What’s new in the world of digital pianos in 2023? To find out, I spoke with Justin Johnson, the digital piano expert at my favorite local piano store, Portland Piano Company.
What’s new with digital pianos at Portland Piano Company these days?
I think the biggest news is that we are expanding our offerings. Just a few years ago we carried Kawai digital pianos and they were a small portion of our business. Now, we carry Casio, Dexibell, and Nord in addition to the Kawai digital pianos we started with. Each manufacturer seems to bring something unique to the table and we are pretty excited about it. I really think we have a digital piano for everyone here.
I’m not familiar with Dexibell. What can you tell me about that manufacturer?
Dexibell is an Italian company that hasn’t been in distribution in North America for very long. They were started by the design team of Roland Europe and partnered with Ferrari’s design team to come up with some really cool aesthetics. They don’t have the long-established pedigree of Kawai, Yamaha, or Roland, but they are on the cutting edge of some pretty cool innovations when it comes to their sound modeling.
I’m a big fan of Kawai digitals (I own a Kawai MP7). Do Casio, Dexibell or Nord have models in the same price range as the Kawai MP7SE and MP11SE? If so, how do they compare to those instruments? Is there really anything that can compare to the MP11 in its price range?
Kawai knows what they are good at – realistic key action – so they really focus on that with the MP7SE and the MP11SE. Nord stage pianos start at $3,499 but don’t have the realistic feel of a Kawai. Instead, they focus on sound. Nords have built-in synthesizers that let you get just about any kind of sound you want on stage. For a little more, they throw in a Kawai action, too. The Nord Grand has the same keyboard as the MP7SE with all the Nord synth features for $4,099. Their top-of-the-line model is the Stage 3. It has a full digital piano, organ, and synthesizer on an 88-key platform for $5,299.
Casio, on the other hand, knows they need to “wow” their customers – quite a few people still associate them with cheap, 61-note battery-operated keyboards. While they do still make those, their Privia digital pianos are another category entirely. For $2,699 – a little more than a Kawai MP7SE – Casio has their new PX-S7000 digital piano. It is packed to the gills with 400 tones, spruce wood incorporated into the key action, Bluetooth MIDI and a seamlessly integrated app to control everything with. While it may not have the same level of uncompromising realism as the Kawai MP11SE, it’s a powerhouse of a digital piano nonetheless.
Dexibell makes a stage piano in this price range, though we don’t typically stock it. It’s available as a special-order item. They really focus on the sound-modelling. You don’t get as much customization as the Nord or the realism of the Kawai, but their T2L sound modeling has unlimited polyphony.
Over the past few years, have there been any significant developments in the world of digital pianos generally?
Yes! First of all, they are all getting more and more realistic. Today, an entry-level digital piano with a weighted, 88-note keyboard feels and sounds at least as realistic as a higher-end instrument from 10+ years ago. The upper level instruments are incredible in how well they emulate an acoustic piano. The other big feature that you are starting to see in most new digital pianos is Bluetooth. The manufacturers are developing companion apps that you can use to control your digital piano. Want a bit brighter sound or heavier touch response? Just a few taps on the app and you can adjust those things in seconds. Bluetooth also makes recording easier on the fly. We keep an iPad in the showroom to demonstrate how you can open Garage Band, pair it with your piano using Bluetooth MIDI, and instantly access both the features of your DAW and your digital piano simultaneously. In the past, this kind of Bluetooth capability was only available on higher-priced digital pianos, but now most new digital piano models are equipped with this technology. Casio has a digital piano with all of this capability for just $699.
Have the supply chain issues for digital pianos largely been resolved? If not, how long does it take to get one? What’s the outlook for 2023?
We are starting to see supply chain issues resolve, but it’s still a slow trickle. If you were shopping for a piano around the holiday season, you might have noticed that most retailers weren’t advertising huge discounts – they were advertising all of the things they actually had in stock! It was the same for us. We are optimistic about 2023. You should be able to get your hands on the digital piano that you want within a reasonable time frame, but expect to pay more than in years past. Inflation is definitely driving up prices as well.
What do you think are the best digital piano brands generally (including brands that PPC doesn’t carry)? Are there specific brands that you think are best avoided?
