Kawai has been innovating in the field of acoustic piano design and now stands alongside Yamaha as one of the most well-known piano brands from the east.
Naturally, this technical expertise also carries over into the digital realm. Kawai has been a mainstay in PianoDreamer’s lists of favorites, and I’m always eager to see how their new releases iterate over their predecessors.
The star of today’s review is the Kawai ES120, which is an update to the ES110 . This was an exciting instrument to playtest, as the original ES110 was a constant presence in our top list of digital pianos for intermediate players.
5 years is a long time in the world of tech, and it will be interesting to see how Kawai sought to bring the popular ES110 into the 2020s.
Kawai ES120 Specs
- 88-key fully weighted keyboard with matte black/white keytops
- Responsive Hammer Compact (RHC) action
- Touch Sensitivity (Light, Normal, Heavy, Off)
- Sound: Harmonic Imaging (HI)
- 192-note polyphony
- 25 instrument sounds (8 pianos)
- 16 demo songs + 9 built-in song books (over 377 songs)
- Modes: Split, Dual
- Lesson Function (ability to practice each hand’s part separately)
- 1-track MIDI recorder (3 songs)
- Sound Elements: Virtual Technician (17 parameters)
- Metronome (100 rhythm styles), Transpose, Fine-tuning
- Speakers: 10W + 10W (2 x 12cm)
- Connections: USB to Host, Bluetooth (audio + MIDI), Headphone jacks (2), Line Out (R, L/Mono), Sustain Pedal jack
- 130.5 x 28 x 15 cm (51.4” x 11” x 6”)
- 12.0 kg (26.5 lbs.)
- Release Date: July 2022
Check the availability and current price of the Kawai ES120 in your region:
Kawai’s ES series aims to be as versatile as possible, as indicated by the tagline: “at home, on stage, your music”.
This tends to be a difficult design challenge, as the digital pianos need to be as compact as possible without sacrificing feel and speaker quality, both of which take up precious space.
In terms of dimensions, the ES120 is 51.4″ (W) x 11″ (D) x 6″ (H). For weight, the ES120 clocks in at a nice 26.5 lbs (12 kg). These are fairly standard measurements, and the ES120 should be perfectly usable in smaller spaces.
The ES120’s chassis is primarily plastic, just like the original ES110. There’s not a lot of difference at the macro level, though I will note that Kawai managed to shave off a bit of bulk from the original ES110’s chassis, albeit by a very insignificant amount.
The ES120 feels well-built. There doesn’t seem to be any flexing even while applying force on the opposite sides, and the plastics used feel thick enough such that you won’t be too worried about a few bumps and scratches.
The weight is also within reason, making the ES120 a viable choice for gigging musicians.
In terms of color, the ES120 includes a choice between black, white or light grey. I’m personally a fan of the white variant, as it complements the clean, minimalist design quite well.
In our review of the ES110, our biggest gripe was the user interface.
The ES110 relied on the classic minimalist design that plagues many digital pianos (even to this day!), which meant you had to rely on button/key combinations to navigate through the piano’s features.
The ES120 fixes this by moving some of the commonly-used functionality at your fingertips. This makes navigation slightly more intuitive. While this is a very minimal upgrade, I’d say the user experience alone is just more well designed.
I wish Kawai went the route of adding in ‘cheat sheets’ to the top of the keybed. For example, just have a simple label above the keys that tell the user what that key does. The similarly priced Yamaha P-125 did it, so why not follow their lead?
I realize this is a controversial opinion, especially for people who dislike cluttered interfaces, but I’d settle for the improved accessibility any day of the week.
For what it’s worth, the ES120 also includes 4 registration slots, which lets you bypass the convoluted control scheme by saving your customized presets for future use. These slots will be indispensable if you rely on the ES120 for stage use.
Speaking about accessibility, the ES120’s controls feel more accommodating for people who might have visual or motor impairments. The buttons have a larger surface area and have a protruding shape, as opposed to being small circular spots that are hard to correctly identify.
To summarize, the ES120’s design is an improvement over the ES110. Everything feels a bit more modern, and the overall feel is just more sturdy than the original.
