Digital Piano Buying Guide

The piano is an instrument that has always enjoyed a high level of popularity. The way the keys are laid gives the player a wide perspective, making it the ideal tool to learn music in a complete manner. It’s also a great way to get friends and family to sing along when you get the hang of it.

If you are shopping for a keyboard, you’ll notice that there is a lot of terminology. Proprietary terms might even throw you off guard and create a bit of confusion. It takes a bit of time to understand how all the parameters work together to bring you the best possible experience. This digital piano guide will give you the tools to make the best possible decision.

Table of Contents:
  1. Types of keyboards
  2. Key weight
  3. Samples and polyphony
  4. Connections
  5. Your first piano
  6. The high end
Learn the piano

Types of keyboards

At first, some of the keyboards will look the same. A good grip on the basic types will help you make the right choice and avoid any sort of remorse.

Portable Keyboards

Casio Portable Keyboards

Portable keyboards are one of the most common types. They present various features, depending on the price. You’ll find attractive and affordable models for beginners in this category to even professional arranger tools. They usually have light keys and a reduced range, which helps with keeping the weight nice and light.

In most cases, they will have integrated speakers for practice and performance, a ton of tones to attract potential buyers and those that need to cover a wide variety of sounds and might include playback/arrangement functions. If you are shopping for a first keyboard in this category, make sure you consider a product that has touch sensitivity. This is the aspect of the instrument that dictates nuance: the volume of your playing will match the strength you use to press the keys.

Arranger Keyboards

Arranger keyboards are usually portable keyboards that have the option of instant accompaniment. You’ll be able to create whole songs on the spot with a backing band. This band will follow your chord changes and you can cue different sections to quickly compose music or entertain your friends, family or even audience. Even if you are not an advanced player, it’s an excellent tool to learn about the inner workings of music and to work on your time keeping.

Console Keyboards

Console Keyboards

Console keyboards are the digital counterpart of upright pianos. They are a very popular option for the buyers that are convinced they will stick with the instrument for years to come and want to pick an option that will give them an authentic experience. They are fitted with weighted keys, and they are either integrated into a piece of furniture or placed on a stand. The loudspeakers can also be bypassed with headphones.

Stage Pianos

Stage Piano

These pianos are meant for the stage and offer high quality sounds and feel. They are targeted towards performing musicians and do not usually present speakers to increase portability. The piano is amplified by the house’s PA system or with an amplifier at home. You’ll usually find interesting connectivity options to streamline things like home recording and interfacing with apps.

Synthesizers and MIDI Controllers


These types of tools look like portable keyboards but serve a different purpose. Synthesizers are used by music creators and established players to design tones from scratch using the built-in oscillators. MIDI controllers do not have any built-in sounds but offer a piano or synth-like control surface to interface with sound libraries loaded on your computer or dedicated module. Usually, this is not where a beginner would start.

Midi Controller

Key Weight

Key weight is an important aspect of the digital piano

Key weight refers to the construction of the keys and the amount of force that is needed to press them. You’ll find three main categories on the market and each serves a different purpose.

Synth or Non-Weighted

These keys usually spring back very fast and take little effort to play. You’ll typically find this type of action on portable and entry-level products, as well as synths at all prices. While teachers usually do not recommend this type of key for beginners as technique won’t develop in the same way as on an acoustic piano, they are appropriate for playing synth, organ, string and other non-piano sounds.

Semi-Weighted

This type offers more resistance than non-weighted keys and is a sort of versatile middle ground for those that need to play a wide variety of sounds on a single instrument. You also get the added benefit of a lighter keyboard than with a fully weighted action.

Weighted, Fully Weighted, or Hammer Action

If you are a beginner, this is the ideal place to start as it emulates the sensation of playing a conventional acoustic piano. An internal mechanism convincingly recreates the experience and newcomers will develop technique accordingly. You’ll usually find this type of action on console instruments.

Samples and Polyphony

Most modern keyboards are built around samples: a collection of individual recordings of an instrument. There are many different clips of the same note to match your velocity and the result gives you an authentic response.

The manufacturers have various collections that they refresh from time to time with different recordings. They also improve the sampling techniques to increase the realism as much as possible and include more tones in a single product.

Polyphony indicates the number of simultaneous samples that can be played by the keyboard. For a single note, there might be multiple samples going off simultaneously. Multiple mics are often used to create a more realistic result, but will take up more polyphony. This is also true for effects such as reverb and sustain pedals that reverberate over the notes you play on top.

Additionally, you might have backing tracks and various accompaniments going on in the background. This all adds up quite quickly and it’s better to have a good amount of polyphony. 128 polyphony is enough for most piano centric applications, while 192 or more is recommended for those that want to perform with layers of rhythms and other tracks.

Connections

Arranger Keyboards

Digital keyboards have a wide variety of connection possibilities that enable a ton of handy features and, in some cases, help future proof your investment.

A headphone output is a convenient way of practising something you find difficult or late at night. It cuts out the speakers, so you won’t bother anyone around you.

Line outputs will make it possible to easily connect to a mixer, PA system, audio interface or amplifier. This is a requirement for live playing, as built-in sound speakers aren’t intended to provide adequate volume to more than a few people in rather close proximity.

