Wednesday, October 1, 2008

If I were in the market for a digital piano...

... the first thing I would do is some basic research. I would take a look at reviews written by both professionals and laypeople, and see what they had to say. I would compare their expectations with mine, and weigh to what extent they were pleasantly surprised, disappointed, elated, mortified, or none of the above.

In one regard, this would be a dizzying way to get started. Have you seen the diversity of digital piano offerings these days? Thankfully, my shopping would be pretty narrowly focused. I would dismiss any digital piano that didn't have 88 fully weighted keys, and I would dismiss those that retail for more than $1,000. And since I have started playing all this Einaudi music, I have found that I absolutely require three pedals. Which means a stand is also a necessity, otherwise those pedals would be all over the place. Thankfully, this would drastically reduce the offerings under consideration.

I would also restrict my search to known, reliable producers. I have read far too many horror stories from folks who purchased Williams, Behringer, and other anonymous Chinese remakes of 10 year old Rolands. Why take that chance when there is modern technology to be purchased for roughly the same price? In theory, my shopping list could still include Kawai, Roland, Korg and the Yamaha Clavinova line, but the entry price for each of these is generally over $1,000 (YMMV), so they're out. This means that in two paragraphs, I have restricted my search to sub-$1,000 offerings from Yamaha and Casio, including a stand and three pedals.

The next thing I would do (you know, if I were in the market) is try the remaining options out myself. Thankfully, I haven't always been as busy as I am these days, so earlier in the year, I did indeed have the opportunity to sample some Casio and Yamaha digital pianos. In general, to my tastes, I found that I preferred the sound of the Yamahas, but I preferred the feel in the Casios. I also found that when you compared models with similar features, Casios tended to underprice Yamahas by about 15%. I think Casio is still fighting a branding / image problem, with people associating them with cheap goods. I am fully pursuaded that their digital pianos are as good as anybody's.

In either case, I found something to like, and something that gave me pause.

At this point, I would look at things like polyphony (the number of sounds the piano can sustain simultaneously), connectivity options (USB, flash memory, that sort of thing for recording purposes), and, of course, price. You may delighted to know that I am not going to walk you through that decision process today. Instead, here are the four digital pianos I would be looking at, in order of preference. If I were in the market. Which I'm not.

(Retail prices are what I commonly see these going for... nothing official, mind you.)

Fourth Place - Yamaha YDP-S30
Retail - $799

Pros: Low price; Nice sound

Cons: Cheap stand and pedals; clunky feel; no USB connectivity

Verdict: A nice entry point for Yamaha

I was elated the first time I saw one of these. A Yamaha with 64 note polyphony, a stand, and three pedals for under $800? What's not to like? Well, after about 5 minutes of Little Brown Jug, I had the answer to my question. Everything about it felt cheap. Depressed keys, after I let go of them, snapped back more quickly than I could get my fingers out of their way. The plastic pedals felt like they'd break any minute. And the thing wobbled on the stand as if it were too heavy for it. (Later, I found that this was a common thing.)

The lack of USB connectivity means I would have to shell out another $30 or so for a cord to connect it to my laptop.

That said, that sweet Yamaha sound is hard to top, even with puny 6 watt speakers. And once in awhile, back when I was watching eBay with annoying tenacity, I remember seeing these there for $584. (A strange figure, $584, but more than once, I saw one of these available for that price.) I'm guessing the street price is in the mid- $600 range, which would make it a pretty compelling offering, warts and all.

Third Place - Casio PX-720
Retail $799 (?)

Pros: Great feel; metal pedals; Costco has an insane deal on these

Cons: Cheap stand; sound not quite as good as Yamaha's; no USB connectivity

Verdict: Best QPR in the market today

Supposedly, this piano is not available in the United States. Curiously, it has been on sale in the rest of the world for nigh on a year now. Is the rest of the world our QA department? Did they get all the kinks out? Is the piano finally ready for prime time?

The piano itself is the base Privia, the PX-120 (which itself retails around $500). To that, Casio adds a stand, metal pedals, and some upgraded (if ever so slightly) speakers. This should, in theory, push the price up into the $800 range. But Costco, in their mysterious way, found a way to sell these for $649. Including a bench. I can't explain that, but, if I were in the market, I would try to find a way to relieve them of one of these. I regard this as the best buy in the low-end digital piano market.

I still have some complaints, of course. The stand is cheap. I'd still have to buy a cord to connect it to my laptop. But at this price, it's funny how little that matters.

Second Place - Yamaha YPG-635 (or its twin, the DGX-630... don't ask)
Retail price - $699

Pros: Looks and sounds cool, USB connectivity, Jillian likes it

Cons: Clunky feel, Optional stand and pedals are not only cheap, but, well, they're optional (IE, cost extra)

Verdict: If IKEA made a digital piano, this would be it. Cool, stylish, perhaps a little overpriced.

If it were simply a matter of buying a keyboard, putting it on a tabletop somewhere, and plugging the thing in, this would be my choice. It looks cool and modern. The settings are easy to dial in. There is a little LCD display showing you the notes you are playing. You can hook it straight up to a laptop with a USB connection. And it sounds really nice. Yamaha has marketed this less as a digital piano (which, of course, it is), but more of a learning tool. They have lots of neat little features for beginning piano players and students. You know, like me and my children.

The problem is this is not quite the bargain that it first seems. Adding a stand and pedals puts you north of $800. And though, for that price, you get an attractive keyboard with nice sound and features, you still have a cheap, somewhat wobbly stand and plastic pedals. Which wouldn't be so bad if there weren't a better all-around package from Casio...

