At the age of five and a half in mid 2003, my oldest daughter started pestering her mom and me (okay, bugging us nearly daily) for piano lessons. (Weird, eh?) While I've been a working musician myself for over a decade, I play rock drums and a bit of guitar, so I knew nothing about the piano.
I have drum kits, guitars, a bass guitar, and an old organ in the house, and my daughter has had a chance to try them all out. She seemed to like keyboards the best. So, after finding an excellent piano teacher and borrowing an old MIDI keyboard controller in the meantime, we set out to get ourselves a piano of some sort.
This article describes my process of specifying, comparing, purchasing, and setting up a digital piano in our house, and includes reviews of the Korg SP-200 piano we eventually bought, as well as the Logitech Z-3 speakers that accompany it.
We neither had the money nor wanted to dedicate the space to a real acoustic piano, especially since our daughter might decide she doesn't like it much after all. But recent years have brought an alternative: the digital piano.
You'd think that, compared to all the whizzy fabulicious synthesizers and samplers out there, a digital piano would be a snap for keyboard manufacturers to put together. But it isn't so. First, piano players want the feel of hitting real felt-tipped hammers against real strings inside a real piano, so the keys have to be weighted and bounce back just so. For a proper feel, the keys must have graded weighting, with the lower notes on the left feeling heftier than the higher ones on the right.
The piano sounds have to be excellent, with accurate samples of notes hit hard and soft, with and without sustain, and ranging over the whole field of possible approaches to the instrument. The internal computing power must be sufficient to handle 60 or more simultaneous notes (what's known as polyphony), because if you play 10 notes (with all your fingers) and let them sustain, then play 10 more, and 10 more—well, pretty soon you're going to cut off some of your first notes as the piano runs out of headroom, and that could sound bad.
So here are the criteria I put together for what we might need:
In other words, we were looking for something that can approximate the feel and playability of a real piano, but for $1200-1500 Cdn, instead of the many thousands any half-decent real piano costs.
Luckily, the major electronic keyboard manufacturers all have models that fit this profile in some way. I went to a few music stores in September of 2003, where the salespeople have said good things about models from Yamaha, Roland, Korg, and Kurzweil. (But there are others, some apparently quite good.)
So we had Yamaha, Roland, Korg, Kurzweil...and the rest. Those four (in roughly that order) are the apparent front-runners in the market. Unsurprisingly, they are major manufacturers of synthesizers and other electronic keyboards too. Yamaha is also the world's biggest maker of traditional acoustic pianos. Does it give that company an edge?
Perhaps. Some reviewers, and the salespeople at two big music stores I went to, say that Yamaha's digital pianos most faithfully approximate a real piano, in both feel and sound. Others—such as the guys at my local piano specialist and some online reviewers—prefer what Roland has done, and as a bonus, their main North American technical and repair centre is about 20 minutes from my house. Korg attracts some other reviewers, while Kurzweil has its fans too.
Here are the models we considered:
I tried some of the Yamahas, Rolands, and Korgs, but I never tracked down a Kurzweil. Even though I can't play piano to save my life, my experience with other instruments meant I could hear and feel how they differ, even subtly, and that they are all excellently made.
They also aren't the only options. When I was looking, I saw that Casio made a decent-looking model. Kawai, also a big maker of acoustic pianos, has a few digital models too (check out the lengths they went to in emulating an acoustic piano feel on one keyboard), as does its competitor Suzuki, and even stereo-system maker Technics is in the game. There are others, both well-known and obscure.
However, for those out of the top four, digital stage pianos seem like an afterthought in their product lines. Many people apparently buy pianos as much for their status and as beautiful pieces of furniture as for any other reason (a fair number of owners probably almost never play their Bösendorfers and Steinways, which is a shame). The strong lineups of nicely wood-finished digital pianos, some which even resemble baby grands, bears that out. But we're not in that camp, and unless someone had given us a good reason to pursue the alternatives, the portable professional models above seemed both well made and—this is important too—easy to find.
UPDATE: In January 2004, the MacJams website posted an overview of three mid- to high-end USB MIDI weighted keyboards. If you're planning to use an external sound module or computer to generate or record your piano tones, they're worth looking at.
In particular, the Fatar Studiologic SL-880 Pro keyboard controller, which sells for $800-900 Cdn, is an interesting option, because it is a pure controller with no sounds of its own, but apparently very good graded hammer-action keys. M-Audio has also recently introduced a similar 88-key hammer-action MIDI controller, the Keystation Pro 88, for a slightly lower price.
Finally, at the end of 2003, Casio introduced the PX100, a hammer-action digital piano with speakers, key splitting, multiple sounds, and even a mini-sequencer—for about $625 Cdn street price, brand new. I have no idea how good it is, but that's by far the best deal there's ever been on a hammer-action digital piano. I certainly would have considered it if it had been available last year.
