Digital pianos continue to march forward in their quest to become more authentic, more durable, and more apt replacements for entry-level acoustic instruments. In 2019, it’s hard to think of two pianos that embody the technology and performance that are available to mid-range shoppers than Kawai’s CA-78, and Roland’s DP-603. Stu Harrison of Merriam Pianos evaluates both in this video review, with an accompanying written article below. Thanks very much for stopping by, we hope you enjoy!
Kawai CA78 vs Roland DP603 Digital Piano Comparison Video Transcription
Welcome to another piano shootout video. My name is Stu Harrison, and we are here at Merriam Pianos, just outside of Toronto, Canada. And to my left and to my right are the CA78 digital piano from Kawai and the DP603 digital piano from Roland. I can’t think of a better matchup to be comparing. I’m really, really grateful that we were able to get these two side-by-side. We’ve got the very best action in tone generating technology from Roland, and the very best action (the Novus 10 aside) and tone generating technology on Kawai’s piano sound engine. And we are going to play them side by side exactly the same thing back and forth, 10-second segments, 5-second segments, so you can really get a good side-by-side comparison.
We’ll talk about the differences in the action, we’ll talk about the differences in the functionality. And hopefully, this just gives you a little bit more insight when you’re doing your shopping at home. Of course, I like different things about both of these instruments, there is no clear winner here, this really comes down to personal thing. I know when you click on these videos you’d really like somebody just saying, “This is the better one.” It’s hard to do. The best thing, of course, get yourself into a showroom that’s local to you, try them side-by-side yourself. But if you are in the market, in the $3000, $4000, $5000 price range, you’re thinking digital because of either convenience or you’re gonna have to move it around occasionally, make sure that both of these instruments are on your list. They’re just incredible values and they’re fun musical instruments to play on. So thank you so much for joining us, we’re gonna get started right away talking about the action.
Comparing the PHA-50 Action with the Grand Feel II Action
Talking about the actions on these two, there are some similarities, there are some differences. This action is referred to as the PHA-50 keyboard, it is Roland’s top action that they make. It doesn’t matter whether you spend double or triple the money, you’re not getting anything better than what you’re getting right here with the Roland DP603, which to me makes it an incredible value right out of the gate. On the Kawai side, we’ve got their Grand Feel II action with let-off, it’s not quite as compact the name as the new PHA-50 but essentially it delivers a lot of the same features rather as the PHA-50 keyboard. You’ve got let-off and you’ve got an extensive use of wood material in the wooden-key action.
The similarities obviously are that they’re the best efforts from both of these companies, the other similarities, of course, that they use, they make use of wood inside the action. The biggest difference between this action and this action is on the Kawai, the key stick, or in other words, the length of the total key, even after you get in the part behind you can’t see, is about this long. It’s actually about the same length or precisely the same length is what you find on an upright acoustic action in terms of the overall geometry.
In the Roland, they’re using more of the traditional balanced-hammer graded hammer action, but the key section is actually filled with a wood core and you can see it, if you just even press down one of the keys you can see the wood, that’s not a veneer that’s actually real wood in there, and yes it does make a difference even though you’re still using just a key with a balanced hammer counterweight in there. So both the Kawai and Roland are offering up wooden-key keyboard actions for us to enjoy.
The PHA-50 is an action that I know really well, as I’m a pro user of the Roland RD-2000 Stage Piano. This is a piano that I love, I use it extensively on gigs and shows and in studio, and so it’s definitely something that I find to be satisfying action to play. And as I say, yes, the wood is not a gimmick, it actually doesn’t make a difference. So we’ve got wood in both but we’ve got the longer stick in the Kawai, giving you that sense of dynamic motion. In the Roland, they’re simulating a little bit more with the use of a counterweight but it’s done a really nice job. Now the key bed in both of these is a dream, they don’t feel exactly the same, but I would say that the Roland and Kawai key beds are starting to feel a little bit more like each other, whereas if you went by five years ago, the Roland key beds were pretty hard, when you hit the bottom, it was cushioned with rubber padding, whereas the Kawais have for quite a while actually used felt just like they do in the acoustics.
