As you may have guessed from the other content on our site, we’re major supporters of the digital piano movement, and we’re always working to keep you up to date with the latest and greatest developments.
However, that doesn’t mean digital pianos are straight up superior. Each instrument type has its pros and cons, and depending on your own circumstances or preference, the ‘right choice’ could change.
That brings us to the main focus of this article, an in-depth look at the various factors that make each specific piano-type (digital or otherwise) a good choice for certain kinds of people.
If you’re looking to upgrade, this article can serve as a reference piece that covers the many must-knows that can save you a bit of cash.
With all that out of the way, let’s jump in.
Before moving on to exploring digital and acoustic pianos in more detail, let’s take a look at the infographic below to get an overview of the key differences between these instruments.
The History of Pianos
Pianos were revolutionary when they first saw the light of day in the early 1700s.
Bartolomeo Cristofori of Padua is commonly cited as the originator of our favorite musical instrument. He paved the way for the development of modern music as we know it.
Musical instruments were always designed to be musical or, in other words, harmonically pleasing. This was not difficult and many earlier instruments, regardless of origin, featured a more basic diatonic scale, as opposed to the 12-tone chromatic scale we know today.
The harpsichord and clavichord (along with other instruments) were a turning point for musical instruments, as they birthed the keyboard instrument style that would eventually become their own classification.
Why do we credit the piano with musical development and modernization?
Well, the harpsichord allowed for a wide range of available notes, but it had a massive limitation. It lacked dynamics as every note would essentially be played at the same volume and intensity.
Bartolomeo, a well-versed harpsichord builder, employed by the Grand Prince of Tuscany, inadvertently designed a masterpiece when he made the piano.
It was a key-based stringed instrument that used hammers rather than being plucked like the harpsichord.
This was a massive leap forward for musicians, as the maestros of the time could go from soft to loud with precise control, further enhancing the expressiveness of music we enjoy today.
While I won’t dive into the mechanics of the piano hammer mechanism, I’ll leave you with this: Bartolomeo was incredibly resourceful, as he managed to reverse-engineer the tried and true harpsichord “quill plucking” method to solve the major challenge of damping.
Of course, the Bartolomeo piano wasn’t as polished as it is now. While the design was adopted wholesale, the sound still felt like a harpsichord.
It wasn’t until the late 18th century Vienna that the modern piano standard began to take form.
These pianos featured 2 strings per note and leather-covered hammers, which further enhanced the already impressive dynamic piano range, enabling velvety softs and massive intensity on demand.
These Viennese pianos were the weapon of choice for the world-famous Mozart, and it’s safe to say that pianos had become renowned worldwide by that point.
Minor improvements were introduced throughout the years, examples being the richer tones from the longer strings, courtesy of diagonal arrangements, and the modern standard of 88 keys.
Arguably, however, the piano was ‘complete’ at this point, as evidenced by the release of the first Steinway concert grand.
Finally, it’s worth noting the contributions of capitalist America. Pianos were expensive, but cheaper options were possible due to factory assembly methods and part standardization.
This, to me, is one of the best developments in piano evolution – the accessibility factor.
While we won’t cover the development of electronic musical instruments in this article, feel free to check out our Keyboard Types Comparison where we cover the differences between digital pianos, keyboards, and synthesizers, as well as covering the ‘DNA’ that links them together.
To give a short introduction, most electronic instruments these days utilize either sampling (which are snippets of sounds recorded from another instrument, in this case meaning pianos) or modeling (which involves complex simulations that utilize algorithms to recreate the sounds of another instrument).
The three main types of piano emulations we’ll cover are the keyboard, digital piano, and stage piano.
Again, we won’t dive deep into their details (the other article provides more than enough detail if you’re curious), but we’ll give a rudimentary intro to distinguish each type.
Do note that we’ll be referring to these 3 variants by the umbrella term ‘digital piano’ in the upcoming sections. Things would get too cluttered if we kept using all 3 names at once.
Bartolomeo’s classic design is still used today. When combined with the innovations introduced throughout the centuries, I’d say modern pianos are practically perfected.
From the surface level, acoustic pianos are pretty and are beautiful additions to any area, bringing instant class to hotels, shopping malls, luxury clubhouses, and more.
