how well it works for example together with the pedals. There are also non-sample based virtual pianos where this works as a result of physical modelling. Secondly, there are differences in sustain pedals. Some are only on-off, some are full-half-off, and some allow more variation. Thirdly, besides decay time there are also differences in how naturally the sound decays. – nonpop Dec 25 '12 at 20:46
  • This is mostly a good answer but I can't agree that sampling is inherently best. A model-based synth should theoretically be able to do a better job than samples of reproducing sympathetic resonance when playing chords. It's a matter of how good the models are. – slim Dec 27 '12 at 6:45
  • Hi Slim, do you know of any actual instruments at a reasonable price point that have the synth capability you describe? – terpsichore Dec 31 '12 at 15:14
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    @terpsichore I can't make any specific recommendations (I'm not all that fussy) but to see an example of the kind of modelling piano synth, you could try pianoteq.com - there are similar products varying from cheaper to much more expensive. Most, including pianoteq, have demo versions. – slim Jan 2 '13 at 12:49

Frequently, digital pianos will not treat the depression of a footswitch as a fully depressed damper pedal. Instead, it's treated as a half-pedal, to help the pianist avoid creating a muddy mess for want of better articulation. This is actually billed as a feature sometimes, although I cannot recall where I have seen it listed as such.

My Yamaha digital piano behaves in this way. I find that the effect is not particularly limiting, but I am concerned over the potential to develop bad pedalling habits... when using an acoustic piano, I frequently overuse the pedal now.

I suspect that using a pedal with half or continuous pedalling support will result in the keyboard behaving as expected, but I do not have any such pedals to check with.

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