For recreational pianists, keyboards are smart investments. They’re cheaper than full-size pianos, require no tuning, and are way easier to carry up staircases. Plus: Connect a pair of headphones, and you can hammer away in your apartment without Gladys from upstairs complaining.
But with so many models to choose from, it’s tough to know what keyboard will work best for you. Do you want a futuristic sound machine or a living-room-worthy centerpiece, 300 special effects or just a rich piano sound? Here’s what to look for when buying your first keyboard—and some best-in-class options that won’t break the bank.
Number of keys: Sure, you could just aim for the standard 88 keys and be done with it. But if you plan on traveling with your keyboard, a smaller, lighter model—usually 61 or 76 keys—makes hauling a whole lot easier.
Key action: To replicate the feel of an acoustic piano, some keyboards have semi- or fully-weighted keys. And by incorporating graded action—keys that are lighter in the treble range, heavier in the bass—the feel of the best keyboards is almost indistinguishable from full-size pianos. If you’re treating your first keyboard as a piano stand-in, weighted keys and graded action are important features.
Number of sounds: Some keyboards keep it simple, with only a handful of instrument sounds (called “tones” or “voices” in industry parlance). Others are musical Swiss-army knives, with hundreds of different synthesizers, horns, and percussion voices to choose from. Pick what you need, but always focus on a keyboard’s primary piano voice. The best keyboards mimic classic piano sound by varying
the timbre according to how hard you hit the keys.
Built-in speakers: Most keyboards—but not all of them—include built-in speakers. Test keyboards to find one with a speaker sound you like. Seeking more firepower? You can buy a separate amplifier specifically made for a keyboard’s pitch and sound range.
Learning software: Some keyboards come with preinstalled educational software, ranging from the basic (where’s that key again?) to the fanciful (play along with the digital embodiment of Elton John!). Some even connect with specific iPad or iPhone apps. Figure out what you need, and make sure you test any features that are selling points for you before making a purchase.
The extras: Keyboards marketed as “digital pianos” sometimes come with classy wood-styled cabinets, pedal systems, and built-in sheet music stands. Plus: Don’t forget headphones (for quiet practice), a foot pedal (to mimic the piano’s sustain pedal), and tools for gigging (like an easy-to-set-up stand, a carrying case, and an extension cord). It’s also handy to have
an instrument that can be operated on battery power.
The 88-Key Classic: The Korg SP-280 is a great all-around keyboard, especially at its price. The 41-pound, fully-weighted 88-key model is enhanced with Korg’s Natural Weighted Hammer Action, and can pump 30 different voices through two built-in speakers. Bonus: It comes in two stylish colors, black and silver.
The Overachiever: With more than 250 built-in tones, two pairs of speakers, and a built-in 17-track recorder, the Casio Privia PX-330 shines as both a studio synthesizer and a digital piano. Its Tri-Sensor 88-note scaled hammer action beautifully mimics piano feel. It comes in black and silver, and at only 26 pounds, it’s worthy of mobile touring musicians.
The Traveling Troubadour: With 76 unweighted keys, the Yamaha NP-V80 is a little less than 16 pounds, making it a sleek welterweight with outsize street cred. Even with built-in speakers, it can run on just six AA batteries (it comes with a power cable, too) and packs hundreds of sounds and ready-made musical accompaniments.
The Living-Room Workhorse: The Roland F-20 is advertised as “the perfect choice for a first piano,” and with good reason: It boasts 88 fully-weighted keys, an impressive complement of speakers, 35 different tones, and a full suite of beginner-focused tools (like “Twin Piano” mode for duets). For living-room use, you can buy a dedicated stand to support its 44-pound frame. It even pairs with two iPad apps, Air Performer and Piano Partner.