Last Updated on September 17, 2020 by Ryan Harrell
As before, Yamaha’s offerings top our chart of the best digital pianos. We recommend the Yamaha YPG-235 as the best beginner digital piano. Yamaha DGX660 offers the best value in this category, and the Yamaha YDP-181 is our choice for the best professional digital piano.
Read on for more detailed reviews and to learn why our experts chose these digital pianos.
Our Top Picks
Best stage piano: Roland RD-800
“Stunning sound and stage-friendly features make this a performance pick”
Best for beginners: Yamaha PSR-E463
“Replaces the YPG as our favorite beginner-friendly digital piano”
Honorable mention: Casio Privia PX860
“A perfect upgrade for a beginner looking to move to intermediate status”
If you’re like me, you’ve probably longed to own a huge concert piano sitting right in the middle of your living room. Maybe you’ve even fantasized about acoustically treating the room to create the perfect resonance as you hammer out your favorite Chopin pieces.
That’s fantasy. The reality is that acoustic pianos are extremely expensive, take up more space than a small car, and require more maintenance than a tree-lined yard in autumn. For the vast majority of musicians, they are neither practical, nor affordable.
This is why I recommend most piano players – beginners as well as experienced – to opt for digital pianos instead.
Digital pianos offer a wide range of prices and features. From entry level Williams to a $1,000+ Yamaha that’s indistinguishable from the real thing, there is a digital piano that fits your budget and needs.
Drilling down to find the right digital piano, however, can be difficult. Which is why we’ve compiled this extensive guide to help you find the best digital piano for your needs. Read on to see our top 5 recommended products, as well as an extensive buying guide.
The 10 Best Digital Pianos: In-Depth Analysis
If you’re serious about playing the piano, I highly recommend choosing a good digital piano as your first buy. The comfort, key-quality, and responsiveness of even a $400 digital piano will make it a pleasure to learn your music.
That said, not everyone needs an expensive digital piano. And not everyone will want to limit themselves to an entry-level piano.
Which is why I’ve divided this list of the best digital pianos into three categories – high-end, mid-range, and budget. Choose the category that fits your requirements and read on.
Best Premium Digital Pianos
All offerings in this range are targeted towards serious musicians who have been playing for years and are looking for an upgrade to the next level. If you’re a beginner or even an intermediate level player, I recommend choosing something from the mid or budget range.
In all honesty, the quality of most instruments in this segment is quite high. Even the piano with the lowest score in my shortlist (Suzuki MDG-300) is a splendid piece of machinery.
You can’t go wrong with any of the picks below. The only thing you have to look out for is not overshooting your budget.
Based on my analysis, feedback from musician friends and personal impressions, these are my top picks for high-end digital pianos:
Our Favorite: Yamaha Arius YDP-181
The Yamaha Arius YDP-181 is one of the bestselling digital console pianos ever, and for good reason.
Based on a classic Yamaha upright piano, the YDP-181 has all the elements of a professional-grade digital piano. It has graded hammer action, fully-weighted keys and a rich tone borrowed from Yamaha’s acoustic piano making expertise.
This is the first digital piano I recommend to anyone with a $1,500+ budget. It doesn’t have any gimmicks; just solid, classic piano sound. Ideal for serious amateurs and professionals alike.
What I like:
- Gorgeous design: The piano is set in a dark rosewood enclosure, mimicking a classic upright acoustic piano design. You get a bench as well as built-in pedals. The entire setup is stunning to look at. This isn’t something you have to hide away; place it front and center in your living room.
- Sound quality is top-notch: The YDP-181 uses Yamaha’s CF Sound Engine. This sound engine uses samples from Yamaha’s top of the line acoustic piano, the CFSIII 9’ concert grand piano (which costs – hold your breath – $180,000). The sound quality is unparalleled in this segment.
- Key quality: Fully-weighted keys with graded hammer action are remarkably similar to acoustic pianos. The keys are lighter at higher octaves, heavier in the bass. This is great for practicing since it makes transitioning to an acoustic piano easier. My only complaint is that the black keys are matte, not glossy. Matte keys are less slippery, but I like the feel of glossy keys more.
- Realistic pedals: The built-in pedals work similarly to an acoustic piano. You can damp and sustain notes, which is necessary for a number of pieces. Playing with pedals is also important for practicing.
- No-nonsense approach: My number 1 reason for recommending the YDP-181 is its no-nonsense approach to digital pianos. There are no “5,000 sounds! LED lights!” marketing gimmicks. You get a realistic acoustic piano-like playing experience, and that’s it.
Who is it for?
The Yamaha YDP-181 is ideal for anyone looking to upgrade from a budget piano. Serious amateurs and professionals looking for a piano for their home will appreciate it a lot.
The rich, classic piano experience is also ideal for practicing. Since the experience – both in terms of key feel and sound – is similar to a real piano, it makes transitioning to an acoustic piano easier.
