Digital piano upgrade: what's better than a Casio Privia?
January 11, 2017 12:16 PM   Subscribe

I want the best digital piano money can buy, and I think it's a Kawai. Question: Am I right, and which model? I have read every review and discussion I can find but still need answers, if I can get them. Details follow.

I have a Casio PX-130. Tell me what to replace it with, or tell me why I shouldn't bother. Information about Kawais would be appreciated.

1. Yes, I really do have to dwell in the uncanny piano valley. I live in an apartment and that's the end of it. no flesh and blood pianos for me. I grew up playing a mid-70s Baldwin grand that wasn't ideal, but yes, I know real pianos are better. But I have neighbors so I can't have one.

2. I own a Casio PX-130. At the time I bought it, price was an issue, and it was easy to find any number of lists of best digital pianos under $1000, under $550, etc. It is impossible, though, to find the same sort of list that isn't budget-based. So although I know the Privia action is pretty well thought of, I only know how it compares to pianos in its entry-level price range and cannot find any good discussion of how much better you can do if you have money to burn. But you can do better. Right?

Based on my Researches I am pretty sure I don't want a Roland or a Yamaha and am looking at Kawais - the ES8 and the various CA/CL/C-whatever models. I need to know if they are enough better than Privias to justify buying a new piano when my current one isn't broken or even bad. Money is no object. [a lie; if it really were no object I'd just buy a house and a real piano to put in it. But money is no part of this question.]

Here are my priorities, in order of importance:

1. action and feel - above and beyond everything else. All I want is to feel like I'm playing a piano. This is worth a lot of money to me. My PX-130 keys feel like the plastic they are, which worries me because reviews say they're better than most in that regard. Action I know is subjective - PX-130 is great for what I paid for it, but I am willing to pay four or five or six times as much money for something twice as good. Can I?

2. weight. I really should be able to move it by myself; I prefer something that's just a keyboard and the Kawai C* models worry me because they're heavy furniture. But talk me into it if they're really great.

3. sound - a distant third. I care, but it'll sound like a recording of a real piano and I'm at peace with that.

4. cost and looks and extra voices and synth stuff - DON'T CARE.

recap of recap: I want the best digital piano that's still kind of portable. Is a Kawai the best, and if so, which one? I will have to travel a ways to find a store that carries them, so although I do plan to try them out before buying, I would like to know specific models to test and if it's even worth doing.
posted by queenofbithynia to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (19 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
As you are focused on the feel it looks like the Kawai ones are right up your alley. But I'm going to suggest getting a piano controller and separate sound module. So the Kawai VPC1 is my pick. It's under $2000 and reasonably transportable.

The sound part is surprisingly easy and cheap, especially since you say you don't care too much about it. From way back in 1991, there's the E-Mu Proformance/1 Plus, widely available in the used market for under $100. Plug that into your stereo and there you go. If you later find another sound module you like better, it's easy to upgrade (and probably pretty cheap, too). The ultimate is probably a computer-based piano sample like Pianissimo and that's only like $80 (though you will need a computer to run it on). There's also Ivory II which is more expensive ($350) but has numerous pianos.
posted by kindall at 12:45 PM on January 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

I have a Kawai ES100 - I love it. I thought hard about buying a more expensive Kawai model - an MP7, I think it was - but it was significantly heavier and deeper for a 'portable' stage piano. (I also live in an apartment) While the ES100 is kind of the base model, it is relatively portable - for an 88 key instrument, that is.

You probably saw this page which explains the different key actions - at the bottom it lists which models have which systems. I would assume that the wooden-key action models are the 'best' you can probably get in a digital piano.

RE: comparison between the Privia and the Kawai - I played both (a px-150 I think) for a bit while choosing and the Kawai felt significantly better - I know that's really subjective, but the difference was pretty noticeable. Not only the hammer but the texture of the keys themselves. If I had more space/money/etc I would probably have bought the Kawai MP7 or one of the Kawai CS console pianos.