Looks aren’t just for show either. Most piano manufacturers have been in business for over a century, so they’ve refined design into a science.
Sturdiness, moisture resistance, and overall feel are as good as they’ve ever been.
However, while many people like the looks of acoustic pianos, there are just as many who like the simplicity of digital pianos (along with practicality).
While design is subjective, I’d still like to rate it as a pro of digital pianos since there are so many options to choose from.
Acoustic pianos can’t really deviate much from the typical formula, and that’s pretty much a given since the internal string and hammer mechanism is set in stone.
A unique coat of paint (white concert grands are popular for a reason) is really the most you can expect here.
Meanwhile, digital pianos have a lot more leeway. That’s where you get innovative control schemes like the Nord Stage 3, Roland RD-2000’s organ-emulating drawbar systems, and the Korg Kross’s drum pads.
Even if we’re looking at the more basic control layout, there’s still a lot to work with.
Roland arguably perfected the simple layout with their FP-90 digital piano, which even managed to earn a Red Dot award for design with its clean yet tactile front panel.
Even looking at things from a shallower perspective, there’s a lot of lookers in the digital piano realm.
Nord keyboards play great, but even as an audience member, I can’t help but give those striking red metal bodies a second glance.
Design-wise, the sky really is the limit for digital pianos.
This is easily the best part of acoustic pianos. Nearly every acoustic piano, upright or grand, will be the better experience when compared with digital pianos. Understandably so, as emulations can never equal to the real deal.
Regardless of how advanced technology becomes, it will be difficult to recreate the sound generation mechanism of an actual hammer hitting the strings and all the complex vibrations that come as a result.
While multisampling technology can allow for a large degree of dynamic variation, you can’t beat the acoustic dynamics (unrestricted by memory and sample constraints).
The exception to this rule is a badly maintained acoustic (or one with manufacturing defects).
A true piano spreads sound naturally throughout the room, reverberating based on the size and shape of its surroundings, forming a unique sound that cannot be recreated easily without intense surround sound speaker set-ups (which may cost as much as a real concert grand).
When it comes to sound, acoustic pianos win hands down.
These models utilize complex speaker setups, and in some cases, wooden soundboards that recreate the feel by adding in further realism to the sound and feel.
If you’re willing to spend $10,000 for the Kawai NV-10, you might be getting a superior experience to a standard acoustic piano.
While it may be subjective, I’d like to point out that most digital pianos can’t compete with acoustic ones when it comes to the piano sound, though we’re getting there slowly as technology improves.
The way most modern digital pianos generate sound is by using meticulously recorded samples (miniature recordings) of an acoustic instrument recorded at different intensities (velocities).
So, whenever you press a key on a digital piano or keyboard you’re hearing the actual recording of a grand piano, bass, strings, electric piano, or whatever other sound you choose to play, which is triggered based on which note you play and how hard or soft your keypress is.
However, as you can imagine recordings of the actual instrument can only get us so far (even if it’s a $100,000 Steinway concert grand recorded at Abbey Road Studios), as there’s much more nuance to the sound than just the ‘shape’ of it.
That said, I understand the argument that digital pianos sound better.
If we’re comparing a cheap acoustic piano that hasn’t been maintained for some time, it’s not going to outperform the perfectly recorded samples of a digital piano.
We can then argue about the merits of a wider sonic palette and speaker quality, but we can go on and on without reaching a conclusion.
Personally, I’ve yet to get the same experience I had playing a Yamaha C7 on stage with a digital piano. So to me, that’s the ‘best’ piano sound.
Pianos are key-based instruments, so the touch and feel of said keys are a massive part of the experience.
Since acoustic pianos always feature complex hammer mechanisms and strings, the touch and feel are the most authentic, while digital pianos can only try to replicate this experience with sensors and hammer actions.
Most acoustic pianos feature 88-keys, from A to C. For classical pieces, a full-sized keybed is mandatory.
The main strong suit here is touch sensitivity.
While digital pianos have moved away slowly from detecting ‘just’ 127 different touch-sensitivity levels (as a limitation of early MIDI implementations), nothing beats the maximal dynamic range of acoustic pianos.
No two keypresses are exactly the same on a real acoustic piano, and that desirable sonic ‘imperfection’ can’t be recreated with samples.
Above you can see a beautiful demonstration of how the key action of a grand piano works.