Although it isn’t cheap, the price is more than reasonable for an instrument of this quality. And frankly, in the top of the line bracket, it is even affordable
Best Stage Piano: Roland RD-800
If there is any company that can match Yamaha’s expertise in crafting pianos, it is Roland.
And as far as Roland’s stage pianos go, the RD-800 is right at the top of the pack.
Roland RD-800 is a stage piano. This means it is designed for live performances (though it is equally at home in your practice room). It also gets a number of features to facilitate live play.
For example, you can create “live sets” to quickly switch between piano sounds based on the song. You can even layer and split tracks right from the piano.
Which is to say, the Roland RD-800 isn’t just a digital piano; it is a mini-workstation.
For the price, this is one of the best stage pianos you can buy.
I’ll cover its best features below.
What I like:
- Key quality: 88-weighted keys with hammer action means you get an acoustic piano-like playing experience. It doesn’t feel as authentic as the Yamaha but close enough. The Roland plays lighter than the YDP-181 (something beginners will appreciate).
- Sound quality: The RD-800 uses Roland’s SoundNatural engine. The digital piano sound is from Roland’s V-Piano Grand line. You also get a range of built-in sounds such as clavs and organs. The organ sound is noticeably better than Yamaha’s (which is notorious for its poor organ sound quality).
- Built-in sounds: The Roland RD-800 has a number of classic and retro synth sounds built-in. Normally, I see this as a marketing gimmick, but for stage pianos, this is actually worth it. It greatly expands the range of genres you can cover. Besides the V-Piano Grand sound, you can choose from 4 additional acoustic piano sounds as well.
Who is it for?
The Roland RD-800 is a stage piano. I don’t recommend it if you don’t ever plan to play live. For a practice piano, this is just plain overkill.
I also don’t recommend the RD-800 if you are an amateur musician and only want to play the piano.
The Roland RD-800 is perfect for:
- Serious musicians
- Musicians who want to perform live
- Musicians who want versatility beyond piano sounds
- Musicians who want a mini-workstation, and not just a digital piano
If this describes you, go ahead and choose the RD-800. It is expensive, but good value for money given the feature
Also Consider: Yamaha CP300 Stage Piano
The Yamaha CP300 is a beast. This is as close as you can get to an authentic piano sound in a package you can carry from your home to the stage with ease.
The keys have a graded hammer action and the same resistance as Yamaha’s upright acoustic pianos. The sound engine is based on Yamaha’s top of the line grand piano. Together, they create a playing experience that is unbeatable in this segment.
For experienced musicians looking to upgrade to a stage-ready instrument, this is the best buy on the market right now.
What I like:
- Keys and sound quality: The keys and sound quality is as close to an authentic piano as you can get. The keys are quite heavy, especially in lower registers. This is great for practice as it replicates the acoustic piano feel.
- Additional sounds: Yamaha has a bunch of other sounds built into the CP300. However, Yamaha hasn’t gone overboard here – you only get 50 original voices, all of which are high quality. You can even assign different voices to different parts of the keyboard, allowing you to mix and match sounds.
- Built-in recorder and arranger: The CP300 is not a full-fledged workstation but it has a 16-track recorder to help you arrange songs.
Who is it for?
The ideal Yamaha CP300 buyer is someone who has a few years of playing experience, wants to play live, and is at an advanced enough level to take advantage of the multiple voicings. The keys are rock solid and the sound quality is great, but overkill for beginner musicians.
I would recommend it only for people who have been playing for a while and want to upgrade to professional-level equipment.
Best Mid-Range Digital Pianos
The mid-range covers a massive range of digital pianos. Most intermediate players upgrade to an instrument from this range after starting out with a budget piano.
As such, the field is dominated by well-rounded digital pianos that can hold their own in the practice room or the stage.
Here are my top picks for mid-range digital pianos:
Best All-Purpose Digital Piano Yamaha DGX660
The first time I played the Yamaha DGX-660, I couldn’t believe my ears.
It had the same tone as much, much more expensive instruments. Yet, it was priced reasonably – as far as digital pianos go.
Later, I learned that the secret to DGX-660s exceptional sound quality is Yamaha’s PureCF sound engine (the same engine used in its $1500+ instruments).
The PureCF sound engine uses samples from Yamaha’s $150,000 (not a typo) CFIII grand acoustic piano. This gives the 660 its unmistakable rich tone.
But the tonal quality is just one reason why the DGX-660 is at the top of my list of mid-range instruments. As you’ll see below, there is a lot else to like about this keyboard as well.
What I like:
- PureCF sound engine: As mentioned above, the DGX-650B uses the same sound engine as its $1500+ cousins like YDP-181. This results in exceptional audio quality for a fraction of the price.
- GHS action: The Yamaha DGX-650B uses graded hammer action (GHS) to mimic the feel of acoustic keys. The keyboard feels heavier in the lower registers and lighter in the higher octaves. The keys are also weighted.