So when you hit the bottom of the key bed, it sort of had a nice cushioned soft landing and sort of had that feeling that if you pushed a little harder you could even get a little deeper. And on the Roland, it used to be just kind of a clunk. Well, they’ve now also got a really nice cushion on the bottom where you start to feel like no, no, this is a real action, this is giving me what I would kind of expect out of an acoustic piano. They both have textured key surfaces, the Roland is a little bit more textured versus the Kawai – especially on the ivory side – and honestly delivers a true ebony & ivory touch overall. I don’t find that to be a big deal, some people find it to be a much bigger deal. The fact that they are both textured and they have the ability to absorb a little bit of sweat, I don’t have sweaty fingers, but I know a lot of people who get a little bit sweaty when they’re playing or especially if you’re in a hot environment, and having that key be able to absorb some of that moisture is actually pretty handy, otherwise it just gets to be a slippery mess.
They also use triple sensors. Kawai’s triple sensor system is a little bit different than Roland’s but by and large, I think they’re both really responsive. Kawai’s reputation between the two of them is that it does tend to have slightly more accurate MIDI output, I’ve observed that in studio settings, but on the other hand the Roland really doesn’t produce too many spikes. It’s still also a very, very accurate action. The point is, do they feel the same? No, but they do they feel miles apart? No.
These are subtle differences and it really is going to come down to the style of playing that you do and what you like already or what you’re used to. So side-by-side comparison is really really critical but hopefully, I’ve been able to outline some of the differences and you can continue to do a little bit more reading.
Which action you’re gonna like? Really, in my opinion, comes down to not only what acoustic piano you’re already used to, but the style of music that you primarily play. I do find that when the playing speeds up, the Kawai has a slightly heavier sense to it whereas the Roland consistently stays feeling light throughout.
So that might mean that somebody who’s already used to playing on a grand piano and has some muscle tone built up and is used to some classical playing where it takes quite a bit of fitness to get through it, which is I know what Kawai was going for here, you might feel very much at home with this, and this might start to feel a little bit too fluid, a little bit too light. Whereas if somebody is maybe more used to playing on an upright piano or your primary experience has already been with digital pianos this is gonna feel super comfortable. The point is you do have to try them yourself, these are only my impressions, but as I said both, very, very satisfying actions to play out.
Other Feature Commonalities & Differences
Moving on to features. Now the instruments have again commonalities and then there are some differences.
Some of the commonalities are:
- the inclusion of bluetooth audio functionality on both machines which allows a user to stream audio from a portable device through the speaker systems on either machine. ,
- both have true three pedal function (half-pedal with sostenuto, damper, and una-corda) as well as continual sensing on both instruments
- both have line-in and line-out audio,
- both come in satin black and satin white (although the CA78 by default also comes in Premium Rosewood),
- both offer usb memory,
- both are loaded with educationally-focused features such as dual mode / split mode / twin piano mode, and lots of repertoire and method book pieces pre-loaded as well.
- They are also both Bluetooth midi compatible, and both companies have offered free, user-friendly apps that permit remote-controlling of the main functions, as well as surprisingly detailed apps
- Both of course have the basics covered like metronome, transpose, midi file playback (SMF) through a usb key, and a stereo-to-mono function on the Left channel on the line-out
Now for some differences:
- Roland’s control surface is pretty traditional in that you’ve got physical buttons to press and touch for the various functions, whereas the Kawai uses a graphic user interface imbedded in the left cheek block.
- Roland takes a different approach to reverb, instead referring to it as ‘ambience’ settings, whereas the Kawai has a more traditional labelling and editing function for the reverb options
- Roland’s cabinet offers a sleek modern cabinet, but doesn’t offer the ability to adjust the music rest
- Kawai’s cabinet is more traditional in appearance, but certainly with contemporary styling, and does offer an adjustable music rest
- The Roland offers adjustments to its ambience, brilliance, key touch, transpose, some of those more basic functions through button commands, and you can easily scroll through the categories of sounds. There’s the ability to edit those sounds and save them as presets, and then we’ve got basic playback, basic record functionality, and we’ve got rhythm accompaniment.