While I’m a fan of many premium key actions, like Roland’s superb PHA-50 hybrid wooden action and Korg’s simple yet playable RH3 action, I have to say that none of these compare to a well-maintained acoustic.
Again, real pianos have actual hammer mechanisms that hit actual metal strings. That’s very hard to simulate when all you have to work with are plastic and wooden parts.
There’s also the behavior of escapement, in which digital pianos react somewhat unrealistically when repeated keypresses are made, when a key hasn’t returned to its initial resting position.
Real pianos don’t rely on sensors and as such are more responsive. It’s also worth noting that real pianos have a graded-feel where lower keys are heavier than the upper ones.
This behavior is due to differences in string thickness (and hammer size as a result). Some digital pianos emulate this, while others have a uniform feel throughout.
Speaking of gigging musicians, electronic features are practically a must. There’s a reason why most session musicians sell themselves as ‘keyboardists’ rather than ‘pianists.’
While knowing how to play piano parts well is a must, you’re also expected to know how to play pads, synth leads, electric keys, orchestral parts, and so on.
Knowing how to mix and modify effects on the fly is also important, and most acoustic pianos don’t have these features (unless you’re using one of the rare hybrid models with installed pickups).
Acoustic pianos don’t have the functionality that allows you to practice these skills, which may be a limiting factor if your end goal is to be a versatile performer.
If versatility is your need, chances are you’re in the market for a workstation or stage piano.
This is probably obvious, but acoustic pianos can’t compete when it comes to digital features.
We briefly covered sound variety in the acoustic section, and that’s pretty much a given, considering that pianos really only have 1 ‘pre-set sound’ to work with.
Here’s a quick list of the notable electronic features in digital pianos that we might take for granted:
The volume knob and headphone jack are godsends when it comes to practice. Having a silent option is great and allows you to practice even in late night-time hours without disturbing your neighbors.
An onboard effects section further enhances the sonic variety you get from a digital piano. An acoustic piano sounds the way it does due to its position in a specific room. For digital pianos, you get delays, reverbs, choruses, and many other sound shaping options.
MIDI USB functionality comes as a standard and opens up endless possibilities when it comes to music creation, learning, performing and everything in between. How? By allowing you to use various MIDI-compatible apps available for about any platform out there (PC, Android, iOS, you name it!). Whether you’re a beginning piano student, composer, sound producer, performer, MIDI can make your life that much easier.
Output jacks are included in most intermediate and advanced models and make recording a breeze. Real acoustic pianos need multiple mics, which are a hassle to set up (and expensive in their own right). Meanwhile, digital pianos only need a pair of TRS cables, less than $20 on Amazon.
Acoustic pianos come with 3 pedals (sometimes 2 depending on the design). These are the soft, sostenuto, and sustain pedal, respectively.
It’s true that most digital pianos have an optional 3-pedal system that simulates the effects of each pedal with software, but this approach rarely captures the actual feel perfectly.
Take the most-used sustain (aka damper) pedal, for example. Some of the more advanced digital pianos come with half-damper support, which plays different samples when the pedal is pressed down halfway.
This seeks to emulate how a real sustain pedal pushes the damper against the strings without fully muting them. However, half-dampering isn’t a binary on-off state.
We’ve already talked about how digital piano pedals can’t recreate the nuance of a real damper pedal, so we won’t repeat ourselves here.
I will note a potential upside of digital pianos, though. Modulation pedals open up a world of possibilities that enable cool techniques, like wah-wahs and filter sweeps, without removing your hands from the keybed.
For performers, this behavior is huge. It’s a reason why we enjoyed the Nord Stage 3 so much.
Speaking of bands, you rarely see anyone hauling an acoustic piano to gigs. Either you’re using a piano already at the venue, or you’re a Rockstar playing at sold-out stadiums.
Digital pianos and keyboards are a gigging performer’s best friend. While I don’t consider 15+ kilograms (33 lbs) light, its miles better than the hundreds of kilograms that acoustic uprights and grand pianos weigh.
If portability is a huge factor for you, acoustic pianos might not be the right choice.
Digital pianos are far more lightweight than their acoustic counterparts, and we’ve already covered this briefly as a con of acoustic pianos.
