Best digital pianos for students

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What’s the best digital piano?

Perhaps you say, “Just get one with weighted keys and a pedal”, or maybe you advise students to, “buy a digital piano that has a stand and three pedals that looks like a real piano”?

Whatever your current level of knowledge about digital pianos, if you find it hard to give specific recommendations about good options for your students, this article will hopefully be of interest.

When parents can’t see the point!

Encouraging families to upgrade their instrument can sometimes be an on-going battle, particularly when they can’t see what’s wrong with Grandad’s 100-year-old untunable dinosaur or the Casio keyboard with plastic keys and 4 octaves they found in the attic.

Of course, there are plenty of parents happy to invest, provided their child shows interest and continues to practice, but we all know that fewer and fewer parents these days are prepared to fork out for a real acoustic piano. Given this, having some knowledge of digital pianos is vital for any modern piano teacher.

Which digital piano to recommend?

When it comes to upgrading , I normally first send parents and adult students to my article Buying/Renting Pianos and Keyboards. Unfortunately this article is already becoming out of date but it does give parents the initial options of buy versus rent, digital versus acoustic and basic things to look for.

I have to say that I used to think that digital pianos were a seriously poor substitute for the real thing (and they often were), however times are rapidly changing and technology is fast bringing the acoustic and digital worlds together.

There is no denying that digitals have a number of benefits for modern families: students can practice with headphones (note also Yamaha’s “Silent Pianos” which are normal acoustics that can also be silenced and played with headphones), they are more portable, they take up less space, they are cheaper to buy and maintain and don’t need tuning, etc. etc.

Indeed the boundaries are now being completely blurred by Yamaha’s “Hybrid” Avant Grand which is a digital piano that has a complete acoustic grand piano action inside and is as good as the real thing, say the pros.

My best digital piano recommendations

My top recommendation for students and parents now is any Roland digital piano featuring the “PHA III Ivory Feel action with Escapement”. Roland has been developing this action over many years and I believe they are now making the best digital piano actions currently available (and no, I’m not affiliated!).

This action is available in the following Roland pianos:

  • HP 507 and 505 (see new HP series 500 brochure)
  • HP307  – given that this piano has recently been superseded by the 507, they are being offered at excellent prices in many locations.
  • FP7F (see my previous post about this instrument), but not in its younger brother the FP-4F which has the “Ivory Feel-G Keyboard with Escapement” and nor the older FP7 or FP4. The FP7F is my second studio instrument and one that I find myself practising on more and more in preference to my acoustic (especially when it needs a tune!). UPDATE Oct 2014: The FP-7F is now known as the FP-80
  • RD700NX – This is very much a stage performance piano with no internal speakers and is not one I’d recommend to piano students.

In my opinion, there are four important things that set this action apart from others currently on the market:

  1. The “Ivory Feel” key tops are a blast to play on. In fact they remind me of the touch of the newer Yamaha C-series grands with “Ivorite” keys. They feel great and don’t get sweaty.
  2. The escapement action. This mechanism faithfully reproduces the escapement characteristic of a grand piano, with the slight “click” one feels when slowly depressing a key (not found on uprights). This is a mechanism which allows faster repeating of notes and is much more in keeping with performance-quality instruments. It definitely allows faster and more successful repetition than an upright piano and so I use it for practising pieces with repeated notes.
  3. Importantly, the action also has three sensors (there are usually two).  Three-sensor pianos are better at responding to fast repetitions without sacrificing control of dynamics which is important given the escapement.
  4. Perhaps the best thing is that Roland’s new digitals come with the SuperNATURAL Piano Sound Engine which produces an unbelievably full and encompassing sound, particularly through headphones. In fact the SuperNatural sound is one of the key reasons that I enjoy playing my FP7F so much – you really feel like you’re playing a Steinway Model D in the middle of a beautifully reverberant concert hall. Here’s a great article about it: Can Roland SuperNATURAL Pianos Replace The Real Thing?

If you’re a teacher, I highly recommend checking out this action for yourself over the holidays.

Also check out AZ Piano News blog – he does great reviews on all the latest student digital pianos.

What piano do you recommend?

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Tim Topham

Lead blogger and coffee snob
Best-known for his blogging and teaching, Tim is also a well-respected presenter, performer and accompanist based in Melbourne, Australia. You can check him out on Google+, Facebook and Twitter.
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  • http://grahamfitch.wordpress.com/ grahamfitch

    Very useful – thanks Tim!

  • Javi

    Hello Tim, I am doubting between these two digital pianos: Roland Fp 7F and the new Kawai ES 7. I’m interested in the action, have you played some Kawai with the new RH2 or RH action (for example kawai mp 6), how do you feel it (compares to Roland Fp 7F)?

    Greetings from Spain. Thanks!

    • http://timtopham.wordpress.com timtopham

      Hi Javi! Nice to hear from you. I haven’t played the Kawai ES7 or MP6 I’m afriad. My old studio digital was an ES6 that had the older Advanced Hammer Action so I’m not sure what the new action is like. I do know that the ES6 wore out quite quickly and the keys started to get very noisy which is why I avoided it this time.

