Buying the cheapest possible keyboard with light-weighted keys may not be the best idea even for a complete beginner.
If your main goal is to learn and play the piano, you’d definitely want an instrument with fully-weighted keys (I’ll explain why in a bit).
So, in this article, we’re going to take look at the best piano keyboards for beginners that have a full set of 88 hammer-action keys and cost less than 500$.
With the advent of digital pianos, it has become easier than ever to start learning to play the piano.
You don’t have to spend thousands of dollars on an acoustic upright (that’s like a heavy piece of furniture) and all the maintenance costs that come with it (tuning, repair).
Nowadays, digital pianos come very close to recreating the “real thing, ” and offer a number of important features not available on an acoustic instrument.
And while the advantages of acoustic pianos are still valid today, more and more people are opting for a digital alternative.
There’s a huge variety of instruments to fit any space, budget, and skill level.
But what makes a good keyboard for those who are just starting their musical journey?
I do believe that one can learn on any keyboard (cheap or expensive, with 61 or 88 keys, etc.) if he or she really wants to learn the piano.
- I’ve divided the whole market of budget end keyboards into two categories:
- Portable Keyboards Under 300$
- Keyboards (Digital Pianos) Under 500$
This segment consists of relatively cheap portable keyboards, which often have lots of built-in sounds, songs, rhythms and other so-called “bells and whistles” but not very realistic piano sound and touch.
Such keyboards most commonly have 61 or 73 non-weighted or semi-weighted keys which don’t feel anything like a real piano. So it isn’t a good choice for those who want to develop proper finger strength and technique.
The quality of piano tones is usually average; the dynamic range is very limited, partly due to the type of action, and short, average quality samples.
At the same time, these portable keyboards are perfect for anyone on a tight budget who doesn’t know whether they’re going to stick with playing piano or not, as well as those who just want to get a taste of what it’s like to play the keyboard.
For that reason, it’s a very popular choice for kids and young adults.
The main difference from the 300$ segment is that for $350-500 you can actually get a keyboard with a full range of 88 fully-weighted keys, which replicates the action found on an acoustic piano.
Therefore, these keyboards are much more suitable for learning and playing piano.
Apart from hammer-action keys, they usually have better quality samples with better dynamic range, which results in a much more realistic piano sound.
From this point on, a keyboard can rightly be called a digital piano.
These entry-level digital pianos are perfect for beginning piano students who mainly need an instrument for playing piano rather than for making music, entertainment, etc.
So don’t expect these keyboards to have hundreds of built-in sounds, rhythms and fancy features like a 17-track MIDI-recorder or on-screen score/lyrics display feature.
Some digital pianos offer both authentic piano playing experience and lots of features for learning and music production, but they are a little bit pricier and usually cost well over $500 (Yamaha DGX-660, Casio CGP-700, Casio PX-S3000, etc.)
Today we’re going to talk about the second segment (under 500$) of entry-level piano keyboard that offer the most value for the money.
Not all keyboards in this price range have fully-weighted keys. In fact, there are keyboards that cost 400-500$ and have semi-weighted or even non-weighted keys.
But I purposely didn’t include those keyboards on this list.
You may ask:
The answer is simple:
If you want to get a realistic piano playing experience, you’ll definitely want a keyboard with fully-weighted keys.
As I previously mentioned, this type of keyboard resembles the action found in a real acoustic piano, and it feels much more natural and realistic compared to all other types of keyboard actions (semi- and non-weighted).
This will help you build proper finger strength and technique, making it much easier to transition to an acoustic in the future.
On the other hand, if you have a limited budget or built-in sounds/extra features are more important to you than realistic piano sound and feel, take a look at the portable keyboards under 300$, which usually have 61, 73, or 76 semi-weighted keys.
Before moving on to the list itself, I’d like to explain the most common terms and features you’ll likely to run into when choosing a digital piano so you know exactly what you’re getting and what these fancy words actually mean.
Modern acoustic pianos have 88 keys. Most keyboards and digital pianos have 88, 76, 73 or 61 keys.
73 keys are enough to play most (99%) modern pieces. Some advanced (classical) pieces require a full set of 88 keys.
There are 3 most common types of actions:
1) Non-weighted – most organs, synths and entry-level keyboards are not weighted.
2) Semi-weighted – common action for budget portable keyboards (usually cost <300$). Spring-loaded mechanism adds more resistance to the keys compared to the non-weighted action.
3) Fully-weighted (hammer action) is designed to replicate the action of a real piano. It uses small hammers (rather than springs) attached to each key to recreate the mechanical movements found inside a real piano.
If your main goal is to play piano that you’ll definitely want a keyboard with hammer action keys.
