Selecting the best keyboard to learn piano on is not an easy task. Not with all the new makes, models and upgrades hitting the market every year.
Truthfully, buying guides like this one probably would have been helpful for me as a young musician starting out in high school. Now, nearly two decades later, though I’m much more experienced and confident as a pianist, I still find comprehensive guides useful.
They can help anyone from beginner to advanced players navigate the immense selection available and find the best instrument to meet individual needs.
My hope is this guide will provide that same benefit to you.
- Why Buy A Digital Piano Instead of an Acoustic One?
- Consider Your Budget
- What to Look for in a Full-Size Piano Keyboard
- Number of Keys
- Key Size and Response
- Key Action
- Design, Ergonomy & Portability
- Learning Tools
- Additional Features
- Best Piano Brands In Digital World
- Buying Guide Summary - Questions to Ask when Choosing a Digital Piano
Why Buy A Digital Piano Instead of an Acoustic One?
But before getting into characteristics and features, I’d like to discuss the merits of a digital keyboard in the first place, and why I tend to recommend it over an acoustic one. I can actually think of at least five solid reasons why purchasing a digital piano is well worth your investment:
1. You don’t have to worry about tuning your instrument.
While gorgeous and intricate pieces of artful machinery, acoustic pianos require a decent amount of maintenance.
2. You can practice and play in private, thanks to stereo headphones.
Plug-in optional headphones allow you to jam your heart out without getting on your roommates’ or neighbors’ nerves.
3. An electric piano keyboard offers much more versatility and variety.
With tons of different sounds, operational features, and learning aids, digital pianos are perfect for anyone looking to advance their skills. Plus, they are more feasible options for people living in small homes, given how easy they are to move and store.
4. The digital version offers you more customizable volume control.
Unlike on acoustic varieties, songs on a digital board can easily be played pianissimo or fortissimo without muffling sound quality. Volume control is especially helpful if you live in a shared living space or apartment building.
5. Digital keyboards are much more cost-effective.
Even high quality and expensive digital instruments tend to be way less expensive than their acoustic cousins.
Consider Your Budget
Whenever possible, determine what you’re willing to spend on a keyboard before shopping around, give or take a few (hundred) bucks.
This helps you cut through the immensity of options while also giving you the freedom to go with one slightly above your price range if it really wows you (because of looks, special features, etc.).
The thing is, there are tons of competitor brands out there creating quality instruments. In many cases, these options rival even the most expensive models on the market.
So, do your homework, or in other words, study this buying guide.
What to Look for in a Full-Size Piano Keyboard
Honestly, digital pianos are like the auto industry of the music world.
For every brand of electric piano manufacturers out there, there are about a dozen or more different makes and models.
Brand awareness will tend to get you better quality assurance, customer support, and personal experience with your new instrument.
So, consider selecting from companies like Casio, Kawai, Korg, Roland, and Yamaha. These big players are all known for creating high-quality gear for musicians, with Yamaha and Kawai even being leaders in the acoustic piano world, as well.
Of course, this isn’t to say another brand out there isn’t worth your money. If you find a reliable board that is fun and inspiring to play, then by all means, have at it!
Number of Keys
The 88 key digital piano is considered full size. It’s the largest and generally most expensive of your digital options.
These many keys are great for people looking for the closest approximation to an acoustic piano without the expense of a concert grand. Medium and small options have 76 and 61 keys, respectively.
Deciding how many keys your instrument should have really decides on who you are (or who you plan to be) as a player. That is, you may decide 76 or 61 keys are enough for your needs as the novice or casual player, especially if portability is important to you.
However, an 88 keyboard allows pros and advanced players to have a legitimate back-up and helps beginners avoid an incidental “ceiling effect” that can happen when someone outgrows their instrument’s range as they develop and improve with practice.
Here’s my two cents:
Key Size and Response
The size of your instrument’s keys matter as much as the number of keys. As far as I’m concerned, the best piano for beginners has the feel and weight of a “real” instrument, so new players can translate their skills from digital to acoustic when and if the opportunity arises.
So, I recommend choosing an instrument with full-size keys, whether it has 61, 76, or 88 keys in total. Smaller 66 key electric keyboards often have miniature keys that feel toy-like.
The responsiveness of the keys also matters. On a quality weighted keyboard, sounds will be soft when keys are played lightly, and sounds will be loud when keys are played forcefully.