USB ports provide a few different options. A model with a type A, usually means you can plug in a flash drive to save performances or playback songs. A type B will enable you to interface with a computer. This typically means that you’ll be able to control external sound banks and greatly expand your tone library.

One of the greatest features that is getting normalized these days is a built-in audio interface. Some of the more recent keyboards can be plugged into a computer and will be recognized in your DAW. You’ll then be able to conveniently record on your desktop or laptop without having to purchase any extra equipment. This is an excellent feature to get an idea of how your playing sounds and to explore your creativity.

Lastly, if you have any older MIDI equipment you’d like to interface with, make sure you pick a model that has MIDI ports so you can connect to it.

Your First Keyboard

Your First Keyboard

Popular options for beginners are either portable keyboard or console models. The first type is a good choice for younger players. They are usually filled with fun features and learning tools that will help to retain attention and interest. These products are usually filled with a wide variety of sounds that are a fun way to learn about the different instruments that are out there.

One of the most popular options in this category is the Yamaha PSR line, which has been around for decades. The most recent additions are the PSR-E273, PSR-E373 and PSR-E473. As an excellent alternative, you can check out the CT-S200 series by Casio.

If you prefer a more authentic experience, without the hassle of purchasing an actual acoustic piano, there are great options for beginners in the console range. The main advantage is that you usually get fully weighted keys that will make you develop as if you were playing on an actual piano. An added bonus is that the construction on these models will usually last decades. Roland, Yamaha and Casio have excellent models to explore.

The Next One

After you made some progress, it is very common to explore another variety of keyboard. For example, if you began your journey on a console piano, you might want to take your music with you with a lightweight option or get creative with a synth. You can also take a look at more powerful arranger models from Korg, Casio and Yamaha. There are even options like the Liano that bridge the gap between the compact portable products and stage pianos.

The opposite is also true, if you started on a portable model, it would be a great time to perfect your technique with the weighted keys of a console piano. Nowadays, these options come with built-in audio interfaces, so you’ll have access to quality recording at the same time.

If you are confident in your skills, you might want to start going out to play with other musicians and maybe even in front of audiences. Stage pianos are an ideal tool for this. They offer high quality sounds and all the connections you need for a solid instrument live and at home. You will find Roland’s RD and Casio’s Privia lines on stages all over the world.

The Higher End

Different Keyboard Models

Piano enthusiasts are on the lookout for the most realistic experience with high quality keys and convincing action. Roland’s LX series is a premium line of upright pianos that gives you an authentic experience with all the advantages of digital technologies.

For those that often perform on stage, Nord is one of the most beloved manufacturers around and that red finish is present on a big proportion of professional stages around the world.

Lastly, for the creative types, there are many different synthesizers to check out from long time manufacturers such as Yamaha, Roland and Korg.

The Next Step

There are a lot of things to be aware of when shopping for a piano. Hopefully, this guide will help you make the best choice for your needs and level. Make sure you check out what’s offered at Best Buy; you’ll most likely find the perfect model for you.

Nikolai Olekhnovitch is a professional guitarist from Montreal. The experience and musical versatility he acquired during his music studies and involvement with diverse musical acts come in quite handy when reviewing various instruments. When he is not on the road performing, he’s exploring martial arts and seeking out the perfect espresso.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Hello All,
    Any recommendations for beginner but good Piano but reasonable price looking for my high school kid who all of a sudden showing interest in music especially in learning Piano
    Thanks

  2. I looked at a range of keyboards as I wanted to take up piano again at the grand age of 64. I decided on the Casio CDP-S100. The weighted keyboard reputation among piano teachers were the deciding factors, along with Casio’s own reputation for quality keyboards at all levels. I’m currently learning from the Alfred series of piano and music books, again this was due to their reputation and I find them very easy to follow in spite of using American music terminology. If you’re going to get serious about music, it’s not just an excellent keyboard you’ll need, but a good stand (the recommended cdp-s100 is perfect) as ‘x’ frames can restrict leg movement. Also, a good comfortable piano seat is a must. Don’t forget a piano light – you’ll be glad you got one, trust me! Finally, to spare your neighbours/family the irritation of your practice efforts, headphones are a good idea. Each to their own here.

  3. ‘”It represents the number of sounds the keyboard can reproduce simultaneously. This amount always seems a bit high to what’s physically possible for a human to play and hear, but it’s important to realize how things are processed under the hood. While you might play a 6-note chord, each of those notes might have multiple samples playing, especially if you’re adding a reverb effect or using the sustain pedal. Also, if you’re using a self-generated backing track (such as on an arranger model), all those sounds take up polyphony as well.”

    A guide is supposed to explain and aid understanding. The words quoted above do NOT do that!

    • The term polyphony is made out of two Greek terms; poly (which means many) and phony (sound). In the keyboard world, each digital unit that makes up a sound counts as one measure of polyphony.
      When we play a note on a keyboard, it activates one or multiple samples to produce the tone we hear. As we play chords and even use the sustain pedal to hold notes longer, all these individual samples add up and represent an amount of polyphony. If that total amount surpasses the maximum polyphony of a keyboard, some samples won’t be played, affecting the quality and detail. This is why higher polyphony is usually better.

      Hope this helps clear up the term for you!

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