Review: Yamaha Clavinova Models CLP-535 and CLP-575
I found Yamaha’s new Clavinova digital pianos to be a real pleasure to play. If I didn’t already own a Yamaha C3 6′ grand, I’d be writing a check for a CLP-575. I tried out these pianos at Music Exchange, a retail outlet in Dublin, California. I was impressed with their sound quality, solid construction, and user-friendly features.
The CLP-500 line ranges from the entry-level model 525 (MSRP: $2,199–2,599) up to the more full-featured 585 ($6,299–6,999). Music Exchange didn’t have the 585 in stock, so I focused on the 575 ($4,999–5,699) and the less expensive 535 ($2,899–3,399). The differences between them were subtle, not glaring — the 535, though less expensive, sounded good and played well. [Yamaha also offers a version in a grand-piano–shaped cabinet, model CLP565GP ($5,999), not reviewed here. — Ed.]
Physically, these pianos resemble a traditional spinet. The body, extending from the keyboard area down to the floor, contains the speakers and the pedal mechanism. Yamaha’s upscale CVP digital pianos have a broad front panel and a large display; the CLPs are more discreet in appearance. The control panel is set into the block at the left end of the keyboard, with a small LCD and 20 buttons. The labeling of the buttons is in small, dark gray lettering — elegant, but not easy to read in dim light.
The volume slider is at the right end of the keyboard. The speakers are tucked away out of sight in the body, and the connection jacks are in a block in the knee area, under the left side of the keyboard. The more expensive models have higher-wattage amplifiers and four or six speakers rather than two, which helps to create a more full-bodied piano tone. A standard lid slides out to cover the keyboard and to protect it from dust.
The CLPs are available in four finishes, including polished ebony. (My choice would be the handsome, matte dark rosewood.) From the 545 up, the music rack has flip-up music-book holders of brass. I wish I had these on my piano — having a music book fall shut while I’m playing is an annoyance. The holders angle upward rather than sticking up straight, making it easy to turn pages without tearing them.
Half-pedaling with the damper pedal worked properly. This is one of many features that added to the sensation that I was playing an acoustic piano. (I almost wrote, “that I was playing a real piano” — but these are
real pianos!) Unlike an upright acoustic, the CLP has three true pedals; the middle pedal is a sostenuto.
The 535 and 575 have 34 sounds: electric piano, double bass, harpsichord, and so on. The 585 also features Yamaha’s General MIDI-compatible XG sound set. Sounds can be split or layered on the keyboard, so you can play walking bass with the left hand, for instance, or layer strings with the piano sound. Digital effects (concert-hall reverb and a shimmering chorus/celeste process) are included and can be adjusted to taste. All of the CLPs have a built-in metronome, but from the 545 up, you also get some drum loops to practice with, which is more fun.
Naturally, you can transpose the keyboard up or down in half-steps or octaves, or adjust the fine tuning to something other than A-440. A few non-equal temperaments (such as Werckmeister) can be selected.
Yamaha Clavinova CLP-500 Series
Models At a Glance
Shown here are major features and specifications that differ from model to model, noting in which model each feature upgrade begins. Each model has many more features than are shown here. For a complete list of features and specifications, see http://usa.yamaha.com/products/musical-instruments/keyboards/digitalpianos/clp_series/
|Piano Sample||Yamaha CFIIIS||Yamaha CFX Bösendorfer Imperial||→||→||→||→|
|Damper Resonance||Yes||→||→||→||Virtual Resonance Modeling (VRM)||→|
|String Resonance||Yes||→||→||Virtual Resonance Modeling (VRM)||→|
|Graded Hammers (No. of weight zones)||4||→||→||→||88||→|
|Touch Sensitivity Levels||4||6||→||→||→||→|
|Wooden Naturals (White Keys)||Yes||Yes||→|
|Enhanced (GP) Damper Pedal||Yes||→|
|Effects||Reverb||Reverb, Chorus, Brilliance, Master Effect||Reverb, Chorus, Brilliance, Master Effect, Stereophonic Optimizer||→||→||→|
|RECORDING, MEMORY, STORAGE|
|USB Audio Recorder (WAV)||Yes||→||→||→||→|
|External Drives||USB Flash Memory||→||→||→||→|
|Connectivity Options||Headphones, USB to Host||Headphones, USB to Host, MIDI, Aux In, Aux Out, USB to Device||→||→||→||Headphones, USB to Host, MIDI, Aux In, Aux Out, USB to Device, Aux Pedal|
|AMPLIFIER, SPEAKERS, POWER|
|Amplifier (total watts)||40||60||100||70||160||180|
|Style||Digital Console||Digital Console||Digital Console||Acoustic Grand||Digital Console||Acoustic Upright|
|Est. Street Price or MAP||$1,700–2,000||$2,200–2,600||$2,900–3,400||$4,500||$3,900–4,500||$4,900–5,500|
Note: → indicates a value repeated from the previous column.
