Casio Privia PX-350

March 7, 2013
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The original Privia was the answer to many pianists’ prayers: the first (and for some time the only) serious 88-key digital piano at the unprecedented price of 500 bucks and weight of 25 pounds. This made it a catalyst for increased competition in the under-a-grand piano market: 128-voice polyphony, graded and weighted keyboard actions, and ample supplemental sounds are pretty standard these days. What does Casio do to up the ante? For the latest Privia, the PX-350, they plunged their resources into a piano playing experience so improved it’s astonishing.
 
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Piano Sound and Feel

Compared to the previous flagship Privia (the PX-330, reviewed Oct. ’09), Casio has tripled the sample size of the main piano sound. They’ve also adjusted the key sensors such that there’s a lot more going on than what you may be used to from a digital stage piano. For one, the keys transmit high-resolution MIDI to the internal sound engine (as well as any external software that can interpret it), so instead of 127 possible velocity values, there are 16,256. 

On a graded keyboard, the hammers are (or seem to be) heavier and slower in the lower range, just like on a real piano, and they get gradually lighter as you ascend. The PX-350 has this, and also something called Hammer Response, an algorithm that accounts for the time it takes for the heavier hammers to hit the strings at a given MIDI velocity. Also, the key surfaces have a prominent texture that gives your fingers grip, wicks away moisture, and makes it hard to go back to stage pianos that don’t have it.

The PX-350 has sustain resonance, which simulates the sound of all the strings vibrating in sympathy with actually-played notes when the damper pedal is down. Check out presets like “Grand Piano Dolce,” which dials in resonance like you would reverb or chorus. The effect is magical. Casio also touts AIR (Acoustic and Intelligent Resonator), their digital strategy for interpolating between the four velocity-switched sample levels. It works. You get smoother dynamics, finer control, and longer samples with barely noticeable loops. Slam down an octave near the bottom and it growls away for what seems like forever.

Bottom line: You have to engage the same level of mental and kinesthetic concentration that you would if playing an acoustic grand. Once you do, you have a very expressive instrument at your fingertips. 


Other Sounds and Features

What Casio didn’t do was tamper with the already robust feature array of the previous deluxe Privia, the PX-330. (We’ve reposted that review at keyboardmag.com/january2013.) For the $200 bump up from the PX-150 (which features the same piano sound), you get 250 sounds, a 17-track sequencer that records and plays MIDI files via driver-free USB2, a programmable drum machine with 180 rhythms, auto-accompaniment, and auto-harmony—the latter two with a bit of cheese factor but darned fun nonetheless.

There are cushy Rhodes simulations, a nasty little Wurly that’s the go-to EP on anything funky, Clavs that cut, and a serviceable smattering of organs. New in the PX-350 are a super-wide stereo string patch and some ballsy drum sounds. The bass/piano splits (with both acoustic and electric basses) work in many situations, and you’ll be grateful for the pitch-bend wheel, which you can whip out at least once a night even on piano trio gigs.

One new feature I didn’t expect—but that I’m now finding indispensible—is the audio recording. Plug in a USB flash drive, hit a couple of buttons, and you can now record anything that goes on in the instrument as a CD-quality (16-bit/44.1kHz) WAV file. This is great for capturing fleeting songwriting ideas, documenting practice for feedback from a teacher, or turning a solo gig into a demo. 


On the Gig

I took the PX-350 out of the box and directly to a 150-seat jazz quartet gig. Going through a pair of Barbetta 41C keyboard amps, it took me a few songs to nail my sound. Most digital pianos, I now realize, are more forgiving than a well-miked acoustic grand. That’s what this Privia—with its sensitive dynamics and wide separation—sounds and plays like in a live situation. For the first few tunes, I had to concentrate on my voicings and touch. Then, it began to sound like a good recording of a live performance. A week later I played a 500-seat corporate gig through a pro sound system with a stereo direct box and wedge monitor. Again, it was like playing a miked acoustic, only now I knew how to take advantage of it. For example, you don’t necessarily have to twist the volume dial to make it louder—you can simply dig in more.

The PX-350 sounds fine through it’s internal speakers until you crank the volume past about 75 percent (around three o’clock on the knob), at which point the complex samples begin to overdrive the output. To compensate, Casio inserted a limiter, but the only way to avoid an audible pumping sound is to keep the volume down. The signal from the Privia’s line outs is hot enough that you can leave the keyboard volume knob below three o’clock and just raise the gain on your amp, P.A., or recording interface without adding to the noise floor. I tested this, and the results were loud and pure.

A final nit: On a dark stage, it’s easy to reach for a sound category button and hit a Registration button instead. Registrations save the entire state of the instrument and can include rhythm and auto-accompaniment that starts right up. Pre-programming registrations (a good idea in any case) can save you an embarrassing moment here.

Conclusions

The Privia PX-350 has the soul of a real acoustic grand. It’s inspiring and emotional in a way that I haven’t experienced in a digital piano outside of the best virtual instruments and most expensive hardware digitals. Kudos and a Key Buy award to Casio for their commitment and execution.

 

PROS:  Uncanny grand piano playing experience. Audio recording of your performances. Graded action with textured keys. Giggable EPs, organs, basses, and General MIDI patches. Ultra-light. 

CONS:  Audible compression effect at loud volume through internal speakers. Button layout is a bit congested. 


Bottom Line

The latest Privia delivers the most realistic piano experience you’ll get for under a grand and rivals the sound and feel of stage pianos that cost many times more. 

$1,099 list | $799 street

casiomusicgear.com

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