What to Look for in a Digital Piano

Kathy Adams
Digital keyboard and headphones

Not all digital pianos are created equally. The best models offer the action and sound of a real piano while others feel or sound more like a cheap toy keyboard. Several key factors are worth considering before purchasing a digital piano, so it's best to play as many models as possible before making a final decision.

Number of Keys

A full-sized digital piano has 88 keys, just like a real piano. If you frequently play complex songs that require use of all octaves on the keyboard, a full-sized digital piano is the best option. The next smallest size offers 73 or 76 keys, which suits the needs of many piano players. Even smaller still is the 61-key digital piano, which cuts more than two full octaves from a full-sized keyboard. A 61-key model offers the most compact and portable option in many cases, but it may be a bit prohibitive if playing classical songs or other music that requires playing in all octaves. Any keyboard with less than 61 keys is most likely a digital keyboard, not a true digital piano; the piano sound in it may not be as realistic as the sound in a digital piano.

Weighted Keys

Weighted keys are the secret to a digital piano that feels like a real piano when played. Without weighted keys, a digital piano feels like a cheap keyboard. If you aren't used to playing an electronic keyboard or synthesizer, unweighted keys may feel strange and awkward, or potentially even difficult to play.

Digital pianos that have weighted keys do not all feel the same when played either. Some offer the full resistance of a true piano, while others feature semi-weighted action -- a middle ground between spring-loaded synthesizer-style keys and piano keys. Read the literature for each model to determine which type of action each digital piano has and play several models to see which one is most comfortable for you.

Audio Options

Digital pianos have built-in speakers, a headphone jack, or a line-out option, or all three. Models that have all three are the most versatile and are fairly common.

  • Built-in speakers allow you to listen as you play anytime, anywhere, with no extra equipment needed.
  • A headphone jack allows you to practice without disturbing others.
  • A line out is helpful if you plan to perform with others or in noisy environments as it allows you to plug into a mixing board for proper audio mixing and amplification through a PA system.

Tone and Action

Many digital pianos have several piano sounds built in; some may offer mild effects such as chorus to enhance the sound. Compare tones on several models, listening through headphones if you can, as you'll be better able to hear the nuances. If you like the piano sounds on several models, try out any other sounds offered on each. Some offer a few bonus tones such as organs, strings or vintage electric pianos. Polyphony isn't usually an issue on a true digital piano -- unlike some electronic keyboards, a digital piano can play multiple notes at once, just like the real piano it is meant to emulate.

Test the action on each model, playing softly and with full velocity. You should note a distinct difference in volume as on a real piano. If the digital piano does not respond to your playing velocity, it will not allow you to play with all the nuances you would expect on a true piano. In some cases the velocity feature can be set in advance; check with a sales representative or read the literature on a model you've tested to ensure it offers all the flexibility your playing deserves.

Weight and Size

Portability is another important factor when it comes to a digital piano unless you plan to use it only in one location. Models with 76 or 88 keys are a bit larger than many electronic keyboards or synthesizers. Units with weighted keys or metal bodies are also a lot heavier than plastic electronic keyboards. A road case makes it even larger and heavier. If you need to cart your digital piano around frequently for gigs or rehearsals, consider the weight of the model and case.

Foot Pedals

Most digital pianos also have jacks for sustain and volume pedals. If you use the sustain pedal on a real piano seek out a digital one that has it, otherwise you won't be able to sustain notes as you play. The volume pedal comes in handy when playing with other performers, allowing you to turn up or down without taking your fingers off the keys.

Recording Features

If self-contained recording is important to you, look for a model that has on-the-fly recording capabilities so you can record a track quickly and easily, without losing your creative flow. If you require recording or sequencing features and cannot find a digital piano that offers these, a digital workstation may be the answer. A workstation with weighted keys offers an abundance of sounds and features not found in a dedicated digital piano, but it typically costs significantly more.

Some models are also equipped with MIDI output and USB capabilities, allowing you to hook the digital piano up to external devices such as computers, digital recorders or other MIDI-enabled instruments.

Summary

Ultimately, the best digital piano for you is the one that best fits your needs. Opt for a model that has all the features you like, that allows you to play to the best of your ability, and that sounds the way you expect it to, to ensure you'll be happy with the device for years to come.

What to Look for in a Digital Piano