      I’d suggest going and playing them both and then deciding which you like better. Having read up about the ES7 action, I believe the FP7F action is probably still superior, given the escapement feature, but if that’s not important, I’d go with whatever you like best! Both have graded weights and three sensors, so it’s up to personal taste! It looks like the ES7 comes with the stand and 3 pedals which are extras for hte FP7F so it may be cheaper as a package?

      Good luck – let me know what you choose!

      • Javi

        Hi again Tim! I have been reading the specifications of the Kawai ES 7, and the RH II action has both let-off simulation (this is the escapement, is not it?) and triple-sensor, like Roland PHA III. Also I have seen that the stand and 3 pedals are optional accessories. Anyway the Kawai ES 7 is around 500 € (euros) cheaper than Roland FP 7F (althoug the Roland has features like Mic Input / Harmony FX), that is an important amount of money.

        One more question: I think the SuperNATURAL Piano Sound Engine from Roland is very good, I love it, but I don’t know how important is the Polyphony Voices: 128 voices in Roland vs 256 voices max. polyphony in the Kawai ES 7

        And finally yes, you’re right: I must go and play the two models and see which one I like better :) I’ll wait until the Kawai ES 7 arrives and I can play it. I will tell you what is my choice

        Thank you,

        Javi

        • http://timtopham.wordpress.com timtopham

          Hi again Javi. Sounds like you’re doing your homework! Polyphony is just the number of notes that it can play at the same time. This is only really important if you are using large chords and lots of pedal – eventually it will start cutting out the old notes when too many are played. That said, I’ve never overloaded the FP7F so you shouldn’t have a problem either way. Enjoy the search!

  • Javi

    Hi Tim, thanks for responding so fast!

  • Carly

    Food for thought! I find that most starting students are looking for something in the under $500 range (unless a family member is musical or they understand the difference a good instrument makes)

  • Javi

    I finally chose the kawaia ES 7. I thought that was a rich, full sound from the speakers on the es7, as for the action, I think both actions (roland FP7 F and Kawai ES 7) are quite light and responsive but my personal preference is for the kawai action. I like others features (Mic Input / Harmony FX) of the Roland FP 7F, but the Kawai ES 7 is around 500 € (euros) cheaper than Roland FP 7F and that is an important amount of money.

    You should try it if you can, it is a great piano and maybe action/sound you like better than the Roland FP7 F

    Thanks,

    Javi

  • http://arioso7.wordpress.com arioso7: Shirley Kirsten

    Yamaha Arius 141

  • http://arioso7.wordpress.com arioso7: Shirley Kirsten

    another sample of Arius 141

  • Dibes

    Great article. I came across this while searching if anyone has ever compared a digital piano to an acoustic side by side. I recently purchased the Roland LX-15, which just blows my mind every time I play. As soon as you ramp up the cabinet, string and damper resonance, I really get the feeling I’m sitting behind an acoustic piano. Due to the (partly) modeled piano sounds, strings seem to vibrate the way they should and the acoustic sound projection system completely envelopes the player.

    I can really say this is a great piano and I haven’t played any acoustic in the same price range that rivals it. But I would love to see a spaced pair recording of this piano compared with a recording of a few acoustic grands. My bet is that it can hold it’s own pretty well.

    For those in doubt:

    Cheers and happy holidays!

    • http://timtopham.wordpress.com timtopham

      Thanks for your comment. The LX-15 has exactly the same action and sound engine as the cheaper) FP7F which I’ve reviewed in previous articles and which I use as my second studio piano. In fact I like it so much, I’m happy practising on it as much as my acoustic.

      Re comparisons, the feel of the Roland action is closer to a grand piano than an upright given the escapement mechanism, meaning that playing repeated notes and trills, in particular, is much more authentic.

      • Dieter Bes

        Man, do I agree. During college, I once decided to test pianos at a piano dealer right nearby the entire day (ok it was more like 6 hours…). I started with the cheap ones and went up from there. It wasn’t until I reached acoustic pianos of more than 6000 euros that I started feeling comfortabele with the action. But even then still, it felt like something was missing.

        It was only when I got to the better digital pianos and (obviously) grand pianos that I felt really good about the entire experience.

        I’ve always had a digital piano and I know the pros and cons very well (of both sound and action) and I always though digital could never replace acoustic.

        But then I played the avant grand and a bit later on, the SuperNatural pianos.

        I was very wrong, because for the first time, I was able to put in real emotion into my playing, supported by touch, feel and sound.

  • Petro

    Thanks for the article, it reflects my own outlook.
    I ‘ve had my FP-80 for some months and happy with it.
    But I am going to but ES-7 for my daughter studies soon for the harder and quieter keybed.

    Oh, BTH – Correct please – “UPDATE Oct 2014: The FP-7F is now known as the FP-50″ - This is WRONG !!! the FP7F follower is FP-80, not FP-50. The latter came after Fp4F!
    There ‘s very big difference between them!

    • http://timtopham.com Tim Topham

      Hi Petro
      Thanks for your comment and yes, you’re right about the FP-80 – I’ve updated the post!
      Cheers
      Tim.