Almost by definition, evaluating an instrument's tone is very subjective, and judging the tone of instruments that have a lot of voices can be overwhelming. Your best bet is to select the five or six instruments you think you'll use most and make them the standard for comparison as you shop. If you choose the piano on which those voices sound best to you, it's likely you'll find the others satisfying as well.

If at all possible, you should try at least two or three instruments in your price and style range to determine which sounds best to you. If you plan to use headphones in your home (yes, parents—your children can practice silently using headphones), be sure to try out the pianos through headphones, as this can make a tremendous difference in sound. (For consistency of comparison, bring your own headphones.) Sometimes the instrument's weakest link is its built-in speaker system.

Digital pianos are really computers disguised as pianos, and the engineers who design them strive to develop a set of sounds and features unique to their brand. Like some features of a PC, many of the capabilities of digitals are hidden from view, accessible by pressing a sequence of buttons or through multi-screen menus. While the owner's manual will explain how to access these features or sounds, it's impractical for you to study the manuals of every instrument under consideration. Enter the salesperson! This is one of those instances where a well-trained salesperson can be invaluable.

Most manufacturers arrange trainings for their retailers' sales staffs, to enable them to demonstrate the relative advantages of that brand's features. Even if you're a proficient player, having a salesperson demonstrate and play while you listen can be a valuable part of the evaluation process. But remember that the salesperson is not going home with you! Don't be swayed by his or her talent—a really good player can make even a poor-sounding piano "sing." Focus your attention on the instrument itself.

You should make sure that you get the answers to a few key questions, either through the salesperson's demonstration or your own experimentation.

Generally, one of the instrument voices used most frequently is the piano. There is a great deal of variation in "good" piano tone. Many players like a bright, crisp sound, while others prefer a mellower tone. Some like a great deal of harmonic content, others a bell-like clarity with fewer harmonics. Whatever your preference, will you be satisfied with the piano sound of the model you're considering?

Many instruments sound slightly different as a note begins to play. For example, a flute takes a quarter of a second or so to build up enough air pressure to reach the pitch of the note, resulting in a "breathiness" to the sound. The same is true of many other wind instruments. Guitarists and other players of stringed instruments "bend" notes by varying their touch. Jazz organs often have a percussive "pop" at the beginning of the note. How well do the digital voices of the model you're evaluating emulate the actual instruments?

Even entry-level standard digitals include such effects as reverb, chorus, and sustain. More sophisticated models have many other effects, are described in the "Digital Piano Basics" articles in Acoustic & Digital Piano Buyer. After having heard them demonstrated, do you think these effects will be useful to you?

Take your time. Following the salesperson's demonstration, most dealers will let you spend time experimenting—particularly if you use headphones.

For those of you interested in a more detailed discussion of tone production, please refer to "Digital Piano Basics, Part 1: Imitating the Acoustic Piano [in Acoustic & Digital Piano Buyer]." Additional topics covered there include:

  • Sample Rate and Bit Rates
  • Looping
  • Sampling Dynamics
  • Sampling Effects
  • Polyphony
  • Speakers and Amplifiers

Introduction to Buying
a Digital Piano

by Alden Skinner

Acoustic & Digital
Piano Buyer