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  • Writer's pictureNathaniel S

Review: Kawai ES120 88-Key Digital Piano

The 2 most important features in a digital piano keyboard are the key action and the default piano sound quality and the Kawai ES-120 88-Key Digital Piano here excels in both these features. In this review, I’m going to explain to you why this digital piano has the most authentic grand piano key action as well as the best piano sample from a legendary concert grand used in many concert halls and music conservatories worldwide. The Kawai ES-120 88-Key Digital Piano is, beyond the shadow of a doubt, the biggest bang for your buck entry-level digital piano.

Key Action

If you don’t like how a particular digital keyboard sounds, you can always hook it up to 3rd party sound libraries using a MIDI connection. But if you don’t like the key action, there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it. And here is where this Kawai digital piano shines. Kawai has been building concert grand pianos for almost a century and their expertise is evident in this - their most affordable entry-level 88-key digital piano the ES-120. This keyboard uses Kawai’s Responsive Hammer Compact weighted key action which has been specially developed for portable instruments to reproduce the distinctive touch of an acoustic grand piano. I’ve owned this digital piano for 5 months now and the RHS action delivers a consistent upward and downward motion with the cushioning material effective in reducing keyboard noise, resulting in a smooth, natural, and highly authentic grand piano playing experience. With the excellent key cushioning, I could practice for hours at a time with little finger fatigue. A weakness of lightweight portable weighted keyboards at this price level is the key pivots. Cheap keyboards perform poorly when played near the key pivots, requiring more effort than usual to produce a controlled tone. I am happy to report that the touch response of this keyboard is excellent even when played near the key pivots.

There’s a felt liner to protect dust from entering via the key pivots but I really wished it was a contrasting red accent instead of boring black.

There are 4 velocity curves for you to tweak the touch response of the keys according to your skill level. For an entry-level keyboard. The ES-120 has the best simulation of traditional acoustic pianos with heavier hammers at the lower register and lighter hammers on the treble register, Kawai’s RHC key action employs different hammer weights, appropriately graded across the entire keyboard. The graded action is the smoothest and the most linear I have played at this price point.

I also love the matte and very lightly textured key surface preventing my sweaty fingers from slipping. Among all the digital pianos at this price point that I’ve reviewed, the ES-120 provided the greatest stability during my fortissimo passages while preserving delicate pianissimo control.

Is this key action perfect? Almost. I would have loved counterweights on the keys but these are only available on digital pianos that cost at least twice as much. You can find more detailed information on Kawai’s excellent key action including the one with counterweights and a list of other recommended digital pianos catering to various budgets here.


Sound Quality

The ¼ million dollar Shigeru-Kawai SK-EX 9-foot concert grand piano is the flagship from this century old Japanese piano builder. The sound from the SK-EX is warm, resonant, detailed and alive. Kawai handbuild only a handful of these concert grand every year and they are usually only found in recording studios, world-class concert halls and multi-million dollar mansions. These are so exclusive that I have only had the privilege of playing on the SK-EX just once in my life.

However, with the technological magic of digital sampling and for just a mere few hundred dollars, we now get the sound from this ¼ million dollar handbuilt concert grand right in our home with Kawai’s most affordable entry-level digital piano. An acoustic piano has more than 10,000 moving parts and all these parts produce tiny mechanical noises making the piano almost a living thing. The default concert grand sample comes with these mechanical noises such as sympathetic string resonance, damper resonance, damper noise, key-off effect and you can even hear the faint sound of acoustic piano keys falling back to their neutral position after a key is released. The lid position of the grand piano can be adjusted to be open or closed for either an expansive or an intimate tone and you can even dictate how hard or soft you want the felt material on the hammers. On a traditional acoustic piano, this process of key regulation is only performed by experienced piano technicians in a time-consuming and expensive process. That’s why I’m amazed that we get this feature on Kawai’s most affordable entry-level digital piano.

In addition to the flagship SK-EX concert grand sample, the ES-120 also comes with samples from their $200,000 EX concert grand as well as their upright acoustic pianos. These samples are available with various EQs for a wide genre such as ballads, modern, pop, jazz, and classical music. This digital piano is worth every single penny purely for the concert grand sounds and the ridiculously good key action but Kawai very kindly threw in an additional 17 sounds suitable for a performing musician for a total of 25 sounds.

You get a couple of very usable bread-and-butter electric pianos, organs, strings, bass, and a synth pad.

Using 9 effects such as chorus, delay, tremolo, rotary speaker emulation, and 10 reverb environments simulating a room, a lounge, a concert hall, or a cathedral you can tweak the voices to sound exactly the way you want it. These voices can be layered for a richer tone and different sounds can also be split across the keyboard with the option to balance the volume of each layer.

With such detailed samples, I am thankful for the 192 note polyphony ensuring I do not get note dropouts unless I am using a ridiculous amount of sustain. With so many configurable parameters, I am happy that Kawai provided 4 registration memory slots to save my settings for easy one-button recall. While I do wish for more registration memory slots, this is way better than most digital pianos at this price point where your settings are lost the minute you turn off your keyboard. At this entry-level price, some sacrifices had to be made. To access most functions and settings, I had to press the function button in combination with specific keys on the keyboard. Without carrying the user manual with me, there is no way for me to remember the corresponding key to press for most settings.

