By Stephen Fortner
The G1B Air is Korg’s latest entry in what we might call the category of “lifestyle” digital pianos. Such instruments prioritize the core piano virtues of acoustic-piano sound and keyboard feel in an aesthetically pleasing package that can be tucked into a small apartment and still leave room for your work-at-home desk.
The price is certainly right: $1,799 for the G1B Air at retailers I surveyed, with some (notably Kraft Music) bundling a bench, headphones, and even a subwoofer while keeping the price under $2,000. Let’s find out what that gets you. (A note on the product name: Air denotes Bluetooth Audio streaming and B refers to the addition of a cosmetic “privacy panel” as part of the integrated stand. The G1B Air is otherwise identical to models that may have been called G1 Air or just G1, and appears to have replaced them at U.S. retailers.)
Design and Assembly
The G1B Air comes flat-packed in a box that’s easily managed with a hand truck. There are seven main pieces: the keyboard/electronics assembly, the left and right side panels, the speaker box, a three-pedal assembly, a kickboard that holds the pedals in place, and the aforementioned cosmetic panel. All screws and hardware needed for assembly, as well as two anti-tip brackets, are included. All you supply is a Phillips screwdriver.
My review sample came in the new White Ash finish, which I found quite attractive: off-white with tan highlights, not too much yellow, and visible woodgrain. The overall look is neither as formal as black nor as antiseptic as white, and it blends well with contemporary, minimalist décor. Korg says it evokes a “restful” feeling. Fair enough — if I’m not getting enough rest, it’s probably my analog synthesizers’ fault!
Assembly isn’t difficult, but it’s not trivial. Read and reread the instructions carefully, lay out the pieces, tighten screws only partially at first, finesse gaps and screw alignments as you go, and have a plan. The instructions warn that this is a two-person project, and I’ll add that at least one of those persons should be comfortable assembling IKEA furniture. Follow the steps in order, especially turning the unit upright only afteryou’ve attached the pedal kickboard between the side panels. The main unit will be attached to the side-panel brackets with just four screws (see Fig. 2), so you need the lateral stability the kickboard (and, later, the speaker box) provides.
The printed instructions are squinty. I recommend instead Korg’s website, where you can blow up the PDF version on your computer screen and refer to color photos. The PDF also corrects an error in my printed manual: Step 8 calls for two “M4 long” screws, which you’ll have run out of by then. In fact, they’re M4 short screws, enough of which are indeed included.
Once assembled, the piano is best placed against a wall, as the rear-panel surface is unfinished.
Keyboard and Pedals
The G1B Air uses Korg’s RH3 action. RH stands for real hammers, and when you play it, you’ll swear there were 88 of them inside. The action is graded, with resistance going from heavier to lighter as you ascend the keyboard, as on an acoustic piano.
Out of the box, without adjusting the touch-response curves, the G1B Air played like a medium-weight acoustic upright: neither too heavy for the hands of beginners and students, nor too light for their teachers to take seriously. I found I could get real speed going in Beringer exercises without finger fatigue, but I could also dig in like Jerry Lee Liszt without feeling I was overwhelming the action. The heaviest of the five touch-response settings gave me a workout.
The fallboard doubles as a music rack when open, and has a soft-close mechanism to prevent slamming. The three-pedal unit supports true sostenuto as well as half-pedaling, which means that pressing the damper pedal partway produces partial sustain. Both of these features are essential to traditional acoustic-piano performance.
The G1B Air’s pedal assembly is held in place by the kickboard, which fits into flanges on the top of the black plastic pedal housing. There’s also a push rivet on the rear, to ensure that the pedals don’t fall out if you lift or move the piano.
The G1B Air’s star attractions are its “German,” “Austrian,” and “Japanese” piano samples. An instrument maker can’t always name names, due to intellectual-property concerns, but we can: Respectively, these aliases indicate Steinway, Bösendorfer, and Yamaha concert grands. (“German” implies a Hamburg as opposed to New York Steinway, but let’s not fall down that rabbit hole.)
At first play, the three samples definitely sounded different from one another in terms of tonal balance across the pitch range, the Austrian having the most thunderous bass and the Japanese sounding a bit more bright and jazzy. That said, I couldn’t pick a favorite, nor do I think I could have guessed correctly if, before I’d tried them, you’d played each for me and asked, “Which piano is this supposed to sound like?”
