Hi everyone, and welcome to a Digital Piano Shootout here on the Merriam Pianos YouTube channel. Today we have the Kawai ES920 and the Roland FP90X; a member of the Roland digital pianos FP series that includes the FP-10, FP-30X, FP-60X, and FP-90X. Two top-of-the-line portable digital pianos from Roland and Kawai. We’ve been waiting to review these for months and today we’re finally getting the chance.
We’re going to be talking about their actions, comparing their piano tones and engines, their speaker configurations; everything that we think you would want to know and care about in making a decision between these two instruments. So without further ado, let’s get started with the comparison of Kawai’s ES920 and Roland’s FP90X right away.
This comparison was at least six months in the making, maybe longer. I lost track of how many days it’s been since I started wishing for an ES920 versus FP90X comparison. The 920s came in much earlier than the 90Xs did, at least for us. When manufacturers distribute globally, certain markets are able to accept them earlier when the products pass their safety standards, and then there are supply chain constraints, certain markets get prioritized, etc. Anyway, needless to say, we’ve been waiting for the opportunity to compare these two instruments for quite some time, and I know our customers have as well as the broader community that we’re so grateful to be able to connect with. Today is that day.
It is a really beautiful choice between these two because the contrast is so stark and I actually don’t really know that I have a musical favorite here, but I can tell you that it’s really easy to talk about the differences and highlight those for you so that you can decide what one might be a more appropriate fit for your own musical needs. We are talking about musical needs here. It’s not like one breaks and the other one doesn’t. We’re really talking about shades and preferences here. There is about a $500 difference between the two digital pianos. The Roland is the more expensive of them, but they’re not dramatically different in price. They are focused on the same customer. The Roland FP-60X from a price standpoint is a little closer to ES920, but from a spec standpoint, these two really are the best comparison. Let’s start with the speakers.
Kawai ES920 vs Roland FP-90X – Comparison
The Roland FP90X carries a 60-watt rating, whereas the Kawai ES920 has a 40-watt rating. Both of those wattages are pretty high for a portable instrument, and by implication, there is also a weight difference between these two because there is a little extra girth to the amplifier in the FP90X.
Roland also has maintained a combination of wood, metal, and plastic for its case. Kawai made a very deliberate choice to really slim down the weight on the ES920 as much as possible. They’ve taken a bit of flack for this, from people who really liked the fact that it was a steel cage around the ES8. The ES920 is much more lightweight. It shed close to 20 pounds off the ES8. For people lugging these around, that’s a meaningful difference, but for people who were looking at the case and seeing the plastic, I think they saw that as a bit of a sign that Kawai cheaped out. Talking to the Kawai people, this was such a specific move just to lighten the keyboard and make it more accessible for portability. I don’t know where the dust is going to settle on that one, but there is a weight difference between these two, and part of that is going to be the difference in the speaker wattage because of the difference in just the number of magnets. There are four built-in speakers in the Roland FP90X versus two in the Kawai ES920, and the larger amplifier, 60 watts versus 40 watts usually means it’s heavier as well.
As for the tone generators on these two digital pianos, the Roland FP90X has the brand new BMC chip, which brings a more advanced version of their PureAcoustic piano modeling; the same stuff that you find on their latest LX and an upgrade to their previous SuperNATURAL sound engine. The Kawai ES920 utilizes progressive harmonic imaging, which is the same sound engine you will find in their CA59, CN39, and DG30. While it’s in a few of their other upper mid-range models, it’s not their high-end, so they don’t put modeling on the ES920, and that is another difference between these two digital pianos. You’ve got a really beautiful sampled set of pianos on the Kawai ES920, their SK-EX, SK-5, and EX grand pianos, and you’ve got modeled pianos on the Roland FP90X.
The Kawai ES920 utilizes individual note sampling. While Kawai does not disclose how many layers of sampling there are, from the sounds of it, I would say we’re dealing with probably at least five or six sample layers here since it’s really difficult to detect any sample stepping. The harmonic imaging engine is pretty good at smoothing that out anyway, so I’ve never really been able to hear much sample stepping going on when it comes to the harmonic imaging engine.
The first thing you notice is that the Roland sounds like it’s a very close micing; the detail, including hammer noise, damper noise, and key off noise, and the presentation of the sound are just so immediate and so right in your face. It doesn’t feel like there’s any space between you and the tone. I don’t believe there’s any mic simulation involved. One of the interesting things about the piano tech engine, which is a modeling engine just like the Roland, is that there is a micing module or component to that algorithm to create a sense of distance and space. This is completely separate and distinct from any reverb engine or a convolution reverb engine; it’s a separate element and I suspect it’s probably not a part of the Roland engine. There’s an immediacy to all of the aspects of the tone where there’s just no air between it and your ear. Now there is, of course, a reverb engine, and you can play around with that and create ambience, but it’s almost like you’re hearing the room as one channel and the piano as another channel. It’s like they’re in parallel rather than in a chain.
