Welcome to another digital piano review over here at Merriam Pianos. Today, we’ll look at the flagship model of Kawai’s Famous Concert Artist series (CA series) as we check out the Kawai CA99 Hybrid Piano.
The Kawai CA99 has 100% wooden keys, a real solid spruce soundboard, and the SK-EX Rendering sound modeling engine. In other words, some very advanced modern digital and acoustic piano technology.
We’ll cover everything and more in this review, and also look at who might benefit from making the jump from a good Digital Piano to a true Hybrid instrument.
Kawai CA99 Piano Sounds
Twin Drive Soundboard Speaker System
The fundamental difference here is the CA99’s advanced multi-speaker array, which also includes a real solid spruce soundboard functioning as the main speaker, referred to as the TwinDrive Soundboard Speaker System. Magnets act as transducers to capture the soundboard energy and turn that into sound.
In addition to the soundboard, there are 6 other speakers, including 4 top speakers with diffuser panels and 2 dome tweeters, strategically placed around the instrument, all of which are being driven by 135 watts of Onkyo amplifiers.
You can also tweak the speaker settings depending on how close you have the CA99 to a wall or what type of flooring it’s resting on, as well as Kawai’s Spatial Headphone Sound feature, and new Headphone Type feature, which allows you to adjust the sound according to what type of headphones you’re using.
Two Sound Engines: SK-EX Rendering Engine and Kawai’s Harmonic Imaging XL engine (HIXL)
Now let’s look at the sound engine itself, or in this, engines, as the CA99 actually has two. The first engine activates while in Pianist Mode (the default mode when you power the instrument on), and Kawai calls this engine the SK-EX Rendering sound engine with Resonance Modelling. This engine combines a multi-channel sampling of the Shigeru Kawai SK-EX concert grand combined with cutting-edge algorithmic modeling.
The SK-EX Rendering engine consists of 10 piano voices and gives us unlimited polyphony. This means, we could play hundreds and hundreds of notes and the instrument is going to continue to be able to render and sustain those tones without ever running out of memory.
The second engine is Kawai’s Harmonic Imaging XL engine (HIXL), and this is a stereo sampling-based engine built around 88-key stereo samples of the SK-EX, SK-5, and EX grand pianos.
If we go back and forth between the default tones of each engine, you can really hear that the Rendering engine produces a more detailed sound, especially around the edges of the tone.
Personalized Piano Adjustments by Virtual Technician Function
In addition to the greater detail, the other advantage of the Rendering engine is that the user is given direct access to edit the various parameters of the algorithm courtesy of the Virtual Technician function.
Inside the Virtual Technician, you can edit things like the Touch Curve, Voicing, Damper Resonance, Damper Noise, String Resonance, Undamped String Resonance, Cabinet Resonance, Key-Off Effect, Fallback Noise, Hammer Noise, Hammer Delay, Top Board, Decay Time, Release Time, Minimum Touch, and more. You can even get into Key Volume, Half Pedal Adjust, and Temperament. Really, you’re given the keys to go in and customize a piano experience to your unique preferences.
You can also control effects like Reverb and Ambience across a variety of settings as well.
The harpsichord patches are very nice as well, and this will be especially appealing to musicians who play a lot of Baroque music.
To circle back on the soundboard – the presence and the warmth that the soundboard brings to the lower half of the EQ range of the piano is something that we’ve never heard a speaker do on a digital piano. Simply extraordinary.
Navigating the other tones offered by the HIXL engine (90 in total) is much improved on the CA99 from the CA98, and the e pianos are particularly nice. The organs are great too, with a super-rich low-frequency response courtesy of the soundboard that imitates a real air-driven pipe organ.
That about does it for the sound, which as we’ve said, is seriously impressive. If you primarily play with headphones you won’t be missing anything by going with the CA79 since the soundboard only activates when the instrument is played acoustically, but if you do usually play acoustically, the CA99 is definitely delivering a superior musical experience.
Kawai CA99 Piano Action
Grand Feel III 88 Wooden Key Keyboard Action
Both the Kawai CA99 and CA79 have incorporated the brand new Grand Feel III 88 Wooden key keyboard action. We can say right away this the GFIII is a wonderful upgrade to the already great GFII. The update between Grand Feel I and Grand Feel II was relatively minor, but the Grand Feel III has totally changed the back of the key stick and how it connects to the hammer and the capstan.
We found that under very heavy use, such as in an institutional setting, the slip tape on the back of the key was wearing out on the GFII actions, and some warranty work was required.
The new Grand Feel III has totally and completely up the engineering on that key to the point where the action is now virtually indestructible. The repetition speed has improved, and with the improved durability, we don’t anticipate any issues through 10, or 15 years of ownership on these instruments moving forward.
Other features you can expect on the Grand Feel III are let-off simulation (escapement) which replicates the feel of a grand piano action, triple sensor key detection, 88 graded counterweights, and ivory touch and ebony touch key surfaces, which absorb moisture from your fingers.
The repetition speed has improved from what we were getting out of the CA98, and this is likely due to better individual weighting on the keys, as well as the improvement at the back of the key.
The bottom of the key bed is also spongier than the CA98, which is exactly how their acoustic grand pianos feel as well. This will be a huge plus for folks tackling demanding classical repertoire on this action.
We can safely say this is easily one of the very best digital piano actions available, and really, the only thing better is jumping up to the Kawai Novus series and their 100% acoustic piano actions.
As mentioned above, Kawai has really improved the touchscreen display interface here with the CA99. The CA98’s screen had some issues in terms of how it responded to commands, but fortunately, that has been totally rectified here.
Many of the most commonly used features rather than being buried in menus or alternate screens now have shortcut keys so they can be reached must faster, such as the Metronome function example.
There’s a built-in USB Audio recorder that allows you to record and playback MP3, WAV, and SMF files.
There’s also an offer of 200 pre-loaded pieces of music which can be looked up by the Composer. Feel like checking out some Bach? Simply look up his name and you’ll find hours of music.
It’s also loaded up with well over a dozen different lesson books, which will be quite helpful for beginners.
The connectivity list is certainly quite extensive as well. For starters, the CA99 has both Bluetooth MIDI and Bluetooth Audio with APTX support, which essentially turns your CA99 into a powerful Bluetooth speaker. Odds are, the CA99’s speaker/soundboard system will outperform your stereo unless you have a high-end audiophile setup going on.
From there we’ve got dual headphone jacks, MIDI In and Out (if you still want a wired connection when accessing apps for iOS and Android), 1/4″ L/MONO, R line outputs, an 1/8″ stereo line-in, as well as USB to Host and USB to the device.
The Kawai CA99 also includes Kawai’s Grand Feel Pedal System, which offers damper, sostenuto, and soft pedals, while replicating the weighting of an acoustic grand piano’s 3 pedal system.
Cabinet and Key Cover
The cabinet design has also been improved with some more substantial carpentry and a contemporary upright piano slow-close fallboard.
In terms of finishes, the CA99 is available in Premium Rosewood, Satin Black, Satin White, and Ebony Polish.
Kawai has done a masterful job once again with the CA99. And despite the fact that the CA98 was already a great instrument, the improvements here are very meaningful, and we’re not just talking about the new and improved GFIII action.
The touchscreen issues were actually one of the most frustrating things about the CA98, so the fact that Kawai addressed and cleaned that up is huge.
So, we’re left with one of the top hybrid pianos available for under $10,000 CAD. It’s an absolute home run in terms of sound, touch, and features.
With a competitive field that also includes Roland’s LX models, it’s a good time to be shopping for a hybrid Digital Piano.