The best way to select and tweak the sound is via the Virtual Technician inside Kawai’s PianoRemote app available on both iOS & Android devices. With this app you can adjust 17 parameters encompassing the Touch Curve, Voicing, Damper Resonance, Damper Noise, String Resonance, Key-off Effect, Fall-back Noise, Hammer Delay, Topboard Simulation, Decay Time, Release Time, Minimum Touch, Stretch Tuning, Temperament, Temperament Key, Half-Pedal Adjustment and Soft Pedal Depth. While the app works as intended, it is the least user-friendly, the UI is ugly and the user experience is high friction compared to the competition. This app also gives me the impression that it is an afterthought as not all piano functionality is accessible from the app and there is no guarantee this app will work with future smartphones or iPads. Check out another digital piano I recommend which sounds almost as good, has a large color LCD screen, and has the ability to save unlimited user registrations.

Sound System

There are 3 ways you can experience the beautifully detailed samples on this digital piano. The onboard speakers are powered by a pair of 10 watts amplifiers for a total output of 20 watts. Speaker cutouts at the top and bottom of the keyboard ensure the sound from a pair of 12 cm speakers surround the player.

While loud, these onboard speakers are meant for use during practice or in intimate venues. When I pushed the volume to the max, there wasn’t any discernible distortion. However, the dynamic range of the speakers suffer noticeably when the volume is set too high. I love the pair of headphone jacks so both teacher and student can have lessons without disturbing those around. You get 2 sizes - a ¼” and 3.5mm for the headphone jacks ensuring whichever pair of headphones you have lying around at home will work. Check out a fabulous pair of affordable studio headphones I’ve been using for the last 6 years.

For performing to a larger audience in bigger venues, you can connect the ES-120 to a PA system with a pair of ¼” stereo outputs which I personally prefer over flimsy tiny single 3.5mm output jacks found on other keyboards. Here is the keyboard speaker system I use and recommend as well as my list of keyboards with powerful onboard speakers.

Notable Features

Aside from the key action and sound quality, the Kawai ES-120 has a number of features which makes it both a great home piano as well as for performing musicians. While the digital piano comes with a basic sustain pedal out of the box, the optional Kawai F-10H pedal unlocks half-pedal functionality critical for advanced pianists.

For home use, you can get the ES-120 with a wooden furniture stand and a fixed triple unit supporting soft, sostenuto and sustain. Transpose and tuning are available for performing keyboardists to match the key of singers and other musicians. An onboard metronome and a rhythm section containing 100 rhythms will definitely help piano students keep time and get in the groove while a 3 song, single track recorder is handy for capturing your own playing for self-critique. I am not a fan of the included music rest. It works but Kawai could have put in more effort to design a more contemporary-looking contraption for my thick music books.

For those who want to practice along with backing tracks the ES-120 supports Bluetooth wireless audio streaming to the onboard speakers as well as wireless Bluetooth MIDI for connecting to your laptop or iPad to use with music production apps & 3rd party sound libraries. For the lowest latency, I personally prefer a USB MIDI connection. If you are new to playing the piano, Kawai included a 3 months subscription to Skoove - a music learning app which ranked highly in a music app comparison I did. I’m disappointed that Kawai isn’t adventurous when it comes to color choices unlike the red and mustard yellow we get with competing brands. I got this white unit because it stands out the most. But that’s just me. You can opt for black or light gray if you prefer a more understated look. Check out the best price I’ve researched for you as well as the various configurations available for this digital piano.

Conclusion

There is no doubt that for the price you pay, the Kawai ES-120 is extremely good value for money if the 2 most important things to you are key action and grand piano sample quality. However, there are a couple of things which Kawai could have done better. Including a small LCD screen to see which sound and which function we selected would be appreciated. Without connecting to an iPad, there’s really no way to know which sound is selected until you play a note. Voice layers, keyboard voice splits and balancing volume mix does not feel intuitive and I doubt anyone will access the features using a combination of button and key presses. Kawai printed the key function chart on a non-detachable page inside the user manual where a portable separate durable card printed with the functions would make referencing the functions so much more convenient. Things are easier with Kawai’s mobile app but the app isn’t the best designed and there’s no guarantee it will work in future devices. With 17 adjustable piano parameters, there’s so much potential for tweaking the sounds and this is a great affordable keyboard for performing musicians but having just 4 user registrations limits its use on a gig.


If you liked this review don’t forget to check out my recommended digital pianos, keyboards, music-learning apps, and the gear I use.



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1 Comment


Randy Freemire
Randy Freemire
Mar 07, 2023

Jeremy- really enjoy this format with text and pictures and some videos, prefer it over the video only reviews.


As someone who has had the ES110 and has the ES920, there are some things I would add to your review. For budget conscious folks who LOVED the keybed, the ES520 is the better choice. This keybed is the BEST of any I’ve played, for me, I feel like I can fly and play expressively from the softest to the loudest with the least amount of effort. If I was to make the jump from the ES110 again, I would have bought the ES520! Not only is it cheaper and lighter than the ES920, it fixes all the problems of …


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