- Damper Resonance DSP: This is a new Yamaha technology that aims to replicate the feel of the damper pedal on acoustic strings. When pressed, the harmonics of non-pressed strings affect the sound of dampened strings. It’s not like a Steinway acoustic piano, but close.
- Learning tools: Although not necessary, this piano comes with a bunch of learning tools such as smart chords (play chords with a single key press), style recommender (recommend accompaniments based on your playing style) and play-along songs from “You Are the Artist” series.
Who is it for?
The DGX-660 is one of the most well-rounded digital piano packages around. It is flexible and powerful enough for a live, professional performance. Yet, it is also easy and affordable enough for a serious beginner to buy it as a first-time instrument.
I recommend the DGX-660 to anyone who wants to seriously take up piano playing. It is not so expensive to be beyond the reach of most buyers. In fact, it represents one of the best value-for-money buys on this list.
All this makes the Yamaha DGX-660 my top pick among mid-range digital pianos.
Best Acoustic-Like Piano: Yamaha YDP143R Arius Series
“Oh boy, a real piano!”
This was my 8 year old nephew when he first saw the YDP143R in my music room.
The YDP143R is cousin to the much acclaimed YDP-181. It boasts the same design, the same form factor, and for many players, even the same sound at a better price.
Little wonder that it’s my 2nd pick for the best mid-range digital piano.
What I like:
- Design: The YDP143R is a gorgeous thing. The wood finish is fantastic and the design makes it look like a serious musician’s instrument, not an amateur’s toy. You can easily be mistaken for thinking it’s a much more expensive instrument.
- Sound and keys: Just like the YDP-181, this piano uses the PureCF sound engine with samples from Yamaha’s $150k CFSIII concert piano. The 88-keys are weighted and boast graded hammer action for acoustic piano-like feel.
- Realistic pedals: The pedal performance is the highlight of the package. The sustain pedal feels like an acoustic piano’s in that you can hear subtle changes in the sound as you press the pedal. Easily the best pedal performance in the mid-range.
- Better performance with headphones: Unless you live with some heavy sleepers, you’ll likely practice with headphones. The YDP143R boasts Yamaha’s Stereophonic Optimizer technology that adjusts the spacing of the sound to give you a more realistic and natural soundscape.
Who is it for?
The Yamaha YDP-143R is perfect for an intermediate player making the switch from a cheap beginner’s instrument to a serious piece of machinery. This is a gorgeous device that doesn’t need to be hidden away in the back of your study room. You can place it up front and center in your living room.
This also one of the cheaper Yamaha Arius instruments you can buy.
The only thing I would be wary of is portability. This isn’t a small or light instrument. If you plan to play at the local club, you’ll do better with a portable alternative like the Yamaha DGX-650B above.
For rest all purposes, if you want an upgrade from a beginner-level piano and don’t have the money for a $1500+ instrument, choose the Yamaha YDP-143R.
Also Consider: Casio Privia PX-860
As the successor to the bestselling PX-850, the Casio Privia PX-860 has big shoes to fill.
Like the Yamaha YDP-181, the PX-860 is a console digital piano in a wooden cabinet. The sound quality is similar as well. The untrained ear might not even be able to detect any differences between the PX-860 and a traditional acoustic piano.
Top all of this with Casio’s proven build quality and value for money pricing and you have my third most recommended mid-range digital piano.
What I like:
- Key quality is top-notch: You get 88 fully-weighted keys with scaled hammer action (Casio’s version of graded hammer action). The keys feel much like an acoustic piano’s.
- Built-in pedal system: The 3-pedal system simulates the pedals on an acoustic piano, i.e. you can sustain and dampen sounds.
- Cabinet and built-in speakers: The built-in speakers replicate the acoustic piano feel, but you can also open the cabinet for additional resonance.
- Student-friendly features: The Casio Privia PX-860 is targeted at students. You get a “Lesson Function” and a “Concert Play”. The latter is particularly fun – you can play classical pieces backed by a full orchestra. Great for learning.
Who is it for?
The Casio Privia PX-860 is best for students and their teachers. It is also good for intermediate-level players who want to upgrade from budget pianos to something better in quality.
The key quality is amazing (for the price) and the wooden cabinet looks good. The student-friendly features make it particularly attractive for beginners.
Best Budget Digital Pianos
The budget range of digital pianos is the hardest to pick from. This range is filled with me-too brands trying to cash in on clueless beginners buying their first piano. I had to filter out a number of instruments because they didn’t meet my quality standards.
However, price and not quality is often the deciding factor for budget buyers. When you’re just starting out, it doesn’t make sense to spend $1,000 on an instrument you might not play past a few months.
Consequently, I prioritized value for money when choosing budget digital pianos.
Ultimately, I ended up picking four pianos that, to me, offer the best value for money for budget buyers:
Best Value: Yamaha PSR E463
Our favorite in this category used to be the Yamaha YPG-235. While we still swear by it, it’s become increasingly harder to find it in stores ever since Yamaha discontinued it.
