By Ted Barszewski
If you’re looking to buy a good digital piano for you and your family, it can be quite challenging to find reliable information. I decided to buy one late last year and began my search for information online. Usually you can find good advice on just about anything on the internet. I found some decent reviews of electronic keyboards for professional musicians, but very little about family-oriented pianos. Hopefully, this article will fill that void.
The Quest for a Good Digital Piano For The Whole Family Begins
I grew up with a decent but frequently out-of-tune acoustic piano, and took lessons for a year or two. About ten years ago, I bought a high quality Yamaha electric keyboard that satisfied my basic piano desires, but didn’t have all the features I wanted and didn’t hold up to the rigors of family life. I compiled a wish list of what make a good family piano for a semi-experienced player like myself and new players:
- Sounds and feels like a real piano
- Looks like a nice piece of furniture for the living room or family room
- Has additional “fun” features such as extra voices (instruments), auto accompaniment and some recording ability
- Has a keyboard cover to look better when not in use and avoid the impact of the spills that inevitably come with kids
This article describes my search for such a piano and hopefully provides you with some good guidance as you search for your perfect electric piano.
Yamaha Clavinova Series – Top of the Line Pianos… With a Top of The Line Price Tag
Since I couldn’t find reliable advice online, I decided to go to my local piano dealership. When I described the list of wants above, the salesman was quick to respond that I clearly wanted something from the Yamaha Clavinova series. Nothing else would even come close he said.
He showed me several models from the CVP line of Clavinovas and I thought they were pretty awesome….until I learned the price. You see, the bottom-of-the-line model (CVP-501) sold for about $3300 and was inexplicably stripped down in my opinion for such an expensive model. Key features appeared as I looked at the CVP-503 and CVP-505 models, but the price also increased dramatically as I was quoted approximately $4800 and over $5800 respectively. This was definitely more than I was looking to spend. Maybe I could come justify $3300, but not when some key features had been limited to the higher end models.
Don’t get me wrong. All the models in the Yamaha Clasinova CVP line are really fun and you would enjoy having them in your house. It’s just that if I’m going to spend $3300 on a piano, I don’t expect to have to accept such “downgrades” as a monochrome LCD screen, second-tier keyboard technology, limited additional voices, reduced recording capabilities, weaker audio and “cheaper” looking cabinet.
The Challenges of Finding The Right Price for an Electronic Piano
My next step was to go back online to find out if this dealer’s prices were in line with others. To my surprise, this was very hard to find out. I was dismayed to see that prices for these models were generally not listed online. What I discovered was that these pianos tend to only be sold at stores specializing in higher-end pianos who don’t list their prices online.
This is a bigger deal than you might think. Most of the less-expensive models are sold through general music or electronics stores such as Sam Ashe, Guitar Center or local smaller music stores. But I could not find a single store that sold both the Clasinova line as well as many of the competing less expensive models such as the Arius line and the Casio Celviano line. As a result, I found the information I was receiving to be biased depending on what the person was selling .
The Casio Celviano Series – Priced Right, Feature Rich, But How Did They Sound?
The Casio Celviano line was particularly interesting to me. The feature set was terrific and the prices were right – ranging from $800 (AP-220) to $1400(AP-620). They even had a premier model (AP-6) which was the same as the AP-620, but with a beautiful polished finish for $2000. The most interesting model for me was the AP-620 which appeared to have most of the features of the Clasinova series and looked great, although it didn’t appear to be nearly as user-friendly for accessing the “fun” features.
The reviews I was able to find were mostly very positive. Unfortunately, most of them were written by people selling the Casio Celviano line but who did not sell the Yamaha Clasinova line. So I didn’t fully trust them. I did find it useful to type the model name into YouTube. That allowed me to see and hear most of the models in action and allowed for some more objective reviews. Still, watching videos will only tell you so much so I headed back to the retail stores.
A Trip to Guitar Center: The Casio Celviano Looks Better Than It Sounds
I had a hard time finding a local store that had a Casio Celviano available for display, but I eventually found one listed at Guitar Center. When I arrived in the store, I was pleasantly surprised that they also had many competing lesser-known brands on display as well. I immediately headed over to the Casio Celviano AP-620 and started playing.
I have to say I was fairly disappointed. It looked nice, but I just didn’t think the main piano voice sounded that great. Even more, the additional voices (instruments) did not sound nearly as good as the less expensive Yamaha keyboard I had purchased 10 years earlier. The keyboard action was OK but not great. It was dramatically better than the electric keyboards you would find in a department store, but seemed to lack the feel I expect from a real piano. Of course, this is a subjective assessment and you may like the lighter touch of the Casio pianos.
