Acoustic vs. Digital Piano: Which One is Right for Me?

June 29, 2021

Congratulations, you’ve decided to buy a piano! As a piano teacher, player, and piano enthusiast, I may be a bit biased, but I can tell you you’ve made the right choice – there’s never been a better time to buy a piano! Whether you’re looking at getting a digital or acoustic instrument, the quantity, quality, affordability and diversity of pianos available today is greater than at any other point in the entire history of music! However, the flip side to the incredible number of great piano options out there is the difficulty in choosing what sort of piano would fit your exact needs best. Whether you’re looking to get into piano for the very first time or have been playing for some time, a piano purchase is a major decision. This guide is intended to help make navigating that decision a lot easier, ending up with a piano that suits your needs and that you can fully enjoy for many years!

Please note that we’ve written up a detailed Acoustic Buyer’s Guide and an equally helpful Digital Buyer’s Guide, that you may want to explore after reading this article, which is intended to fully explore one very important question you should answer at the beginning of your piano buying journey: “Acoustic, Digital or Hybrid?”

Acoustic vs. Digital Pianos: At a Glance

The main difference between acoustic and digital pianos is how they produce sound. An acoustic piano requires no electricity, rather it works through purely mechanical processes. When you press down a key, that energy is used to lift a felt hammer striking piano strings, which vibrate to create a tone. This tone is diffused through the soundboard, creating a richly resonant, lively tone. A digital piano requires electricity to operate. When you press down a key, sensors analyze exactly how the key was played and a digitally recorded sound from a grand piano is produced and amplified from speakers. 

There are many kinds of piano-like electronic keyboard instruments out there (slab-style keyboards, stage pianos, synthesizers, MIDI controllers, etc.) but here we will be specifically talking about digital pianos. These are instruments that are intended to closely recreate the feeling, look, and touch of a real acoustic piano. They produce sound from built in speakers, have a full set of 88 weighted full-size keys (meaning they reproduce the feeling of a real acoustic piano, which require more effort to press down as you’re mechanically lifting up the felt hammers inside the piano) and come with pedals. 

Here’s a quick overview of the most significant pros and cons between digital and acoustic pianos:

Sound

Digitals: Although sound quality improves in overall tone and realism as you move up in price range, due to the way a digital piano’s sound engine recreates the tone of an acoustic instrument, there will always be somewhat of a “digitized” nature to the sound. Some people’s ears are more sensitive to this “digitized sound” and if you find yourself among that group, we’d recommend looking at acoustic instruments. Digital pianos offer the player much more control over the sound in general, allowing you to change volume levels, reverb settings, play silently with headphones, and play with and combine or split the keyboard between multiple instrument voices!

Acoustics: Offer the most natural, unique sounds with a lively depth of tone that will fill up your space in the way only real, acoustic sound can. As sound is being produced live within the piano as a direct result of your musical inputs with no sensors or computer processors standing in between, you are directly connected with the sound being produced. With an acoustic piano, every single time you play a note, it is the first and only time that exact sound will ever be produced in that exact same way, offering a deeper and more personal connection between the player, the music and the instrument. Ultimately, nothing is realer than the real thing. 

Adding features onto your acoustic piano can provide some of the best benefits of a digital instrument while keeping the acoustic touch and sound! Silent systems can be installed on acoustic pianos to make them able to play silently with headphones, generally running around $3,000. New player systems can also be installed for around $6,500, allowing for countless hours of live acoustic piano music to fill your home and amaze guests!

Touch

Digitals: Digital pianos attempt to recreate the touch of an acoustic piano through key weighting, key-top texturing, simulated let-off and escapement, and realistic pedals. For a more detailed description of how a digital piano attempts to recreate the touch of an acoustic instrument, see Understanding Digital Actions: The “Touch” in our Digital Piano Buyer’s Guide! Though the realism of a digital piano’s touch greatly increases as you go up in price range, it can only get so close but not exactly like an acoustic piano’s touch. 

Acoustics: With a real, fully mechanical acoustic piano’s action with full-length wooden keys, hammers, and all the other components, the touch of an acoustic piano is unbeatable. As you go up in price range, you’ll find even higher quality actions in newer pianos that are more responsive with excellent grip and responsiveness.

Cost

Generally, acoustics will be more expensive than digital pianos but there are extra quality factors to consider at different price ranges. 

