Acoustic Pianos Versus Digital Pianos: Which to Buy?

There is no getting around this bottom-line fact: A traditional acoustic piano is an instrument of beauty. It can out-sing a full symphony orchestra; it has complex overtones; it has an organic feel and sound. But there’s no getting around the downsides either: The black beast is big, heavy, expensive, and takes a lot of upkeep.

A digital keyboard might not be able to outshout an orchestra, but it can copy the sounds of one (not to mention the sound of a piano). Also on the bright side: it’s less expensive, light, movable, and doesn’t need tuning.

Which Kind of Piano is Better?

Choosing a piano depends on a number of factors. Consider:

  • For gigging with a rock band? (digital)
  • For a child’s practice? (either could work)
  • For a serious classical musician? (acoustic)
  • For an apartment dweller who needs to practice late at night?  (digital)
  • For a composer who wants to experiment with lots of sounds and voices? (digital)


Cost and Care Considerations when Buying an Acoustic Upright or Grand Piano

The great classics were written for the acoustic piano and can best be realized on an instrument that the great composers would recognize. So many piano teachers strongly encourage the purchase of an acoustic piano; some insist on it.

In practical matters — cost, portability, versatility —  the heavy, expensive acoustic piano loses ground  to the digital. But the acoustic piano has a certain sound and feel that simply cannot be duplicated by a digital instrument. For the development of proper hand position, finger strength and dynamic control, acoustic pianos are essential. Digital pianos offer neither the resistance nor the response of an acoustic piano. Advanced students cannot learn how to work with a piano’s sonorities by playing on an instrument that merely mimics them. Pianists are unanimous about this: No concert pianists currently perform classical music on digital instruments.

  • Cost of new acoustic pianos: Upright pianos start at around $3000: Good student uprights run $5000 – $8000. Grand pianos start at around $10,000 and, with name brands such as Steinway or Bosendorfer, can run upwards of $100,000 — clearly not an appropriate or even possible purchase if the user is a six-year old beginner.
  • Price of used pianos: Used pianos can be found in retail shops for less than half the price of new pianos. They can also be found when people move or are disposing of estates for far less. Always bring a qualified piano technician when looking at a used piano.
  • Acoustic pianos must live away from windows, sunlight, and heating vents: No exceptions!
  • Acoustic pianos are extremely vulnerable to changes in temperature and humidity and in a volatile climate, they may need frequent repair work.
  • Acoustic pianos should be tuned twice a year.
  • If properly maintained, acoustic pianos hold their value and may even appreciate.

The verdict: Acoustic pianos are expensive, require maintenance and space, and are completely inconvenient when it comes to moving. But people still fall in love with fine acoustic pianos. And that is not going to change.

Basic Facts and Features about Buying Digital Pianos

Digital pianos are also known as electronic keyboards or synthesizers. If the keyboard is a synthesizer, it usually has a full range of sounds, including percussion tracks and sound effects A digital piano typically has fewer sounds and effects; its design is more concerned with achieving a piano-like feel and sound; it may even (sometimes) have a baby-grand piano look. Good synthesizers have both good piano-like quality and the full complement of synthesizer sounds. To be used as a substitute piano, a keyboard should have 88 weighted keys, touch control, and a pedal.

Digital pianos start at under $100; for that, you get an instrument with very limited use and poor sound and feel. They range up to more than $5000. Synthesizers with good piano tone and feel are available in the $1000 – $3000 range. Name brands (with a long history) include Yamaha, Casio, Roland, Kawai, and Technics.
Digital piano benefits include:

  • Multiple instrument voices, which can be used for composing and gigging. A split keyboard lets the pianist play one voice with one hand, and a different voice with the other.
  • Rhythm tracks and built in metronomes.
  • Transposing buttons for use in gigging situations.
  • Maintenance-free operation (mostly). Digital pianos don’t need to be tuned, and are not subject to the tone and wood damage problems that affect acoustic pianos suffering from changes in humidity and temperature. However, when something does go wrong, it can be hard to find someone to fix an electronic piano.
  • Upgradable with new software.
  • Attractive and easy; can be good choices for young children’s piano practice, because kids are likely to be intrigued by the multiple sounds and possibilities.
  • Ear phones allow pianists to practice any time, anywhere there is an electrical outlet.
  • Recording capability for practicing one hand against the other, or checking a performance.
  • Computer compatibility for composing and learning software.
  • Better overall piano sound, feel, and reliability at $1000 to $3000 price-point.
  • Likely to depreciate more quickly than a well-maintained acoustic piano.