However, the huge array of options here also tilts things in the digital pianos’ favor. We talked about how stage pianos further reduce weight by cutting out extraneous features, and that’s one of the coolest things with digital pianos – innovation. With weight issues solved, companies are turning their heads to other common gripes.
Personally, I’m loving the ability to fully embrace the digital side. For gigs with my band, I use a MIDI keyboard linked to my laptop as a sound source.
MIDI keyboards can’t generate sound on their own, but this also means they’re extremely lightweight. This keeps my gigging rig more portable than ever.
Personally, I consider this to be the biggest downside to owning an acoustic.
The primary factor that requires attention is the strings. Tuning drift is common across nearly every acoustic instrument, whether guitars, violins, oboe, or even drums.
What separates the piano from those instruments is complexity. Tuning a cello or guitar is as easy as turning a knob. Even drums can be tuned within minutes, given the right knowhow (a must for jazz drummers).
Pianos aren’t that simple and require professional tuners to maintain the right pitch.
Professional tuners and equipment are necessary because of the 2-3 strings per key and due to the slight pitch variations that give the piano its rich sound.
Expect these timespans to be even shorter if you’re a fortunate (or unfortunate depending on how you look at things) individual with perfect pitch.
This cost adds up over time, so be sure to factor this into the initial asking price if you’re looking for an acoustic piano, especially if you’re going second hand.
Generally speaking, digital pianos don’t need to be maintained (provided it’s taken care of and in decent condition).
A friend of mine had a Yamaha CLP-series console digital piano, which he bought second-hand in 2012, and it still functions well today (7 years old at the time of writing). It has only required maintenance once throughout this period.
The problem? One key’s hammer action was stiff due to some minor fractures in the mechanism. It wasn’t a big deal and he got it fixed for free since it was covered by a warranty.
Despite everything it’s been through, it’s a trooper, and other keyboards I’ve owned over the years still work great, too.
Fun fact! Even my dad’s extremely old Yamaha PSR-36 keyboard, which he’s owned for over 20 years, works fine. If that’s not a good indicator of excellent durability, I don’t know what is.
If you’re a band keyboardist, you may have laughed at your guitarist for having a string break mid-rehearsal, or at your drummer for having a ripped drumhead.
Well, lucky for them, it’s easy to do repairs, and they can even do it themselves. If a piano string breaks, professional help is required.
Everything mechanical will undergo wear and tear over time, and pianos are no different. The many moving parts will deteriorate slowly, hindering your experience and requiring external help (which is not cheap).
Repairs are even rarer than routine maintenance for digital pianos.
There really isn’t much that can go wrong with digital music instruments, since they’re based on sound triggering from a chipset.
Even in worst case scenarios, affordable fixes are often available with a quick call to the company’s professionals. This usually costs a fraction of what you’d expect to pay for a faulty acoustic piano repair.
Let’s be frank, acoustic pianos are less prominent than they were a few years ago. A 2017 report showed that acoustic upright sales have dropped by 41.1% between 2007 and 2017, whereas glamorous concert grands suffered even more, dropping below half their initial price.
You’ve probably guessed why – acoustic pianos are expensive, and that’s just the upfront cost. There’s also maintenance upkeep, and the full cost adds up, putting quite a strain on your pocket.
Even professionals face the conundrum of deciding whether tens of thousands of dollars of investment is worth it for their job or hobby.
For absolute beginners, there is no reason to go with an acoustic piano. In fact, for the longest time, price was the biggest barrier to entry, something budget digital pianos have remedied wonderfully.
The biggest pro of digital pianos is their affordability. Digital piano models are available at nearly every price point.
Whether you’re an absolute beginner who’s starting out or a professional who needs a neighbor-friendly practice option, you can be sure that there’s something for you.
Keyboards may seem cheap, but they’re an ideal option for people who just want to learn the basics.
Similarly, massive console-style keyboards are both good practice options and excellent furniture pieces, ideal for people who want something closer to the real deal.
Speaking of the massive console digital pianos, they are often cheaper than a brand-new acoustic piano. Even uprights tend to go for higher asking prices, which is further compounded by the next point.
Acoustic pianos sound absolutely amazing, but there are many major downsides compared to their digital counterparts. Cost is a major factor and may be the primary turn-off for most people.