Fortunately, the replacement – Yamaha PSR E463 – is as competent, if not better.
Built on the foundation of the PSR YPG, the E463 is a fantastic piece of machinery. Pound-for-pound, it is easily one of the best digital pianos ever made. Like the YPG before it, the PSR series is also proving to be a fan favorite.
Why? Let’s take a closer look.
What I like:
- Graded soft-touch keys: The best feature of the PSR-E463 is the graded soft-touch keys. This mimics the action of an acoustic piano – the harder you touch, the louder the sound. Granted, it’s not as good as GHS, but for the price, these are the best keys in this category.
- Realistic sound: It doesn’t use the PureCF sound engine but the sound quality is still incredibly realistic. The best I can say is that it sounds like a $1,000+ Yamaha. Plus, there’s a “Portable Grand” button you can press any time to bring up a rich grand piano sound in a second.
- Speaker quality: The PSR E-463 boasts some of the loudest speakers in this category at 12W. There is also a ‘bass boost system’ to add extra punch to lower registers. You won’t need external speakers – a definite plus for budget buyers.
- Yamaha Education Suite: The PSR E-463 comes with Yamaha Education Suite, which is Yamaha’s own suite of educational tools. YEG walks new players through the piano playing process with the help of 30 songs. Not a groundbreaking feature but good to have nonetheless.
- USB audio recorder that can record up to 80 minutes of sound in .wave format. This and tons of connectivity options make this a big winner.
- Price: This is one of the best value for money keyboards on the market in any category.
Who is it for?
I highly recommend the PSR E-463 if you’re buying your first piano and aren’t sure if you’ll stick with it.
There are a bunch of features – the YEG, six-track recorder, loud speakers, build-in sounds, etc. – but I consider them largely superfluous. If you are a beginner, your first and foremost criteria should be a good tone and key feel.
The PSR E-463 excels in both these sounds. You get a rich piano sound and keys that feel 90% like an acoustic piano’s. Not perfect, but enough to give you a taste of the possibilities of digital pianos.
That it packs in all this at a price that is nothing short of remarkable.
Little wonder why it’s one of the best-selling digital pianos in history.
If there is anything I can complain about, it’s the 76-key keyboard as opposed to 88-keys. But as a beginner, you’ll hardly ever need the fully 7-octaves.
Better Sound: Yamaha P71
The Yamaha P71 is one of the cheapest Yamahas you can buy with a full set of 88-weighted keys and the PureCF sound engine.
While the YPG-235 might look like a toy (even if it doesn’t sound like one), the P71 is undoubtedly a serious musical instrument. It looks, sounds and feels like one. There are no colorful buttons or superfluous features here. You get a beautiful instrument with 88 black and white keys and nothing else.
For serious beginners, this is one of the best value for money digital pianos on the market.
What I like:
- PureCF samples: The Yamaha P71 uses the same sound engine as Yamaha’s $1500+ pianos – PureCF. The samples are collected from Yamaha’s top-of-the-line CFIII grand piano. The sound quality is unmatched in this price range.
- Fully-weighted keys: You get fully-weighted keys with graded hammer action to get an authentic acoustic piano keys. This is as close to the acoustic piano experience you can get in the budget range.
- Dual mode: The P71 comes with 10 voices built-in. It also has a “dual mode” where you can play two voices at the same time (say, lower registers plays piano, higher octaves play strings). This creates a lot of additional opportunities for improvisation.
- Portability: The keys are narrow and the design minimizes any superfluous elements. As a result, you get a surprisingly portable package weighing less than 25lbs.
Who is it for?
If you are serious about learning piano and can afford to spend an extra $$$, I would recommend the P71 over the YPG-235. It feels and plays far better but is still affordable.
Most beginners won’t need to upgrade from the P71 until they are ready to hit the semi-professional level. It’s a slightly higher investment but worth the price.
Best Entry-Level Digital Piano: Casio CTK2400
Ah the Casio CTK2400.
Walk into any 8 year old kid taking his first music lesson and you’ll likely find the CTK2400 tucked away somewhere.
The Casio CTK2400 isn’t just one of the best-selling digital pianos. It is one of the best selling musical instruments of all time.
And for good reason too: the CTK2400 is fantastically well-rounded at a throwaway price.
Let’s take a better look at it.
What I like:
- 48-note polyphony: Most keyboards in the sub $100 range offer 32-note polyphony (like Yamaha’s similarly priced PSRE253). This one, however, offers 48-note polyphony. Not as good as 64-notes, but still better than the competition.
- Learning oriented features: Built-in songs, tutorials and rhythms make it a great buy for absolute beginners – the target market for this product.
- Built-in microphone for playing and singing at the same time.
- Decent key quality: The 61 keys are obviously not as good as higher-end instruments but they are good enough for beginners.
Who is it for?