I think it generally depends on what you are looking for in a digital piano. I always tell people that, if you are looking for something that closely resembles an acoustic piano in touch and sound, go with a manufacturer that actually builds acoustic pianos. That quickly eliminates all but Kawai and Yamaha. Of those two, Yamaha seems to have very good sound modeling, and Kawai seems to have really figured out how to make a fantastically realistic action on a digital piano. Casio probably has the most reliable electronics on their digital pianos. We’ve been carrying them for about 4 years and I think we’ve had only 3 warranty claims in that time. I’ve also heard good things about Roland, though I’m not nearly as familiar with them. As far as brands that should be avoided, I don’t want to disparage any competitors, but I will say that you should avoid anything that is only sold online rather than in a store so you can try them out. Normally, there is a reason they don’t want you to try before you buy. For example, at NAMM last year, I was excited to try out a certain digital piano that I had seen being heavily advertised on social media, but no one carried it locally. It was very attractive-looking, had 88 weighted keys and three pedals, and the price was right so it seemed like a slam-dunk for us to carry. Unfortunately, as soon as I put my hands on it, it was clear that this product was built to be sold online, not in a store. If we were to put it in the showroom next to other pianos in that price range, we would never sell one!
How can the many different kinds of digital pianos be categorized?
There are four general categories: portable home digital pianos (like the Kawai ES series and Casio PX-S series), portable stage pianos (like the Nord Grand or Kawai MP11SE), console-style digital pianos (the ones that look like upright pianos, like the Kawai CA series or Yamaha Clavinovas), and digital hybrid pianos.
What is a digital hybrid piano?
A hybrid is any kind of digital piano that incorporates elements of an acoustic piano in its design. Since this is a really open-ended definition, you will see pianos that are marketed as “hybrid” pianos that are very different from each other. One of the models we carry, the Kawai CA99, has a genuine spruce soundboard, and spruce wood key sticks, but the sound is all generated digitally. There is a Casio hybrid that has full-length spruce key sticks and plastic hammers developed in collaboration with Bechstein to give it a genuine grand piano feel. Still, the manufacturers leading this charge are the ones who already build both acoustic and digital pianos: Kawai and Yamaha. The Kawai Novus hybrids use the exact same actions as their acoustic pianos (they have an upright version and a grand version). Basically, they build a piano without strings. When you press the key, it is the exact same mechanism as when you press the key on a Kawai grand piano, but the sound is created digitally using optical sensors rather than acoustic hammers and strings. The real heavy-hitters in the hybrid piano space, though, are the ones that do both acoustic and digital equally well. You will only find these being made by acoustic piano manufacturers because they are acoustic pianos with digital systems built-in. This started back in the 90’s when they were putting headphone systems into acoustic pianos. Basically, it was a way to silence the piano and play over headphones. Now, these systems not only let you silence the piano, but have all the Bluetooth, Midi, touch-screen, and customization features that you can find in a top-of-the-line digital piano. The effect is being able to play anything you want – you can go from an acoustic grand, a headphone-enabled silent practice piano, a MIDI controller, or a stage piano with built-in recording, accompaniment, and layering capabilities, all on the same instrument.
That’s very cool! What is the lowest-priced digital piano that your store carries that would be appropriate for beginning adult piano students?
We carry a Casio CDP-S160 digital piano for just $529. There are lower priced options out there, but we try to keep an ear open for what piano teachers are recommending for their students. That means a bare minimum of 88 weighted keys and a sustain pedal. There are plenty of other options we would be happy to order for a customer, but everything we carry in the showroom is going to at least meet those minimum requirements. However, for an adult learner, I would recommend looking at either the Casio PX-S1100 for $699 or the Kawai ES120 for $899. Adults typically progress faster than kids and you will outgrow your starter instrument pretty quickly. If you don’t want to come back and buy another one in a year or two, one of these would be a better way to go.
What do you feel are the most important things to consider when purchasing a digital instrument for the purposes of taking lessons?
The most important thing to consider when purchasing an instrument for the purpose of taking lessons is simple: does the person playing the instrument like to play it? If you are purchasing it for yourself, do you like to play it? When you look at it and sit down to play it, does it make you happy? Because, if not, you won’t bother putting any time into practicing and you’ll never progress. The instrument will gather dust, and you’ll be calling me back in about 10 months asking about our return policy. Get something that makes you go “Wow!”
Ready to learn more? Check out this very useful Digital Piano Buyer’s Guide.