Kawai ES520 Review: A New Addition to the ES Series

Kawai ES520 Review

Kawai, alongside Yamaha, is one of the most recognizable names in the digital piano space. Unlike other manufacturers like Roland and Korg, these two Japanese companies have a prodigious reputation built up over decades of making real, world-class acoustic pianos.

When it comes to Kawai’s electronic instruments, they’ve had a very solid track record. One of our favorites was 2017’s ES110, which was one of our top-ranked affordable digital pianos for under $700.

(In fact, it still retains its spot despite competitors having improved versions of their instruments initially released at the same era.)

4 years after the ES110’s initial release, Kawai announced two more additions to their ES product line. These included the ES520 and the ES920, two digital pianos that superseded the previous ES8, the ES110’s higher-end counterpart.

As fans of the ES110, we were excited to see how the ES520 iterates on the ES110’s excellent formula. The ES110, by design, was made to be affordable, and that meant corners were cut to inch into the competitive price bracket.

The ES520 and the ES920, with their higher prices, do not have the same constraints.

In this review, we will cover the ES520 in-depth, and see if it justifies the higher price tag over the still capable ES110.

Kawai ES520 Specs

  • Keyboard: 88 full-size fully weighted keys
  • Responsive Hammer Compact II (RHC II) key action
  • Touch Sensitivity (Heavy, Normal, Light, Off)
  • Display: 128 x 64 pixel OLED
  • Sound: Progressive Harmonic Imaging (PHI)
  • 192-note polyphony
  • 34 instrument sounds (Acoustic & Electric Pianos, Organs, Strings, Harpsi/Mallets, Bass)
  • Internal MIDI recorder (3 songs, 1 track)
  • Dual Mode, Split Mode, Four Hands Mode (Volume/Balance adjustable)
  • MIDI connectivity (Bluetooth, USB, In/Out Jacks)
  • 100 rhythms
  • Metronome, Transpose, Temperament & Tuning
  • Speakers: 20W + 20W (8 x 12 cm) x 2
  • Connections: Line In (1/8″ Stereo), Line Out (1/4″ L/Mono, R), Headphones x 2 (1/4”, 1/8”), MIDI (In/Out), USB to Host, USB to Device, Damper, Damper/Soft/Sostenuto (for GFP-3/F-302)
  • Dimensions: 134 x 37.5 x 14.5 cm (52.8” x 14.7” x 5.7”)
  • Weight: 14.5 kg (32 lbs)
  • Release Date: September 2020
  • The full specs can be found on Kawai’s official site here

Below you can check the availability and current price of the Kawai ES520 in your region:

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Design

With the ES520 (and the ES920 by proxy), Kawai opted to go with a completely new design, and the online discussion surrounding some of the changes seems to revolve as to whether or not this was a good choice.

Kawai ES520 Design

The ES series’ tagline is “at home, on stage, your music”, and the design of the ES520 aims to have the best of both worlds.

In terms of dimensions, the ES520 is 52.8″ (W) x 14.7″ (D) x 5.7″ (H). At first glance, I thought it seemed a bit large, and that’s mainly because of the tall ‘forehead’ dedicated to the speakers.

 

Interestingly, the ES520 isn’t all that heavy, clocking in at a nice 32 lbs (14.5 kg), just 5.5 lbs (2.5 kg) over the much more basic ES110, and it’s only 65% of the prior ES8’s 49 lbs (22.5 kg).

This is where a lot of the online discourse comes from. To reduce the weight, Kawai opted to go with a fully plastic body, something people perceive as a downgrade to the metal chassis of the ES8.

I’m of two minds about this, though I lean more towards the side that likes this change. It is undeniable that metal body construction provides more durability and also structural stability, but a good plastic chassis does confer some benefits, such as the previously mentioned portability factor.

Kawai ES520 Keyboard

Naturally, plastic is more prone to bumps and scratches than metal, but that is to be expected. Just remember that the ES520 isn’t using the same material as cheap portable arranger keyboards. There are other durable plastic digital pianos, like the Roland FP-90X.

Ignoring the perceived downgrade, the ES520 feels well-built. There isn’t any flex when applying force to opposite sides, and tapping the chassis shows that the plastics used are thick, and provide a decent degree of reinforcement and durability.

If you do decide to use the ES520 for stage or gigging purposes, you’ll be happy to note that the weight is well within reason, and I personally think this justifies the material switch.