The Piano Sound
The CLP-500 series models generate tones using samples (digital recordings) of an actual piano. All but the 525 have two acoustic piano multisamples: the 9′ Yamaha CFX concert grand and the 9′ 6″ Bösendorfer Imperial. (Yamaha owns Bösendorfer.) The Bösendorfer has a richer, mellower tone; the CFX is brighter. The 34 available sounds include eight varieties of piano sound, such as Rock Grand and Mellow Grand.
Sampled pianos have come a long, long way in the past 30 years. Only an expert would be able to detect in the CLPs’ tones the almost imperceptible sonic artifacts that arise from sampling. I could hear long, slow loops (repeating samples) in the bass register, for instance, but in normal playing these were completely undetectable. The quality of the samples was wonderful. The amplitude envelopes — i.e., the decay of loudness as the note dies away — were perfect, as was the response to key velocity (harder and softer playing). Playing from the left end of the keyboard to the right end produced a good stereo sweep through the piano’s speakers, though this sweep was less noticeable through headphones.
The high end had the breathy, undamped quality of an acoustic piano. Curiously, though, the high-register notes sustained longer when the damper pedal was down. This is not the case with an acoustic piano, in which this range has no dampers. I liked this effect; it could be musically useful.
The note release in these pianos was a bit soft. On a real grand, releasing the damper pedal suddenly will cause a distinct thump as the dampers drop back onto the strings — an effect that occasionally can be musically relevant. The CLP’s damper pedal didn’t do that. Letting it pop up just produced the normal sound of a smooth note release. In addition to half-pedaling, I could catch notes with the damper pedal before they died away completely, for a sforzando-piano effect. Notes held with the sostenuto pedal exhibited a bit of sympathetic resonance when I played staccato notes above or below them, but the effect was less prominent than in an acoustic grand.
The two top models in the CLP-500 line, the 575 and 585, include a built-in digital effect that Yamaha calls Virtual Resonance Modeling (VRM). This is supposed to create the kind of sympathetic interaction heard between groups of strings in an acoustic piano. It can be switched on or off, but I almost couldn’t hear the difference. When I played open octave E’s with both hands, the VRM seemed to make individual notes blend just a tiny bit. When it was switched off, the notes were perhaps a bit more distinct. But this is not a feature that I feel excited about.
In an acoustic piano, the higher keys are actually lighter than the lower keys because of the difference in the hammers’ weight. The feel of this difference is fairly successfully emulated in the CLP-500 models with what are known as graded-hammer actions. The lower-end models are graded into four weight zones, whereas in the 575 and 585, each of the 88 hammers is a different weight, just as in a good-quality acoustic grand. Yamaha calls this an 88-key Linear Graded Hammer action. In several of the higher-end CLP models, the white keys are also made of real wood. These differences subtly affect the realism of touch — I noticed that the 535’s high keys felt just the slightest bit stiffer than the 575’s (though this will be of no concern to most piano students). On the other hand, the high keys in the 575 felt a bit springy. This springiness was not objectionable, but I detect nothing like it in the action of a real grand.
