A First Look at Kawai’s Novus NV10 Hybrid by DR. OWEN LOVELL
The hybrid segment of the piano market continues to expand in market share. Though the term is not yet precisely defined by the industry, hybrid typically refers to digital pianos that contain actual acoustic-piano elements in their sound production and/or action design, and to acoustic pianos that contain digital technologies to enhance their functionality. Buyers of digital-piano hybrids tend to occupy one of two categories: digital-piano enthusiasts who are looking for the ultimate piano but would never consider the purchase price or space and maintenance requirements of a fine acoustic grand; and professional pianists and teachers looking for a space-saving, headphone-capable alternative to an acoustic grand, without sacrificing playability.
For years, these digital hybrid segments have been dominated by Yamaha’s AvantGrand models N1, N2, and N3X. In the last decade, however, Kawai’s lines of digital, stage, and hybrid pianos have continued to diversify and improve in performance, and Kawai has now rekindled its traditional rivalry with Yamaha by introducing to the hybrid market a direct competitor to the AvantGrand: the Novus NV10 Hybrid. In late January, after show hours at the 2018 National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) trade event, I had the opportunity to test an early-production NV10 in a quiet room.
On first playing, the most noticeable positive attribute of the Novus NV10 Hybrid was its action—the same Millennium III action found in Kawai’s well-regarded and durable acoustic grand pianos. This action is mostly made from composite materials—ABS plastic and carbon fiber—with remaining parts of natural materials, such as wood, felt, and leather. Because the heart of the Novus is digital and therefore it has no strings, the action has no felt hammers to strike them with. Other than this, however, the action is recognizable as that of an acoustic grand in every way—right down to the keysticks, which are made of wood, with counterweights of exactly the same design as those in the keys of acoustic grands. The marketing departments of digital piano manufacturers tend to make flowery but dubious claims of how authentically their digital-piano actions re-create the touch of a real concert grand, but in my experience, the Kawai Novus is one of the very few that do perform like the genuine article. At Kawai’s NAMM Show exhibit, I was able to rapidly go back and forth between the Novus, Kawai’s lower-cost GL grands and midline GX grands, and even the limited-production Shigeru Kawai grands, including the 9′ SK-EX concert grand. Save for a little less feeling of solidity at the bottom of the keystroke, the realism of the Novus’s action was remarkable.
It’s worth noting that the actions of acoustic grand pianos, like that of the Novus NV10 Hybrid, are mechanically louder than typical digital-piano actions. It’s something one doesn’t notice in normal playing because the music masks the mechanical noise, but if others are in your vicinity while you’re playing technically demanding passages using headphones (which cut off the sound from the speakers), the mechanical noise may come as a surprise to them.
Digital piano shoppers typically, and understandably, like to compare the published specifications of the pianos they’re considering choosing among. However, the Kawai Novus is different in a way that may not show up in the numbers but that strongly matters to pianists, and brings to the digital-piano industry an important first. As in most other good digital pianos on the market today, the touch weight of the Novus’s action is graded—it’s heavier in the bass, lighter in the treble, to mimic the change in mass of an acoustic piano’s hammers. But the Novus’s touch weight also varies based on whether or not the damper pedal is depressed. When an acoustic piano’s damper pedal is depressed, the touch weight of the keys becomes lighter, because the player’s foot, instead of the fingers, bears the weight of the damper mechanism. The Novus is the first production digital piano from a major manufacturer to re-create this feeling—a subtle and important enhancement of the player’s sense of musical control. Although I was unable to see exactly how this works, Kawai says that using the Novus’s damper pedal mechanically eases the action’s touch weight, and I could definitely feel the familiar connection between the motion of my foot and the change in pressure of my fingers on the keys. The damper pedal was on the firm side, but within the normal range of what I’d expect when playing a variety of acoustic grands.
Amplifiers and Speakers
Like some of Kawai’s other new high-end offerings, the Novus uses amplifiers and speakers designed through a recent partnership with Onkyo, the well-regarded Japanese maker of consumer electronics that specializes in home theater and audio equipment. The NV10 has seven speakers, three amplifiers, and a specified maximum output power of 135 watts. (Pet Peeve: Unlike the audio industry, digital-piano manufacturers usually don’t specify if their products’ power specs are peak or continuous, or the frequency bandwidth of the measurement.) Dome tweeters and midrange drivers are within the player’s line of sight, while the 6.3″ woofer is hidden inside the rear-support pedestal leg of the piano, which has been designed to function as a bass-reflex box to enhance the low-bass performance.
The Novus’s speakers were powerful enough to re-create any dynamic levels I could desire from an acoustic grand piano. In fact, with the volume turned up all the way, the Novus produced more sound than the acoustic grand next to it, at least from the player’s perspective. When I played bass notes at forte, the bass driver and its enclosure excited the case of the NV10, transmitting resonance vibrations through the keys to my fingers—perhaps even more than with an acoustic grand. With its upward-firing midrange and treble speakers, I could hear the stereo image pan fairly sharply from left to right as I played from the bass through the high treble.
A minor quibble about the locations of two of the four top-mounted speaker grilles: They’re partially obscured by the music desk and sheet music, which makes the music less audible, at least from the player’s point of view. Ironically, this is actually similar to the effect a music desk can have on the sound coming from the soundboard and strings of an acoustic grand—but unlike with an acoustic grand, putting the NV10’s music desk fully down to its closed position made this effect worse, because the desk then partially covered the speakers. In fairness, though, a listener in the room during this test, seated off to the side of the Novus, where the audience would be in a traditional concert setting, remarked quite favorably about the realism of the soundstage.
