When you hear terms like digital piano, keyboard piano, electronic keyboard, it can be difficult to understand the difference between each. Unless you know what each one has to offer, it’s impossible to choose the right one for you.
Digital pianos and keyboard pianos focus on delivering a realistic piano experience, albeit in different ways. In contrast, electronic keyboards tend to be portable instruments, often beginner-friendly at a budget price.
Let’s take a look at each in more detail.
The main differences and similarities between digital pianos and keyboards
Before we get started, we should say that there is some crossover with each type, and that can make things more confusing. For example, a keyboard piano is technically a type of digital piano and a variety of electronic keyboard, too.
Digital pianos and electronic keyboards cover a wide range of instruments like console digital pianos or synths and arranger keyboards. But, you’ll find people tend to refer to specialized instruments with their more specific name.
So, to make things easier, we will focus on the most common definition and use of each term.
Digital pianos are generally the most realistic piano experience and usually the least portable of the three.
A digital piano will almost certainly have 88 weighted keys. You can find examples with 76 or 73 keys if you look hard enough, although not many. There are also some budget options that don’t have weighted keys.
The realistic piano experience begins with the keys, which are usually hammer-action or graded hammer-action. Hammer-action keys mimic the weight and response of real piano keys, and if they are graded, they get gradually lighter from low to high notes.
The progression in weight is intended to match the size of the hammers on an acoustic piano, which are larger/heavier at the low-end and get lighter as you move up.
An upright acoustic piano comes in a wooden cabinet, making it a piece of furniture as well as an instrument. With its pedals and all, sitting in front of that cabinet becomes part of a realistic piano experience.
The most common use of the term digital piano refers to a stationary home digital piano. It refers to a digital piano housed in a console/cabinet or one that comes with a wooden stand and pedals.
Stationary versus portable is the biggest difference between a digital piano and a keyboard piano.
A digital piano will focus mainly on an authentic piano sound but will usually have a small selection of voices available. It will have a built-in speaker system, so the sound comes from the piano’s body, like a real piano.
For many, a digital piano is the best way to learn and often come with piano lesson functions. One common function is Duet mode, a keyboard split that creates two identical ranges for student/teacher lessons.
The main reasons for buying a digital piano over a real piano are that they are more compact and have volume control. Although there are several differences between a digital piano and a keyboard piano, a digital piano might be the best choice when it’s intended for home use only.
The keyboard piano is the middle ground between our three instrument types. It combines the realism of a digital piano with the portability of an electronic keyboard.
A keyboard piano will typically have 88 or 76 weighted keys. One of the first differences between these and a digital piano is that a keyboard piano is more commonly available in various sizes.
Again, it all starts with the feel of the keys, which are usually hammer-action or graded hammer-action. The feel combined with a realistic grand piano sound are the most important qualities.
As we mentioned above, the most significant difference is that a keyboard piano is portable. Now, that doesn’t mean that a keyboard piano is always lightweight, but can be moved, and that’s important.
So, why should you choose a keyboard piano? There are a couple of reasons.
If you don’t have space at home for a piano to be a permanent fixture, but you still want a realistic playing experience, a keyboard piano is for you. Even with 88 keys, you can practice then put it away when you are done each day.
The other reason, and perhaps the main one, is that you need a realistic piano for gigging. A digital piano is too heavy/bulky to transport to venues easily. An electronic keyboard might have a realistic piano sound, but it’s unlikely to feel as authentic, which is one of the biggest differences versus a keyboard piano.
Keyboard pianos generally offer slightly more versatility than digital pianos, but not the vast number of sounds that many electronic keyboards provide. Other than the amount, there is a difference in sound quality, too.
The average keyboard piano will have a fantastic specialist piano sound along with some other high-quality voices. The average electronic keyboard will have a good piano sound but focus on quantity over quality.
Keyboard pianos often (not always) come with built-in speakers to add to the portability. That means you can perform smaller gigs without the need for external amplification, which is ideal for piano recitals.
Electronic keyboards, generally, refers to beginner-friendly keyboards that don’t break the bank. As we said already, many sub-types fall under this umbrella, but they tend to be called by their more specialist names.
Typically, an electronic keyboard will range between 37, 49, and 61 keys, with 61 being the most common. Electronic keyboards’ size and weight are the main difference between them and the other types we are discussing. This difference makes them, by far, the most portable option.
It’s not just the number of keys that make the difference; it’s the weight, too. A standard electronic keyboard will have non-weighted or semi-weighted keys that are incredibly light when compared to weighted hammer-action keys.
The upside of lighter keys is that they are initially easier to play for beginners, and they make for a much lighter instrument overall. The downside is that you can’t be as expressive in your playing as you could with a digital or keyboard piano without the weighted keys.
The weight of the keys plays a big part in how realistic the piano sound is. Most electronic keyboards don’t have a grand piano voice as realistic as a keyboard piano. However, in the case that it does, it’s hard to get the best out of it with less expressive playing.
Electronic keyboards may not match keyboard pianos’ sound quality, but they make up for it in versatility. They often come with hundreds of voices, compared to maybe 10-20 of a digital or keyboard piano.
Even with the difference in quality, the versatility is fantastic for beginners. It keeps things interesting and introduces them to new sounds without investing too heavily.
Electronic keyboards also focus on things like rhythms and tutorial functions more. Even if you can’t make it sound like a concert piano, it will help you develop the skills you need to move on to a higher quality instrument.
If you followed the trend from digital pianos to keyboard pianos to electronic keyboards, you’d see a clear pattern. It’s a compromise between realism, versatility, and portability.
Digital pianos provide the most realistic piano experience but are the least versatile and portable. Electronic keyboards are by far the most versatile and portable but don’t offer a realistic playing experience at all. Keyboard pianos provide some balance between the other two options and are ideal for performers.
As always, it’s not about one being better than the other; it’s about what you need most from your instrument.