Acoustic or Digital: What’s Best for Me?


Should you buy an acoustic (traditional) piano or a digital (electronic) piano? For many, there will be no easy answer to this question. Many factors play into this seemingly simple decision, some practical, some not. Ideally, perhaps, the answer should be “Both” — take advantage of the “organic” qualities and connection with tradition of the acoustic piano, as well as the extreme flexibility of the digital. But assuming that, for a variety of reasons, “Both” isn’t an option, careful consideration of the advantages and disadvantages of each will probably quickly reveal which will be best for you.

The advantages of the acoustic piano start with the fact that it’s the “real thing,” inherently capable of nuances that are difficult for the digital piano to emulate. The experience of playing an acoustic piano — the harmonics, the vibrations, the touch, the visual appeal, the interaction with the room, the connection with tradition — is so complex that digitals cannot reproduce it all. And, provided that it’s a decent instrument and properly maintained, the acoustic will continue to serve you or a subsequent owner for several generations, after which it might be rebuilt and continue to make music.

Bluthner eKlavier, the Golden Tone Is Now a Digital Experience

If you’re a beginner, the tone and touch of a good-quality digital piano should not interfere with the elementary learning process for a while, but is likely to become less satisfactory as you advance. If your aspiration is to play classical piano literature, the choice is clear: A digital may serve as a temporary or quiet-time practice instrument (some well-known classical pianists request that a digital piano be placed in their hotel rooms for practice and warmup), but the first time you play an acoustic piano that stirs your soul, there will be no turning back. Although digitals continue to draw closer to the ideal, there is, as yet, nothing like the total experience of playing a fine acoustic instrument.

The downside of an acoustic piano? Initial cost is generally higher, they’re harder to move, the best ones take up a lot of space, and tuning and maintaining them adds several hundred dollars a year to their cost. And — most important — all they will ever be or sound like is a piano.

Kawai, Acoustic Tradition, Digital Innovation

So why do sales of digital pianos outnumber sales of acoustics by more than two to one? Because, in addition to making a piano sound, digitals can also sound like any other instrument imaginable. State-of-the-art digital pianos can allow a player with even the most basic keyboard skills to sound like an entire orchestra. Many models have features that will produce an entire band or orchestra accompanying you as the soloist. Digital pianos can also be used as player pianos. They can enhance learning with educational software. They can be attached to a computer, and you can have an entire recording studio at your fingertips, with the computer printing the sheet music for anything you play. Many fine players whose main piano is a quality acoustic also have a digital, providing the technology for band and/or orchestral compositions, transcriptions, and fun!

Add to all that the advantages of lower cost, convenience, lack of maintenance expense, the ability to play silently with headphones, meeting the needs of multiple family members, the obvious advantages for piano classes, and computer connectivity, and you have a powerful argument for the digital.

While digital pianos have a lot of advantages, it’s important to also consider the disadvantages. In addition to those related to learning and playing classical music, mentioned above, the life expectancy of a good digital piano is limited, primarily by obsolescence (digitals haven’t been around long enough to know how long they will physically last), while the life expectancy of a good acoustic piano is upward of 50 years. Acoustic pianos hold their value rather well, while digitals, like other electronics, quickly drop in value. Obviously, then, if you’re buying a starter instrument and plan to upgrade later, from a financial perspective you would do better to start with an acoustic piano.

Both variations have places in our musical lives. Now, which is right for you?

(If you’re still unsure, you might want to consider a hybrid piano — see our story on the subject in this issue.)

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5 thoughts on “Acoustic or Digital: What’s Best for Me?

  1. Hi, just an update on your comment that digital pianos may have a shorter life than acoustic pianos.
    While I think that may be true for indefinite use, my experience is close to proving that wrong. I bought my Yamaha Clavinova in about 1993 and it still plays and sounds beautifully. The “Concert Grand” sound still sounds like a concert grand.
    The only repairs in all of those years is a little WD-40 on the pedal now and then when it squeaks.
    I’m looking around now for something else in the house, but I won’t throw the old Yamaha away. I still love it, still play it often and will keep it around for nostalgia and a back up. And I suspect that one of my grand kids will inherit it when I’m gone.
    I don’t know how long they are supposed to last, but mine’s doing fine.

  2. I have shopped the 3 major Digital Pianos, Roland, Kawai and Yamaha. There are so many models out there, it’s very hard to decide which to buy.

    I have played a Mason & Hamlin Grand Piano for 35 years. I like my piano, but it’s too loud for the family, so I need a practice piano with head phones. . All digitals can use head phones. With this in mind here is what I found.

    For about $2000.00 you get a basic starter piano. Sound is OK, but touch is closer to an Organ than a piano. Perfect for a child to learn on.

    For $4000.00+ you get better touch, almost like an acoustic piano. Sound is nice and so many electronic features it would take me a lifetime to learn them all.

    For $6500.00+ you can get a REAL piano action and better sound. Yamaha and Kawai use their acoustic piano actions in these digitals. Roland doesn’t make an acoustic piano, but to my ear, Roland has the best sound. You can pay well over $10k for top of the line Kawais and Yamahas. There are also pianos that are both acoustic and digital. These are not for me so I didn’t look at them.

    In general, as with most things, you get what you pay for. IMHO

  3. “While digital pianos have a lot of advantages, it’s important to also consider the disadvantages. In addition to those related to learning and playing classical music…”

    I highly doubt this is still true. What piece can be acceptably played on a Kawai GL-10 that cannot be acceptably played (objectively) on a Kawai CA99 (or CA79 for that matter)?

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