Introduction

Welcome to another piano review, Stu Harrison is taking a fresh look at the Kawai Novus NV10 Piano – one of the piano industry’s most ambitious examples yet of a manufacturer successfully simulating an acoustic grand piano experience with a hybrid piano. We’ll be taking at the Millennium III Hybrid action with its optical sensor technology (this is a real grand piano keyboard action, for those just beginning their research), we’re going to be talking about its piano sound engine, its cabinet, all of the features, everything that you get as a customer looking for a hybrid digital piano in the Kawai Novus 10. So thank you very much for being here. If it’s your first time here, please do subscribe to the channel.

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Background

If you’re seeing this review in the first place, you’ve entered the world of hybrid digital pianos, and likely doing some diligent research. The Kawai Novus 10 has been out for some time – just over a year – and has certainly received lots of reaction over that time. So why return to do a second take on the instrument? I think when a brand new product first comes out, the hype and the initial reviews can influence your own impressions, and cloud you from truly getting a sense of what is there, which of course prevents you from giving a truly authentic review as well. After having spend many, many hours in front of the Novus 10 since that time, I thought that it would be helpful to share a second perspective. I think you’re going to find this feedback helpful, or at least certainly, I hope you’re going to find this feedback helpful.

Sound & Action

Kawai Novus NV10 Hybrid Piano Overhead

Let’s start with the tone and the sound of this instrument. I usually split up action and sound into two separate categories when I’m reviewing a digital piano because, in a lot of cases, it’s possible to talk about them as two totally separate entities. However, with the Novus 10 the integration of the two is so thorough that we can’t really split up sound and tone when we’re talking about the Novus. And one of the reasons why that is, is it’s the first piano, a digital piano that Kawai has put out that uses a full acoustic action, named the Millennium III Hybrid Action. In fact, even the lid can be taken off just like as though it were a grand piano. And I can look at here and I can see the full key stick lengths. I can see the cap stands, I can see the jacks. It’s remarkable to think that this doesn’t look any different were I to remove the fallboard from a GX2.

The Hybrid Action even simulates the grand piano damper mechanism accurately, and as you look at the action outside of the Novus 10 cabinet, you realize that the only two things missing here is a string, and a wool hammer. EVERYTHING ELSE IS THERE. Some industry observers have compared Kawai’s efforts here to Yamaha’s Avante Grand action that you can find on the NU2 or NU3; and I’d agree that the approach is generally the same, however it then comes down to which action you prefer anyway, and who has done a better job of translating the physical motion of the key action into sound. There’s no doubt that Kawai benefited from Yamaha being the first to tackle it, but in my mind Kawai has raised the bar with overall playing experience.

When I first encountered the Novus 10, I went through periods where I thought the action felt too heavy. I went through periods where it’s like, “Ah, you know, this should be feeling more authentic than it does.” Now, as I said, I’ve come back a week ago after really having lived with this for a long time and I’ve got some tips on do’s and don’ts of really maxing out and enjoying what this Novus can do. Because I will say this unequivocally, once I figured out how to really get the Novus set up, this is the best digital piano I’ve ever played. This is definitely the closest to an acoustic experience I’ve ever come to. I’ve played pretty much everything on the market, but it took me a little while to figure out exactly how to achieve that sense of realism.

So, first of all, let’s talk about the SK-EX rendering sound engine itself. So this is a multi-channel sampling of a Shigeru Kawai SK-EX concert grand. So that means that they are taking samples from different parts of the concert grand and those are being ported specifically to different speakers with some absolutely cutting-edge Onkyo processing. And if you’re using the Onkyo headphone amplifier, you get their discrete spectramodule capable of Spatial Headphone Sound. They’re also taking a multi-velocity sample. And in a first for Kawai, the Novus 10 in pianist mode has unlimited polyphony, revealing that there’s actually quite a bit of modelling going on – not to mention a crazy level of memory and processing chops loaded in. When you compare the wav output of this machine to some of the previous top models, the structure and detail in the output is at an entirely new level of resolution – which if you’re pushing that signal through insufficiently capable speakers or amplifiers, just gets lost – but in this case, nothing is wasted.