Note: These price ranges reflect prices found at Family Piano Co. and in the local Chicago-area piano market; different market conditions in your local area may impact pricing. For more detailed pricing information, please see our Acoustic Buyer’s Guide and Digital Buyer’s Guide.

Under $1500

Digitals: There are many solid beginner and intermediate level options available for under $1,500, making a Digital piano ideal if this is your budget range. Within this range, you’ll find digitals such as Kawai’s KDP-120, Roland’s F701, and Casio’s PX-780.

Acoustics: Generally, there are not too many options for acoustic upright pianos under $1500 from a piano store, except perhaps a few “as-is” trade-ins that haven’t had any work done on them. You can read our entire Why You Shouldn’t Get a Free Piano article, but essentially, older acoustic pianos that haven’t had the action properly regulated are going to be inconsistent to play on, give you bad technique, and more difficult to enjoy. Spinet pianos have an especially bad rap, as they were the cheapest, smallest options on the market from about 1940 to 1980, before digital pianos took over and, as a rule of thumb, have not held up well over time.

A brand new digital piano with perfectly machined parts may be a better choice than a 100-year old “free” piano where the keys are all subtly out-of-whack.

$1500 – $2999

Digitals: Considered mid-tier range for digital pianos, these instruments will have improved sound quality, volume, more features, and better actions that begin to really come close to matching an acoustic piano’s action. At the upper end of this range, you’ll find wooden key stick digitals, which use real wooden keys that make for a much more accurate playing experience. Some great options in this range are Kawai’s CN29/39 and CA49, along with Roland’s DP-603 and FP-90X.

Acoustics: In this range, you’ll begin to find quality used upright pianos that offer playing experiences well beyond the quality of digital mid-tier instruments. If your focus is on genuine, natural sound and performance quality and you’re looking to make serious progress as a pianist, acoustics in this range will play and sound better than similar priced digital pianos.

At this range, options like this lightly used Yamaha M475 console piano will offer real solid acoustic playing experiences, ideal for serious students to make progress on.

$3000 – $5500+

Digitals: This range is considered upper-tier for digital pianos and you’ll find many fantastic options that come even closer to the touch and sound of an acoustic piano with a ton of amazing features, instrument voices, sound customization, and greatly improved (though still discernibly digitized) sound quality. These upper-tier digitals are suited for serious practice for intermediate and advanced level players. Some great options in this range include Kawai’s CA79, CA99, and Casio’s GP-310 and GP-510.

Acoustics: In this range, you’ll find both high quality used upright pianos from top brands like Yamaha, Steinway, and Mason & Hamlin as well as entry-level brand new pianos. You can also begin to find solid used baby grands in this price range, which offer more depth of tone and the benefits of a grand piano’s action for the player. These acoustic pianos will play to a very high standard and are still the most ideal option for serious players looking to make serious progress! For more information about New vs. Used and Grand vs. Upright acoustic pianos, check out our Acoustic Piano Buyer’s Guide!

Instrument Lifespan and Maintenance

Digitals: Usually bought new and come with a manufacturer’s warranty — typically 3-5 years. The lifespan of these instruments can vary depending on quality with entry-level digitals generally lasting 10–20 years and higher-tier digitals with more solid construction and better materials generally lasting 20–40 years. 

A major benefit of digital pianos is they do not require tuning or regular technician work like voicing, regulation, etc. However, repairs may be required occasionally throughout the lifespan of the digital piano though these repairs are generally less expensive than acoustic repairs, usually spanning from $75–$300 depending on the exact repair work. 

Acoustic pianos: Generally last 75–125 years when bought new without substantial rebuilding. Acoustic pianos require at least yearly tunings and occasional technician work and minor repairs. More care must be taken to protect acoustic pianos from temperature and humidity changes, they must be placed into a stable environment for optimal health. See How Pianos Age for more information!

Size and Moving

Size and ease of transportability are major differences between acoustic pianos and digitals. Coming in at 500lbs+ and fitting into a rough 5’ x 2’ dimension, acoustic upright pianos are generally larger and much more tricky to transport than digital pianos. Digital pianos tend to come in between 75–175lbs, making them easy to pick up and take around with just two people. Another benefit is that many digital pianos can be disassembled for even easier transportation. The ease of transporting a digital piano is a major advantage if you’re looking to move both locally or long distance within the foreseeable future. Acoustic pianos are highly delicate machines with over 12,000 fragile parts and thus it is highly recommended to use professionals for any moves. These professional moves can run a few hundred dollars depending on the distance, steps, curves, and the size of the acoustic piano. For long-distance (interstate) acoustic piano moves, you can expect your piano to spend roughly 5–10 weeks in transit.

