The most important feature of any digital piano is, quite simply, the keyboard. It’s the interface between the musician and the music. Weighted keys are a pre-requisite for anyone who’s serious about playing the piano. The skill of playing comes from the muscle memory that you develop in your practice. If you practice on a non-weighted keyboard, then go to play on a real piano, it’ll be like driving a bus after learning to ride a scooter.
Sprung vs. Weighted?
MIDI controllers are often sprung loaded, as opposed to “weighted,” so they don’t feel like pianos to play. Perhaps that doesn’t matter if you’re the new Mark Ronson or JayZ because the sounds you’re using are likely to be electronic, so you wouldn’t necessarily expect “authentic”. I mean, what does it feel like to play a real “donk”?
“Sprung” keys have some resistance when you press down, just like a piano; but the key springs from key-on to key-off position with more force and clunk than a real piano. This return action makes your fingers work slightly differently – more slowly on the key-off return – and, therefore, sprung keys aren’t pianistic.
Weighted keys aim to emulate the keyboard action of a real acoustic piano. Depending on the quality of the build, you’ll develop the correct muscle memory, beneficial for dynamic sensitivity.
Digital pianos have a distinct advantage for the learner (or, should I say, the family and room-mates of the learner!). You can plug yourself in – headphones have saved the sanity of many a household, avoiding the eternal torture of repeated renditions of Für Elise and a faulty C harmonic minor.
And, just to keep the learning and playing experience fun and authentic, most keyboards with weighted keys are furnished by some pretty convincing sampled piano sounds, as well as a selection of electric pianos, organs and strings.
How to choose a digital piano
I get asked all the time the same question – is a full-sized keyboard is really necessary? Do you ever play the really low and high notes?
By full-sized, I mean 88 keys – the same number of keys on a concert piano. Digital pianos also come with 61 keys and 76 keys.
If you’re learning, the chances are that 61 or 76 keys are going to be everything you need – hey, save yourself a few bucks. If you’re buying a keyboard for your kid, and you’re not sure if they’re going to stick with it, go for a smaller keyboard, sure. It will take up less room, and will be easier to shove under the bed when they’ve gotten bored with it.
But if you genuinely believe that they have the potential to go far, a smaller keyboard is a false economy, because you’re going to have to upgrade after a couple of years. Fantastic piano sounds are wasted if the keyboard is disappointing to play – it would be like driving a Ferrari with an arcade controller.
An 88 key weighted keyboard is the way ahead for the vast majority of serious keyboard players.
So, my choice for the best weighted keyboards are:
The Kawai ES110 is an affordable stage piano that sounds amazing and feels great to play. Kawai has been making pianos for around 100 years, so there’s no surprise that they build a mean digital keyboard.
A stage piano is made for portability – primarily, for the musician on the road; there’s not usually an attached stand or foot pedal board.
However, you shouldn’t overlook this style of digital keyboard with weighted keys, because you get terrific value for money. And the ES110 is as light as a feather (well, around 27 pounds of feathers) which makes transporting this marvelous keyboard very easy.
I remember approaching the ES110, and preparing myself to be disappointed. It has very unassuming looks. The build is a little plasticky on the outside, so I didn’t expect to enjoy playing it.
I loved it.
The keyboard build is second-to-none, with a surprisingly light keyboard-feel under the fingers, and a very pleasing key-off bounce that accurately replicates the action of a genuine acoustic piano. The keys are weighted realistically, with Progressive Hammer Action, providing the keys with more significant weight at the bottom end of the keyboard, becoming progressively lighter as they move up towards the top, perfectly emulating the feel of an acoustic grand.
The onboard sound system is pretty impressive – with speakers on the underside of the unit, as well as speakers that deliver a crisp sound through a thin slit on the upward facing side. Combined, these speakers provide a truly enveloping soundscape.
The piano voicings are superb, and there’s a good selection of electric pianos that sound and respond like genuine Fender Rhodes models (think Riders on the Storm!). The organ sounds are crisp and obnoxiously upfront – providing some incredible Hammond-style stereo phasing effects, as well as some pretty convincing church organs. The strings sounds are OK – but they’re never particularly realistic with this style of keyboard – they’re passable, I guess.
You can get the stand-alone stage piano for around $600, and this is money well spent for an 88-key weighted keyboard. However, if you have any additional budget, it’s worth going for a bundle that includes a fixed stand and the foot-pedal board. The pedal board gives you a soft pedal, a sostenuto pedal, and a damper / sustain pedal.
The unit comes with Bluetooth MIDI capability, allowing you to use the ES110 as a wireless controller for iPad music apps. There’s also an iPad / Android app that provides access to a variety of editable features that affect the onboard piano voices, as well as playability features (such as room resonance, and tonal elements that brighten or dampen the sound).
The one big downer with the ES110 is the user interface – it’s largely non-existent. There’s no digital display confirming which sound you’re playing, and the method of choosing sounds is clunky, to say the least. You have the press the Piano button five times, for example, to access the Mellow Grand. That’s not perfect, but something you’ll pretty quickly learn to live with.
The user interface aside, this is one of the best keyboards with weighted keys. It just feels amazing to play.
Again, this is an 88-key weighted keyboard whose features belie its slightly unprofessional appearance. There’s an excellent feature-set to this keyboard with lots of high-end tools, but the layout is similar to Yamaha’s entry-level keyboards, so it’s easy to overlook this as a serious contender for the best weighted keyboard.
But, let’s not get all snooty about it – underneath the hood, this is a genuinely excellent weighted keyboard that will provide hours and hours of joyful playing time. The piano has fully weighted, graded hammer-action keys and the selection of grand piano sounds are really pretty realistic.
