Stu Harrison of Merriam Pianos examines Kawai’s award-winning CA78 Digital Piano, a relatively new entrant to the home digital market, and one aiming for the higher-end of the buying public. Aside from its impressive technical specs and inspired collaboration with a hi-fi stereo company, the CA78 is also an exquisite piano to just sit down and enjoy. If you find yourself in the market for a new piano, and you’ve been seeking digital or acoustic pianos in the $5000 and under range, this piano should absolutely be on your short list to investigate. In the video above, Stu specifically plays the ebony polish version, but it also comes in 3 other finishes: Premium Rosewood, Satin Black, and Satin White (in some markets).
We’ll be discussing the features, the sound, and the action – but first, let’s begin with action.
Talking about the action on the CA78, now this is the same action that you’re gonna find on the Kawai CA98. Kawai has been working on this type of wooden-key keyboard action for close to 20 years. I remember starting in the piano business back in about 2005 and going down to Kawai’s North American headquarters in Los Angeles and getting a whole run-through on what they were doing with their all-wood action at that point, and it was absolutely state-of-the-art, leading the industry. At this point we’re almost 15 years later and they continue to improve on this action.
What’s even more interesting is as time has gone by several other companies are now using this action as the absolute foundation for their product. And so you can now find this in Nord’s brand new grand piano product that literally just hit the market a couple of months ago, as well as Ravenscroft, which is arguably one of the top boutique piano makers in the world, came out with a digital product called Ravenworks and they’re using Kawai’s wood-based action in there. So it’s showing up everywhere. It really has, as I said, been leading the pack almost for two decades now. And what’s in the CA78 is the very best of what Kawai is now producing in 2019.[Referencing the video] I’m just gonna pull in a wooden-key action model right here so we can have a look at exactly what this is all about. One of the things that you notice fairly immediately is just the sheer length of the wooden-key. And actually if you hold this up to an acoustic piano wooden-key, what you realize is the distance between the front pin and what they would call the capstan, which is actually what moves the hammer, is exactly the same geometry and dimensions as what you’ll find in an acoustic key.
The second thing that I certainly noticed because I’m obviously an acoustic piano player, as well as a salesperson and trainer, is you notice that a lot of the components in there are actually made of natural materials like brass and chrome, hard metals that you also find in the action of acoustic pianos. So you’re talking about an action that’s built incredibly durably.
The way in this works is rather than having all of the parts that normally go in a whippen, it’s really got one hammer component with weighting on the end. Now that weighting is graded so as you get closer to the top of the keyboard, those weights get smaller, so it gets closer to the bottom of the keyboard, those weights get heavier to simulate the smaller and the larger keys.
And then, of course, you’ve got this little rubber nub in there, I’m sure there’s a more technical term for that, but that essentially simulates that little escapement or that let-off where on a real piano, the jack would have been just slipping off the knuckle on the shank of the hammer. So this is what it’s all about. This is what drives these CA78 and CA98. And of course, again we’re talking about the Grand Feel II with let-off and counterweights complimented by the SK-EX Rendering piano sound engine.
The surfaces they’ve chosen for the key surfaces also gives a realistic ebony & ivory touch.
Now as you start to play this instrument you get musically lost pretty quickly – in all the good ways. In short, we have a true musical instrument on our hands. I mean the level of expression and the depth of the range that you have, that the action gives you is pretty extraordinary. If you haven’t had a chance to try one of these, if you’re in the market, you know, whether or not Kawai is on your list or not, if you have a chance to sit down and play one, I really think that it’s an opportunity that you should take.
It’s pretty remarkable how far they’ve come from the time where people used to sneer at the thought of a digital piano being a real instrument to the point now where we have really good players coming in the showroom, good teachers coming into the showroom talking about instruments like this as their primary teaching instrument or at the very least, a really good secondary instrument to have in the studio or at home as a practice piano.
Now on top of the fact that it’s feeling a lot better, and I made mention of the durability that you get over top of, say, a standard plastic action that has a few more moving parts, it’s also using a triple sensor. And that triple sensor again is industry-leading. It’s one of the primary reasons why Ravenworks and Nord selected this was just the accuracy of the MIDI information that this instrument outputs to the tone generator. It’s spot on and we see this time and time again.
I remember going back down to NAMM a couple of years ago and walking around some of the software displays and most of them were using the Kawai VPC1 as the main controller to actually demonstrate the software because the MIDI output was just so accurate and the feel was so good. So the CA78, again the same as CA98, you’re getting fantastically accurate, durable and very satisfying action on which to play.
