Review: Kawai ES920
Flagship Slab on a Diet
Announced September 2020 and appearing in U.S. retailers in February 2021, the ES920 (MSRP $2,499; U.S. street price $1,599) is the new top model in Kawai’s ES line of portable digital pianos: 88-key, slab-style instruments light enough to be easily moved. The line includes the concurrently released ES520 as well as the ES110, which came to market in 2017. The ES920 replaces the now-discontinued ES8 of late 2015—a Piano Buyer “Staff Pick.” At time of writing, the ES110 and ES920 were available at dealers only in limited numbers—the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the supply chain for digital pianos, so check that your retailer actually has one in stock. We were unable to procure a review sample of the ES520, which is still in pre-order status at most North American sellers.
Slab digital pianos are popular with beginners because, compared with console, mini-grand, or, especially, hybrid pianos, they’re typically the manufacturer’s least-expensive digital option. The typical tradeoffs for their low price, light weight, and portability are less-realistic or less-refined–feeling keyboard actions, smaller speaker size, less powerful speaker amplifiers, and the absence of some popular features.
Which brings me back to the Kawai ES920, a member of an increasingly popular subsegment of the slab market that I call “flagship” slabs, and that includes such competitors as Roland’s new FP-90x and Yamaha’s venerable P515, the latter launched in 2018. Makers of flagship slabs offer better-quality actions and speaker systems than are found in most portables, which has made these models popular with several types of buyers: discerning owners of acoustic pianos looking for a second instrument for silent practice or portable use; beginning and intermediate players on a moderate budget shopping for something better than an entry-level digital; and gigging musicians who’d normally buy a stage piano, but want a slab with piano-centric features and the convenience of built-in speakers.
If you remember nothing else about this review, here is the single most important difference between the new Kawai ES920 and its predecessor, the ES8, and other manufacturers’ competing models: The ES920 offers the superior features expected in a flagship slab, but at far less weight than anything else on the market. At just 37.5 pounds, the ES920 is 11 pounds lighter than the Yamaha, 14.5 pounds lighter than the Roland, and 12 pounds lighter than Kawai’s ES8. If you have to move the piano frequently, or don’t have help carrying it around, this is a difference you’ll appreciate.
Even with the ES920’s significantly lower weight, Kawai was able to carry over its midrange Responsive Hammer III (RHIII) key action from the ES8, with Ivory Touch key surfaces, graded weighting from bass to treble, and subtle let-off simulation, the last to emulate the feel of an acoustic grand-piano action cycling under the player’s fingers. Kawai claims to have added some structural reinforcement to the latest iteration of this action for the ES920, which I believe was a running design change deployed in later production runs of the ES8. I can say that the two models’ actions feel basically identical to play, with a nonfatiguing touchweight that’s not as heavy as those of some competitors, and was great for longer practice sessions. The RHIII action is moderately quiet—if maybe a bit less so than Kawai’s upmarket Grand Feel action—and feels slightly elastic when the key bottoms out. I remember that characteristic from the first time I tried this action, on the CN25 console in 2015.
In my living room, I set up a new Kawai ES920 and a low-use ES8 side by side for three days of practice, atop similarly designed aftermarket stands and with the single F-10H pedal that Kawai provides as standard gear for both models. This pedal is capable of nuanced half-pedal effects, operates quietly, and has a rubberized bottom surface that keeps it from sliding around on most surfaces. Test music included Aaron Copland’s angular and provocative Piano Variations; the jazzy and upbeat Prelude from Nikolai Kapustin’s Eight Concert Etudes, Op.40 No.1; and improvising along with some favorite tracks from Tom Misch and Yussef Dayes’s excellent jazz/alternative album, What Kinda Music.
Although the old and new Kawai ES models share most of their features, their visual and ergonomic differences are fairly striking. New on the ES920 is a four-band equalizer on top, next to the OLED screen, which has more characters and better contrast than the ES8’s screen. Though most of the two instruments’ buttons have similar functions, the better spacing and design of the ES920’s buttons make it easier to use in a performance, as gigging musicians will instantly appreciate. The ubiquitous music desk—something that almost always looks awkward on a slab piano—has been redesigned: the ES8’s clunky wire unit, which fits into slots, has been replaced in the ES920 with a clear plastic panel similar to those of current competitors. Visually, this allows the desk to “disappear” even when in place; functionally, it provides better support for books and loose pages.
As part of the ES920’s crash diet, two of the ES8’s pleasing exterior design elements have been changed. The ES8’s low-gloss, smooth metallic top surface, acoustic-piano–like cheekblocks framing the keyboard, and the second headphone jack on the right side of the piano have been replaced by more typical matte plastic. The redesigned headphone jack at the far left of the front edge of the ES920 is a combination ⅛”-and-¼” unit that eliminates the need for an adapter, no matter what type of headphones you use.