With its price and learning-focused features, the CTK2400 is clearly meant for absolute beginners.
If you’ve never played music before and aren’t sure if you’ll even stick with it, I recommend the Casio CTK2400.
Even if you decide that piano isn’t for you, you won’t lose much with such a cheap instrument.
Most Affordable Starter Piano: Williams Legato 88
I’m not a huge fan of Williams as a manufacturer, but the Williams Legato was a revelation.
I didn’t expect much from a budget instrument, but the Legato surprised me with the quality of the keys and the richness of the sound.
This is one of the cheapest 88-key digital pianos on the market. Not only does it offer a full 7-octave range, it also looks like a serious piece of equipment – no bright, friendly buttons and designs here.
For beginners who want the piano experience without the budget, the Williams Legato is a good option.
What I like:
- Semi-weighted keys: Most digital pianos in the sub-$200 range offer synth-action keys. The Legato, however, uses semi-weighted keys that do a good job of mimicking acoustic key action. Sure, it’s not as authentic as a fully-weighted keyboard, but good enough for beginners.
- Full-sized keyboard: You get 88-keys – a full-sized keyboard – for under $200. Can’t beat that for value.
- Split mode: The Williams Legato comes with 5 built-in voices. You can split the keyboard into two sections to play two voices simultaneously. Thus, you can have bass notes in the lower registers and a piano solo in the higher octaves. Great for more ambitious learners.
- Design and built-quality: The Williams Legato looks like a real musical instrument, not a toy. It is also surprisingly sturdy and well-made.
Who is it for?
If you want a full-sized keyboard and don’t want to spend beyond $200, this is the digital piano for you. The semi-weighted keys feel good and the split mode adds a lot of flexibility. The build quality is nice as well.
This brings us to the next half of this guide: figuring out how to buy the best digital pianos.
In the next section, I’ll do a deep dive into the features, capabilities, and performance metrics to look for in a digital piano.
How to Buy the Best Digital Pianos
Buying a digital piano is complicated business. There are a number of things you need to look out for.
I’ll clarify some of these doubts in this section.
Digital Piano vs. Synthesizers vs. MIDI Keyboards
One of the first questions first-time buyers ask is:
“Should I get a digital piano, a synthesizer or a MIDI (digital) keyboard?”
I can see why this question would bother beginners. The three instrument-types often look the same, and, with some tweaks, are even capable of performing the same functions.
Here’s what you should know about digital pianos, synthesizers and MIDI keyboards:
A digital piano is designed to replace or mimic an acoustic piano. The instrument produces sound on its own, i.e. it has built-in speakers. The keys are usually fully-weighted. This means that the keys have a built-in weight – just like acoustic pianos.
Most quality digital pianos also have a “graded hammer action”. That is, the keys progressively get lighter as you progress up the keyboard (again, like acoustic pianos).
Since they’re designed to replace acoustic pianos, digital pianos have a full-range of 88-keys (7 octaves). Some even have wooden cabinets to resemble upright or grand pianos, such as this Suzuki MDG-400:
Of course, you can connect the digital piano to your computer and use it to play MIDI notes. With some pianos, you can even program them to play other sounds and instruments such as accordions or guitars. However, the sound manipulation is limited. Digital pianos perform best when playing piano sounds.
Given the quality of the keys and intended purpose (replace acoustic pianos), digital pianos are expensive. Most decent instruments will cost you a minimum of $500.
To sum it up, digital pianos:
- Usually have 88-keys
- Have a fully-weighted action to mimic acoustic pianos
- Have sound of their own
- Are expensive, costing $500 and up.
The term “synthesizer” covers a vast range of instruments. At its core, any device that helps you “synthesize” your own sounds can be called a synthesizer.
Thus, you can have synthesizers with keys, like this Yamaha REFACE DX Portable synthesizer:
A classic vintage analog synthesizer with a keyboard like the Korg MS20:
The purpose of a synthesizer is to create synthetic sounds by manipulating and modulating sound waves. Usually, the sound is controlled by keyboards, but you can also use knobs, drum pads, etc. to do it. Since the sound is artificial, you can mimic any instrument with it, though the replication of acoustic instruments (like a guitar or piano) is usually poor.
Classic synthesizers use analog processing to create sounds. These synths will have knobs, buttons, and dials to help you design the sound. The MOOG you saw above is the perfect example.
Modern synthesizers often use digital processing for sound creation. With digital processing, you might have one button controlling multiple, digitally created waveforms. The Yamaha DX is an example of this instrument-type.
Most synthesizers don’t have internal speakers. You have to hook them up to external speakers to hear any sound.
The cost of a synth can vary a lot. Classic vintage synths can cost anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand dollars. They can range in size from small tabletop units to wall-spanning monstrosities like this unit used by Hans Zimmer:
To sum it up, synthesizers:
- Might or might not have built-in keyboards
- Usually don’t produce any sound
- Can create new “artificial” sounds
- Cost varies from a couple of hundred to several thousand dollars
MIDI Keyboards fulfill an important role in music production: they help you enter MIDI notes in a digital audio workstation (DAW).