I’m going to be a little controversial here and admit that I’m not always a massive fan of Yamaha digital pianos – I’m certainly no flag-waver for the Clavinova range, which has a heavy keyboard. The keyboard for the DGX660, however, has a fantastic lightness of touch, and a pleasant key-off bounce that, I think, easily out-does the Clavinova range.
This digital piano has an excellent user interface, which makes it simple to change instrumental sounds and add accompaniments, such as drum tracks and bass lines. The large digital display provides a very user-friendly experience which takes very little time to master.
The speakers drive a decent sound, with an impressive grand piano selection that, for this price, is rather hard to beat.
The additional instrumental sounds are pretty good – none of them are going to blow you away, but the keyboard feels convincing under the fingers, and you can record your performance using a USB stick.
One of my favorite features of this keyboard, however, is the built-in microphone preamp.
If you’re a piano singer, you’ll be able to amplify your voice through the internal speakers, while adding reverb and digital effects that work perfectly in the live environment. For me – who isn’t averse to singing (when there’s no-one around!) – this feature is a total swayer.
I fell in love with this keyboard once I discovered the built-in amp, making it an obvious contender for one of the best 88 key keyboards on the market.
Again, this is usually a stand-alone unit, without a stand or a foot-pedal board, but you can buy an optional furniture-style stand, which is certainly worth the investment.
The Privia PX770 is a digital upright, complete with full-sized, weighted, hammer-action keys. The housing unit is sturdy and contains a robust speaker system.
There are lots of piano lesson-friendly features to the PX770 – two headphone sockets, which are great for piano lessons; a built-in metronome to keep everything in time while practicing; and a “split keyboard” mode, that divides the keyboard down the middle, providing both halves of the keyboard with the same octave range.
There’s a convincing weighted feel to the keys, and a selection of excellent reverb settings that transport you directly into the concert hall.
There’s a brilliant “accompaniment mode” that allows you to play the “concerto” piano parts to well-known classics, accompanied by a relatively convincing full orchestra who follow you, rather than run away with themselves.
The touch-sensitivity is superb – three sensors respond quickly to your dynamic play, offering incredible control over the instrument that truly helps you transfer your creative expression from your fingers to your ears.
The convincing piano samples from Casio’s AiR processor (Acoustic and intelligent Resonator) gives the Privia PX770 a realistic grand piano playing experience that’s hard to forget.
Read the Casio Privia PX-770 full review here.
Roland has cornered the market for convincing play-feel and sound as far as I’m concerned. This entry-level digital upright benefits from an excellent user-interface. The world-class SuperNATURAL sample engine means that the F140R can’t fail to produce a gorgeous tone in combination with a convincing keyboard action.
The piano sounds are fantastic – full of warmth and bite, providing a truly convincing piano reproduction, full of the overtones and responsive harmonics of a real acoustic – all thanks to the sound modeling of the superlative SuperNATURAL sound engine. And with a polyphony of 128 notes, you’re unlikely to run out of capacity, with notes that sustain until they would naturally decay.
The F-140R is loaded with high-end features that you might expect to see in their more expensive keyboards.
An “intelligent accompaniment” feature automatically follows the chords that you play, complementing your piano parts with a full band section; including decent drums, bass lines and guitar licks. It’s as if there’s a full band crammed into this beautiful digital upright.
Bluetooth provides a wireless connection to the wide range of synths available on the iOS platform, expanding the capabilities of this keyboard, so it really is just your own imagination that will limit what you can do.
This is an excellent learner’s piano – featuring a 3D headphone experience that you’ll lose yourself in; a metronome; an onboard recorder, so that you can listen back to your performance with a critical ear; and a Twin Piano function that allows you to play side-by-side with your teacher over the same octave range.
The F140R stuffs masses of high-end features into a small unit, which is small enough for apartment living. The sliding lid protects the instrument when not in use, and the three foot-pedals provide soft / sostenuto and damper, which can be assigned to other functions such as Bluetooth page turner.
This has to be one of the best 88 key weighted keyboards on the market. To hear the brilliant F140R in action, click on the following video.
Read the Roland F140R full review here.
The YDP-143R has a Graded Hammer System (GHS), adding realism and dynamic color, providing a unique contrast between forte and piano.
Again, this is an excellent instrument for the learner or the experienced pianist. It comes protected in a sturdy unit, featuring a strong speaker system. The Yamaha CF Piano sound engine uses samples from Yamaha’s CF range of grand pianos, with 192 note polyphony.
The user-interface is a little limited, but the optional iPad app provides better control over the whole instrument. There’s no Bluetooth, however, but you can buy an additional connector.
The YDP-143R is one of Yamaha’s Arius entry-level range. It’s a lovely instrument to play, and I’m going to stick my neck out, here and suggest that, like the DGX660, this is a ’much more convincing weighted keyboard than many of the Clavinova’s I’ve played. The keys have a light, responsive action with a pianistic key-off bounce. The keys have just enough weight under the fingers to convincingly replicate an acoustic piano.
I find the Yamaha CF engine a touch on the artificial side sometimes, but I think that this instrument is a winner for both play-feel and sound reproduction.
Despite its limited user interface, there’s are 10 decent voices, including piano sounds, electric pianos and strings.
This really is a great 88 key weighted keyboard. If you’re interested in hearing the great sounds available on the YDP143R:
So, which is the best 88 key digital piano?
I fell in love with the Roland F140R as soon as I sat in front of it.
The keyboard feel is just stunning, and the SuperNATURAL sound engine produces the best, most convincing piano sound that I’ve found in any of the keyboards featured in this article. The electric pianos are stunning, and transport you back to the 1960s and 70s, and the Bluetooth capability adds an extra scope for the instrument as a MIDI controller. The compact build makes it perfect for someone living in a small space.
So, for me, the Roland F140R is the best weighted keyboard in this list.