The ES920’s audio samples and speakers include other significant upgrades from the ES8. In its marketing, Kawai has widely publicized its collaboration with consumer-audio company Onkyo. Kawai’s earliest production digital pianos designed with assistance from Onkyo in terms of amplifiers, speakers, and circuits were high-end models from 2017—the ES920 and ES520 are these companies’ first collaborative foray into portable slab pianos. Playing the ES8 and ES920 side by side through their speakers was particularly revealing. A combination of re-equalization of the piano samples with the ES920’s new speakers (two, 8 x 12cm) and amplifiers (two, 20W) resulted in sound of higher definition, with notable increases in midbass and treble output over the more midrangey-sounding ES8. The ES920’s soundstage also seemed wider. These differences were mostly positive to my ears, if perhaps a bit overdone, but no matter—the ES920’s four-band equalizer adjusted things to my taste in seconds, something not as easily done with other pianos. Menu options with preset equalizations, and a separate adjustment that changes the speaker response to compensate for the acoustic effects of placing the piano various distances from a wall or corner are also available. The new model’s amplifier and speakers are more powerful than the old’s. Playing a chord across the ES920’s keyboard at maximum volume (with the same force) resulted in peaks 2dB (14%) louder than on the ES8, as measured with a sound-level meter. Note: I was able to push the ES920 beyond, and into audible distortion, by setting both the volume and EQ to 100%. Caution is advised.
It’s common practice to use headphones with a slab digital piano, and I was happy to see that the ES920’s headphone amp provided plenty of power to drive both my open- and closed-back headphones to substantial volumes. This bodes well for those who own headphones of low and moderate impedance—a separate headphone amp for each will definitely not be needed. For headphone users, Kawai offers digital signal-processing (DSP) options called Spatial Headphone Sound (SHS). I preferred the Normal or Off setting for the piano sounds; the Forward and Wide settings sounded unnatural. The ES920 also offers preset equalizations for different types of headphones: Normal, Open, Semi-open, Closed, Inner-ear, and Canal. The Open setting was agreeable with my open-back headphones, and it’s nice to have an EQ setting specific to headphone use that doesn’t alter the tone through the piano’s speakers.
Kawai’s basic piano samples are familiar from the last couple of product releases. Sampled from the competition-winning and much-praised Shigeru Kawai acoustic piano line, the SK Concert Grand is warm, powerful, and my go-to 9′ concert-grand sound on the ES920, with nice, long (i.e., memory-intensive) sample lengths that add to the sound’s realism in lyrical classical pieces. Similarly modern is the sample of the 6′ 7″ SK-5 Grand Piano, with a comparatively less rich sound, restrained by the sample’s default reverb setting. The EX Concert Grand sample, based on an older Kawai 9′ model, has a decidedly shorter sample length but more prominent attack that should cut through mixes and ensembles more clearly. Finally, the Upright Piano sample, based on an older model of professional upright, Kawai’s K60, sounds convincingly like an upright (a lot of rock recordings use upright pianos, so I enjoy having this option). Again, it seems to be a shorter sample length with, perhaps intentionally, a sound that’s a little less refined. Each sound comes with a variety of selectable DSP reverbs with adjustable depth: Room, Lounge, Small Hall, Concert Hall, Live Hall, Cathedral. Also, Kawai’s Virtual Technician settings allow power users to tweak everything from tuning, dynamic response, string resonance, and pedal behavior, to such quirks of acoustic pianos as hammer, damper, and cabinet noises and resonances.
The ES920’s patches for electric pianos, organs, and electric basses all sound fantastically realistic. The Strings and Wood Bass (acoustic double bass) patches, and some of the Pad sounds, were all satisfactory, if not particularly special or class-leading. If Choir or Harpsichord sounds are high priorities, I’d look to offerings from Yamaha or Roland for more convincing patches.
Three quick adjustments are available via dedicated buttons above the keyboard: Reverb, Effects, and Amp Simulator (Amp). The Effects button varies in what it accomplishes, specific to the common effects used with the selected instrument; for example, a Leslie effect on the jazz organs, and a chorus or Ping-Pong delay on the Rhodes-like electric pianos. The Amp button engages an interesting sonic variation: a vintage, tube “suitcase guitar amp” sound.
A welcome feature of the ES920 is Bluetooth MIDI and Audio. Pairing my iPhone with the ES920 took all of 15 seconds without consulting the manual, and I was able to stream music over the Kawai’s speakers while playing along on the piano. Like many stage pianos, the ES920 has assignable registration-memory buttons, where you can save custom settings for easy reuse. Carried over from the ES8 are: a two-track, 10-song recorder (internal memory limit: 90,000 notes); and an audio player/recorder that uses external USB storage and records in .wav or .mp3 format for easy and realistic-sounding playback on other devices. There’s even a function that lets you overdub an existing recording on the piano and save it, and a built-in MIDI-to-audio file converter.
The ES920 retains many of the ES8’s wired and hardware connections: line in and out for connections to external speakers/amps; a USB Type-A port on top, a Type-B on the back; a stereo input; two types of pedal inputs; even traditional MIDI cable connections. Other features of the ES920 that have become typical for digital pianos include the ability to layer multiple sounds or split the keyboard into zones, a Four-Hands mode that’s useful for teaching on a single piano, a metronome, and transposition. There’s a rhythm section with backing accompaniments, including one-touch chord-accompaniment features. These can be fun for players of all abilities.
With an MSRP of $2,499 and a current, quite reasonable U.S. street price of $1,599, the Kawai ES920 packs a lot of power, performance, and functionality into a portable digital slab piano significantly lighter than its competitors, and with the sacrifice of relatively few features.
Complete specifications and Owner’s Manual can be found on the ES920’s product page. Kawai’s optional HM-5 designer stand costs another $259, though quality aftermarket stands can be found for $60 to $150. Opting for the F-302 three-pedal bar that connects to the factory stand (instead of the included F-10H single pedal) adds $169. Players using an aftermarket stand can instead purchase Kawai’s GFP-3 standalone three-pedal unit for around $125.
Dr. Owen Lovell, Piano Buyer’s Piano Review Editor, is Associate Professor of Music at Georgia College. He can be reached at [email protected].