What’s the Best Digital Piano that Sounds Real?
Many people buy digital pianos for the many benefits they provide over acoustic pianos. They save space, they’re lighter, they’re cheaper and they don’t require tuning every few months. However, when you buy a digital piano, it's necessary to make compromises. You have to settle for the fact that the action is probably not going to be as good, or that you may get less expression out of the instrument.
However, the biggest compromise by far is on the sound. A digital piano just doesn’t fill a room like an acoustic piano does. It just doesn’t provide that same sense of magic that you get when playing a good upright or a grand piano. And for some, this is a deal breaker; it’s why they hang on to an acoustic, even in situations where a digital may suit them better.
What I will do in this review is pick out which digital piano has the best sound. This is not necessarily going to be the piano that I feel has the best tone, as then my personal bias comes into play. What I’m looking for is the digital piano that delivers the most authentic sound; essentially, the best digital piano that sounds real. I’ve picked four models from four major brands that I’ve presented down below.
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The Digital Piano with the Best Sound
What I looked for when choosing the best digital piano that sounds real
In this article, I challenged myself to find the the digital piano with the best sound. Having experience of playing and performing on many acoustic pianos, I wanted to pick the pianos that were as close to the real thing as possible.
I set myself a fairly sizeable budget of $2,000. I knew that this was likely to be about the maximum most people would want to pay for a digital piano. I’m sure you could probably find a better, more authentic sounding piano for more money than this, however I wanted to keep things realistic; this article won’t be much use to most people if I’m recommending $8,000 products.
What’s also important to note is that I’ve also decided to focus primarily on the piano sound here. I appreciate that many musicians want and require a multitude of different sounds from their digital pianos, but I’ve decided to choose these instruments on the strength of their piano sound only. I wanted to find instruments that would replicate the feel of playing a real piano as closely as possible, and wasn’t able to delve into how good the additional tones are. This is research you’ll have to do yourself!
I narrowed down my selection to 4 pianos, one of which I’ve picked as the winner. I’ve also tried to include as much of a range as I can here, to account for all tastes and use cases. What you’ll find is three home console pianos, and one portable piano. I think this strikes a good balance as regards to what most people are looking for.
Without further ado, let’s begin!
The Best Digital Piano that Sounds Real: Roland RP-501R (the winner)
Let’s begin by talking about the sound; the purpose of this article. I played this piano for around an hour, and made some observations about the sound. It’ll become obvious why I chose this piano as the digital piano with the best sound.
Let’s talk specifically about the concert grand piano sound on the Roland RP-501R. Of course, there are other grand piano sounds, but I want specifically to focus on this one. Remember, we’re considering this an acoustic-replacement instrument, so I’m not unduly worried about the other bells and whistles that this piano has to offer.
The RP-501R has an extremely warm bass tone. It’s not mellow and it’s not muffled, but it manages to be clear and powerful without being too bright. This is thanks to Roland’s SuperNATURAL piano sound engine, which we’ll get onto later, but it’s also due to the speaker set that Roland have included. This piano manages to put out a powerful, warm bass tone without an amplifier, which is excellent.
One of the character traits of Roland instruments is that they have an extremely clear, bell-like treble sound, and I’m delighted to say that’s exactly what you get with this model. It manages to be extremely clear without sounding too bright or too mellow. An overly bright sound on a digital piano is a common grievance of mine, and this piano manages to strike a good balance. For the price you pay, it’s an impressive achievement.
Roland have included 128 note polyphony with this piano. Now, this is much less than some other digital pianos, even pianos that cost half this one does. This is a little disappointing for me; it wouldn’t have been hard for Roland to include 192 or 256 note polyphony. However, I should stress that for single voices, this should be sufficient. When you start layering voices and using reverb and chorus effects, this is where you might run into problems, although that isn’t the focus of this review. For solo playing on the excellent piano voice included here, the polyphony is fine.
The Roland RP-501R utilises Roland’s SuperNATURAL piano engine, which I’d like to talk about here. The thing that sets this sound engine apart from others is that it’s a cross between sampling and modelling. Samples are taken from a concert grand piano. Roland doesn’t disclose which piano they take samples from, but there are rumours it’s a Steinway. I can’t confirm or deny this.