Kawai ES520 Colors

In terms of color, the ES520 comes in two colors: black and white. I’m personally quite fond of the white variant, as the bright color scheme makes the otherwise simple design stand out just a bit more.

Let’s talk about the new control scheme. The ES520 takes the layout of the ES8, and gives it a more modern spin…

The screen and the related interface have been moved upwards, leaving a lot more space for the more commonly-used features. This means the lower part of the controls has larger buttons and more spacing, which is a plus for user-friendliness, especially for stage use.

Kawai ES520 Font Panel

I like the new buttons. They are tactile, not too clicky, and have a recessed shape that adds to the premium feel of the ES520.

For toggled controls like sound categories, there are also bright indicator lights embedded into the buttons, intuitively showing what state you’re in.

The layout of the controls is simple, and all buttons are helpfully labeled by text too, which allowed me to work around the ES520 without needing the manual.

The volume rocker is slider-based, has a nice bit of resistance that allows you to quickly make precise volume changes. This is miles better than the button-based or button/key combo volume controls.

Kawai ES520 Master Volume

The ES520’s screen is also an upgrade, going from a 2 x 16 character LCD on the ES8 to a 128 x 64 pixel OLED display. The screen is flanked on both ends by the speaker system, which is protected by a metal grill.

The ES520’s display, while basic, does have excellent visibility, and they likely will work if you find yourself performing under sunlight.

With that said, the relatively-high pixel density is only ever used for text, which I think is a missed opportunity.

Considering the ES520 is targeted at beginners and intermediate players, having some simple pictures might have helped make some of the more obscure features feel less obtuse, something the Yamaha DGX-670 does really well.

Kawai ES520 Navigation

All in all, the Kawai ES520 is well-designed. It’s solidly-built, intuitive, and modern.

If I had one complaint about the ES520’s design, it would be the gaping cutout for the USB stick. I learned to ignore this over time, but the sleek, smooth design feels at odds with the large hole on the front panel.

Keyboard

One of the highlight features of the ES520 is its key action. The ES520 uses Kawai’s Responsive Hammer Compact II (RHC II) key action, which was previously featured on Kawai’s KDP series.

The RHC II key action lands right in the middle of Kawai’s key actions. It lands right between the RHC action of the ES110 and the RHIII action of the ES920 (and the ES8).

Kawai Keyboard Actions

Despite being featured on entry-level digital pianos like Kawai’s KDP120, the RHC II action is far from a beginner’s key action.

Compared to the ES110’s RHC action, the RHC II is a marked improvement.

The RHC II uses triple sensors, as opposed to the 2-sensor setup used by the RHC. This enhances the key’s responsiveness when playing fast passages or with light dynamics. The ‘bouncy’ feeling of the RHC action is also slightly reduced, which makes it feel easier to control.

Kawai ES520 Keys

In terms of weight, the RHC II keys are a little on the light side. For comparison, they are lighter than Roland’s PHA-4 Standard action, something many piano purists already consider to be unrealistic in terms of weight.

I didn’t mind too much as I was raised on digital pianos and keyboards, though I did find myself switching the internal touch sensitivity settings to the ‘Heavy’ preset. The default setting, combined with the light keys, felt a tad bit too sensitive.

If you feel the same during your playtest, give this tweak a shot.

The RHC II keys are also graded. This means the lower registers are weighted to be heavier than those in the higher registers, emulating how a real piano reacts across the keybed.

Graded Hammer Action

The RHC II keys are made of plastic, and Kawai has opted to use a matte surface that some describe as having a ‘microtexture’. Unlike the synthetic ebony and ivory keys, the RHC II keys feel smooth, while still retaining a bit of grip.

While my thoughts are generally quite positive regarding the RHC II action, I do have some slight complaints. This is a very good entry-level key action, but the ES520 isn’t priced to be a beginner’s first keyboard.

Kawai ES520 RHCII Action

The RHC II lacks simulated escapement, which might be a gripe for people used to the feel of a real acoustic piano. Escapement describes the subtle effect on real pianos where a hammer ‘escapes’ the connection with the strings before striking, allowing the string to vibrate freely.

There’s also the existence of the superior RHIII action, which was used on the previous ES8. This has been regulated to the more expensive ES920, which makes the ES520 feel like it got the short end of the stick.

