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The best electronic drums for beginners

Why you should trust us

I’ve been playing music since I got my first ukulele back in 1969, and I later played snare drum in the school band. I don’t play drums now, but as a bassist, I’ve played with and recorded lots of drummers in jazz and rock gigs in Los Angeles and New York City. I own a drum kit and many percussion instruments (including electronic drum pads) that visiting musicians use for rehearsals in my home music studio, so I understand the instrument well.

Wirecutter musical instrument editor Geoffrey Morrison has a degree in audio production from Ithaca College, and he does some music performance and recording as a hobby.

To guide us in setting up this project, choosing the kits to test, figuring out what a beginning drummer wants and needs in a kit, and assembling a panel of drum testers, we recruited Danny Beallo, who teaches drums at Culver City High School in Los Angeles and plays in several bands in Los Angeles. Beallo owns an electronic drum kit and several acoustic kits, and he plays a wide variety of musical styles.

To provide a second opinion from the instructor’s point of view, Beallo brought along Azuri Zen Moon, a Los Angeles musician who teaches drums, guitar, and piano privately and plays with Beallo in the band Ship of the Rising Sun.

We also wanted to get the perspective of a couple different kinds of students: a young student just starting out as well as someone who wants to take up drums again after a long hiatus but doesn’t want to disrupt their family with loud crashes and rolls. For the first perspective, we got Wesley Page, a student of Beallo’s who actually started on an electronic kit because his drummer father’s kit was too big for him. For the latter perspective, we got Mike Wood, who has worked for many years as a journalist, product specialist, and PR rep in the audio/video industry. Wood played in rock bands in his college years and has been thinking about taking up the hobby again now that his career is established and his kids are older.

Who should get this

Because electronic drum kits make very little noise on their own, they’re perfect for beginning drum students and drummers who don’t want to disturb their family members when they practice. The drummer usually listens through headphones, although the kit can be plugged into a drum amp or a P.A. system for playing along with other musicians. The affordable models we feature here are intended for practicing rather than live performance because they’re not built tough enough to survive repeated disassembly, reassembly, and transportation.

Another huge advantage of electronic drum kits for beginners is that they include almost everything you need: a snare drum, tom-toms in three sizes, a kick (bass) drum, a hi-hat, and crash and ride cymbals (see photo below). All you need to add is a drum throne (or stool) and headphones. Most acoustic drum kits must be assembled piecemeal, requiring separate purchases of drums, cymbals, stands, and other hardware—a process that can be intimidating and can easily cost twice the price of a good, inexpensive electronic drum kit.

Electronic drum set

Photo: Rozette Rago

Because they generate sounds digitally rather than acoustically, electronic drums can simulate the sounds of many types of drum kits—such as rock, funk, latin, or jazz, or percussion instruments of India, China, and so on—and thus allow the beginner to experiment with all sorts of sounds and genres.

Many serious drummers own an electronic kit for quiet practicing, but we don’t focus on them here because we figure active musicians already know best what will work for them.

Note that while there are ways to make acoustic kits quieter, they often cost as much as a starter electronic kit, and none preserve the sound of the acoustic drum kit.

How we picked

After playing several electronic drum kits in stores and at the 2019 NAMM show, we settled on the following criteria for picking the drum kits we would test:

  • Feel: Some electronic drum kits, especially many models priced below $500, have such a different design and feel from an acoustic drum kit that they seem like a different (and less rewarding) instrument. The newer mesh drum heads, which use a tensioned mesh material instead of rubber-covered pads, provide a look and feel that’s closer to acoustic drums (their head tension can even be adjusted like those on acoustic drums), so we gravitated toward these. The only exception was Yamaha, which didn’t offer a mesh-head kit in our price range; we chose to still include Yamaha kits based on their reputation and a demo of their instructional app.
  • Price: We decided to test kits priced between $300 and $700. All of the under-$300 kits we tried felt more like toys than instruments, and the more-than-$700 kits add features that a beginning (or returning) drum student isn’t likely to need, such as extra cymbals and pro-quality hardware designed for live performance.
  • Build quality: We wanted kits with reasonably sturdy racks that won’t allow the various components to move around much and that won’t force the student to constantly re-adjust the positioning of the drums.

We ended up with five drum kits. We would have liked to test more, but some manufacturers are still in the process of transitioning to mesh heads, and some new models that have been announced (or mentioned to us confidentially) were not yet available at the time of our testing.

