The Definitive Piano Buying Guide for

Buying New, Used, and Restored Acoustic Pianos and Digital Pianos

Spring 2017 Edition

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Buying a Digital Piano

Buying a Digital Piano

by Alden Skinner

IF, AFTER HAVING READ "Acoustic or Digital: What's Best for Me?," you've decided on a digital piano, the next step is shopping for and selecting the right model for your needs. There are currently over 200 models of digital piano on the market. Narrowing the field requires exploring some basic issues. This article covers the needs of both entry-level shoppers and those interested in more sophisticated, feature-laden models. If you're looking for an entry-level instrument and are just interested in learning the basics, you can read "The Starter Digital Piano" below, then skip to "Shopping Options," toward the end of this article.



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The Starter Digital Piano

If nothing else, a digital piano should be able to emulate an acoustic piano in basic ways. Fulfilling this function requires features found on most digital pianos today. Some first-time buyers, however, opt for an instrument with more than just the basics, and buy a model with additional sounds and "easy-play" features.

Matching the Player's Needs. Unless you expect to buy another piano in a year or so, you need to consider your long-term requirements. Who will be the primary player today? If it's for the family, how long will it be until the youngest child has the opportunity to learn? Does Mom or Dad harbor any musical interests? If so, it's likely that one family member or another will use the instrument for many years to come. This argues for getting a higher-quality instrument, whose advantages of better tone, touch, and features will be appreciated over time.

If multiple players will use the instrument, it needs to meet the expectations of the most advanced player. At the same time, a beginner in the family will benefit from educational features that are of no interest to the advanced player, and still another family member may just want to fool around with the instrument once in a while. Easy-play features and software will keep these players happy — and you might be surprised how many people are enticed into learning to play as a result of these easy first steps. So, obviously, an individual player may search among a very narrow range of instruments, while a family may have to balance the needs of several people. Fortunately, the wealth of available choices can easily accommodate any combination of individual and/or family needs.

Voices and Expanded Capabilities. Most entry-level digitals have a few different piano voices, as well as a dozen or so other instrumental voices, such as harpsichord, church and jazz organ, vibes, and strings. These models, designed mainly to emulate the piano, are referred to as "standard" digital pianos. Many other, slightly more expensive models, called "ensemble" digital pianos, come with expanded capabilities: all the instruments of the orchestra (and more), easy-play background accompaniments, rhythms, special effects, and much more. You might not think you need the additional capabilities of an ensemble digital, but having them can enable the beginner, as well as family members who don't take lessons, to have a lot more fun and sound like pros with minimal practice. For an advancing player, the opportunities for musical creativity are significantly enhanced.

If at all possible, you should try at least two or three instruments in your price and style range to determine which sounds best to you. If you plan to use headphones in your home (yes, parents — your children can practice silently using headphones), be sure to try out the pianos through headphones, as this can make a tremendous difference in sound. (For consistency of comparison, bring your own headphones.) Sometimes the instrument's weakest link is its built-in speaker system.

88-note Weighted Keyboard. Even entry-level digitals should feel much like an acoustic piano. If you have some playing experience, you'll want to try two or three competing models to see what feels best to you. None of the available models has an overly heavy touch. So-called semi-weighted keyboards, which depend on springs for their weight, should be avoided, as they don't feel enough like an acoustic piano. Is a keyboard with fewer than 88 notes a viable alternative? In a word, no. None have a decently weighted keyboard. In addition, students who use instruments with short keyboards tend to outgrow them quickly, and suffer some degree of disorientation when taking lessons on an 88-note keyboard.

Digital Pianos: Slab, Console, and Grand

Ease of Use. Make sure you understand how the instrument's controls work — additional features are of little use if you can't figure out how to use them. Ask to see the owner's manual (or download it from the manufacturer's website) and make sure that it's understandable.

Cabinet Type. Another factor that may shape your options is where the instrument will live. Is space at a premium? Are there limited placement options? If home is a dorm room or a small studio apartment and you need to make the most efficient use of every square inch, you may opt for a portable model (not a furniture-style cabinet) that can be placed on a stand for practice and stuck in a closet when not in use. Bear in mind that this type of design, typically called a slab, doesn't necessarily limit the quality of instruments available to you — professional stage pianos also fit into this category. Slabs generally come with a single pedal, but many have optional stands that, like an acoustic piano, have three pedals. If you do go with a stand, don't get the cheapest one you can find. These are fine for 61-note portable keyboards, but tend to wobble when supporting the greater weight of a digital piano, and may not be able to be adjusted low enough to put the keyboard at the proper height from the floor (about 29 inches to the tops of the white keys). It should be noted that portability is a relative term: instruments in this category can range in weight from 25 to over 70 pounds, without stand.

