4 reasons why digital pianos are better than acoustic pianos

The digital piano versus acoustic piano debate has raged ever since the first digital piano was released onto the market in the 1980s. To start with, and well into the 1990s, there was no question of the winner: the feel, sound, and look of acoustic pianos was far more sophisticated than the electronic-sounding, plastic-feeling digital pianos of the time. However, in the last decade, digital pianos started holding their own against acoustic pianos and we reckon that, in the last couple of years, they’ve actually overtaken at least the cheaper acoustic pianos out there in terms of sound quality, and pretty much any acoustic piano in terms of versatility.

It pains me to say this; I grew up with a piano in the family home and I am a keen piano player. Indeed, until recently, I’ve been adamant that there is no way some digital circuitry and a set of speakers can improve on a massive reverberating piece of wood and metal. I have a Blüthner upright acoustic piano at home that, based on the serial number, hails from the late 19th century and sounds wonderful (at least, when it’s in tune…). I have played Steinway Grands and Bosendorfer Imperials, and I know how amazing they feel and sound. But, but…

In our shop in Edinburgh, we have several models of digital piano, with an especially huge range of Roland digital pianos. The reason we major on Roland pianos is that Roland have in recent years developed a technology called “SuperNATURAL” that fundamentally changed the way digital pianos worked. Basically old models of digital piano were just sound playback devices: the manufacturers would painstakingly record every note of a “real” piano, and when you played a note on the keyboard, the speakers would just play back the recording, louder or quieter dependent on how hard you hit the note. It of course became more sophisticated than that, with more recordings and better feeling keyboards etc. but fundamentally they were still just sound playback devices.

With SuperNATURAL technology, this whole method was thrown out of the window. Rather than recording individual notes, Roland have re-created the internal workings of the piano, so it really responds to your touch like a piano should, and all the fullness of sound you get with an acoustic piano is meticulously recreated in better-than-real-life quality. The pinnacle of this technology is exemplified in the Roland V-Piano Grand, a beast of an instrument that won’t give you much change from £13k. However, as always, the technology has trickled down to even their cheaper digital pianos, with the Roland F20 only costing £459 at time of writing. They couple this with ivory-feel hammer-action keyboards that are simply indistinguishable from the keyboards found on acoustic pianos.

So I’ve explained why digital pianos can sound and feel as good as acoustic pianos, but what makes them better?

As I see it, there are four reasons:

1. They are more versatile

The Roland V-Piano Grand can not only sound exactly like a Steinway, but also exactly like a Bosendorfer, or even like my lil’ old Bluthner upright. Once you’ve bought an acoustic piano, it can only ever sound like one thing, but digital pianos can sound like any piano you can imagine. They also often come with other sounds – strings, choirs, and more – that offer all sorts of creative playing possibilities.

2. You never need to tune them

This is a massive plus point. Acoustic pianos are the instruments that just keep on taking: if you don’t spend around £150 a year on tuning, they’ll basically be unplayable. Digital pianos never need tuning, and can even be transposed to play in a different key at the touch of a button (makes playing in C# a whole lot easier!).

3. You can play in silence

This is an important one for me – with two small children, I can’t practice the piano at night, unless I want them to wake up and come and join me (which generally I don’t). With a digital piano, you can just plug in a set of good quality headphones and play into the small hours with nary a care in the world.

4. They don’t take up so much room

Although there is something magnificent about a huge grand piano, most of us simply don’t have the room. Digital pianos have the capability to offer the same big sound out of a surprisingly compact unit that’ll slip into your front room without dominating it.

So that’s it: finally digital pianos have overcome acoustic pianos. Don’t believe us? Come and check out our digital piano selection in Edinburgh and you may be surprised. That said, if you were to offer me a Steinway Grand as a Christmas present, I might find it hard to resist…

***Update, July 2015***

OK, so I donated my Blüthner to a community centre (the Red School Youth Centre, if you’re interested). I then took the rather huge step of buying a Roland LX15E, and I have to say it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

It’s more compact than the Blüthner and looks a lot better in my living room, but it has also meant that I’ve discovered two more reasons why digital pianos are better than acoustic pianos:

5. They can act as a home entertainment system

One of the key features of the LX15 is that it has an extremely high quality array of speakers built in. This means that, not only does the piano itself sound amazing, but that it can act as a very high quality (and LOUD!) speaker system (there’s an audio input for plugging an iPod / phone etc. in). Rumour has it that the new range of digital pianos from a certain well-known manufacturer will incorporate Bluetooth technology, meaning you can play music from your phone through the piano’s speakers on the other side of the room. Try doing that with a Steinway grand.

6. They can be controlled by MIDI and used as a MIDI controller

My laptop and audio interface sit neatly on top of the LX15 with a single MIDI cable joining the piano and the computer. What does this mean? It means 1. I can record myself playing the piano and  correct any mistakes, and 2. I can use the piano to play the 50 gazillion other sounds that my laptop can make. Amazing!