Realizing that digital pianos are so often used with headphones, manufacturers of high-end digital and hybrid pianos have recently taken steps to improve sound quality when their instruments are played that way. Kawai touts its Discrete SpectraModule headphone amplifier and Spatial Headphone Sound, also developed with Onkyo. Since I didn’t have my familiar, reference headphones available (NAMM Show security is fussy about anyone other than manufacturers bringing gear into or out of the show facilities), and no two headphone models sound precisely identical, I didn’t spend much time testing this playing mode of the Novus. If silent play is likely to account for a significant amount of your playing time, I suggest bringing along a favorite pair of headphones when auditioning this instrument.
Like so many devices, the Novus NV10 is Bluetooth-capable. You can wirelessly stream audio from a connected computer, tablet, or phone through the piano’s high-quality amplifier and speakers, bypassing the wired connection hub on the front of the instrument. Kawai offers a couple of apps for the Novus, such as Touch Notation and Virtual Technician, and third-party apps are becoming increasingly available.
Interestingly, the Kawai Novus incorporates design elements of both vertical and grand acoustic pianos. The curved sides, pedals, music desk, and legs evoke the image of a small grand piano; however, looking at the keyboard from the front or from above, the visual cues are more reminiscent of an elegant console vertical in a polished ebony finish. The rear view is decidedly more basic and utilitarian: just matte black paneling, a brand logo, and screws that provide access to some of the piano’s inner workings. The midrange and high-frequency drivers are recessed into the top panel, behind grilles. Finally, the playing surface is free of all buttons. The only visual cue that you’re playing a hybrid piano is the 5″ color LCD touchscreen in the left cheekblock. The power button, volume knob, and connections hub are discreetly hidden on the underside of the keybed. Like many acoustic pianos, the NV10 features a slow-close fallboard.
The Touchscreen and Settings
The Novus is controlled primarily through its beautiful color LCD touchscreen. The settings include instrument selection (88 voices), Virtual Technician adjustments (19 parameters, even the ability to voice individual notes!), reverb (6 types), ambience (10 types), and dozens of additional effects. Taking time to experiment with the many available customizations can make the most of your NV10 experience. For example, I took a liking to the equalization adjustments that Kawai’s head U.S. technician had created on the display model at NAMM, overriding the default concert-grand settings. Like other digital pianos, there is also a song recorder (including MP3 and WAV digital audio formats in addition to standard MIDI), a metronome, and prerecorded lesson songs from popular and historic piano method books.
Using the touchscreen requires a mix of swipes and taps, and the animated graphics move in a rather attractive way to match your inputs. Selecting sounds and instrument families by swiping did require a refined fingertip control, so as not to repeatedly overshoot my intended selections. I expect that awkwardness might be addressed in a future software update; Kawai’s digital division has a good reputation for responding to customer feedback and offering complimentary software/firmware updates.
Modes and Voices
The Novus NV10 offers two modes of operation: Pianist Mode and Sound Mode. Pianist Mode features Kawai’s SK-EX Rendering sound engine, also used in a few other recently released high-end Kawai models, such as the CA98 and CA78. This sound engine uses both sampling and modeling to create its piano sounds, combining multi-channel sampling of Kawai’s best acoustic pianos with Resonance Modeling to duplicate effects such as damper resonance and string resonance. In Pianist Mode, the Novus has fewer functions and adjustments than in Sound Mode; however, in Pianist Mode the processor’s workflow is optimized for one purpose: piano sound quality. Compared with Sound Mode, Pianist Mode provides the more enveloping and high-resolution experience, with better simulation of tonal complexity and a three-dimensional soundstage. Characteristics such as pedal and damper resonance and sound decay are optimized to the point where they can actually sound exaggerated. This was particularly true when I used the instrument’s default settings and briefly compared its sound, back-to-back, with that of a real Shigeru Kawai SK-EX concert grand—but this level of sensory oversaturation can be brought back to a more realistic level by using the customization settings or the Virtual Technician pane.
In Pianist Mode, Kawai provides ten very thoroughly developed, customized sound-processing submodes: Classic, Romantic, Full, Jazz, Brilliant, Rich, Ballad, Pop, Vintage, and Boogie. I suggest exploring these in their default settings to find a “flavor” you prefer, then customizing it to your liking. Sound Mode uses Kawai’s Harmonic Imaging XL sound engine, which is shared by most of the company’s better digital piano models. This somewhat less resource-intensive mode lets the user layer instruments and split the keyboard into zones, functions that should be familiar to experienced users of digital pianos.
My favorite instrumental voices on the Novus NV10 included all of the acoustic pianos—they sampled various Kawai acoustic grand and vertical models—as well as the electric pianos and jazz organs, the celesta (institutions may find this useful, as real celestas have become eye-wateringly expensive), and some surprisingly good electric-bass patches. The choir, pipe organ, and certain string sounds seemed, by comparison, a bit less refined. As far as instruments go, the top item on my wish list (considering the professional-level keyboardists who will probably be shopping for this model) is a harpsichord sound as carefully developed as the piano sounds.
Ten years ago, I would never have imagined the existence of a hybrid piano with the capabilities of Kawai’s Novus NV10. As the technology and playability of these instruments advance, I’m discovering high-level professional classical and jazz pianists—the snobbiest of piano snobs—who now own a hybrid piano as a practice instrument or are seriously considering buying one. The traditional acoustic piano will never be completely replaced, nor should it be—but it’s fascinating to see the inroads these flagship hybrid models are now making into the conservative, traditional world of acoustic grands.