On the Kawai, as with the Roland, I don’t have the details of how the piano sounds were recorded and whether this is a combination of close micing and room micing, and they’ve all been mixed as a single sample, and whether it was a four mic setup or a Decca tree. It feels like it’s more like a binaural sample, like what you would get as a player sitting behind the piano. It’s not necessarily how you would record a piano and put it on an album, but more like if you were actually physically behind a piano, how it would behave, how it would sound.
There isn’t a right or wrong answer when it comes to the difference between these two digital pianos. I’ve given this so much more thought over the last few months because of all the VST plugins that we just finished exploring because almost all of the leading piano VSTs out there cost $300, $400, or $500 for this stuff. There is very advanced engineering and programming going into these. Almost all of them give you the option of whether you want to hear the piano from a player’s perspective, the binaural micing, which is really just a fancy way of saying that they’ve miced it as your ears would hear it while you are playing it, but they also give you side micing, close micing, room micing, and surround micing. They all do that.
There’s a time and a place for both. My impression is that if I was to use one or two of these as a sound source for tracking, the Roland might be more versatile because it’s such a clean, direct sound, and you could manipulate that sound after recording and try and create some of that space.
That being said, if I was sitting down to play it as a piano, my ear might gravitate a little bit more toward the Kawai, but I know that that’s not a universally held preference. As I said, I know that because of all the feedback we got from those other plugins and explorations and discussions about mic placement and all the other features.
That’s my first impression of the difference between the piano tone on these two digital pianos; natural, non-simulated space.
Even the Church Concert still feels like a piano that has close mics, as if there are two or three mics right in the belly of the piano, but then you’re still hearing the space around the piano in a large room. That’s a really beautiful combination. I said in my individual review, the Church Concert stage setting was my favorite to just play on.
Both these instruments have the ability to manipulate the piano sound. We’ve got Virtual Technician on the Kawai, and you’ve got the Piano Designer on the Roland. You can use either of these onboard through the LCD screen and sliders, or with an app. Something that I really have gotten used to on the Roland and I’m also getting quite used to on this and other Kawais and some of the Yamahas, is the ability to choose a space or a scene. The Roland FP90x’s My Stage gives you that ability without having to go in and start individually manipulating all sorts of parameters. In the Piano Designer, you can just quickly page between all of these different virtualizations of spaces. You can also do this on some of the Kawais, like the CA79, the CA99, the NOVUS 5, and the NOVUS 10, and when I come back to the ES920, I miss the fact that it’s not there.
You can obviously go into the Virtual Technician and edit to your heart’s content, there are 21 different parameters, but you have to know what you’re trying to accomplish, otherwise, there’s no quick way to simply page through a number of these presets; whereas on the Roland you can. That’s something that side by side I really value on the Roland, the My Stage.
The Roland FP90X comes with a four-speaker audio system (2×25-watt main, 2×5-watt tweeters), and the Kawai ES920 From a speaker standpoint, there are parts of each that I like. I like the openness and the real sense of clarity that I get in the bass of the Kawai, even though it’s a slightly lower wattage. I like the attack and the presence that I’m getting in the mid-range of the Roland. In the treble, generally, they’re both good. I have no complaints about either, but by default, I do like the treble section on the Kawai a bit more. I think with the Roland, and I mentioned this in the individual review, there’s a bite that’s a bit too much when you have the volume turned up a little bit more. With the Roland, it’s a little bit harsh, not glassy, as if the duplex scaling is jacked up through the roof; whereas the Kawai is more smoothed over.
Moving on from the piano sounds because that’s where both of these have a lot of focus, we now get into a very large difference in the number of other tones. We have over 300 non-piano sounds in the Roland FP90X, including organs, electric pianos, guitars, and synths, and we’ve got something like 50 in the Kawai ES920. Now granted, most of those other sounds are coming from the general MIDI two bank. It’s not that they’re coming from a super beefy bank of highly specialized Roland tones, so you could argue that in terms of core sound, they’re actually quite similar. On paper though, the Roland does have a substantial advantage in terms of the number of tones, if that’s important to you.
Both digital pianos have a maximum polyphony of 256 voices when you get outside of the piano tone, but when you’re inside the piano tone, the Roland has a limitless number of voices because of its modeling. That’s one of the advantages that you get with modeling.
