If you are looking to buy your first piano, or whether you already have one and fancy a change; there are many factors to consider:
First of all you need to consider your budget. This is usually the first thing to consider before you purchase a piano, as most of us have one.
If your budget is below £500.00, then you will struggle to find a decent acoustic piano that’s still in good condition. It could also be very old, which means there is a chance it may need some refurbishment, and tuning. However, pianos do age remarkably well, so don’t necessarily be put off by its age, but it’s definitely something to bear in mind as they are not always looked after as well as they should. So if it does need a lick of paint and a lot of tuning, then it could be stretching your budget.
If you have your heart set on an acoustic but your budget is under £500.00, I would seriously consider going down the digital route. There are a great range of brand new pianos well within this budget that sound great. For example, the Yamaha P-35 is a great starter piano and is typically about £350.00. Kawai also make some good digital pianos well below £500.00 that sound great too.
Now let’s look at a much higher budget of say £3,000-£5,000. This kind of budget gives you some great options; especially in the acoustic range. If you want to buy a new or next to new acoustic piano, then you’ve got more than enough money to buy something special. You can also certainly tell the difference when you play an acoustic piano at this price. The tone, clarity, ambience, and touch of the piano is just a class above as the technology to build pianos nowadays has advanced considerably.
However, this also applies to the digital range. The more you spend, the more you get, and with a digital piano you certainly also get a lot more. At this price range, you also have to consider how much better the touch and sound of the piano will be. If you compare a digital piano against an acoustic at this price range, you will more than likely notice that the digital has a much sharper tone, and overall better sound. Now this again is up for debate, but my personal experience of digital pianos today are that they sound a little better than its rival of the same price range.
The reason for this is that some of them sample the sound straight from a grand piano, which literally means you are almost getting the same sound as a grand piano, but for a much cheaper price. However, I purposely said ‘almost’ as it’s of course not the same as a grand piano for obvious reasons. The touch is a lot different for a start, but mainly it comes down to the sound and ambience. As it’s only a sample, and not the real thing, it is of course just an imitation; albeit a great one at that! It didn’t used to be the case with digital pianos, but technology has moved on so much these days that they are certainly getting very close.
Then we move on to a high price range, which could be £10,000 or more. If you’ve got this kind of money to spend then you are probably going to want to consider baby grands to full size grand pianos. At this kind of money the balance definitely shifts in favour of an acoustic when it comes to touch and sound.
Can you imagine trying to compare a £100,000 Steinway piano against a digital? It just couldn’t be compared!
When we talk about versatility, we are not really considering the actual feel or touch of the piano, but what it can actually do.
The digital piano wins hands down immediately because of the many things they can do. An acoustic piano will obviously only play one sound, but a digital (depending on the make and model) will have many.
Again, it all depends on how much you spend, but even for a few hundred pounds you can find a digital piano that will have other sounds like – organ, electric piano, guitar, harpsichord etc. And this is where the digital comes into its own. Not only do they have more sounds, but you can also purchase one that has rhythms as well. So you can put on a nice swing rhythm and play a little boogie woogie at the same time if you want! You can literally have your own little band right in your living room.
You may also have the option to record as well. With an acoustic piano you would have to set up a microphone right next to the strings in order to get a good sound, and this can be quite expensive and time consuming as you would then need to know what you are doing to convert that into an mp3. If your digital piano will record you at the touch of a button, then this is of course much easier. My Kawai ES7 for example will record straight onto a USB stick. I then just put the USB stick into my PC and I’ve immediately got an mp3 recording that I can share and post on the internet.
However, there is also the argument that by recording from an acoustic piano into a professional microphone that the sound will be much better and more natural. This is true in most cases, but again, it all depends on how easy you want to make it for yourself. If you have a young child that’s learning, then a digital piano would tend to be more fun for them; especially when it comes to recording. A young child can also easily get distracted and lose focus, so the versatility that a digital offers can keep them focused and more enthusiastic to keep them returning to the keys.
Again, it really depends on what you want. If you are not interested in any other sound other than the piano, and you have a budget of £3,000-£5,000, then you could go for an acoustic. If you are looking to record and play around with other sounds and rhythms, then digital is the way forward.
Space and acoustics
It’s important you consider how much space you have, as an acoustic piano needs a lot more room – not just because of its size, but also because of the acoustics of the room itself.
I learnt this the hard way when I decided to purchase a baby grand a few years ago. It sounded amazing in the shop because it was in a huge room. However, in the dining room at home it didn’t sound good at all. The room was just too small and it didn’t allow the sound to carry.
So if you’ve got a fairly large room then you can certainly consider an acoustic, but I would be careful if you are looking at a grand piano as the room would need to be really big. If you have a very small room, then a digital would sit much better. The sound will not really be affected, and they are of course much smaller and easier to squeeze in.
If you teach piano then it doesn’t really matter what you go for, as it’s really down to personal choice. You just need to make sure that whatever you decide to buy that it’s still good quality, as you want to make an impression on the pupil and look professional. Some may argue that an acoustic would look more professional, but digital pianos these days can also look very pleasing on the eye; so again, it’s really down to personal choice. However, if looks are really important to you, then read on…
Look, feel, sound…
Although the most important thing for me is the sound, I appreciate that you can’t beat the look of an upright or grand piano. There aren’t many other instruments out there that have as much impact as a piano, so it may be an important factor for you when deciding what to buy.
I would personally choose an acoustic over a digital when comparing the look and overall presence of a piano. I think this also links in with tradition, as many people would always opt for an acoustic on looks alone, without even considering a digital.
