Monday, March 2, 2015

REVIEW - Roland HP504, HP506, HP508 Digital Pianos - Recommended - Impressive new instruments for 2014

REVIEW - Roland HP504, HP506, HP508 Digital Pianos - Recommended - Impressive new instruments for 2014

Roland HP508 digital piano logo
UPDATED REVIEW - February 2, 2015 - Roland HP504, HP506, HP508Home Digital Pianos - Recommended - The Roland Corporation started making digital pianos many, many years ago and is well known throughout the world for building higher quality, advanced digital music products that piano students, players, teachers, professional musicians, churches, and studios use. I have played and used many of the Roland music products including digital drum kits, MIDI guitars, home organs, pro keyboards, digital pianos, pro audio systems, keyboard & guitar amps, headphones, special effects systems, MIDI products, and other music gear.
Roland HP508 digital piano
HP508 polished ebony
When it comes to digital pianos, which is my specialty, I am very picky about quality and realism in terms of accurate piano key action and key touch, authentic piano sound  & dynamics with full expression capability, realistic pedaling response, and durability, especially in the higher priced models such as these new Roland HP series pianos. The HP (stands for home pianos) series has been out for many years and Roland is well known for them. These pianos seem to get better every time a new model comes out and the Roland HP series is a strong competitor to the Kawai CN & CA series as well as the Yamaha Clavinova CLP digital piano series in similar price ranges. Since Roland does not publish its retail or store discount prices on its web
Roland HP504, HP506, HP508 digital pianos
Roland HP504/HP506 control panel
site or dealer web sites, nor are these instruments available on the Internet in the US, getting price info is a little hard to come by in the US. However, it's my best guess at the moment, based on what I've already seen at Roland piano stores, that the HP504 in satin finishes are selling in local US stores for approx $2700-$3000US, the HP506 in satin finishes are selling approx between $3300-$3700US, and the HP508 in satin finishes are selling approx between $4500-$5000US. Actual selling prices will vary depending on where you live, your local Roland dealer, the prices they charge, and the demand for a particular model. The HP506 and HP508 are also offered in a special high polished ebony finish which increases price by about $600US there is definitely a premium for buying a high polish ebony finish, but they are certainly beautiful to look at.
Roland HP506 digital piano
I have already played these pianos many times and I really did not expect them to be much better than the previous model HP503, HP505, and HP507 because the pianos appear to be somewhat similar overall, and based on digital feature specifications, it did not look like much had changed. However, I was very surprised that they had changed (improved) in a big way with regard to the fundamentals of piano playing including key action, sound & dynamic response, and pedaling. The best product change analogy I can use is when Apple computer company upgraded their iPad2 to the iPad 3 with Retina display screen. 
Roland HP504 digital piano
The iPad Retina display was a huge upgrade in terms of the screen display quality and realism for images, the processing power was greater too and buyers were very impressed and bought them in huge numbers. The new Roland HP504 (left pic with bench), HP506, & HP508 is much the same way in its new upgrades of noticeably superior piano performance over previous models. The new key actions are much quieter and move better, the piano sound and dynamic range is much more realistic & pure, and pedaling is improved. For those people who play digital pianos or have played good acoustic grand pianos, they would be able to tell how good these new Roland pianos really are as compared to anything that Roland and other piano companies have had before. The subtleties in tonality, nuance, dynamic range, and expressiveness are evident when playing complex music in ways not possible on Roland pianos in the past.
Roland has two new upgraded piano hammer weighted graded key actions and they have been given names beyond the boring model numbers used in the past. The best key action, which is in the HP506 & HP508, is called Concert Keyboard (an appropriate name actually). The key action in the HP504 is called Premium Keyboard. The difference between the two is that the Concert Keyboard in the HP506 & HP508 feels even more like a grand piano to me and the Premium Keyboard action in the HP504 (below left pic) is just slightly less realistic but still very enjoyable to play and much better than most other brands in its price range. This is the first major key action upgrade in many years for the Roland company in terms of feel,
Roland HP504, HP506, HP508 digital pianos
Roland HP504
key sensor ability and sensitivity, reaction time, and overall quietness of key movement and keybed. For the first time ever in any major brand of digital piano that I know of, Roland now has 4 electronic key sensors per key (this 4-sensor info came directly to me from Roland US). The new 4-sensor piano sound electronics is in all of the new DP, HP, & LX models and makes a huge difference in overall touch sensitivity, dynamic range, and piano tone subtitles and is especially noticeable if you are a more advanced player.  When it comes to piano sound, it's really all about expression and expressing yourself in a musical way. These new models do such a fine job of that, that even an experienced piano/music teacher like myself would not hesitate to recommend these pianos over many acoustic pianos out there when it comes to having the necessary fundamentals a student or player needs to make good music. So if you ever hear a piano teacher say "I would never recommend a digital piano to my students if they want to be serious about their musical growth," then that teacher has not played a new higher quality digital piano lately, especially the new Roland pianos.