In normal digital pianos, four samples are taken from each note at different velocity levels. This results in an abrupt change in tone whenever you transition between the different dynamic levels that the recordings were taken at. Roland builds on this with SuperNATURAL, as they still sample a real piano, but their engine can seamlessly recreate the change in tone as you increase the dynamic level across the piano. You also get very important features such as sympathetic resonance, as well as a very natural decay to the sound after you’ve played. Some digital pianos decay far too quickly, but this one seems much more natural.
There’s a great video that you should watch that explains all this in detail, but suffice it to say I personally believe it’s the most authentic digital piano sound engine out there today.
The kind of sound response that you get from the RP-501R is extremely suitable, and is much closer to the feel of playing a real acoustic piano than any other digital piano I’ve ever played, save for some of Roland’s higher end models.
The quality of the sound is quite sweet; it’s bright and warm with a very clear treble. As I mentioned before, it’s got a wonderful power in the bass, but the treble is clear as a bell. This makes it extremely suitable for classical and jazz music that requires a lot of tonal variation and colour.
The sound is organic, and responds very well to a variety of different touches. There is more nuance and depth to the sound than any of the other digital pianos on this list. My one criticism is that after a while, the sound can begin to feel a little artificial or fake; it’s almost too perfect, in a way. However, when you go back to playing a purely sampled piano, the sound just doesn’t feel quite right until you play the Roland again.
While this review is mainly about the sound, I wanted also to go through some other aspects of the piano that contribute towards its’ authenticity. One of the main things that determines a good digital piano from a great one is the piano’s action, and I’m pleased to say Roland doesn’t disappoint here.
The action that Roland have included is the PHA-4 (Progressive Hammer Action 4), which is the second best action that Roland makes. The best action they make is the PHA-50, which is reserved for instruments such as the LX series and the V-Piano; both much more expensive instruments than the one we’re talking about here.
Despite the fact that it’s not the highest grade of action that Roland make, it’s certainly very impressive and offers great value for money. It pairs very well with the sound, making for an authentic experience. It’s extremely satisfying to play, especially since it offers features specific to acoustic grand pianos, such as escapement. This provides you with a full range of expressive capabilities; much more so than on most other digital pianos.
The action is very responsive, and not sluggish at all. It’s an excellent weight; it’s not stiff and it’s not too heavy or too light. It gives enough weight for you to maintain control over your music without being too heavy that it impedes you. It’s extremely satisfying to play, and I really can’t find anything bad to say about it.
The pedals on the RP-501R are, unfortunately, where this piano begins to let itself down.
The pedals themselves are great. They are nicely weighted and provide good resistance when they’re depressed. If you’re used to an upright piano, you might find the pedals a bit heavy, but in my experience of playing many grand pianos, they are perfectly adequate. I personally found the pedals very easy to control on the RP-501R.
The pedals support functionality such as half-pedalling and flutter-pedalling; definitely features you’ll need if you’re playing advanced classical and jazz music. I didn’t feel impeded by these pedals at all when I was playing the piano; I felt them very appropriate and they paired with the sound and the action very nicely.
Unfortunately this is where we have to talk about build quality; the pedalboard is not very well made. It’s constructed of particleboard that is just glued together. Now, I’ve got no issue with particleboard, but this particular grade of particleboard is very thin, and unfortunately sometimes when you play, the pedalboard twists and creaks. There is a knob that you can lower to the floor to provide a bit of extra support, but this particular issue really disappointed me; this would have cost them at most an extra $30 to make it out of a thicker material, but Roland chose to cut corners here and it kind of spoils it.
Roland RP-501R Summary
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The Runner Up: Yamaha YDP-184
There’s a reason why I’ve called the Yamaha YDP-184 the runner up; it’s almost as good as the Roland in every way. There are some areas that it matches the Roland, and some areas where it doesn’t quite get there. For me, one of those areas is the sound.
The concert grand piano sound on the Yamaha YDP-184 uses the Yamaha CFX Sound Engine, which as you’d expect, samples Yamaha’s CFX Concert Grand Piano. This is their flagship acoustic grand piano, and sells for well over $100,000.