If you can find a dealer for Kawai, do go in to try out the different actions. I bought mine from DC Piano in Berkeley and found their prices to be similar to what Kraft Music et al. were charging online. It was really helpful to try the different actions side by side - it clarified the choice pretty quickly.
posted by gyusan at 12:56 PM on January 11, 2017 [2 favorites]

I have not myself played one, but at the "simulate an upright piano in every way possible excepting strings/soundboard" end of the spectrum you might play a Yamaha NU1 or the flagship avant grand to see if you like the feel (presumably very similar to a Yamaha U1 upright). Keyboard mag has a review. The VPC1 definitely gets good press too — just won't be a fully integrated "digital upright piano" solution if that's what you're after. [They both have a real escapement, which is essential to verisimilitude; my understanding is that the loudness of the note should be determined by the speed of the key at the time the hammer is thrown free, not how hard the key strikes the keybed.] Happy hunting!
posted by alexandermatheson at 12:58 PM on January 11, 2017 [2 favorites]

You may find, as I did, that when you pay for priority #1, you'll also pay for priority #4. In my in-person search, I couldn't find any piano that could best the Roland RD-800's action and control in low dynamic ranges (pp and lower) that didn't also come with a bevy of performance-oriented features, like voices/presets/etc.

I'd avoid the furniture-like models; everything that you care about is available in a less expensive package as a stage-piano model.

To the best extent that you can, try any piano you're considering in person. My last search concluded in 2014 with a Roland RD-800. Here are my thoughts on other models I considered:
  • Yamaha CP4 Stage: delightful sound modeled after their S6 grand, but didn't afford as much consistent control in the pp - ppp range, which was absolutely important to me.
  • Kawai VPC1: beautiful housing and impressive action, probably the most realistic on the market, but lacks the convenience of a stage piano with its own onboard sound. This was my first choice, but I got one defective unit after another (two in total), and I was tired of dealing with Kawai at that point. I'd give them another shot in the future.
  • Nord Stage 2: to me, this was all glitz. Very good library of sounds available, but comes mated to a very disappointing Fatar action (if I'm not mistaken) that feels very much like a keyboard.
The RD-800 has not disappointed in the way of action, expressiveness, sound, or reliability. The noticeable downside, as I mentioned, is that I now have all manner of bells and whistles, however well-built and respected they may be, that go unused 100% of the time, but I sure paid for them.
posted by ESM1 at 12:59 PM on January 11, 2017 [4 favorites]

I had similar criteria three years ago, and I’m happy with my Kawai ES-7. It feels pretty close to a real piano, but only weighs about 50lbs. Mine is solid and stable on a basic X-style keyboard stand. The keytop material simulates ivory, so it’s not slippery or grabby like plain plastic can be. It’s pretty short on bells/whistles – it has a few voices, some tone editing options, a USB port, but you can happily ignore all that and use it on the default piano sound every time you turn it on. The built-in speakers are small but decent if you ever want them. I usually play with headphones, because apartment.

The ES-8 is the next generation and should have better action, better sounds, etc. I haven’t played it so can’t vouch for how much better it is.

I know you aren’t worried about the price, but piano prices are somewhat negotiable even if you have limited local options. My local (chain) music store was able to match an online price that bundled a stool, stand, and soft carrying case with the keyboard.

Seconding ESM1, you want a stage piano. Definitely play as many as you want, for as long as you want, before you buy. Try Kawai, Yamaha, Roland.

Good luck and have fun! Piano shopping is a blast!!
posted by a moisturizing whip at 1:13 PM on January 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

One more thing: bring your own headphones when you go shopping, if you plan to use them at home. I find headphone sound to be more immersive, and you might experience the feel of the instrument differently with them vs through speakers, especially if the store is busy or loud.
posted by a moisturizing whip at 1:32 PM on January 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

"sound - a distant third. I care, but it'll sound like a recording of a real piano and I'm at peace with that." You probably know this, but: note that the same action can feel quite different depending on what kind of auditory feedback you get. And keyboards with "better" piano sounds probably won't have isolated notes that sound any better (that part's easy for everyone), the difference is that they'll respond better--because they have more memory for samples taken at different velocity levels, they model the damper and string interactions with more care, etc.