It’s the key action that feels close to the real piano keys and will help you build proper finger strength and technique, making it much easier to transition to an acoustic in the future (if you decide to).
Touch sensitivity (a.k.a velocity sensitivity or touch response) is a very important feature of any keyboard or digital piano, which ensures that the volume produced by the instrument will change depending on how hard or soft you play the keys.
It’s not a big deal nowadays as almost any $150+ keyboard have touch-sensitive keys regardless of its action type.
Much more important is whether the keyboard is weighted or not. Keyboards with fully-weighted action often have adjustable touch-sensitivity so you can adjust it to your playing style.
Polyphony is the number of notes a digital piano can produce at the same time.
These days, most digital pianos are equipped with 64, 128, 192 or 256-note polyphony.
You may wonder how it is possible to have 32, 64, or even 128 notes playing at the same time, if there are only 88 keys and we never play them all together.
First of all, many of today’s digital pianos use stereo samples, which sometimes require two notes for each key played.
Another thing is that the use of the sustain pedal, sound effects (Reverb, Chorus), Dual mode (layering) and even the metronome tick sound take up additional notes of polyphony.
For example, when you depress the sustain pedal, the earliest played notes continue to sound while you’re adding new ones and the piano needs more memory to keep all the notes sounding.
Another example of polyphony consumption is when you’re playing along with a song playback (can also be your own recorded performance) or auto-accompaniment.
In this case, the piano will need polyphony not only for the notes you’re playing but also for the backing track.
You’ll hardly ever need all the 192 or 256 voices of polyphony at a time, but there are cases when you can reach 64 or even 128 note limit, especially if you like to layer several sounds and create multi-track recordings.
For an intermediate player it’s desirable to have 128 notes of polyphony or more.
Along with the standard “Single” keyboard mode, digital pianos often offer additional modes that allow you to use two instrument sounds at the same time or playing four hands.
Here are the most popular modes that digital pianos have:
1) Split Mode – divides the keyboard into two parts, allowing you to play a different instrument sound in each of them. For example, you can play guitar with your left hand and piano with your right hand at the same time.
2) Dual Mode (Layering) – allows you to layer two different sounds so that they sound simultaneously whenever you press a key. For example, you can layer strings with the piano sound or combine whatever sounds you like to get some new interesting combinations.
3) Duo Mode (a.k.a. Duet Play, Partner Mode, Twin Piano) – divides the keyboard into two halves with identical pitch ranges (two middle Cs) allowing two people to play the same notes at the same time.
Duet Play is particularly useful when you use it with your teacher or tutor who will play you some tunes on one side of the keyboard, and you’ll be able to follow along on the other side, playing the exact same notes at the same time.
Some digital pianos allows you to turn off the left- or right-hand part (track) of a song (preset or downloaded from the Internet) and practice it, playing along to the playback of the other part.
Pianos that have this function usually have a multi-track MIDI recorder.
A MIDI recorder allows you to record and play back your own performances without using any additional equipment.
Multi-track recording (2 and more tracks) allows you to record several musical parts onto separate tracks and play them back as a single song. You can also experiment with your recording by turning off some of the recorded tracks.
For example, you can record the right-hand part of the song on track 1, and the left-hand part on track two (while listening to the playback of the first track).
You can also create complex, multi-instrument recordings by recording several instrument parts onto separate tracks and playing them back together afterwards.
MIDI-recording is not the recording of the actual sound of the instrument. Here, we’re recording the MIDI data (a sequence of notes, their length, velocity and other parameters).
A built-in audio recorder will allow you to record the actual sound of the instrument (native samples) and save it to a flash drive usually in WAV format (Linear PCM, 16bit, 44.1 kHz, Stereo).
You can then share your recording on social media, upload it to SoundCloud, burn to CD, etc.
Audio recordings are more universal than MIDI ones because they provide you with a CD-quality audio file playable on most modern devices, and don’t require any additional software, and sample libraries (VSTs) to render a MIDI recording to audio.
Accompaniment function will enrich your performance, providing full backing accompaniment (rhythm, bass, harmony) that will follow your playing and make you sound like full band.
The accompaniment changes depending to what notes you play with you left hand (chords or even single notes if you don’t know full cords).
In other words, you manage your “band” with your left hand (by specifying chords) and play the main melody with your right hand.
Some instruments offer several accompaniment modes, and allow you specify chords using the full range of the keyboard.
1) Transpose function allows you to shift the overall pitch of the keyboard in semitone steps. The function is particularly useful when want to play a song in a different key but don’t want to change your fingering and learn it in a new key.
