We’ve discussed 49, 61, and 88-key keyboards, so naturally, it makes sense to talk about the best 25 key MIDI controller on the market right now. Sometimes called “mini” keyboards, 25 key keyboards are ideal for beginners looking for their first controller. They are also perfect for advanced players who prioritize portability over playability. Below, we’ll look at the best 25 key keyboards you can buy in 2020.
The first keyboard I ever bought had 25 keys. It just made sense to me back then. I wasn’t really sure how serious I was about this music thing (hint: I was). And since I came from a guitar background (and not a piano background), the 25 key configuration didn’t intimidate me as much.
Years later, I realize that these are precisely the reasons why 25 key MIDI controllers are the bestselling variants on the market.
25 key keyboards offer a mix of three things: price, portability, and ease of use. A huge 88-key keyboard can be intimidating, especially if you don’t have any piano playing experience (which describes most amateur producers). Since they have limited keys and features, 25 key controllers are also cheap, often coming in at under $100.
And finally, the limited feature set makes them easy to use. There are no two dozen buttons and knobs and automation controls getting in your way. You usually get a bunch of keys, a few pads, and a handful of knobs.
If you’re a beginner, I highly recommend that you start with one of these keyboards. Play around with them and see if music production is right for you. Once you get the hang of things, you can upgrade to a larger keyboard.
Below, I’ll share our list of the best 25 key MIDI controllers on the market right now.[toc]
The 7 Best MIDI Keyboard Controllers Right Now
A 25-key keyboard is almost always the smallest keyboard size you can buy. It gives you two complete octaves of range. Go any smaller than this and you’re basically looking at novelty builds.
Because of their size, 25-key MIDI controllers tend to attract two kinds of musicians:
- Budget conscious beginners
- Experienced players looking for a portable controller
These two markets are diametrically opposite. One prioritizes price and has little to no experience. The other is experienced, but demands portability mixed with performance.
Consequently, the best 25-key MIDI controllers typically tend to fall into two buckets:
- Performance-focused, but expensive
- Utility-focused, but affordable
Mostly, it comes down to build quality. The former uses premium-quality keys and pads. The latter uses keys/pads that are just good enough to be effective.
Keeping this in mind, let’s look at the best 25 key MIDI controllers in 2020 across all categories:
Best Overall: Nektar Impact LX25+
- 25 narrow synth-style keys
- 8 pads, 8 knobs, 1 slider
- Built-in DAW controls
- Built-in integration with most DAWs
- Hyper-sensitive pads
- Large pitch/mod wheels
- Small information LCD screen
I usually rank the Akai MPK Mini at the top of the pile when it comes to mini keyboards, but for this list, I revisited the LX25+ and was surprised by its much improved build quality and integrations. It has the same form factor and feature set as the Akai, but the quality of the keys and pads is perhaps even better.
Let’s back up a second though.
The Nektar Impact LX25+ features 8 pads, 25 keys, 8 knobs and even one slider. You get DAW controls and two chunky pitch/mod wheels that feel great to work with. The LX25+ integrates with most DAWs right out of the box. Plug it in and you’ll have immediate control over the DAW’s key functions.
The synth-style keys are decidedly narrow, though not so much as to make playing impossible. This is mostly done to accommodate the pitch/mod wheels. Since I use them a lot in my music, I appreciate the layout. However, if you’re someone who doesn’t use the pitch/mod feature much, you’ll find the compromise to the key width a waste.
The pads feel great. They respond to the lightest of touches and are also backlit for good measure. I also prefer their location on the right side of the keyboard (unlike the Akai MPK Mini’s center mounted pads). They are, however, on the smaller side. If you hope to use them as a makeshift drum pad, be prepared for mishits.
What really makes this one of the best 25 key MIDI controllers on the market is the DAW controls and integrations. You get complete transport controls front and center of the unit. There are also dedicated buttons to change the patch, open the mixer, and choose presets – something the Akai MPK sorely lacks. Throw in great DAW integration (tested on Pro Tools and Ableton) and you have a complete package.
All of this bundled up at a great price makes this one of the best 25 key MIDI keyboards you can buy right now.