They both have an equalizer. On the Roland, you have a three-band equalizer, while on the Kawai, you have a four-band equalizer. I’m pretty sure both of them give you the ability to go and actually edit parameters on that equalizer. I know for sure on the Roland you’ve got a sweepable mid-range, and then you can dial in where your focus frequency is for your bass and your treble as well. So even though it’s only a three-band equalizer, it definitely doesn’t limit your ability to go and really edit your mid-range. Kawai just gives you a slightly better option to have two different high points to edit or two different midpoints to edit.
They also both have fantastic e-piano sounds as a part of that larger library, and both have pretty usable organs.
A big difference between the other onboard features of these two stage pianos, in terms of their sound generation, is the inclusion of an onboard auto accompaniment on the Kawai ES920, whereas, on the Roland FP90, it’s really a software-delivered auto accompaniment through an app. You can’t get that on board here without the use of the Piano Everyday app.
If you do, then you’ve got virtually identical functionality, but without the app, it is onboard on the Kawai, and not with the Roland.
Both digital pianos have onboard recorders and certainly, they both have the ability to record WAV files and Standard MIDI files. They also both playback WAV, MP3, and MIDI files. The main difference is that you have the ability to record MP3 files on the Kawai, and you do not on the Roland. So that’s one small difference.
We are going to get to a few other connectivity differences later on, but in terms of tone, that’s where we’re going to leave it for now.
Tone Comparison Summary
So, the difference in speakers, we’ve got 40 versus 60 watts, but a very nicely balanced 40 watts in the Kawai, a beautiful full mid-range, and a nice tight bass on the Roland, an improved BMC chip in the Roland delivering modeled piano versus sampled, and we’ve got a really lovely sample set on the Kawai.
Both instruments deliver 256 notes worth of polyphony. In terms of core sounds, very similar, but you’ve got the general MIDI two on the FP90X with its 256 organ, electric piano, guitar, and synthesizer sounds. So if the sheer quantity of tones is something that is important, then that might be something to be aware of.
There’s a pretty significant difference in action between these two pianos. On the Roland, we have the PHA-50 keyboard, and on the Kawai we have the RH III. The RH III I believe has been with us for about four years, and the PHA-50 came out at about the same time, and they both have their communities of support in the industry.
The RH III is also being used by Nord in their Nord Grand, and Kawai’s actions generally are probably one of their strongest suits, but the PHA-50 is gaining a bit of legendary status for just how durable and accurate that action is for MIDI output, for triggering, for recording, for all sorts of things.
They don’t feel the same at all. They don’t sound the same mechanically at all. I think the one thing they both have in common is that they’re both quite sensitive and they really do produce a responsive playing experience, so I like that about both of them. I think the style of your playing is really going to dictate which one feels more comfortable to you.
The PHA-50 has a bit more of a solid feel to the bottom of the key bed, and if you’re playing a lot of aggressive contemporary music, I think the PHA-50 is going to feel a bit more at home to you. Now maybe not a disadvantage, but on the flip side, if you’re playing a lot more sensitive music, let’s say classical, where it’s not just strictly bombastic like Liszt or Rachmaninoff or something like that, there’s something about the RH III that feels a bit more acoustic for that style of playing. I think the way that the keys are rounded, I think just the sense of the key depth on the RH III just feels very satisfying for that type of playing. Even a contemplative, quiet playing solo piano, just meandering musically about, which obviously I’m super guilty of doing all the time.
I really love the RH III, but if I’m going to just go and crush out two or three hours, Of R&B or jazz or something like that, then there’s just something that feels a bit more substantial to the PHA-50. I wouldn’t necessarily put these two actions as parallel actions. Roland’s PHA-4 action is a lot more in line with the RH III than the PHA-50 is. The PHA-50 is more in the same class as what they put on the CA49 or the CA59. It’s like a slightly compacted wood key. Although Kawai has a hammer action that’s approximately in the same physical spot that a real hammer would be, Roland has a counterweight hammer action that sits under the key, so the fundamental geometries are not that crazy off between the two. So a bit of a mismatch, but the price points are so close that the two companies are forcing you to compare these two almost as apples to apples.
Kawai has a microtextured top to the keys of the RH III action, whereas the texture on the Roland is visually supposed to look more like ivory. There’s a bit of a grain to the Roland, whereas the Kawai just looks speckled. It’s not necessarily trying to mimic anything from the natural world but it does produce a nice texture; that nice difference between a slide and a grip.
Both hammer actions have escapement, and when you get into really sensitive keyboards and sensors, that escapement really improves your level of control in the lowest dynamic ranges.
That’s generally the difference between these two actions. The Kawai is going to feel nice and sensitive for finesse playing, while the Roland is going to put up with a whole ton of abuse. Both have good MIDI output.
