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NEVITABLY, one of the most controversial topics of conversation among piano teachers, and one about which we're frequently queried, is the role that digital pianos should play in our students' musical lives, and in ours. In what situations are they a good choice? Is there a suggested minimum budget for buying a digital piano (or, for that matter, an acoustic)? Are the actions and sounds of digital pianos realistic enough? At what level of study should a student use one? Because we've been asked these questions so many times, most teachers now have strong opinions about them, ones they can easily articulate. In my case, much to my wife's chagrin, I have all of the above: a large acoustic grand, a tall acoustic vertical, and a portable digital piano.
Fifteen or twenty years ago, the debate of acoustic vs. digital was much less interesting; but since then, as memory and processing power have become cheaper, the qualities of sampled and modeled sound sources have dramatically improved. Major manufacturers — and even off-the-shelf subassemblies from OEM suppliers — offer a range of models with weighted actions at every price level. Portable digital pianos can be bought with or without onboard speakers, while grand ensemble-style models offer powerful sound systems. The styling of console models ranges from the classic digital-piano look to credible simulations of acoustic vertical pianos, and even art cases.
Having spent a fair amount of time sampling digital instruments at dealers and music-industry trade shows, I've noticed Kawai's digital pianos becoming much more serious contenders in the digital-piano and stage-piano markets, particularly in the last few years. So with the help of a full-line Kawai dealer — David and Carder England, of England Piano, in Atlanta, Georgia (www.englandpiano.com) — I saw, heard, and played three Kawai digital models in detail: the value-priced CN25, the innovative CA97, and the feature-packed CP2.
The inexpensive CN25 may be a basic, console-style digital piano, but I found in it a lot to like. Its action had a subtle-feeling escapement at the bottom of the keystroke, similar to what a pianist experiences when playing an acoustic grand — a feature usually reserved for more expensive digital models. The graded action — heavier at the bottom of the range, lighter at the top — is nicely weighted; that is, it wasn't excessively heavy or light under my fingers. It had a bit of a springy feel, and was capable of extremely fast repetition — perhaps even faster than an acoustic piano. Action noise, long a complaint with value-priced digitals when the volume is turned down, was moderately low and not distracting. The subtle changes in the resistance of each pedal as it was depressed showed how thoughtful Kawai has been in refining its digital pianos for an even more authentic experience. The CN25's downward-firing speakers sounded a lot more substantial at moderate volume levels than do other economy models; in fact, they were a little boomy in the bottom two octaves; you may want to try this before making a purchase. I could hear the sound pan from left to right as my fingers ascended the keyboard.
Navigating the CN25's sounds, settings, and features is done through a minimalist control interface. It doesn't have a display (you have to step up to the CN35 for that), and you choose instruments through a combination of pressing buttons and notes on the keyboard. Despite this cost-saving measure, after a few minutes' use I found the selection of sounds fairly intuitive, even without consulting the owner's manual. Speaking of instruments, the CN25 features a piano sound sampled from Kawai's EX concert grand, a well-regarded instrument that's been around for decades. Using the primary grand-piano setting, the transition from the sound of each note's initial attack to its sustain was fine at lower dynamics, but when played forcefully, a note's sharp attack didn't elicit the louder level of sustain I expected.
Other voices included a Fender Rhodes–like electric piano with a Ping-Pong delay (i.e., the sound bounced quickly from the left speaker to the right), a Yamaha DX-7–inspired electric piano with a pleasant sound in the middle of the keyboard, and a Hammond B-3–style organ sound (but without the Leslie tremolo). Other sounds, such as the pipe organ, harpsichord, and strings, are usable in a pinch, but not as robustly developed as the acoustic- and electric-piano patches. Connectivity includes standard MIDI connectors and a USB port, located under the keybed.
Stepping up now to the CA97, a Piano Buyer "Staff Pick" from Kawai's Concert Artist series, this innovative instrument displayed many state-of-the-art features and improvements. Among the most anticipated changes in the industry, Kawai's completely new acoustic-piano samples of the 9' SK-EX concert grand and the 6' 5" SK-5 chamber grand, represent a technological leap forward in sonic realism from the older EX concert grand sample.
Speaking of piano samples, the CA97 features 16 distinct piano voices, with the option to customize them using Kawai's Virtual Technician function. Sound radiates from the CA97 in a more natural way than it does from most digital pianos, because this model uses an ingenious combination of full-range speakers and a wooden soundboard at the back of the instrument, the latter coupled to a transducer that makes it vibrate, creating sound that I could feel in the keys and pedals as I played. Cranking the volume up to larger-than-life levels resulted in low-bass notes and intervals that made the case resonate unpleasantly. The damper (right) pedal, which often feels disconnected on digitals, felt quite authentic on the CA97. With the combination of the new sound samples, good technique, and careful listening, I was able to play convincing and artistic legato phrases. The action has an even more subtle escapement and more realistic feel than the CN25, and the CA97's sharp keys have a textured finish similar to that found on Shigeru Kawai's premium acoustic grands.
The CA97's powerful control interface is an unobtrusive mix of buttons and a digital screen on the left side of the keyboard that I found attractive and intuitive. There's a wide variety of electric-piano sounds, and the quantity and quality of organ samples will surely please jazz players and church musicians. A minor quibble: Although I didn't try to adjust the velocity curve using the Virtual Technician or otherwise, getting the biting sound of a Rhodes electric piano played hard took far too much effort for my taste. In addition to front-facing USB and MIDI connections, the CA97 provides useful line-in and line-out connections with convenient level knobs, allowing seamless use with PA and sound-reinforcement systems in large spaces.
Kawai's model CP2, from its Concert Performer series, is a feature-packed digital piano with a focus on fun and ease of use. This model's control interface is prominent: You have a choice of a vibrant color touchscreen, buttons, or a wheel selector. Instead of feeling intimidating to use, however, the CP2 interface allows for easy navigation of the instrument's various functions and hundreds of voices. Although it may lack the CA97's transducer-and-soundboard system, the rich-sounding CP2 has a variety of speakers and a very powerful amplifier, making it the most suitable of the three models reviewed for use in larger spaces without the need for additional amplification.
Reminiscent of the Lowrey instruments (no surprise — Kawai owns Lowrey), the CP2 seems targeted for recreational music makers. Amateur and beginner players will appreciate its one-touch functions for every conceivable style and accompaniment, and a two-mode song recorder gives users the option of a simple interface or a robust 16-track Advanced Recorder. Either mode can store songs internally, or seamlessly export them in the MP3, WAV, and MIDI file formats.
Returning to the questions posed at the beginning of this review: When comparing a higher-priced, full-featured model such as the CP2 with similarly priced acoustic models such as Kawai's excellent K-300 and K-500 verticals, my recommendation as a piano teacher depends largely on how the player intends to use the instrument. If you're likely to enjoy the diversity of sounds provided by the digital piano; often play while wearing headphones; enjoy recording, layering, and arranging music with a minimum of fuss; and/or want to create a symphonic texture while playing with only one finger, the CP2 is the right choice. The K-300 and, especially, the K-500 offer a more authentic piano experience for pianists looking to progress through more difficult repertoire at a high level — provided, of course, that they're willing to look after the instrument with the periodic maintenance that acoustic pianos require.
[Note that models, prices, and specifications may have changed since this article was first published. See www.pianobuyer.com for current information.]
Acoustic & Digital Piano Buyer
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