As a classically-trained (but somewhat inattentive) pianist, watching emergent technologies attempt to recreate the sound of an acoustic piano over the last couple of decades has been at least a little amusing. Unlike the sounds of synthetic strings and horns, whose awkward reproductions a lot of us were willing to forgive in the ‘80s, our demands for an authentic acoustic piano sound are a little higher.
They’ve come close, of course, but not at first. Acoustic pianists had to make some bargains with themselves in the first wave of digital pianos. The first era of DP’s was typified by the Yamaha CP-80—which wasn’t strictly digital, it had mallet-struck strings—with its grainy overtones and gratuitous flange, but it didn’t hurt folks’ affection for Genesis’ “That’s All” or Hall & Oates’ “Kiss On My List.” With the advent of FM synthesis, recreating the naturalness of acoustic pianos—or any analog instrument, really—was not a high priority for awhile, at least until the last DX7 was sold to a pawnshop.
As sampling technology advanced, though, hope rose that a keyboard with all the natural piano sound and none of the physical size would emerge. For most listeners, and even a lot of players, the digital piano sounds of the last 15 years have been just fine. But under closer inspection, oddballs like myself found a few blemishes in the recreations that broke the fourth wall. Like the natural sound of a sustained piano note suddenly sounding like the aftermath of a guitar power chord, or tiny electronic blips touching off at the strike of a high-octave note. These telltale traits were like chemtrails, and the people that heard them like myself were just as nuts as — well, the people who believe in actual chemtrails.
But the last decade or so has seen huge improvement. Serious advances—especially in the areas of touch sensitivity and sampling density—have reduced the artificial taint of the digital piano. Best of all, the upgrade isn’t just constrained to high-end professional keyboards or multi-tiered workstations. The quality of beginner’s, home- and consumer-oriented digital pianos has kept up pace as well. And while you can still tell the difference between an acoustic piano and its robot knock-off, the distinction is fuzzier than ever. Besides, your screaming fans probably won’t notice, and if they do they’ll forgive you as well.
These 11 keyboards all have strong real keyboard sounds relative to their size, complexity and retail price. This list is a mix of more modest consumer keyboards, home-centric units and professional, studio- and stage-ready upper-end models. All of them deliver good quality piano sounds compared to others in their respective categories, and the very top choices are landmark instruments in their own right.
11. Williams Allegro 2
Williams Pianos are known — well, to be honest, not that known — for their extreme affordability and acceptability as beginners’ pianos. The Allegro and Legato lines feature ultra-compact cabinets that cost less than an Xbox and take up only a little more dorm-room space. You get what you pay for, of course, and Williams keyboards are not overloaded with the nuances or playability of its less anonymous competitors. For a budget item, though, the Williams Allegro 2 has as good a piano sound as any instrument under $500, with a decent, medium bitrate resonance and semi-weighted key action. In fact the piano sound of the Allegro beats the more expensive, bigger Williams models, and could be useful for demo tapes and late-night sing-alongs by semi-conscious lounge acts. Given its price, portability, and extremely unpretentious use of physical storage, the Allegro deserves some credit.
10. Roland RD2000
The high-end stage piano from consistent Roland is worthy of a special citation for its electric piano sounds, which are outstanding. The faux Fender Rhodes patches are some of the most accurate out there, conjuring up the hazy sophistication of decent ‘70s fusion and yacht rock. The acoustic piano sounds are crisp in attack and highly faithful, although there’s a bit of an electronic footprint in sustained and decaying notes. That blip doesn’t quite register in normal listening situations, though, and the RD2000 gives the player a lot of options to shape the sound to their liking. The richness and depth of the middle and lower ranges are of great comfort.
9. Suzuki MDG-300
Resembling a baby grand that got caught in the Death Star trash compactor, the Suzuki MDG-300 is one of the most unique-looking home-entertainment models you can buy. A lot of other reviews hold it in very high esteem, and the playing experience is very enjoyable, owing a lot to its unusual design. Its sound profile is a little strange, though—there are sawtooth elements in the overtones, and nobody will be fooled into thinking it’s not electronic. But it has a pleasantly assertive sound and a ringing clarity that serves it well. What it lacks in naturalism is almost compensated by its dynamic power if you don’t look too closely behind the curtain, or in this case under the lid.
8. Kawai KDP90
With its 88-key sampling and painstaking attention to detail, the Kawai KDP90 is a little more authentic than most other beginning level, wall-unit digital pianos. The hammer-style keys replicate the weight of an acoustic Kawai sufficiently enough, and the recreation of three damper and sustain pedals gives the player an unusual level of control for an instrument of this very basic style. The sound is unusually warm and expressive, so it’s especially suited for light-to-moderate paces. The range of sensitivity isn’t quite as robust as needed to launch it into the upper echelon—it’s great for sonatas, not so much for barrelhouse rhythms—but for the confines of your living room and refinished basement, and certainly for learners’ or songwriters’ purposes, it’s a good replication of the unique Kawai experience.
