Piano choice is a very personal and subjective affair. We each have unique tastes in the sound, feel, features, and appearance that we find appealing. While I would never recommend a specific make or model of piano to anyone, I will tell you what to think about when shopping for one…
Your Musical Style. Choice of instrument largely depends on what style of music you enjoy playing. A piano that sounds/feels/plays great for blues, boogie woogie, and ragtime may not have enough oomph for rock or the clarity and playability required for classical. An important point: Acoustic pianos have one sound. Electronic pianos can have many.
Sound Quality. First and foremost, you must enjoy the way the piano sounds. If the sound of the instrument does not meet your expectations, it does not matter what other features it may have. You will always be frustrated with both the instrument and your music-making.
In addition to the overall timbre, pay special attention to at lease five things:
- Clarity and depth of the low notes. Many pianos (even very expensive instruments) can sound “muddy” in the low register.
- Clarity and brightness of the high notes. They should sound crisp and clear, not brittle (like breaking glass).
- Smoothness of the sound transition across all registers. Play a chromatic scale over the entire keyboard to see if there are any “breaks” in the timbre. On an acoustic instrument this is caused by changes in the weight, length, and number of strings. On an electronic instrument, this is caused by poor synthesis or poor sampling.
- Natural-sounding sustain. Play a long sustained chord without the sustain pedal in various registers at different volumes and allow the sound to fade out. Does it sound and feel natural, with a pleasing resonance and decay?
- Sympathetic resonance. Play various arpeggios with the sustain pedal and listen. Is the sound rich and multi-dimensional?
“Size” of the Sound. A concert grand sounds and feels spacious and three-dimensional because there is a huge sound board that is vibrating in time and space. A spinet can sound a feel quite “small” and one dimensional by comparison. The “size” and spaciousness of an electronic instrument all depends on the amplification and speaker system. A good sound system using multiple speakers can produce a more spacious sound and feel than an acoustic piano.
Volume. Some concert grands have enormous sounds that can overwhelm a room, while some spinets have tiny sounds that can be lost in a room. Neither has a volume control knob. The volume of an electronic piano is infinitely adjustable. You can even use headphones, allowing you to play without disturbing the neighbors or those in your household who would rather watch TV.
Dynamic Range. Dynamic range is the difference between the softest notes and loudest notes. A good concert grand has a wide dynamic range, while most spinets have very little. Cheap electronic instruments have zero velocity sensitivity and therefore no dynamic range, but professional electronic pianos have exceptional dynamic range, often far beyond that of expensive acoustic instruments. When shopping around, make sure to play each piano at its extremes of loudness and softness.
The Action. Much of the size, weight and cost of a piano is driven by the quality of the action. A weighted action with velocity-sensitivity is absolutely essential if you want to play like an artist. A wide variety of actions are available — from extremely light to extremely heavy. Heavier actions provide more inertial feedback than lighter actions, but tend to be slower. The actions of good electronic pianos can be superior to (and more consistent than) the actions of very expensive acoustic pianos.
Because the actions of most electronic pianos are much simpler, they are less susceptible to clicks, squeaks, and stuck keys than a mechanical piano. Note: The weather can have a huge impact on the action of a mechanical piano, made mostly of wood that expands/contracts with changes in humidity. Also, pay special attention to how the keys feel as you play along the entire length of the key. Cheap actions become almost unplayable as you move towards the plate where the name of the piano is stamped.
Tuning. Electric pianos never go out of tune! A mechanical piano will go out of tune with time, use, and changes in humidity. Keeping a mechanical piano in tune can be frustrating (who wants to play an out-of-tune instrument?), expensive ($100 or more per tuning, several times per year), and time consuming (2 or more hours per tuning, several times per year). Important: An electronic piano never goes out of tune, ever. This is a big deal.
Size and Weight. Even the lightest spinet is quite a beast. Moving an acoustic piano is a delicate matter that should done by professional movers, not by a gang of your friends. Electronic pianos are much smaller, lighter, and infinitely easier to move… both within your home and between locations.
Appearance. Whether or not your piano will be a place for vases and family photographs, you would still like it to look nice and to suit your own taste.
Other Features. In the age of microelectronics and software, electronic pianos can have many useful built-in features: a transpose button to change keys, recorder, metronome, MIDI capability, audio outputs for recording or playing through a sound system, hundreds of voices (organs, electric pianos, harpsichords, strings, synthesizers, drums, etc). A mechanical piano has none of these features.
Maintenance. Reliability and complexity are incompatible with each other. Mechanical pianos are far nore complicated than electronic pianos. Besides tuning, the hammers need to be “voiced” (softened by hand as the felt hammers become brittle over time), strings need to be replaced as they unwind or break under stress, and squeaks/clicks/stuck keys need to be addressed. Electronic pianos normally have none of these maintenance issues.
Consistency. In the mechanical piano world, there are “good” pianos and “bad” pianos of the exact same make and model. Even if you have the money to afford the initial investment in a concert grand (several tens of thousands of dollars or more), the large and humidity-controlled space to house it, and the hundreds of dollars per year to maintain it, you may still be disappointed. Each serial number of a given make/model of an electronic piano is identical … There are no “good” ones and “bad” ones to worry about.
Cost. Don’t assume that there is a strong correlation between cost and quality. You can choose from several makes/models of good, zero maintenance, professional-quality electronic pianos (with many features) between $1000 and $2500. You can expect to pay $20,000 or more for a high-maintenance mechanical piano of comparable sound quality and playability. By the way, never pay the list price. Don’t even pay the discount or sale price. Whether you are in a real store or buying on-line, always ask for the real price. Always.
In Summary. Take your time to shop around. Check magazine and on-line product reviews. Give a fair consideration to all the factors: sound quality, volume, dynamic range, tuning, maintenance, playability, portability, functionality, and cost. Realize that no single instrument will satisfy everything that you are looking for; there will always be some compromise. Give priority to those factors that are most important to your lifestyle, budget, and the kinds of music that you want to make.