While I do have my complaints regarding the control scheme itself, it’s far from being a deal breaker.
The ES120’s keybed uses Kawai’s Responsive Hammer Compact (RHC) action, which is the same hammer action mechanism used in the original ES110. However, despite what the labeling might tell you, Kawai did manage to sneak in a few improvements.
If you look online, Kawai does mention ‘improved key cushioning’ as one of the features, and this is a surprisingly noticeable upgrade that might change your mind if you disliked the original ES110.
The RHC action uses a plastic, double-sensor mechanism with mechanical hammers to simulate the feel of a real acoustic piano.
The keys come with a matte finish with some slight texturing. The keys are also graded, such that the lower registers feel heavier than the higher octaves.
In terms of feel, the keys are surprisingly good despite their reputation as a budget key action. The keys are a bit on the lighter side, which might discourage purists, but they are still very responsive, and dare I say, quite fun to play with.
The improvements I teased at the start of this section further enhance the experience. The improved cushioning makes it so these keys have less mechanical noise than the ES110, while also letting the keys bottom out in a more pleasing way.
The ES110 sold surprisingly well with the professional crowd, and it’s not hard to see why. I expect the ES120 might see some similar successes, especially with the other upgrades in the sonic department.
Advanced players should also note that the RHC action does not have simulated escapement. You’ll need the RHIII action from the ES920 if you want that.
All in all, the RHC key action is a solid offering for the price, especially with the upgrades over the original version.
While there are absolutely better key actions out there, you won’t be disappointed with the ES120’s RHC action. It doesn’t attempt to break the mold, but it achieves what it sets out to do.
Keys aside, a digital piano’s sound is also key to making or breaking the experience.
The ES120 uses Kawai’s Harmonic Imaging (HI) sound engine, which is the same engine found on the original ES110. Note that this is not the same as the Progressive Harmonic Imaging (PHI) engine found on the ES520.
This is a step up over the ES110’s 19 sounds, though the differences go far beyond the numeric values. The sounds themselves are also significantly improved.
Concert Grand Sounds
The HI sound engine that powers the ES120 is fairly basic. Unlike other modern contemporaries, Kawai doesn’t necessarily focus heavily on modeling.
Instead, Kawai’s focus is on sampling detailed recordings of their best acoustic concert grand pianos.
The ES120 includes samples from Kawai’s SK-EX (Shigeru Kawai – EX) concert grands, which are Kawai’s premier instruments. This is what I’d consider to be the biggest upgrade in terms of samples in the new ES120.
For context, the Shigeru Kawai pianos are one of the more modern concert grands that stand alongside the Steinways, Yamahas, and Bösendorfers.
Like the world-famous Yamaha CFX series, the SK grands are versatile, with a balanced tone well-suited for nearly any music style regardless of time period.
This new sample set is a stripped down version of the samples from Kawai’s high-end CA-99 digital piano, and naturally, it is also subject to the limitations of the HI sound engine. This means you aren’t getting as much detail as you would from Kawai’s higher end instruments.
However, all of the limitations aside, the SK-EX samples still sound superb.
Unlike some other budget digital pianos, there’s no instances of a single sample being stretched across different keys. This detail is also present regardless of whether you’re listening through speakers or headphones.
I’ve said it in the ES520 and ES920 reviews, but I’ll say it here again. The SK-EX piano sounds are some of the best you can get, especially at the sub-$1000 price point of the ES120.
For completeness sake, I will note that the ES520 and the ES920’s SK-EX presets sound undoubtedly better than the ES120. The key limitation of the ES120’s HI sound engine appears to be the more limited sample memory.
While Kawai managed to keep the detail of having unique per-key recordings, that does mean there are some sacrifices in terms of per-intensity samples.
This does not discount the mileage Kawai managed to squeeze out from the comparatively basic HI sound engine, and my comments still stand. The SK-EX presets are excellent.
The ES120 also includes Kawai’s piano customization tool, Virtual Technician. This allows you to modify parameters about the piano sound. These can be modified either through the PianoRemote app, or using the button/key combinations.