All it lacked was built-in speakers. But there was enough PA equipment kicking around our house to deal with that—and besides, with the $500 extra that Yamaha charges for the P-120 (which otherwise isn't that different from the P-90), we could buy a pretty good amplification setup anyway. (As it is, we bought some PC speakers for much less.)
So, I rested for couple of months after going a bit nuts researching what kind of digital piano to buy. My five-year-old had now been in lessons for about a month and a half. She liked them, and I also felt I should learn something about the instrument after 13 years as a professional musician, so getting a proper one seemed definitively worthwhile.
While the Yamaha P-90 was the best value of the bunch, with its superb keyboard feel, excellent piano sounds, small size and weight, and great core set of features, at $1500 Canadian, it was a bit more than we really wanted to spend. So in late November, I stopped in at the Long & McQuade music store in Port Coquitlam on a whim after sitting in heavy traffic nearby, and ended up bringing home a sale-priced demo model Korg SP-200 instead.
The SP-200 meets essentially all of my must-have criteria, plus a few of the nice-to-have ones too. It can layer sounds and has a button for a timekeeping click, for instance—though there nonetheless remains something appealing about the old-style German-built mechanical swinging metronome we have at home. And the Korg's controls are refreshingly easy to use for all but the most obscure functions. (By the way, if you want to learn the history of the Korg company, the British magazine Sound on Sound has a fascinating three part history online.)
All serious digital pianos try to approximate the feel of a real piano keyboard by weighting the keys. While Yamaha does the best job in that respect, the Korg is no slouch—the SP-200's weighting is a bit lighter than that of a real piano keyboard, but still has enough heft to do the job.
The Korg's piano sounds, too, are not quite as lush and subtle as Yamaha's or Roland's, but are still excellent, and only direct comparisons with headphones reveal the differences (that's the only reason I know that, for instance, the C3 octave below middle C is a bit muddier on the Korg than it could be). Most of the SP-200's secondary sounds are wonderful too—I especially like the harpsichord, electric pianos, and wah clavinet—although like those of its close cousin the SP-300, the jazz/rock organ sounds and synthy choir and strings are merely good.
There are some puzzling shortcomings that might turn off more professional players, but none of which are at all important for the piano-learning crew at our house. The power socket is one of those small round ones that uses a regular "wall wart" AC adapter, and so is more fragile than a proper three-prong plug. Fine for a house, but not that great if it were being regularly plugged and unplugged on stages. Similarly, it's odd that both the power button and headphone jack are on the back of the housing, since that's not convenient for anyone.
The LEDs that indicate the SP-200's current settings are adequate, but it's sometimes hard to know exactly what those settings are at a glance—it would be nice if there were some sort of LCD display to show the current sound and effects settings, plus the metronome tempo. And it's too bad there's no settings memory, since all the sounds revert to their factory defaults when you turn the power off. Yet all of those are likely just cost-savings moves for the design of the internal circuitry, and keep the price of the Korg down without compromising its sound or playability.
The SP-200 advertises 60-note polyphony, i.e. you can have 60 notes playing simultaneously. That means if you hold down the included sustain pedal and mash down on keys with all ten of your fingers, you'd have to hit six full sets of ten keys before the trailing sustain of the first ones starts cutting out. (Real pianos have 88-note polyphony, in effect—one note per key.) However, the nicest sounds on the SP-200, such as the stereo grand pianos, use two sets of digital oscillators (which cuts polyphony down to 30 notes), and the reverb and chorus reduce polyphony still further. So if you layer two complex sounds and add effects, then hit a very low note and let it sustain, it doesn't take too many chords higher up the keyboard before you hear the low note stop suddenly.
In the real world, though, you'd never notice it, and it's not like anyone in our house is Glenn Gould and could actually get enough notes out in real music for the sometimes-limited polyphony to make itself known, and it's rare you'd want to layer two multiple-oscillator sounds to play complicated pieces anyway. If the SP-200 had a built-in sequencer/recorder like some other models, the polyphony would be more of an issue. When using it as a plain piano, the polyphony limits are just theoretical.
I've always thought that the built-in demos on portable keyboards are supremely lame, but the 30 songs stored in the SP-200 both demonstrate its capabilities well and are, in themselves, good performances of many classic pieces (from Für Elise to The Entertainer), as well as some decent tunes written just for Korg. When I left the demo tracks running through the PA speakers I was using for the SP-200 and went downstairs, it sounded like a very capable pianist was playing a real piano in our living room.
So all we have to do is learn to play well enough (i.e. at all) that we can do this new instrument some justice. It sounds great, whether through speakers or headphones, so we use it more often than the old keyboard we had borrowed, and that's a good sign.
After finding an inexpensive but solid keyboard stand and a better sustain pedal, he last thing we needed was some speakers that weren't bigger than the piano, as the PA monitors I had been using were.
