Piano Buying Guide

Once you decide to learn piano, the first thing you’re confronted with is that you now need to buy a piano (if you don’t already have one laying around your home somewhere). Knowing what features you need and which models meet those features can be overwhelming.

The purpose of this guide is to:

  1. Educate you on what are the core features you should be looking for.
  2. Explain the accessories you’ll need (Bench, stand, headphones, pedal etc.).
  3. Give you a small list of keyboards and gear so you’re not overwhelmed by options.

If you want to skip ahead to my picks without learning in more detail scroll down to the end. Otherwise, let’s begin.

1. Keyboard features:

There are many pianos out there from many brands, but we can simplify things greatly by focusing on which features are really needed for a beginner with a limited budget. The list is actually very small; here is all you NEED as a beginner:

  1. 88 key full-size keyboard
  2. Weighted keys
  3. Dynamics
  4. MIDI or Bluetooth Connectivity

You might ask yourself, “ do I really need all those things ?” the answer is absolutely YES.

Q: Why do I need 88 keys? Can’t I get by with 60 keys?

A: If you have less than 88 keys, within the first year or two of piano you will end up running into pieces (aka songs) where your keyboard just doesn’t have the keys to play those notes. It would be like buying a laptop that was missing the F key. Imagine all the words you couldn’t type! That’s what it feels like to run into a piece when your keyboard is too short. Unless you don’t have an option I would avoid anything less than a full-size 88 keyboard at all costs.

Q: Having weighted keys sounds like a luxury, why is this needed so badly?

A: Firstly, since all but the cheapest keyboards have weighted keys, if you regularly play on a keyboard without weighted keys, it makes playing on any other keyboard very difficult. In other words, it trains you poorly. Also, the reason keys are weighted is to help rebound, playability, and tone control, having no weight is like hammering a nail with a hollow plastic hammer instead of a metal one, there’s no follow through and results are not good. The good news is fully weighted keys are found quite easily these days on even entry-level keyboards. So the TLDR is, weighted keys help you play better and not having them gives you bad playing habits. Weighted keys are a must have.

Q: Why can’t I use a cheap MIDI controller that has no dynamics?

A: Since a huge part of playing is musical expression, it’s important you learn with dynamics in your playing. Dynamics are different levels of volume in your music, example: playing soft vs loud. If your keyboard doesn’t support dynamics, it makes it impossible to learn how to put emotion into your playing. Also, you won’t be able to do something in piano called “voicing”. Voicing is when you make one hand or note louder or quieter than another. An example would be: keeping your left hand soft while you make the right hand louder to “voice” out the melody. Without voicing, all notes are equal volume and they drown out the melody. This would be like if you went to a concert and the lead singer was the same volume as the bass guitar in the back. It would be horrible. If all that doesn’t convince you how important dynamics are, I don’t know what else to say!

Q: Do I really NEED MIDI or Bluetooth? Can’t I just play my piano without any connections?

A: Short answer is, YES, you don’t need to connect your keyboard to play it. However, if you’re planning to use Piano Planet, or any other piano learning app, you will need to connect it in some way for what you play to show up in the app. Without a connected keyboard, you could still learn the older way from books, but if you want to use the app, you’ll need a way to connect your device to the keyboard. Luckily, almost every single keyboard has MIDI connections these days, so this isn’t a problem unless you’re using a very old or very cheap keyboard. Piano Planet supports all connection types ( MIDI, USB and Bluetooth) so as long as your keyboard has one of them, it should be able to connect to the app.

Those are the core things you NEED bare minimum, but there are still other things to consider. Let’s go over those now.

Feel of the keys:

This is how the actual keys feel to the touch, the responsiveness, and just how it feels to play on. How the keys feel is called “the action”. A great action will be much more enjoyable to play on, and also allow you to be more expressive in your playing. Normally, the better actions come with more expensive keyboards, but they also vary greatly from manufacturer to manufacturer. Currently, I think the two best actions are built by Roland and Kawai. You’re looking for actions that closely simulate the way a real grand piano works, and to do this you need to include wood into the building process.

Sound engine:

Keyboards need to make sound; the “sound engine” is where the keyboard gets its sound from. Some keyboards even have multiple sound engines for different instrument types, like pianos, synth pads, strings, and more.