Best Overall (2nd Pick): Akai MPK Mini MKII
- 25 synth-style narrow keys
- 8 velocity sensitive backlit pads
- 8 rotary knobs
- 4-way thumbstick for pitch/mod controls
- Compact size
The Akai MPK Mini MKII regularly ends up at the top of these “best of” lists, and for good reason. It’s just a fantastically well-made product that ticks all the boxes you’d want from a MIDI keyboard. It’s portable, affordable, and most importantly, endlessly useful.
The MPK Mini prioritizes portability above all else. The dimensions are about the same size as a conventional 13″ laptop. As such, the keys are narrow. Not great for playing the piano, but great if you want to just enter notes and play simple melodies.
Unlike the Nektar Impact LX25+, the MPK Mini doesn’t get dedicated pitch/mod wheels. Instead, it gets a unique 4-way thumbstick that does the same job. The location of the thumbstick isn’t ideal, however. You’ll have to awkwardly stretch the left hand over the right one, especially if you’re playing notes on the lower octave. This compromise was necessary to keep the footprint small.
The pads are large and backlit – larger than the LX25+. This unit also ships with the MPC Essentials software that basically turns the controller into a full-fledged MPC-like drum machine. I haven’t found much use for it in my workflow, but if you’ve used Akai’s older MPC machines, you’ll appreciate it.
In addition to these, you also get 8 rotary knobs. The build quality is good (not great) with some substantial resistance. The same goes for much of the rest of the controller. It’s well-built, but no so much that it will last you for a generation.
My chief complaints with this controller have to do with the layout and the lack of dedicated DAW controls. The LX25+ gets complete transport controls, while this only gets a couple of buttons to change patches. I would have also preferred a dedicated pitch wheel next to the keyboard.
But these are minor complaints. For most people looking for an affordable, highly portable keyboard, this is arguably the best 25 key MIDI controller you can buy right now.
Best Performance: Akai Professional MPK225
- 25 semi-weighted keys
- 8 MPC-style pads with 4 soundbanks
- 8 rotary knobs with 4 switches
- DAW controls and transport controls
- Bright LCD info screen
- Dedicated pitch/mod wheels
The Akai MPK225 takes all the complaints I had about the MPK Mini and rectifies them.
Nay, it makes everything 5x better.
Let’s start with the keys. Unlike the synth-style keys in most 25 key MIDI controllers, the MPK225 gets full-size, semi-weighted keys. This semi-weighted action is much more fun to play, especially if you have piano playing experience.
Instead of the thumbstick, you get two chunky and robust pitch/mod wheels, located perfectly next to the keys. This increases the size of the unit, but again, this is targeted for performers, not amateurs lugging the unit around the dorm.
The 8 MPC-style pads are substantially better in responsiveness. You also get 4 soundbanks which give you theoretically 32 pads.
The rotary knobs are much more tactile and offer satisfying resistance. Plus, you get 4 switches which theoretically give you a 24 knobs.
The MPK225 also solves one of my pet peeves about the MPK Mini – DAW controls. You can control pause/play/record as well as the arpeggiator, note repeat, and loops right from the unit.
Another new feature is a LCD screen that displays patch information, along with 4-way navigational controls and a dial. I find this screen extremely useful. It liberates you from the DAW and makes it possible to play the instrument without ever looking at your computer screen. Combine this with a full-fledged DAW controller like Ableton Push and you’ll have a perfect live performance setup.
Wrapping up the feature set is Akai’s VIP Essentials software. This little tool gives you access to all your VSTs from a single window. Useful if, like me, you have half a dozen synths.
Of course, all these features come at a price. The Akai MPK225 is substantially more expensive than most of its competitors. I wouldn’t recommend this for anyone new to music production.
Another sore point is the size. Even though it has only 25 keys, the unit is substantially large, especially in overall height. It is also heavy, weighing in at over 6 lbs. Forget about dropping it into your backpack; you’ll need a dedicated gig bag for this.
Best for Portability: Korg Nanokey 2
- 25 button-like keys
- Dedicated sustain button
- Dedicated octave up/down buttons
- Dedicated pitch up/down and mod buttons
The Korg Nanokey won’t blow you away with a long feature list or piano-style key performance.
It will, however, blow you away with its size and portability.