New synthetic ebony keys
As I mentioned before, unless you have a very musically trained ear for listening to or playing high quality acoustic pianos, you may not be able to recognize how good these new Roland digital models are as compared to some lower priced digital pianos. This is because sound and feel are, at the end of the day, subjective & personal and objectivity for the untrained ear and fingers can be difficult to obtain. Having said that, the piano sound realism, key sensitivity, and dynamic range along with a much quieter key action than ever before is really quite amazing in all three new models, and it really does give you the impression that you are playing a real top quality acoustic piano and much more so than previous Roland piano models. The key weight and static touch weight (amount of finger pressure required to press keys when keys are at resting position) are excellent as well as key balance from bass through treble range and from black keys to white keys. Unless you get a chance to play one of these pianos locally you'll just have to take my word for it:).
New synthetic ivory keys
Both new Roland key actions (Concert & Premium) also incorporate a grand piano simulation movement with a "let-off/escapement mechanism." This key movement simulates the key action feel of a grand piano as opposed to an upright piano. When you press the keys down slowly on a real grand piano, you can feel a slight hesitation or notch about half way down when the key action is moving and this is called the escapement or let-off effect. Generally speaking, upright acoustic pianos do not have this feature but grand pianos do. Is this let-off/escapement feature a necessity for playing a piano?...not really...but it's cool to have because it does offer even better playing feel, especially for more advanced players:) The white piano key tops are coated in a synthetic ivory material which (tries to) duplicates the feel of the older acoustic pianos which had real ivory keys and has a slight textured feeling to them. This synthetic ivory was on the previous models too. But on these new models Roland has added new synthetic ebony for the black keys (Concert Action only) which completes the total realism of playing a real organic piano keyboard on all keys. This synthetic substance on both black & white keys has a slight texture and helps absorb sweat from the fingers and offers a smoother playing experience. It also looks a bit classier than the all shiny white and black keys and I personally like this feel very much.
HP506 rosewood
The piano cabinet and control panel in all three models have been redesigned with more contemporary lines, a sleeker looking panel layout with redesigned buttons and functions that are a bit more intuitive to use. The satin cabinet finishes also look more realistic than previous models and are more scratch resistant. Even the Roland HP piano logo on the HP pianos was redesigned and relocated to the top of the music rack where it looks elegant and classier, which is a small but important detail in my opinion. Roland did keep something that was on previous models and that is where the control panel is located and the fact that the key cover is a two stage cover allowing the player the ability of covering the control panel without covering up the keys. This allows for a visually more minimalistic acoustic looking piano when playing it and yet you can easily slide the cover back up inside the piano and expose the control panel again so you can use the buttons to change functions and features. I really like how that works and I am a big fan of having the buttons up above the keys as opposed to on the left or right side of the piano keyboard as in other digital piano brands and models.
The acoustic piano sound itself (taken from Steinway acoustic grand pianos) on all the Roland HP pianos are identical regardless of model and they all have 128-note polyphony piano memory (how many notes can be played and sustained at one time) which is more than enough for even the most complex piano pieces because of Roland's advanced polyphony voice allocation. It's a fancy way to say you won't run out of notes even when layering two sounds together or playing complex MIDI song files while playing live over the top of it. Roland calls its acoustic piano sound SuperNATURAL Piano meaning that
Roland HP508 digital piano key touch sensitivity
Roland has attempted to reproduce a much  more "natural & beautiful" acoustic stereo sound in their digital pianos and I feel they have done this quite well on these new models. In fact, if you plug in a good pair of stereo headphones to one of these pianos they would all basically sound the same to most people and have a great piano sound except the higher priced HP508 would have many more key touch sensitivity settings (100 of them as opposed to 5 on the other two models) as well as more digital sound
Roland HP508 LCD display screen
Roland HP508 digital pianoRoland HP508 digital pianoRoland HP508 digital pianoRoland HP508 digital piano enhancements including what Roland calls Piano Designer effects.  The additional touch sensitivity settings are really a big upgrade and allow for incremental changes in how the piano sound reacts to your finger touch. The key touch is much more customizable (for children or adults, beginners through advanced) on the HP508 because of so many more touch sensitivity settings, which is a good thing. There are also certain tones that occur inside a regular acoustic piano when the hammers hit the strings and the strings are vibrating, as well as how the pedals influence the piano sound. Some of the acoustic piano elements include duplex scale, hammer noise, damper noise settings, soundboard behavior, and digitally opening and closing the lid of a grand piano at different height levels, and they are included in the HP508 (and LX15e) but some are not in the HP504 & HP506. Whether or not these additional acoustic piano elements are something you will personally hear one way or the other is hard to tell depending on your ears, expectations, musical experience, and sensitivity. But I can assure you that the extra piano sound upgrades in the HP508 (as compared to the HP506 & HP504) do bring another level of piano playing authenticity to the HP508 and I can hear the difference. The main function of any good digital piano is to play & sound like a real high quality acoustic piano and a good piano manufacturer is always looking for a better way to do that and yet keep their digital pianos at affordable prices.
