So you are about to begin your piano lessons, and are out in the market or on the web looking for a piano, that is best suited for your needs. So far so good. But as you delve deeper into your research, you find out that there are actually four different kinds of pianos out there. An acoustic piano, a digital piano, a portable keyboard and a synthesizer. And then to further complicate your purchase decision process, you find out another “fifth” category of pianos called electric keyboards! Which one out of these should you buy? What is the difference between these “different” pianos? Which is the best piano out of these? Which piano will be the best for YOU?
Phew. And you thought taking piano lessons was the only hard part in your quest to become a pianist!
Well, first of all, sorry for making it sound all so confusing. As a matter of fact, the world of pianos is not THAT confusing at all. There are actually only two categories of pianos – acoustic pianos and electric pianos/keyboards. An acoustic piano is that classic, grand looking piano with a wooden cabinet, that you are used to seeing on a stage or in the movies. Technically speaking, an acoustic piano is one which has 88-weighted piano keys, and produces an authentic piano tone when the “hammers” built inside the piano, strike the strings. Acoustic pianos are also much pricier than electric keyboards, and require a lot more experience and skill to master.
The world of electric keyboards, on the other hand, is much simpler (and cheaper) as compared to acoustic pianos. Under this category, you will find three kinds of pianos – a digital piano, a portable keyboard and a synthesizer. Out of these three, digital pianos come the closest to an acoustic piano, in terms of feel and sound they provide while playing. They sometimes come with a cabinet as well as the complete set of 88 piano keys, but they will always be lighter and more portable (and cheaper) than the acoustic pianos. A portable keyboard on the other hand is just what its name suggests; a “portable” keyboard, without any cabinets and is super light. It does not have the full 88-key board like an acoustic or digital piano, but is portable enough to be put in your car’s trunk and taken wherever you please. The last one, a synthesizer is actually a music controller, more than a keyboard or a piano. It is mainly used in music production or during stage performances or by DJs. It will have dozens of controls, settings and modes and is much more complex to operate than a portable keyboard (or sometimes, even a piano).
In this article, we are going to elaborate on the differences that further separate a digital piano and a portable keyboard, to make things that much more clearer for you. Basically, a digital piano differs from a portable keyboard on these counts – purpose, build, features, required skill set and cost.
- Digital pianos are built with the single purpose of replicating the performance of an acoustic, grand piano, to the highest extent possible. In addition to the same look, a digital piano attempts to provide the same feel, sound quality and capability of traditional pianos. At the same time, they are also rich in modern features such as portability, connectivity and other digital effects.
- Portable keyboards, meanwhile, are built strictly for piano learners (beginner to intermediate level) looking out to get used to playing with keys. They are NOT built to replicate acoustic pianos, but rather to provide a highly portable musical instrument that can also produce a piano tone. Since the focus is not on producing the most realistic piano tone, a portable keyboard often comes packed with hundreds of other tones such synthesized electronic sounds.
- Digital pianos are much lighter than real, acoustic pianos but somewhat heavier than portable keyboards. They are meant to be used with a cabinet, but can also be used as a portable keyboard. They can weigh in the range of 25-60 lbs, and come equipped with 61, 76 or 88 keys.
- Portable keyboards are supposed to be highly portable, and as such, they are extremely lightweight. Weighing less than 20 lbs, they come equipped with 49 or 61 keys usually. You do get an option to attach a stand, but portable keyboards are perfect to be played on a tabletop too and are easily stored anywhere at home.
Features (Key Sensitivity, key action and built-in tones)
- Digital pianos can sport a full set of 88 keys (like acoustic pianos), that are (sometimes) incredibly close in feel and touch sensitivity to that of acoustic pianos. Modern digital pianos are even known to have weighted keys and support a graded hammer action, exactly like acoustic pianos. A polyphony ranging from 32 to 64 notes is commonly found in digital pianos of any price range. They usually feature five pretty genuine piano tones – grand piano, harpsichord, strings, jazz and pipe organ. Additionally, a music library can also be found built-in with the digital pianos.
- Portable keyboards are found lacking on all these counts (except the number of tones). The keys are notorious for being light and have an artificial, “plastic-like” feel to them. Touch sensitivity, sound quality and hammer action of the keys is usually found lacking or altogether missing in most of the keyboards. However, portable keyboards do come loaded with hundreds of tones, rhythms, songs and other bells and whistles. But again, these sounds will sound as artificial and phony, making them practically useless for serious musicians.
- Digital pianos are built with a more complex mechanism than portable keyboards, and so are that much more difficult to master. Those who are looking to carve out a career as a pianist or a teacher, must have mastered either the acoustic pianos or at least the digital pianos. Practising with weighted keys and near authentic piano tones prepares you (and your fingers, especially) well enough for playing an acoustic piano in future. Conversely, digital pianos are ideal for those who already have an extensive knowledge of pianos or are inclined towards producing digital music.
- Portable keyboards are perfect for beginners, due to the presence of all the basic constituents of a real piano (although not of the same level of an acoustic or even a digital piano ). They are good for practising intrinsic piano playing skills and tend to have a much less steeper learning curve than digital pianos.
- Digital pianos generally come at a price almost double to that of portable keyboards, (and for good reasons). A digital piano can be bought for as low as $300, but the best ones are usually found in the price range of $500 – $1,500.
- Portable keyboards are incredibly low-priced, and you can buy one for as little as $100. There are also keyboards available in the market that range up to $500, depending on keyboard size, brand and the available features. This fact makes keyboards ideal for those who are not yet sure about taking up piano as a serious hobby or profession, but are willing to give it a try.
If you want to become a master pianist, and are already on half across the way to become one, the digital piano is what you are looking for. A digital piano is also what you want to buy, if you are looking for a somewhat portable musical instrument to play/practice at home, with a performance matchable to that of a real acoustic piano. Though, it might be expensive than portable keyboards, it is the best you can get after acoustic pianos. Whereas a portable keyboard is best-suited for beginners, or those looking to gain light practice with a piano or simply to have fun! In case, you are going to move the instrument a lot or going to gift it to a child, a portable keyboard is a good choice for you too.
In the end, we hope that this somewhat comprehensive guide about digital piano vs keyboard, would have answered most of your doubts and queries regarding which piano to purchase. Remember, don’t go for the best in the market, go for what is best for YOU!