|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.
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.
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.