The sound that the YDP-184 delivers is warm and crisp, not unlike the Roland, however the Yamaha has a distinctly different quality. While the Roland produces a bright and clean concert grand piano sound, the Yamaha is a little darker and mellower. The YDP-184 has a fantastic bass tone; it delivers even more power than the Roland does. However, the treble is not quite as bright as I’d like.
Yamaha have made great strides in recent years with their grand piano sound. Previous models of even the flagship Clavinova series had in my opinion, a very artificial and overly bright sound. However, this piano is nothing of the sort; again, it produces an organic, natural grand piano sound that I like very much.
The only reason I didn’t pick this sound over the Roland is because the Roland uses modelling technology and the Yamaha doesn’t. This means that the sound response of the Yamaha when you play it isn’t quite as good as the Roland’s, in my opinion. While the Yamaha’s tone may be a tiny bit more authentic, I feel that it’s not quite as organic as Roland’s offering, and for that reason I had to pick the Roland first.
However, there are some aspects of modelling that have been featured in the Yamaha YDP-184. Yamaha have included what’s called VRM Technology, which stands for Virtual Resistance Modelling. This is actually a similar feature to the sympathetic and damper resonance featured in other pianos. What Yamaha have been able to do is implement software that models, rather than samples, the vibrations and resonance you get in the strings and soundboard of a real piano.
I have to say that to fully appreciate this piano, you have to really, really listen to it. This VRM Technology really brings the YDP-184 to another level, and when I was playing it, absolutely everything responded and sounded the way I felt it should. However, this might not be something you’d notice when listening passively.
While this is a sampled piano, the sampling has been done exceptionally well. What’s also been implemented exceptionally well are the speakers. This piano includes 60W of power through the onboard speakers, using two 30W 16cm speakers on the underside of the keyboard. They sound incredible, and you won’t be disappointed at all when playing using the internal speakers. However, as usual with a digital piano, the YDP-184’s sound really excels when you use your own headphones.
If Yamaha had been able to do what Roland have done, and combine sampled piano sounds with modelled sounds (not just the damper resonance through VRM technology, but the actual sound, as Roland have done) I think the Yamaha would have won this and the Roland would have taken second place.
Yamaha have elected to include the GH3 action in this piano. However, Yamaha make a number of different actions for numerous different price ranges. The GH3 is the best plastic action Yamaha makes, along with the GH3X. However, they also make two wooden actions, the NWX and the GrandTouch, which are used in higher end Clavinova and AvantGrand pianos.
While the keys are plastic, they’ve been designed with synthetic ebony and ivory finishes, which adds to the premium feel of the piano. They’re also designed to be porous, so that if you’re playing for a long period of time, the keys don’t get damp from perspiration.
The action is actually very pleasant to play. However, it’s not as good as the Roland’s action. I wish Yamaha had included a wooden action in this piano, because I’ve tried Yamaha’s wooden actions and they are some of the best actions I’ve ever played on a digital piano. However, at this price point, that’s a lot to ask for, so the GH3 is fine for most pianists. It’s a premium action and is certainly a massive step up from the basic actions you’ll find on sub $700 Yamaha pianos, such as the P-125.
However, I think the sound on this piano far outmatches the action, and so I can’t say that the action and the sound pair very nicely. I felt a little bit hindered by this action, and was left wanting a little more to play with. The sound of the YDP-184 would have been able to give me what I was looking for, but the action was unfortunately unable to keep up.
I want to stress that the YDP-184’s action is not a bad action; it’s just not as good as some of the other actions that I’ve tried on pianos of this price range. If the action is very important to you, you might want to skip over this model and go for a Clavinova instead. Be mindful that you’ll pay a lot more than $2,000 for it, though.
While a little let down by the action, this piano makes up for it through the pedals. They’re absolutely excellent, and certainly the best set of pedals on any of the pianos I’ve tried in this article.
