key-notes is pleased to present its digital piano review section, which aims to help its readers understand the benefits and drawbacks of digital and acoustic pianos. Although as a classical pianist I play an acoustic piano, many students ask me about digital pianos and I therefore wish to share my thoughts and experiences.
While I don't believe a digital piano will ever approach a great acoustic piano such as my beloved Bösendorfer Imperial, technology has progressed sufficiently for them to be genuinely useful to classical pianists. (Does anyone ever expect an electric violin to surpass a Stradivarius?)
As I did in my Yamaha AvantGrand digital piano review, the current crème de la crème of digital pianos, I'd like to stress that a digital piano must never be viewed as a substitute for an acoustic piano but simply as a supplement.
It should also go without saying that a really good digital piano is preferable to a really bad acoustic piano, since the best ones, such as the AvantGrand, have a genuine grand piano action with real wood and hammers. I believe the action to be the most critical part of any piano, acoustic or digital, since it is our only point of contact to the instrument and hence the music. Spending hour after hour over years on a poor action will invariably affect one's touch and hence musicality. It therefore pays to work on a good piano with a good action that responds to expressive nuance.
That said by way of introduction (not to mention caution), digital pianos do have their benefits. For starters, digital pianos don't need to be tuned. In fact, many of them have different built-in tunings, and these can be changed instantly with the press of a button.
A digital piano requires zero maintenance. Acoustic pianos are sensitive to placement and are sensitive to heat and humidity (see Piano Humidifier). They need to be tuned at least twice a year, their hammers voiced and eventually replaced and their actions regulated. None of this work is necessary on a digital piano.
Digital pianos can be played any hour of the day or night. Since their sound is electronically produced (or reproduced), it is also possible to control the loudness. You can even play at full volume without anybody hearing you, by using headphones. (I don't recemmend setting the volume to full blast when using headphones, although headphones vary greatly in their sensitivity and impedance and the volume achieved will vary accordingly).
They're not acoustic pianos. As good as digital pianos have become, I've never met one that ever remotely approaches a quality acoustic piano. Yamaha's top models use a genuine grand piano action and these models hence feel the same to play. Yet digital pianos are very far from sounding the same. Recording a note and playing it back via a loudspeaker electronically amplified just isn't the same as an actual soundboard vibrating and the piano's strings vibrating in sympathy.
My experience with high-end audio, however, tells me that it is possible to reproduce a grand piano's sound convincingly (although it's still not the same as experiencing it live, just really good). It's just really expensive... way more than any digital piano costs. I once heard a stereo system priced over $200,000 US, just for two speakers, amplifiers, a CD player and cables, that did a remarkable job reproducing a piano accurately. Needless to say, this is well beyond the price of any digital piano. Why should anyone expect a $2000 digital piano to be similarly convincing, when most of its cost is not the amplifier and speaker system but rather its mechanical and other electronic parts?
All electronic technology is obsolete within a few years. Digital pianos are no different. Some electronic organs have achieved classic status, however, such as the famous Hammond B-3 of the 1960s and '70s. These organs are famous for their own sound, and since a digital piano aims to emulate a real one, we can only expect sampling technology to get better over time, relegating today's instruments to obsolescence.
I'm happy to share my experiences with several digital piano models:
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