However, if you’re really looking to master the piano on a budget, I’d recommend supplementing your practice on a digital piano with occasional sessions on an acoustic.
This approach is common for the music classes you get at music schools and learning centers.
My friends taking graduate and undergraduate level courses in music have a digital piano for practice outside of class, yet clock in as many hours as they can on the university acoustics.
Their skills are nothing to scoff at, and I believe that the best of both worlds is ideal if the option presents itself.
Digital pianos have a lot of pros, and personally, I’d go with a digital piano over an acoustic most of the time.
The hassle of maintenance and the constantly increasing cost of ownership is something I find hard to swallow, so the choice is clear for stingy spenders like me.
There’s also the flexibility factor. As someone who occasionally performs live, I need a portable solution that produces more than a single piano sound. For someone like me, digital pianos are the only option.
That said, I love the sound of acoustic pianos. When I’m doing production or arrangement gigs, if I get the option to have an acoustic piano recorded in the studio, I take it every time.
For a good record, the sound is always worth the hassle. For more practical purposes though, I prefer a digital piano.
Acoustic Piano Types
The classic piano design goes by many names, but they all share the same ‘grand’ designation, showing the classiness of Bartolomeo’s original design.
The modern grand piano comes in a few variations, but they include most of the improvements made throughout history.
The hammer mechanisms are responsive but retain a large degree of dynamic expressiveness, and the 3- and 2-string per key standard has been adopted wholesale.
The other word in the name, concert, describes where you would commonly find these pianos. They are often seen in concert halls, which help enhance the naturally wide sound these pianos produce.
The most prominent two makers of concert grands are Yamaha and Steinway & Sons.
Yamaha’s C-series is arguably the best-selling line of concert grands, easily recognized by their clean, balanced tonality. Many digital pianos, even from other manufacturers, include C7 or CFX samples due to their versatility.
The Steinways are more classically modeled and have a richer low end (which some may consider muddy), taking inspiration from Romanticism era grands with their thicker strings.
While concert grands are amazing, their cost is a little unrealistic for the general public. However, alternatives do exist for the acoustic purists.
We classify any concert grand style piano shorter than 5’ 2” across as a baby grand.
These pianos may not be in the spotlight much, but they are common purchases among those who want the rich tones and stylistics of a concert grand without the monstrous price tag.
I have mixed recordings of baby grands. The internal structures are certainly similar, but the smaller size means stereo recordings lack the same sense of width as their full-sized counterparts.
Other than that, baby grands are generally well regarded, and might be the only real option if you’re in a small living environment.
This is the budget option of this category, and it is also part of the American accessibility resurgence we briefly covered in the history section.
This model brought the piano to the masses, giving a large portion of the population a chance to actually learn this instrument.
Chances are, you can attribute a lot of modern music to the inception of the acoustic upright. These pianos are compressed versions of the classic grand design, but by no means simplified.
The basic mechanism is identical – hammers hit strings when keys are pressed, producing sound.
If we take the classic concert grand’s sound as the basis, an upright’s sound is less ‘rich,’ though it does end up being more intimate.
The main factor here is the size difference. Upright pianos have the shortest strings out of all 3 variants, which results in different tonality. However, that’s not always the case, and a baby grand sometimes has shorter strings than some taller upright models.
The physics concept worth talking about here is inharmonicity, in which the overtones of a note deviate from ‘correct’ harmonics. This can be reduced by having longer strings (or indeed, windpipes, if we’re applying the same idea to wind instruments).
Hence, upright pianos have that unique sound, which is not bad by any means. Certain ballad songs sound best with an upright, and as most pubs and music cafes can attest, it certainly has its appeal.
Now that you know about the main acoustic piano types, let’s jump into the pros and cons.
Digital Piano Types
Keyboards were one of the first attempts to emulate real pianos digitally. For the longest time, it was okay for beginners, but completely unviable if the end goal was to master the instrument.
The keys were made from cheap plastic, and the sounds would never pass for the real deal.
Bear in mind that at this point in history, technology wasn’t all touchscreens and slim form-factors. 12MB of storage was considered high, which meant commodities like modern sampling were a far-off dream.
With all those caveats, a cheap upright acoustic was always the correct choice for pianists. The premium price was easily justified by the fact that viable alternatives didn’t exist.
