The classic mechanical piano is an amazing marvel of engineering and construction, with some comprised of over 12,000 individual parts. Invented in the early 1700s, many of the world’s best pianos are works of art even before a note is struck.
It took Man a long time to build truly effective digital pianos. Even before the digital era, attempts at electronic pianos, geared toward performance and portability, had varying degrees of success. The best of these became valid, expressive instruments in their own right, such as the Rhodes piano, but none had a sound true to an acoustic piano.
Digital sampling became a game-changer. The nuances of the best acoustic pianos could now be captured in a way that could be triggered with electronic keyboards costing thousands of dollars less than concert grands while staying portable and practical for the rigors of performance.
One factor that pianists themselves value is the feel of a real piano, the weight and action of a piano key and its accompanying mechanics, causing hammers to hit strings with a wide range of dynamics under the player’s control. Electronic keyboards require little of that to deliver impressive piano sound, but come up short when providing impressive piano feel.
Enter weighted, hammer action. It returns the sensory feedback that pianists prefer, giving an electronic keyboard a tactile response closer to the original.
The contemporary market features a wide range of electronic instruments with hammer action, the feel of conventional keys. These range in construction from typical portable pianos to larger designs, comparable to spinets and baby grands.
We will look at the best portable digital pianos today, instruments that provide the feel and sound, but still pack easily, whether for transportation to a lesson or a gig.
It’s one thing to create the feel of a piano key. It’s quite another to match trigger performance in an electronic key. An acoustic piano’s action allows a player to strike another note without fully releasing a key, a feature called escapement.
The first electronic keyboards were binary. The key was either pressed or it wasn’t. Velocity and pressure sensitivity have since enhanced the simple on/off of early keyboards, but when adding a mechanism to simulate hammer action, escapement is sometimes unnatural.
The RD-300NX tops the list because of its feel under heavy escapement demands. All the digital pianos on our list do this well. And the RD-300NX does it very well, indeed.
The piano sounds of the Roland are particularly convincing. Rich, detailed and accurate, the RD-300NX provides the full piano experience with eyes closed.
Its other sounds, tone wheel organs for example, are far less convincing. While the RD-300NX is a scaled-back version of Roland’s flagship portable digital piano, there is no scaling back of either sound or feel, making this piano a great value too.
Yamaha is a widely respected acoustic piano manufacturer, so there are high expectations on any digital piano from the company. The P255 doesn’t disappoint, right down to the synthetic ivory keys.
What sets the P255 apart is the great sound coming from the device itself. Built-in speakers rarely do justice to digital pianos. Requirements for good sound reproduction aren’t easily engineered into a portable keyboard.
The P255 has a stereo two-way speaker system which does a better job than most portable keyboards. While the Yamaha still sounds best through headphones or a full-range amplifier and speakers, the internal sound makes this ideal for rehearsal.
Yamaha’s sound engine is easily a match for the Roland. The RD-300NX keys perform slightly better, but the P255 feel a bit more natural. Piano sounds on the P255 cover a good range from dark to bright, with control to tune to taste. The choice between these two really comes down to personal preference.
Korg SP-280 BK
Korg’s history is closely tied with Yamaha, even to a period where Yamaha owned the smaller company. With its success in the electronic keyboard field, most notably the M1 workstation in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Korg regained ownership control.
It is a serious company with a serious interest in all manner of digital keyboards. The SP-280 BK is an affordable digital piano that gives balanced overall performance. The hammer weight of the keys feels good, though the sensitivity — which is adjustable — doesn’t quite match the nuanced nature of the Yamaha and Roland.
Piano sounds are quite natural, though again without all the detail of its more expensive competitors. While it’s easy to notice in comparison, the SP-280 BK on its own doesn’t disappoint. The electric piano sounds are particularly strong as well, evoking the vibe of a vintage Wurlitzer or Rhodes.
The rounded contours of the SP-280 BK’s design are pleasing. Many portable digital pianos opt for a minimal, keys-only approach, so the Korg stands out on style. It’s a sharp-looking, serious performer at a price a little over half of the others in this article.
Casio Privia PX-150
Update: The Casio Casio Privia PX-160 is the newer model.
The Casio name first emerged on digital watches that incorporated calculators in the 1980s, a marvel of miniaturisation at the time. Later, the markets flooded with inexpensive Casio keyboards. Construction matched the price, but the devices beeped and booped to the delight of many children on the receiving end of a Casio at Christmas.
Those were electronic keyboards though. The market for digital pianos is much more discerning about construction, feel and sound. Casio simply delivers a solid product that satisfy most pianists.
While beginners are the targets for this keyboard, the PX-150 delivers essential features with aplomb. Weighting feels realistic and piano sounds are convincing. The built-in speakers are nothing to write home about, but these are more of a convenience than a feature.
The PX-150 currently lists online as part of a package with everything from folding piano bench to polishing cloth. A new piano student will not quickly outgrow this keyboard.
Alesis Coda Pro
Alesis is not the first name that comes to mind in digital piano manufacturers, but they are a respected maker of all manner of audio equipment. In the Coda Pro, they’ve created the winner in terms of quality/price performance.
About ⅓ of the price of our Best Of list leaders, the Coda Pro is fully a competitor in sound and feel. While the Coda Pro doesn’t have the same quality escapement performance as the Roland, it takes some very unnatural playing to get the feature to fail.
The sounds are top-notch also. Alesis subcontracted voicing to two outside companies and the results show. In some ways, the Coda Pro is more natural sounding, in that it successfully models the flaws of typical acoustic piano sounds.
The others on our list aspire to the “perfect” piano sound. Those tend to have a startling clarity, while the Coda Pro has the muffled warts typical of a real acoustic piano. Quality of the 20 programmed voices is uniform across the spectrum.
As with many instruments, players will bond with certain instruments and not others, in ways that can’t be described in typing. While you can’t go wrong with any of these five models, use this list as a starting point on the road to finding your perfect match.