Choosing a Digital Keyboard
A Buyer's Guide to Price, Sound, Action, Size, Durability, and More
You’ve just taken your first piano lesson, and your first assignment is to buy a piano.
Chances are your piano teacher really wants you to buy an acoustic baby grand piano, but, let’s be real. Those instruments can be expensive!
A more affordable option is to buy a digital keyboard piano, and believe it or not, it is possible to find a new digital piano that sounds, looks, and feels like an acoustic baby grand piano without sinking you in a financial hole.
Now, don’t get discouraged when you search for best digital keyboard and find thousands of listings and think you have to sort through all of them. To save you time and a headache, here is a helpful guide to finding your best digital keyboard piano.
First off, there is no such thing as a starter piano. It doesn’t exist. The only instrument to buy is an instrument that you get excited to play. Don’t sell yourself short just to save a few now and save up for later. The only starter piano or digital keyboard piano is the one that sounds, feels and looks like a concert level piano.
A few terms to define before we begin:
People often interchange the two terms digital piano and electronic keyboard, but the two terms have different definitions. In short:
An electronic keyboard is an instrument with black and white keys that produces sound from previously recorded electronic sounds that resemble a piano (or other instruments.)
A digital piano is an electronic keyboard that fully resembles an acoustic piano by sound and appearance.
So when choosing a digital keyboard piano, you want to find an instrument that closely resembles the real deal – an acoustic grand piano. There are a few things to consider when choosing your instrument. You want the right sound quality, size, touch, structure, and of course, price! So here’s a rundown on what to look for when choosing a digital keyboard.
Digital keyboards come in all sizes, but to get the most out of your instrument, you want to look for a full-size keyboard that has 88 keys, since that’s the size of a traditional grand piano. All the greatest music was written on full size pianos, whether written by Mozart, Ray Charles, or Billy Joel. They all wrote their music for the real thing, so if you try to play any of their pieces on a shorter digital keyboard piano with less than 88 keys, you’re selling yourself short. Honestly you won’t get the full value out of your playing or piano lessons.
Touch refers to two things: the resistance felt when the key is pushed down and the response in sound the instrument gives when the hammer hits the strings. When searching for the best digital keyboard piano, you’ll encounter the term weighted-action keys, which refers to touch. The best acoustic grand pianos are highly sensitive to the touch so that the slower you depress the key, the quieter the sound, and the faster you depress the key, the louder the sound. Many and almost all full size digital keyboards come with weighted keys, but it’s important to double check that your digital keyboard includes this spec.
The grand piano creates sound with the vibrations from the strings when they’re hit with the hammer. You want nothing less than the same sound, and many manufacturers offer digital keyboard pianos with this quality of sound. You want to look for a high number of polyphony. Polyphony means many voices, so the more voices the instrument is capable of sustaining, the more realistic the sound is to a concert piano. So if you’re wanting to play any of LIszt’s rhapsodies, none of the notes will be left out or cut off.
Every high end piano has 3 pedals: the damper, the sostenuto, and the una corda; and they each have a specific purpose. The damper pedal allows all the strings to vibrate with the ones being struck by the hammers, so it “blurs” the sounds. The sostenuto does the same thing but only for the particular keys you strike. (It’s most often used for bass notes, so that it frees your hands to play other notes.) The una corda softens the sound across the board by shifting the hammers so they hit only one string instead of all three. To get the most out of your digital keyboard piano, you want one that has all three pedals, but if that’s not in your price range, there are some portable keyboards that have plugins for pedals, so be sure to have at least the damper, since it’s used most often.
Honestly the best way to know you’ve found the best digital keyboard piano is testing grand pianos and various digital keyboard pianos back to back. Comparing the digital ones to the acoustic is the best way to know you’ve found your instrument.
The price varies by manufacturer and by the specs included. I know it’s a big sum of money up front, but please trust me on this. I’ve bought musical instruments that I thought would be good “starter” instruments and never was I satisfied. It’s better to sacrifice a little now to gain huge rewards afterward. That being said, here is my personal list of the best digital pianos out there.
My Top 3 Manufacturers: Yamaha, Roland, and Casio
My top three brand recommendations are Yamaha, Roland, and Casio, respectively. I’ve played and taught on all three brands, and highly recommend you look at these when choosing your digital piano keyboard.
Yamaha Clavinova, Arius, and Portable Grands Series.
Let’s first take a look at what Yamaha has to offer. The brand has a variety of digital piano keyboard series. The Clavinova series looks and feels like an acoustic upright piano but is actually digital. The Arius series looks like a digital keyboard but comes with a full console, so it looks a little more formal. The Portable Grands series is exactly as it sounds. The series is a variety of full-size digital keyboards that you can travel with.
Roland Grand Pianos, Premium Uprights, and Uprights
Roland is known for their advanced digital keyboard technology. Since 1973 they have been at the forefront of digital keyboard technology. Now they offer various grand piano and upright designs to fit your specific need.
Casio Digital Keyboards
Casio was founded in the mid 20th century, and the Japanese brand has produced some of the best digital keyboard instruments since. They produce excellent sound quality for a comfortable price.
What I consider when choosing best digital keyboards: Price, Sound Quality, and Size.
I mentioned a list of other specs above, but when it comes to shopping day, the price, sound quality, and size are the three main factors. I already have a budget in mind, so that will help the sales clerk narrow down my options. The sound ought to handle multiple voices. And lastly, it needs to fit in my home. For those of us who live in the city, compactability is a must. So with all of that in mind…
Here are my top choices for the best digital keyboard:
Best Bang for Your Buck: Casio Privia PX 860 ($999)
Compact, best bang for your buck, and probably won’t need an upgrade until you’re sure and ready to invest in it.
Looks And Feels Like An Acoustic, But a Fraction of the Cost: Yamaha Clavinova CLP 685 ($5799 - $8474)
Basically a digital keyboard in disguise as an acoustic. It looks and feels like an acoustic upright, but it’s actually digital, where you can plug headphones to it. It’s a great blend of a classic look with a modern sound. This digital keyboard is currently discounted, so look into it A.S.AP. if you think this is the instrument you’d like! It comes with three different finishes, and each one is discounted on yamaha’s official website.
The More Affordable All-Round Digital Keyboard: Yamaha Arius YDP 163 ($1999) and YDP 143 ($1499)
The Arius digital keyboards as a genre are probably the best all-round keyboards in overall performance, size, and price. The full console gives a refined look to your digital keyboard so that you may still want to display it for guests to see as well and not just stashed in a closet for practicing.
Compact and Perfect for Travel: Yamaha Portable Grand DGX 660 and 650 (each at $1299)
I recommend these models if your home lacks excess space, a real issue especially for those of us living in city homes! Also it’s a good option if you’re wanting to travel with your instrument, either for performing or just enjoying over a vacation away from home.
Middle Ground Price, Top-Notch Quality: Roland LX 17 ($2400)
Another great option if you want the look but not the price of an acoustic upright. The price listed above I found on Musician's Friend's website. Roland is known for their high quality sound, and this keyboard is built with the SuperNATURAL piano modeling.
One last note...
Please be ready to allot some money to accessories that are necessary. I can’t stress enough how important it is to buy a good piano bench. You want a bench with adjustable height, because correct posture improves your playing and keeps you healthy - I’m not exaggerating. Check out my post for benches and other accessories here.