Incidentally, none of these kits can be set up easily for left-handed players because the cables aren’t long enough. One of our testers, Wesley Page, is left-handed, but he plays a standard right-handed setup. “I think it’s better,” he explained. “If you have a gig where there’s already a drum kit set up, you might have only a few minutes to shift it around for left-handed playing.”

How we tested

Electronic drum set

Azuri Moon (left) checks out the Simmons SD600, while Danny Beallo (right) plays the Alesis Nitro Mesh. Photo: Brent Butterworth

I set up all the drum kits in Wirecutter’s Los Angeles facility, noting which were the easiest to set up and which were the most complicated. I then invited the drummers to play the kits. While it wasn’t practical to obscure the brand names (they’re printed on all the drum heads), I didn’t inform the panelists of the prices until after they’d given me their opinions.

Each tester used their own sticks. While some of the kits include a cheap set of sticks, the instructors stressed that every student should go to a music store and pick out their own sticks with the help of the salesperson in the drum department. (Don’t do as I did and simply buy your drum hero’s signature sticks—I was crushed when the instructors informed me that the Elvin Jones Promark sticks I’d been using were way too light for me.) I had a few different sets of professional headphones on hand for the tests, and I asked the drummers to pick a set of headphones and use the same set to evaluate all the kits.

I asked all the testers to judge each drum kit based on the criteria they considered most important for our two target students: a young beginner and someone returning to the hobby. As I spoke with them afterward, I found that the criteria the drummers considered most important were:

  • How closely a kit approximated the feel of an acoustic kit
  • How easy it was to adjust the kit to suit the drummer
  • How sturdy the kit was
  • How convenient the controls and jacks were on the sound module
  • The quality and versatility of the drum sounds

Note that none of these kits feels like a replacement for an acoustic kit. While all the electronic drums and cymbals we tested play louder when you hit them harder, they sound basically the same no matter how you hit them. The simulated hi-hats, in particular, were criticized because the pedal tended to have an “on/off” quality, rather than allowing the two cymbals in the hi-hat to hang partially open, as is possible with more expensive, two-cymbal electronic hi-hats.

Likewise, much of advanced drum-kit technique involves the snare drum, but none of these kits provided a rich palette of snare sounds. Only one kit included a ride cymbal that could produce different sounds when played on the edge, the bell (the raised part in the center), or the bow (the part of the cymbal between the bell and the edge).

All of these kits do provide a number of advanced features, including tempo-adjustable songs for play-along practice; a line input for connecting a phone or tablet to play along with recordings; a built-in metronome; and the ability to record performances. In addition, Roland, Simmons, and Yamaha offer instructional apps with exercises that help you gauge your accuracy and timing. While all of our testers experimented with these features, none considered any of their inclusion to be a huge plus or their omission to be a huge minus.

Although all of these kits let the drummer adjust such parameters as the sensitivity of the triggers (to lessen the likelihood of triggering other drums in addition to the one you hit), none of the drummers we brought in felt the need to make such adjustments; all the kits seemed pretty well dialed-in right out of the box.

Our pick: Simmons SD600

Electronic drum set

Photo: Rozette Rago

The Simmons SD600 emerged as the best choice for a typical student drummer. It was the top pick of both instructors, and both of our students liked it. Everyone praised its sturdy construction and considered its mesh heads to be a reasonable simulation of the real thing. Contributing to that realism is that the SD600 has a relatively large snare (10 inches) and is the only kit we tested with a larger ride cymbal (12 inches). It’s easy to adjust to fit any drummer, and it offers a huge palette of sounds, although some of them don’t sound as realistic as we would like. The SD600 was among the easiest to set up because the rack is already fully assembled; you just attach the drums and cymbals and connect the wires. I didn’t even need the manual.

Electronic drum set

The SD600’s sound module has large, easy-to-work buttons and a detachable holder for a smartphone or tablet. Photo: Rozette Rago

“It’s sturdy, the heads feel good, and there’s a nice variety of sounds,” Beallo said. “Even if you upgrade to an acoustic kit in a year or two, you’d still want to keep this one.” Wood added, “This one has the most drumlike feel to me.”

Another significant plus is the large, friendly sound module, with large buttons and an alphanumeric display to make operation easier. The SD600 is the only kit we tested that provides a Bluetooth connection to smartphones and tablets. While this allows interfacing with music production apps such as GarageBand, the main purpose is to connect to the Simmons iOS app, which provides more play-along tunes and easier adjustment of the drum sounds. Our panelists didn’t think these features were all that important, but they did love the included phone/tablet rest atop the sound module, which would come in handy for play-alongs.