So if I were you, when auditioning these things, I'd take my own headphones (since that's what you'll likely use in your apartment) and make sure you adjust volume levels so they're all about the same, to make sure you're doing an apples-to-apples comparison--even if it's mainly the feel of the action that you're comparing.
posted by bfields at 1:33 PM on January 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

I work at a piano shop. We don't sell Kawais, but we do sell Casio, Yamaha and Roland, and I've played plenty of Kawai acoustics and digitals. I've also visited a few European (acoustic) piano factories and done some basic piano technicianship. First things first; do upgrade from a Privia. You will definitely notice the difference, and it will 100% be worth it. Absolutely definitely completely.

I also think you're correct in writing off Yamaha - none of their portable actions are much to shout about, and they haven't updated their line in quite a while. Casio's high-end stuff isn't worth a look unless you want big furniture, and Nord are very much bells-and-whistles machines with third party not-so-nice actions, so neither of them is worth much attention here either, but I think you knew that too.

The ES 8 isn't a bad choice at all - the only other thing I'd point you at is the Roland FP-90. It's brand new on the market, and it's to my knowledge the only portable digital that has a partially wooden action (the PHA-50, which is Roland's top-end action). I've just bought a Roland RD-800 for the features, but if I were only playing piano I would have gone for the FP-90 for the action. It's got extra features, as anything high-end will, but by far and away the most effort has gone into the piano part, both action and sound. Both the ES 8 and the FP-90 will be massive upgrades from the PX-130, and they weigh about the same (ES 8 is 22.5 kg, FP-90 is 23.6).

The real proof of the pudding will be in the playing of it, so to speak. If there's any way you can get to somewhere that you can try those two, do. Different people like different actions for different reasons, in acoustic pianos as well as digital. Hope you end up with something you like!
posted by spielzebub at 1:33 PM on January 11, 2017 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: thanks, everyone! I appreciate all the information, it's very helpful.

I'll drag myself out to a piano store soon and probably get a Kawai unless I discover I hate them. on re-checking everything, it's still going to be a hard choice because the ES8 has plastic keys and to get wooden keys without buying a big old furniture cabinet style piano, you apparently have to either spend an extra thousand for the MP11 or get the VPC1 and spend a lot of time figuring out how technology works. which would be, for me, a great effort. spielzebub, I'll try out the Roland you mentioned if I can find one somewhere.

(but even though I said I don't care what it looks like, I actually do, and the VPC1 is so lovely and elegant. except if I bought it I would have to plug all kinds of things into it and then it wouldn't be elegant anymore.)

anyhow I welcome any other opinions but have already achieved my main goal, which was to be told exactly what I want to hear.
posted by queenofbithynia at 2:23 PM on January 11, 2017

get the VPC1 and spend a lot of time figuring out how technology works

It's literally a couple of cables, and people here would be happy to help.
posted by kindall at 2:54 PM on January 11, 2017

Response by poster: It's literally a couple of cables

already I feel faint and dizzy

don't want to reply to my own question too many times, but I'm looking at the products you linked in your previous comment - is it correct that you can buy a thing -- I mean a thing-thing, a physical object [1], not a computer program - and plug one end of it into the keyboard, plug headphones or speakers into the other end of it, and then you're done? because that plus some dials and switches, I can handle. having to connect my computer to my piano every time I want to play, not so much.

[1] a box with MIDI in it? I am not playing dumb here, this is for real. as far as I'm concerned it might as well be a box with a hive of bees in it. fine as long as the bees know how to make piano sounds come out somewhere.
posted by queenofbithynia at 3:14 PM on January 11, 2017

Boxes don't have midi in them, midi is a language spoken through the cords, it tells things like 'play c4 this hard'.

