(Updated Summer 2017) This post will be especially useful for piano teachers as well as piano students with semi-professional or professional aspirations who want to purchase or upgrade to an electronic instrument with high-quality keyboard sounds that also feels like a piano, and that is mobile for gigging.
I recently shopped for and purchased a new digital piano, and thought I would share some opinions about select models. You will get the benefit of my experience as a player, but also the fact that when it comes to shopping for musical instruments (or any higher-end item, actually), I tend to exhaustively research and compare the options until I drive myself crazy! I hope that my craziness is useful to you.
Two Kinds of Digital Pianos
Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of digital pianos – instruments for home use and instruments for stage use. Both digital home and digital stage pianos differ from a typical synthesizer in that they typically boast a full 88 keys (most synths have 61) and a weighted action that feels like an acoustic piano (most synths’ actions aren’t weighted). Their sounds are fewer, emphasizing keyboard instruments (piano, electric piano, organ etc.), but higher quality than synths.
Digital Home Pianos vs. Digital Stage Pianos
There are three obvious differences between digital home and digital stage pianos:
Most home pianos have a cabinet that looks like an acoustic piano, whereas stage pianos come without a cabinet for easy mobility, and require an external stand.
Nearly all home pianos have built-in speakers, whereas most serious stage pianos don’t – you’ll need to use headphones or connect the piano to an external amplifier.
While most home and stage pianos have excellent keyboard sounds, in a given price range, stage pianos usually have higher-quality sounds to satisfy the professional musician. How? Because stage pianos typically lack speakers and cabinets, manufacturers can invest the difference in the quality of their sounds.
My Experience and Recommendations
I recently spent an entire weekend visiting just about every Portland-area music retailer and piano store, playing dozens of digital home and stage pianos. As a professional musician and piano teacher I quickly decided that a digital stage piano made the most sense for my present purposes. I can use the stage piano at home for practicing (and as an alternative for teaching), and can also easily transport it to gigs.
Here is my very brief and entirely subjective opinion about some of the stage piano models I tried:
Yamaha CP40 and Yamaha CP4
As an acoustic piano manufacturer, Yamaha is, of course, well-known for the quality of their instruments. These models are both high-quality digital pianos, with the CP4 sporting a more realistic action and a higher price. Still, the action on these, while excellent, was not my favorite, and the layout of the controls was not optimal for me. I kept looking.
Roland RD-300NX and Roland RD-800
My understanding is that the RD-300NX is no longer being manufactured, though it’s still possible to get a new one (at a discounted rate over its original price), at least for the time being. Both models are solid instruments – Roland has always been known for quality, particularly of its actions – yet the more I played these the less interested I became. There is no onboard song recorder – a useful tool for me and many other players – and the principal acoustic piano sound seemed a bit harsh in higher registers.
I didn’t get to try this lower-priced stage piano that comes packed with features that no other instrument in its price range offers, since no Portland-area retailer is currently stocking it, though I desperately wanted to! But, after trying the Kawai MP7 (see below) and speaking to an online retailer, I realized that features aside, the Casio was unlikely to live up to the Kawai in both touch and sound quality.
Kawai MP7, MP11, ES8
The MP7 and MP11 are two awesome digital stage pianos. The MP11 has a more authentic piano action than the MP7, but there’s a price to be paid: it’s much larger and heavier (making it less desirable to move, unless you have a very buff roadie!). It also has fewer sounds and is significantly pricier than the MP7. For numerous reasons including action, sounds and features, the Kawai MP7 is my choice and recommendation for the best digital stage piano currently available in the under $2,000 price range. It’s the perfect choice for the aspiring or gigging professional musician.
For the non-gigging musician, such as the piano student who desires a high-quality digital piano for practicing and playing, my current choice and recommendation in the under $2,000 price range is the Kawai ES8. The sounds and action of the ES8 are comparable to the MP models, but unlike them it has speakers (though headphones can also be used). It is also more mobile than many home models since it lacks a cabinet.
If you’re in the Portland area, you can try these three models at Portland’s Kawai dealer, Portland Piano Company. The store has told me that they will match any documented lower price offer you get for these instruments, so if you’re drawn to purchasing an MP7, MP11 or ES8, consider supporting a local piano store and its excellent, friendly staff.