So, for example, if you know how to play a song in F major, you can transpose the pitch and play it in C major without actually learning it in the new key.
You can also transpose a song written in a difficult key (e.g., many black keys) into a different key with easier chords, but still hear it as if you were playing in the original key.
2) Tuning function allows you to shift the pitch from the standard A440 tuning in 0.1Hz or 0.2Hz steps.
You can use this function to match the piano’s pitch finely to that of another instrument or music (old piano, recording).
This port is also known as USB to Device port or USB drive port. The port can be used for connecting a flash drive to the piano to exchange files quickly and easily.
For example, you can load MIDI songs into the piano’s internal memory for playback or rehearsal (if the piano offers this option).
Alternatively, you can play back WAV and MIDI files (depends on the piano model) directly from the flash drive without loading them into the piano’s internal memory.
And finally, you can save your own performances recorded with the instrument to the flash drive as well as load them back onto the instrument when needed.
This port is often referred to as USB to Host terminal or USB to Computer port. This port is used to connect your digital piano to a computer or a smart device (using a special adapter) to exchange songs/files, and MIDI data.
There are actually tons of other apps that can expand the functionality of your digital piano in terms of learning, composing, recording, editing music.
Some brands offer their own free apps designed for certain piano models. Such apps usually enable you to control all the settings and functions of the instrument using an intuitive graphical interface.
Now let’s finally take a look at what we think are the best digital pianos for beginners on the market today.
Comparison table of the 5 best beginner keyboards under $500
- Fully-Weighted Keys
- Ivory/Ebony Finish
- Touch Sensitivity
- Tone Generator
- Built-in Tones
- Lesson Function
- MIDI Recorder
- Transpose, Tuning
- USB Type B
- Bluetooth MIDI
- Casio PX-160
- Tri-sensor Scaled Hammer Action II
- 3 types, Off
- Multi-dimensional Morphing AiR
- 128 notes
- 18 (5 pianos)
- Dual, Split (Bass only), Duo
- 60 songs
- 8W + 8W
- 24.5 lbs
- Roland FP-10
- PHA-4 Standard with Escapement and Ivory Feel
- (Ivory only)
- 5 types, Off
- SuperNATURAL Piano Sound
- 96 notes
- 15 (4 pianos)
- Dual, Duo
- (via the app)
- 6W + 6W
- 27.1 lbs
- Yamaha P-45
- Graded Hammer Standard (GHS)
- 3 types, Off
- AWM Stereo Sampling
- 64 notes
- 10 (2 pianos)
- Dual, Duo
- 6W + 6W
- 25.3 lbs
- Korg B1
- Natural Weighted Hammer Action (NH)
- 3 types, Off
- PCM Stereo Sampling
- 120 notes
- 8 (3 pianos)
- 9W + 9W
- 26.1 lbs
When making this list, I was looking for the following criteria:
1) Casio Privia PX-160 – Best value keyboard in its price range
The Casio PX-160 is probably the most expensive keyboard on this list, but for good reason.
So what makes this piano so good?
First, the PX-160 is equipped with Casio’s famous Tri-sensor Hammer Action keyboard II.
Before the introduction of the Roland FP-10, it was the only keyboard in this price range that utilized 3-sensor detection system and had simulated Ebony & Ivory key surfaces.
The triple sensor detection technology allows for faster note repetition and more accurate recognition of your key presses, while the synthetic Ivory & Ebony keytops provide a good grip on the keys and absorb excessive moisture when your fingers become a bit sweaty.
Sound is another area where the PX-160 shines.
Its Multi-dimensional Morphing AiR Sound Source delivers a full natural sound sampled from a 9-foot concert grand piano. The improved 16W speaker system and 128-note polyphony also contribute to the quality of the sound.
Along with 5 piano tones, there are 13 other instrument sounds, which I really enjoyed playing. You’ll hardly be able to find such high-quality sounds in this price range.
Everything from electric pianos to strings and organs sounded very decent, which is quite surprising to see on a budget-friendly instrument such as the PX-160.
When it comes to features, the PX-160 doesn’t disappoint either.
The PX-160 is the only piano on the list that has a 2-track MIDI recorder, which will allow you to record your right- and left-hand part onto separate tracks and then play them back as one song.
The keyboard also offers standard features such as metronome, transpose and tuning function as well as dual mode (layering) and duet play function.
The PX-160’s Split Mode only works with the Bass sound selected for the low-range of the keyboard, while you can select any other sound for the right-hand section.
There are 60 built-in songs that you can use to practice right- and left-hand parts individually by turning off one of the parts. On top of that, the piano allows you to load up to 10 User Songs into the internal memory and use them in the same way.