The box would generally be called a 'sound module' sometimes they are known as 'midi sound modules' because they speak the midi language. While you can buy a dedicated box, you can also have a computer or a phone or a table act as a sound module. It sounds like you're not interested in that, just throwing it out there for completeness.

And btw I totally agree with the comment above that responsiveness to velocity is just as much about the sound generator as is is about the keys. The best keys in the world will sound like crap if put through a sound module that only has one velocity per note, and the worst keys in the world can be expressive if hooked up to a world-class sound module with 128 or more velocity samples per note.
posted by SaltySalticid at 3:50 PM on January 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

Professional pianist husband says: Kawais do arguably have the best action. However if you want really the best action in a digital piano, you are going to end up with a very heavy instrument. Any digital piano with great action is going to need two normal people or one excessively strong roadie to movie it around.

My problem with the Kawais is that they don't have built in speakers. I get a lot of biofeedback from the built in speakers. Even when I'm on stage with stage monitors I still use the built in speakers. For me, the best keyboard out there is the Yamaha CP-300. It weighs at least 80 lbs (but feels like it weighs a lot more than that). The road case is too big to be checked on a commercial airplane, and when I travel with it it has to be shipped as freight. But it is absolutely worth the hassle. Other people will like other keyboards - for me it is just the perfect fit.
posted by arnicae at 5:16 PM on January 11, 2017

I'm a keyboard owner for when I play around town so I'm limited in my options by what I can haul by myself, I'm a happy owner of an ES-7 (which does have tiny built in speakers). I upgraded from a Yamaha p-120 a couple years ago after playing that for a decade. I do think the Kawai sounds and feels a lot nicer, although it's heavier to lug around, occasionally I even get so into things that I forget I'm playing a 'plastic' piano, which was very rare before. The Yamaha was an upgrade from a Fatar controller + module. I can't speak to specific sound modules as I've been out of that world for a long time, but that combo is really very easy to set up if you find the VPC1 to be your first choice action wise.
posted by snowymorninblues at 5:24 PM on January 11, 2017

Personally I preferred the action of the Roland high-end(ish) pianos to the Kawais that I tried when I went through this particular rodeo - but that may be because it more closely matched the action of the piano I grew up with (a decent quality Bechstein) & was several years ago, so things have moved on since then. At the top-end, digital pianos can generally match the feel of *some* piano (at the cost of significant total instrument weight) but people argue endlessly over the feel of the various real piano manufacturers so don’t expect anything different in the digital world - it’s up to you to go out and actually play the instruments themselves in person & decide which action you prefer.

I agree with the posts above saying that any of these pianos will be an obvious upgrade in feel & sound from your Casio instrument & worth the outlay if you have the cash to spend. Also, if you’re not fussed about looks, then absolutely buy a stage piano and stand over the fancy wood panelled pianos - you will almost certainly find that every manufacturer has bundled the same physical action into a number of different packages & the stage piano version will be significantly cheaper as well as being relatively more portable. (Given the weight of an instrument with piano-weight keys, no digital piano with a decent action is going to be something you can pick up and carry under one arm...)
posted by pharm at 1:08 AM on January 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

I had the opportunity to play a family friend's new Kawai recently (CA67 maybe?). Keeping in mind that I am a piano dilettante, I was not too thrilled with the action compared to the old Roland FP-4 I have at home. So I would check out the latest entry in the FP series, which I guess is Roland's most piano-focused keyboard line. But definitely go to the store and try as many different models/manufacturers as you can.
posted by Standard Orange at 1:45 AM on January 12, 2017