This is touch response, and it’s crucial to the beginner pianist. You must be able to hear and play varying sound levels, since the sheet music you’re learning typically calls for different notes to be played at different volumes.
A small “toy” keyboard doesn’t offer this kind of touch sensitivity, while the best electronic pianos will.
On a real acoustic piano, the keys which make lower notes are actually heavier than the keys which make higher notes. I would recommend a keyboard with weighted keys since it’s the most authentic experience for the player.
Key Action Types
Trade lingo varies, but most digital piano keys come in one of a few different types:
- Fully hammer weighted key movement
- Weighted key movement
- Semi-weighted key movement
- Unweighted key movement
These are all variations in the way a key responds to the touch and pressure of your fingers. The video below describes differences between action types:
Most cheap pianos that aren’t full size (with 76 or 61 keys) will have unweighted key movement. This means the keys all feel about the same when you press them – totally unlike acoustic keys.
Of course, some casual players don't mind boards with unweighted key action. These instruments are typically made of lighter-weight plastic and therefore much easier to lug around. This can make it an acceptable option if you're just looking for something you can play around on wherever your travels may take you.
On the other hand, a fully or graded hammer weighted keys feel the most like the acoustic piano (with semi-weighted key action falling somewhere in between the two extremes).
Ultimately, your skill level and expectations for your playing experience can help you determine which quality of key action matters to you. Understandably, the best weighted keyboard will be more expensive, but this may be a price worth paying if you're serious about learning the craft.
As with most material goods, you tend to get what you pay for with digital keyboards.
A high quality electric piano with weighted keys will be more expensive than cheaper options, but aside from producing a more authentic playing experience, it will be durable enough to withstand hours and hours of practice.
My suggestion is to look for a fully weighted keyboard that has good movement and minimal key noise: no squeaking or clicking when you press on them.
If you're learning how to play an instrument, developing your ear (pitch and tone) is essential. Choosing a piano that offers quality and diverse sound is definitely important to your growth as a pianist.
I identify a few key characteristics of sound to consider when looking for your device:
Replicating the "Real" Piano Sound
The best 88 key keyboard will emulate the tone of the highest quality concert grand (and whatever other instrument sounds are featured on the device).
Number of Sounds (Voices)
You should think about how much variation you want in the sound presets on your digital piano. If you're looking for a ton of "fun" options, smaller portable boards may suit your preferences.
But if diversity of sound is less important than replication of the acoustic version, a larger digital piano will offer what you need while also being higher quality to boot.
The piano sound presets which usually matter to most players include: Grand, Baby Grand, Closed Lid, Open Lid, Upright Piano, and Electric Piano. Other options include strings, guitar, organ, and synthesizers, though this list is not all-inclusive.
How many notes can your digital keyboard of choice play at once? This is polyphony in a nutshell.
The digital technology inside an electric piano (as well as the amount of memory storage it contains) will dictate how many notes it can play at once.
Using a sustain pedal attachment allows you to play multiple keys in success and maintain the sound of their associated notes. Older notes are softer and more in the background, and more recently played notes are more prominent (a lot like a real piano). Once you hit your keyboard's max polyphony, the oldest notes drop off.
64-note and 128-note polyphony are the most common numbers, though you may also find 32 or 192 and 256 less commonly.
Speakers: Volume & Quality
If you plan on playing your instrument loudly, but don't want to give up sound quality in the meantime, you should look for a digital keyboard with a high amplifier power rating and big speakers. This is especially important for maintaining full and resonant bass notes.
Likewise, if you plan on using your keyboard to perform in front of other people, you may want to look for a model which features an auxiliary output so you can attach a keyboard amplifier.
Design, Ergonomy & Portability
Does the look and feel of your keyboard matter to you as much as its sound? If so, there are a few additional design features to consider:
Key Feel & Material
These days, real ivory and ebony are rarely, if ever, used on acoustic pianos, let alone digital ones. However, many leading brands are now using synthetic materials that mimic ivory and ebony.
If you want your instrument to look like a piece of furniture, then be sure to look at the material and appearance of the keyboard. For instance:
- Does it have a digital screen? What sort of information is displayed on it, and what is the interface like?
