As we know, it's perfectly possible to get a very functional MIDI controller keyboard for less than £100/$150, but there are reasons to consider paying more.
It's not necessarily the case that increasing your spend will get you a larger keyboard - some 61-note controllers cost far less than certain 25-note models - but what you should encounter at higher price points is improved playability, with features such as aftertouch becoming commonplace, and more features.
For example, you might get more and better-quality controllers (knobs, pads, faders etc), possibly with backlighting. Enhanced integration options are also worth looking out for - there's certainly something to be said for having a MIDI controller that Just Works with your favourite software. Better build quality and increased durability are to be expected, too.
Alternatively, you might also get something that breaks the mould, such as ROLI's Seaboard Rise (pictured above)
We've rounded up some of the best high-spec keyboards currently on the market, and we should also point out that there are more in the pipeline. M-Audio's CTRL49, for example, has just been released, and there are sure to be new models at the 2017 NAMM Show.
Here, though, listed in no particular order, are some of the finest models that MusicRadar has had under review...
The Taktile range is Korg's flagship as far as MIDI keyboards are concerned, and contains both 25- and 49-note models. There's also a version that contains sounds from Korg's classic Triton workstation, which takes it into standalone hardware synth territory.
The range of controls on offer is impressive: you get dedicated pitch and modulation wheels, dials, sliders, function keys, pads, transport controls and an XY touchpad. There's also an OEL display and an arpeggiator.
Taktile is easy to set up with your DAW, very playable and - thanks to some 'creative' features - also rather inspirational. All we need now are 61- and 88-note versions.
The Panorama was originally marketed primarily as a controller for Propellerhead's Reason, but now offers “deep integration” with Bitwig Studio, Cubase and Logic Pro, too (support for Apple's MainStage is also on the way).
Available in 49- and 61-note versions, the specs are impressive. The keyboard is a cut above those you'll find on budget controllers, and there's a fine complement of knobs, faders (one of which is motorised) buttons and pads (which are velocity- and pressure-sensitive).
It's not cheap, but if your DAW is supported, the Panorama's convenience and quality make it well worth investigating.
Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S-Series
It took a while for Native Instruments to get around to making a range of MIDI controller keyboards, but if you use a lot of the company's software, the S-Series will hold a lot of appeal.
There are 25-, 49- and 61-note models, all of which have very playable Fatar keybeds and controls that automatically map to those in the instruments in NI's Komplete bundle. The Light Guide LEDs illustrate the likes of key switches, zones and more, and can also show you the notes in a selected scale.
There are other features to help less competent players, too (chords can be played with a single finger and you can even call up ready-to-play progressions), so if you're already invested in the NI universe, a Komplete Kontrol keyboard might make a lot of sense.
Roland A Pro
Comprising the A-300 Pro, A-500 Pro and A-800 Pro keyboards, Roland's range has been around for a while but still smacks of quality.
In all cases, the keys are velocity-sensitive and support aftertouch, and there are knobs, sliders, buttons, transport controls and pads. The combined pitchbend/modulation stick is of the sort that Roland has been using for years.
Playable, lightweight and offering support for a range of DAWs, The A Pro series shouldn't be discounted.
Novation SL MkII
Novation was one of the 'next-gen controller' pioneers, leading the way when it came to tighter hardware/software integration with its Automap system.
This is no longer the unique selling point it once was (though Automap has been improved over the years and is now at version 4), but the SL MkII, which has been around for more than half a decade now, still delivers as a top-end controller.
Available in the standard 25-, 49- and 61-note sizes (the keyboard is semi-weighted and supports aftertouch), you also get backlit, LED-ringed knobs, a useful LCD display, faders, buttons and a touchpad.
With their square rather than rounded edges and 16 side-mounted drum pads, the VI series keyboards certainly look distinctive.
You also get assignable knobs and buttons - the number depends on whether you choose the 25-, 49- or 61-note model - and the semi-weighted keyboard, though not the most inspiring we've ever played, is perfectly respectable and supports aftertouch.