If you get the chance to try a Nord Piano HA88 I'd recommend it. The HA stands for Hammer Action, which is better than normal Nord Pianos (HP - hammer portable). They have a Fatar keybed which I can't recommend, but you should still try one if you get the chance just for the sound. The sound is what Nord somehow get so right. They have algorithms to simulate how the strings resonate with each other in a real piano (even ones you aren't playing at the moment) and their often updated library of sampled pianos is lovely. I've had a renowned classical pianist, someone used to Steinway grands, use my Nord Piano for a rather posh wedding and he marvelled at how responsive it is. The Hammer Action version weighs only about 40 pounds. Good luck and let us know what you went with in the end?
posted by yoHighness at 5:09 AM on January 12, 2017

I love the Yamaha CP-300.
posted by aspersioncast at 1:46 PM on January 12, 2017

Response by poster: UPDATE: I haven't bought a new piano yet because I have to go through a few dozen cycles of I shouldnt/but I could/but I shouldn't/but I want to/but it's extravagant/but I can// before I break down and buy the Kawai MP11. but I wanted to give a final update before this thread vanishes into the mists of time, for the sake of any who care.

briefly: I did actually go out into an actual store today, in far-off Maryland a whole several metro stops past my usual, instead of just ordering something blind off the internet like an idiot. If they had only had an ES8 I would have thought it was great and bought it, but they had the MP11 too and I want it and need it and cannot do with less than the best. I think the action's a tiny bit heavier than my perfect piano would be but I haven't touched a human piano for years and I have lost almost all sense of what it is I'm trying to simulate, so maybe it is perfect, who knows. this is why I urgently need an upgrade. Anyway I loved it generally, the feel to the fingertips is A+ and the only reason I do not yet own it is because they also had a twillion Rolands, including an FP50 and a DP90. like I said above I am a big liar pretending not to care about aesthetics, I fucking love the dumb Roland cabinet pianos, they are so pretty. and when the MP11 is already 70 pounds, going up to 100 for a piece of furniture is dumb but what the hell, I can lift some weights, I don't play in public so when I say portable I really just mean I have to be able to move it across the room every time I feel like redecorating.

and the action on the DP90 felt a little too easy, a little too shallow, but still really really nice, like all the reviews said. not better than the MP11, and different, but I did like it a lot. and the sound really is really good. BUT I have read every piano review in the universe so I happen to know that theDP603 is the latest model and is reputedly an actual improvement with a fancypants new action AND cheaper and just better in all ways. so I go to the piano guy and ask if they have any of those yet or if they're too new to be in stores. and he says, oh yeah, we have a couple, but none of them are out on the floor yet. so I say: is there any chance I could take a look at one, because I am a Serious Piano Buyer and I think I'm going to buy the Kawai but I need to compare it with the latest Roland before I can be sure. major purchase, I can come back another day if you're busy now, blah blah blah.

and HE says: nope, we can't bring those into the store until we sell the old models we still have in stock.

which, good luck with that because the one on the floor was $2500 and the new one is $1999 (unless there is some mistake somewhere, which it seems like there has to be? but that's what I read?). and same for the FP50 they had in stock vs. the FP90 they were keeping in the warehouse until the old one sold. I perhaps could have bullied them into going and getting one for me to try since those are just a keyboard and not such a hassle to move and set up (not sure if they're otherwise identical to the DP603 or not, it is all very confusing) but I was miffed and did not try.

so to bring this long and boring piano story to an end, I am going to try to find somewhere in the DC metro area that stocks the very finest and fanciest Rolands so I can touch them a bunch, but if I am unable to do that I will order an MP11 for sure. though maybe not from my local-ish store because they aggravated me so. It pains me that it is so unbeautiful to the eye but what can you do.

thank you everybody for assuring me that spending lots of money and checking out all the pianos in the store was the right choice. it turns out my fingers AREN'T broken and I CAN still play trills and ripply little runs even though I am not very good and never was, Casio can go fuck itself. not really, because having one was much much better than nothing. but really.
posted by queenofbithynia at 4:47 PM on January 14, 2017 [3 favorites]

« Older I want my shoes back! (NYC petty theft?)   |   chronic fatigue syndrome and outside space design Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.