Another option in the entry-level category is what is variously referred to as the vertical, upright, or console digital piano. The cabinetry of these models ranges from two flat side supports with a cross member for stability, to elegant designs that would look at home in the most posh surroundings. It's common for individual models in this category to be available in multiple finish options, including synthetic wood grain, real-wood veneers, and, on some of the better models, the lustrous polished ebony often found on acoustic pianos. Most of these models have three pedals.

If space is no problem and you love the look of a grand piano, several digital pianos are available in "baby grand" cases. Remember that, most of the time, you pay a significant premium for this look, and that few of the digital grand models actually use the additional internal space to enhance the instrument beyond the non-grand model it's based on. There are two size classes of digital grands, one about five feet long and the other closer to three feet — just long enough for the tail to curve in a quasi-grand shape.

Additional Features. Virtually all models of digital piano include headphone connections for private practice, and MIDI and/or USB connections that allow you to connect the instrument to a Mac or PC for use with a variety of music software. Other features included in many entry-level instruments are a built-in metronome, the ability to play more than one instrumental voice at a time (called layering or splitting; see "Digital Piano Basics"), and the ability to record and play back anything you play. While you may not be ready for a recording contract, the ability to listen to what you're practicing is a great learning tool.

Pricing. Slab models start at $500, console models at around $1,000. Digital grands begin at about $1,500, but the better-quality models start at around $5,000. In each category there are many options; spending more will usually get you some combination of better sound, features, touch, and appearance.

Those who are shopping for an entry-level digital and want to keep it simple can skip the next section and go directly to "Shopping Options."

Further Considerations for More Serious Shoppers

Before reading further about shopping, I suggest that you read the two "Digital Piano Basics" articles, and explore the brand profiles and the charts of features and specifications, all elsewhere in this issue. There you'll find detailed information about the features and benefits of both standard and ensemble digitals. Once you have a grasp of what these instruments can do and how they differ from one another, you'll be able to shop with a better idea of which features and level of quality you desire, which in turn will make your shopping efforts more efficiently focused and enjoyable.

Serious Listening

Inner Act You've decided what type of instrument you're looking for and how much you're going to spend (unless, of course you hear something that just knocks your socks off, and your budget along with them). There are still a couple of last steps in preparation for the hunt.

If you don't already have a good set of headphones, this is the time to get them. Headphones are probably the most widely used accessory for digital pianos, and it's a sure bet that you, or another player in the house, will need them or wish the other player were using them — and they're an invaluable tool for auditioning digital pianos. Part of what you hear when you compare instruments is the speaker system, and this is a critical element; but headphones can also isolate you from noise in the store and give you a common baseline as you go from place to place trying different instruments. Most stores have headphones available, but they're typically low-end models, and never the same as the ones you listened to in the last store. I've always found it odd that people will agonize over the choice of a digital piano, spend hundreds — frequently thousands — of dollars on their choice, and then listen to it through $19.95 headphones. (See "Digital Piano Basics, Part 2" for a discussion of headphones.)

The final step is to "calibrate" your ears. Listen to recordings of solo piano. Listen to what you enjoy, be it jazz, classical, or ragtime — just listen a lot. For part of this listening, use the headphones you bought for your digital piano. This will embed in your head, as a benchmark, the sound of high-quality acoustic pianos. One of the great things about digital pianos is that if you love, say, honky-tonk piano, all you have to do is make sure the instruments you're considering have a Honky-Tonk setting. Then you can "change pianos" at will. But for the moment, listen to the best piano recordings you can get your ears on.

When you start to audition instruments, you'll become aware that some of what you're hearing isn't the instrument, or at least not what the instrument is supposed to do. Part of what you'll be hearing is the result of room acoustics and the instrument's placement in the showroom. If there are a lot of hard surfaces nearby — uncarpeted floors and large windows — the results will be different from what you'll hear in a "softer" environment, such as a carpeted living room with drapes, bookshelves, and upholstered furniture. Placement in the room will also affect the sound. If you're serious about buying a particular instrument, asking the dealer to move it to another part of the showroom isn't an unreasonable request. Another thing to be aware of is that the voice settings of most digital pianos include some degree of reverberation. This isn't a bad thing, but it's worthwhile to listen to the piano voice, and any other voices that are important to you, with the reverb and all other effects turned off. This will allow you to judge those voices without any coloration or masking from the effects.

