This article will explore the Yamaha and Roland brands when it comes to the world of digital pianos, and we will explore what each manufacturer does specifically for their pianos that makes their instruments standout. We’ll also explore the many things you should most be seeking in a great piano–from models aimed at beginners to those more suited for intermediate players–and how both Yamaha and Roland approach giving users everything they need for one’s required skill level and overall budget.
Below, please take a quick look at some popular Yamaha and Roland pianos, and see how their specs, features, and prices compare to one another:
|Yamaha YDP-164||88||$$$||GH3 action, CFX Grand Piano Voice|
|Yamaha YDP-144||88||$$$||GHS action, CFX Grand Piano Voice|
|Yamaha YDP-103||88||$$$||GHS Weighted Action|
|Roland FP-90||88||$$$||316 Sounds|
|Roland F-140||88||$$$||SuperNATURAL Piano engine|
|Yamaha YDP-184||88||$$$||Graded Hammer 3 Action (GH3)|
|Yamaha YDP-S54||88||$$$||GHS weighted action|
|Yamaha P-515||88||$$$||Natural Wood X Keyboard (Wooden White Keys)|
|Kawai KDP-110||88||$$$||Integrated Bluetooth connectivity|
|Casio PX-870||88||$$$||Redesigned Cabinet, Speaker System|
|Yamaha YDP-181||88||$$$||128 Note Polyphony|
|Yamaha DGX-660||88||$$||Graded Hammer Standard (GHS) Keyboard|
|Yamaha P-125||88||$$||GHS Weighted Action|
Yamaha vs Roland pianos: Key Questions
Many parents of beginner or intermediate musicians struggle with where to begin their journey of purchasing an instrument. Unless their child plays the kazoo, chances are that a fairly major purchase is ahead for most parents of children who aspire to become serious musicians. It’s a tough market out there, and it is easy for shoppers to feel overwhelmed as they browse the internet and visit music stores in search of the best digital piano. There are simply so many options. Parents of my students have often inquired of me, “What should I consider as I prepare to buy a digital piano?” My answer is always more complicated than they expect.
There is a great deal more to this purchase than most people realize. In this article, I will explain the differences between two of the most popular brands of digital pianos; Roland and Yamaha, and will highlight some important factors, which should be considered in selecting the best digital piano between these two brands.
Some questions I will seek to answer in this article are as follows. Why is an upright a better option than a portable piano for some pianists? What part do key sensitivity, weight, and hammer action have to play in this deliberation? Which specific models meet the criteria for the best digital piano? What aspects of a digital piano are important to know about in relation to the pianist’s skill level, and which models are best for beginners, intermediates, and borderline advanced players? How much money will be spent when the time comes to buy a digital piano? These questions will all be answered by the end of this article.
Below, please take a look at some our of favorite Yamaha and Roland digital pianos currently for sale on Amazon:
Portable vs Upright vs Grand
A digital piano can be a beautiful addition to a home. As a pianist with over 20 years of musicianship under my belt, I have played a few pianos. Now, when I walk into a concert hall, and I see that I will be accompanying a vocalist on a Steinway, my heart skips a few beats. The power and exquisite tone of a Steinway & Sons grand piano are absolutely breathtaking. It is also easy to play delicately on a Steinway; the instrument makes it possible to create unforgettable juxtapositions of sound.
However, I am speaking as an advanced pianist. Playing a Steinway was not always enjoyable for me. I can remember having sweaty palms at piano recitals simply because I was not used to the piano on which I was about to perform. I can remember sharing with my teacher that I did not particularly care for the Steinway because I found the weight of the keys too difficult to manage. I can also remember her looking back at me as if I had two heads.
My parents had inherited a very nice piano from a relative who had passed away around the time I began lessons. It was nice, but let’s just say it wasn’t a Steinway Grand! In my first few years of lessons, I was still trying to remember which fingers to use when. I wasn’t experienced with the heavily weighted keys of a Steinway, and I was just barely strong enough to make any sound on it at all.
When beginners are still getting used to playing the piano, they are forming many, many new connections in their brains each time they play a new piece. Not only are they learning to read music and to poise themselves as musicians, but beginners and early intermediates are still learning how to coordinate both their left and right hands with the piano. This goes on for a very long time for most learners, and research suggests that pianists use both sides of their brain more frequently than the average person, as a result.
What does all this have to do with digital pianos? Especially if the search is being conducted for the best digital piano for a beginner or early intermediate, the buyer should think about two things. First, a potential buyer should consider how the structure and build of the digital piano will facilitate learning, and second, how the digital piano will eventually make it easy for a pianist to transition to an acoustic piano, since these are almost always used in performances.
Although the entire point of a digital piano is to make an electronic version of an acoustic piano, at this point, technology can only come so close to the feel and sound of the real thing. However, when making the choice among the portable, upright, or grand version of the digital piano, my experience has been that this choice actually depends mostly on space and aesthetics and a little bit on sturdiness. If that beautiful, sleek grand piano look is desired for the home, but the buyer does not want to be bothered with the tuning and upkeep that the acoustic piano demands, the digital grand piano is a great alternative.
When space is an issue, and the buyer would like to have the ability to store the piano when it is not in use, a portable or flat piano is a great option. A few drawbacks to this option are that if a stand is used, the piano can be knocked over (especially by young children) and wobbles easily when played vigorously. A foot pedal must also be attached, and depending upon the type, it can slide around, making pedal use frustrating and cumbersome.
The upright version, however, is fairly compact, wobbles minimally, and has a stationary pedal. Since the grand digital piano usually does not differ much from the upright version in terms of closeness to an acoustic piano’s accuracy and magnitude of sound, the upright version is best because of its space efficiency and lower price point. For more information, check out Alden Skinner’s Introduction to Buying a Digital Piano.
One of my favorite upright digital piano is the Roland HP-201. I’ll go into more detail about this particular model later on in the article.
It is best to bring a pair of headphones along when one goes to buy a digital piano from a store. This helps a fair comparison to be made as sometimes the sound systems are quite different between models. However, if the buying will be done online, this would not be possible, and many parents of students do not feel they know what they are looking for.
I will now detail some technical attributes which should be considered for beginner or early intermediate players, and suggest some specific models which can be depended upon to embody the best of these characteristics. The technical attributes which I will highlight are as follows:
Perhaps the most important element in choosing a digital piano that is close in nature to an acoustic piano is touch. The sensitivity of the keys to produce a sound as well as the weight that must be used to produce different volumes is a very important factor to consider.
Perhaps the best way to explain why this is so crucial an element is to describe how some poorly-made digital pianos perform. When the keys are not weighted correctly, the instrument will produce a sound that is much too loud for the average pianist’s touch – or much too soft. If a child practices all week on a poorly weighted keyboard, then plays for his teacher at his lesson, his teacher may give an inaccurate evaluation of the student’s skill level, simply because she has an acoustic piano in her home where the student receives lessons, and the student is used to a much different feel while he plays.
The most realistic digital pianos have a key weight of about 53, although this information is often difficult to locate on websites. Key weight is the resistance the key gives when pressed, and is the result of the key only being pressed down about half an inch, when it really lifts the hammer inside the piano about two inches to hit the string. 50, 55, 60 or other weight measurement is actually measured in grams.
Denser materials create more weight, which is why some older pianos from 100 years ago have higher key weights than newer ones. This refers to “static touchweight,” which is simply the weight that causes the key to go down. “Dynamic touchweight” is the term used for how much pressure must be used to express sound from the hammers and strings. I’m only going to get as technical as I need to here, as the piano is a complex instrument, and not everyone needs to know its intricacies. Knowing about weight, however, will help parents to make a good decision about which piano may be best for their child.
Here’s why: when any student learns any new instrument, they learn to subconsciously judge things like how much pressure to use to achieve desired levels of “noise,” or dynamics; how to play the instrument loudly or softly. For example, if a young musician is learning to play the flute, along with learning the correct the embouchure (or the correct way to form their lips around the mouthpiece, the flutist will learn exactly how much pressure to use 1) to produce sound from the flute, and 2) to achieve a certain dynamic level. If the flutist uses too much pressure as he or she blows into the flute, the flute will not produce much sound at all, and the same will happen if the flutist uses too little pressure.
The same is, essentially, true for the pianist. He or she learns, over the course of several years, exactly which pressure to use for the desired effect. It’s actually pretty amazing that our brains learn to tell our fingers to do something with so much precision so that we can produce the same results every time. With that to say, there are certain pianos that have keys that are simply weighted to suit little fingers better.
I’ve seen so many children sit down at a piano, try to play softly, and not receive sound because they’re not using enough pressure. A digital piano with a lighter key weight may streamline the learning process for some students. However, it seems to be popular for many students to start out on pianos with un-weighted keys. Personally, I do not recommend this, and believe that there should always be some weight to the keys. Every student will have to eventually acclimate to this, and starting out at the beginning with weighted keys will make the transition to a more “adult” instrument easier later.
After the student has played for a few years, and perhaps becomes more serious about the instrument, a digital piano with a heavier key weight may be a good option to help the student transition to some of those very heavy grand pianos, which he or she may eventually perform upon (nothing is worse than playing a piano for a concert, audition or other important performance, while being unfamiliar with the feel of its’ key-weight – it can cause some very embarrassing mistakes!) To some parents, these may seem like far off problems. However, it is good to remember that the beginning years of a pianist’s journey are formative and lay a foundation for the rest of that musician’s career.
Hammer action is also an important point to consider. This basically refers to how much force should be applied for the hammer to create a sound. Yamaha’s scale of hammer action is categorized by the acronymns GHS, or GH. GHS is the standard degree of hammer action Yamaha offers on some of their more elementary models. The quality of this hammer action is entry level, and appears on lower-cost models such as the P70; a model which flirts with feeling and sounding realistic, but doesn’t quite do the job like the P255, which features GH – Graded Hammer Action – for a much more realistic experience. Rolands feature the name “progressive hammer action” which emphasizes that the hammer action progresses on up the keyboard, as would be true on an acoustic; finer strings at the top of an acoustic piano call for lighter hammer action, as thicker strings on the bottom of the piano need more force to bring forth sound. Graded or progressive; two names for, essentially, the same thing. However, overall, I have always found the hammer action on Yamaha models to feel more like what I would expect from an acoustic piano.
Height also happens to be something that has pushed me towards upright models, also. I have found that portable digital pianos are almost never set up at the correct height. Either the stool I have is too low, or the stand is set too high. Couple this with the wobbling that can take place with a stand, and you have an uncomfortable situation on your hands – literally.
If the keyboard is not properly positioned, the pianist will have difficulty maintaining proper form, and the wrists can become strained. Certain medical complications can even develop from this. Upright digital pianos are manufactured at a standard height, and this can help to prevent this problem. Purchasing an actual piano bench is important, as well, instead of simply any old chair, which may not provide the proper positioning for the pianist.
One more (slightly less significant) aspect of the decision-making process is the level of polyphony the piano is capable of producing. Polyphony is a word that, essentially, means many (poly) sounds (phony). On an acoustic piano, each and every key could be played simultaneously, each hammer would hit the strings inside the piano, and sound would come forth from each one, and would sustain as long as the string vibrated.
However, with digital pianos, this becomes more complicated. Basically, it has to do with how many sounds can be created at one time, and sustained, without losing any of them. I used to have a kids’ keyboard which played one note at a time. If you pressed the C key down, and held it, and then pressed D, only D would play; C’s sound would cut out. This is an example of a seriously low polyphony score.
Lower-grade digital pianos will sometimes let go of some sounds, even if a pedal is sustaining them. For example, a pianist may play a run up the keys, hitting 100 keys, but only 65 of them would be sustained by the pedal creating an incomplete result. My favorite high polyphony level digital piano is the Yamaha P255. It sustains more than twice what many other models can do.
And now, let’s start discussing specific piano models based on skill level. Let’s begin with, well, beginners–those jumping into the world of playing piano for the very first time.
The Yamaha P-125 is very much worth mentioning here. We covered it quite in depth in our review (which is linked below), but it’s worth noting that this piano is quite affordable (about $600), and comes with a pretty robust built-in feature set that’s impressive given its relatively cheap price point.
The Yamaha P-125 succeeds the very popular Yamaha P-115 (and, for that matter, the Yamaha P-105 before that). One of the best-selling affordable digital pianos on the market, this is an 88-key digital piano that features a Graded Hammer Standard keyboard. While not a top tier key action (remember, the piano is only $600), you’ll likely be quite impressed with its graded keys that are heavier in the lower end and lighter in the higher end.
The piano features only 24 voices (which, to be fair, is more than much more expensive pianos–which I’ll cover a little later), but it does possess 192 note of polyphony, so once you become more comfortable playing piano and are ready to begin trying out more complex pieces, you won’t have to worry that the notes will decay too quickly with the P-125.
Yamaha P-125 vs Yamaha P-121 vs Yamaha P-71
I also wanted to mention one quick thing. There are different variations of this digital piano, and I wanted to discuss this a bit in an effort to make things a bit more clear.
First, the Yamaha P-125 has 88 keys. If you wanted to save a little bit of money, and are fine with losing a handful of keys in the process, I’d recommend you consider purchasing the Yamaha P-121. This is essentially the same instrument as the Yamaha P-125–the big difference being that the P-121 features just 73 keys.
Now the Yamaha P-45 is a little bit different. The P-45 features 88 keys, but is cheaper than the P-125 and even the P-121. The P-45 still has GHS key action, as the P-121 and P-125 do. But it only comes with 10 voices, a far cry from the 24 that come with the P-125. But you do end up saving quite a lot of money, as the P-45 costs about $150 less than the P-125.
And lastly, there’s the Yamaha P-71. For many people, this one is puzzling, but in truth, its existence is easily answered. The Yamaha P-71 is an Amazon exclusive digital piano–you won’t find it anywhere else outside of Amazon. But the P-71 is truly just the Yamaha P-45 with a different name. So whether you acquire the P-45 or the P-71, rest assured that you’re getting the same instrument.
And remember, when you’re searching for a new digital piano, I recommend you make the following five features your top priorities:
- Hammer Action
- Tone and Voices
- Portability (size, weight, etc)
- Be sure to read our review of the Yamaha P-115 here. You can also read our Yamaha P-125 review here, as well!
The Roland F-120 has a 128 tone polyphony, weighted keys with five levels of sensitivity, standard key off and damper resonance, three pedals, and twin piano mode, which allows teacher and student to split the piano into two halves – to play a duet together or simply to facilitate instruction. This is a great feature to have if the teacher comes to the home. This piano is attached to the stand, and portability is difficult. It costs about $1,000.
For beginners, out of these two digital pianos, I strongly recommend the Yamaha P-125. The keys are grade-weighted, which means that some keys require more weight to produce sound than others, which is more like an acoustic piano than the Roland F-120’s standard-weighted keys.
Beginners really only need one pedal, and having more than one can be a bit confusing–at least at the outset of your playing experience.
The intelligent acoustic control is a good characteristic, although the other factors mentioned are probably more important decision-makers; especially the properly weighted keys. Also, both the lighter weight and the lower price point make it easier to put this digital piano away when the student graduates to a more mature instrument in the future.
One feature the Roland F-120 has that is better than the Yamaha’s is the five-level key sensitivity. However, this is not essential and the difference would likely not be noticed by the beginner.
Now, let’s move onto pianos that are ideal for those at the intermediate skill level.
The Yamaha YDP-144
The Yamaha YDP-144 is a beautiful looking digital piano that really offers some unique features for anyone that’s ready to truly commit to playing the piano consistently.
