Hi everybody, and welcome to another piano review here at Merriam Pianos. Today, we’ll be comparing Kawai ES8 vs Roland FP-90 – two stellar examples of all-in-one portable pianos, both right at the top of the class in terms of the overall piano playing experience.
This is a really exciting comparison since many people feel that these are the top two options available in the category, both suited for use on stage or at home.
We’ll be comparing their respective actions, tone engines, and their full feature offerings to try to determine if a clear winner emerges from these two heavyweights.
We’ll start with some quick context and background information on both pianos. Enjoy!
Kawai ES8 vs Roland FP-90 – Background
Both of these occupy an interesting spot in the market as they’re both all-in-one portable digital pianos, meaning they combine elements of stage pianos with elements of home digital pianos.
They’re not true stage pianos in that they both have a set of built-in high-quality speakers like you’d find in a home digital piano, but at the same time, many of the features are reminiscent of what you find in a stage piano.
As two of the top three models on the market in this category and price range (the third model being the Yamaha P515), the FP-90 and the ES8 are inevitably always compared against one another when people are selecting an instrument of this ilk.
The Kawai ES8 has been out on the market for longer than the FP-90, so it’s not a perfect apples-to-apples comparison in terms of some of the technology, but at the end of the day, we’re talking about two wildly divergent playing experiences here.
With that out of the way, let’s dive into the sound portion of our comparison.
Kawai ES8 vs Roland FP-90 – Sound Engines
The Kawai ES8 digital piano uses Kawai’s Harmonic Imaging XL sound technology (HIXL). This essentially combines some synthesis technology on top of an 88-note piano sampling base. The basis for the core piano sound is the Shigeru Kawai SK EX concert grand piano, and each note is individually recorded at multiple dynamic levels in stereo.
This is Kawai’s top conventional sampling engine, and the best digital piano engine they make aside from the SK Rendering engine found in their hybrid digital pianos, and it’s got a strong 256 notes of max polyphony.
In practice, the tone is very rich, complex, and on the darker side of the tonal spectrum. It’s also a very colorful tone with a wide dynamic range, just like the real Shigeru Kawai EX concert grand.
You can also edit the sound via Kawai’s Virtual Technician feature with available parameters like damper resonance and string resonance.
Over on the FP-90, we’ve got Roland’s SuperNATURAL Piano Modeling technology engine which unlike the version of the SuperNATURAL engine that Roland uses in the rest of the FP line, this version features full piano modeling on acoustic piano tones.
This engine offers limitless polyphony on acoustic piano tones and a whopping 384 notes on all non-acoustic piano tones. You’ve again got a rich sound, a complex sound, and an all-around high level of sound quality.
Since the FP90 is using a modeling-based piano sound engine, you’re given even more flexibility to edit the sound via Piano Designer by being given access to the modeling engine itself. Now does that actually translate into a difference in the playing experience?
Definitely, but for instruments at this level, the only way you’ll be able to make an informed decision as to which experience you prefer is to get in front of both pianos yourself and get playing.
What we’re hearing though is that the Roland definitely has a greater level of space around the note, and that’s not really reverb.
Then again, there’s a certain superior level of realism that we’re hearing from the ES8 because the sample is derived from a world-class grand piano.
Really, you can’t go wrong, either way, those odds are you will certainly find yourself connecting to one sound more than the other.
In terms of the speaker systems, the ES8 has a depth of tone that’s kind of alarming, to be honest, because, on paper, these two should not even be remotely close. The FP-90 has 60 watts of total power output with their multichannel speaker system (2 mains, 2 tweeters) versus 30 watts with the ES8, and yet, they don’t sound dramatically different in terms of power output.
This likely comes down to the speaker box configuration on the Kawai as it appears to be a lot more efficient to the point that the bass response is actually fairly even.
The FP-90 is still definitely louder when maxed, but it’s to the point where you would need a set of earplugs if the powerful sound system was maxed out, as the sounds just come right at you. There’s more than enough power here for gigging in intimate venues and other smaller venues.
Where there is a big difference however is in the number of onboard instrument sounds. The FP-90 has well over 300 patches, whereas the ES8 is capped out at 34.