There are four types of sound engines currently used:

  1. Sine waves , basic synth waves which are generated through purely electronic means. These are waves that don’t sound at all like a real piano, but are fine for non-classical music use. Synths are great for composing unique electronic music, but terrible for simulating a piano, as that’s not their intended purpose.
  2. Samples are pre-recorded from live instruments, like a real acoustic piano, and then triggered when you hit the key. Samples were the go-to technology in digital pianos for decades. At first the idea of samples sounds great, but the downside is that each note is isolated away from each other. While in acoustic pianos, the sound waves from all keys are mixing together, creating constructive and deconstructive interference, as well as sympathetic vibrations and overtones. Without the complex interactions mixing, the sound doesn’t sound authentic, and this is part of why keyboards from 20 years ago sounded “fake”. The reason you can’t sample a piano perfectly is because you’d have to sample every single combination of every key, at every dynamic level possible, with all ways you could pedal and more. It isn’t viable to record all those combinations.
  3. Modeling is when you simulate everything inside a piano, like strings, hammer, soundboard, material type, cabinet resonance, and more in a simulated environment. While samples recorded a real acoustic piano, modeling creates a purely digital environment. What’s great about this approach is it’s super flexible. Since everything is 100% simulated, you can customize every aspect of the sound quality to get your own custom piano sound. It allows you to go way beyond what would be possible by just sampling alone. As improvements are made the modelling keeps getting better.
  4. Lastly there is Hybrid , which begins with a sample base, and adds modeling on top of the sample to create a more realistic sound by simulating overtones, sympathetic vibrations and other complex harmonics and acoustics that simple sampling can’t do. Think of it as acoustic piano + extra simulation to make it sound more realistic. These hybrid engines can sound very good, but they are usually less customizable than a fully modeled environment, so if you’d like to get an exact piano sound full modeling is the way to go.

For the purpose of playing songs as a traditional pianist, the preferred order for me from worst to best is: Synth Sine Waves < Samples < Hybrid (Samples+modeling) OR Full modeling . The reason the Hybrid approach and the pure modeling approach are tied comes down to personal preference. Both Hybrid and Modeling can sound amazing, so it’s sort of down to what you like in the end. When deciding between the two, a 100% modeled sound engine is more flexible, so if you like to tweak things your own way a modeled sound will be the way to go, while if you just want something to work “out of the box” hybrid approaches are great.

Lastly, each manufacturer is going to develop their own sound engine, so they will all sound different, some better, some worse. This choice impacts how realistic and pleasant the piano sounds to play, so while it’s not NEEDED, it’s important to consider.

Speakers:

If you plan to play for people, or use the keyboard in your home, or even play for people in larger venues, you may want to consider the quality of the speakers. The general rule is, more expensive keyboards have better speakers. (an exception to this is if the keyboard is meant to be connected to external speakers at a gig site, in this case to save weight, there might be no built-in speakers). However, if you will use headphones, speakers won’t really matter, and a good pair of headphones will usually outperform speakers.

Other connection types:

Not all keyboards have every connection out there. Some only have MIDI OUT but not MIDI IN, others don’t have MIDI at all, they may only be able to connect 1 pedal instead of all 3, they might have USB support or not, and they may or may not have the right jacks to connect to external speakers. It’s important to think about what you will use your keyboard for, and what features you won’t give up to save money. Generally, more expensive = more connection options. So when buying a keyboard, give it consideration what connection types you can live without.

A few things you can keep in mind:

  • Normally, external speakers aren’t anything to worry about, unless you play for larger crowds or events.
  • MIDI IN isn’t needed in most cases.
  • Having 3 pedal connections is important only for more advanced stuff, while having 1 is usually good enough for the first 3 years of piano.

MISC Keyboard Features:

These are things like the layout and design of the controls on the keyboard, the built-in metronome, number and quality of sounds, recordings, playbacks, feel of the buttons, volume sliders. Basically, all the little things that add up to complete the keyboard. Some manufacturers get this much better than others.

Generally, the things you might want are: a good looking, easy to use design; an amount of instruments that are satisfying to you; a well designed, built-in metronome; recording and playback options. It’s also nice to have EQ tuning so you can tune the bass/mid/treble sections, but it’s not a must have.

It’s tough to know what you will like or won’t like until you’ve used a keyboard for a while, so don’t be too worried about getting this right the first time. Normally if you order from a good brand, they will already have done well on these things.

2. Common Accessories

So you have a keyboard picked out, but where are you going to put it? Desks usually aren’t at the right height for a keyboard, and you probably don’t want to play on the floor either! You’ll need some gear to get your setup working well. Let’s talk about it!

Keyboard Stand:

The keyboard stand is one of the most critical accessories you need to have for your setup and its job is to securely hold the keyboard at the right height so you can play it comfortably. The main thing you need to look for in a good keyboard stand is that it’s built solid enough to keep the keyboard from shaking as you play. Usually solid wood or metal construction is preferred over particleboard. Since the stand is the only thing keeping the keyboard from falling over, I don’t recommend cheaping out on the stand, if you can afford it. That doesn’t mean you need to buy the most expensive stand either, but buying too cheap of a stand is a mistake if it’s not safe to use.

To give you an idea for what are normal dimensions:

  • Height is 72cm (28.5 inches) from floor to top of white keys (with keyboard on stand)
  • Most stands are around 96cm (38 inches) wide.

