Portable, all-in-one 88-key digital pianos are very popular among beginner and intermediate players, but they’re also becoming increasingly popular among professionals who need a very authentic grand piano tone, solid touch and onboard speakers.
As such, whether or not the end user is a professional or not, certain manufacturers have placed a real focus on producing high-end models for this category.
In this comparison article and companion video, we’re going to be comparing two of the top models in this category with the Yamaha P515 vs Kawai ES920. Each piano is the top model in their respective line, and whether you’re a hobbyist or beginner looking for a quality instrument, a student in need of a great practice instrument, or a professional performer after an acoustic piano-focused stage piano with built-in speakers, both of these instruments are fine options.
That said, they differ quite significantly in terms of their musical offering. Let’s jump right into our comparison by starting with the piano action – an area where these two instruments wildly diverge.
Yamaha P515 vs Kawai ES920 – Keyboard Action
Kawai’s Responsive Hammer III Action
The ES920 is equipped with the Responsive Hammer III action (RHIII). Some version of this action has been out for several years now, and while this version has upgraded key switches over what was used in the previous generation Kawai ES series ES8, there is an even newer version with upgraded key cushioning which can be found in the CN201 and 301.
It’s possible that Kawai may release a newer version of the 920 with the upgraded action at some point since the key noise is reduced and the long-term durability is likely to be better.
In any case, the RHIII is a very popular action that strikes a great balance of resistance, control in the lower range, expressiveness, and responsiveness for faster and more advanced playing. In fact, it’s held by many as the top plastic key action currently available, and a special version of the Nord Grand – one of the leading stage pianos on the market – can be ordered with the RHIII in place of Nord’s less advanced action.
Key Surfaces, Escapement, Triple Sensor
Kawai does not put faux textures on the keytops for the sake of appearance only, and instead, they all have a slight matte finish with a microporous technology which provides a really nice mix of glide versus stickiness on the key, and they call this Ivory Touch.
A key that is too slippery is difficult to work with, but alternatively, one that doesn’t offer any glide will start to peel the skin back from your fingers. A nice blend is essential and Kawai manages to accomplish that with their keytops here.
It also has a triple sensor for highly accurate MIDI output, as well as escapement (let-off simulation), which gives you some extra resistance and a sense of control, especially when playing at lower dynamic ranges.
The Playing Experience
The RHIII overall produces a very dynamic playing experience and it’s mated very well to the tone engine of the instrument with a very nice touch curve.
Perhaps the best thing about the RHIII is just how buttery and how connective it feels in the mid-dynamic range, from about a mezzo piano up until close to fortissimo. There’s no sense that you’re having to hold yourself back because the action is too light, nor does it ever feel heavy.
Yamaha’s Natural Wood X Action
Moving over to the Yamaha P-515 digital piano and we find the Natural Wood X action, or NWX as it’s known. A critical difference right off the hop with this action is that features wooden keys for all of the white keys.
This is the same approach that Roland has taken with their PHA-50 action, as well as Casio more recently with their new Smart Hybrid Hammer Action Keyboard. The use of wood is generally going to make an action more durable over time.
Key Surfaces, Escapement, Triple Sensor
The NWX action also features key textures, but the approach is different from the RHIII in that the black keys have a synthetic ebony texture while the ivory keytops are used on the white keys. As a result, the black keys tend to be a little bit grippier.
The NWX also has a triple sensor and escapement, so in this regard, the NWX and RHIII spec out quite similarly, though the playing experience is very different.
The Playing Experience
The NWX has a higher static resistance than dynamic resistance which means that it takes more effort to get the key in motion than it does to keep the key in motion. This can make the action a little bit more difficult to play at lower dynamic ranges, and as a result, we would be reluctant to recommend this action for serious classical playing.
The overall weight of the NWX comes in at around 80 grams which makes it one of the heaviest actions on the market. Some players absolutely love this, others not so much.
People who are new to piano will probably find this to be quite the workout, especially compared to the RHIII which weighs out in the high 50s. With this in mind, the RHIII is likely to feel more comfortable to people coming from a classical background who are already used to playing on a fairly new, well-maintained acoustic piano.
The NWX alternatively will feel more at home to people experienced on larger and older grands where the actions tend to be heavier. The touch sensitivity is adjustable, but that doesn’t change the fundamental sense of heavy weighting.
We typically bundle our look at the speakers into the section on piano tone as a whole, but we have a little bit more to say than usual here so we’re going to give the speakers a category of their own.
