Acoustic and Digital Piano Buyer’s Guide for the Home

In today’s musical instrument market, purchasing a piano comes down to this question: digital or acoustic? I’ll define what these terms mean, describe the different types, list some of the pros and cons of each, and describe what to look for in a reliable, quality instrument. In general, though, the old adage applies: buy the best you can afford.

ACOUSTIC PIANOS rely on a mechanism to make sound. Your finger presses a key, which moves a series of levers connected to a hammer, which hits a string that vibrates and makes a sound. All pianos work on this principle, from the tiniest spinet to the largest grand. Great attention must be paid to engineering this mechanism, and to ensuring good resonance of the sound through the harp, soundboard, and case of the instrument. Generally speaking, the reputable names–Stienway, Baldwin, Yamaha, Bosendorfer, Young Chang, Kawai, Story & Clark, Knabe–are a safe bet if they’ve been maintained. There are also a lot of smaller names that have come and gone that are probably also worth looking at. I have–and like–a Baldwin student piano (marketed under the Hamilton label), but I think Yamaha make the best acoustic pianos for the money. I have liked every one I’ve played, and I can’t say that for any other brand.

Acoustics offer several advantages. They require no electricity to operate. The sound quality of a good piano in a typical home is good to excellent without any need for amplification. An acoustic can be found for any decor, and can be an attractive piece of furniture. The downsides include the fact that an acoustic requires regular (annual or semi-annual) maintenance in tuning and adjustment, which adds cost. Also, the acoustic takes up quite a bit of space.

I have never owned–and probably will never own–a brand new acoustic piano. The best way to buy an affordable, high-quality acoustic piano is to find a used one on a site such as Craigslist. Unless you are looking for something truly awesome, special, or unique, or are making an investment, you should be able to do well for under $500. Also figure in moving costs if you don’t plan to do it yourself ($200-300), and tuning costs ($200-400 per year; you should have your piano tuned at least annually). Buying locally is important as you want a piano that is seasoned to your climate. If you find one you like, and decide to take a look, here are some things to look for. Any issues should be reflected in the price.

  1.  See if the carcase (the outside) is in decent shape. If it’s really thrashed, then it has probably been abused and neglected. Mine, for example, is a bit beaten up because it was in the side room of a church for a couple decades, but it is mostly mechanically sound.
  2. Check to see that all the keys are in good condition (not chipped or cracked) and are level with their type (black keys level with black keys, white with white). It is possible to cut yourself on the sharp edge of a chipped key.
  3. Play all the notes chromatically from one end to the other. Listen for good sustain (the notes ring for a bit as you hold down each key). If there are issues here, it may be due to misalignment in the action or a cracked soundboard. Both are costly to repair.
  4. Try the pedals and make sure they work as they are supposed to. The left pedal should make the notes sound softer, the right pedal should allow notes to ring after you let go of a note, and the center pedal should give a slight sustain. This one is the least important for most playing. Some old uprights have a fourth pedal that makes the sound more metallic, and it’s often called a “Honky-Tonk” or “Ragtime” pedal. These are very cool old pianos, but the additional parts create additional headaches.
  5. If the piano has been taken care of, it is probably in tune, but an out of tune piano is not necessarily a deal breaker.
  6. If the owner allows, open up the top. Look for strings that are rusty, broken, or missing. Check for any weird smells, like cigarette smoke (if you’re a non-smoker) or decay (either wood or flesh). Take the front covers off and examine the soundboard to make sure it’s not cracked.

The size and layout of the piano will make a difference in how much space the instrument will occupy in your home, but also in the quality of the sound (read more about this topic here). Size wise, all pianos are roughly 5 feet wide (side to side). The strings of the piano can be oriented horizontally or vertically. Horizontal actions are usually called “Grand” pianos and are described by size–Baby, Full, etc. A 15′ grand piano is often viewed as the pinnacle of the keyboard playing experience (it is pretty awesome). Most people don’t have the space of budget for a full grand, but if you do, you probably can’t go wrong with the brands mentioned above. Vertical pianos go by many names based on size, but are all roughly 2 feet deep (front to back). All  A spinet is the smallest, at about 36-40″ tall. Despite their small size and relatively low cost, spinets are the most complicated pianos and will be the most expensive vertical pianos to maintain. Consoles are next in size (40-43″) followed by Studios (44-48″; this is what I have). The Full Uprights or Upright Grands (48″+) are the largest. A console or studio is probably your best bet in terms of the sound to size compromise. Bigger pianos have fuller sound, but take up more space and cost more. A used spinet can be found for $200, while a new Yamaha U1 upright (48″) starts at about $10K.

DIGITAL PIANOS are electronic keyboards. Electronic keyboards rely on a electronic circuits to make sound. Your finger presses a key, which closes an electrical contact, which sends a signal to a computer in the guts of the instrument, which sends another signal to the outputs or the speakers, which make a sound. Electronic organs, synthesizers, and cheap keyboards that you might find at Wal-Mart are NOT digital pianos and are NOT adequate for learning the nuances of piano playing that a serious student will face after his or her first year of study. There are many kinds of music that involve synths and organs, but they require a different approach and emphasize different skills.

For piano study, if an acoustic piano won’t work for you, look for a digital piano. Yes, you can start learning with an inexpensive keyboard (provided it has full-size keys), but you will need to upgrade to an instrument with a full 88-key keyboard, some sort of weighted action, touch sensitivity, and at least one realistic and expressive piano sound as you progress. The action of a digital piano is not affected by the mass of moving levers and hammers, so artificial weights or springs are often employed to make the playing experience more realistic. Furthermore, you want the volume of the sound to get louder if you press harder and quieter if you play softer, just like a real piano. The sound quality should convince you that you are playing a piano, not a cheap imitation. Better digital pianos are actually very good approximations of the real thing, so that the decision to choose between acoustic and digital can be made using criteria other than the quality of the playing experience.

A digital piano offers some advantages. You can play through any sort of sound system such as a stereo and adjust the volume outside the normal range of an acoustic piano (louder or softer). You can use headphones if you want to practice late at night and not disturb your family or neighbors. A digital takes up less space, and can even be put away in a closet if need be. Many affordable digitals come with a variety of sounds, rhythms, and other features that may enhance your creativity–mine has about 500 sounds that I can combine in thousands of ways with various effects and controls, and I use it for live performance. You can hook it to a computer for recording or lesson work. They need no maintenance to speak of–they stay in tune. The downsides of a digital involve a higher up-front cost–$500 for a “bare bones” instrument up to multiple thousands of dollars for the top of the line. Also, most of them are far less attractive as furniture than an acoustic piano as they are computers in plastic cases with buttons. Finally, you can think of a digital piano as a computer–the same problems occur. Over time, contacts wear out, plastic parts break, and sometimes the electronics develop idiosyncrasies that are just intolerable. Repairs are generally not cost effective.

With a digital, I recommend buying a keyboard that is no more than 10 years old. Piano samples (sounds) and keyboard actions have improved dramatically since around 2000. They just keep getting better and better. Historically, Yamaha, Roland, Korg, Kurzweil, Kawai, and Nord have dominated the digital piano world, but Casio has become a major player in the game. In fact, I’d recommend the Casio Privia line as the best deal you can find on a quality digital piano. I’ve played Casio for over 5 years at this point and their instruments have served me well. But, action and tone are highly subjective, so if you do find something attractive, play it before you buy it.

The most important thing to do, regardless of the instrument you buy, is to play it! Thanks for reading!

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