Then there’s just a different sense of weight to them. They both weigh out actually very similarly, but I would not be choosing one or the other without probably trying to play them side by side if it was possible to do so. I hope that my description has been somewhat helpful in understanding what you might expect when you get behind the Kawai versus behind the Roland.
Accessories and Connectivity
Both of these instruments have matching keyboard stands and pedal boards, the KSC-90, KPD-90, or KS-20X, RPU-3 for the Roland, and the HM-5, F-302 for the Kawai. They both come in black as well as white. You can use them with single damper pedals, floating sets of pedals, or of course, matched pedal units. They also both have quarter-inch output connectors, so if you are gigging with either one of these, that’s virtually a necessity.
Now we come to some differences that you will want to be aware of. For one, the Roland has a USB audio interface, meaning that with a USB cable, you can get digital audio straight to your DAW without having to convert it to an analog signal first. Kawai does not offer that, but they do have the option of recording out WAV and or mp3 onto a USB stick. So there is a way to get digital audio off the Kawai, but there isn’t a way to live record it digitally, right into a DAW. You would have to take it out into an interface and then back into the DAW again.
Now, if you’ve got good cables are you going to actually notice a difference in a real-life setting? Well, unless you’ve got top, top, top gear right through your whole chain, you’re probably not going to notice a difference, but there’s a hypothetical difference in quality by not having to go through two sets of AD converters on the way out and then on the way back into your computer.
They both have Bluetooth MIDI and Bluetooth audio, meaning you can transmit Bluetooth audio to them and use their onboard speaker systems or Bluetooth midi to connect a pretty wide variety of apps to either one of them.
They both come with removable music rests, as well as mic input jacks, and for learning purposes, both digital pianos come with a built-in metronome.
There is a weight difference that we mentioned above, about 53 or 54 pounds for the FP90X, and 37 pounds for the ES920. If you are lugging this around, that could be a pretty important factor.
For more details on specifications, visit the Roland FP90-X website here: https://www.roland.com/ca/products/fp-90x/specifications/ the Kawai ES920 website here: https://kawaius.com/product/es920/ or refer to the owner’s manuals.
So there are a few points on which I think it’s very easy to draw contrasts between these two instruments.
One, the character of the piano tone. Especially after having listened to the most minute of detail on piano VSTs, these are miles apart. You’ve got Roland, which is very detailed and full of soundboard and string resonance and very close. You’ve got the Kawai, which has been sampled in whatever method or style, with more air around the sample, and more distance from the immediate tone generation to where the microphone has picked that up. You’re either going to like that or you’re not going to like that, but it is a distinct difference in the playing experience between these two pianos.
Two, you’ve got a weight difference between these two instruments. You’ve got about a 15 or 16 pound difference. If it’s not going anywhere, who cares? If you’re lugging it around, be aware. It’s not that the Roland is particularly heavy for the category, it’s just that the Kawai is particularly light for the category.
Three, you’ve got onboard accompaniment on the Kawai, whereas you need the app to get onboard accompaniment for the Roland. So if that’s a factor it might be a deal breaker or one of those, I could care less factors.
Four, you’ve got an action difference. You’ve got the PHA-50 wood action, maybe just slightly heavier in terms of the sense of weight on the Roland, but definitely built for a really high level of abuse, whereas the RH III is going to be more in the middle of the road in terms of the level of commercial abuse that it might put up with. It’s really completely okay for light to medium-duty professional use and no problem whatsoever for home use.
I don’t have any evidence to suggest that this wouldn’t stand up under some really, really trying professional pianist’s conditions. It’s just that I know the kind of abuse that I put a keyboard through and how impressed I’ve been with what the PHA-50 has done.
Finally the difference in the sound system. The biggest difference in the 60-watt versus 40-watt speakers is the mid-range and upper mid-range projection. For the bass, I don’t notice any difference whatsoever, and I think that’s because Kawai’s got these really interesting airports or tone ports on the bottom that create a subwoofer effect.
Even though there are only 40 watts there, there’s no lacking in that lower presence; however, when you get into your mids I think the Roland does a really great job of projecting that a little bit more. It’s a very tight, very solid mid-range tone and the tone ports on the back also mean that you could be dispersing that sound to other people in the room a little bit better. Two amazing options.
I hope you’ve enjoyed the comparison. I’ve really enjoyed finally being able to get them side by side, and boy oh boy, is it nice to be back in front of real pianos again in the studio; sharing our love of pianos with you in front of pianos. If you’ve enjoyed this and found it useful and helpful we’d really appreciate it if you would subscribe and become a member of our community.