The MIDI keyboard cannot produce or create sound of its own. Instead, it can only help you control sounds produced by the DAW.
MIDI keyboards are useless unless they are connected to the DAW.
Once hooked up (via a MIDI interface), however, they become exceptionally powerful music making devices. You can control drum machines, electronic synths, FX, EQ, etc. all from the MIDI keyboard.
Most keyboards have drum pads, faders, knobs, etc. to control the above drum machines, synths, etc.
MIDI keyboards come in a range of flavors. There are “keyboard-focused” MIDI keyboards that have lots of keys (up to 88 keys), like the Nektar Impact LX88+:
There are “MIDI controllers” that don’t have keyboards. Instead, they give you access to a large number of pads for controlling the DAW, like the popular Ableton Push:
The most popular MIDI keyboards are hybrids like the Akai MPK. This combines semi-weighted keys along with 16 pads, faders and knobs:
Think of MIDI keyboards as a physical manifestation of the DAW. You don’t need them to make music with your DAW, but they make music production easier and more “tactile”.
Since MIDI keyboards have limited features, their prices are low as well.
You can get a cheap MIDI keyboard for $50. Some of the most popular variants (like the Akai Mini mentioned above) cost just about $100. Even the “high-end” instruments like the Akai MPK261 cost under $500.
To sum it up, MIDI keyboards:
- Don’t produce their own sound. They have to be connected to a DAW + speakers.
- Can’t synthesize their own sound.
- Usually have small keyboards (25 to 61 keys). Some models don’t have keyboards at all and only have pads.
- Usually have pads, knobs and faders to control FX, drum machines, electronic synths, etc.
- Are cheap, starting at under $50.
What Instrument Should You Choose?
Based on your needs and budget, here’s what you should choose between synthesizers, digital pianos and MIDI keyboards:
Choose Digital Pianos If:
- You want to play piano
- You have a decent budget ($200+ at least)
- You don’t have experience with DAWs
- The quality of the keys and replication of acoustic piano sounds matters to you.
Choose Synthesizers If:
- You want to synthesize your own sounds
- You don’t have or want to use a DAW
Choose MIDI Keyboards If:
- You want to control a DAW
- You want to control drum machines, FX, EQ, etc.
- The quality of keys matters less than the ability to control a DAW
- Playing piano is not a high priority
Most of you reading this would want to choose a digital piano since it is the closest approximation of an acoustic piano (minus the price, size or maintenance).
With this key question out of the way, let’s look at a few things you should look for in a digital piano:
What to Look For in the Best Digital Pianos
When buying digital pianos, here are a few important factors to consider:
I. Piano Type/Design
From compact practice pianos to elaborate stage-ready instruments, digital pianos come in a variety of shapes and sizes.
Here’s a quick overview of different types of digital pianos:
Digital Console Piano
This is the most common design, especially in mid-range and higher-end pianos. The digital console piano resembles a conventional upright acoustic piano, except it has a more compact design for enhanced portability.
Yamaha’s Arius series is a good example of this console type. The Yamaha YDP103R is particularly well-loved.
Larger versions of console pianos are called “digital upright pianos”. These mimic the design of classic upright acoustic pianos.
The One Smart series is a good example of this design-type.
Both upright and digital console pianos are similar in design and capabilities. They usually have foot pedals for damping/sustaining keys (like acoustic pianos). Most come with benches.
It is common for upright and console pianos to have wooden enclosures to mimic the acoustic piano look and feel.
Digital Grand Piano
Digital grand pianos are rare except in high-end instruments.
As you might have guessed, these have the same design as acoustic grand pianos, except they’re smaller.
Understand that this grand piano design has no impact on the sound produced by the instrument. The extra embellishment is purely for aesthetic purposes.
I don’t recommend digital grand pianos unless you want to use it as a decor element. They cost a small fortune and don’t offer anything that console or stage pianos don’t have.
Digital Stage Pianos
For digital pianos, this is the most popular design. Stage pianos are smaller and can be placed on a tabletop or a stand. You can hook them up to a PA system for performing at large venues. Their small size also makes them very portable.
I recommend stage pianos to most new buyers. They might not look the part, but their lower cost and portability makes them far more versatile.
And this is a personal opinion, but I like my digital instruments to look like digital instruments. Wooden enclosures, grand piano designs, etc. look very gimmicky. f I wanted an instrument that looks like an acoustic piano, I’d buy an acoustic piano instead.
Plus, stage pianos usually have a lot more connectivity options.
For most users, I would recommend digital stage pianos. Choose grand or upright/console digital pianos only if you intend to use the instrument in a single room and want something that looks good.
II. Key Action
The keys are the most important part of any digital piano. More than anything else, the quality of the keys should have the biggest impact on your purchase decision.