The choice between an acoustic piano and a digital piano will be affected by budget, the kind of music, and gigging and traveling requirements. Many keyboard players and pianists ultimately end up with both a traditional piano and a digital keyboard. Or two.

16 thoughts on “Acoustic Pianos Versus Digital Pianos: Which to Buy?”

  1. Thanks for a balanced discussion about digital vs. acoustic pianos. It’s a tough decision for many families, and your comments are very helpful.

  2. For my daughter, 9 years old, we have bought a Yamaha Silent piano. This is the best of both worlds but she still prefers to use the acoustic mode.

  3. For most of my life, I agreed with your comment about how there will be some people who will just always prefer an acoustic piano. When I had enough money to buy my own Steinway (a lifelong dream), my practical side wouldn’t let me do it. The harsh reality, as sad as it may be, is that acoustic pianos are becoming as obsolete as Rolex watches. In my book, a Steinway ceases to be a Steinway when it’s rebuilt by Joe Schmoe, the local piano tuner guy, which kills my idea of it becoming a treasured family heirloom (as if my descendants will want the maintenance or moving costs any more than I do, if any of them actually learn to play). Letting go of my old ideas about acoustic pianos was hard, but once I did, it was easier to accept that digital pianos might actually be better than acoustics, just like the watch I got out of my Wheaties box might keep time better than my Rolex, and even account for daylight savings time and leap years. My 2 cents, for what it’s worth…

  4. Keyboards can be acoustic or digital. Digital keyboards can be digital pianos with weighted keys, or not. Since all keyboards are set up the same with regards to the notes, it is possible to learn piano on a non weighted keyboard, but for the reasons stated in the article, not a good idea as the transition to an acoustic piano will be difficult. Synthesizer is not the correct term to use, as all digital keyboards, whether a “piano” with weighted keys or not, has access to a full library of sounds, which is generally sampled sounds. Synthesizers make sounds using mathematical formulas, and the waves are manipulated-think of the early Moog synthesizers. Whereas almost all digital keyboards today utilize sampled sounds, sounds which are recorded, and in the case of pianos, some of the finest pianos in the world are carefully recorded. For a student, unless one is wealthy, the digital piano is almost always a better choice, because the digital piano STAYS IN TUNE! The access to a full library of sounds is the same whether or not one is using a keyboard with weighted keys (“digital piano”). And what is not mentioned in this article is that the design of weighted keys keeps improving and the modern high end digital pianos have a much better feel than the early ones. Combine that with the improvements in sampling pianos, which means you are listening to the very best pianos, Bosendorfers and Steinways and Yamahas, and it’s hard to beat the digital, unless again, you are wealthy. All of that said, I succumbed to my emotions and purchased an older baby grand that now is a problem, because I can’t afford the repairs it needs…buy the digital!

  5. Better Quality Digital Piano’s like the newest offering from Roland, do offer complex overtones, progressive weighted hammer action with escapement feel and can be tailored to the feel of the player. The Digital instruments have evolved leaps and bounds in the last five years. Think of how much the technology in your cell phone or computer has advanced

  6. Believe me, when I play a digital instrument that, in a blind playing test, is indistinguishable from a real high-quality piano, I will broadcast it from the rooftops. (Yes, I know, such a test would be hard to set up, but if someone ever comes up with such an instrument, I’m sure they’ll find a way to test it — like those wine taste tests where it turns out that the experts can’t tell the difference!) I have a colleague who says the Yamaha Avant Grand (an $18,000 HYBRID digital instrument with a n acoustic soundboard (I think that’s how it works) meets this standard, but I haven’t played it yet. But even if — it”s a hybrid, not a true digital, and $18K is a bit beyond most of my students’ budgets. Plus if you’re going to spend that, you may be able to find a very high quality used instrument. So yeah, technology is changing, sound samples are getting better, good digitals have some appealnig features — but my Steinway lives and breathes, and digital instruments record and copy.. My students definitely feel the difference when they play my piano!