Just remember, stability is the main thing that matters. Don’t be too worried about the cost, because normally you will keep the same stand until near the end of time, since they rarely break or need to be replaced if they’re built well.

(Side note: if you can’t afford a good stand right away, try to find a stable surface where the top of the white keys are 72cm (28.5inches) off the floor. )

Q: Do you recommend against the common, cheap “X” style stands? Should the stand always be something you secure the piano to with screws or straps of some kind?

A: I wouldn’t say all X stands are bad, I’ve seen a few decent ones. If they’re built well and weighted good then they should be ok. However, if you notice the keyboard wobbling around a lot while you play, that is a clear sign it’s not stable enough. No, you don’t really need to tie them down unless you live in an earthquake zone. The weight of a keyboard will keep it in place usually, but if it looks unstable, that’s ultimately your call.

Bench:

The piano bench is the most underrated part of a piano setup. That’s because if your bench is wrong, a bad sitting position ruins everything else in your posture and limits how well you can play. Beginners tend to underestimate just how much of an impact a bad seat can have to your playing. If your body feels off balance or unsafe, you won’t be able to relax and it will negatively impact your playing.

For your own benefit please don’t use: wobbly stools, very high or very low chairs, office chairs, or couches unless you have to at the beginning. One of your top priorities should be to get a proper bench as soon as possible.

One popular option people start with are office/computer chairs. The reason these aren’t good for piano is because they have armrests that can get in the way of your arms moving, and when they swivel back and forth while playing, they don’t let you keep your body stable. If you have a spare dining chair, these are usually better than office chairs, because they don’t swivel. You can get away with an office or dining chair for the first month or two, but if you’re planning to really learn piano, you’ll want to get a solid bench.

A good bench is usually made from solid wood with a comfortable cushion on top. I would stay away from metal scissor benches as they aren’t always stable enough to sit on comfortably.

Here are the standard dimensions for piano benches:

Height 47cm or 18.5 inches

Width 76cm or 30inches

Depth 35.5cm or 14 inches

A normal bench is about 25.5cm (10 inches) lower than the top of the white keys however, since people have different body sizes, there are height adjustable benches out there. Height adjustable benches are especially good for children with smaller bodies, because playing keyboards that are too high up for you to reach is very difficult and creates bad playing habits. You can find the right height so that when sitting with your arms relaxed, your elbows are at around the same height as the keys.

Pedal:

On an acoustic piano there are 3 pedals.

  1. The left pedal is called the “soft pedal”. It makes the piano sound quieter. Soft pedal is nice to have and is needed in advanced piano.
  2. The middle pedal does different things and is almost never used, you don’t need this at all.
  3. The right pedal is the “damper pedal” and is used so often that it’s also commonly called “the pedal”. The damper pedal is a must have, as there are many pieces you can’t play without it.

The most important features when looking for a pedal are: It doesn’t slide around on the floor, and that it takes at least 4cm (1.5inches) to push the pedal down from top to bottom.

Headphones:

Chances are, there will be times when being able to play without making external sound is good. Headphones give you this ability, and also usually deliver better sound than most built-in speakers on keyboards. It’s worth investing in a decent pair of headphones for your keyboard if you don’t have them already.

Currently there are no Bluetooth headphones that work with keyboards because there is a delay from when you push the key to when you hear the sound. I don’t see this changing soon, so you’ll need a wired pair.

MIDI Audio interface:

To physically connect a keyboard to a computer, you’ll need an interface to convert the MIDI signal into a signal your computer can use. You usually do this through something called an “audio interface”. However, that only connects the keyboard to the computer physically. Once the physical connection is made, you will still need an app/DAW to read and display the data coming in from the keyboard.

DAW:

DAW stands for Digital Audio Workstation. It’s basically software you can use to create or edit music. When you have your computer connected by MIDI to a computer, you can use your keyboard to play things into the DAW. Popular DAWs include Ableton Live, Pro Tools, Logic Pro, Studio One and many more. Probably best to do an internet search for the most popular DAW’s since this list can change quickly.

3. Recommended keyboards and gear

When recommending stuff, you can’t avoid the question of which brands are leading, innovating and providing the most value. This is a difficult question to answer since each company has such wide product ranges. It’s almost like comparing auto maker brands. But to keep things simple, I’ve tried my best to condense my opinion into a simple ranked list.

Here are the main brands and how I see them:
Top Tier (Best brands)

Roland = the most authentic grand piano action, and one of the best sound engines

Kawai = very good action, probably the most authentic piano sound

Mid Tier
Korg = great design, good sound, focused more at producers than pianists

Yamaha = good all rounder, subpar design compared to other brands

Nord = very good sound engine, but less than average action and overpriced for what you get

Bottom Tier

Casio = Just don’t.