- The Roland rhythm accompaniment from a functionality standpoint, to me, is the biggest difference between these two. If you’ve got an iPad and you’ve got or a smartphone and you load up Roland’s software you can use the DP603 digital piano to have a full band playing along with you, controlled entirely just with the touch of a finger and your left hand to move around the harmony – that’s not something that’s available on the KawaiConcert Artist Series, and currently the only two instruments with rhythm accompaniment from Kawai (aside from the monstrous CP series) is the ES8 or the KDP170. Kawai has really chosen to focus the energy and R&D primarily into the piano playing experience and updating the user interface.
So whereas the Roland starts to, I guess, expand into a number of other not so piano-specific functions and give you a much broader-based set of functionality, which is one of the things I really like about it, it gives you the piano thing but you also have a few extra features onboard without having to do it with software.
The Kawai, from a function standpoint, is a little more stripped back. Yes, you have the ability to edit the sound, yes, you’ve got this gorgeous touch screen rather than the buttons, making the control of the instrument very intuitive and kind of fun to use the LCD touchscreen display but you’re missing a few things like the extensive rhythm, sort of a ranger rhythm playback.
Both the Roland and Kawai offers up a premium amplifier and speaker system with plenty of detail and range. On the CA78 you’re getting an extra two tweeter speakers and in my opinion, a slightly better sound production overall with the Onkyo power amplifiers which really brings premium audio processing to the mix. Beyond the various tone processing that’s going on with the main amplifiers, the CA78 has a discrete Onkyo headphone amplifier which gives you the ability to adjust the spatial headphone sound parameters (such as the type of headphone that you’re using). And as I said, possibly our focus that’s just a little more piano-centric versus more broad-based functionality between the Roland and the Kawai.
The Roland DP-603 uses a speaker ‘bar’ which faces the player, and also uses two power amplifiers for the L/R channels. Although the wattage is lower than the CA78, and doesn’t offer quite the same range of main & tweeter configuration, still definitely improves upon the traditional ‘speaker-down’ orientation found in most digital pianos.
Piano Tone Engine
The CA-78 Kawai, by default, uses the current flagship 9′ concert grand Shigeru Kawai SK-EX, or the older version, the Shigeru Kawai EX rendering of their concert grand piano. The SK-EX rendering pianist mode is the concert piano model that you get as soon as you turn it on out of the box. The overall sound engine is labelled Harmonic Imaging XL – with the big advancement being multi-channel sampling – and represents about the 5th or 6th generation of tone engine that Kawai has been developing since the mid 2000’s.
The DP603 is using the SuperNATURAL piano modelling sound engine, something that offers up unlimited polyphony on the pianist mode, an impressive 388 polyphony when in sound mode, and brings the top-of-industry modelling tech that the V-Piano first showcased to the market. This means that
Hopefully, the playing in the video can give you a sense of some of the differences in the tone qualities. I mean what I noticed right away is that the Roland tends to I think bias a little bit towards the the brighter sound. The Kawai seems to have a bit more presence around the lower and the mid-tones, and generally is a little bit of a softer edge to it, a little bit just sounds a bit like a fatter lower tone. Your ear is likely to just have a preference the minute that you hear them.
One last thing for people out there who are a little tech-savvy, both of these instruments come equipped with wireless connectivity using Bluetooth MIDI, which means that you can take your iPad or your smart device load them up with the proprietary software from both Kawai and Roland and control these remotely, gives you tons of extra flexibility and, of course, you can use them with apps like GarageBand, Roland’s Piano Partner 2 or any other kind of mobile DAW software, it’s a ton of fun. So there’s lots of expansion capabilities. The Kawai CA78 also has built-in lessons with songs from Czerny, Alfred, Chopin, Burgmüller, Beyer, and many more; they also use a feature which has proven popular across virtually Kawai’s entire digital piano lineup, called concert magic – something that teaches basic rhythm while playing along to known favorites.
Anyway, we’ll wrap this up. Thank you so much for watching but most importantly, I hope this has been useful. Please let us know in the comments below what you liked about the video, what you’d like to see more of and in future videos. And I hope that this is genuinely helped your shopping experience. Of course, if you are anywhere near Toronto, please come and visit us at Merriam Pianos and either one of our showrooms where we’ve got both DP603 and Kawai CA78 digital pianos on display at all times. For those on the hunt for a new piano, you wouldn’t be going wrong with either one of these fantastic instruments. thanks so much.