Through the Virtual Technician, ES120 owners can tweak the following settings:
- Touch Curve – Controls how the piano sounds react to different playing intensities
- Voicing – Preset hammer properties, influencing the tonal character of the piano sounds
- Damper Resonance – Simulates strings of unpressed keys vibrating in resonance
- Damper Noise – Volume of the damper noise when the sustain pedal is pressed down
- String Resonance – Simulates resonance of strings on held notes
- Key-off Effect – Volume of the damper touching the strings before vibrations are stopped
- Fall-back Noise – Amount of sampled key fall back noise played when a key is released
- Hammer Delay – Delay length between keys being pressed and a hammer striking strings
- Topboard – Position of the concert grand’s lid
- Decay Time – Speed at which held-down notes decay
- Minimum Touch – Threshold for dynamics that prevents sounds from being produced
- Temperament – Tuning system used
- Stretch Tuning/Stretch Curve – Whether the piano samples are tuned to be flatter at the low registers and sharper at the upper octaves
- User Temperament – Custom temperament tunings per-key
- User Key Volume – Custom volume per-key
- Half-Pedal Adjust – Point at which the damper pedal begins to sustain sounds fully
- Soft Pedal Depth – Strength of the soft pedal effect if using a triple pedal setup
That’s a lot of options to work with, and this is actually a dumbed-down version of the same editor in Kawai’s higher-end instruments.
If you don’t want to get into the nitty gritty details, Kawai also included 11 ‘Smart Mode’ presets designed by their own engineers, giving you some good starting points.
Apart from the grand piano sounds, the ES120 also includes a selection of other presets that round out the ES120’s sonic palette.
The E. Piano sounds are probably the main highlight, covering most of the usual suspects when it comes to your E. Piano needs. The included Fender Rhodes-like sounds are rich, and there’s also a nice DX7-style FM synth that is wide and bright.
For Organs, the Jazz organ sounded like the best of the bunch, with a convincing rotary speaker emulation that adds to the richness.
Special mention should also go to the strings, which are surprisingly good thanks to the revised reverb emulation, which makes them sound wide and spacious despite the otherwise basic legato-only samples.
The rest of the sounds cover most of your practice needs, with the usual suspects, such as harpsichords, clavinets, mallets and basses.
These sounds don’t necessarily stand out like the ES120’s piano tones, but I’d say that they work well as practice tones. If you’re looking for an instrument that has more versatility, I’d recommend looking into dedicated stage instruments, or even going the software route.
The ES120’s effect section can be split into 2 components, the Reverb unit, and another singular miscellaneous FX.
The reverb unit is the highlight. There are 6 different algorithms, and they range from small rehearsal rooms to large, sprawling cathedrals. Most voice presets on the ES120 come with a corresponding default reverb, and all of them sound pleasing to the ear.
There have clearly been some upgrades to the fundamentals of the reverb algorithms on the ES120. If you get a chance to test the ES120 alongside an ES110, try playing the string preset with the same reverb settings, the ES120 just sounds more natural, especially if you’re listening through speakers.
I’d argue that the revised reverb units are part of the ‘secret sauce’ that makes the ES120 sound more appealing than its predecessor.
Apart from the reverb, the ES120 allows you to use a single additional FX to provide some extra flexibility. The effects include delays, choruses, tremolo and rotary emulations.
However, each effect is limited to a specific preset. This means you’re locked to whatever effect Kawai assigned for the present.
For example, all grand piano sounds come with a mono delay. However, you cannot use the chorus effects on concert grands, as those are only available for the electric pianos.
While the ES120’s effects are quite limited in terms of scope, I wouldn’t consider that a downside. While tweakheads might bemoan the lack of customization, I’d still consider each of these defaults to be well-tuned.
The ES120 also includes the Spatial Headphone Sound (SHS) effect when using headphones. This allows you to tune the ‘distance’ of your sample playback to your liking.
Similarly, there are also custom EQ settings designed for different headphone types. These are accessible through the Phones Type settings.
The ES120 has 192 notes of maximum polyphony. This is enough to work with for most songs, even when using the ES120’s sound layering functionality.
The ES120 comes with dual 10W speakers, a step up over the 7W speakers present on the original ES110.
The speakers are back-firing, though there is a thin port just above the keybed that allows some extra treble frequencies to be projected upwards.