The Nanokey2 is ridiculously tiny, even when compared to the smallest keyboard in my collection, the Akai LPK25. It weighs in at an enormous 12.8 ounces. For those of you who speak metric, that’s a little over .35 kilos. Or less than the weight of a 355ml of coke.
Besides the low weight, the dimensions are also tiny. It’s less than 15″ in width and 2″ in height. You can drop it into a backpack and not even notice that it exists.
Obviously, a keyboard that prioritizes portability as much is going to compromise on performance. The Nanokey2 doesn’t offer traditional piano keys. Instead, it gives you large pad-like buttons.
Even though these buttons are nicely clickable, they lack the intuitiveness and familiarity of traditional piano keys. They’re good for entering notes and not much else.
There are few features to write about besides the above. You get a mod button and two dedicated pitch buttons. There are also two octave up/down buttons along with a “sustain” button for piano parts (though it’s a rare musician who’ll jam out complex piano parts on this instrument).
Compability is great, mostly because there are so few controls to manage. You can plug it in with any DAW and start playing instantly.
The price, as befitting the portability, is also low. In fact, I’d say this is one of the cheapest MIDI keyboards around from a respected manufacturer (most cheaper offerings are from knockoff Chinese brands).
On the whole, a great keyboard for entering notes and playing simple melodies on the go. It has few features, but the low weight and small dimensions make up for it.
Best Wireless Controller: CME Xkey Air 25
- 25 touch-sensitive keys
- Slim profile
- Bluetooth connectivity
- 10 hours battery life
- Ultra slim design
- Low weight – just 610 grams
Wireless controllers are a controversial subject among musicians. One camp (that I used to belong to) contests that wireless controllers can never give you the latency of a traditional wired keyboard. The other camp says that the portability and ease of use of wireless controllers trumps any loss in latency. And the latency itself has been improving anyway.
The truth is that wireless controllers do suffer from latency issues, but the issues are greatly exaggerated. For the kind of people it targets, wireless keyboards are often a better alternative to traditional controllers. Here’s why:
- Bluetooth technology has been steadily improving, reducing latency
- Most people who use wireless keyboards use simpler DAWs like Garageband, which don’t demand the near-immediate playback of a more professional setup
If you’re the kind of person who wants to jam out in public on his iPad running Garageband, it’s better to get a wireless controller than deal with a handful of USB cables and connectors.
If this describes you, the best wireless keyboard you can buy at the moment is CME Xkey Air 25. The smaller sibling of the Air 37, the Air 25 boasts a tiny profile, incredibly low weight – just 610 grams – and superbly low latency. In fact, on Garageband, the latency performance is at par if not better than using USB cables.
XKey Air 25’s wireless connectivity is through Bluetooth, which makes it compatible with every phone and tablet, whether Android or iOS. It is powered by a rechargeable Lithium-ion battery that purportedly gives you 10 hours of playing time. In real-world tests, you usually get around 8 hours at most, which is decent enough for the size.
Integration with Garageband is rock solid. Connect it via Bluetooth and it will automatically recognize the keyboard.
As for the keyboard itself, you get slim velocity-sensitive keys married to a slim profile. The lack of a lip beneath the keys can be a little uncomfortable for long sessions, and the keys are a little too slim for my fat-fingered self, but you can’t complain about the overall key quality.
There’s not much in terms of other features. You get dedicated octave up/down buttons but that’s about it. There are no pads, knobs or sliders in keeping with the portable nature of this keyboard.
This is not the best 25 key MIDI controller, but it is definitely the best wireless controller you can buy right now. Pair it up with your iPad and you can have an entire music station that weighs in under 3lbs. Just a testament to how far technology has come in the last 10 years.
Best for Beginners: Akai Professional LPK25
- 25 keys
- Dedicated octave up/down buttons
- Dedicated arpeggio button
- Dedicated sustain button
- Plug-and-play integration with most DAWs
When you’re just starting out as a beginner, you really don’t want half a dozen pads and knobs and sliders in your MIDI controller. You just want a set of keys to help you play your melodies, and you want them to just work.