Overall, I like the SuperNATURAL piano sound very much and it offers a beautiful acoustic playing experience more closely associated with the Steinway grand piano sound and I can hear that and it's impressive. However, everyone has different ears and reacts to sound differently but I personally enjoy playing and listening to the Roland acoustic piano sound in these new models and in the HP508, it's a big resonate piano sound also because of the substantially upgraded internal speaker system. People who own these new pianos have told me they really can't believe their ears at how good the piano sound is and how much it sounds like they are playing a real piano. For me personally, the sound of any of these new models, especially through headphones, really moves my musical soul and allows me to create the music that's in my head and on the music in front of me. Copyright 2014
With regard to the piano pedals, they operate very smoothly and feel realistic to press down and incorporate the three traditional pedal functions (damper/sustain, sostenuto, and soft) of regular acoustic pianos. They do work better than other digital pianos I have played and also simulate a good note sustaining experience using a damper continuous detection pedaling feature. This function gives the player incremental note sustain amounts rather than just on & off or half pedal. It is definitely a much more realistic acoustic piano playing experience than other brands as well as physically feeling like the pedal is changing resistance when being pressed down. Roland calls this feature Progressive Damper Action. Having quality piano pedals & accurate piano pedal operation is very important, especially to more advanced players. Roland does not skimp on this area of piano playing like some other digital piano manufacturers do. Even the height of the pedals (an important aspect of pedal playing) is accurate as compared to concert grand pianos like the Steinway acoustic grand pianos. Every aspect of pedal playing can make a big difference in technique and performance and these are not features and functions that should be overlooked.

HP508 control panel
The HP models offer many high quality instrument sounds divided into 4 control panel buttons above the keyboard. These sounds include 14 variations of acoustic grand pianos, 5 upright pianos (uprights are generally not found on other brands), 10 electric pianos, and 321 additional instrument tones (just about anything you can think of including strings, organs, banjo, synth, sax, trumpet, sitar, guitars, individual drum sounds, etc:) for a total of 350 tones which is a lot! You can see all of the instrument names and other function descriptions in the LCD user display screen which is very nice for displaying relevant info and the HP508 has a slightly better and larger display screens for accessing even more information. On the panel button with the 321 extra instrument sounds, it can be a bit tedious in getting to the sound you want by scrolling to it with the value +/- button, but this is true of other brands as well. However, Roland has created a special iPad app that allows you to select all of the instrument sounds on the piano (all Roland HP models) from an iPad connected wirelessly to the piano. This iPad Roland app called Piano Partner, displays all
350 tones from within the piano which are easy to find and select right from an iPad touch screen (left pic). Of course you need to dedicate an iPad to the piano which not everyone can do as it does add extra cost, but it is very cool to do that and personally I think an iPad is a great addition to these pianos . On the piano buttons themselves, you can change the "tonality" of the sounds by increasing or decreasing the brilliance or mellowness of the piano & instrument sounds and you can take any two sounds and layer them together or split them separately on either side of the keyboard. The pianos also have the duet twin piano feature which lets you electronically divide the 88-keys into two identical 44-key keyboards playing the same notes in the same octaves so that two people can play the same music at the same time. It's a great feature for teacher-student, parent-child, etc, and many of the top brands are including that feature in their pianos too.