All in all, the RHC II key action is good. While it might lack some of the fancy bells and whistles you’d get from other manufacturers’ offerings, it is still good enough for most purposes.

Sound

Part of what makes the ES520 so convincing is its piano samples, which, in my opinion, are some of the best you can get at this price point.

The ES520 uses Kawai’s Progressive Harmonic Imaging (PHI) sound engine, a step up over the Harmonic Imaging (HI) engine found on the ES110.

  • In total, the ES520 comes with 34 sounds:
  • 8 Pianos: SK Concert Grand, EX Concert Grand, Jazz Clean, Warm Grand, Upright, Pop Grand, Modern, Rock
  • 5 E.Pianos: Classic 1, Classic 2, 60’s E.P. 1, 60’s E.P. 2, Modern
  • 5 Organs: Jazz, Drawbar, Ballad, Principal Oct., Church
  • 7 Strings and Choirs: String Ensemble, Slow Strings, String Pad, Warm Strings, Choir, Square Pad, New Age Pad
  • 5 Basses: Electric 1, Electric 2, Electric 3, Wood, W. Bass & Ride
  • Harpsichord, Vibraphone, Clavi, Marimba

Compared to the ES110’s 19 sounds, the ES520 has a decent amount of variety. Let’s discuss the sound categories in detail.


Concert Grand Sounds

Kawai ES520 Logo

The PHI engine was designed to use both sampling and modeling to replicate the sonic properties of an acoustic grand piano.

For the sampling aspect, all 88 keys are sampled individually, something you can’t take for granted, as certain digital pianos use the same sample stretched across multiple keys.

Specifically, the ES520 samples Kawai’s SK-EX (Shigeru Kawai – EX) and EX grand pianos, both of which are Kawai’s premier concert grands.

Concert Grand Piano

The Kawai EX came as a standard preset on many Kawai instruments in the past, and it’s a well-known fact that it sounds great. However, it is no longer the default preset, that position has been taken over by the SK-EX grand.

If you’re not familiar with the concert grand industry, the Shigeru Kawai pianos are one of the more modern concert grands that stand alongside the Steinways, Yamahas, and Bösendorfers. Like the famous Yamaha CFX series, the SK grands are versatile, with a balanced tone suited for nearly any music style regardless of the time period.

Kawai EX Concert Grand

I’ve not had the pleasure of playing an SK-EX before, but I’ve heard recordings based on the SK-EX, and it sounded fantastic.

For reference, the same sounds can be found on Kawai’s high-end digital pianos like the CA99. The ES520 just has a stripped-down version of Kawai’s state-of-the-art modeling engine, which is still no slouch.

I’ll be honest, when I booted the ES520 up for the first time, I was blown away by how good the default SK-EX preset sounded.

Even through the built-in speakers, the piano came out clean and clear, while also having an impressive sense of dynamic range, something digital pianos often falter at.

For example, when playing from pianissimo to fortissimo, a lot of digital pianos fail to capture the differences aside from increasing the volume. I was pleasantly surprised to hear the ES520 sidestepping this common issue, and I will give props to Kawai for capturing these nuances in their playback engine.

It’s been a while since I’ve been so impressed by a default piano preset, especially without listening through earphones. The ES520 easily has one of the best-sounding acoustic piano sounds you can find in this price bracket.

Even the EX preset somehow sounds better than the same voice on the previous ES110, which I attribute to the new motherboard and sound hardware, which Kawai apparently made in collaboration with Onkyo, a Japanese company specializing in audio equipment.

Naturally, having a gorgeous soundscape when using speakers meant that listening through headphones sounded just as good. Unlike other digital pianos that sound best through the headphone jack, the ES520 works on both fronts.

The rest of the piano sounds aren’t as detailed as the former two, but they are still decent ways to round off the flexibility of the instrument.

If you are in the market for a digital piano that excels at sounding great as a simulated piano, it’s very hard to beat the ES520. This is easily the best part of the entire package.


Virtual Technician

Kawai Virtual Technician

I mentioned that the PHI engine includes a modeling component. While all the presets sound great right out of the box, you can do some fine-tuning via the Virtual Technician.

Kawai’s Virtual Technician is accessible either from the onboard menu or through PianoRemote, Kawai’s dedicated control smartphone app.

Through the Virtual Technician, ES520 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
  • Temperament Key – Base key signature of non-equal temperament
  • 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 somewhat stripped-down version of the same editor in Kawai’s higher-end instruments.

