How to Buy a Digital Piano

Updated: Aug 15

Alden Skinner and Piano Buyer Staff

If you’ve decided on a digital piano, the next step is to shop for and select the right model for your needs. There are currently some 200 models of digital piano on the market. Narrowing the field requires exploring some basic issues.

Style and Price

Digital pianos come in three basic physical styles: slab, console (also sometimes called vertical or upright), and grand (see illustrations). Which instrument style you choose will depend on use, space limitations, furniture requirements, and price.

Slab: A slab is simply a keyboard and, usually, pedal(s), without a stand. If you need to take the piano to a gig, or if home is a dorm room or a small studio apartment and you need to make the most efficient use of every square inch, you may opt for a slab that can be placed on a stand or table for practice, and stuck in a closet when not in use. Keep in mind, however, that slabs currently on the market weigh from 20 to 85 pounds, so be sure to choose one with a weight that you can handle.

Slabs generally come with a single pedal, but for many models, optional stands and three-pedal units are available. You may need to buy the slab, stand, and pedal unit separately and put them together, or a retailer you buy from may sell you all the parts as a package deal. Slab digital pianos start as low as $200, with most priced between $500 and $2,000, and a few as high as $7,000. An optional matching stand with integrated pedal assembly usually costs $200 to $300 more, but a simple, generic stand can be had for as little as $40. Note that some slabs don’t come with a stand to hold your music; you might need to provide one.

Console: A console is a keyboard with a stand or cabinet that contains a built-in pedal assembly. A console may look like an upright acoustic piano or organ, or simply like a digital piano. Consoles generally have a stand and pedal assembly built in at the factory. However, as mentioned above, many slabs can effectively be turned into a console by separately buying a stand with an integrated pedal assembly.

The cabinetry of console models ranges from two flat side supports with a cross member for stability, to elegant designs that would look at home in the most posh surroundings. It’s common for models in this category to be available in multiple finish options, including synthetic wood grain, real-wood veneers, and, on some of the better models, the lustrous polished ebony often found on acoustic pianos. Most of these models have the usual three pedals. Console digitals start at about $500, with most priced between $1,000 and $5,000, and a few as high as $10,000.

Grand: If the piano will be in elegant surroundings, you may choose a grand-style digital. Digital grands come in lengths of about three feet — just long enough to suggest the shape of a baby grand — to about five feet. Like some of the console models, these are often available in a variety of wood-grain finishes and the polished ebony finish common in today’s acoustic grands. You will usually pay a premium for the elegant furniture. Grands start at $1,500, with most priced between $3,000 and $10,000, and a few as high as $20,000.

Note that there is little or no relationship between an instrument’s physical style and its musical features — slabs are often used on stage by professional musicians, and grand-shaped digitals may have features no better than the non-grand versions they’re based on. However, the larger spaces enclosed by a grand-piano cabinet and some console cabinets can accommodate more, larger, and more advantageously positioned speakers, particularly bass speakers (woofers). This, and the sympathetic vibration of a wood cabinet, may result in better sound quality from the onboard speakers of some cabinet models than that found in digitals without cabinets, especially slabs.

Speakers, Headphones, and Stage Pianos

Most people who buy a digital piano do so, in part, so that they can play with headphones and not disturb anyone. For that reason, all digital pianos come with headphone jacks. When used with headphones, most instruments’ onboard (internal) speakers are silenced. Also, nearly all digital pianos can have the sound of their onboard speakers rerouted to an external amplifier and speakers if, for example, the onboard speakers are inadequate for the venue, or if you’d prefer to use the speakers of your home audio system.

Some slab digitals come without onboard speakers. These are called stage pianos, and are generally used by professional musicians in performance venues where an external amplifier and speakers are expected to be present. Not having onboard speakers saves a little bit in cost, weight, and space. However, if you’re planning to use the instrument at home most of the time, the convenience of having at least some onboard speakers is generally worth the trade-off.

(Note: The stage piano category also includes a few models of electronic keyboard with fewer than 88 notes and/or with keys that are not weighted to feel like an acoustic piano. For our purposes, those models are not considered digital pianos and are not included in our database.)

Taking Stock of Your Musical 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 piano’s primary player today, and what are his or her musical interests and ambitions? 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 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 educational 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 different needs of several people. Fortunately, the wealth of available choices can easily accommodate any combination of individual and/or family needs.

Instrumental Voices (Sounds) and Ensemble Capabilities

Sounds in digital pianos are also known as voices or tones. Voices can include such sounds as:

  • Individual musical instruments, such as piano, electric piano, guitar, flute, etc.

  • Combinations of instruments, such as a string or brass ensemble

  • Percussion sounds, such as snare drum or cymbals

  • The human voice

  • Unusual sound effects, such as gunshot or helicopter

Some digital pianos may contain more than one example of a particular type of voice, especially piano, such as bright- and mellow-sounding pianos, or pianos that mimic the tonal characteristics of several different well-known makes of concert grand.

Standard or traditional digital pianos are designed mainly to emulate the acoustic piano, with the optional accompaniment of one or more other voices. Most will allow you to split the keyboard so that the right hand plays a melody in one instrumental voice while the left hand plays an accompaniment in another (such as piano and string bass); or to layer the sounds so that two or more instrumental voices sound together (such as piano and strings) when each key is played. These days, even the least-expensive standard digitals usually have at least a few different piano voices, as well as a dozen or two other instrumental voices, such as harpsichord, church and jazz organ, vibes, and strings. Many models contain hundreds of voices, built-in rhythms, sound effects like reverb and chorus, and a metronome for keeping time, among other features.

