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.
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.
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