As someone who is very satisfied by the default presets (and also as someone who doesn’t fully understand the engineering behind pianos), I only found myself playing with the Voicing option, which let me make drastic changes to the tone of the piano without much effort.

If you’re interested in heavy customization, the Virtual Technician has you covered.


Other Sounds

While I had nothing but praise for the grand piano sounds, the rest of the sounds are a bit of a mixed bag and don’t exactly share the same level of quality as the flagship SK-EX samples.

The E. Piano sounds are alright and, despite only having 5 presets, covers good ground. You have 2 Fender Rhodes-like presets, classic 80s FM-style synth pianos, and a couple of synthesized piano sounds if you’re after a 60s vibe.

Kawai ES520 Sounds

All of these sounds are decent, though I personally felt like other manufacturers had the edge in terms of sonic quality.

That’s not to say the E. Pianos are bad, far from it. In fact, these sounds shine when used alongside the ES520’s very capable effects section. The clean sounds here feel a lot more natural when passed through the simulated amp/cab combos for some slight overdrive.

For Organs, I personally felt that the Jazz Organ was the only notable preset. The rest of the sounds round off the organ types you’d commonly need, but they sound noticeably dated compared to the gorgeous, detailed pianos.

Unfortunately, the rest of the presets seem to suffer from the same issues. They are all functional, but I wouldn’t call them production-ready. These presets work fine for practice, but I don’t think I’d feel content using them for performances.

These sounds include the usual suspects, with harpsichords, clavinets, mallet-based instruments, strings, pads, and bass. These are all a keyboardist would need for practice purposes.

I feel like these miscellaneous sounds represent a missed opportunity.

The speakers and the sound engine are clearly very capable, but these sounds don’t seem to make full use of the ES520’s capabilities. Having the same attention to detail placed on the non-piano sounds would have really added to the ES520’s flexibility.


Effects

Despite my complaints about the sound selection, I do want to praise Kawai for the ES520’s surprisingly versatile FX section.

The ES520 has 3 main effect slots for you to play with, a Reverb, Miscellaneous, and Amplifier section.

The Reverb section can be used to place the sound in a simulated space. This includes 6 algorithms, ranging from small rooms to massive cathedrals. There are also depth and time settings if you need to dial in the specifics.

Kawai ES520 Effects

The Miscellaneous section, labeled ‘Effects’ on the keyboard, offers 14 classic effects designed for key-based instruments.

These include delays, choruses, tremolos, phasers, rotary speaker sims, and compressors. As with the Reverb section, you can tweak the effect-specific parameters.

Finally, the Amp Simulator section is designed to work best alongside the E. Piano and Organ sounds. There are 3 algorithms, and they all sound great for adding character to sounds.

There is also a 2-band EQ and variable overdrive settings if you want to do some slight customization.

Kawai ES520

Some of the sounds on the ES520 come with effects engaged by default, so you don’t necessarily need to dive into the editing process if you just want to plug and play.

All in all, I found the ES520’s FX section to be very well-implemented. The effects sound great, there’s a good selection to work with, and the controls are simple yet intuitive.

If you do decide to get the ES520, I would definitely recommend diving deeper into the FX. They can make the otherwise basic E. Piano and Organ sounds that much better (with minimal effort!).


Speakers

The ES520 comes with dual 20W speakers.

The speakers are front-facing and are situated beneath the grating on the front panel, flanking the screen on both sides.

Kawai ES520 Speakers

As I briefly touched upon previously, these speakers are great, and really help bring out the detail in the well-sampled piano voices.

20W speakers are quite powerful (even amongst the competition), capable of pushing a lot of volume without distorting.

If you do decide to use the ES520 as a gigging instrument, you might be able to get away with the onboard speakers alone.

The clean tone produced is also quite impressive, as the speaker output was really similar to what I heard through my monitor headphones.

I don’t have much to complain about with regards to the speakers. They are excellent and help present the beautiful piano samples at their best.


Polyphony

Kawai ES520 Polyphony

What is Polyphony?
Polyphony is the number of notes a digital piano can produce at the same time.

Most of the contemporary 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 at once.

First of all, many of today’s digital pianos use stereo samples, which sometimes require two or even more notes for each key played.

