It used to be that when your eight-year-old started piano lessons, you went out and plunked down a thousand bucks for a used upright and then spent two hundred more a year on tuning.
It was a sizeable commitment, especially when you didn’t know if your child was going to be the next Joey Alexander or flame out in three weeks. This need is exactly what the new Williams Allegro 2 is designed to fill.
For under three bills it offers an 88-key weighted-piano action, a serviceable acoustic-piano sample, surprisingly authentic electric pianos, and a few other surprises, all in a 25-pound instrument that will never see a tuning hammer.
• The best MIDI keyboards 2020: Mac, PC, iPhone and iPad MIDI controller keyboards for beginner and pro musicians
• The 18 best synthesizers 2020: keyboards, modules and semi-modular synths
• The 12 best pianos 2020: acoustic and digital pianos for beginners and pros
Ever since Roland introduced the game-changing EP-7 (and the Casio Privia redefined the category a decade later), entry-level digital pianos have stayed consistent in form and function: They all feature five or more key instruments with options such as sound layering and splitting, effects such as reverb and chorus, and a number of basics, a metronome, a simple MIDI notepad, tuning capabilities, and an adjustable velocity curve. The Allegro 2 hits all these notes while providing an easily readable layout and built-in speakers. Its buttons are raised and have a concave center that, on some controls, sport a blue LED to indicate multiple functions.
The back panel includes a USB port, 1/4" stereo outs, sustain pedal and headphone jacks, and a receptacle for the power adaptor, which is not included: Surprisingly, the Allegro 2 can be powered by six D batteries (see Figure 1). If you want the AC power supply, the optional Williams ESS1 Essentials Pack ($30) provides it, as well as a sustain pedal and a set of consumer-style headphones. Clearly, Williams is committed to keeping a consumer-friendly price-point. Although there are a few compromises on the instrument, it offers tremendous value for the entry-level musician (or the musician who has a cabin in the woods or wants to take a piano to the beach).
The piano experience
Although the piano sounds are not as convincing as you would find on more expensive digital keyboards, the Allegro 2 provides a more-than-satisfactory entry-level piano experience (even better when you plug the audio outputs into some good amps or studio monitors) and will delight any new player. As it happened, I had the instrument set up in the studio when a singer and her guitarist husband came by to work out some arrangements: They found the Allegro 2 to be enjoyable to work with and were impressed by its action and value.
And this ergonomic playfulness will carry over to performance situations. Live onstage, the weekend warrior will have a rollicking time with the Allegro 2. The action is bouncy and quick, light to the touch, and supportive of athletic manoeuvres. It’s delightful to find a digital-piano action this responsive on such an inexpensive instrument. And while it does offer the ability to alter the velocity curves, I found the default setting is best. Which is fine because, other than a little scrapey-ness from the key edges, there is not much I’d change about it.
The EPs, organs, pads and basses
The Variation button doubles the options in each of the five instrument categories. Consequently, there are two electric pianos—a Rhodes and a Wurly emulation—and they are both highly musical and a kick to play. I’d confidently take them on a gig that required just an electric piano and tell everybody that this axe cost less than their dress-up shoes. While Nord won’t lose any sleep over this baby, the Allegro 2’s electric pianos don’t take a backseat to the upper-scale competition. You can dial in a selection of eight choruses and reverbs and A/B them on every sound. The chorus that pops up on the EPs is reminiscent of the vintage, blue Boss pedal that we all love.
In the organ department, both the clone-wheel and the church organ are a little wheezy and lose their authenticity at the edge of their ranges. But both can be sent through a Leslie simulator that speeds up when you depress the sustain pedal (a rare feature at this price point). That and the smooth, hall reverb do the trick in pushing both patches over the line into the workable-for-a-gig category.
The Pad button brings up a warm, legato-string section that is smooth and convincing through its entire range and sounded better to my ears solo than layered, which you can access by touching any two sound buttons. The layered strings are fine, but don’t offer a decay so there is no dynamic shape to the music. Plus, the instrument’s 64-voice polyphony limits the amount that you can pedal the layers before losing voices: One big arpeggio and you’re stealing notes from the bottom. The other Pad sound is a fat, buzzy synth patch that will let you cover the horn punches from Van Halen’s “Jump” and the opening bass pedal to any Michael Jackson song since “Thriller”.
Which brings us to the Basses. The electric finger bass and the standup acoustic are both functional on the splits, and they sound bass-like through the 3"x5" speakers on the top of the instrument. However, they’ll sound great firing out of your big amps on a gig.
The keyword with the Allegro 2 is simple, which definitely has its charm. For starters, because the electronics here are relatively basic, the keyboard boots up in two seconds, a pleasant surprise; it’s a little like the lift you feel when you’ve upgraded to a solid-state hard drive.
And many of the control-surface functions are refreshingly uncomplicated: Want to record a track? Press Record and Play, and then play. Cue the metronome? Simply press Start. Same with key transpose, octave transpose, and the split and layer functions. To get into the tricky stuff such as changing volume levels on the splits and layers or selecting reverb and chorus effects, you have to dive a little deeper into the menus. But even when you’re doing the fancy stuff like boosting the treble EQ or changing the pedal rotary-speaker options on the organs, you only have to go four steps at most.
The 16-channel, multi-timbral MIDI Receive feature lets you use the Allegro 2 with a DAW if you wish. But MIDI Transmit is limited and there is no pitch bend, mod wheel, or expression pedal jack.
A lot of us keyboard players grew up playing pianos that would never see the inside of Carnegie Hall. Yet those instruments brought boatloads of joy into so many lives, and the Williams Allegro 2 will too. The action is snappy, the electric pianos are delightful, and if Williams can hold this price and upgrade its piano sample a bit, you’re going to see this instrument in living rooms, dorm rooms and clubs near you.
In fact, you probably will even if they don’t make any improvements because the price is so inviting. Although I was sceptical when I first saw the sticker, the Williams Allegro 2’s simple pleasures won me over.
Pros: Unbelievable bang for the buck. Impressively responsive (and fun) 88-key, fully-weighted piano action. Highly credible Rhodes and Wurly simulations and a piano sample that will work well in any rock band. Super-fast to boot up. Runs on six D cells.
Cons: Piano and acoustic bass samples not as authentic as its nearest competitors. Power supply and sustain pedal not included.
Bottom line: The first under-$300 keyboard that feels and plays like a piano. Entry-level players (and their parents) are going to eat this up.