Of course, you get the three standard piano pedals; the damper pedal, the sostenuto pedal and the una corda pedal. These felt extremely satisfying to play; there is a good weight to them, but they’re not too stiff. In many respects, they’re almost identical to some of the Yamaha grand pianos that I’ve played in the past.
What sets the YDP-184 apart is the fact that the pedals are paired with the VRM Technology we discussed earlier. What this allows you to do is set different half-pedal points down to specific levels through the menu screen to the left of the keyboard. This means you can adjust how much you need to depress the pedal to get a half pedal effect before you fully depress the pedal. If you’re used to a particular pedal depth, or want to get a specific effect in your music, this is highly useful. The YDP-184 also supports effects such as flutter pedalling.
Yamaha YDP-184 Summary
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The Budget Option: Casio AP-470
Now we come to the slightly cheaper option in the series; the Casio Celviano AP470. It’s cheap, but it’s by no means poor quality. Casio have developed a reputation for bringing excellent features at an affordable price, and the AP-470 is no exception.
Let’s take a brief look at the default concert grand piano sound on the AP-470. Again, we’re not looking for bells and whistles; we’re looking for the piano that delivers the best, most authentic piano sound for the money. I’m happy to say that the AP-470 doesn’t disappoint in this respect.
I found the sound to be extremely crisp and bright. The bass is not as warm as the other pianos I’ve featured here, but the treble is bright and clear, as you’d expect. This is a sampled sound, which uses Casio’s AiR sound source, which I’ve written about before. It provides a good compromise at this price range, but the AiR is solely a sampled sound. It doesn’t introduce aspects of modelling, which I was a little disappointed by.
The whole selling point of the AiR sound chip is that it provides longer, more detailed samples than other sampled sound engines, and as a result bypasses unrealistic looping effects on digital pianos that use shorter samples. The effect is impressive, and it’s as good if not better than any other sampled sound source I’ve tried, but it’s lacking that organic and natural feel you get from a modelled sound engine. It’s certainly not the digital piano with the best sound.
What’s great about the AP-470’s sound is the attention to detail. As I’ve mentioned, I wasn’t drawn to it in the way I was drawn to the other models on this list, but I have to say, when really listening to the piano I can appreciate the nice touches and nuances that Casio have added to the sound. For example, it even recreates the mechanical sounds of grand piano keys; you can hear them moving as you would on a real grand piano. You even get things like pedal noise too, which I really appreciate. You also get effects such as damper resonance, which simulates the piano strings vibrating sympathetically with one another.
One thing that does set the AP-470 apart from other digital pianos in this price range is the lid function. The AP-470’s speaker system is positioned a little differently to other pianos, being right in front of the player, behind the keyboard. Most digital pianos have their speakers placed underneath the keyboard. Because these speakers are right in front of you, Casio has installed a lid that you can lift up to get more sound out of the speakers. This does change the tone of the piano quite significantly; with the lid down it’s a more muffled, more subdued sound, but with the lid open it’s a much more clear, bright and crisp sound. Four levels of nuance and tone are available when you close, open, fully open and remove the lid. It’s a nice feature and I really appreciate it.
All in all, however, this sound engine just doesn’t quite cut it when compared to the Yamaha and Roland we’ve already spoken about. It’s by no means bad, but it’s just not quite at that level. The Casio is a little cheaper, however, so you’ll have to decide whether the extra outlay to buy the Roland is worth it.
The AP-470 comes with Casio’s Tri-Sensor Scaled Hammer Action II. This is not Casio’s flagship action, and it appears in lots of their low to mid-range pianos and keyboards. I have to say I was a little disappointed that at this price point Casio didn’t put something a little more high-end in; Yamaha, Roland and Kawai move their pianos to a better action at around the $1100 mark, but Casio are using the same action in this that they use in some $400 keyboards like the Privia PX-160. I feel that Casio should include something a little more high-end at this price point.
Having said that, the action isn’t bad at all. I’ve praised this action in the past and I think it’s great the Casio includes this action on their lower end keyboards. However, I don’t really think it’s suitable for this piano, which can hardly be called low-end. It’s one of the areas that’s lacking in the AP-470.
