(This post was originally an answer to a student inquiry.)
It’s great to hear that your a buying hear a good instrument to study with! I believe strongly that this is in the best interest of a piano student. Even a beginner should be able to experience the responsiveness and tone of a proper instrument.
My thoughts on digital vs acoustic:
Advantages of digital:
- lower initial cost
- no tuning or maintenance
- can practice quietly (headphones or low volume)
- compact and portable
Advantages of acoustic:
- more musically responsive (even the most advanced digital piano only measures the “velocity” of each played note – the real physical mechanics of the instrument aren’t as one-dimensional)
- more complex and rich sound (the hammers, strings, soundboard and frame on an acoustic interact with each other in a myriad of ways, and even the best digital software and speaker systems can’t fully reproduce that)
- retains value longer (varies widely, but the average lifespan for an acoustic is said to be 50 years, for a digital 10ish).
Further thoughts on digital vs acoustic: The extra features that digital pianos have are for the most part worthless (ipad dock, built in songwriting tools, built in instrument sounds, etc). A digital piano should be evaluated simply by how well it imitates the sound and feel of an acoustic. For anything else, there are specialized keyboards, or you can plug the piano into a computer and do all kinds of fancy stuff with software. Some musicians seem to think an electric piano is sacrilegious – I don’t feel this way, but I do find that people very rarely develop the kind of emotional connection to a digital piano that people do to an acoustic piano they love.
All that being said, I think a digital piano is a perfectly sound choice.
Assuming you do buy a digital, here are some things to look for:
- feel and sound: These are by far the most important, but they can be difficult to evaluate if you aren’t a pianist. Look for a piano that feels like an acoustic – a touch that isn’t flimsy and light, but also not so heavy that the keys feel sluggish. It should feel substantial when you play a note, and solid (like hammering wood). In terms of sound, again, look for a sound as close to an acoustic as possible. Does it sound tinny, like it’s coming from cheap desktop speakers, or do you feel like the whole instrument and floor around it are resonating with the music? If you can, try to listen for nuances between notes played more softly and more loudly. Do they sound different not just in volume, but also in character/timbre? A very loud note should sound bright, edgy, almost harsh on its own. A soft note should sound not only quieter, but mellow, deep, and rich. (Essentially, you’re listening for the quality of the sound recordings on which the processor inside the piano bases the sound it creates). If you can play piano, try to play something a different volumes. How easy is it to create the mood/character you want? Can you easily get shades between loud and quiet?
- stand and pedals: X-stands are only for traveling and gigging. A home piano should always have a regular stand (the ones that are more like a piece of furniture). These larger stands generally have good pedals built into them. One detail you can look for with pedals is whether they are on/off or graded. Try holding the right-hand pedal (damper pedal) only part-way down, instead of depressing it completely. When you play and release a note now, does it sustain like when the pedal is down? Does it cut off like when the pedal is up? Or does it sustain a little bit, but die out quickly? That last answer would be the sign of a graded pedal, and it is incredibly important for advanced playing.
- age: although I’m sure there are deals to be found, I wouldn’t recommend buying a used one. An electric piano goes bad more quickly than an acoustic, and older pianos are prone to mechanical problems (usually the sensors for individual notes go haywire – either the note doesn’t sound at all, or it always sounds really loudly). They can be fixed, but you need to either pay for repairs or learn to dabble with the electronics (like tinkering with an old car). On top of that, digital technology advances so rapidly that the ‘computer’ aspects have improved massively over the past decade. This has a major effect on the quality of sound the instrument produces.
Lastly, regarding manufacturers:
I honestly don’t know much about specific manufacturers. Clavinovas are fine, but please, PLEASE, don’t buy an “ensemble” style piano (ensemble vs classic). The extra features on an ensemble are always awkward to use. Anyone serious about those kind of functions will hook up their electric piano to a laptop and buy software for that purpose. Plus, they’re always crazy heavy. Simply not worth it.
***EDIT: I have done a lot more research in the mean time. Manufacturers boil down to the following: Clavinovas are top-of-the-line, and Casio Privias are the best budget choice.
I’ll end my comments here.
Hope this information helps. 🙂 Good luck with your search!