- Can it be used on a desk or other sturdy surface, or do you need to get a folding stand or furniture for it? Folding stands are less expensive than furniture stands, so be prepared to work this into your budget.
- Does it have any sort of faux finish, like polish, black walnut, or rosewood? Which sheen and color will match your decor?
- Where in your home do you plan to put your piano, and how often do you plan to use it? If it needs to be moved a lot, lighter-weight plastic construction may be ideal. But if you're getting an instrument for the whole family, a larger digital piano can fit nicely if your budget allows it.
These concerns may not be of importance to you, but as a matter of preference, it can be worthwhile to consider. After all, your piano should inspire you to play, and not be an eyesore you want to scurry off into a closet when you're not using it.
It's obvious just how much more portable digital pianos are compared to their acoustic predecessors, but even digital instruments can get pretty heavy.
Do you plan on teaching someone else how to play on your device, or performing duets with a buddy? Look for a digital instrument with two headphone jacks.
Want to connect your keyboard to your computer or smart device so you can download or upload music?
Look for options which include things like 5-Pin MIDI and USB, or even Bluetooth connectivity. Technophiles-cum-music lovers rejoice!
If the main reason for purchasing a digital keyboard is to advance your practice, it's great to look for a model that contains helpful learning tools.
Bestselling brands (some of which are discussed in greater detail in a later section) often feature lesson plans, built-in metronomes, visual aids (e.g., for playing melodies and chords). Some models have keyboard splitting options so teacher and student can play the same octaves at the same time.
Your standard digital piano comes with one sustain pedal (for the all-important polyphony feature discussed earlier). Some pianos have 2+ pedal connection options, although extra pedals are usually sold separately.
Certain furniture stands may also feature piano-like pedals which mimic the acoustic option of Una Corda (soft), Sostenuto (half-damper, for specific notes), and Sustain (damper, for all notes).
Are you a fledgling songwriter? What about an established composer? Digital keyboards with a recording option may be great for you as you flex your musical creativity.
Recording parts of your practice sessions and playing back the tracks can help you develop your skills, learn from your mistakes, and hone in on things like tempo and pitch.
Buying an instrument is a bit of an investment. As such, one of the final things you should consider when selecting a digital piano is the type of warranty offered by the manufacturer.
Longer warranty periods are better, of course, but your personal risk tolerance will help you determine what sort of protection you need to feel good about your purchase.
Best Piano Brands In Digital World
There are tons of different piano brands out there. I'll briefly highlight the three I like best (and it's worth noting thousands of other users and musicians tend to like these best, too):
Back in the day, Casio used to have the dubious reputation for making low-quality instruments and music gear. But thanks to its foot in the tech world it became a respectable brand for digital pianos.
Casio models suit beginner, intermediate, and advanced level players. Created by innovative engineers and designers, their models frequently feature graded hammer key movement and advanced sound technology. Specific digital lines include Privia and Celviano.
This Japanese company has produced several industry standard models of digital keyboards and pianos (let alone acoustic pianos). Their models are routinely used by recording studios, universities, and even professional pianists.
They've done a great job translating the quality sound of their grands, baby grands, and uprights into their digital versions, making them good options for anyone serious about their music.
Plus, key quality and action of Kawai instruments are leaders in the market, giving a closely authentic playing experience for consumers.
Yamaha may be the leading brand synonymous with musical instruments. Their digital pianos, along with their acoustic instruments, are among the most sought-after brands available, and consistently rated as being reliable, sturdy, and high quality.
The company's designers have created proprietary technology for things like tone and voice selection, wave sampling, graded hammer action keys, and more.
Yamaha is particularly famous for their CFIIIS 9-foot acoustic concert grand piano. Many intermediate and professional players feel this instrument is just about as close to the real thing as you can get, without all the expense and hassle.
Buying Guide Summary - Questions to Ask when Choosing a Digital Piano
- What’s my budget?
- What’s my current skill level?
- What are my goals and expectations as a pianist?
- Do the keys feel, move, and respond realistically?
- Are the keys noisy?
- How many voices do I want or need?
- What’s the max polyphony of this instrument?
- How much room do I have for an instrument?
- Will I need or want to travel with this instrument?
- Are the built-in amplifiers and speakers on this digital piano loud enough?
- Does this have a warranty?
- Does this brand have a long-standing history of piano experience and quality customer service?