It's worth noting that you get both standard MIDI and USB ports, and controller setups can be created in a dedicated software editor and transferred to the hardware.
At this price, it's hard to argue with what the VI series offers, which is actually rather a lot.
The Keylab controllers (they come in 25-, 49-, 61- and even 88-note flavours) are actually billed as “hybrid synthesizers”, for they come bundled with Arturia's Analog Lab software, which contains some 5000 classic synth sounds.
When used with said software, controls are automatically assigned, but the hardware also stands up to scrutiny as a more general-purpose MIDI controller. There are the expected knobs, buttons, faders and pads, plus an LCD screen. The keys, meanwhile, are light but playable, though the 88-note model comes with a hammer-action 'board.
The Keylab packages are certainly pretty enticing, but if you want even more bang for your buck, check out the Producer Packs, which also contain the full version of Bitwig Studio DAW and represent superb value for money.
Keith McMillen Instruments QuNexus
It won't be for everyone, but Keith McMillen's unique mini keyboard certainly has some tricks up its sleeve.
The main focus is on the 25 “Smart Sensor” keys, which are velocity-, tilt- and pressure-sensitive, and light up when touched. These do take a little bit of getting used to, but once you've got the hang of them, they start to feel very expressive, and also surprisingly responsive.
There are micro USB and CV outputs, plus the option to add a standard MIDI port. The QuNexus appears to be extremely durable, too. If you're happy with a version with slightly fewer features, check out the K-Board.
The big USP of Akai's Advance Series keyboards is that you can easily map the parameters of any of your VST plugin instruments to their front panel controls. There are 25-, 49- and 61-note models in the range, and each has a synth-action, aftertouch-enabled keybed.
The controls feel tight and of good quality and, all things considered, we really dig the Advance concept. It closes the gap between your DAW and your controller keyboard in an elegant and generally intuitive way, so we can see these keyboards being very popular indeed.
While the initial installation/setup takes a while, the VIP mapping/browsing software works reliably and the included content is excellent, too. Our only reservation is the overly-stiff keybed (this really needs revising), plus currently there are no weighted models on offer for piano-centric players.
In all other respects Akai has brought something hugely useful to the market: the Advance hardware plus VIP software puts the emphasis back on hands-on creating/performing rather than screen-led mouse-centric programming.
ROLI Seaboard Rise
It might share a note layout with other controller keyboards, but ROLI’s Seaboard Rise (available in 25- and 49-note versions) is a different animal altogether.
Like its GRAND brother, Seaboard RISE is a pressure-sensitive, continuous surface that responds to even subtle gestures. Using its 'keywaves', you can shape notes as you play, adjusting the character of the sound with your finger movements.
We thoroughly enjoyed using the Rise - it's addictive to play and having five dimensions of touch available simultaneously via single/multiple keys (plus all the assignable left panel control) enables you to shape sounds in a way that simply can't be achieved with a standard keyboard.
If you approach the Rise just like a regular piano/synth keyboard you'll be missing the point, but go in with an open mind knowing you’ll have to adapt your technique/muscle memory slightly and the chances are that you’ll be impressed.
For anyone looking for a new way to add expression to their sounds via a keyboard-style interface, the Rise is an inspiring and exciting option that brings to life to anything you play with it.
With its Mondrian-esque design, the Code Series is certainly striking. As is often the case, there are 25-, 49- and 61-note models, all of which share some common specs.
Special mention must go to the keyboard itself, which has been revised to produce a more 'playable' action. It certainly offers a much more expressive and responsive feel to that of some previous M-Audio keyboards, and, as it provides aftertouch as well as velocity sensitivity, it's a powerful control surface in its own right.
Other highlights include 16 velocity-sensitive pads with LED feedback and a touch pad for X/Y axis control.
M-Audio's reputation as a developer of feature-packed controller keyboards is further enhanced with the release of Code. Yes, the learning curve is perhaps a little steep when it comes to assigning the raft of controllers and getting busy under the hood, but plenty of mapping templates come included so you might not have to.