An 88-note hammer-action stage piano as affordable as this seems far too good to be true. Is there a catch?
The PX3 heads up Casio's Privia digital piano range, which for the most part consists of home and education-oriented models with integrated stands, speakers and pedal units. There are no such accoutrements here, though; the PX3 is a proper, portable stage piano with a feature set that makes it much more suited to stage and studio than domestic use.
I must admit a pang of nostalgia when I discovered I'd be reviewing the PX3. I spent a large portion of my teenage years playing Casio keyboards. In the 1980s, Casio synths (like the almost-classic mini-keyed CZ101) significantly undercut the likes of Roland, Korg and Yamaha and, on paper at least, seemed more highly specified in some areas, but didn't always come out on top for sheer sound quality. Predictably, too, programming was largely LCD-driven and labyrinthine, and construction quality aimed at something less than heavy duty. They unashamedly represented the entry-level end of the market, but then, if the trusty Casio was what you could afford, it would certainly do the job.
Back in the present, I wondered if the PX3 would be a case of history repeating itself. Typical street price is a mere fraction of some of the stage piano competition, and yet the spec-sheet and marketing blurb puts it very much in the big league. There's an 88-note hammer-action 'Ivory Touch' keyboard. The 250 editable onboard sounds major on acoustic and electric pianos, with Acoustic Resonance modelling, and a 'Linear Morphing' system that is supposed to do with away with obvious sample-switching across the velocity range. Other sounds include plenty of mallet instruments, organs, strings, pads, guitars and an entire General MIDI sound set. Keyboard splits and layers can be set up to play internal sounds or trigger external MIDI modules (via USB or conventional 5-pin MIDI sockets), and there are 64 'registration' memories for these kinds of setups. Effects include EQ, reverb and chorus that can be shared amongst the internal parts, and two multi-effects processors, which can be applied to specific individual parts. A pitch-bend wheel lurks to the left of the keyboard, and there are two assignable buttons for toggling effects and so on, as well as rear panel inputs for two switch-type pedals. Oh, and the whole thing weighs only 23.8lbs. With so much on offer, for so little, there's got to be a catch, right?
Probably the two main reasons for the PX3's light weight become obvious as soon as you start using it. The case is made entirely of plastic, and there's an external power adaptor.
The casework itself is sturdy, looks durable, and doesn't flex or creak under any normal conditions. Rear-panel sockets are not well supported, though. Only the USB and MIDI sockets are anchored to the casework, so typical quarter-inch jack plugs plugged into the 'L' and 'R' audio outputs can wobble up to about a centimetre from side to side, presumably stressing the internal circuit-board mountings. The power adaptor is a compact, in-line design whose 2.5m lead is terminated by a two-pin IEC plug. It adapts to mains voltages worldwide, and in use it barely got warm.
Now, what about this Ivory Touch keyboard? The hammer action is on the weighty side, compared to some stage pianos, and the key-tops are lightly textured — though no-one would mistake them for ivory. The action itself has no obvious vices, and allows for expressive playing. Superficially, it doesn't feel quite as silky or stable as Yamaha's or Roland's best hammer-action keyboards, especially when played very gently, but then it's difficult to be completely objective about this. Subtle aspects of mechanical feedback through the key can influence a player's (and reviewer's) perception, and in that respect a big, heavy, metal-constructed stage piano can, by default, feel classier than a plastic-bodied instrument. What I can be objective about is that the Privia keys reliably and evenly generate the full range of MIDI velocity values. And for the vast majority of pianists, especially those playing jazz, pop or rock piano, the action on offer here won't give a moment's concern.
When you switch on the PX3 with its unusual side-mounted power switch, it boots up ready for use in about 12 seconds, and defaults to its main piano sound. Selecting other sounds is nice and easy: there are eight labelled buttons for main instrument groups, and a pair of up/down buttons above for stepping through the variations within. A simple layer of two sounds or a keyboard split (or both) is just a button push away. The resulting additional keyboard 'zones' are configured using dedicated Zone Selector buttons, which also choose whether individual zones trigger internal sounds, transmit MIDI, or do both at once. It's all useful stuff, though it's worth noting that the PX3's strict adherence to the split/layer concept won't let you do more advanced stuff like creating overlapping zones, or even three or four adjacent zones spread across the pitch range. So far, so straightforward. Going further with the PX3 may well have you reaching for the User Guide, though — at least initially.
Sounds can be quite extensively edited within each zone. You access groups of four parameters at a time, and shuttle between them with the dedicated Parameter Selector buttons and repeated pushes of the Zone Edit button. All the while, values are shown in the LCD. There's plenty to fiddle with: part transposition, bend range, volume and pan, EQ, effects assignment, filter cutoff, attack and release, and vibrato. That's by no means an exhaustive list, either.
The ergonomics of editing, though, are hobbled by the Parameter Selector buttons being placed to the left of the LCD, and not underneath it, where they'd tally up with the parameters they select. It seems like a minor point, but this and other little inconsistencies contribute to the programming system often feeling cumbersome and counter-intuitive, when in reality it's quite simple and fast to navigate.
Global parameters, which are accessed in a different way, using buttons to the right of the LCD, fare little better. They appear in a kind of pop-up window on the LCD, through which you enter a menu-driven system, but you might struggle to figure out that this is what's happening the first time you try.
Of course, striking the right balance between ease of use and programming depth is a problem that perhaps uniquely affects stage pianos. We want them to be simple and immediate, but feel hard done by when they don't offer workstation-levels of flexibility. The PX3 at least is programmable, and you can get quite creative with it. Saving and recalling setups to and from the 64 Registration memories is easy to understand, too. However, it's probably fair to say that while most people will learn to navigate the editing system eventually, fewer will learn to love it.