2) Roland FP-10 – No-frills, yet arguably the best piano playing experience
Up until recently, Roland didn’t offer any entry-level digital pianos. You would have to spend at least $700 to get their most affordable model (Roland FP-30).
Yet, the company realized that this segment of the market is incredibly popular and all of its competitors already had some excellent offerings in this price range.
What was Roland’s move?
Well, they basically took their intermediate model (FP-30), cut down some of the features, made it a bit more compact, and introduced their new affordable FP-10.
What’s interesting is that they kept the same key action and sound engine as used its older brother, which makes the FP-10 one of the most realistic digital pianos under $500.
The instrument features Roland’s PHA-4 Standard keyboard with escapement mechanism, and synthetic ivory key surfaces.
It’s the only piano in this price range that simulates escapement sensation found on an acoustic piano.
Along with the Casio keyboards, it’s also the only piano under $500 that uses 3-sensor detection system (as opposed to 2-sensor), and has ivory feel keys.
The keyboard feels very high-quality and nice to the touch, you can feel the actual mechanical movement going on under the fallboard.
The sound of the FP-10 is generated by Roland’s famous SuperNATURAL sound engine, which combines sampling with physical modelling algorithms to provide a full, natural sound with incredible details.
The FP-10 is the only piano on the list that simulates organic piano elements such as string resonance, damper resonance (the PX-160 also simulates it), and key off response.
While the FP-10 is somewhat low of features, for example, it doesn’t have a MIDI-recorder, or lesson mode, you can easily expand its capabilities by connecting the FP-10 to Roland’s free Piano Partner 2 app via Bluetooth.
This will not only unlock some of the rhythms, and features like MIDI-recorder, but it will also allow you to control many parameters and settings of the FP-10 using an intuitive, graphical interface (goodbye “key/button” combinations).
3) Yamaha P-45 – Yamaha’s best-selling beginner digital piano
The Yamaha P-45 is the most simple yet very popular model in Yamaha’s P (Portable) line of digital pianos. It’s also the only digital piano in Yamaha’s arsenal that you can get for under 500$.
Even though, P-45 was introduced quite a few years ago, it hasn’t lost its appeal ever since. In fact, it’s one of the best-selling Yamaha digital pianos in the world. And I’m not surprised.
Yamaha is a well-known brand with an excellent reputation which has been making high-quality digital musical instruments for decades, add an affordable price to the package, and the P-45 becomes one of the leaders in its class.
But of course, famous name and attractive price aren’t the only things the P-45 has to offer.
The piano features a full set of 88 Graded Hammer Standard (GHS) keys, also found on the P-125 (next model up).
While to me the GHS action feels less realistic compared to the Casio and Roland key actions, it does provide a fully-weighted feel, and has proven to be a decent and reliable entry-level action.
The GHS doesn’t have any textured material on top of the keys, and it uses 2-sensor key detection system.
While I didn’t have any problems quickly repeating notes on the P-45, I found it more difficult to play further up the keys due to the shorter action, especially compared to the Roland’s PHA-4.
At the heart of the P-45 is the AWM stereo sampling technology that ensures you get a rich, natural piano sound as well as 8 other beautiful tones including electric pianos, organs, strings, and a few other sounds.
It’s hard to compare the sound to the competition as it’s a very personal and subjective aspect, but I would say it’s on the same level as the FP-10 and PX-160 as far as realism is concerned.
Nevertheless, all of these sounds have a different character so listen for yourself and decide which one is the most pleasing to your ears.
The P-45 features 64-note polyphony, which is not something to be excited about but is enough in most situations.
The lack of a Split Mode and Line Out jacks doesn’t seem to be a big downside for a beginner either.
But if you’re planning to use your keyboard as a performing instrument, dedicated Line Out jacks would be a nice feature to have (on this list only the PX-160 has them).
On the other hand, you can always use the P-45’s USB type B port to connect to a computer, which will allow you to create multi-track MIDI recordings and do many other things (learning, notation creation, music production, etc.) using various music apps.
4) Casio CDP-S100 / Casio CDP-S350 – Slim and extremely affordable
The new CDP-S series takes focus on a slim, compact form-factor. The size of the instruments was decreased by 30% compared to the previous CDP models.
In fact, these are the most compact 88-key digital pianos I’ve ever seen.
The CDP series instruments are traditionally the most affordable digital pianos available in Casio’s arsenal, being a bit more basic compared to the Privia (PX) series as far as piano playing aspect is concerned.
Nevertheless, the new CDP-S pianos are very capable instruments that pack a lot of value and are fairly easy on the wallet.