Other, slightly more expensive models, called ensemble or arranger digital pianos, generally have all the features of standard digitals, but also come with two other major features: Easy-Play and Auto-Accompaniment. With Easy-Play, playing as little as a single key will trigger the sound of an entire chord. With Auto-Accompaniment, an entire musical combo or orchestra (strings, horns, percussion, etc.) will back you up as you play, and automatically change its accompaniment to match your melody or changing chords. These backing tracks, known as styles, come in all kinds of musical forms, such as Swing, Latin, Rock, World, and so forth — with many different rhythms and special effects. The best of these styles are of a caliber that will please the most discerning ear.

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. The instant gratification provided by auto-accompaniment might keep a player with low attention span more fully engaged. For an advancing player, the opportunities for musical creativity are significantly enhanced. On the other hand, if you’re the only player and expect to play mostly classical piano music, you may not want to spend money on the ensemble feature.

When looking over the specs of digital pianos, it’s easy to be impressed by the large number of voices that some models contain, and there was a time in the recent past when the number of voices was closely related to an instrument’s quality and price. That’s no longer necessarily true. First, the price of memory has plummeted to the extent that even the least expensive models can be outfitted with hundreds of voices. Second, the quality of the voices, which is related to the amount of memory they take up, varies considerably; more voices doesn’t necessarily mean a better instrument. It’s expensive for a manufacturer to create or purchase custom, high-quality sounds, and these sounds take up a lot of memory. When an instrument contains more than a few dozen voices, often most of the rest are from a standardized set of voices, sometimes usable only for playback of files created elsewhere, but not selectable from the instrument panel by the user; or from a company’s library of legacy (older) voices; both usually using less memory, and therefore of lower quality than the company’s latest offerings. That said, these additional voices can still come in handy for the power user who needs a certain unusual sound or combination of sounds, or for the playback of some music files that call for them. And ensemble digitals, with the diverse instrumentation contained in their many styles, can make good use of the extra voices. But most home users of standard digital pianos will find a dozen or two high-quality voices to be more than sufficient.

Keep in mind also that we’ve been speaking here only of an instrument’s internal voices. These days, it’s also possible to install additional high-quality piano and instrumental voices on your computer, and play them using your digital piano as a keyboard controller; or to download voices to the digital piano directly from the Internet via Bluetooth (both discussed later).

Piano Sound and Acoustic Piano Realism

Manufacturers create digital piano sounds either by recording actual pianos (known as sampling) or by using mathematical algorithms to mimic the acoustic properties of piano sounds (known as physical modeling). Some instruments employ a combination of the two methods. Whereas even the most expensive acoustic piano has only a single set of sound characteristics, many modestly priced digital pianos can reproduce the sounds of multiple sampled concert grands, pianos with different tonal characteristics, and imitations of vintage electronic keyboards, among others. Digital pianos that use physical modeling, and some that use sampling, may even allow the user to make extensive custom refinements to the built-in piano sounds.

Some kinds of music, especially classical, require a level of musical expression that traditional acoustic pianos have evolved to satisfy. For those who play, or plan to play, this music, the ability of a digital piano to imitate the sound, touch, and pedaling of an acoustic piano is important. For players of other kinds of music, however, the ability of a digital piano to sound or play like an acoustic one may be less important. Although virtually all digital pianos are designed to imitate acoustic pianos to some extent — that’s why they’re called digital pianos, not electronic keyboards — they vary considerably in how accurately and thoroughly they do so.

The better digital pianos more accurately imitate an acoustic piano by, among other things:

  • Re-creating the piano’s acoustical resonance, and the sympathetic vibrations of the strings of an acoustic piano’s unplayed notes — that is, the keys the player hasn’t struck — especially when the sustain pedal is depressed, as well as the sound of a vibrating string being silenced by a damper when a key is released: sounds that are subconsciously part of the acoustic-piano experience.

  • Having a larger number of speakers, or speakers that are better positioned; or special features like a soundboard speaker system, in which an acoustic-piano–style soundboard is used as a “speaker.”

  • Containing higher-quality key sensors to more accurately translate the speed with which a key is depressed into sound volume; re-creating the acoustic-piano action’s feel of “escapement” as a key is depressed, and having wooden keys with keytops that imitate the feel of ivory, which absorbs sweat and so is less slippery to the touch than plastic.

  • Including three pedals that perform the same functions as on an acoustic grand (soft, sostenuto, sustain), and a sustain pedal capable of half pedaling, a pedaling technique used by advanced players.

Note that all of the models that we consider to be digital pianos have 88 notes, the keys are weighted, and, in virtually all of them, the touchweights are graded (i.e., the resistance to your touch gradually decreases from bass to treble) across the range of the keyboard — all just as in an acoustic piano. Instruments with fewer than 88 notes, or with semi-weighted keyboards that depend on springs for their weight, should be avoided by those looking for a realistic acoustic-piano experience.

Connecting to a Computer

Virtually all digital pianos can be connected to a personal computer, allowing you to:

  • Use computer software and a printer to record, notate (write), edit, and print the music you play

  • Use software that will, for example, help you learn to play piano, train your musical ear, or teach you music history

  • Use your digital piano as a keyboard controller for playing virtual instruments (i.e., instrumental sounds that reside on your computer)

  • Play duets or practice with someone in a different location