The Piano Sound
Let’s move on to the sound that is actually co-powered by Onkyo. So the newest CA (Concert Artists) series, including the Kawai CA78 and the 98, and of course the Novus 10, are all building upon Kawai’s Harmonic Imaging XL technology, which is another thing that they’ve been working on for many, many years. Now in simple terms, Harmonic Imaging is their trade name for essentially the algorithm that they use to create the piano sound engine. And in even more kind of, you know, simplified terms, essentially what it is, is a recording of a real piano and then they are using what’s called modeling to affect those samples.
So it’s kind of like taking a snapshot of a real photo and then applying computer graphics over it to make any changes that you want. So you start with something real and then you’re applying programming and essentially computer code to modify it and customize it to what you happen to be doing on the keys. And that’s where you get into their Virtual Technician technology and even if you’re just using it straight out of the box as it was programmed at the factory, you’re hearing tons of detail that is…you don’t hear in too many other places in the digital world.
The bass sound for their piano sample in the 78 and the 98 is their 9-foot Shigeru Kawai EX Concert Grand Piano. Now that on its own is an exquisite instrument to start with. I think arguably certainly one of the top five concert grands in the world right up there in tonal complexity with a Hamburg Steinway or the Fazioli 278 or, you know the Bechstein 9-foot as well. And so you’re starting with a great bass, and you’ve got…I think it’s the fifth or sixth generation of Harmonic Imaging now that they’re applying to that sample and so you get this fantastically colorful, responsive dynamic tone out of this instrument.
The engine is capable of a 256 max polyphony, which given the size of the multi-channel sampling bank, is impressive. They also equip the sound engine with remarkably high-quality reverb modules and resonance modelling in addition to the multiple virtual technician presets – all of it coming together to give a customized playing experience that feels more personal than a typical digital. I should mention that many of the extra horsepower we’re discussing here is only available in pianist mode, rather than sound mode (organ / pads etc).
So all of that great technology by Kawai and Onkyo is sending sound to our ears through four super high-end speakers. And the four (really six if you could the top speakers as four) speakers on its own is kind of a nice treat because most digital pianos, particularly if you’re down in the $2,000 range or below, you’re just getting 2 basic stereo speakers. Generally, you could describe the speaker system as being truly ‘hi-fi’, both in terms of the power amplifiers, the speakers themselves, the tweeters,
The main volume of the instrument is coming out of the bottom. We’ve got two two-way speakers on the bottom. So that’s a speaker where you almost you have like two cones within one. You’ve got something for your low frequencies and you’ve got a slightly smaller cone for your mid-frequencies, all built into a single speaker. So we’ve got two of those on the bottom and then we’ve got two discrete amplifiers in there. So we’ve got nice, clean signal out of the left and out of the right.
Discussing the headphones specifically, the CA78 is equipped with a discrete stereo headphone amplifier, which is really where you can hear the premium audio processing going on. They give the user the option to control the spatial headphone effects, and even specify the type of headphones they are using, like open-back, closed, or earbuds.
All in all, what this translates to is an instrument that doesn’t need assistance from any external device to deliver great sound, whether its through its onboard speakers or using a fantastic set of headphones that you already love – this, despite having discrete line out and line in . You’ve got multi-channel sampling being processed by top-end audio circuits, 100 watts of power, 6 premium speakers by Onkyo, and all the editable parameters that you could ever hope for to build yourself your perfect virtual grand piano. What more could someone want out of a digital piano?
Pedals and Cabinet
The pedal systems on digital pianos don’t often get discussed, but in addition to having true sostenuto, damper, and una corda function (soft pedal), the Kawai also uses what they call Grand Feel Pedal System, which accuractly simulates the spring pressure for all three pedals as they actually exist on a real concert grand piano. They also include half-pedal function, which for classical and jazz players alike is a huge plus.
The cabinet, as mentioned at the very beginning, is available in a wide range of finishes, from Ebony Polish, Premium Rosewood, Satin White, and Satin Black. The styling is contemporary without risking being overly trendy; its a sleek, modern cabinet with the normal acoustic piano conveniences like adjustable music rest, a condensed user interface that looks and feels like a smart phone (more on that below), and perhaps most importantly, a durable and well-crafted frame.
Features and Controls
Driving all of this or I should say controlling all of this is something that Kawai brought out last year and it’s now the control interface on their CA48, their CA78, 98 as well as the Novus. And I’ll make sure that we get some B-roll of this. It’s a brand new LCD touchscreen user interface on to the left. All of the buttons are gone. All of the control surfaces are gone. We’re now left with essentially what’s the size of an iPhone. And it’s completely touchscreen. It’s totally intuitive. It’s fun to use. And there’s a Bluetooth connection that kind of transports that control right on to a smart device such as your phone.