Pretty much all 34 of the ES8’s tones are well-rendered, but it just can’t compete with the sheer volume of tones on the FP-90, which are pretty much pro-quality across the board, especially the premium selection of electric piano tones and synth sounds.
One area where the ES8 has a leg up in this department though is the fact that it has an amp simulator effect with things like a believable rotary speaker effect.
That about sums up the conversation on sound. Let’s move over to piano actions now.
Kawai ES8 vs Roland FP-90 | Piano Keyboard Action
Roland equips the FP-90 with their ivory feel PHA-50 action (Progressive Hammer Action with Escapement). This action features a wooden core, it’s got escapement, an ivory key surfaced, and a triple sensor. It’s a very accurate action, both in terms of how sensitive it is, but also with regard to the physical feel.
There’s a soft cushion to the bottom of the key bed, and it’s a little heavier than their PHA4 plastic action.
The Kawai ES8 is using Kawai’s Responsive Hammer III Keyboard Action (RHIII). This is the top plastic hammer action Kawai makes, and it’s even used by Nord in the Nord Grand.
It also has a triple sensor, let-off simulation, ivory touch key surfaces, and counterweights. The big difference is of course the RHIII’s all-plastic construction vs the PHA50’s use of wood.
In terms of some general impressions, even though the PHA-50 is more cushioned on the bottom than the PHA-4, it’s still not as much of a cushion as what you get on the RHII. In that sense, the ES8 simulates the keybed of a full grand piano a little bit better for a slightly more authentic grand piano touch.
With that in mind, the RHIII might feel a little bit more comfortable to someone with a lot of grand piano experience, though the PHA50 wouldn’t take much getting used to.
Kawai ES8 vs Roland FP-90 | Features & Connectivity
Looking down the range of controls and the buttons on these two pianos, you’ll notice that there are a lot of similarities. For example, the location and the style of how they’ve laid out the tone categories are virtually identical. You’ve got the same menu controls and the display is in the same place. In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising if Roland took a few cues from the ES8 before they actually came out with this design.
Here’s a big difference, though – the FP-90 has both MIDI and Audio Bluetooth connectivity, while the ES8 has no Bluetooth technology. This is where the ES8 shows its age a little bit, and you’ll have to use a wired connection via the USB ports to connect to a smartphone, iPad, or computer to use music apps.
The second difference is with the basic tone controls, as the FP90 has a tactile Equalizer slider on the front panel, whereas the ES8 requires some menu diving on the screen to edit your EQ.
The metronome, dual-mode, split and four-hand modes, and transpose are very similarly laid out and easily accessible on both pianos.
The next big difference is with the intelligent accompaniment. The ES8 has the rhythm section accompaniment styles accessible onboard with the touch of a button, while the FP90 requires pairing with Roland’s Piano Partner 2 app to access the rhythm accompaniment.
On the other hand, the FP-90bk has a mic input with some nice onboard vocal effects, which could be a big deal for you.
Both pianos are both equipped with 1/4-inch line-outs, so you can connect to a PA or amp. They both have headphone jacks, and line in’s, and both of these are available with designer stands and triple pedal units with damper, sostenuto, and soft pedals to more closely resemble an upright piano (they both come standard with a sustain pedal), or they’re available to be used of course just as slab units with portable stands.
Roland’s stand is the KSC-90, which is required for the KPD-90 pedal to operate, but you can also opt for the floating RPU-3 triple pedal instead of the DP-10 damper pedal.
So there you have it. We’ve got the Kawai ES8, a veteran of the category, but still impressing thousands of people out there in this market with the lovely SK-EX sample bank, beautifully designed onboard speakers, great action, and useful onboard features for a variety of musical occasions.
We’ve got the Roland FP-90 digital piano, equipped with the wooden core PHA-50 action, beautifully modeled and detailed piano sound, 60 watts of onboard power, and again, useful onboard features.
Of course, there’s no real clear winner here. Both instruments are bringing their A-game to the table and are equally suited for live performances and home use.
If you were hoping we would declare a victor, we’re sorry, but that’s just the reality of a time when the top manufacturers are bringing super comparable instruments to market, which is certainly a good thing for the rest of us!