  7. Hi,
    I think that saying acoustics are becoming obsolete is short-sighted. No respectable college music department would substitute a digital for real pianos in most situations other than maybe the group piano classes or composition. As long as college music departments are using acoustics, they’ll never become obsolete.

    I do agree with you to some degree about a Steinway ceasing to be one when its been rebuilt by Joe Schmoe. Yamaha, for example, has done a remarkable job of spinning hype and rhetoric, and even many piano technicians who’ve never worked with many Steinways now believe that Steinway never knew how to build a piano. And many rebuilders will approach rebuilding with that attitude. And to be quite fair, Steinway’s technical approach was a well-kept secret for decades, not to mention the parts department went through years of issues that left much to be desired. However, there are competent technicians out there who know how to rebuild Steinways with the Steinway philosophy. They have either attended factory training sessions or as many local seminars led by Steinway factory or C&A techs as possible, and it shouldn’t be difficult for a technician who isn’t hard-headed to learn to do things the “Steinway way” for Steinway pianos.

    I’ve been a piano technician for nearly 30 years and I also sell both acoustics and digitals. Even the best digitals still can’t match what a good acoustic can do. Over the long haul, investment in a good acoustic piano will be the smartest investment, and I’ve never met anybody who fell in love with a digital the way people fall in love with their acoustics.

  8. I like digitals as much as the next guy. But the primary difference is in the sound. The sound you hear from an acoustic piano is from a wooden board. The sound you hear from a digital is from a speaker. Touch is getting closer, but the best digital action cannot accurately duplicate the double escapement action with hammers made of felt and the infinite possibilites of tonal color and dynamic range.

  9. “Used pianos can be found in retail shops for less than half the price of new pianos. They can also be found when people move or are disposing of estates for far less. Always bring a qualified piano technician when looking at a used piano.”

    If you are saying that used pianos can be found in shops at half the price of $3000 new pianos, that is going to be a pretty difficult find. Here’s the problem we piano dealers face: New entry level pianos were about $3000 thirty years ago. Anyone who owns a later model piano (inside 30-40 years of age) that’s worth having isn’t going to give up their piano for a price that a dealer can afford to move it to the shop, tune it a few times and deliver it and be able to sell it for $1500. It doesn’t take long for refurbishing alone to hit $1500. I’ve tried to sell used pianos, but I’ve not been able to find instruments I could justify making money on cheap enough to be able to resell them for half the price of a new piano. Case in point: I had a 10 year old Yamaha P22 in my shop on consignment. The owner wanted the price set so that the total of her part and my commission was $5000. That’s what she had paid for the piano new, and a 10 year old instrument, well maintained, in excellent condition SHOULD hold its value (bear in mind, part of the $5K was going to be my commission and associated costs). It was sitting next to a new Samick built piano, quite comparable to the P22, which I regularly sold for $3995 at the time (they’re a little more now). I eventually wound up taking it back to her.

  10. With proper climate control, which may mean the installation of a climate control system designed for installation inside the instrument, an acoustic will also stay in tune. Yes, there may be some maintenance costs associated with the acoustic, but in the long run, a well maintained acoustic will long outlast a digital. I also think we do some damage to the study of music when we promote doing it on the cheap. By doing so, we send the message that music isn’t worth investing in, and I see that as a very dangerous message.

    “For a student, unless one is wealthy…”

    Why is it we didn’t have to say this 30+ years ago when the price of a cheap, crappy spinet was over $5000 in today’s dollars? The $3000 imported consoles are FAR superior to the spinets of days gone by, yet we sell 1/4 as many today.

  11. It is not a question of wealth. If you are a professional pianist esp classical, and even jazz, then you will need one acoustic for your practice. Otherwise, yes, the digital piano will do. I am not sure a synthesizer would do at all.

    And a good quality acoustic is not expensive, and there are plenty of second-hands available too. Thinking of people who play a lot of other instruments whose starting point for a proper instrument will not be below 10,000$…

  12. I also feel strongly as a piano teacher that an acoustic piano is a better buy for many reasons- I think students who play on an acoustic piano are hooked on playing the instrument for life. Also technique rules on acoustic. Kids just don’t develop the necessary finger strength. And then there’s pedal and dynamics. I keep trying out digital-even the hybrids, but when I sit down at the real thing…’s more fun and pleasing. Thank you for all this great information.

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