If you’d like to skip researching all the keyboards out there and save your time by taking my recommendations, here is what I recommend for entry or pro budget levels.

Entry pianist package:

Keyboard: Roland FP-10 ( http://eg.roland.com/products/fp-10 )

Price: $550-$650 USD

I choose this keyboard for a few very good reasons. Firstly, it checks all the boxes for what you need to have: (88 keys, fully weighted, dynamics, MIDI and Bluetooth). But more than that, I’m actually EXCITED about what this keyboard offers! I’ve never seen so much value packed into such a cheap keyboard. 5 years ago I wouldn’t have expected to see anything this good below $1,000. It uses Roland’s superNATURAL hybrid sound engine which is one of the best in the world.

The action is the same PHA-4 action that you see in $1,000+ models, and feels fantastic to play. Lastly, it offers bluetooth right out of the box (unless you’re in Latin America), so you can connect to Piano Planet or other apps without wires.

When the FP-10 came out, it was a leap forward in the keyboard industry, and no other manufacturer has caught up yet. So, right now it is THE best beginner piano for the money out there. It checks all the boxes and gives you everything you need to get started and with all the functionality you need so you won’t outgrow it quickly.

Stand: Roland KSCFP10 ( https://www.roland.com/us/products/kscfp10/ )

Price: $85 - $100 USD

This stand fits the FP-10, and should work for your needs. However, it might not be as stable as a more expensive metal stand. Since this is an entry level price point, you can get by with this and it’ll still do the job fine.

Bench: Yamaha Grand Bench (http://www.grandpianobench.com/yamaha-pianobench )

Price: $ 200 USD

There are more expensive benches out there, but this one is sturdy and will get the job done without breaking your bank. It’s easily worth the investment if you plan to play mid to long term.

Pedal: Roland DP-10 ( http://eg.roland.com/products/dp-10/ )

Price: $30-40 USD

A pedal that goes with the Roland keyboard and does a good job for the price.

Pro pianist package:

Keyboard: Roland FP-90 (Kawai ES8 is also great) ( http://eg.roland.com/products/fp-90/ )

Price: $2,300 USD

For people with the budget to spend more, or people who are growing out of a beginner piano, the FP90 packs all the features of the FP10 and then improves on it in some big ways. Probably the most notable upgrade is to the PHA-50 action - a high end action which uses triple sensors built from a hybrid of real wood and plastic materials. The FP90 also has many more connection types (like a dedicated microphone jack), and a much more powerful speaker setup.

FP-90 uses the same superNATURAL hybrid sound engine as the FP-10. I would’ve liked it better if they included a 2nd 100% modeled sound engine, like V-piano so you could switch between them, but my guess is they didn’t think it was a good fit for this model.

Why would you buy this over the FP-10 or other models?

One reason you would buy this is if you’re planning to go to more advanced levels and you need something more responsive that gives you greater control. Another reason could be that its extra connections allow flexibility you need in your home setup. Because its speakers are so much more powerful, it can easily be used without extra amps in small to medium sized performance settings, which makes it a great portable package.

It’s also worth mentioning that I think the Kawai ES8 is very close in performance to the FP90, but it has weaker speakers (30 watt vs 60 watt) and no bluetooth, so that shifted me over to the FP90. However, if possible, I’d recommend giving both a try in person to see how you like the feel and layout of each since they’re both so good that it really comes down to personal preference. If it’s not possible to play each in person, then I don’t think you can really go wrong with the FP-90; it’s a fantastic high performance keyboard.

Stand: Roland KS-G8B ( http://my.roland.com/products/ks-g8b/ )

Price: $250 USD

This stand is full metal construction and portable. It allows you to set it for sitting or standing heights and can fold up for transport. it’s solid and gives your legs plenty of room to move. This one does the job well.

Bench: Empire Deluxe Adjustable (http://www.grandpianobench.com/deluxe.artist.piano.bench)

Price: $450 USD

100% hardwood construction, with a reinforced lifting mechanism will give you all the stability you’ll ever need. This is a fantastic bench, and also comes in a leather option if you prefer. There are still more expensive benches out there, but this one gets the job done at a good price.

Pedal: Roland DP-10 ( http://eg.roland.com/products/dp-10/ )

Price: $30-40 USD

A pedal that goes with the Roland keyboard and does a good job for the price.

MIDI Interface (to IOS device):

PLUGKEY https://www.korg.com/us/products/computergear/plugkey/

Price: $120 USD

This device allows you to directly connect your Keyboard to your iPhone or iPad by MIDI OUT on your keyboard to the lightning port on your device. (You’ll need your own MIDI cable) What’s even greater is that it also has a dedicated headphone jack with volume knob, and a power adapter so that you can keep your iPhone or iPad charged while you play. I think for the features this packs in, the price is very good value. This is a quality product!

I hope this guide has helped you on selecting your piano!

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