And odds are if you’re looking at either one of these instruments, the speaker performance will be a key consideration. For example, if you plan on using your piano in a professional setting you’ll want to know whether you can get by without an amp in rehearsals or in smaller performance spaces, relying entirely on the onboard speakers.
Or, if you’re going to be doing a lot of playing at home with only taking it out occasionally, you’re going to want the speakers to sound full enough to not sway you towards a console piano instead.
40-Watt Speaker Systems
Both portable digital pianos have speaker systems with 40-watt amplifiers. This was a significant improvement for the 920 as the previous generation ES8 had only 30 watts of rated power output.
According to the specs sheets, the effective power of both of these machines should be pretty similar given the same 40 watts of rated power, and from a power perspective, both sets of onboard speakers will definitely be able to provide enough juice for performances in smaller venues, and rehearsals for styles without really loud guitars and drums.
All of that being, the way in which the sound is presented is actually quite different.
The Kawai uses a dual speaker system, designed in concert with Onkyo, and underneath the machine, you’ll find two large tone ports that assist in creating a fuller base tone. There’s also a tactile four-way EQ onboard, so you can really shape and craft the way the sound comes out from the speakers.
In general, the tone is wide and full in a way that feels like there’s still some separation between the player and the sound source. There isn’t any of the harshness sometimes present with many digital pianos even if you stick your ear right up to the speaker.
The mid-range is the sweet spot and strong enough to compete with a console piano of a similar price point, while the bass is quite robust, though there is a bit of distortion if you really push it. When you get up to the top couple of octaves, the attack becomes very thick just like on an acoustic Shigeru Kawai SKEX.
Overall, these are very powerful speakers for a portable digital piano with an impressive design from Kawai.
The P515 doesn’t have any tone ports, so this signals right away that they’ve gone with a different approach from Kawai in terms of the speaker presentation.
The P-515 is also using a 4-speaker configuration with two dome tweeters for the highs, and dual two-way speakers for the lows and mids. They’ve also angled the speakers so that they’re pointed more directly at the player’s ear.
On the one hand, this approach delivers more treble detail than what the ES920 is producing, but on the other hand, there’s some high-end harshness on the tops of notes, even in the mid-range playing at medium volumes.
Generally, we think Yamaha has done a great job with the speakers in their P series (Yamaha P45, Yamaha P125) but you do have to be cognizant and aware of some potential harshness in the treble here.
Sound Engine Comparison
Yamaha CFX & Bosendorfer Imperial vs Kawai’s Harmonic Imaging XL Sound Technology
Both of these instruments feature sound engines built around high-quality samples of their own flagship acoustic concert grand pianos with 256-note polyphony.
On the P515 we’re of course talking about the CFX concert grand piano which functions as the default tone, and since Yamaha acquired Bosendorfer a few years ago, they’ve also equipped the P515 with a sample of the Bösendorfer Imperial sample concert grand.
The ES920 uses Kawai’s Harmonic Imaging XL (HIXL) engine which features a full 88-key sampling of the Shigeru SKEX concert grand piano. High-quality samples of the EX concert grand and SK5 grands are present as well, but the star of the show is definitely the SKEX. Check out the video if you’d like to hear some playing examples of these core acoustic piano tones.
As is the case with their acoustic grand piano counterparts, the SKEX tends to be a warmer and more colorful sample, while the CFX tends to be brighter while still quite dynamic in its own right.
To round out the high-quality samples, both sound engines are equipped with resonance engines to produce sound artifacts like cabinet resonance and undampened string resonance. Kawai refers to their resonance engine simply as Piano Resonance, while Yamaha’s is called Virtual Resonance Modeling, or VRM for short.
Additional sound specs on the P515 include Sound Boost and Binaural Sampling.
Both sound engines also give you the ability to edit the core piano tone in a variety of ways to further refine and customize the sound to your liking.
Yamaha refers to their sound editing feature as Piano Room, and you’re able to adjust brightness, reverb, ambience, key-off samples, tuning and touch response.
Kawai’s editing feature is referred to as Virtual Technician, and you’re able to edit considerably more parameters over here with 21 in total, including things like touch curve, voicing, damper resonance, damper noise, string resonance and more.
We’d recommend operating these features via each manufacturer’s respective apps on an Android or iOS device for a larger and nicer visual layout.
Other Instrument Sounds
On paper, a seemingly huge sound-related difference between these two pianos is that the ES920 is equipped with 38 total sounds, while the P515 has more than 10x as many with over 500.