Further investigation revealed that these piano tones have considerably more depth and fidelity than can be reproduced by the piano’s onboard speaker system. But things really came alive when I connected the instrument’s ⅛” stereo line output to a mixer, which then fed my pricey, reference-grade ADAM S2A studio monitors. Now I could hear the resemblance of each sample’s character to its acoustic counterpart, as well as the sympathetic string resonance that Korg’s previous-generation lifestyle piano, the C1 series, lacked. No question: Serious effort and attention to detail went into the sampling sessions for these sounds, and I found all three deeply enjoyable to play. A good pair of headphones will be well worth the investment.
Digital reproductions of acoustic pianos are rated as much on the basis of what you don’t hear as what you do. Critical listening through my studio monitors revealed no such artifacts as sample loop points when notes are sustained, obvious differences (“breaks”) between groups of samples originally taken at different finger velocities, and the like.
Three variants on each piano nationality are accessed by pressing the Select arrow buttons, and the third variant adds a chorus effect — not so much a detuned or honky-tonk sound as an affectation reminiscent of Journey’s jukebox anthem “Don’t Stop Believin’.”
Twenty more presets round out the G1B Air’s instrument sounds, with these highlights: an octave-doubled Salsa Piano; a quite accurate Electric Grand; variants on Rhodes, Wurlitzer, and Yamaha DX-style electric pianos; Harpsichord; Clavinet; Vibraphone; an “ahh” choir; and three string ensembles. The electric pianos had plenty of soul for playing pop songs, and the strings were both lush and articulate. Two each of Hammond-style and pipe organs did a decent job, and a nylon-string acoustic guitar was highly expressive.
Regardless of the sound selected or the position of its volume knob, the G1B Air had a bit of a noise floor — a quiet shhh that was always audible in my quiet studio. Still, it wasn’t obtrusive while I played, and the normal sounds of a family room or city dwelling will more than drown it out, even with the windows closed.
Splits and Layers
The G1B Air’s keyboard can be split, to play different sounds with the left and right hands. To engage this mode, press the Split button, then press it again to step through the available sounds for the left-hand part. There are three: electric bass guitar, acoustic double bass, and acoustic double bass with ride cymbal. Although this covers the usual bases (pun intended) for accompanying yourself, it’s surprising that you can’t put, say, strings or choir in the left hand, to hold chords while you solo with the right. Splits are also the only context in which you encounter these bass sounds. To set the split point, hold the Split button and strike a key: that key then becomes the topmost note of the left-hand part.
Layer mode is more generous with sound choices. You can layer any two sounds by holding down one sound-category button while pressing another. The up/down Select arrow buttons will then choose sounds within the first category you pressed. I quickly achieved some acoustic/electric piano layers reminiscent of the ones used in Steely Dan’s “Gaucho.” Layering two acoustic pianos together is sure to produce a chorus effect; once, this effect stuck around even after I’d removed the second piano. Powering the G1B Air off and then on again resolved the issue.
Song Recording and Other Features
A two-track MIDI recorder is standard issue on many digital pianos, and the G1B Air follows suit. You can record one part, then another, and then save the results in one of 99 user memory locations. In addition, 50 pre-recorded songs form a respectable slate of must-know piano repertoire. Ten of these are flagged as demo songs, and some of those showcase non-piano sounds. Among the Bach, Beethoven, Debussy, Ravel, Schubert, and such are modern nuggets from Russell Ferrante of jazz-fusion band The Yellowjackets, Korg’s longtime sound designer Jack Hotop, and my Piano Buyer colleague (and former Korg marketing maven) Jerry Kovarsky.
Other than the ability to slow the tempo to learn these compositions, the G1B Air is light on educational features. Partner Mode (a.k.a. duet mode) splits the keyboard into equal pitch ranges so that a student and teacher, or parent and child, can sit side by side to play the same material. Each side can be octave-shifted as well. A built-in metronome places a different-sounding click on the first beat of the measure, and provides the time signatures 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, and 6/4, but not 5/4. Sorry, Brubeck fans.
The Function button accesses all of the G1B Air’s under-the-hood settings, with the Select arrows choosing the function and the Tempo buttons changing the value for that function. Here is where you’ll be able to control, for example, the intensity of the reverb, brilliance, and chorus effects. Tuning, scale temperaments, key transposition, split and layer volume balance, song management, Partner Mode, MIDI settings, and timing for the auto power-off feature are also found here. Stepping through functions with the arrows can get a bit tedious, but Korg is obviously minimizing the number of physical controls to keep the price low. At any rate, I still prefer this method to holding down a button and striking a keyboard key to change a setting. Some digital pianos that work that way offer no visual feedback; the G1B Air’s three-character LED is basic but clearly describes what’s going on.