Furthermore, using the sustain pedal, sound effects (Reverb, Chorus), dual-mode (layering), and even the metronome ticking sound takes 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.

When you reach the polyphony cap, the piano starts to drop the earliest played notes to free up memory for new notes, which in turn affects the quality and fullness of the sound.

You’ll rarely need all 192 or 256 voices of polyphony at once, but there are cases when you can reach 64 or even 128 note limits, especially if you like to layer several sounds and create multi-track recordings.

It’s desirable to have at least 64 notes of polyphony.

A digital piano’s polyphony count measures how many samples can be simultaneously in play before earlier sounds get abruptly cut off.

The ES520 has 192 notes of maximum polyphony. This is enough to work with for most songs, even when using the ES520’s sound layering functionality.


Conclusion on Sounds

In general, the ES520 sounds great as a digital piano.

The SK-EX concert grand that serves as the default preset is wonderful, and the speakers are very well-suited for delivering the right soundscape.

The E. Pianos and organs aren’t all gems at first glance, but the easy-to-use FX section really does help, especially with the Amp Simulator adding in some extra character.

If you’re strictly here for the piano sounds, the ES520 has little to no fault when it comes to sonic capabilities. The issues start arising if you’re looking for more variety.

The ES520’s 34 presets isn’t a lot, and most of the other miscellaneous sounds don’t have the same level of quality you’d expect given the quality of the piano samples.

Whether this is a negative for you will depend on your personal needs and wants.

For the purposes of this review, we will be listing this down as a negative. You’ll likely be using the ES520 for more than just piano playing, and as such, having more variety is always a plus.

Features

As with most modern digital pianos, the ES520 comes with a set of features that extends its usability past being a simple acoustic piano substitute.


Functions

Kawai ES520 Functions

By using the onboard screen and some menu diving, you can navigate through the function menu to make changes to the ES520’s operation.

If you aren’t a fan of menu diving, you can also modify these settings using 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
  • USER EQ – Another mode under the Tone Control menu, giving users a conventional 3-band EQ to make fine tuning possible
  • TUNING – The central tuning of the middle A can be modified in increments of 0.5 Hz, in the range of 427.0 Hz to 453.0 Hz
  • DAMPER HOLD – Changes how sustained sounds like organs and strings react when the sustain pedal is held down
  • 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

There are also a few other features on the ES520 worth discussing.


Modes

The ES520 includes 3 main modes: Dual, Split, and Four Hands Mode.

Dual mode is what we commonly know of as ‘layer mode’, and 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.

Dual Mode (Layering)

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 ES520.

Split Mode

Finally, there is Four Hands mode, which splits the keybed into two sections with the same octave range. This is suitable for teaching purposes, where the teacher sits alongside the student for easy demonstrations.

Four Hands Twin Piano

On every mode, you can change the volume of each of the individual sounds to get a more balanced mix.


Rhythms

The ES520 comes with 100 built-in rhythms, which can serve as an alternative to the metronome for practice purposes.

Do note that these are just rhythms and not accompaniment features that include left-hand chord tracking and instrumental backing.

Regardless, as someone who finds practice a lot more enjoyable with a drum beat, I’m glad to see this option included.


Song Recording and Playback

MIDI icon

If you just want to see what the ES520 is capable of, Kawai included 23 demo songs, which show off the instrument’s sounds with professionally played pieces.

The ES520 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.

The recorder is very basic. 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.

Kawai ES520 Front Panel

Regardless, the recorder is a nice feature to have to jot down ideas. Just note that your songs are saved in Kawai’s proprietary KSO format, which will likely be incompatible with computer editing software.

I feel like the lack of a universal MIDI format is a misstep. The easy access to the USB port means this would be a perfect songwriting aid, but you can’t do much with the saved files externally, which really restricts the recorder’s usability.


PianoRemote 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 naturally includes the ES520.

The app itself is pretty badly rated (with a 2.0/5 stars on Google Play at the time of writing), but I found my experience with it quite enjoyable.

Kawai ES520 Piano Remote

I did go through the reviews, and it appears that most of the low ratings came from owners of other digital pianos like the CA and NV series, which leads me to believe that Kawai improved the app for their more recent releases.

The app itself looks sleek (a massive step up over the ugly, function over form 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. With that said, I don’t find the app entirely necessary.