This is a massive disparity right? Not necessarily. Out of the 515’s 500+ sounds, 480 are XG voices, which is Yamaha’s equivalent to General MIDI 2, with the core sounds numbering 40. All of the 920’s sounds are core sounds, so in this regard, it’s about equal to the 515.
Now, if you’re looking for a ton of GM2 sounds, then the 515 obviously has the 920 beat here. If on the other hand, you’re primarily focused on high-quality piano samples and core sounds like electric pianos, synths and organs, the 515’s extra presets become moot.
Something we’re starting to see with newer portable digital pianos is onboard tactile EQ, which we happen to be huge fans of since it’s great to be able to quickly sculpt the tone when you’ve connected to an amp or PA system.
Yamaha was one of the first manufacturers to start including onboard tactile EQs back in the day, however, the P515 does not have one. Kawai on the other hand traditionally hasn’t included tactile EQs, but they have introduced a 4-band EQ here with the ES920.
Otherwise, both pianos have an easy-to-read OLED LCD screen and are laid out in a similar, easy-to-use way.
Both pianos have the same type of functionality when it comes to staples like a metronome, split, transpose, dual-mode and music library.
When it comes to onboard rhythm section accompaniment they have fairly similar offerings, but we have to give Kawai points for a much clearer, more intuitive layout.
When it comes to the onboard recording capability, there is a big difference in the MIDI recorders sequencers on these two instruments. While most people doing sequencing these days are probably doing so either on a DAW or a legit workstation, the P515 has 16-track sequencing capability.
The 920 by contrast has only 2-tracks of recording capability, so this is obviously a pretty substantial difference if this is relevant to you. That said, both pianos also offer Audio Recording (WAV, MP3, SMF) and playback.
USB Audio Interface
Another key difference between these two pianos is the presence of a USB audio interface on the P515. A USB audio interface allows you to send a receive audio information to a computer without the need for additional gear or adapters.
This is a plus for folks looking to work with a DAW, whether in the studio or on stage. The ES920 conversely does not have this functionality.
These two pianos are very evenly equipped from a connectivity standpoint, except for one notable (and odd) exception that we will get to.
Both pianos are equipped with dual headphone outputs, MIDI in and out, stereo mini line-in, discrete 1/4” line-out jacks, as well as USB to Host and USB to device. Of course, both pianos also have a port for a sustain pedal, as well as an optional triple pedal unit.
Both pianos also offer Bluetooth Audio – an increasingly common feature that allows you to stream audio directly from a smart device through the piano’s onboard speakers.
The one odd difference we mentioned? The ES920 has Bluetooth MIDI, while the 515 does not. This is odd because Bluetooth MIDI is typically seen as a more basic feature than Bluetooth Audio and can be found on pianos in even the entry-level price range, so typically, if Bluetooth Audio is present, so is Bluetooth MIDI.
So, if you want to use the Yamaha Smart Pianist App (which we recommend you do) you’ll need to do so with a cable.
We need to devote an entire subsection to the weight of the these two instruments because there is a substantial difference here, to the point that this factor could be a deciding factor in which instrument is a better fit for you.
The P-515 clocks in at 48.5 pounds, whereas the ES920 comes in at 37.5 pounds. An 11-pound, 30% weight difference for a portable instrument is a significant consideration for the gigging musician whose going to be strapping a piano over their shoulder on a regular basis.
Now, the P515 is not an outlier due to its extra weight here – the Roland FP-90X comes in at 52 pounds – and instead, it’s the 920 that is the outlier. In fact, it’s a remarkable achievement that Kawai has been able to deliver the 920 and everything it has to offer at a mere 37.5 pounds.
Both pianos are sold as slab-based units, which means that they ship with the piano, music rest, and a nice damper pedal (FC4A with the P515, F10H with the ES920.)
Wooden keyboard stands are available as an add-on if you’re looking for a stationary option, as well as triple pedal systems (stylish pedal bars) with damper, sostenuto and soft pedals. Of course, if portability isn’t a concern at all, you may want to consider a Kawai CN series or Yamaha Clavinova instead.
As we often do, a piano review can only articulate so much, we really recommend getting in front of both pianos to experience them for yourself. You may love the P515 sound, but find the action too heavy, or you might prefer the ES920’s sound but prefer the touch of the NWX, all other things being equal.
Two impressive portable pianos through and through, consumers are very fortunate to have options of this caliber to choose from in 2023.
Thanks for reading!