Which is why I’ve picked the Akai Professional LPK25 as my choice for the best 25 key MIDI controller for beginners. This super simple, easy to use controller is designed for absolute beginners – the people picking up a DAW for the first time and have never owned a keyboard before. It is dead simple to use and offers just enough performance that you can start making some tunes with it.
In terms of features, you get 25 velocity-sensitive mini keys. I say “mini keys” but they are broad enough for all but the most fat-fingered of folks. The synth-action isn’t as intuitive as some of Akai’s more expensive offerings and you will struggle to play this keyboard like a piano. However, if you do know how to play the piano, you’re not a beginner in the first place.
Using the LPK25 is easy as a pie. Pop in the USB cable and most DAWs will recognize it instantly. There are no controls to worry about so there is no setup needed (though you can assign some of the keys to different functions).
Portability is obviously great – it is a low-feature beginner-friendly mini keyboard after all. The entire package weighs in at under 1 lbs and is barely 3.5″ wide. You can drop it into your backpack and carry it around to your friends place (though I’m yet to see anyone bring one to a gig).
There are complaints, of course. The velocity-sensitivity on the keys can be inconsistent. Press the keys lightly once and you get a soft nibble of a sound. Press them lightly again and you might hear a full-throated punch. This isn’t a huge problem when you’re recording but I wouldn’t want these performance artifacts in a live gig.
Another concern is the price. While the LPK25 is obviously cheap, Akai’s own MPK Mini is barely a few dollars costlier and offers way more. Unless portability is a huge concern for you, I would advise that you spring for the MPK Mini. The expanded feature set might be intimidating at first glance, but it will pay off once you upgrade your skills.
On the whole, the Akai LPK25 is a great first MIDI controller for someone who just started producing music. It is cheap, easy to use, and works well enough with nearly every DAW on the planet. You can always upgrade to a new controller as you learn more.
Best for Ableton: Novation Launchkey 25
- Velocity sensitive narrow keys
- 16 touch-sensitive RGB pads
- 8 knobs, 1 slider
- Dedicated DAW control buttons
- Dedicated navigational control buttons
- Built for Ableton
As you might know, my daily driver DAW is Ableton. And judging by the comments I get, it’s the same for many of you reading this.
If you’re an Ableton user, one of the best 25 key MIDI controllers you can buy right now is the Novation Launchkey 25. Built from scratch specifically for Ableton, the Launchkey 25 has everything you’d want: velocity-sensitive backlit pads, programmable knobs, dedicated DAW controls, and of course, 25 keys. It integrates beautifully with Ableton and gives you complete control over the DAW right out of the box, no fiddling around with software necessary.
All of this comes in at a price point that is attractively affordable, making it an easy pick for this list.
Let’s back up a second and talk about the keyboard itself. The Launchkey 25 uses synth-action, velocity-sensitive minikeys. It’s not the same action as a full-fledged piano, but it is good enough that you won’t have any complaints.
Complementing the keys is a set of 16 backlit pads. The pads are on the smaller side but respond wonderfully well to the lightest of finger taps. Great for triggering clips or jamming out drum patterns.
Personally, my favorite feature is the built-in DAW controls. You can pause, play, record, etc. right from the controller. This frees you up from the computer keyboard and makes for a far more intuitive playing experience.
A tiny LCD screen showing track and clip information completes the package. You also get dedicated directional keys to navigate between effects and clips. You also get two chunky pitch/mod wheels.
It’s not all 10/10 though. The narrow keys won’t make the fat-fingered among us happy. I would have also been happier with fewer but larger pads – too easy to tap the wrong button with the current setup. The build quality for the keys is also questionable – it might not survive lots of heavy jamming sessions.
Overall, this is a great midi controller if you use Ableton exclusively. It works well enough with other DAWs, but the built-in integration with Ableton makes it extremely easy to use.
So that covers our picks for the best 25-key MIDI controllers you can buy in 2020.
That still leaves us with a question – what should you look for in a MIDI controller?
We’re currently working on detailed buying guides for MIDI keyboards and controllers. But if you’re looking for quick answers, we’ll share some insight in the next section.