Your barometer for quality here should be acoustic piano keys. If you’ve ever played one, you would know that acoustic piano keys have a sense of “weight” due to the hammer action. When you press down on them, you feel resistance. This resistance varies based on both the key location and the piano tuning.
Higher keys in acoustic pianos feel lighter. Those in the lower octaves feel heavier. This is a feature of the way acoustic pianos are tuned. It is also aligned with the way higher/lower notes are played. You do a lot more complex improvisation and leads in higher registers. Lower (base) riffs are simpler, and hence, don’t require the same lightness of touch.
Keeping acoustic pianos in mind, here are a few key issues (heh!) to consider when buying digital pianos:
Fully-Weighted and Semi-Weighted Keys
A “fully-weighted” keyboard means that the keys are weighed down – the same as an acoustic piano. Fully-weighted keys have a richness and heft that mimics acoustic keys.
This is the gold standard for digital pianos. Most pianos in the $500+ range will have fully-weighted keys.
Semi-weighted keys, as the name describes, are only partially weighted. They have a sense of heft but it’s not as pronounced as fully-weighted keys.
Semi-weighted keys are common in lower-end instruments. Unless you are on a strict budget, I would avoid pianos with such keys.
Graded Hammer Action
A number of keyboards are advertised as having “graded hammer action”. This means that the keyboard mimics the hammer action of acoustic pianos.
That is, the weight of the keys changes as you progress from lower to higher octaves. Lower octaves have a heavier feel while higher registers are lighter for easier playing.
Each brand has its own variation of hammer action. Yamaha, for instance, has different types of hammer action such as GHS, GH, GH3, etc.
If it’s in your budget, always buy a piano with graded hammer action.
Touch response or velocity sensitivity describes how the keys behave when you touch them. A velocity sensitive key will change its volume depending on how hard you press down on it. Touch harder and the sound is louder – just like an acoustic piano.
Avoid pianos that have different volume levels. This means that the keys themselves aren’t touch-sensitive; the volume is entirely controlled externally. Most cheaper instruments don’t offer touch responsiveness.
If the keyboard has graded hammer action, it also means that it is velocity sensitive.
To sum it up:
- Fully-weighted keys with graded hammer action is the best option.
- Semi-weighted keys with velocity-sensitivity are a decent but cheaper option.
- Avoid keys without touch-responsiveness unless absolutely necessary.
- Keys that mimic the feel and sound of acoustic pianos are best.
III. Sound Quality
Digital pianos produce sound from a bank of digital samples. The quality of the samples determines the quality of the sound.
How the manufacturer recorded the original sample sound will greatly affect the sound quality. Yamaha, for instance, uses its own high-end acoustic pianos to record samples. Since Yamaha makes some terrific acoustic pianos, the sound quality is quite high.
It’s difficult to ascertain sound quality to the untrained ear. The difference between manufacturers is subtle but distinguishable. This is why you hear musicians talk about how they like the “Yamaha sound” or the “Korg sound”.
If it was possible, I would give you a quantifiable, objective analysis of sound quality, but I can’t. You can always tell bad sound quality from a good one, but the difference between good and great isn’t always clear. You will just have to try out different pianos and go by what sounds good to you (or just follow my reviews).
Polyphony (Number of Sounds)
Polyphony describes the number of notes the piano is capable of producing simultaneously. This figure is usually in multiples of 16. For digital pianos, you can get polyphonic ranges from 32 to 256.
Typically, the higher the range, the richer and more natural the sound.
- 32-notes: Avoid this if possible. 32 notes become very limited when you’re playing chords and melodies simultaneously. Use them only for toys or pianos for children.
- 64-notes: 64 notes gives you a much richer sound, though is still limited when you throw in the sustain pedal. Most low-end instruments will have 64-note polyphony.
- 128-notes: This is standard for most instruments barring high-end pianos. 128-note polyphony is adequate for all but the most seasoned of players.
- 256-notes: 256-note polyphony is found mostly in high-end instruments. It won’t have a substantial impact on the sound. There are very few music pieces that require playing more than 128 notes simultaneously. If you are a professional musician, however, you might want 256-note polyphony just for the heck of it.
At the bare minimum, look for 64-note polyphony. 128-notes is ideal.
IV. Number of Keys
The number of keys on the piano corresponds to the number of octaves. Each octave spans 12 keys. A standard acoustic piano has 88-keys, i.e. 7 octaves of range.
Having 88-keys is ideal. This will allow you to play every part of any piece of music.
However, some stage pianos have 76 (6 octaves) or 61 (5 octaves) keys to save space. They usually have buttons to shift octaves up/down on the fly.
Some practice pianos have as few as 49 keys (4 octaves). I don’t recommend this for anything other than practicing or using the piano as a MIDI instrument.
For most purposes, stick to 88-keys layouts.
V. Features to Avoid
The above covers the “core” the digital piano playing experience. As long as you have fully-weighted keys (preferably with hammer action) and 128-note polyphony, you’ll do well.