Selecting a new preset doesn’t cut off any sustained notes using the previous sound, a nice touch that synthesizer folks call “patch remain” — you’ll hear the new preset when you start playing new notes. Oddly, engaging the Function button does silence held notes.
As mentioned, Air indicates a G1B equipped with Bluetooth. This lets you stream audio from a paired smartphone or other device through the piano’s built-in speakers, making it easy to play along with favorite songs, or a file a music teacher has given as homework — the latter likely in these days of the coronavirus pandemic, with so many lessons being conducted remotely. The G1B Air has a one-minute pairing window on power-up, during which it appears in your device’s Bluetooth settings menu. If your device asks for a passcode, it’s “0000.”
Only your Bluetooth device’s volume control affects the level, the idea being that you can balance the background music with your playing using separate controls. This also applies to your ringtones and system sounds, so check your device’s settings to avoid loud surprises.
The G1B Air is equipped with a stereo sound system consisting of a 5cm tweeter and 12cm midrange-woofer on either side. Each driver is powered by its own 20-watt amplifier. The larger speakers face your knees from the speaker box; the smaller ones fire upward from inside the piano unit itself.
I found this setup more than adequate for practice and casual playing, but, as noted above in my discussion of the main piano tones, it didn’t do justice to the G1B Air sound engine’s capabilities. To my ears, its response was somewhat midrange-weighted and therefore boxy in the bottom two octaves. Highs, on the other hand, were clear. The Function menu contains no EQ settings, but plugging into a headphone jack disables the speakers. I inserted a short ⅛” cable to do this, and, again, the G1B Air sounded gorgeous through my ADAM studio monitors.
On the other hand, the G1B Air’s speakers fared surprisingly decently with Bluetooth-streamed music from my iPhone, reproducing the bass tones of Stanley Clarke’s “Silly Putty” without flab. And when I switched to Vince Guaraldi’s music for A Charlie Brown Christmas, much of the detail of that marvelous recording came through.
Whether playing the piano’s internal sounds or an external source, the G1B Air’s speakers couldplay plenty loud while remaining clean sounding — don’t get me wrong, they’re certainly a step up from the smaller and solely upward-facing speakers in many slab-style digital pianos. It’s just that, specs-wise, this complement of speakers and amps led me to expect even more of a hi-fi experience.
Connections are on the underside of the main piano unit, at the rear. These include locking multipin plugs for the speaker box and pedal cables, an inlet for the 24VDC mains supply, the ⅛” stereo line out, a USB-B port, and MIDI in/out. The G1B can stream MIDI data (but not audio) to and from a computer via USB; for this, Korg recommends installing their driver. A USB storage mode mounts the G1B as a drive on your desktop so that you can save and load song data, but only as a single file in which the piano’s entire contents are saved — there’s no way to move individual song files between the G1B Air and the outside world. You can also record and play back MIDI in real time using a DAW program. In this case, the G1B Air can be set to act as a multi-timbral MIDI device; that is, it can play multiple instrument sounds simultaneously. Finally, two ⅛” headphone output jacks are recessed under the left side of the piano.
The Korg G1B and G1B Air have some very strong suits, the top three being world-class piano sounds, a great-feeling keyboard action, and a diverse repertoire of internal songs. Those aspects punch above its price, which is already lower than those of many console digital pianos with similarly basic feature sets. The biggest Achilles’ heel is the internal speaker system, but keep in mind that I’m a jaded audio snob — you may like it a lot more than I did — and again, the underlying sounds have much more going on than at first meets the ear. You’ll also want to look elsewhere for such bells and whistles as auto-accompaniment, interactive music-learning modes or companion tablet apps, though the Air model’s Bluetooth streaming is a cool perk.
In other words, Korg’s G1B family does exactly what a lifestyle digital piano is supposed to do: It provides a solid piano experience for individuals and families for whom an acoustic piano is not a practical option, and at a price that makes it impossible to ignore as you narrow your search.
Stephen Fortner is the former editor-in-chief of Keyboard magazine, and a lifelong pianist, organist, and synthesist. He now operates Fortner Media, a consulting firm providing content to the musical instrument and professional audio industries.