In terms of sound quality, I do believe Kawai did a bit of extra tuning to make the ES120 sound ‘better’.
I’d argue that the ES120’s flatter frequency response makes for a more pleasing sound. The big difference is in the mids, which are a lot more present on the ES120, resulting in a more natural and full piano sound.
For amplitude, the ES120 can manage to output enough volume to fill a small room, though I’d highly recommend investing in an external amplifier if you do want to use it for gigging.
Conclusion on Sounds
I’d consider the ES120’s sound to be its strongest aspect.
The default SK-EX concert grand preset is gorgeous, and the upgraded speakers do a great job of highlighting the detail present on these samples. If you’re someone who’s only here for the pianos, the ES120 easily has you covered.
The only downside is the ES120’s limited sonic palette. While there are some decent non-piano sounds, they just don’t hit the same highs as the detailed concert grands.
Regardless, I’d consider those limitations to be a minor setback at best. The ES120 is ultimately a digital piano, and it excels at that specific goal.
As with most modern digital pianos, the ES120 includes a few features that help extend their functionality beyond being a basic piano emulation.
Most of the features on the ES120 can be changed using the button/key combinations, though you can also use Kawai’s PianoRemote control application on your Bluetooth-linked smartphone.
These are a few notable settings:
- TONE CONTROL – A preset-based equalizer that allows you to fine tune the frequency response of the ES520’s outputs.
- BRILLIANCE – A mode under the Tone Control menu, emulating how more basic digital pianos allow the user to set the ‘brightness’ of the output.
- TUNING – The central tuning of the middle A can be modified in increments of 0.5 Hz, in the range of 420.0 Hz to 453.0 Hz.
- TRANSPOSING – This allows you to change the played key within a 24 semitone range.
- METRONOME – Plays a steady rhythm for practice purposes, tempo and time signature can be set.
- TEMPERAMENT – Includes Equal, Pure Major/Minor, Pythagorean, Meantone, Werckmeister and Kirnberger temperament types, with a modifiable temperament key.
- REGISTRATION MEMORY – 4 slots to save all settings and customizations, accessible from a single button.
The ES120 includes 2 main modes: Dual and Split.
Dual mode is what we commonly know of as ‘layer mode’, which allows users to play two sounds simultaneously with each key press.
For example, you can layer strings with the piano to get a ballad-style tone.
Split mode, as the name implies, allows users to split the keyboard into a left- and right-hand section, each with a different assigned preset.
The split point can be changed as needed. This is commonly used to practice bass parts with the left hand.
Note that Dual and Split mode cannot be used in conjunction on the ES120.
In each mode, the volume of each of the sounds can be individually tweaked, allowing you to get your desired mix.
Song Recording and Playback
Kawai included 16 demo songs, which show off each of the included presets with professionally played pieces.
The ES120 allows you to record up to 3 different songs into the internal memory. Recording a song is simple enough with the dedicated button on the front panel.
You do not have overdubbing capabilities or left- and right-hand parts, which means you need to get things right in a single try.
You also can’t change sounds on already recorded songs, and you’ll have to redo it from scratch if you decide that the chosen sound isn’t to your liking.
The problem with the ES120’s recording faculties is the lack of transferability. If you’ve recorded something on the ES120, you can’t transfer it out through a USB drive.
If you do want to use the ES120 for recording purposes, I’d advise using the USB to Host functionality instead alongside a MIDI recorder app.
Kawai’s PianoRemote app is available on iOS and Android, and serves as the company’s main control app for their digital instruments. This is one way to avoid the button/key combinations on the ES120.
The app itself has a pretty bad rating (with a 2.0/5 stars on Google Play at the time of writing), but my experience wasn’t all that bad..
The app itself looks quite pleasing (unlike the archaic, prototype-like design of Roland’s similar Piano Every Day app). Having a well-thought out layout and a nice UI really does help with the experience.
While you don’t need the app, it can be useful if you want a touchscreen interface, or if you don’t have the manual on-hand.
The ES120 comes with Bluetooth Audio and MIDI functionality.