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Guitar-plucker, piano-tinkler, sonic-mangler, Red Dog Music-owner, lion-tamer, and Weetabix-devourer. One (or more) of these is a lie.

13 Responses to “4 reasons why digital pianos are better than acoustic pianos”

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  1. Marc says:

    Number 5

    Carrying around a massive piece wood around can be a bit awkward.

  2. dave says:

    New Roland s and Korg I believe also are able to support complex percussion, guitar input and Mic. As a song writer this has a massive advantage plus the arrangements can be stored on massive memory. this is particularly useful in a live performance! percussion is auto set as are timings and sounds. As far as it goes the sound may always be a little short of certain piano’s but have so many advantages that out weigh the disadvantages. Piano’s may well end up a luxury for the few as Digital piano’s and arrangers get cheaper yearly, one wonders why the old dust collector is needed at all, even if one has the space!

  3. Joel says:

    As a working musician, I have the luxury of owning both a piano and a number of weighted synths. It is completely asinine to say that a digital piano will ever have benefits that outweigh a true acoustic piano. One of the main disadvantages is that you can spot people who grow up playing digital pianos the moment they sit behind a real piano. They don’t have the finger strength to really dig into a Bechstein or a Bosendorfer, and their technique will dilapidate accordingly. Digital pianos serve a very important purpose in a world where many people live cheek by jowl and noise complaints are rife – but to say their advantges outweigh an acoustic piano is ludicrous!

  4. They surely are more practical and cheaper… but PLEASE don't tell people that they will get the same feeling or the same sound because that is simply impossible. Is like comparing driving a Ferrari with pretending to do so on a videogame. The piano action is build using lots of small parts made by wood, felts, leathers, and most important: steel strings which resonate on a wooden soundboard. There is no comparison with an electronic board which tries to emulate all that thru one or two speakers. I am a sound engineer and a piano player……

  5. Hi Roberto, thanks for your comments. With respect, I have to say I disagree. The latest models from Roland particularly (especially the LX15E) sound and feel as good as an acoustic piano (possibly not a top end Steinway, but certainly better than an acoustic piano up to around £10k). Give one a go! It is only in the last few years that I would have said this, previously I would have agreed with you.
    Regards,
    Alex

  6. Tim Howes says:

    More like £60 a year to tune a real piano (more if one is particularly fussy) and they don't sound too bad after 11months, certainly not unplayable. A significant difference in a digital piano is the lack of escapement in the action. In a real piano the perceived weight of a key decreases as the key goes down, in a digital piano the weight remains constant through the keystroke. Digital pianos can be more tiring to play because of this.

  7. Dave Gardner says:

    Tim Howes Hi Tim, my name's Dave and I'm the Roland Product Specialist for Red Dog Music. To answer your questions, every single piano in the Roland range has an escapement mechanism of some kind. This means that even the entry level F20 has the feel of an escapement. However, this becomes somewhat more pronounced as you move through the range. The best action that Roland have to offer (and the one that seems to be most popular with my customers) is their "PHA4 Concert" action. This is available on the HP506, DP90SE, HP508, LX15E and RD800 models. I hope that this goes some way to answering your question. Please feel free to contact me here at the store if there is anything more I can do to help. http://www.reddogmusic.co.uk/catalog/product/000013/roland

  8. Digital pianos are only as good as their amplification allows them to be and the quality and type of sample recording, and the condition of the acoustic piano sampled. Some digital pianos have 'bad' samples left in, in the mistake that they sound more realistic, where a good piano tech would have made the particular key sound more consistent with the rest of the board. Some digital pianos have been sampled very close to the strings and sound much more like a miked piano rather than an acoustic piano. Acoustic pianos are many and varied in sound and playing. Digital pianos (samples) tend to favour a few well known makes only. On the plus side they're vitually maintenance free, reliable and can be played 'silent' when required, but for recording of a solo piano, a well prepared and maintained acoustic piano will usually be first choice. Digital piano in a recording mix can often sound better, or at least as good. For gigging, digital wins even for many pros, unless the budget allows a piano tech/tuner at, or supplied, at every gig.

  9. jorri says:

    the argument is simple:

    -acoustic piano: all the benefits of sound, playability etc.

    -digital piano: convenience, and you do need convenience when pianos weigh a ton and don’t have volume controls.

    For extra sounds get a sampler or synth though….They can be useful sometimes for electric pianos and organs though.

    I wouldn’t put a digital piano anywhere near recording, nor a classical/jazz environment either.

  10. There’s a digital Yamaha Clav in my office and a basic 1960’s mini acoustic piano in my home. I like em’ both but the acoustic piano has its own character & quirks which I like…..the clav is more consistent. Tuning in my area runs at around £75.

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