Gorgeous grand piano sounds. Very soulful and realistic electric pianos. Surprisinglly robust complement of accompaniment features adds important fun factor. Beautiful design.
Heavy compared to other digital pianos reviewed in this issue. Limited number of non-piano sounds. Internal speakers could be better.
Bottom Line: A world class premium digital piano that can do double duty at home and onstage:
$2,395 list | $1,999 street
What should a premium transportable digital piano be like? Kawai’s new ES7 represents some thoughtful and committed answers to this question. Of course it should have excellent sounds. Splitting and layering on the fly and saving the results should be dead simple. It should offer fun ancillary features while keeping them out of the way of pure pianists who don’t require them. It should have an understated appearance, as plenty other keyboards out there advertise their owners’ love of technology. Let’s investigate further.
The ES7 is the digital piano you’d take to a black tie (or even white tie) event. Except for the buttons and key surfaces, there’s no plastic in sight. The black metal curves of my review unit were noticeably fingerprint-resistant. The red-backlit buttons reminded me of the Synclavier, and the LCD is easy to see even in sunlight. The continuous speaker grille looks much better than obvious pods at either end would. The gloss finish on the end blocks, which make convenient lift points, has concert piano depth. My review unit didn’t include the designer stand and triple pedal shown, and its music rack was sturdy black metal, not the translucent one pictured. The included single damper pedal is not only beefy enough to resist sliding around on hard floors, but also supports half-pedaling.
The dual headphone jacks are on opposite ends of the front rail beneath the keys, letting student and teacher sit together without one player’s headphone cord stretching over the other’s lap. A “four hands” mode supports side-by-side teaching by splitting the keyboard into duplicate note ranges.
The actions on the highest-end digital pianos from the major players are all so good that it largely becomes a matter of personal preference. Where Kawai has an edge, though, is with the actions on their midrange digital pianos, and that’s certainly the case with the ES7. It’s the second generation of Kawai’s RH (Responsive Hammer) action, and while it’s not a wooden-key action like on their pricier offerings, it does use triple sensors and detect release velocity. Both the black and white key surfaces have just the right amount of texturing, it’s graded, and most importantly, it feels fantastic and is very non-fatiguing.
The main piano sounds in the ES7 benefit from samples for all 88 notes. What Kawai calls “Progressive Harmonic Imaging” presumably refers to extensive multisampling in order to capture differing harmonic content at different velocities. It works. These piano sounds are rich, gorgeous, detailed, and offer eight variants from very mellow (“Mellow Grand”) to very bright (“Rock Piano”). I couldn’t detect any velocity layer transitions, so whatever crossfading and interpolation is going on is very sophisticated. I also didn’t hear any obvious loop points when critically listening to sustained notes, though on quiet legato passages, the initial decay down to the sustain level at which the sound rings out is a bit faster than I’d prefer.
The electric piano sounds are very good. “Classic E.P.” 1 and 2 cover darker and more bell-like Rhodes, where “60s E. Piano” is a nice sassy Wurly. What’s this I hear? Seemingly random tine and mechanical noises in the background? Nice! Though you can’t edit parameters within the effects in any case, the phaser in the effects section is a perfect match for the EPs, providing just the right rate and tone for that Steely Dan sound. (Learn more about the effects at keyboardmag.com/august2013).
Organs are what you’d expect in a stage piano, which is to say no match for dedicated clones, but the “Drawbar Organ” patch has above-average Gospel grease. Strings and choirs are good for layering, though I’d like there to be one string sound with a faster attack. As to basses, you get fretless, electric, and the obligatory upright-plus-ride-cymbal that begs to be split with the vibraphone as you play the Black Lodge dance from Twin Peaks. There’s no Seinfeld slap or Herbie synth bass, though.
The single-driver oval stereo speakers are pleasingly full-range at practice volume, and can get loud enough to fill a room for the sort of gig where you’re playing for up to 100 people with an upright bassist and cocktail-kit drummer. That said, they get a bit boxy and midrangey when you turn the volume way up, so I’d use an external amp for any pro gig.
Splitting is easy. Whatever you do when holding the Split button affects the lower part, such as selecting sound categories, repeatedly pressing a category’s button to step through its patches, or striking a key to set the split point. Layering is accomplished by holding the first sound button while pressing a second.
The “Virtual Technician” settings offer control over many of the sonic nuances you’d find in a high-end software piano. Six preset velocity curves are augmented by ES7’s the ability to analyze your playing and create custom curves. Six “voicing” options include a “Dynamic” mode where the piano sounds gets pointedly brighter as you play harder. It’s an exaggerated effect, but manageable and amazingly useful on full-band gigs for laying back but then cutting through. You get separate settings for damper resonance, damper noise, sympathetic string resonance, two kinds of key-release noise (the damper returning to the strings and the chatter of the action itself), and even adjustable hammer delay that becomes relevant on soft pianissimo passages.
I didn’t expect the ES7’s large variety of accompaniment styles. Unlike a full arranger keyboard, there’s no onboard editing (though the ES7 will play back type 0 and 1 Standard MIDI files multitimbrally), but what you get is surprisingly usable. Intros, endings, auto-fills, and two variations per style are on hand, and can follow your playing or a preset chord sequence. The funk and disco styles include some tasty Nile Rodgers-style rhythm guitar and are very fun to jam over. Fully voiced and simple one- or two-fingered chord recognition are supported, and the ES7 has no trouble understanding less common chords like a minor major seventh. You can select whether the style plays just drums, drums and bass, or full instrumentation. For fun, a one-finger ad-lib feature assigns various riffs, all matched to the current style and chord, to be triggered from the top 17 keys.
You can record MIDI of your performance including accompaniment styles, or record stereo audio of everything (in MP3 or WAV format) to an inserted USB stick. Last but not least, you get 28 Registration memories that save pretty much the entire state of the instrument: splits, layers, style settings, and the like.
The Kawai ES7 is a class act through and through. I’d characterize its focus as 75 percent home (or residency in a venue such as a hotel lobby or lounge) and 25 percent road. While pro stage pianos certainly get heavier, the ES7’s 49 pounds make it the heaviest of the five pianos reviewed in this issue, and these days it does seem like “30 is the new 50” when it comes to what regular gigsters consider truly lightweight. That said, its acoustic and electric piano sounds are world class, the weight gives it a certain stability, and it delivers a wealth of keep-the-kids-playing features in a package that looks at home in even the most formal of settings. I’ve only had room to scratch the surface of those features here. If you’re looking for a digital piano that can anchor a living room, please your family, and occasionally step out to your better-paying gigs, the ES7 should be on your very short list.