The subtleties with which all of these additional algorithms are contributing can’t be celebrated enough. The acoustic rendering, resonance modelling, with all of their adjustable parameters, gives a shockingly accurate output. As we were listening to my recording of Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen on the Novus 10, if all you hear is the audio, it completely passes for an acoustic recording in every sense. It’s the first time I’ve ever been fooled – normally there’s some kind of giveaway…like hearing some stepping between sample layers, or an inauthentic repetition or a missed note at a moment where you wouldn’t normally have heard one. It honestly came off as a real grand piano.

Once you’re in sound mode, you are still getting the full power of the Harmonic Imaging XL engine, which by any other standard is excellent, and still provides a fantastic playing experience.

Sound Tips

Here’s where I think people set themselves up to have a less than ideal experience on the Novus. And I realized this myself, and it’s a pretty simple thing. First of all, you need to spend a bit of time to make sure that you actually get the piano tone that you want. There are so many parameters on this that are editable. You have a full parametric EQ that you can use. You can choose from a couple of different samples, you know, that you’re going to be, kind of, starting from. Then you’ve got all of the 19 virtual technician settings that gives you the ability to, you know, really customize your own piano. If you don’t spend the time to go through that and find a piano tone that you really resonate with, both figuratively and literally, it’s going to fall short of your expectations. And anyone sitting down at the Novus, I think, is going to have sky-high expectations because of all the rhetoric that surrounds this instrument being, sort of, like the newest, latest, and greatest. So spend the time. If you don’t spend the time, there’s a chance you might love what’s right out of the box, but if you don’t, you’re going to sit down expecting to be blown away and it might just not hit your ear the right way. So spend the time, it’s 10 minutes in the virtual technician function as well as the various speaker and volume settings, and play through it. It’s actually a really fun process.

The second thing I realized, though, is that this action, if played at 1/4 volume, feels heavy because you’re invariably going to compare it to a real concert grand piano, or at the very least a decent baby grand, which would be giving you more sound for the same key pressure…and so your brain tells you “this is a heavy action”. When you are giving more energy through your fingers than what you feel like your getting back through your ears, we perceive it to be a heavy action – regardless of what the actual physical resistance is on the key itself. And vice versa; when you have a piano where you get more sound back than you’re expecting, for the level of force you’re applying, you automatically ease off a bit, and perceive it to be a light action. So on the Novus 10, I found this effect to be extreme if you were anywhere under 50% volume and you weren’t using headphones. This is going to take away from the overall enjoyment, and potentially cause you to have a poor first impression. Not to mention that the softer it is, the more you’ll hear the key volume and overall mechanism itself.

Yes, I realize that I’ll have people mentioning that this is exactly the situation that custom touch curves were created for. I would disagree, because even if you can get something that feels appropriate on the Novus, it’s going to cause your muscles to train in all the wrong ways if you are also doing a lot of playing on a real acoustic. You don’t want to have to be in chronic compensation mode.

So my advice is if you’re in a situation where you have to be playing quietly and you’ve got a Novus 10, or you’re considering a Novus 10, get yourself a really good set of headphones and take advantage of all of that processing, that Onkyo processing that’s there for headphone use and then turn it up as loud as you want so that you’re getting the proper experience. If you’re using the onboard speakers and you’re using at a quarter volume or half volume, I guarantee you this action is going to feel a little bit weird and it’s going to feel heavy. If you turn the volume up, maybe not all the way to max, but, you know, at an 8 out of 10 or something in that range, then you actually hit the dynamic range, the dynamic envelope that starts to resemble like a 5-foot piano. And then all of a sudden, as if by magic, this action starts to feel light and it starts to feel effortless.

The thing is, the action is so accurate that that doesn’t mean you’re not going to be able to draw really, really soft tones out of the piano.I have the volume set to about 9 out of 10 right now. And that action feels like in front of a real baby grand piano.So that, yeah, I’ve just turned it down to about a 6 out of 10. And my perception is that that action is starting to get a bit heavy. I’ve turned it down to about a 4 out of 10, and now my ear is hearing the mechanic of the action and it’s feeling heavy. So the illusion of being behind an acoustic piano is now totally broken. And I haven’t even turned it down below four.