The feel and sound of a piano is also very important. If you are a beginner then it’s not really something to worry about. When learning the basics, the touch and sound of a piano won’t be something you really recognise, and it won’t affect your ability to learn. More advanced players however will certainly need to consider this. Again, it’s all down to personal choice, but make sure you sit at the piano and have a good play before you buy it.
One thing I always look for when buying a digital piano is the graded hammer effect. This means that the keys are heavier at the bottom end, and slowly get lighter as they reach the top. An acoustic piano will usually have wooden keys, and a digital will have plastic. So with a digital they attempt to weight the keys so they play just like an acoustic. I personally think they do a great job in imitating this, but I can still tell a slight difference when playing an acoustic. So although there is only a slight difference these days, it’s still there. So bear this in mind when making your decision, and again, make sure you play all the pianos you are interested in. If the touch of a digital just doesn’t feel real enough for you, then consider an acoustic.
Acoustic pianos are remarkable instruments and will last for years. If you were to walk into any second hand piano shop right now, you would see some amazing pianos dating back well into the 70’s, and probably earlier; and they will still all be in great condition and have many more years left in them yet. So if you are looking to spend quite a few bob on an acoustic, then you could conceivably keep it all of your life. Spending thousands of pounds on a piano might seem like a bad idea, but when you consider how long it will last then it could be a great investment. There are some downsides to this however. First of all an acoustic will usually need tuning around 3-4 times a year. It costs anywhere between £40-£70 to tune a piano, and even more if it’s a grand.
You obviously don’t have to tune a digital piano, so you are saving money straight away. However, a digital piano would not usually last as long as an acoustic, and this is not just down to its durability, but mainly because of how technology moves on. If you are one of these people that always purchases the new iPad or iPhone as soon as it comes out (and who doesn’t these days), then you know exactly what I’m talking about. Digital pianos are no different, and every few years a new model is made that sounds better, looks better, and is better. I’m a slight exception to this rule as I bought a Yamaha P90 (portable piano) about 10 years ago and I’ve only just traded it in for a new one. So I certainly got my money’s worth! But typically you will find that most people only keep a digital for a few years before they trade it in for another. Portable pianos won’t also last as long either because you may be constantly lugging them around to gigs. I’ve played in bands for years and that P90 was certainly getting battered and bruised with all the moving. I really looked after mine and always carried it around in a proper case to the gigs, but it still picks up the occasional knock and gets dirty. If I’d have kept it at home all the time, then I would probably have gotten much more than the measly £100.00 I got for it (cost me £1,000 new).
And this also leads us onto the depreciation, which might not seem very important at the time, but if you do want to know how this will work before you purchase a piano, then it’s important to remember a couple of things. It’s quite straightforward to be honest, as an acoustic piano will hold its value much more than a digital; and for obvious reasons. Again, it all comes back to the constant advancement of technology. If you buy a digital, then it will instantly fall in value the minute the newer model is released a few years (or even months) later. However, an acoustic piano won’t change so often as it doesn’t really need improving. They will still continue to make them almost the same each time, so the same model will be sold for years and years. And even when they do bring out a new one you won’t really be in a rush to go out and buy it as it probably won’t sound any better to the one you’ve got. And if it does, it will hardly be noticeable. I had my P90 for 10 years and sold it for 10% of its original value. Typically you could expect to get at least 50% of the original value after 10 years, if it’s an acoustic – and in good condition!
So in the long run it may be cheaper to buy an acoustic piano, even though it needs tuning a few times a year. This is why you should probably spend that bit more than you planned, and invest in one that you will keep for a very long time. That way, you don’t fall into the trap of getting bored with it and changing it after a few years like you could a digital.
The second thing to consider is if you want to move the piano to a different room, or if you move home. An upright piano may have wheels, so it might be quite easy to move the piano to another room that’s on the same level, but if you have any stairs to contend with then you need help. I would always advise hiring professionals to move a piano up or down stairs, as they are very heavy, and the same goes for if you are moving house. Let the removal men lift it in and out of the van, otherwise you risk damaging the piano. So if for some reason you are aware that you will be moving house or flat quite a few times over the next few years, then an acoustic piano could make things very difficult. However, some digital pianos could give you the same problem, but you should be able to find one that easily comes apart and can be broken down. If you are worried about having to move a piano constantly, then make sure you check that it can be easily broken down before you buy it.
If you are looking to spend a lot of money on a piano, then there are clearly a lot of things to consider. I for example have literally bought every different piano you could think of over the last 15 years, and they all suited me at the time. From an upright acoustic, to a digital baby grand, to portable pianos for gigs.
When I started to learn, my parents bought me a very old upright piano when I was about 10. I was fortunate enough to have a Granddad at the time that was a retired French polisher, so we were able to restore it – and it was a fantastic piano. I then moved on to a more expensive Yamaha upright a few years later, and it was even better. However, then I started to get into bands in my late teens and needed something portable, so ever since then I’ve bought digital.
Right now I have a Kawai ES7 which is fantastic for what I need. I have it sat next to my PC so I can record and edit easily. And if I have a gig then I can just put it in my carry case and have it in my car in minutes. I love the sound of it too, as well as the graded hammer action. It’s extremely close to a real acoustic, and I can’t argue with the price either as it only cost me just over £1,000.
I personally believe that right now you can buy a better sounding digital piano for £1,000-£2,000 than if you were to spend as much as £5,000 on an acoustic. I’ve sat and played a lot of acoustic uprights for that kind of money, and none of them are able to match the clarity and tone of my Kawai ES7. The feel and touch might not be as special as an acoustic, but the sound is the most important thing for me; especially when I’m recording. But that’s just my opinion, and I’m sure many people would disagree.