However, a number of manufacturers offer additional features such as LED lights, interactive piano, etc. to help you play. Usually, the less popular brands like Williams and The One do this in an effort to compete with Yamaha, Casio, etc.
Call me a purist, but I find that these features are little more than marketing gimmicks. You don’t need keys to light up to follow along to a song. In fact, these features actually hurt learning.
I’m also yet to find a piano that offers these gimmicky features and plays nicely as a piano. It seems like gimmicks and quality piano performance are mutually exclusive.
If a great piano has these gimmicky features, fine. But don’t buy a piano because it has these gimmicks.
Number of sounds
You’ll often see this referenced in digital piano marketing material – “with 4,000 built-in sounds!” (or something similar).
Since digital pianos produce sound from digital soundbanks or samples, they can, technically, produce any sound. If a piano’s manufacturer states that it can produce x,xxx sounds, it means that the manufacturer has loaded its soundbank with these additional sounds.
Again, this is a marketing gimmick. A good digital piano should first and foremost play piano sounds. Everything else is just bonus.
Moreover, few of these additional sounds are actually good. The quality of the sample determines the quality of the sound. Top manufacturers take great care in getting authentic piano samples. They don’t have the same care for getting authentic organ or accordion sounds.
So extra sounds – okay if you have them, okay if you don’t. Don’t buy a piano for one. Nor reject a great piano because of these sounds. Most good pianos won’t advertise these gimmicky features anyway).
That covers my buying guide for the best digital pianos. We’ll do a quick recap of my top picks and answer a few common questions. Head over to the contact page to send over any questions or comments.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some questions we frequently get asked over email – and our answers:
How many keys digital piano should you get?
It’s better to think in terms of octaves than in terms of keys. One octave has 12 keys. Including repeating keys, a five octave range is 61 keys. A full-sized keyboard with a complete 7 octave range is 88 keys.
At the minimum, I suggest getting at least 61 keys, i.e. five octaves of range. 7 is ideal but 88 key keyboards are just too large for most users. They can also be intimidating for beginners.
A rule of thumb:
- If you’re a beginner, get 61 keys or 76 keys
- If you’re an experienced pianist, always get 88 keys
Should you buy a digital piano or a MIDI controller?
If you want to play music independently without relying on a computer, buy a digital piano.
If you want to hook up the piano to a computer, pick a MIDI controller.
Two things to keep in mind:
- MIDI controllers have no built-in sound. You have to connect them to a synthesize or computer hooked up to a sound system to hear anything.
- MIDI controllers usually have far worse keys than digital pianos. They’re meant to play electronic music, not the high-finesse classical pieces a pianist is used to
MIDI controllers make sense if you’re a producer looking to make beats and play lead lines.
For everyone else, a digital piano is a far better alternative.
How much polyphony should your keyboard have?
Polyphony is a measure of how notes can be played at the same time. Thus, a keyboard with 128 polyphony can play 128 notes (or sounds) at the same time.
It’s a rare situation where you’ll ever exceed 50 odd sounds. For the majority of pianists, 64-128 note polyphony is more than enough.
Try to get as much polyphony as you can get. But don’t hang up too much on it – you likely won’t need the upper limit.
What are weighted keys and why do they matter?
If you’ve ever played a real acoustic piano, you’ll notice that not all keys “feel” the same. Lower keys feel heavier than the ones at the top of the register.
This is a design feature of acoustic pianos. You’re unlikely to do staccato base notes, but you’ll definitely want to do that with treble notes. Lighter higher octave keys makes this staccato possible.
On digital pianos, weighted keys replicate the real feel of an acoustic pianos. The keys are artificially tuned in such a way that lower register keys feel heavy while higher octaves are lighter, faster.
Different brands have their own weighted key mechanism. Yamaha, for instance, has multiple key actions such as Graded Hammer Standard.
As a general rule, always buy weighted keys if your budget can accommodate it. They might be slightly harder to play for beginners but the entire playing experience is far more authentic.
Buying a digital piano isn’t easy. There are a range of options to choose from with little to differentiate them.
Generally speaking, the closer the instrument is to an acoustic piano, the higher its price. Full-sized keyboards that mimic acoustic key action cost more. Pianos with 5 or 6-octaves of range and lighter synth-action keys fall in the beginner bracket.
Based on your budget, these are my top three picks for the best digital pianos:
- Yamaha Arius YDP-181 (Best performance)
- Yamaha DGX-660 (Best mid-range performance)
- Casio CTK2400 (Best for budget buyers)
Questions, suggestions, or doubts?
Leave your comments below or send us an email.
- Yamaha Keyboards (official website)
- Casio keyboards (official website)
- Roland keyboards (official website)
- What’s the difference between weighted and hammer action keys? (Quora.com)
Experts referenced for this article:
The following writers, DJs, producers, and audio engineers contributed their suggestions for this post: