Kawai ES110 Review – Digital Piano

Kawai, unlike some of the other digital piano manufacturers we have covered such as Casio, has a rich history of building acoustic pianos. They are one of the leading grand piano manufacturers in Japan and one of the most popular acoustic piano companies in the world. In Japan their popularity and renown is only matched by their biggest competitor: Yamaha. While Yamaha may be more of a household name in the U.S., Kawai has many devoted players. Kawai pianos are renowned for their warm tone and forward thinking technological construction. We are happy to report that these qualities are present in their line of digital pianos as well.

Today we will be looking at the Kawai ES110. The Kawai ES110 is the newest in Kawai’s line of portable digital pianos. It is intended as a lightweight and affordable alternative to acoustic Kawai pianos and larger digital models. The Kawai ES110 is meant to be a high quality sound machine in its own right. The ES110 could be considered a mid-level keyboard but it is targeted at anyone who is a fan of the classic, warm Kawai sound, and anyone looking for a great portable piano option. If you are familiar with the sound of a Kawai grand piano and are looking to get that huge sound in a small package the Kawai ES110 may be the piano for you.

Let’s take a closer look at the Kawai ES110.

SIZE, LOOK, AND PORTABILITY OF THE KAWAI ES110

The Kawai ES110 is marketed as a portable piano with the sound and playability of a much larger model. We are happy to report that the Kawai ES110 lives up to this claim. The piano has 88 full sized keys but these keys are encased in an extremely minimalist design that is perfect for carrying under one arm as well as not taking up much visual space in a room.

The Kawai ES110 weighs 26.5 pounds, placing it at roughly the same size as many of its portable digital piano competitors (such as the Yamaha P115 that we’ve reviewed here in the past). The advantage that the Kawai has over many other portable digital pianos is its shallow depth. The piano is only four inches “deep” or tall, so when you carry it under one arm it fits comfortably. This is also an advantage if you are looking to carry the Kawai ES110 around in a case, as its slim dimensions allow it to fit into most piano cases with room to spare on top for instrument cables or anything else you would like to bring to your show. As always with portable pianos, we recommend an “x-style” stand that can be carried under your other arm, although Kawai does offer the more traditional HML-1 stand that fits the accompanying F-350 triple pedal perfectly.

Understated. Minimal. Contemporary. These are words that can be used to describe the design of the Kawai ES110. Unlike other mid-level portable digital pianos, the Kawai doesn’t try to look like the acoustic pianos it emulates; the Kawai ES110 plays to its own strengths–its slim profile and portability–and simply looks like itself. This aesthetic is carried on to the piano’s keys, which we will be discussing next.

FEEL OF THE KEYS ON THE KAWAI ES110

The way the keys on the KAWAI ES110 really add to the digital pianos’ understated aesthetic. All of the keys, both black and white, feature a matte finish that ensures that the player’s hands won’t slip after hours of playing and perspiration. This matte finish breaks with the intent of emulating an acoustic piano,–the Kawai ES110 mostly focuses on this aspect in its sound–in favor of a contemporary technological advancement (non-slip finish). This modern finish makes the keys look muted, the white keys aren’t vibrant and the black keys don’t have much of a sheen. Rather than this muted look being a negative, we think it sits perfectly with the piano’s intentionally minimalist aesthetic. It’s a look that might not go over well with traditionalists, but we think it’s classy, well-engineered, and a great representation of world-renowned Japanese design.

The “Responsive Hammer” technology used to create the springless hammer action on the Kawai ES110 is meant to emulate an authentic acoustic piano. While this piano does emulate the action of acoustic pianos very well, and would be a great piano to learn on, there are a few major issues that could really bug more professional players. The weighted action on the Kawai ES110 is heavier in both the higher and lower octaves than an acoustic piano. Players have to press down harder in order to get keys to sustain, which can really slow you down while attempting fast runs. This weight could be seen as a benefit in terms of practicing and learning to play the piano, however there are a few other major issues on the ES110.

As with many mid-level digital pianos, the keys are where the lower price point shows. The Kawai ES110 is no exception. The keys on this piano can be very noisy and springy. The keys jump back at the player when pressed in a slightly unnatural way–very unlike an acoustic piano. Sometimes this springing motion can cause a “clicking” sound as the key rubs against its neighbor. This sound is very undesirable in recording and quieter live situations. If you are playing solo piano concerts with the Kawai ES110 and the PA is turned down this clicking will become and issue. While recording with the Kawai ES110 we recommend recording direct in instead of using a microphone to pick up sounds from the Kawai’s speakers. The noisy keys are one of the biggest drawbacks on the Kawai ES110 and something to seriously consider before investing in this digital piano.

SOUND QUALITY OF THE KAWAI ES110

The sound of the Kawai ES110’s grand piano setting will please anyone who is a fan of classic Kawai grand pianos and warm sounding grand pianos in general. The sounds on the Kawai ES110 are sampled straight from a classic Kawai grand piano so piano enthusiasts will know exactly the sound they will be getting out of this machine. As with tone based discussions, this sound quality is very subjective. If you are already a fan of the “Kawai sound” you will love this digital piano. If you are unfamiliar we are sure you will find the rich tones on the Kawai ES110 rewarding to play and listen to.

Kawai uses what they call “harmonic imaging” technology to take the sound of their grand pianos and replicate them in this portable package. Harmonic imaging is basically just sampling (recording and playing back) sounds from the grand piano. Kawai has recorded the sound of each note on their grand piano at many different volumes. If you play softly the key will emit a sample of a quiet grand piano sound and vice versa. This feature makes this digital piano sound just like the real thing. We believe that sound is one of the best things that the Kawai ES110 has going for it.

Some players argue that the similarly priced Yamaha P115 sounds better, however the Kawai versus Yamaha sound arguments has been going on since the late 70’s and is ultimately up to personal preference. Let’s break down the biggest factors in what makes these pianos sound different: tone and frequency range. The main difference between the tones of Yamaha and Kawai is that they highlight different frequency ranges. Yamaha pianos sound much brighter and more lively–great for lead playing–because the higher frequencies are boosted. Kawai pianos have a “warmer” sound–perfect for setting a mood or playing melancholic ballads–because they emit louder mid-frequencies which our ears associate with warmth.

Your feeling about the Kawai ES110’s sound comes down to if you enjoy a warm tone while playing. Some players like a brighter sound so they can stand out while playing with a band. Others recognize the value in a tone that is soft on the listener’s ears. Here at Instrument Pro we think a warm piano sound is better suited for solo piano performances. The Kawai ES110 sounds just like its forebears, warm and inviting.

BUILT IN SPEAKERS ON THE KAWAI ES110

The built in speakers on the Kawai ES110 are good but not exceptional. Compared to another digital piano in the same price range, the Casio Privia PX-160, these speakers are very average. Where the Casio’s speakers are ported and engineered with the player in mind, the speakers on the Kawai ES110 feel like an afterthought. Kawai designed this portable digital piano with the on-the-go musician in mind. A gigging musician usually plugs into an external speaker or the PA to be heard alongside the band, and usually doesn’t utilize their instrument’s built in speakers. However, this doesn’t excuse the average quality of the speakers on this otherwise high-quality instrument.

The main problem with the speakers on the Kawai ES110 is that they don’t have much definition in the mid to low end. When you get past the mid-point on the piano these speakers start to sound muddy. This isn’t a problem when listening to your playing through a good pair of headphones or while plugged into an external speaker.

HEADPHONE OPTIONS ON THE KAWAI ES110

The Kawai ES110 has two headphone inputs so that you can quietly share your sounds with a friend or perform a silent duet late at night. The inputs on the Kawai ES110 are ¼ inch meaning you will need to get an adapter for most non-studio quality headphones. Many pairs of higher end studio headphones, such as the AKG K 701’s, come with this adapter and if your headphones don’t they are cheap and easy to find.

The headphones you select depend on your needs as a musician. If you want an accurate representation of the sounds you are playing and recording go for open back studio headphones. If you are looking for the most pleasurable sound experience possible try to find headphones that have different eq setting suited for the piano. Headphones are an important investment as a musician–there is more to be discussed regarding headphone choices but we will have to do so in a different article. Bottom line: quality headphones are the way to go if you want to hear the clearest sounds out your Kawai ES110.

INSTRUMENT SOUNDS OF THE KAWAI ES110

While the main focus of the Kawai ES110 is its emulation of a classic Kawai grand piano this machine does come stocked with some other great emulated sounds. The Kawai ES110 features 19 sounds in all–more than most of its mid-level portable piano competitors. The sounds are separated into three categories: Piano, E.Piano/Organ, and Others. Let’s take a look at how these other sounds stack up against the amazing Kawai grand piano sound that fills the room when you turn the Kawai ES110 on.

Piano (Kawai ES110)

Concert Grand

The classic Kawai sound that we have discussed in depth above.

Concert Grand 2

The Same as the Concert Grand with a bit more reverb to make you feel like you’re playing in a large room.

Studio Grand

Brighter and more dynamic, the studio grand emulates a more modern sounding grand piano that would be used to record the likes of Ray Charles or jazz pianists wanting a more punchy tone.

Studio Grand 2

Similar to the studio grand but with more highs eq’d in for a great lead piano sound.

Mellow Grand

The mellow grand has a muted sound suited for playing classical and traditional songs. This is a good setting for when your family is sitting around the fire on a holiday and you want to play some soft holiday music in the background. This is also a great sound for ballads and darker sounding compositions.

Mellow Grand 2

This setting is just like the Mellow Grand but even more subdued and moody with extra reverb added for a roomier effect.

Modern Piano

We are not huge fans of this setting. Rather than the bright sound of a modern upright piano you get tones that are more akin to FM synthesis replicas of piano notes. The sound is overly bright and brittle. This sound has its place but should not be called “Modern Piano” as this name suggests a totally different sound!

Rock Piano

The Rock Piano setting on the Kawai ES110 is incredibly fun to use. This setting has booming bass sound in every not so it really rocks whatever room you’re playing in. This sound is suited for Elvis and early Beatles style classic rock sounds. We recommend using the Studio Grand setting for more contemporary rock piano sounds.

E.Piano/Organ (Kawai ES110)

Classic E. Piano

The Classic Electric Piano sound on the Kawai ES110 is very unique–much different than most electric piano settings. This setting is incredibly moody and smooth sounding. It’s muted and understated just like the Kawai ES110’s design. In fact, judging by the way the Kawai ES110 looks, this is the sound you would expect to emerge from such a minimalist piece of equipment.

60’s E. Piano

The 60’s Electric Piano sound has a funk feel too it: bright highs and short staccato note cutoffs. This setting almost sounds like a Clavinet–think Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition”.

Modern E. Piano

This sound can be described with one word: twinkly. This “modern” setting sounds like shooting stars and the sort of relaxing New Age CDs you find in airport gift shops. It’s a fun setting if you are into that almost intentionally cheesy 80s synthetic piano sound.

Jazz Organ

This sound is huge and lush. The Jazz Organ is one of our favorite sound settings on the ES110 because of its versatility: like the name implies this is a great setting for playing jazz leads while the built in chorus effect going on also makes this an ideal organ sound for long form organ drones.

Church Organ

Most companies don’t go for direct religious connotations in their sound descriptions, but Kawai doesn’t beat around the bush here. The Church Organ setting will be familiar to anyone who has sat through a late night mass. This sound has applications outside of the religious realms–big pipe organ sounds are always great for implying a higher presence when creating soothing ambient compositions.

Others (Kawai ES110)

Slow Stings

The Slow String setting sounds very synthetic in the best possible way. This sounds like a synth pad you would hear on any number of dream pop records. Think “Treasure” by the Cocteau Twins. While not a faithful string representation, this pad sound is still a welcome addition to this already versatile machine.

String Ensemble

This sounds similar to the Slow Strings setting, i.e. not exactly like strings, but has a fuller sound. With each key you play multiple tones can be heard stacked on top of eachother. This setting would be fun for someone who doesn’t know how to play chords but wants a multi-faceted sound at the touch of a key.

Wood Bass

We were shocked by this setting. Usually a synthetic acoustic bass emulation sounds totally fake. Somehow Kawai has managed to make this setting sound somewhat like the real thing! Perfect for replacing the stand up bass in your Jazz ensemble when you grow tired of lugging that huge thing around!

Electric Bass

This setting is more like the bass sound one would expect from an electric piano: synthetic and plastic sounding. This bass sound reminds us of the synth heavy midi compositions from 90s Pixar animated short films.

Harpsichord

This is a very standard synthetic Harpsichord sound. Anyone who has played a keyboard with preset Harpsichord emulation is familiar with this chintzy tone.

Vibraphone

Vibraphone sounds are notoriously hard to emulate; the Vibraphone sound on the Kawai ES110 is no exception. Instead of the beautiful, air-soaked sound of a real vibraphone Kawai offers us this tinny tone that is reminiscent of the cheap wind chimes hanging in your grandparents backyard. Again, it’s usable for an intentionally cheesy 80s synth sound, but not much else.

Like most digital pianos in its class the Kawai ES110 offers the option of stacking two sounds together or splitting the keyboard into two sound sections–”dual” and “split” modes.

BUILT IN EFFECTS ON THE KAWAI ES110

Like most mid-level digital pianos, the Kawai ES110 has a built in reverb effect. One of the coolest features on this piano is that it also offers many other tweakable sound settings, which while not exactly “effects”, really open up the onboard tonal capabilities.

Reverb

Be aware that when changing the reverb setting on the Kawai ES110 all sounds are affected, not just the setting you are playing on! The Kawai ES110’s built in reverb will elongate your notes while maintaining their original tone. Three reverb settings are offered, replicating the ambience of different spaces: “Room”, “Small Hall”, and “Concerta Hall”.

Tweakable sound settings

There are a variety of variables that can be changed on the Kawai ES110 that can help it to sound more like the grand piano of your dreams. The Kawai ES110 gives you the ability to change the pianos damper resonances, temperament (how quickly the keys react to your touch), brilliance (brightness) and many other variables. This highly customizable approach to sound is one of the highlights of this versatile instrument!

MIDI, LESSONS, AND RECORDING CAPABILITIES ON THE KAWAI ES110

Alongside the ability to instantly record anything you play onto the piano the Kawai ES110 offers a number of digital features that make it stand out from the mid-level portable digital piano pack.

One of the Kawai ES110’s most unique features is its ability to wirelessly communicate with a midi sequencing program on your computer via bluetooth. If you turn this setting on you can instantly record your playing patterns onto the computer via midi notes and play them back in whatever recording program you use. This is amazing because you can assign any sound you want to the midi notes when they are played back. This capability is genius and we are surprised that bluetooth hasn’t been employed very often on other electric pianos.

Another great feature is the onboard lesson function. The piano has the ability to teach you different built in songs. This is perfect for beginners or players simply looking to expand their repertoire.

USER GUIDE FOR THE KAWAI ES110

The user guide for the Kawai ES110 is actually surprisingly dense and difficult to navigate. This is strange considering that the piano’s physical design is so streamlined. We have faith that the piano is so intuitively designed you won’t even have to spend time reading the manual.

WHO IS THE KAWAI ES110 MEANT FOR?

Kawai markets the ES110 as a quality, affordable, and portable piano. The ES110 is all of those things and would thus appeal to the actively gigging musician. The piano sounds great and is easy to take to shows. Since the price point is pretty low you won’t worry so much about damaging the piano on the way to a gig.

The Kawai ES110 is perfect for active musicians who are familiar with the Kawai name. The biggest perc of this piano is that it has the classic sound of a real Kawai grand piano in a small portable casing. If you are a fan of the Kawai sound then we highly recommend purchasing this piano over a different brand like Yamaha. However, if you already know you prefer a Yamaha piano sound than go for the similarly priced Yamaha P115.

We think that the Kawai ES110 would also make a perfect starting point for beginners. The built in lessons place this piano a cut above its competition in terms of being a great practice piano. The realistic key-action will have the novice player ready for a real grand piano in no time!

PRICE POINT OF THE KAWAI ES110

The Kawai ES110 is a bit more expensive than other mid-level digital pianos–around 100 dollars more on average. This slightly higher price point can be explained by the inclusion of extra features such as the bluetooth capabilities, onboard lessons, and sonic-tweak ability. Most digital pianos in this price range have a similar build quality so it really comes down to sound: do you want an instrument that sounds like a classic Kawai grand piano? If so the Kawai ES110 is worth the slightly higher asking price.  

PROS AND CONS OF THE KAWAI ES110

Before moving on to our final conclusions about the Kawai ES110 let’s do a short overview of this pianos pros and cons.

PROS

Design and portability

The Kawai ES110 is one of the most attractive digital pianos on the market. Its slim profile and understated look make this the ideal digital piano to transport to any live setting.

Sound

The sound options on this piano are far more versatile than others in its class. With tweakable settings you can really make the sound on the Kawai ES110 your own. Plus the Kawai ES110 comes out of the box with the already incredible sound of a Kawai Grand piano.

Options

This piano can make so many sounds and has bluetooth midi capabilities. As stated above the sound options on the Kawai ES110 are pretty limitless and this instrument has more built in sounds than most other digital pianos. The player can really dive into the versatility on this instrument!

CONS

Build quality

Although the design on the Kawai ES110 is amazing to look at the keys are not top of the line. The clicking sound produced by some of the keys can be a major deal breaker for serious players. The speakers on the Kawai ES110 aren’t the best. We wish that Kawai had invested as much time into the physical elements of this keyboard as it did with the digital side.

Synthetic Sounds

Some of instrument sounds, such as the Vibraphone, are not up to par with the overall amazing sound quality of this machine. Kawai could have focused more on consistent quality across the board or just left some of these settings off–some of the sounds feel like afterthoughts.

CONCLUSION – KAWAI ES110 DIGITAL PIANO KEYBOARD

The Kawai ES110 is a beautifully designed and well executed mid-level portable keyboard. This piano is the perfect choice for the somewhat niche market of Kawai grand piano fans. If this is you, go out and buy this instrument! We highly recommend the Kawai ES110 to fans of the Kawai grand piano sound who are looking for something portable.

There are other mid-level portable digital pianos on the market that are basically on par with the Kawai ES110. We can’t recommend this as the portable digital piano to buy, but that mostly comes down to personal preference. The key word with a Kawai piano is warmth. If a warm piano sound is what you have been looking for you’ve found it in the Kawai ES110! If you want an amazing sounding machine that suites both beginning players and advanced gigging musicians this is a solid option with a classic minimalist aesthetic.