I was very impressed by the look of some of the competing models from a company called Williams. They were by far the best looking in the store and the prices were comparable ot the Casios. Unfortunately, I was much less impressed when I played on them. The sound and feel did not measure up well to the Casios.
Then I saw something I had not discovered in my online searches – a relatively new model from Yamaha called the Arius YDP-240. This piano had the features I was looking for, looked good and was priced at $1800. When I sat down to play it, I was even more impressed. The keyboard felt great and the piano sound was the best I heard in the store. Even the other voices (instruments) sounded quite realistic.
The Arius YDP-240 – Yamaha Quality at Family Prices
There’s a reason Yamaha is able to charge such a price premium for their Clasinova line of digital pianos. They just feel and sound better than the competing brands. What’s more, with the feature set they offer, there really is no competition in that range. I think that’s why they are able to charge such a price premium for the higher end Clasinova models.
Although there are many high quality competitors for portable stage pianos (Roland, Kurzweil, etc.), there are few competitors in the high-end home console market. Korg makes some quality models, but I still like the Yamaha’s better.
In the end, I give Yamaha credit for releasing a model like the Arius YDP-240. If it had not existed, I may have felt the need to spend the extra money for a Clasinova. But I know if I had spent that much for the lower-end Clasinova model, I would have always felt I hadn’t gotten a good value.
The Quest Ends With the Yamaha Arius YDP-240 (With External Speakers)
The Arius YDP-240 has almost all the important of the features of the Yamaha Clavinova line. The user interface to access these feature is not nearly as nice, but you can still access them without too much fuss. You will definitely need to use the manual to learn how to use them well.
I decided to purchase the YDP-240 and am very happy with my choice. Here’s a little tip that made me even much happier. None of the lower priced models have great internal speakers (this includes the lower priced Clavinovas.) However the YDP-240 has dual headphone jacks which allow you to export the sound to a pair of self-amplified external speakers. I hooked up a pair of Klipsh desktop speakers with a subwoofer that I had been using on my computer.
These speakers turned a good sounding piano into a GREAT sounding piano. Seriously, with these speakers, the YDP-240 sounds comparable to the high-end Clasinovas at a fraction of the price. This improved sound quality came through even more dramatically with instruments other than the main piano. The saxophones sound great, flutes and guitars are much more realistic and drums sound like real drums. My plan is to upgrade to the AudioEngine A5 Multimedia Speakers for $325. As a bonus an extra audio input allows you to hook up a separate audio source such as an internet radio streamer or ipod dock – giving you a great sounding music player in your living room.
Living With the Yamaha YDP-240
I love the way the YDP-240 looks. The Rosewood finish is very nice and the sliding keyboard cover looks great while protecting the keyboard. Although the keys are not the top-of-the-line variety, they still feel great. Unless you are a very serious piano player, they will be good enough for you. Also, the lighter touch tends to play better with the alternate voices than the higher-end keys.
My 5 year old daughter particularly enjoys playing with the additional voices. There are even some built in sound effects that she likes to play with. Hopefully, playing with these will help transition her interest to playing with more of the musical instruments.
I had never really used the auto accompaniment features on a piano before, but I have to say they are quite fun. You can play the melody line with your right hand and the chords with your left hand. The piano fills in a drumbeat and other instruments based on the chords you play with your left hand. It’s definitely cool, easy to use and more fun than I had anticipated.
The YDP-240 also has a built in music database of songs that you can play. These songs are basically presets to play popular songs with auto-accompaniment set up just right. For example, the first song is “Jude Hey.” It allows you to play Hey Jude from a fakebook* and it sounds pretty darn good. All the songs have slightly modified names – my only gripe is that I can’t figure out what all the “real” songs are supposed to be and there is no online list.
Look around for yourself. Not everyone has the same tastes. I hope this article will help guide you, but only you know the features that are most important to you on a piano. For me, the choice was clear and I encourage you to at least try out the Yamaha Arius YDP-240. It makes a terrific addition to your family room and your family life.
* If you’ve never played piano from a fakebook, you need to try it. I struggled with lessons for a couple years, learning only a handful of songs that I quickly forgot. Once I started playing from a fakebook, I was able to instantly play every song in the book (the first time!) and the songs sounded great. PBS has a great series called “The Piano Guy” with Scott Houston. He also has books and videos available. Instead of “learning” to play each song individually by reading and mastering complicated notation, you learn a few tricks that allow you to play every song in the book quickly and easily. It also allows you to explore your musical creativity. It’s what the pros do when they play gigs. Try it, you will not be disappointed.
|Ted Barszewski lives in Hamilton, New Jersey with his wife and daughter. Ted makes the extra effort to research the products and services he purchases for his family. Sometimes that research proves difficult or time consuming. That’s when Ted is committed to sharing his experience with you so you don’t have to deal with the same frustration.|