Casio markets this action as having three sensors, rather than the one or two that other manufacturers include. However, this isn’t true, as most pianos that I’ve tried in this price range do include three sensors, such as the Yamaha GH3 that we tried earlier on. This might have been a selling point five or ten years ago, but I think it’s time for Casio to move on and develop something that will rival Yamaha and Roland. Only then do I think that the AP-470 is a serious contender.
However, if this doesn’t bother you, it’s a nice action, with a good feel. It’s not too heavy, but it feels as though there’s more weight behind it than the Roland RP-501R we tried earlier. In terms of expression, it isn’t limiting, and I think even advanced pianists would get on well with it. For a professional or very advanced pianist, however, there are better options for the money.
There’s not much to say about the pedals on the AP-470. They are weighted well and feel like a real grand piano. Half-pedalling effects are supported, and I felt a lot of control over the pedalling when I tried playing this piano. However, I felt the sustain cut off a bit too quickly; the decay is too fast. When I play a note on a real grand piano, I expect the sound to last a very long time when I’m holding the sustain pedal. In this model, I felt it disappeared far too quickly, and unfortunately this can lead to bad habits such as overpedalling.
The una corda feels nice and produces a nice, soft-sounding tone. What’s also impressive is Casio’s attention to detail with the AiR sound chip; including things like pedal noise is a good step towards more realism and it’s highly appreciated.
Casio AP-470 Summary
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The Portable Option: Kawai ES8
Now, this is a portable piano, but it’s not lacking in features. One of the best features of the Kawai ES8 is the grand piano sound. Again, it’s a sampled sound, so it doesn’t come with the benefits of a modelled sound like the Roland RP-501R. However, it’s sampled from the Shigeru Kawai EX Concert Grand, which I’ve played a few times and is one of my favourite pianos to play. I’m super happy that Kawai have managed to replicate the sound as well as they have in the ES8.
The sound is extremely warm; probably the warmest sound of any of the pianos here. It’s certainly got the most character of any of the pianos here, with an extremely resonant bass tone and nice, subdued treble. It’s not as crisp and clear as some of the other models, but I think it recreates the tone of the Shigeru Kawai grand piano exceptionally well.
The sound engine used in the ES8 is called the Harmonic Imaging XL, or HI-XL. This provides increased sample memory in comparison to earlier sound engines by Kawai, and this makes it possible to use longer, more detailed samples. This adds more depth and detail to the sound, as it provides a much longer, more resonant decay than other sampled pianos.
Overall, the primary grand piano sound (the EX) is extremely rich and resonant with a fantastic tone and a lot of depth to the sound. However, it’s limited by the fact that it’s only a sampled sound engine rather than a modelled one, so again, it does feel a little artificial, and I would highly recommend trying a modelled piano if you are thinking of buying this one.
The speakers included are two 15W speakers placed in front of the player. They’re as good as you can expect from a portable instrument, and deliver a clean, clear sound, with no distortion at higher volumes. However, compared to other pianos in this list, this is perhaps the biggest tradeoff. You get the portability aspect, but the speakers are lacking; they only put out half the power as the Yamaha YDP-184, for example.
Kawai have also implemented something called the Virtual Technician, which can help you modify the sound even more to suit your specific tastes. This allows you to use an iPad to alter aspects such as the voicing, damper resonance, damper noise, key-off effects and topboard noise (the position of the piano lid and how it affects the sound.) This is a really nice feature that allows you to customise the already excellent sound that the ES8 generates.
All in all, this is an excellent sounding instrument, and one that I very much enjoyed playing. As far as the best digital piano that sounds real, this is a very close contender. However, it just doesn’t quite match the Roland RP-501R in terms of playing experience.
The action present in the ES8 is absolutely excellent. It uses real hammers to simulate the action of an acoustic piano. Obviously at this price point, it’s important that you get as close as possible to a real piano experience, and I’m pleased to say that the Kawai ES8 delivers in this respect. It’s a plastic action, but it uses real hammers that reproduce the mechanical movement that takes place when you play an acoustic piano.