Bluetooth MIDI allows you to use the ES120 with apps on smartphones, tablets and other smart devices. This lets you work with music making apps without purchasing the USB connectors.
Bluetooth Audio enables the streaming of audio from your connected devices straight to the ES120’s speakers. This allows you to play along with backing tracks. This is particularly helpful if you want to work around the ES120’s lack of an AUX input.
Note that Bluetooth audio streaming only works one-way, and you can’t send audio from the ES120 to external speakers via Bluetooth Audio.
Bluetooth connectivity aside, the ES120 includes a nice selection of connectivity options that allows you to integrate the ES120 into stage or studio environments.
For headphone use, the ES120 has both 1/4″ and 1/8″ headphone jacks at the bottom left corner of the keybed, so you’ll be good to go regardless of what connector your headphones support.
There are also stereo 1/4″ line outputs, allowing the ES120 to be connected to external speakers or amplifiers. The left jack also works as a Mono output if the right jack is left unused.
A 1/4″ damper pedal jack is included, which is where you can connect the included F-1SP pedal. This is compatible with most pedals on the market, so you’re not limited to using Kawai-branded sustain pedals.
The ES120 also includes a USB to Host port, utilizing the USB Type-B connector.
This allows you to connect the ES120 to computers or smart devices, turning the ES120 into a competent USB MIDI controller. This was not included with the original ES110, so the upgrade is welcome.
Note that the USB to Host port only supports MIDI and doesn’t include a built-in audio interface. This means you can’t use the SK-EX samples in a digital audio workstation without buying an external audio interface.
Finally, the ES120 comes with a 3-pedal jack, which is designed to be used with the GFP-3 or F-351 triple pedals. This is a proprietary connector, but useful if you do need soft and sostenuto pedals from Kawai.
Do note that the ES120 removed the 5-pin MIDI connections present on the ES110. You do get the new USB to Host port as a substitute, but it might be a dealbreaker if 5-pin MIDI is a necessity for your use cases.
Regardless, I’d say the ES120 includes all you’d need for general use. Stage pianists, studio musicians and home users alike are catered to nicely.
The included Music Rest is simple, but gets the job done. I somewhat wish we got the sleek, futuristic modern rest included on the ES520, but I’m happy enough with the standard thin slab design we got.
The included switch-style F-1SP pedal is functional, but I wouldn’t call it good. It’s a bit of a downgrade, as the ES110 came with the F-10H, which was actually shaped like a real piano pedal while also supporting half-pedaling.
This does cover all you need to start playing, but we would recommend getting a few additional purchases.
If you are considering the ES120, I’d recommend either finding a retailer that includes the F-10H or getting this pedal as a separate purchase.
More advanced pianists might require a dedicated soft and sostenuto pedal, which requires a separate purchase of a triple-pedal set up. The ES120 works with two options, the GFP-3 and F-351.
Note that you can only use Kawai’s own triple pedals, as the triple-pedal connection uses Kawai’s proprietary connector.
On the ES120’s product page, Kawai recommends the HML-2 furniture-style stand, which comes in black, white and light gray to match the ES120’s color scheme.
The stand itself is primarily made of wood, and looks great if you want to make the ES120 a part of your living room décor.
I would highly recommend going for the F-351 triple pedal board if you go this route, as it rounds out the overall look and feel.
If you’re looking for a stand for stage use, the ES120 should work fine with most generic stands thanks to its standard measurements.
Here are a few of our personal recommendations.
Kawai recommends the SC-2 padded gigbag for musicians who are constantly on the move. This gigbag is fairly robust, with a good amount of padding that offers a significant amount of protection, while also having a good fitting dimensions.
If you’re put off by the price, the ES120 does work with generic gigbags as well, just be sure to get one that has the right size.
Headphones come in very handy when you want to practice in private, focusing solely on your playing and not disturbing others nearby.
Moreover, a good pair of headphones will provide a clearer and more detailed sound compared to the onboard speakers.
Check out this guide to learn how to choose the best-sounding headphones for your keyboard.
The ES120 doesn’t necessarily cram itself to the brim with a ton of features, and it also doesn’t attempt to break the mold with a thorough redesign. Instead, the ES120 simply takes the popular ES110, and improves on it in just about every regard.