First place - Casio AP-200
Retail price: $799

Pros: Cheapest entry point to a solid, furniture-style stand; great Casio feel; better speakers than anything else on this list

Cons: No USB, speakers still wimpy compared to other furniture-style digital pianos

Verdict: The whole package.

There are probably 10 to 15 digital pianos I might consider for $800 to $1000. Some Yamaha's in that price range have upgraded keyboards, which are equal to the Casios in terms of feel (to my experience). Others have lots of voices (irrelevant to me, but maybe fun for parties). Otherwise sneer at the little 8 watt speakers in this thing, and come back with big ole house-vibratin' 40 watt monsters. "Honey, you're waking up the neighbors!" There are some very compelling offerings at the same price as this Casio, and even beyond it.

And yet...

... if you gave me $1,000 to purchase a digital piano, I would buy this $800 Casio, and spend the rest on a nice dinner with Sue at Fogo de Chao. (With a Catena Malbec, of course. Great grilled meat wine.) This piano has almost everything I would be looking for, but doesn't price itself out of the market with unecessary features. It's a bare-bones, no frills, no nonsense digital piano, on a solid, heavy stand.

Of course, if I were in the market, I would be giddy at the thought of playing any of these.

If, that is.


Anonymous said...

When I went looking for my dp, I was already predjudiced against most of the low end boards. I'd played a Casio Celviano (admittedly an older one and not exactly low priced) for the first several years of lessons and really did not like it at all. Lousy feel and not all that great a sound. The new studio has a Privia (not sure which one), and I can't say I'm thrilled with that, either. I don't like the touch - even at it's heaviest setting, it's far too light for me. And it wobbles like crazy. Ok, that's the stand, I know. So, yeah, I ended up spending a good bit- got a great deal on the board, but had to add a good solid stand, pedal and speakers (none built in). But I like it. It's very different from playing the acoustic and it helps me make the transition from that to the dp at my lessons much better.

Are you SURE you're not in the market??? ;)

Always Wanted to Play Piano said...

2ndsoprano, forgive me if you've mentioned this before, but what did you end up with?

Bill said...

I think I'd spend the extra $500 and get the Yamaha YDP223. It looks and feels solid, has 3 pedals, 64 note polyphony, graded hammer action and enough cool voices to make practice fun. It also looks good enough to put in your living or family room.

I bought one for my son and it feels and sounds pretty much like my Clavinova which costs considerably more.

2ndsoprano said...

I bought a Kawai MP4, and love it. We were at a little Italian restaurant in CT a few weeks ago, and there was guy playing at the restaurant. We were sitting close to where he was, and I knew the piano sound on the board he was playing was really good. Hubby leaned over (he had the better angle) and said, "MP8." He was good, so I added to his tip jar and mentioned that I had the MP4. After he finished playing the song he was doing, he came over to our table and we had a nice, long chat about dp's. LOL Interstingly, the other synth he had was a DX-7- now that's an oldie but goodie!

sawtooth said...

The one feature I like that some of the pianos have is the half pedal damper support. I found it annoying how the damper on the cheap 61 key casio that I started learning to play on worked. The sudden drop of all those sustained notes as that foot pedal switched from on to off was shocking at times.

I think another important thing to look at is how you're going to get recordings/files off of the digital piano. I can get midi files off my piano via a usb thumb drive slot which is pretty nice. I use audio outputs from the back to head into the computer to make recordings as well. I think it is important to figure out how you'll get these things done with the piano since that is one of the benefits of being digital.

Always Wanted to Play Piano said...

Sawtooth, I have a question for you. My understanding of recording to laptop is that you can connect a Midi to USB cable, and read the Midi inputs using something like Audacity, which will then render the signals into an mp3. Is that correct? The bad news here is that the recording isn't necessarily the piano sounds per se (which I reckon you WOULD get if you could record straight to a USB key, as you describe). But it seems like a relatively simple setup.

Always Wanted to Play Piano said...

2ndsoprano, not that I'm cross shopping these, but can you hear the difference between an MP4 and an MP8? Or do they use the same sound source?

Anonymous said...

I believe the MP8 uses some newly sampled sounds, but it is mainly the same. I don't know if, side by side, I could hear a difference, but I think my MP4 sounds evry bit as good as the MP8 we heard in the reatuarant. More sounds, more polyphony with the MP8. The MP8 does have wooden keys; the MP4 does not. Makes the 8 much heavier, but if you have no intention of lugging it around, that is not necessarily an issue. I find the touch on my 4 to be quite nice, even with the plastic keys- they are still solid and nicely and naturally weighted in feel. One other thing I like is the mod wheel as opposed to a toggle that most keyboards have- easier to use, imo. Good, solid board, no frills, just nice dps. (if a bit on the pricey side)

sawtooth said...

Midi output will not record sound. What I tend to do is record my performance, save the midi data to the usb stick but still play the file back on the piano itself with the external speaker outputs plugged into my audio line in on my computer. You can turn the midi files into audio on a computer using various sampled pianos or other piano related software on a computer as well using the midi file but that's going to cost you. You do get the benefit of not actually having to use your piano's built in sounds though. My Roland fp-7 does have a usb output port but I tend to let the piano do the saving of the files via the easier to use "record" button. Otherwise I have to tell a program to record and then slide back to the piano and start playing.

I can't say anything about how the mp4 and mp8 pianos are because I've never had a chance to play on one.