The CDP-S100 and CDP-S350 share the same keyboard action and the same new grand piano tones (the CDP-S350 has more presets).
Let’s take a look at some of the key differences between these two models.
What’s unique about these CDP-S keyboards is that they are the only instruments on the list that can run on battery power.
Both of the pianos are equipped with the new Scaled Hammer Action II keyboard to fit into the new compact chassis.
This is the first time we see a CDP instrument with simulated Ivory & Ebony key surfaces, which do feel very nice and expensive. It’s definitely not something you find on an entry-level keyboard at this price point.
The action is mechanically very similar to the newly introduced Smart Scaled Hammer Action found in the new PX-S1000 and PX-S3000 digital pianos.
Comparing this new action to the older action used in the PX-160, there are definitely some noticeable improvements.
In particular, the action has become much quieter, less bouncy, and has a more natural feeling texture.
At the same time due to the smaller chassis, the CDP-S100’s action is a bit shorter as well, which makes it slightly more difficult to play into the keys compared to the PX-160.
When it comes to sound, the CDP-100 doesn’t disappoint either. There are 3 beautiful grand piano tones, which shine on virtually any music style.
The CDP-350 has a wider selection of sounds. I really liked the “Stage Piano” preset, which sounded remarkable and reminded me of the same present in the PX-S3000.
With that said, neither of these pianos use the piano-focused AiR sound engine found in Privia instruments, so the piano tones may sound not as realistic as, say, the PX-160.
I personally felt that some tones sounded a bit flat, and lacked depth; the resonance and decay could be improved as well.
However, it’s hard to complain considering their price tag and the fact that they are entry-level keyboards.
I’d definitely recommend adding these pianos to your list, if you’re looking for something very portable and budget-friendly.
It’s identical to the CDP-235 model (discontinued) and is very similar to the CDP-S350 as far as sounds and features are concerned.
The CDP-240 also offers a Step Up Lesson System that teaches you how to play the songs using a built-in LCD that shows which notes to play with which hand/finger.
We’ve talked about several instruments already, now let’s take a listen to the blind test video below to see which piano sound you prefer (Casio CDP-S100, Roland FP-10, or Yamaha P-45?).
5) Korg B1 – Stylish piano with powerful sound and minimal features
Finally, the last piano we’re going to talk about is the Korg B1.
Korg has recently released a few great digital pianos with a stylish design and a very satisfying piano sound and feel, including the B1, B1SP (same as the B1 but with a stand and pedals), C1 Air and G1 Air.
The B1 is the most basic piano among those models, though it also comes with some nice upgrades.
At the heart of the B1 is the Stereo PCM tone generator, which along with 120-note polyphony and 18W speakers delivers a deep, powerful sound with a wide dynamic range.
The speakers deserve a special mention with their Motional Feedback (MFB) technology, which helps reproduce low frequencies more accurately.
The B1 features 88 full sized keys with Korg’s NH (Natural Hammer) action. It’s a nice fully-weighted action, which will satisfy the beginner’s needs.
It’s on a lighter side of the spectrum and feels pretty close to Yamaha’s GHS action.
If you had a chance to try their higher-end action – the RH3, the difference is pretty significant.
But Korg keyboards that feature the RH3 key action are also considerably more expensive, so it’s not really a fair comparison.
At the same time, it doesn’t feel as good as the Casio PX-160’s and Roland FP-10’s action with a 3-sensor mechanism and ivory textured keys, which, in my opinion, feel closer to the real piano.
The good thing about the B1 is that it comes with a piano-style metal sustain pedal unlike the other keyboards on the list, which come with one of those cheap box-like footswitches.
In terms of features, Korg has kept the B1 very basic. Partner mode, metronome, transpose and master tuning are the only functions this keyboard has.
There’s no recording function and, more importantly, no USB port, which makes it impossible to send and receive MIDI data and use the B1 as a MIDI controller.
And this is probably the main disadvantage of this instrument because all the other keyboards on this list are equipped with a USB type B port.
For the majority of beginners, the lack of MIDI connectivity won’t probably be a deal breaker, but it would be a nice feature to have considering how many things you can do once you connect the keyboard to the computer.
Keyboards not included on the list (why?)
So there you have it, folks!
Those who dream to become a piano pro one day remember that the key is to make the first step. You made the right decision opting for a keyboard with fully-weighted keys.
We hope this list has helped you pick the “right” keyboard for your needs and budget.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on any of the instruments we covered today as well as any other entry-level digital pianos you have experience with (negative or positive).
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If after reading this article you still have doubts about what instrument to choose, take a look at the Ultimate Buying Guide as well as some other popular articles listed below: