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What Can I Buy For $1,995?

ALDEN SKINNER (Spring 2010)

YOU HAVE $2,000 to spend on a digital piano. You might be willing to stretch your budget a little if something really strikes your fancy, but not by much. You're primarily interested in the basics: good piano sound and a good action. Rhythms wouldn't necessarily disqualify a model as long as the basics aren't sacrificed. Beyond that, you're pretty open to different possibilities.

When it comes to choosing an action and a sound, anyone can tell you what they prefer, but no one can tell you what's best. To determine what you prefer, you have to play and listen to instruments yourself. For the purposes of this article, then, we'll primarily be looking at specifications. Although one should never buy a digital piano solely on the basis of specifications, they can be very helpful in guiding you toward a selection of models likely to match your needs. Since our readers' needs vary, for the purposes of comparison, I've chosen several specs that are likely to be high on readers' lists: number of voices, number of notes of polyphony, watts of speaker power, number of speakers, number of tracks of onboard recording, and the presence or absence of a USB-to-computer connection. I've also noted the terms of the warranty; although this is unlikely to be of paramount importance, it can serve as a tiebreaker when other specs are close. (Note that stated warranties are for the U.S. market; other markets may differ.)

Consoles


Let's look at a few different ways of approaching the $1,995 digital piano, beginning with the most common choice: the furniture-style vertical, or console. Realistically, nobody sells a model for exactly$1,995, so we'll consider models priced within about $100 of that figure. Scanning the chart of Digital Piano Specifications and Prices in this issue of Piano Buyer, we come up with six current console models whose Estimated Prices or MAPs fall within this range (see chart for explanation of price terms): Kawai CN32, Korg C-520, Kurzweil Mark Pro TWO SP, Orla CDP10, Roland DP-990, and Yamaha CLP-320.

All of these models share certain features. All have three pedals, with half-pedaling supported on the sustain pedal. Also common to all models are key covers, headphone jacks, and such basic features as stereo audio systems, transposition, and variable tuning. Table 1, below, shows how they compare on the basis of our chosen specifications.

Which of these models is best for you, based on our chosen specifications, will depend on what's important to you (read more about these specs in the "Digital Piano Basics" articles in this publication):

Voices: If you're interested only in a solid acoustic-piano voice, then one voice could well be sufficient for you. On the other hand, if you're in search of maximum flexibility, then the number of voices available — as long as they're quality voices — is of paramount importance.

Polyphony: For ordinary solo playing, 64 notes of polyphony is probably enough. If, however, you're playing a multitrack recording through your digital piano with different voices on each track, there's no such thing as too much polyphony.

Speakers and Speaker Power: The number and quality of speakers will affect the "trueness" of the sound over the ranges of both frequency and volume. A larger number of watts of power will allow the music to be played at higher volume without breaking up. However, if you're planning to play through headphones, this spec is irrelevant.

Recording Tracks: If you're just after basic recording as a practice aid, any of these instruments will suffice. Two tracks give you the ability to separate the left and right hands in recording. Three tracks let you split out the bass and harmony parts of the left hand. Beyond that, you need to consider 8, 16, or more tracks. (If the ability to record multiple tracks is a central concern for you, you probably have software on your computer that vastly exceeds the capabilities of even the most advanced digital piano.)

USB to Computer: This is purely a matter of convenience and cost. Even if your piano doesn't come with this feature, you can buy a MIDI-to-USB cable for $30 to $50 and still stay within your budget. Of course, if you have no intention of connecting your digital piano to your computer, you can skip this one.

Warranty: This is basically a tiebreaker. If you're down to two models and just can't decide, then the better warranty may sway you.

Table 1: Console Pianos in The $1,995 Price range
Brand/Model Voices Polyphony Watts/ Speakers Recording Tracks USB to Computer Warranty parts/labor (years) Est. Price
Kawai CN32 36 96 32/2 2 Yes 5/5, in-home $2,099
Korg C-520 40 62 70/4 2 Yes 1/1 1,999
Kurzweil Mark Pro TWO SP 64 64 60/4 2 Yes 2/3 1,998
Orla CDP10 9 64 30/2 2 No 5/1 2,024
Roland DP-990 306 128 24/2 3 Yes 5/1 2,095
Yamaha CLP-320 10 128 40/2 1 No 5/5, in-home 1,945

Looking at Table 1, we can see that the Roland DP-990 is a standout in every way except for speakers and speaker power, where it's comparatively weak. This model could be the best choice if you plan to use it exclusively through headphones. If you're willing to spend another $100 to $150 for an amplified speaker (discussed below), you could make this instrument into a real winner. The Orla CDP10 and the Yamaha CLP-320 offer the smallest number of voices, and are less impressive in some of the other specs as well, but would still be more than sufficient for basic uses. The other models shown are somewhere in between.

Not shown in the specifications is the fact that there may be a tradeoff between features and appearance. The Roland is able to offer so much for the money in part because its cabinet design is quite simple. The Yamaha and Kawai, on the other hand, would look good in any living room.

Slabs and Stage Pianos

Next we'll consider the option of a slab or stage piano. For this option, we have to leave room in the $1,995 budget to accommodate a stand, a bench, and (unless you'll be playing exclusively through headphones) amplified speakers, as most stage pianos don't come with these features. A double-X stand (think of the X formed by, say, an ironing board's legs, then link two of them together in parallel) offers the best stability and load-carrying structure for the price (about $50). Avoid single-X designs, as these tend to wiggle during playing, and struggle to support the heavier stage pianos. A foldingstyle padded bench can also be had for about $50. A few are available for substantially less, but they tend to have less padding, and can have weak seams that may split.

As for the amplified speaker system, my first choice of one that will provide solid audio performance without breaking the bank is the Logitech Z2300. This robust, 200-watt, 2.1 (two satellite speakers and a subwoofer) system has a list price of $150, but is typically available for a little less. You can certainly get by without this power level, but these speakers will work wonders on the sound of most digital pianos (including some of the consoles mentioned earlier).

Altogether, then, you should allow $200 to $250 for accessories, leaving $1,750 to $1,800 for the instrument (or, leaving a little wiggle room, $1,650 to $1,900). Once again, looking at the chart of Digital Piano Specifications and Prices, we find the following instruments that match our requirements: Kawai ES6, Kawai MP8II, and Yamaha CP50. And although it's priced slightly under our budget range, we'll also include the Roland RD-300GX, which offers features similar to the others for a little less money. Table 2 shows how these choices stack up against one another.

Table 2: Slab or Stage Pianos in the $1,995 Price Range after Adding Accessories and Amplified Speaker
Brand/Model Voices Polyphony Watts/Speakers Recording Tracks USB to Computer Warranty
parts/labor (years)
Est. Price
Kawai ES6 32 192 26/6 2 Yes 3/3 $1,699
Kawai MP8II 256 192 0/0 0 Yes 3/1 1,895
Roland RD-300GX 366 128 0/0 0 Yes 1/90 days 1,599
Yamaha CP50 322 128 0/0 0 Yes 3/3 1,699

As you can see, the Kawai ES6 differs from the others in this category in that it has built-in speakers. It also comes with 100 rhythms and automatic accompaniments, making it the sole entry here that falls into the ensemble category, and therefore the one that may offer the most flexibility. With only 26 watts powering an unusual array of six speakers, you might not be completely satisfied with the onboard sound, but remember — the budget includes an amplified speaker system.

The other three models in this category are powerhouse, pro-level stage pianos, a topic covered more completely in the online edition of the Fall 2009 issue of Piano Buyer. (There, the Kawai MP8II is reviewed, as are the Roland RD-700GX and Yamaha CP300, more-expensive cousins of the models shown here.) Although they don't have built-in speakers, these stage pianos do come with a huge number of voices, and the Roland also comes with 200 rhythms and some onboard recording capability. The Yamaha CP50, which also comes with 100 rhythms, is a new addition to Yamaha's stage-piano arsenal. It combines traditional (in digital piano terms) sampling technology with emerging physical modeling technology. (See "Other Methods of Voice Production" in "Digital Piano Basics, Part 1: Imitating the Acoustic Piano," elsewhere in this publication.)

Software Pianos

Finally, let's explore an option you might not have thought of when looking for a $1,995 digital: the software piano. In a software piano, the piano sound is provided by specialized software that runs on your computer, the digital processing is supplied by your computer, and the keyboard controller (and possibly the audio system) is usually supplied by a digital piano. (A basic introduction to software pianos appears in the article "My Other Piano Is a Computer," elsewhere in this publication.) Now there are more puzzle pieces to play with, adding to the picture both flexibility and complexity. Here, every choice becomes part of the budget-balancing act: In addition to the stand, bench, and speakers in the stage-piano option above, now we need to look at software, revisit the keyboard, and evaluate the computer. Since it's likely that you already have a computer that will handle the entry-level to midrange software pianos available, we'll focus on the rest of the elements required for this option.