Like I said, I don’t necessarily see this as a fault of design. You’re trying to mate an action that has, you know, 52, 53 grams of weight, which is way heavier than most digital instruments, but you’ve loaded this instrument up with like 135 watts of output power. So it’s got the juice to match this dynamic output with the force that you’re used to putting into a Millennium III Action. But if you’re going to turn it down to three or four, it’s going to feel mismatched. And maybe in subsequent generations of Novus 10, they’re going to be able to accommodate for this somehow. But at this point, my advice, strong advice, if you’re sampling this or if you own this, if you’re playing at a 3 or 4 out of 10, just plug the headphones in and then put it up to a volume that really feels comfortable. I would say at least at a 6 out of 10, and you’re going to have this nice mating of the action with the sound, or if you don’t have to worry about the sound, don’t be afraid to put it to a 7 or 8 because the dynamic control that you’re getting out of this action is just exquisite.

Cabinet, Speakers, and Pedals

NV10

The speaker / sound reproduction system is quite unlike anything else that Kawai has. You’ve got four top speakers on the top of the instrument, two of which are not covered by the music desk (sometimes referred to as the music rest), two of which actually become covered by the music desk when you lean this down. Included in these are dome tweeters which pump out crystal-clear treble. Placing two of these where they could be covered by the music desk I have to assume has been done on purpose to simulate closing of a real grand piano lid. So if you want to close the lid but still have your music desk, Kawai has equipped this with actually two separate levers. So you can adjust this so that it sits ‘half up’ (enough that it’s still functional) partially obstruct the speakers. Or, of course fully raise the desk for the complete sound of all four top speakers. And then that’s going to give you the simulation of the lid completely open and it actually does change the sound as it’s reaching your ear. It’s an interesting, well-conceived feature.

Then you’ve got your main speakers underneath – two primary speakers and one woofer to give true lower harmonic presence. All in all, one heck of a powerful and well-balanced speaker system – with no less than 135 watts of power. Controlling those speakers, you’ve got a multitude of effects processors, amplification technologies, reverb engines. There’s something that’s called Wall EQ; if you’ve got it backed right up to the wall it automatically adjusts the speaker output and EQ curve so that you don’t get ugly reflections. The cabinet has also been designed to give true cabinet resonance, so that even the frame and polyester are doing their part to deliver an authentic piano experience.

As for the cabinet, there is certainly some inspiration taken from the Yamaha predecessors, but thankfully far from a straight rip-off. The NV-10 is its own beast for sure. The triple pedals function as expected: sustain / damper, sostenuto, una corda (soft pedal), but also the Grand Pedal Feel System which mimics the individual spring tensions that you find on a real concert grand piano. The cabinet also features a genuine soft fall fallboard, real cheekblocks, with the brand-new LCD Touchscreen Display buried right in the left side – an enhancement to the user interface that Kawai has nailed in grand fashion this time around.

I love the design of the instrument. I mean, it evokes a grand piano, but it’s nice and compact. You’re not wasting any space, sort of, trying to emulate that curve, which on a digital grand piano is nothing but aesthetic. It’s not really serving any functional purpose. And so, I like this for its compactness, but also for its uniqueness and its elegance.

Bluetooth & Connectivity

NV10-Touchscreen-Display

In addition to the exquisite sound production, action, and cabinet, we’ve got Bluetooth MIDI. We’ve got Bluetooth audio. So if you want to hook up your phone, or your iPad, or any sort of a mobile device and play your music through the stereo, you can and it sounds unbelievably great, and an additional way to take advantage of the premium audio processing that the instrument has onboard.

The “docking station” underneath the piano has every port you could hope for, including line in and line out connectors (both with 1/4″ stereo jacks), headphone jacks of both sizes, and USB ports so that you can get SMF files on and off easily. And then you’ve got a nice, kind of, docking station underneath where you’ve got audio ins and audio outs through a quarter inch. You’ve got your USB ins and outs. So you can, you know, plug a USB key in there or, you know, hook it wired up to a computer to use it.

Conclusions & Summary

By and large the main purpose of this instrument is to give a player as uncompromised a playing experience as possible in a digital piano, while coming as close as possible to a real acoustic grand piano. I say with more confidence than ever that the Novus 10 does that better than anything on the market today. There’s a wide variety of reasons why acoustic baby grands just don’t work for some people. Obviously, footprint is an issue, but climate control is also an issue. And I would also include professionals looking for a reasonable recording option where they don’t want to use software and a controller, or don’t have the option to mic up a 6 – 9′ grand themselves. As I said, please check out the playing videos we’ve done of these to see just how true the rendering characteristics are.

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