And so I’ve got my phone, it’s an iPhone 10. You can Bluetooth-link it your smart devices. And then with this app, you can totally just select right from there what pads you want to use. So within the app, we’ve got 10 acoustic pianos that you have to choose from and then, of course, each one of these can be customized. So we start with the Shigeru Kawai SK Concert Grand Piano which is sort of its big default juicy sound, jazz clean, upright pianos, and then even you get into the electric pianos.
And so on and so forth.
It’s a very easy app to use. It’s free so you can download it. Unfortunately at this point, it’s only on iOS. But the Bluetooth link between the instrument and your device, whether it’s an iPad format or a smartphone format, that works in both Android and iOS. And there’s hundreds of apps that you can use to make use of that wireless Bluetooth MIDI link or that wireless Bluetooth, as it’s officially called.
In addition to the LCD touchscreen display, there’s a lot of standard features that people always ask me about. Does it have headphone jacks? Does it have audio outs? You know, is there a USB connection? Can i playback MP3 or WAV audio files? Is there a built-in metronome? So the answer is yes to all of those. This has discrete stereo audio out so if you do want to hook it up to an amplifier or if you want to hook it up to a stereo at home, no problem. You can do that without it shutting off its local speakers, which is a nice feature. It also has headphone jacks. And what’s great about that is it’s got a quarter-inch as well as a 3.5 mm so you don’t need the adapter. You can plug whichever end is on your headphones in and it’ll work just fine.
You can also feed an auxiliary audio device in through the 3.5 mm jack underneath. It’s got the input control or the gain control, so you can control the volume that’s coming in. Plus you can use these speakers as Bluetooth speakers. This is, it seems like kind of a simple feature, but it’s actually a ton of fun because what this means is you can take your phone or you can take your computer or any Bluetooth device that, you know, you play your music through, and if you want to play along to some of your favorite tracks, you don’t need the cable. You can just link it up and you can use this fantastic set of amps and speakers right on board streaming your Bluetooth audio and you can be playing along with it.
I have a lot of people that come back and tell me that that’s one of the things that they actually use the most with their Bluetooth connection. And I can understand why. It’s a ton of fun. You can engage with something that you already have a lot of fun with which is, of course, your favorite music. Last but not least, it’s got the cover. If you’re in a dusty environment or of course you just like the look of the instrument with a closed versus the keys up, when you’re not playing it, you pull the cover down. Elegant look from a furniture standpoint and you’ll make sure that your ivory feel key surfaces stay nice and clean.
And last but not least, are the built-in educational functions and standard playing functions – at this point almost assumed, but still worth mentioning. So yes, the CA78 has transpose, dual mode / split modes, metronome, and recording functions. Teachers can use the recording function to copy exercises to usb memory in real time, or they can record and playback smf files (Standard Midi Files) within the lesson or give them to students for study throughout the week.
For teachers using either the Beyer, Burgmuller, Czerny, Alfred, or Chopin series of instructional books, Kawai has preloaded the CA78 with many of those series’ most popular books’ repertoire right on to the instrument, which works surprisingly well as a practice and teaching aid.
The Kawai CA78 sits in a point in the market where there are probably 4 or 5 competitors that are sort of vying for your attention in this price range. Roland has some, Yamaha has some. And of course, the closest one to the CA78 on the Kawai side is the CA98, which is virtually the same instrument with a soundboard.
So to wrap up, we’ve got an instrument here that is the culmination of everything Kawai has been putting its maximum efforts towards for 20 years – a continued research and development of their Harmonic Imaging, their wooden key action, their experience with improving and understanding the ideal user interface, and their newly successful collaboration with Onkyo. And now they’ve combined the CA and the CS series from a cabinetry standpoint and you can get this in polished ebony – such an elegant cabinet. I’m not sure what more you could possibly want from a digital piano if you were looking to just sit down, enjoy a super authentic piano tone and just relax at the end of the day with your favorite song.
So get to a showroom and try one out if you have the opportunity to do so. I highly recommend it. I don’t think this is an instrument that is going to disappoint in any way, shape or form. Or of course if you’re in Toronto, we have one of these in both of our showrooms at Oakville and Vaughan. We’d love to see you. And thank you so much again for watching another piano review from Merriam Pianos. My name is Stu Harrison. We’ll see you next time.