7. Samick Ebony Neo
We’re kind of cheating here, because the Neo from Samick is most accurately described as a “hybrid” between electronic and acoustic components. Thanks to the clever concealment of the controls, it looks like a basic, latter-era upright piano. It has an acoustic soundboard housed in a well-proportioned cabinet. So it may make sense that the Neo is strongly geared towards the pianist, as opposed to the keyboardist, even though it offers a few additional voicings, mainly as afterthoughts. The piano sound’s what you’re after with the Neo, and it’s exceptional. It’s especially clean in the mid-to-upper ranges, without much at all in the way of digital residue in long sustains or fast action. Only in quick hits on the attacks of bass notes does the Neo betray its electronic quality at all, but it’s not that noticeable. The Neo’s large, rather hard to move and pricier than all the other units on this list, but it’s as close to a piano experience as the best of them.
6. Kurzweil Forte
Quite often the innocent inclination to simply “play” a Kurzweil keyboard eventually results in mind-bending experimentation and finishing whole movie scores between midnight and 3am. They put a lot of thought into these things, as befits their shamanistic leader. Stripped down to a basic piano delivery device, though, the Forte line nails it. Its 7- and 9-foot grand piano samples are rich and reactive, with natural attack and only slight hints of digital crosstalk in the tail. It’s a 76-note keyboard, but the considerable muscle of its 16GB sample Flash Play technology, 3+GB sample memory and ultra-high responsiveness makes up for the lack of the special-occasion-only other twelve keys.
5. Roland RD-300NX
One of the older items on this list, Roland’s compact stage keyboard still offers a playing experience and sound fidelity that remains strong even as new models crop up. The innovative SuperNATURAL engine, which deepened the dynamic components and complexities of samples, fuels the RD-300NX, and the piano sound is the most obvious beneficiary. The keyboard stands up to variances in tone and velocity extremely well, and the natural ivory feel of the keys provides a wide span of expression better than other digital pianos of its vintage. About the only hindrance to the Roland RD-300NX are its semi-weighted keys, which make it lag behind more recent models that are bridging the gap between synths and acoustic pianos, but it’s still a landmark instrument with no immediate twilight on the horizon.
4. Nord Piano 3
The third stage piano from Swedish company Clavia contains some new wrinkles and/or marketing ploys meant to separate it from its predecessors, like “Virtual Hammer Action Technology” and a “triple-sensor keyboard,” neither of which is explained in great detail. But they’re no joke: The Nord Piano 3 is a significant upgrade over the previous two, more lukewarm editions, and equally as red. The acoustic piano patches have a very bright timbre, and the veracity and flexibility of the sounds make it a great fit for professional applications. It’s been overshadowed by Nord’s new Stage 3 keyboard, its most feature-drunk synthesizer yet, but the Piano 3’s clarity and resonance make it a better workhorse for the piano-centric.
3. Casio Privia PX-860
The top three are so close that it may just come down to your budget concerns and playing environments. Feel free to re-rank them according to the depth of your pockets. The mid-line, 2015 entry in Casio’s Privia series looks more suited for a living room wall than a concert stage, and Casio’s marketing strategy seems resigned to its suitability as furniture as opposed to professional gear. But man, this is some great-sounding furniture. Mid-range notes are virtually indistinguishable from actual acoustics, and the “Tri-Sensor Scaled” hammering action and synthetic ivory give a great feel. The opening top of the piano, which exposes the speakers when raised, is thankfully not just a cute gimmick: It’s a strong feature that does a good job of replicating the tonal variances of a grand piano lid. The sensitivity controls feel a bit limited, but the ability to manipulate the sound through actual, physical means makes up for that.
2. Korg Grandstage
Korg’s new Grandstage is a high-end performance model, and frankly there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it and plenty that’s right. According to its demo video the Grandstage uses samples from “six distinctive pianos: Japanese, German, Austrian, Italian, Berlin, Upright.” The key action is as faithful as any product on this list; the variance between the light feel of the high notes and the heaviness of the bottom ones is especially faithful. The Grandstage is particularly solid in uptempo strokes; in that category it resembles a true acoustic better than any DP on this list. Its newness is a factor in giving a full evaluation, but from this point it’s very easy to picture the Grandstage as the standard choice in jazz clubs and piano-centric touring acts in the next few years.
1. Yamaha CP4
There’s of course a lot of demo videos on YouTube for all the products in this story, most of which employ moderately paced tunes of the smooth jazz or barely moving variety. The Yamaha CP4 has some of those, sure—but out of all these pianos, it’s the only one with hardcore, fast-moving classical pieces in its online demo arsenal. I consider that a thrown gauntlet from an instrument that can stand up to the challenge. Straight up, the CP4 is simply the one digital instrument that performs the best in blind listening tests with a grand piano. Its natural sound contains almost no trace of electronic cross talk, its precision and grace in classical pieces is sharp, and its action is superb thanks to its actual wood-enhanced keys. The acoustic sounds are rich on their own and greatly adaptable, and the supporting Rhodes and Wurlitzer patches are as just as effective. Modifications are easily executed, but the shop-window sounds don’t need any fixes if you’re not inclined. The fact that the CP4 is a compact, competitively priced performance unit makes it all the more compelling, a strong return on a relatively modest investment.
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