IS THAT REALLY WOOD?
In the world of the acoustic piano, wood is a critical component that affects the instrument's fundamental tonal and mechanical properties, as well as its appearance. However, wood is not a required ingredient of digital pianos. The use of wood in digitals is primarily cosmetic and structural, such as in the keybed (which supports the action) and bracing. (Exceptions, such as wooden keys, are dealt with in "Digital Piano Basics, Part 1.") The stand or cabinet may be covered with artificial wood veneer, and even if the veneer is of real wood, the furniture core is typically made of an engineered wood product such as medium density fiberboard, or MDF. A staple of the furniture industry, MDF provides a rigid, stable material of which to build all manner of long-lived products.

Evaluating Tonal Quality

Almost by definition, evaluating an instrument's tone is very subjective, and judging the tone of instruments that have a lot of voices can be overwhelming. Your best bet is to select the five or six instruments you think you'll use most and make them the standard for comparison as you shop. If you choose the piano on which those voices sound best to you, it's likely you'll find the others satisfying as well.

Digital pianos are really computers disguised as pianos, and the engineers who design them strive to develop a set of sounds and features unique to their brand. Like some features of a PC, many of the capabilities of digitals are hidden from view, accessible by pressing a sequence of buttons or through multi-screen menus. While the owner's manual will explain how to access these features or sounds, it's impractical for you to study the manuals of every instrument under consideration. Enter the salesperson! This is one of those instances where a well-trained salesperson can be invaluable.

Most manufacturers arrange trainings for their retailers' sales staffs, to enable them to demonstrate the relative advantages of that brand's features. Even if you're a proficient player, having a salesperson demonstrate and play while you listen can be a valuable part of the evaluation process. But remember that the salesperson is not going home with you! Don't be swayed by his or her talent — a really good player can make even a poor-sounding piano "sing." Focus your attention on the instrument itself.

You should make sure that you get the answers to a few key questions, either through the salesperson's demonstration or your own experimentation:

Generally, one of the instrument voices used most frequently is the piano. There is a great deal of variation in "good" piano tone. Many players like a bright, crisp sound, while others prefer a mellower tone. Some like a great deal of harmonic content, others a bell-like clarity with fewer harmonics. Whatever your preference, will you be satisfied with the piano sound of the model you're considering?

Many instruments sound slightly different as a note begins to play. For example, a flute takes a quarter of a second or so to build up enough air pressure to reach the pitch of the note, resulting in a "breathiness" to the sound. The same is true of many other wind instruments. Guitarists and other players of stringed instruments "bend" notes by varying their touch. Jazz organs often have a percussive "pop" at the beginning of the note. How well do the digital voices of the model you're evaluating emulate the actual instruments?

Even entry-level standard digitals include such effects as Reverb and Chorus. More sophisticated models have many other effects, as described in the "Digital Piano Basics" articles. Having heard them demonstrated, do you think these effects will be useful to you?

Take your time. Following the salesperson's demonstration, most dealers will let you spend time experimenting — although some may prefer that you use headphones.

Evaluating Touch

Aside from sound, the most important element in the selection of an instrument is likely to be the feel of the action. Unless you're considering only digital pianos that employ an actual acoustic action (see "Hybrid Pianos," elsewhere in this issue), you'll be selecting from a variety of actions that all try to emulate the feel of an acoustic action. The aspect of action feel that seems to generate the most discussion is whether the touch weight is light or heavy, and which is better. This is covered in more detail in "Digital Piano Basics, Part 1," but here's the bottom line: Just as there is no single correct piano sound, there is no single correct touch weight; rather, there is a range of acceptable touch weights. If you spend the majority of your playing time with a heavy action, when you encounter an instrument with a lighter action, be it acoustic or digital, you'll play too heavily — and vice versa. The only cure is to play as many instruments as possible, as often as possible. Listen to how each piano responds and adjust your touch accordingly. You've probably driven cars with light steering and cars with heavy steering, and generally managed to avoid hitting any trees with either of them. With varied experience, you learn to adapt.