FAQs for Buying 25 Key MIDI Controllers
Most people who are in the market for a 25 key MIDI controller can be corralled into two camps:
- Beginners who just started music production and are buying their first MIDI keyboard
- Experienced players who want a portable option for carrying around on the road
From the kind of keys to the kind of features, everything will depend on which of these two groups you fall into. Beginners will want ease of use; experienced players will want features and customizability.
With this premise, let’s look at some of the top questions you should ask before you decide on the best 25 key MIDI controller to buy:
How much do you understand the basic jargon?
If you’re going to spring $100+ on a controller, it helps to be familiar with the technical terms you routinely encounter in controller spec sheets.
This isn’t just a matter of the beginner-experienced musician divide. I know plenty of producers who can create fantastic tracks from start to finish in Ableton but don’t know the first thing about CV/gates.
So regardless of how much experience you have with music production, there are a few terms you should be familiar with before you jump into the market for a MIDI controller (regardless of number of keys):
- DAW integration: Your DAW (Digital Audio Workstation), as you would know, is the software you use to produce music. The most popular ones are Avid Pro (top choice for professional studios), Apple’s Logic Pro, Ableton, and FL Studio. Other popular options include PreSonus’ Studio One, Steinberg Nuendo, and Reaper. DAW Integration, thus, defines how easily the MIDI controller works with the DAW. Technically, every controller works with every DAW; you’ll just have to fiddle around with customization settings to access all the features. However, home controllers, such as Novation Launchkey 25, are made from scratch to work particularly well with a specific DAW (Ableton, in Launchkey 25’s case). If you have a specific DAW you use, pay special attention to this feature – it is always better to get a controller that was built for your DAW than to reconfigure one to work with yours.
- Velocity/pressure sensitivity: Velocity-sensitivity means that keys respond differently based on how fast you press them. Pressure-sensitivity means that key response depends on the heaviness of your touch. Both these features combined make for a more intuitive and piano-like playing experience. If keys aren’t pressure and velocity sensitive, every note will have the same loudness, creating a jarring, toy piano-like sound. Fortunately, nearly every modern MIDI controller offers velocity and pressure sensitive keys.
- Touch-sensitive pads: The pads on a MIDI controller can also be pressure-sensitive. That is, how loud a note plays will depend on how heavily you tap the pad. This is crucial for creating drum patterns, especially hi-hats. A MIDI controller that doesn’t offer touch sensitive pads is a massive deal breaker.
- Fully/semi-weighted/synth-style keys: MIDI controller keys can be “synth-style”, “semi-weighted”, or (very rarely) “fully-weighted””. Fully-weighted means that the keys have built0in weights to mimic the action of a traditional concert piano. That is, the keys become harder to play as you go down the octaves. Synth-style means that the keys don’t have any internal weights and have the same resistance across the entire keyboard. Semi-weighted is a compromise between the two. Most premium keyboards will have semi-weighted keys. Fully-weighted keys are almost never found in MIDI controllers and are usually a feature of digital pianos.
- DAW controls: These are easy enough – DAW controls let you control start/stop, record, etc. options for your DAW. I consider these a must-have since they let you play/record without turning to your computer keyboard.
- Pitch/mod wheels: If you’ve ever heard guitar music (of course, we all have), you’ve heard of “bending”. This is when you drag a note up/down one or more semitones. Pitch/mod wheels on a keyboard allow you to do the same on a MIDI controller. Press a note and drag the wheel up/down to move it over a semitone or two. Look for MIDI controllers that offer these wheels in an easy to find area (usually the left of the keyboard).
- Octave controls: Small 25 key keyboards give you access to two octaves, but that’s barely enough to play anything complex. You will want to move up/down octaves to play lead and bass parts. Dedicated octave controls are a must-have to access higher/lower octave notes. Press the octave up button, for instance, and you will move up an octave, giving you access to higher notes. Never buy a mini keyboard without these buttons.
Do you understand your requirements?
If there is any reason why people regret their MIDI controller purchase, it’s because their controller doesn’t quite match up to their needs. Maybe you’re a rank beginner and you splurged on an Akai MPK225 and found it too intimidating. Or maybe you’re an experienced pianist who opted for the Akai LPK25 for the sake of portability and now regret the poor key quality.
So before you decide on what kind of MIDI controller to buy, you have to ask yourself: what are my current needs? How will they change in the future?