The repetition is excellent; I felt no frustrations when playing repeated notes, as the triple-sensor action system is designed to capture each keystroke when playing repeated notes. It even simulates escapement, which is the ability to repeat the note before the key and hammer have returned to their resting position. All this comes together to provide one of the most realistic piano-playing experiences in a digital piano on the market today.
You will have no issues adjusting to even the best acoustic grand pianos after playing the ES8 as your regular practice instrument. I don’t think this action is quite as good as Roland’s, but it’s definitely better than Yamaha’s or Casio’s.
There isn’t much to say about the pedals here; except that out of the box, it only comes with one pedal. This is to be expected as a portable instrument, but for those looking for a real grand piano experience, this isn’t going to cut it. The included sustain pedal is good, having a realistic weight and also supporting half-pedal and flutter-pedal effects. However, for the advanced player, you will really need to have a triple pedal unit to fully express yourself musically.
Fortunately, Kawai manufactures a triple-pedal unit for the ES8, called the F301. This is a good compromise, as it allows you the full acoustic piano experience, with the benefit of portability. However, as you might expect, this isn’t as solid as a console digital piano like the other three we’ve spoken about here. If you need portability, this might be your only option, but if you don’t need the portability I’d suggest looking at one of the other three pianos.
As far as pedalling effects go, the Kawai ES8 doesn’t disappoint. They’ve even gone as far as to include pedal noises, which can be adjusted by using the Virtual Technician feature. All in all, a good experience all round, but not without its’ compromises.
Kawai ES8 Summary
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How Digital Piano Sounds Work
Seeing as we've gone through the individual product reviews, we’re going to go over a little about how digital piano sound production works.
Essentially, a digital piano makes a sound in one of two ways. The sound is either sampled or modelled.
Sampling is how most digital pianos create their sound. Very expensive microphones are used to record a real acoustic grand piano. Each note is recorded (or sampled) and stored in the digital piano’s memory. When you play a note, the digital piano matches the note you played to the recording it has in it’s memory bank, and plays it back. It plays it back louder or softer depending on how hard you hit the key.
Some digital pianos take more than one recording from each note. This is because a real piano’s tonal character will change depending on how hard the player hits the key. These digital pianos will then play back the recording that would most closely match a real piano’s tonal character depending on how hard you hit the key.
Most digital pianos will use some sort of software to ensure the transition between these samples is as seamless as possible, so that when you’re playing it’s not immediately obvious when the digital piano has selected a different sample, providing you with a more natural playing experience. Each manufacturer has their own word for this; Roland calls it SuperNATURAL, Yamaha calls it the CF Sound Engine.
Modelling works a little bit differently. Generally, modelling is only available on higher-end digital instruments, such as the Roland LX-700. What modelling does is dynamically create the sound of the piano using in-built software, depending on how hard you press the keys. It can dynamically model things like volume, tone colour and character. It can do this in real time.
What this means is that your expression and touch is captured as you perform. It does give your playing a lot more life, and in my opinion, is much more akin to playing a real piano. However, as we’ve discussed, this is usually only a feature on high-end digital pianos in the $4000+ range.
In my opinion, modelling is definitely the way forward for more realistic sounding digital instruments. However, at the moment, it doesn’t make for a perfectly realistic sound, and there’s definitely room for improvement. I would certainly prefer to play a modelled instrument than a sampled one, but these instruments definitely come at a cost.
All the pianos featured in this article have a sampled soundset, except the Roland RP-501R. You may think this contradicts what I’ve just said, but I actually think that sampling delivers a more realistic actual sound at the moment, seeing as sampled digital pianos essentially do produce a real sound; albeit a recording of one. However, the sampled pianos I’ve featured today do this quite well. However, the playing experience of the Roland is far superior to the other sampled pianos, which is why I picked it as the winner.
Obviously price came into the equation too; I recognise that most people aren’t looking to drop upwards of $4k on a digital piano, but I’ll explain this later.
Honestly, rather than comparing your experience of playing certain digital pianos to other digital pianos, you should always be comparing it to playing a real acoustic piano.
I’d encourage you to try any of these pianos before you buy them. How did they feel under your fingers? Was the sound what you expected? Which one did you end up buying? Let me know in the comments section below.
In the meantime, happy practicing!