Hybrid Pianos

Still not sure whether you’d be best served with a digital or acoustic piano? That’s understandable — at the end of the day, there are highly appealing and exclusive features to both! In fact, many pianists nowadays like to have both an acoustic and a digital piano at home.

In doing your research, you may have come across the term “hybrid piano” — an instrument that aims to combine the best elements of both acoustic and digital pianos. It’s an extremely attractive idea, which has prompted manufacturers to produce instruments that have varying degrees of digital and acoustic elements. 

It’s possible to place all the products in this article on a spectrum, from Very Digital to Very Acoustic (and beyond!).

  • Portable pianos — the action is just a piece of plastic with a spring in it, sometimes with miniature keys. Small speakers mean it will sound exceptionally digital. Example: Casiotone
  • Full-size 88-key digitals — the keys have weighted actions with lots of mechanical parts that are designed to reproduce the feel of a real acoustic piano as much as possible. Speakers are large enough to produce pretty realistic sound. Example: Roland RP-102
  • Digitals with wooden keysticks — Now they have actions that have full-length, spruce keysticks, like in a real acoustic piano, often with a more grand-like mechanism. Sound comes out of higher-quality speakers. Example: Casio Grand Hybrid Series.
  • Digitals with full acoustic actions — these are pianos that have a full acoustic action that can be adjusted and regulated like a regular acoustic piano. Example: Kawai Novus series, Yamaha Avantgrand series.
  • Digitals with spruce soundboards — these typically have wooden keystick actions and the speaker is essentially bolted onto a large spruce soundboard, so part of the sound is created by the wood vibrating, like on a real piano. Example: Kawai CA99.
  • Fully Acoustic Piano — nothing digital. A wooden action pushes a felt hammer to strike a metal string to vibrate the wooden soundboard. Example: a Kawai K-300 48” Upright.
  • Fully “Digital + Acoustic” Hybrid — A fully acoustic piano PLUS an electronic system installed that gives you all the benefits of a good digital piano. You can unplug it from the wall and play it just like any other acoustic piano. Or you can flip a few switches and play with headphones, so the rest of the house doesn’t hear you. Or change the sound to violins and choir sound. Or record yourself. All while playing on a fully acoustic action. It’s really the best of both worlds, with no compromises! Example: Kawai’s K-300 Aures

Please note that as you go further along the spectrum, the price generally increases. As such, the only real downside to hybrid instruments is that they cost more. For the high-end Hybrid instruments, it is technically cheaper to get a regular acoustic equivalent and a more basic digital piano separately, but having all of your piano needs met in one instrument is appealing to many families.

Final Verdict

Digital pianos have advanced tremendously in the last 15 years. Nowadays, depending on quality level, they can offer very realistic, feature-rich playing experiences. Upper level digitals have reached a point of realism that even advanced players can make serious progress in their technique and musical interpretations on them! The convenience of their size, the wide range of helpful features, and the often-attractive price-points are one reason why they are an increasingly popular option.

Acoustic pianos are the “Golden Standard” for what are arguably the most important parts of playing piano – the best feel and the best sound. They are the real deal and will give you a genuine sound that directly connects you as the player to the music. The unparalleled sense of touch that only a real acoustic piano’s action can provide remains the most ideal option for those looking to make serious progress in their piano technique, expressivity, interpretation, etc.  If you want the very best in tone and touch, there’s no beating an acoustic piano. Acoustic pianos are long-term investments that can last a lifetime, become a treasured family heirloom, and will fill your space with the authentic, lively energy of acoustic sound that a digital instrument simply cannot match.

Many families start with a digital piano and over the course of several years, find they yearn to regularly play a “real” acoustic piano. So they’ll add an acoustic piano to their home. Other families will have a grand piano for their main practice sessions, but they want a portable digital instrument to perform with and to use with headphones and recording. Some families start with a basic digital, but due to tight living quarters, upgrade to a hybrid, rather than a stand acoustic. Other families might downsize from a grand to an upright, staying purely acoustic, since they don’t like digitized sound. There’s a wide variety of ways that you can engage with the piano and we here at Family Piano Co are happy to help advise you on the pros and cons of different approaches, as they might best fit your lifestyle now and in the future.

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