There are several parts to this question. Start by figuring out the following:
Do you have piano-playing experience?
If you’re able to play the piano, your choices will be drastically different from someone who has never touched a musical instrument in his life. Being able to play the piano means that you at least have basic music theory knowledge and enough finger dexterity to play basic melodies and chords.
For such musicians, a controller with low-quality, clunky keys will be a massive letdown.
If you know how to play the piano, look for MIDI controllers that have:
- Full-sized keys (instead of mini keys)
- Piano-style waterfall keys (instead of square-edge keys)
- Semi-weighted keys (instead of synth-style keys)
Do you want a keyboard or a controller?
This is a fundamental question, but I’m surprised by how many people get it wrong.
A controller is any instrument that lets you control your DAW through a variety of means. This could be through a keyboard, a bunch of pads, or even an array of buttons and knobs.
A keyboard, of course, is an instrument that prioritizes keys over pads, buttons, and knobs. While plenty of keyboards do offer these control options (as the ones you saw above), the primary focus of a MIDI keyboard is the keys.
A common mistake people make is that they buy a keyboard when what they really want is a controller. That is, they want to trigger clips, make loops, and make drum patterns. Playing chords and notes isn’t a priority for them.
If this describes you, you will be better served buying one of the many excellent pad controllers on the market, such as the Ableton Push or Akai MPC/APC series.
For most others, a keyboard that also offers a few pads, knobs, and buttons will be a better option.
How will your needs change?
MIDI controllers are investments, not one-off purchases. If you want to be happy with yours, I suggest you buy for the version of yourself 12-24 months from now, not your present self.
The reason I say this is that musical abilities evolve very fast. You might be a complete beginner today, but 12 months of effort will turn you at least into an intermediate player. And at that point, you’ll find your beginner-friendly controller too limited in capabilities.
So ask yourself: how much do I care about music? How fast are my skills improving?
If you’re a hobbyist who doesn’t plan to learn much (which is perfectly fine), pick something that is right for you today.
But if you’re actively taking lessons, learning new skills, and expanding your focus, buy a MIDI controller that is sufficiently advanced to fit your changing requirements.
Be honest and objective about this. If you’ve never taken a single lesson in the last 12 months and haven’t picked up any new skills in years, don’t tell yourself that you’ll be an advanced player in a few months. That’s the fastest way to regret your purchase.
Evaluate your learning trajectory and match your purchase with it.
What is your budget?
MIDI controllers stretch over a huge budget range. From the ultra-cheap $50 Chinese knockoffs to $500 pro-grade Akais, there is a keyboard to fit any requirement.
The question is: how much should you set aside for your controller?
Consider $100 to be the bare minimum to spend on a MIDI controller. While there are certainly good keyboards below this mark (the LPK25 comes to mind), you’ll have far more fun with keyboards at or above the $100 point.
Around $200, you start moving from “beginner” to “intermediate and up” territory in terms of features. This is especially true for 25 key controllers (which are the cheapest controllers in the first place). In this price range, you’ll start seeing better pad quality, better keys, encoders instead of knobs, and better info screens.
At the $300 mark, you have advanced, pro-grade options. Semi-weighted keys become common here, as do MPC-like pads. Instead of simple TFT screens, you might find rich info LCD screens. The integrations are better in this rage as well.
Above that, you’re looking truly professional equipment, the kind touring artists use. If you’re in the market for $500+ MIDI controllers, you already know more than this author 🙂
With that, we come to a close in this extended guide to buying the best 25 key MIDI controller. We’ve covered everything from the factors that should impact your purchase decision to a comprehensive list of technical terms you should know.
Just to recap, here is our list of the best 25 key keyboards, sorted by category:
- Nektar IMPACT LX25+ (Best overall)
- Akai Professional MPK225 (Best performance)
- Korg NANOKEY2 (Best for portability)
- Akai Professional LPK25 (Best for beginners)
- CME Xkey Air 25 (Best wireless)
- Novation Launchkey 25 (Best for Ableton users)
Questions, suggestions, or doubts? Send us an email!
Experts referenced for this article:
The following writers, DJs, producers, and audio engineers contributed their suggestions for this post: