Best for: quality piano emulation
Here, the line between ‘beginner keyboard’ and ‘digital piano’ is blurred somewhat, as this entry-level, full-size 88-key instrument folds Kawai’s rich history of piano manufacture and hybrid experimentation into a neat and comprehensive learner’s package.
The ES120 is the cheapest point of entry into the Kawai brand, and, externally, a simple machine. It has few visible features and fewer buttons – but it springs to life when paired with Kawai’s PianoRemote app via Bluetooth. The app enables quick selection of sounds, whether the three core piano instruments or a wider array of sounds – including electric pianos, vibraphone, strings and more.
The three core sounds benefit from a sub-menu entitled “Virtual Technician”, which is easily the most comprehensive sound editor I have encountered in some time – even when it comes to software VSTs. Here, everything from velocity curves to damper noise and string resonance can be tweaked to your liking. The customisability also extends to changing the piano’s tuning and temperament independently, stacking instruments or splitting your keyboard for easier composition, and even sculpting the output EQ to suit the specific kind of head- or earphones you are using.
In terms of the unit itself, the keys travel well, with Kawai’s “Responsive Hammer Compact” action lending a pleasing and incredibly realistic resistance and give – a delight at this price point, and something that makes practice both expressive and rewarding. Speaking of delightful features, the unit also features both kinds of headphone jack input – 6.3mm and 3.5mm –, which is a charming touch that only serves to improve useability and accessibility.
This barely scratches the surfaces of the ES120s surprising features and options, all of which are perhaps overkill for the new player. But the unit is closer aligned with the sense of playing a ‘real instrument’ than any other keyboard on the list. This is a stand-out model for both core functionality and experience, but its price could put off those less committed to practice and development.