The one downside to the new ES120 is the increased asking price. On release, the previous ES110 was generally lauded for its superb quality at such an affordable price point. It’s a bit unfortunate that the ES120 comes with a higher starting price tag (though understandable, and even reasonable, given the current economic climate).
Despite the increased barrier to entry, the overall positive tone in this review still stands. The Kawai ES120 is still one of the best digital pianos you can get for the price, and it easily provides a ton of value for your money.
The RHC keybed is improved with cushioning that dampens the ES110’s loud mechanical noise, the new SK-EX samples give you a gorgeous, meticulously sampled concert grand that sounds incredible, and the newly tuned and amped-up speakers ensure that you can hear those differences.
It’s true that there are some gripes one can put forth against the ES120. The user interface still comes with a learning curve, the RHC keys are a bit on the lighter side, and there isn’t a lot of variety in terms of the ES120’s sonic palette.
However, I’d still happily recommend the ES120. It nails the essentials of what makes a digital piano a ‘piano’. Kawai perfectly captured the essence of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ The ES110 was great, and Kawai just made it better.
Check the availability and current price of the Kawai ES120 in your region:
Kawai ES120 VS Roland FP-30X (Full Review)
We recently reviewed the Roland FP-30X, and we found it to be an excellent digital piano that gives you a lot of bang for your buck. This sounds pretty similar to the ES120, so let’s see how it stacks up.
If we’re strictly talking about how the Kawai ES120 and the Roland FP-30X stack up as “digital pianos”, the ES120 wins hands down.
The SK-EX samples are really something special, and there’s a lot of natural ‘air’ in those recordings that Roland’s SuperNATURAL sounds just can’t match.
That’s not to say the FP-30X sounds bad, the SuperNATURAL pianos are clean, and the speakers do a great job of making them sound full and rich. Roland’s piano samples tend to sound a bit more ‘front-and-centre’, which you might actually prefer.
However, Roland does have the edge in terms of versatility. The FP-30X comes with 56 sounds, including some beautiful electric pianos and synths that might help round out your repertoire as a stage keyboardist.
It even has built-in rhythm and accompaniment functionality that you gain access to via the smartphone app. There’s also a built-in USB audio interface that allows you to integrate the FP-30X into your studio environments with minimal hassle.
I also prefer the FP-30X’s PHA-4 Standard key action over the RHC featured on the ES120. The PHA-4 Standard key action is graded, a bit more realistic in terms of weight, and also features escapement modelling as well.
It’s a very close race between these two instruments. The ES120 aims to excel in one specific aspect (being a piano), whereas the FP-30X embodies being a jack of all trades. I’d recommend giving both a playtest if you’re even mildly interested in the other.
Kawai ES120 VS Casio PX-S1100 (Full Review)
The Casio PX-S1100 is another instrument we recently reviewed , and it’s also on our list of sub-$700 digital piano recommendations alongside the ES110. So how do their 2020-era refreshes stack up?
Once again, the ES120 is the better digital piano. The SK-EX piano samples sound better, the speaker outputs are cleaner, and the RHC keybed are generally quite well received.
The PX-S1100 primarily wins out in terms of portability. The ‘S’ in the name stands for slim, and Casio’s engineers have somehow managed to design a digital piano that is both sleek, compact, and lightweight. 3 years on from the initial release, it still stands out. It is also one of the rare digital pianos that can run off batteries.
The problems with the PX-S1100 are the compromises.
The keys are divisive, to say the least. You might have seen discussions online about the difference in weights between the white and black keys, commonly described as a design flaw that Casio refuses to fix.
Many people (including respected digital piano reviewers) find them completely fine, but many classically trained musicians might find this unacceptable. The unfortunate reality is that Casio needed to shrink the hammer mechanism, and this was the result.
Key issues aside, the PX-S1100 is still a compelling product. Despite only having 18 sounds, the sound selection covers similar ground to the ES120’s, and the speakers are generally surprisingly decent despite the size limitations.
I’d say the Casio PX-S1100 is worth considering if you aren’t put off by the keybed. The portability factor and lower asking price might also make it more appealing to the general public.