USB ports
A digital MIDI recorder is built into each model featuring 3 tracks of recording and playback (for up to 3 separate instruments) and being able to save the songs on a USB flashdrive which is very cool. There is also an audio wav file recorder which allows actual CD recording and playback giving a precise rendition of your song which you can then play along with or save on a USB flashdrive for loading onto your computer to use in notation programs or attach to emails to send to family & friends so they can hear you on their computers...lots of fun with that. You can also plug in another instrument or microphone into the pianos and record that sound along with the piano and combine them. You can also use a key transpose feature on the pianos to transpose your recording (including the external audio source) to another key for singing or modulating the song up or down in semi-tones one step at a time. Even playback speed of MIDI and audio song files can be adjusted up or down which is very cool for audio and most digital pianos cannot do this on audio wav/CD files. So that means you can play along with your favorite CD song direct in your piano and slow it down to 75% of original speed to learn how to play it at a better (slower) speed while learning...and it still sounds good! I have not seen audio/CD song tempo control before on any other brand that has audio record or playback. Copyright 2014
General MIDI sound
All Roland piano HP models playback General MIDI song files from a USB flashdrive which is a great feature and one I use all the time in my studio. The General MIDI song format allows you to play your piano parts along "with the band or orchestra" and to interact with multiple instruments at one time using well known piano lesson books including thousands of popular songs from a variety of music styles and eras which can be found on the Internet. For more info on the General MIDI format go here: General MIDI and Playing Piano. Roland has a number of other ways its pianos can record music and playback songs for music education & learning that are quite useful and can be important when trying to learn music whether you are a beginner or professional. But this comes as no surprise because for years Roland has built professional recording & music learning devices for musicians, teachers, and students who use them in their home or studio for more effective practice sessions. If you want to know more about this you are welcome to contact me.
Flash card game
All of these models can connect directly to an iPad for another interactive way of learning about music and playing the piano, and I use iPad piano learning/teaching apps all the time in my studio which provides a cutting edge visual way of interactive piano practice and learning. A unique feature of the Roland HP pianos is that they can do a wireless USB connection to an iPad using an optional Roland wireless USB adapter and specially created Roland iPad apps such as the Piano Partner app (see pics on left). The Piano Partner iPad app does a number of things including visually letting you access all of the instrument sounds in the pianos by selecting the specific instrument sound (more than 300 of them), which I mentioned earlier, and touching the iPad to get it. It's intuitive and really something every owner of a new HP models new Roland piano should have. The Piano Partner app also displays the actual musical notation for all 200 lesson songs built inside the Roland pianos so that you can see the music and play along at any speed you like. You can also mute the right and/or left hand so that you can play that part live while the other "hand" is is being heard playing back on the iPad Piano Partner app. The songs include popular lesson songs that teachers use for their students and there are even orchestral accompaniments for some of the songs to make it sound even more exciting. It's easy to use, fun, and quite motivational and is recommended by music teachers and I really like it. The app also displays a flash card game that allows you to learn to identify notes on the staff so that you become better at sight reading. Beyond all that, on the Roland pianos there is wireless audio to play music from your iTunes songs (with tempo & transpose control) and hear it through the piano speakers by way of a new Roland Air Performer app without the need of connecting audio cables from the piano to the iPad. This is very cool and unique and I have not seen this feature offered on other brands before. The audio sound & USB connections from other non-Roland iPad music apps still need connecting cables, but that's true of the other brands too.
The speaker/audio system in each model is good and gets better as you go up in models with the HP508 being noticeably best of all. Each piano model has more audio power, bigger speakers, and more speakers than the model before it and the better internal speaker systems do make these pianos sound more realistic. The HP504 has 24 watts of total audio power going into 2 amplifiers and 2 speakers and although that specification may not seem like much, this model is surprisingly loud and full for its smaller size due to special Roland speaker technology and competes quite well with the bigger 40 watt audio power of other digital pianos. The HP506 has 74 watts (an upgrade over previous model) of total audio power going into 4 amplifiers and 4 speakers, and the HP508 has 150 watts (an upgrade over previous model) of total audio power going into 4 amplifiers and 6 speakers. The HP508 is a bit taller piano (about 45" tall with music rack up - about 38" tall with music rack folder down) so that the 6 speakers can be laid out inside the piano with two near the top, two near the keyboard, and two below pointing forward (instead of down in the other two models). This system gives a more balanced approach to recreating the acoustic piano playing experience and it really makes the piano sound like a big acoustic grand piano. So it's not only the power or the internal audio systems themselves, but how and where they are installed in the piano and how the individual piano tones are projected through those different systems. Roland has been in the professional pro audio business for many years (I have owned and used some of their pro audio speakers) so they do have experience in this area and it shows in these digital pianos. 

The best way I can sum up and identify the major changes in the HP504, 506, and 508 from the previous models are as follows:

1. New PHA-4 Concert Keyboard with Escapement and Ebony/Ivory Feel features Roland’s latest high-resolution touch-detection technology 
2. Fortissimo (dynamically very loud) playing styles are fully expressed with the new Dynamic Harmonic feature, which provides both a unique tonal character and powerful sound
3. New Individual Note Voicing to customize the sound to your taste by adjusting the pitch (tuning), volume, and character of each note independently including Stretched Tuning: -50.0 – +50.0 cent, Note Volume: -50 – 0, Note Character: -5 – +5
4. Headphones 3D Ambience effect sound experience while using headphones for private practice
5. Display music scores and selected HP-508 tones & songs with Piano Partner app for iPad
6. Independent volume control for headphones, volume limit function, and a 4 level tilt adjustable music rest which no other major brand has
7. Better connectivity with mini stereo input and output jacks as opposed to just standard 1/4 jacks
I do need to point out that while all of the upgrades on these new pianos are pretty impressive, the most interesting new feature to me is that for the first time that I know of on a top name home digital (upright style) piano, you can actually electronically adjust each of the 88 notes one at a time for tuning, volume, and character (voicing). On all other top name digital pianos you can only do this for all 88 keys at one time, but not for each note individually. This may not be useful or ever necessary for beginner thru early intermediate players, but for more advanced players you may have reason to want specific notes individually altered because of the way you hear your music and the notes that are playing. It's all about the "ear" and about your piano playing experience & skill level, thus you may find this new and impressive feature useful to be able to play your music exactly in the way you want it to sound over 88 individual notes. I have used this feature to customize the piano sound and I like the result very much.
Another new Roland creation I found intriguing was the "3D effect" through stereo headphones. It's supposed to give you the impression the piano sound is all around you coming from different directions as opposed to directly into your ears. Roland calls it "an immersive sound experience" which gives you the feeling you're not actually wearing headphones at all...and that's really the point of this feature. I tried it out and found that overall, it had a more natural effect than listening through stereo headphones without it. It actually did sound like I wasn't wearing headphones...although I was:). This is new technology in digital pianos and it's a nice feature to have especially if you'll be using headphones often. The 3-D headphone sound effect only works when the ambiance button on the piano control panel is selected and it can be turned on or off or controlled in incremental levels Also, it's important to have/own excellent sounding stereo headphones for private playing because you want to capture all the nuances of the new enhanced Roland piano sound dynamics and tonal qualities. I can give you some good recommendations if you don't already have headphones.
Roland HP508 digital piano
HP508 satin black
As with all lower priced digital pianos under approx $3000 discount price, I would have preferred the internal speaker systems on the HP504 & HP506 to be more powerful than they are, but this is true for the other brands too. I am just spoiled when it comes to sound (I play acoustic grand pianos often:) and I like the volume and tone to be big such as what is in the HP508. But for the majority of people, the HP504 & HP506 will have more than enough sound and volume for most homes and I have played them many times and they do sound great for their price. These new Roland models also have built-in audio outputs so you can add a small external sound system to any of the models (like you would to a TV, iPod, home stereo, etc) and then you can enhance the sound quality and volume even further if you want. 
Roland HP506 digital piano
HP506 rosewood closed key cover
If you want a realistic and satisfying "acoustic piano" style playing experience without an over abundance of digital features (no drum rhythm patterns, no automatic chord styles, etc), the new Roland HP504, HP506, and HP508 would be an excellent choice depending on your budget, and I do highly recommend them. They are a big upgrade from the prior models in key action & piano dynamics and play great. Also, as compared against the other popular name brands such as Yamaha & Kawai, the new Roland pianos have the latest piano technology out there right now, and in a number of important ways (which I discussed previously) they surpass what the other brands do in similar price ranges. Although these new HP pianos do a lot more than I have mentioned in this review in terms of digital features they have, those things are just "frosting on the cake" as far as I am concerned. Once you get up into this price range it's mostly all about piano playing in my opinion, and that's definitely where the Roland HP models excel. Roland products have been known to be very reliable overall and these pianos come with a 5 year parts, 2 year labor labor warranty which is quite good. As I always tell people, do your homework before making a buying decision, especially when it comes to some artificially higher piano store prices out there, but you can't go wrong on any of the new Roland HP digital pianos and you can enjoy them for many years to come.