This issue keeps coming back to me.
I was in the car, listening to a podcast about Stradivarius, the violin maker, and his unique instruments. (You can get the 20 thousand hertz podcast, and many other fascinating episodes, here: https://www.20k.org/episodes/stradivarius)
There was a lot of discussion about the influence that these instruments have had on later violins and descriptions of the intense research aimed at discovering their secrets: from the wood used to the varnish, from the designs and dimensions to the air of the region where they were made. There were few clear answers.
Then the podcast turned to an experiment that directly addressed the issue of “real”. Joseph Curtin, a modern violin maker, conducted a number of “double blind” tests where professional players and experts were asked to say which of a pair of violins they preferred, when neither they, nor the experimenters present, knew what they were playing. (For example, see this article) All the instruments were of very good quality: capable of being played in a professional concert.
From a comparison of these pairs, it was possible to construct a hierarchy of the instruments used. There was a clear expectation from everyone involved. The Stradivarii and other older violins would come top and modern, recently made instruments, would be less preferred. The experts and players all agreed that Stradivari violins were unique and excellent and that all violins improve by being played by excellent violinists.
In fact, it was a modern instrument that was most, and a notable Stradivarius that was least, preferred. There were a number of criticisms of the experiment, leading to repetitions designed to be even more strict in conditions. All showed similar results. When expert listeners did not know or could see which was a Stradivari violin, they could not reliably identify it and would not reliably say that it was superior to other instruments, flying in the face of strongly and widely held opinion.
These findings are in accord with many other “double blind” listening, tasting and smelling tests. For example, there is ample evidence that beyond a relatively reasonable price point, people, even experts, cannot reliably tell which “audiophile” sound equipment is “better” or “worse” and that impressions of the sound that they form when they know what the equipment is and when they don’t, are simply not connected. There are similar results for fine wine, caviar, perfumes and other highly expensive and supposedly excellent products. Our judgement seems to be very closely linked to our knowledge of a product rather than our direct experience of it.
There was an interesting discussion towards the end of the podcast, which tried to deal with the idea that the excellence of Stradivari violins was not “real”, because it depended on what the player and listener knew about the violin as well as what they actually heard or experienced. In a nutshell, it was suggested that the knowledge: where, when and who made the violin, who had owned it, which famous players had used it, its history and provenance and even what people believed about it was “real” too. This was especially so because revered objects rarely stay the same, but have a complex story of change, because they are revered and already have history. No Stradivarius has gone unaltered: all have been repaired, refurbished and even re-shaped numerous times. With a particularly spectacular instrument, the knowledge might easily shape how someone felt while playing with it, how they interacted and engaged with it, directly changing the performances that it made possible.
In a broadly similar way, there is no suggestion that people are telling lies when they prefer a particular fine wine to another, or a particular perfume or hifi, even if they can’t “scientifically” or reliably prefer it in a blind test.
It may be that the human experience of things can’t easily be boiled down to any objective, “scientific” rationale. We are the sum of our previous experiences, as well as of our inherent make-up and habits. We are a collection of prejudices, biases, insights, and sophistications. We are never a blank sheet. Whatever we see, hear, smell, taste or touch is shaped by everything we have experienced before, by our learning and insight, by what we have come to like and dislike. A slightly more nuanced model of human perception might see it as layered: as a “stack” in computing terms. At the lowest layer is the “objective reality”: the physical phenomena we are experiencing and the physical transducers in our eyes, ears etc.. Next layer up would be the complex processing within our nervous system, which is idiosyncratic and shaped by previous experience and this feeds into the “top” layer which is how we, experience the totality. A piece of music is not just a collection of sounds, it has meaning and emotional echoes. It is personal and we have a personal response to it, some aspects of which are social. It may well be a part of the experience of a piece of music, both for the player and for the listener, that it is played on a Stradivarius.
To return to the idea of real and virtual in pianos. It may be that a digital piano that looks and feels very much like a traditional one may be a different experience for the player and listener than one which does not. It may be that if most people think and experience that, then that becomes part of the experience too. It may also be that developments may allow digital instruments to move away from and beyond their origins to become something distinct, just as the acoustic piano grew away from the instruments it emerged from in many ways replaced them.
At the end of the day, you (literally) pay your money and make your choice.