The key dip was exactly what my fingers would have expected from a good-quality acoustic piano, as was the velocity response. I felt I was playing a piano, not a compromise. The keytops of all the models in the CLP-500 line are made of synthetic ivory, similar to what Yamaha uses on its acoustic pianos. I’m sure this contributed to the authentic feel.
YAMAHA’S NEW APPS
Yamaha has developed a suite of iOS-compatible apps to enhance the Clavinova line, including the fun-to-watch “Visual Performer,” MIDI and video recording software, a digital library organizer, and NoteStar, a powerful digital sheet-music app. NoteStar currently comprises purchasable selections from the Hal Leonard Library (very similar to Apple’s App Store experience) and free supplemental methods in the public domain (e.g. Beyer, Czerny, Hanon). The app makes possible reading and turning the pages of sheet music hands-free, and provides a combination of MIDI and recorded backing tracks and practice tools. I experimented with a single from the latest Coldplay album — while displaying the sheet music, I could mute or mix the “sound-alike” vocal track, keyboard track, and backing tracks, and even adjust the tempo while preserving the original pitch. It’s a thoroughly modern alternative to printed sheet music, combined with the fun one usually experiences with karaoke!
— Owen Lovell
Five pad sounds (strings or choir) can be layered with the piano for a richer tone. The keyboard can also be split, allowing you to play a bass tone (acoustic, electric, or fretless electric) with the left hand and piano or organ with the right. The bass tones were excellent, as were the vibraphone and the nylon-string and steel-string guitars. The two pipe organs and the harpsichord were serviceable, but I didn’t care for the two jazz organs.
The Rhodes electric piano is sampled at four key-velocity levels. While the transitions from one velocity level to the next were audible, the samples were well matched, and the result was playable — and definitely superior to some velocity cross-switched electric pianos I’ve heard. The DX7-style FM electric piano sample was less playable.
The CLP-500 models have both MIDI and audio recording, which is very convenient for students — they can listen to their own playing and notice weak spots (a fairly brutal but useful process). Audio recording is done to an external USB memory device, but these pianos have their own internal memories for storing MIDI-based performances. You can record one part to the MIDI recorder, then play along with it using the same or a different sound. This would allow a teacher, for example, to record an accompaniment for a younger student to play over.
The auxiliary input jack (a stereo mini-jack suitable for connecting to your smartphone or tablet) both sends external sounds to the piano’s speakers, and allows them to be recorded as new audio along with the piano performance. This is a super feature for advanced students, though it will require that you have access to recordings of “backing tracks” to play along with.
There are two ¼” headphone jacks. When you plug in headphones, the speakers are bypassed — perfect for practicing in an apartment. USB in and out jacks allow connection to a computer or to a memory device for audio recording. You can set the MIDI channel of the keyboard, but other than the keyboard itself and the pedals, the CLP has no MIDI performance hardware (no pitch-bend wheel, for instance).
Whether to buy a digital or an acoustic piano is a choice that players and families will have to make based on their own needs. It’s still the case that a sampled digital piano doesn’t sound quite as big or as full as an acoustic, for reasons having to do with string resonance and the soundboard. But compared to 20 years ago, these differences are likely to concern only the most discerning musicians. In many musical situations, you really won’t be able to hear the difference.
For a family with a young piano student, or a pro who doesn ‘t have space in a home studio for a grand, or an adult amateur who just loves playing the piano, the advantages of Yamaha’s Clavinova CLP-500 models are jaw-dropping. The prices can’t be beat, you never need to have them tuned, they’re more portable than an acoustic piano, and you get the sound of a grand from a spinet-sized cabinet suitable for a small apartment — not to mention headphone jacks for practicing, a built-in recorder, and a variety of other sounds.
If your piano teacher tells you that only an acoustic piano will do, invite him or her down to the store to listen to one of the Clavinovas. Chances are, they’ll change their tune in a hurry.
Jim Aikin ([email protected]) has been reviewing synthesizers and other digital keyboards for Keyboard, Electronic Musician, and other magazines for more than 30 years. As an amateur pianist, he plays mostly Bach. He also teaches cello privately, plays in community orchestras, and composes and records in a computer-based home studio.