The YDP-144 features three amazing piano sounds, most notably the Yamaha CFX Grand Piano Sound. This is actually an upgrade over the YDP-143, as the 143 featured just the CF Grand Piano Sound.
Along with that, you get two additional piano sounds–the Pop Grand Piano (whenever you’re in a nice, jazzy mood) and a Mellow Grand Piano sound (the exact fit for when you either want to play a classical piece or you just are looking to convey a certain emotion through a sweet piano sound).
The YDP-144 also features a Graded Hammer Standard key action and two speakers which total 16 watts of power.
The Yamaha YDP-164
Then there’s the Yamaha YDP-164, a digital piano that takes over the mantle of the YDP-163. This piano comes with the exact same piano sounds as the YDP-144 discussed above, but it does improve in the key action department.
In fact, the Yamaha YDP-164 features a Graded Hammer 3 action, which not only means it comes with graded keys, but also features a three sensor setup in each key, helping to better provide you with an experience that feels more real in terms of its attempt to mimic the feeling of playing on an acoustic piano.
The sound gets a boost on the YDP-164 as well, as you get 40 watts of power here via the piano’s two speakers. So, comparing it to the Yamaha YDP-144, the YDP-164 is going to be stronger and fill your room with sound far easier.
One last thing that’s definitely worth mentioning here is that both pianos can work with the Smart Pianist app, which means you’ll be able to control all of the piano’s settings–from voices to recordings to split and layer–via an iPhone or iPad (directly connected via USB cable via the camera connector kit).
What can really be said here…the Yamaha P-515 is an absolute beast of a digital piano.
The P-515 ain’t cheap, as it costs about $1,500. But when you see what it’s packing under the hood, you’ll understand why.
First, the P-515 features Yamaha CFX and Bösendorfer Imperial piano samples. If you thought the CFX sound sample on the YDP-144 and YDP-164 were impressive, you’ll really enjoy what the Bösendorfer Imperial piano sound offers.
On top of that, the P-515 features an NWX or Natural Wood X keyboard. This is something you’d expect to find on a Yamaha Clavinova piano–not a portable piano that’s part of the “P” series.
Wooden keys are present here–well the white keys, anyway–which means you’ll truly get the feeling that you’re playing on an acoustic piano. You also get synthetic ivory and ebony keytops with escapement.
And with 256 notes of polyphony, and 500 voices (yes, you heard that right, you get 500 voices here when you factor in things such as drum and SFX kits, as well as XG voices), you’ll be amazed at how Yamaha fit so much into portable instrument.
- Check out our review of the Yamaha P-515.
The Roland HP-201 also has a 128 tone polyphony, weighted keys with four levels of sensitivity; light, medium, heavy, and fixed, three pedals, upright, seven levels of damper resonance, seven levels of key off resonance, three types of dynamics, and twin piano mode. It is on the heavy side, weighing 119 pounds, and the quality of the speakers is not the best. It costs about $1,600.
For intermediate players, I strongly recommend the Yamaha P255. This model offers a significantly greater polyphony; it can play almost double the notes at one time as the Roland HP-201. This is important as intermediate players are more likely to play runs of many more notes than beginners, sustaining them with the pedal which makes this enhanced polyphony feature more noticeable. It’s got a great sound system, while the Roland has mediocre sound quality in my personal opinion.
Also, the ivory keytops blend well with the weighted keys to create an ultra-realistic experience. It is also less expensive than the Roland HP-201 by $300.
One very desirable feature that the Roland does have over the Yamaha in this case, however, is the upright build. However, overall, the Yamaha is a better option as this piano is a ideal for intermediate or advanced pianists, and can go with the student from his or her intermediate period into the advanced stage.
There is a lot for parents to consider as they prepare to buy a digital piano. Picking out a top digital piano requires knowledge and careful deliberation.
Whether to choose a portable, upright or grand digital piano, which technical attributes are most important and helpful to the student, making comparisons or recommendations, and considering the student’s individual skill level are all important aspects in this potentially major purchase.