Of course, that’s in the past and modern keyboards are very capable.
While budget options still exist, they come in the form of arranger keyboards and include a ton of functionality that makes them useful for songwriters and one-man-band setups.
Yes, you sometimes get the same unrealistic feeling keys, but it’s often made up with a lot of extra features, such as performance options, onboard rhythms, and even arpeggiation.
As the name implies, digital pianos are different from the cheap, unrealistic keyboards of the past. Real effort has been put into making these new instruments far more playable.
Modern advancements in mechanical engineering and precise assembly meant aspiring piano players had a legitimate option for practice. It even came with a few advantages we’ll cover shortly.
The main things of note are the upgraded sound quality and the introduction of mechanical key actions that mimic the hammer actions of their acoustic counterparts.
Digital pianos would eventually go on to become bestsellers throughout the world, with many piano companies (such as giants like Yamaha and Kawai of acoustic piano fame) pumping resources into taking digital piano technology a step further.
Digital pianos have always had some glaring weaknesses that made them unsuitable for gigging musicians.
If we discount sound quality (an aspect purists still believe to be a black mark against the non-acoustics), there’s still the problem of bulk and flexibility.
Stage pianos attempted to solve these problems by tackling them head on. These models reduced their weight by dropping built-in speakers.
Most performers use their own amp/cab combos or front-of-house PAs, so this made stage pianos popular among performers.
Flexibility was solved by incorporating massive sound libraries from workstation keyboards into their chipsets, providing musicians with synths, drums, strings, and so much more.
While popular stage pianos like the Nord Piano 4 and Yamaha CP-series aim at pianists, it’s up in the air whether workstation keyboards like the Korg Kross are keyboards or stage pianos. For simplicity, we’ll just say that they are, but labels are only labels, after all.
Before we end this article, I’d like to talk a bit about hybrid pianos, which are amalgamations that combine the tech of digital pianos with the ideal features of an acoustic.
Are you confused? That’s not unusual. The term ‘hybrid piano’ isn’t as established as the ‘digital’ or ‘acoustic,’ and there are actually two kinds to choose from.
Acoustic Hybrid Pianos
Acoustic hybrid pianos have real strings laid out in an upright configuration, so they look similar to acoustic uprights (or even grands).
Having real strings means these pianos have the ideal ‘acoustic’ tone, providing a rich, highly dynamic playing experience that feels great.
The difference is the inclusion of a digital sound engine that can be switched on at will. This mutes the strings (either by moving the hammer mechanism or by muting the vibrations) and enables a pure digital signal, which can be heard via headphones.
This solves the noise problem and allows you to practice guilt-free at night when your neighbors are asleep. Also, features like recording and app integration are also possible, which makes these hybrid pianos extremely versatile.
Digital Hybrid Pianos
On the flip side, there are digital hybrid pianos which, by definition, are technically just high-end digital pianos.
These hybrid pianos produce sound digitally and don’t have strings.
However, their bodies are modeled after acoustic ones. They also use detailed speaker setups to reproduce the sounds in a way that reacts as a real acoustic piano would do.
For example, the Yamaha AvantGrand N3X looks just like a baby grand piano. As a result of the way things are laid out, you can get a similar effect by moving the lid, changing the sound in a far more hands-on, realistic manner.
Regarding key action, the extra size makes things much more involved, often ripping acoustic actions straight from the real deal. While we claimed you could never get a digital piano to match an acoustic one in terms of sound, these models sure come close.
After comparing acoustic and digital pianos and considering their pros and cons, we hope that you’ll be better able to decide which instrument is right for you.
As a quick summary, go with an acoustic piano if:
- You have the necessary budget
- A realistic sound is paramount
- You don’t have neighbors
- Your neighbors don’t mind a louder instrument
- You have the room and space for an acoustic piano
Go with a digital piano if:
- You’re on a limited budget
- You need something portable
- You don’t have room for an acoustic piano
- You want more flexibility in terms of sound
- You want to be able to practice silently
We’d like to reiterate that no instrument is a straightforward better choice.
I love the sound of acoustic pianos, but I also enjoy digital pianos and workstations just as much. The best way to choose one for yourself is to try things out and see what clicks.
Remember, you’re the one who will be playing the instrument, so the right choice depends on your own preferences.
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