Everything you can do with the app is already accessible with the onboard controls, and the app isn’t even mentioned in the manual! This is a good sign, showing Kawai designed the app as an aid, rather than being an essential part of the ES520 package.


Bluetooth Connectivity

The ES520 comes with Bluetooth Audio and MIDI functionality.

Bluetooth icon

Bluetooth Audio allows you to stream audio from your connected devices through the ES520’s great speakers.

This is a nice alternative to using the AUX connection if you don’t want to deal with extra wires (or if you’re using a smartphone without a headphone jack).

Bluetooth MIDI allows you to use the ES520 with apps on smartphones, tablets and other smart devices. This lets you work with music-making apps without purchasing the required connectors.

Note that Bluetooth audio streaming only works one-way, and you can’t send audio from the ES520 to external speakers via Bluetooth Audio. You need to use the headphone or output jacks for that.

Connectivity

Bluetooth connectivity aside, the ES520 includes a full suite of connections for integration into any production or performance environment.

The ES520 has two headphone jacks on the front, to the left of the keys. This is a trend we’re seeing with most modern digital pianos and I’m all for it. The ES520 also includes both 1/4″ and 1/8″ jacks, so it’ll work with just about any pair of headphones out there.

A pair of 1/4″ line outputs are included and are used to connect the ES520 to external speakers or amplifiers. If you want a mono signal, the Left jack doubles as a Mono output when the right jack is left unconnected.

Kawai ES520 Connectors

A 1/8″ Line In jack is available. If you don’t want to use the Bluetooth Audio streaming method, you can connect your playback devices to this jack and stream audio through the ES520’s speakers.

5-pin MIDI In/Out ports are present and allow the ES520 to be integrated into studio environments as a keyboard controller. The fact that these are 5-pin jacks is great, and you can work with legacy gear as well.

The ES520 also has a USB to Host port, which uses the USB Type-B connector. This is strictly a USB MIDI connection and does not come with a built-in USB audio interface. If you want to use the ES520’s gorgeous SK-EX samples in a digital audio workstation, you’ll need to work with an external audio interface.

Kawai ES520 USB Port

A damper pedal jack is where you’ll plug in the included F-10H sustain pedal. This accepts most standard damper pedals, so you can use alternatives if you have preferred damper pedal models.

Finally, the ES520 comes with a custom 3-pedal jack, which is designed to be used with the GFP-3 triple pedal. This is a proprietary jack, but useful if you do need soft and sostenuto pedals as well.

Apart from the lack of a built-in USB Audio Interface, the ES520 comes with all of the necessary connections for a serious pianist. Perhaps said functionality can be added in the future, as the sounds on the ES520 are one of its biggest selling points.

Accessories

The default Kawai ES520 package comes with the following accessories:

  • Owner’s manual
  • Music rest
  • F-10H damper pedal
  • AC adaptor (PS-154)

As always, we’ll include the obligatory reminder to check if the AC adapter voltages match your local mains, particularly if you’re purchasing this from an overseas retailer. Nobody wants to buy a brand new instrument just to have it shorted out.

I don’t usually talk about this, but the music rest is surprisingly sleek, having a clear transparent surface that feels almost futuristic. I’m so used to music rests being tacked-on pieces of solid plastic, and this feels like a breath of fresh air.

Kawai ES520 Accessories

The F-10H damper pedal is also great. This supports half-pedaling by default, allowing you to have more expressive performances.

The standard Kawai ES520 package includes all you need to start playing, and you really don’t need any extras unless you have specific needs. Let’s cover some possible extras you might want to get.


Pedal

The included F-10H sustain pedal is a perfectly fine option for most people, as it covers most of the bases.

However, more advanced pianists might require a dedicated soft and sostenuto pedal, which requires a separate purchase of a triple-pedal set up. The ES520 works with two options, the F-302 and GFP-3.

Kawai GFP-3 Pedal Unit

Kawai GFP-3

The F-302 pedal bar is designed to fit onto the HM-5 furniture-style stand, whereas the GFP-3 works best as a portable (and affordable) option.

Note that you can only use Kawai’s own triple pedals, as the triple-pedal connection uses Kawai’s proprietary connector.


Stand

On the ES520’s product page, Kawai recommends the HM-5 furniture-style stand, which comes in black and white to match the ES520’s color scheme.

The stand itself is made of wood and metal, which makes it a great choice if you want to make the ES520 a centerpiece of your home living room, especially when combined with the F-302 pedal bar.