Logitech's Z-3 speakers are a quality set of basic stereo-plus-subwoofer speakers for use with a computer, game unit, or small near-field (close-up) audio setup. They are quite pretty, with faux-wood cabinets and brushed metal accents, and despite their small size are quite heavy. While the set is not exceptionally loud for its rated power, the subwoofer provides substantial bass (perhaps too much at higher settings), and the stereo mid- and high-range satellite speakers offer smooth sound, an attractive and functional design, and solid metal bases for stability. The wired remote, with its simple power button, large analog volume knob, and funky blue LED power light, is an especially nice design.
Logitech includes a wired-in male mini-stereo plug (the kind that connects to a computer, portable CD player, or other mini-headphone jack), as well as an adapter that converts the mini plug to two female RCA jacks, which plug into standard left and right RCA cables used by stereo systems. I needed additional adapters (which I had, fortunately) to convert those RCA connectors to 1/4" mono phono plugs on SP-200, but that was to be expected, since the Z-3s aren't aimed at musicians anyway.
Wiring up the system was straightforward: the power plug is part of the subwoofer, so you don't have to worry about multiple power cables snaking around—which also means there's no way to run the satellite speakers alone, without the subwoofer. Oddly, you must separate the main cables (which connect the subwoofer to the satellites and remote in a bundle) by peeling the wires away from each other, like licorice strips, to get them to the length you need, which is something the otherwise-good (and very short) manual fails to mention. As shipped, the free cables are too short to reach either side of a computer monitor, never mind a piano. Some might be wary of doing any wire-separating without anything in writing to make clear that it's safe (which it is, since you're just peeling off some rubber). The satellites are very nicely designed, with two stable cast-metal feet and removable soft speaker grilles that protect from poking fingers but don't seem to colour the sound significantly.
The volume remote is worth a mention on its own. Some PC speakers provide all sorts of doodads on the remote (or just put the controls on one of the speakers), and they often use little clicky buttons to control the volume. The Z-3 gives you just the basics, and is better for it. There is a power switch (which doubles as mute—just turn the power off!) and a very large, smooth-feeling old-style volume knob. There is a standard mini-headphone jack, slightly recessed, which could be awkward if your phones have a bulky plug, but none of mine do. The LED power button is a trendy blue, and perhaps a tad bright if you use it in a dark room. The remote itself is plastic, but feels solid and well built, like the rest of the set.
Although the Z-3s are rated at 40 watts total power (17 for the two satellites, 23 for the subwoofer), they don't seem to have much more overall real-world volume than my old Yamaha YST-M7 computer speakers, which lack a subwoofer and are only supposed to put out 10 watts total. That shows how meaningless wattage ratings really are for these kinds of speakers. But it's good for me, since my young daughters tend to turn everything to 10 if given a chance, and when 10 isn't that loud, it can be a relief. If you crank up the Z-3 subwoofer (it has a separate bass knob on the back), you can get room-shaking bass, of course, but at the expense of being able to hear much high-end articulation from the satellites. Apparently, if you have a hotter source signal than the piano I used, turning the Z-3s up yields too much high end in the sound, but I didn't find that in our setup.
With the stage piano, I found a subwoofer setting just a few notches above minimum to work best. The high keys give a realistic tinkle, while the lowest ones vibrate the keyboard authentically, and the midrange is rich and lush. Overall, the Z-3s beat my old Yamahas for overall richness and evenness of sound. Audiophiles might disagree, but they'd be spending hundreds or thousands of dollars for speakers, while the Z-3s barely break three figures in Canadian dollars. It would be nice to have some equalization control for the midrange and high end, but few computer speaker systems offer that, and it's always possible to add an external EQ unit between the sound source and the speakers if you insist.
There are less expensive "2.1" PC speaker systems, as well as more powerful and better-sounding ones, but if you want a set of speakers that look good in addition to sounding just fine for most near-field, low-volume applications, the Logitech Z-3s might be your ticket.
All told, we spent less than $1100 Cdn (plus taxes, of course) for a quality instrument in a compact, good-sounding setup that my daughter can use for some years. Without the deal we got on the used SP-200, we might have ended up with a new Yamaha P-60 or P-90—or (if we could have found one, and it turned out to be a good model) a Casio PX100 instead. Certainly, for our needs, any of the stage pianos in our price range would have done the job nicely.
Now, if you are a really skilled pianist, you'll probably be much pickier about keyboard feel and sample changes. You might make a different decision. Indeed, you'll probably end up buying a real acoustic piano in the end, because no digital piano is a perfect substitute. Plus, acoustic pianos retain their value for decades; digital keyboards, like other technology, depreciate fast.
However, considering that even the cheapest acoustic pianos come close to $3000 for an upright or $10,000 for a grand, may not be especially well made at that, include no other groovy sounds, and can't be used with headphones—and also can't be lifted under one arm—I think we came out pretty well.
Page BBEdited on 20-Dec-04 (originally posted 30-Dec-03)