Table 3: Slab or Stage Pianos as Part of a Software Piano Setup in the $1,995 Price Range
Brand/Model Voices Polyphony Watts/Speakers Recording Tracks USB to Computer Warranty
parts/labor (years)
Est. Price
Kawai MP5 256 192 0/0 0 Yes 3/1 $1,199
Kurzweil SP2X 64 64 0/0 0 Yes 1/1 1,099
Orla Stage Player 16 64 30/2 2 No 5/1 1,082
Yamaha P155 17 128 24/2 2 No 1/1 1,199

We can stick with the same stand, bench, and speaker choices established for the stage piano at around $250; this leaves $1,750 for a keyboard and software. A number of piano software packages can be had for $350 or less, leaving $1,400 for the keyboard. Just in case you need to spend a little money on computer upgrades (more memory, bigger hard drive), we'll cap the digitalpiano budget at $1,200. This price yields several excellent but very different options (see Table 3). Note that while we could go with an 88note weighted MIDI controller keyboard and save some money, using a digital piano as the keyboard for the software piano offers the flexibility to use the instrument in situations where the computer isn't handy.

Here we have a Kawai MP5 stage piano with hundreds of voices but no built-in speaker system, similar to the model MP8II mentioned earlier, but with a less-advanced action, and plastic (instead of wood) keys. Two other instruments, the Yamaha P155 and Orla Stage Player, each has only a modest number of voices, and a lightweight onboard speaker system that would benefit from the amplified speaker our budget includes. However, if you do use a separate amplified speaker system, or if you use headphones exclusively, the Kawai appears, from the specs alone, to offer somewhat more for the money — but any of the keyboards listed could be an excellent choice as the keyboard for a software piano. The Yamaha or Orla might be preferred for their onboard recording capabilities, or if an internal speaker system is sometimes needed.

We have $350 left to spend on software for our software piano. So what will it be: Bechstein, Blüthner, Bösendorfer, Fazioli, or Steinway (New York or Hamburg)? The great thing about software pianos is that, over time, the answer could be "all of the above." All of these pianos and more are available in our price range, but hold on — before you buy the software, you need to make sure it's something your current computer can handle; if you have to buy a new computer, you'll blow a big hole in your $1,995 budget. Most software packages list their requirements, so it's easy to compare them with your computer's specs: the amount of free space available on your hard drive; the amount of memory, or RAM, your computer has; and the speed and type of its central processing unit (CPU). See your computer documentation for instructions on how to find the specs for your computer.

Table 4: A Few of the Software Packages Costing $350 or Less Available for Use on Midrange Computers as Part of a Software Piano Setup.
Software Pianos Included Recommended System
Requirements
(see websites for
minimum requirements)
Price Developer's Website
East West Quantum Leap
Piano Gold Edition
Bechstein D-280
Bösendorfer 290
Steinway D
Yamaha C7
55GB free HD
4GB RAM (Mac)
8GB RAM (PC)
Mac: 2.5GHz Pro
Quad-Core Xeon
PC: 2.0GHz Quad Core
$314 www.eastwestsamples.com
Ivory Bösendorfer 290
Steinway D (Hamburg)
Yamaha C7
41GB free HD
2GB RAM
Mac: 1.5GHz G5
PC: 2GHz Pentium 4
$349 www.synthogy.com
Galaxy II Blüthner Vintage 1929
Bösendorfer 290
Steinway D
30GB free HD
1GB RAM
Mac: 1.8GHz G4 or
2GHz Core 2 Duo
PC: 2.4GHz Pentium/Athlon
$350 www.galaxypianos.com
www.eastwestsamples.com

Assuming the specifications of a two-year-old midrange computer, some of the software packages that will work with it are shown in Table 4. These are just a few of the options; demonstration recordings and screen shots for most of them are available on their websites.

The software piano option will be especially appealing to those for whom the quality and realism of the piano sound are particularly important factors in choosing a digital piano, such as the classically trained, and other connoisseurs of the acoustic piano exploring the world of digital pianos. As you can see from the amount of free harddisk space required to install these packages, the sample sets average more than 12GB per individual instrument. This is vastly larger than the amount of storage available on the majority of digital pianos, and allows for much greater sample detail and nuance.

So, the seemingly simple question of which digital pianos can be purchased for $1,995 has produced more than a dozen options, spread over three different approaches: console pianos, slab or stage pianos with outboard sound systems, and software pianos. I'm betting your piano — the one that meets your musical needs, suits your preference in visual appearance, and whets your appetite for adventure — is in there somewhere. 



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