Kawai ES520 Stand Pedals

Kawai ES520 with an HM-5 stand and F-302 pedal bar

However, Kawai also notes that the ES520 works well with generic stands thanks to its standard weight and dimensions (though they playfully call said stands ‘uninviting’).

Here are a few of our personal recommendations.


Headphones

Headphones

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.

Summary

Kawai ES520 Verdict

Pros
  • Sleek design and construction
  • Well thought out user interface
  • SK-EX concert grand samples sound amazing
  • Great customizability (Virtual Technician, FXs)
  • Incredible speakers
  • Solid connectivity
Cons
  • RHC II keys are not the best Kawai has to offer
  • Sound selection (apart from pianos and E. pianos) could be better
  • Some features from competitors are missing

The Kawai ES520 is an instrument that hits some great highs while falling just short of its competitors in some regards.

Unlike its competitors in the same price bracket, the ES520 isn’t a digital piano crammed to the brim with features and presets, it includes just the bare minimum, and simply aims to be the best performer in its weight class.

On the subject of whether it succeeds, I’d have to say yes. Right out of the box, the ES520 sounds great and plays well, and easily has some of the best sounding piano samples and speakers you can find on a portable slab-style digital piano.

The headlining feature here is definitely the SK-EX concert grand samples, which record Kawai’s flagship Shigeru Kawai EX pianos in a ton of detail.

Combined with the speakers developed in conjunction with Onkyo, you won’t be disappointed using the ES520 as a piano.

Controlling the ES520 also feels natural. The redesign might have been criticized for being a downgrade from ES8’s metal case, but it is still well-built, and the overall user experience is also very smooth. When the manual isn’t necessary to navigate the instrument, you know the manufacturer did something right.

The problems come when you start to dive deeper into the ES520.

While the key-based instruments sound great, the rest of the small sound palette leaves a bit to be desired. They are functional at best and feel like they’re there to tick a box rather than to round off the ES520’s flexibility.

Also, the RHC II keys, while decent, just aren’t as good as key actions included with similarly priced instruments from competitors. I really wish Kawai opted to go with the RHIII from the original ES8, but I do understand wanting to further separate the ES520 from its more expensive counterpart, the ES920.

There are also a few omissions in terms of the feature set. While most other instruments come with 2-track recorders and built-in USB audio interfaces, the ES520 ships with just the bare essentials.

Don’t get me wrong, if you’re strictly looking for a digital piano, with a heavy emphasis on the ‘piano’, the ES520 hits well above its weight class in terms of sound quality. It just falls off slightly when you want an instrument that does a bit more.

In conclusion, the ES520 doesn’t try to do a lot, but it does the basics so well that I’m willing to overlook the omissions and its weak points. As a digital piano, it legitimately sounds great, and for many people, that will be enough.

Below you can check the availability and current price of the Kawai ES520 in your region:

US: ( What Retailer to Buy From )
Sweetwater Guitar Center Amazon

Alternatives

Roland FP-60X

We recently reviewed the Roland FP-60X (which scored pretty well), and it is at the same price point as the ES520, meaning that comparisons are inevitable.

Before starting this discussion, I do want to note that as a piano, the ES520 wins thanks to the SK-EX samples and the clean full-sounding speakers. The FP-60X just manages to fill in a lot of the gaps present in the ES520’s feature set.

The FP-60X comes with 358 sounds, a full 10 times more than the ES520, and despite the amount, it doesn’t suffer from quantity over quality. A lot of the FP-60X’s sounds are derived from Roland’s higher-end instruments and can serve as a good source of inspiration while doubling as a production-ready sound module.

I also rank the PHA-4 Standard key action of the FP-60X above Kawai’s RHC II. The PHA-4 Standard has simulated escapement and subjectively a more realistic sense of weight.

For the sake of completeness, the FP-60X also includes a USB audio interface and dedicated EQ faders, both features that further enhance its flexibility for studio- and stage-use.

Before ending things off, I just want to note that the FP-60X isn’t bad when it comes to its piano sounds. The SuperNATURAL pianos are still good, great even, they just don’t hold a candle to the ES520’s piano voices.

If you’re in the market for either of the two, I’d suggest checking out the other just to see which tickles your fancy. While the ES520 does one thing (i.e. being a digital piano) well, the FP-60X is a jack of all trades, master of some.