Common to acoustic and digital actions is mechanical noise. Digitals are frequently accused of having noisier actions because their sound can be reduced to a whisper or played through headphones, leaving the action noise audible, whereas the sound of an acoustic piano tends to always mask its action noise. This is not to say that some digital actions aren't unusually noisy, but to honestly compare them, you have to play them with the volume turned off. In addition to letting you compare action noise, this prevents your mind from judging the feel of an action based on the tone of the instrument.

New or Used?

Because digital technology advances at a blistering pace relative to acoustic-piano technology, there is much less interest in used digitals than in used acoustics. Many of today's digital pianos eclipse the capabilities of the models of even five years ago. Combine this technological advancement with the fact that support of older instruments may be limited — after production of a particular model ceases, electronics manufacturers are required to maintain replacement parts for only seven years — and investing in older models becomes worthy of serious second thoughts.

Owner's manuals no longer accompany many used instruments. If you find an interesting used instrument, make sure that the manual is either still with it, or is readily available from the manufacturer or on the Internet. The manual is your best tool for ensuring that everything on the instrument still works correctly. It's not simply a matter of pressing every key, button, and pedal to see that they work; to thoroughly check the instrument, you also need to know what some of the less obvious controls are supposed to do. None of this is to say that used instruments should be avoided — I've played ten-year-old digital pianos that worked perfectly. But when considering an older digital piano, extra care should be exercised.

Shopping Options

Your shopping options depend on the type of digital piano you've decided to buy and the region you live in. In North America, different categories of instruments are available through different types of outlets. Furniture-style models, particularly the higher-end models manufactured by the largest suppliers, are available only through traditional bricks-and-mortar piano or full-line music retailers. The lower-priced furniture-style, slab, or stage models, and some of the less widely distributed brands, are available from a cross section of traditional bricks-and-mortar music retailers, club and warehouse chains such as Costco, consumer-electronics chains such as Best Buy, and online retailers.

Perhaps the biggest difference between shopping for digital and acoustic pianos is that you usually want to make sure you get the specific acoustic piano you played on the showroom floor. But once you've decided on a model of digital piano, it doesn't matter if you get the one you actually tried or not. Every unit made of the same model will be identical to all other units.

Negotiating the price of a digital piano at a bricks-and-mortar retailer is no different from negotiating the price of an acoustic piano, which is discussed in "Piano Buying Basics," elsewhere in this issue. However, many of the simpler furniture-style digitals and nearly all portable or stage-piano models that are sold through a variety of local and online stores are virtually always sold at the same price, wherever you shop. This is due to a pricing model called minimum advertised price, or MAP, used for many categories of products. A manufacturer's or distributor's MAP is the lowest price at which a dealer is allowed to advertise an item. Since prices are easily compared and all retailers want an even chance to win your business, everyone advertises at the MAP. And since the MAP is typically lower than the price at which the dealer might have preferred to sell the item, the price almost never drops below the MAP. Therefore, MAP has become the standard pricing for all non-piano-dealer models of digital piano.

You should find out how warranty service is handled for the instrument you've selected — not only the terms related to coverage for parts and labor, but where the service is performed. Like acoustic pianos, most digital models available only through piano dealers have a warranty specifying in-home service; that is, the technician comes to you. Models sold outside of traditional piano stores must be brought to the technician's shop for warranty service. Ask your salesperson where the closest authorized service technician is located, or check the manufacturer's website.

You can see from the chart of digital piano specifications that it's not unusual for different models from the same manufacturer to have different warranty terms. It would be tempting to attribute this to differences in quality, but most often it's based on differences in anticipated use (home vs. commercial), and on marketing decisions for a given product segment. Unlike some warranties for acoustic pianos, I'm aware of no digital piano warranty that is transferable to a subsequent owner.

There are many decisions to be made when selecting a piano, digital or acoustic. But in the end, there is no substitute for playing and listening for yourself. The best anyone else can do is tell you what he or she would buy. But unless that person's requirements exactly match your own, all you'll end up with is a piano that's perfect for someone else.

Go out and try everything you can get your hands on — and enjoy the process! end

For more information

If, after reading the articles in Piano Buyer, you still have questions about buying a digital piano, I recommend visiting the Digital Pianos — Synths & Keyboards Forum on Piano World (www.pianoworld.com), the premiere website for everything related to pianos and pianists. The helpful folks there have a wealth of knowledge and advice they are happy to share.

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