Let's cut to the chase and consider the PX3's sounds. The two main acoustic piano sounds have a lot going for them. They differ in general character: one's quite middle-y and incisive, the other more luxurious. Here the Linear Morphing system does its job, because I couldn't hear any obvious velocity switching. Nor are there any terrible lurches of timbre between adjacent notes, and the extreme low and high pitch ranges are convincing. Some players may find the sound of very loud notes a bit forced and lacking that nice steely projection, and note decays are not exactly state of the art — after about two seconds, you're into that lifeless, short-sample-loop sound that differs so much from the beautiful complexity of a real piano's decay. But the PX3 is no worse in this respect than stage piano competition at three times its price. In my experience, when you rule out big computer-based piano sample libraries, only a very few keyboards (such as Nord's Piano 88) do significantly better. Anyway, regardless of relative cost, in the context of a typical stage performance or pop/rock mix, the PX3's pianos will do the job and sound really convincing.
Additional timbres include bright dance pianos, and also compressed and mono varieties. They're all helped along by the Acoustic Resonance feature, which simulates the additional depth and breadth experienced when you depress the damper pedal on a real piano. It's more obvious on some sounds than others, but as it's editable you can easily decide how much of a contribution it should make. It's worth noting here that Casio's Acoustic Resonance does not, apparently, stretch to generating sympathetic string resonance between sustained notes when you're not using the damper pedal. Still, only a select few stage pianos pull off that stunt.
Amongst the main group of electric pianos, there are 11 distinct flavours of various Rhodes and Wurlitzer models, some clean and others with ready-rolled phasers, tremolos and wahs, courtesy of the on-board DSP effects. It's possible to discover obvious velocity switching with all of them — the Linear Morphing technology doesn't seem to be present here. Also, no amount of vigorous playing will tease out the really barking, coarse tone that is such a useful part of a good electric piano's expressive scope. But generally, there's lots to like, and across all the sounds the immediate effect is impressive, both from the player and the listener perspective.
The rest of the sound set is hit and miss. There are some good organs and mallet instruments, but the string sounds have a tendency to be rather harsh, and both the Yamaha DX sounds and electric grand pianos are, sadly, very poor indeed.
Of the on-board effects, I have no complaints with the shared Reverb and Chorus; all parts can make use of them simultaneously, and they're quite respectable. Many of the 64 DSP insert effects are good too. There are masses of chorus and phaser variations, and the rotary speakers and autopans are great to have around. The distortion isn't so nice, though, often setting your teeth on edge and emasculating the sound you've applied it to, rather than beefing it up. The LCD-driven programming system isn't altogether up-front about effects assignments — you sometimes have to do a lot of digging around to see which parts have which effects applied.
Turning now to some aspects of playing the PX3, having a pitch-bend wheel on hand is a bonus, but a momentary button (the one marked Assignable 1) is no replacement for a mod wheel. On the other hand, the second assignable button is genuinely useful. It latches on and off, and is ideal for toggling Leslie speaker rotation speed on the organ sounds. The supplied damper pedal has a unexpectedly shallow range of action, and I was forever accidentally damping held chords. There is a second pedal input jack, switchable between soft (una corda) and sostenuto functionality.
As I hope most of this review has already made clear, the PX3 isn't some poor-sounding, hugely compromised budget item and has some really strong points. It's not perfect, of course. There are too many duds in the sound set and effects department, and the programming system, with its multi-purpose, strangely located buttons, can drive you nuts until you're used to it. It's a shame there's no modulation wheel too.
Balancing these criticisms, though, are probably the best acoustic and electric piano sounds that have ever been available at this price point, and an 88-note hammer-action keyboard that wouldn't be out of place on an instrument costing several times the PX3's asking price. In short, Casio have got all the important things right.
Does it stand comparison with a Roland RD700 or Yamaha CP5? Yes and no. Yes, in that for many typical performance situations the PX3 will sound and feel every bit as good, and be miles easier to get in and out of the venue! No, because for really heavy-duty use a burly, metal-constructed stage piano or workstation is still the right tool for the job, and may well have better non-piano sounds. It's not really a fair question, though, as the PX3 is a quarter of the price of these keyboards.
If you're after a stage piano and you're on a tight budget, look no further. If you're in a position to spend more, you should still audition the PX3, and consider what fun you might have with the balance.
There's not much on the market at around the PX3's price that bears direct comparison. The Yamaha P95 and Korg SP250 have 88-note hammer actions, but are distinctly more basic in their conception, with fewer sounds, less polyphony, and built-in speakers. M-Audio's ProKeys 88 is a little closer but, in my experience of it, the action is nothing like as good. The Kurzweil SP48 and SP2X are a step up in quality, but at nearly double the cost.
Complementing the PX3's General MIDI sound set is a MIDI file playback feature. Standard MIDI Files (in the common SMF Type 0 and Type 1 formats) can be loaded directly from an SD memory card inserted into the PX3's front-panel card slot, or from an internal memory area. What's particularly cool is that the 16 tracks reserved for SMF playback are in addition to the PX3's four 'front panel' parts, so you can jam along to MIDI files in full split/layer splendour, if you so wish. SD cards can also be used for storing banks of 64 registrations.
It's not a sexy feature, but the PX3's included 'music desk' music stand is really useful. It's robust enough, if you're not too enthusiastic with your eraser, and sure beats having to set up a separate music stand.
As an optional extra, a three-pedal unit called the SP32 is available, which plugs into a hidden connector on the base of the PX3. This supports half-pedalling (partial damping associated with quick or shallow pedal presses). Sounds good... but it also requires a dedicated stand: the domestic-oriented and not-very-portable CS67P. I guess that's the PX3's living room heritage showing through.