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The New-Piano Market Today: A Map of the Market For New Pianos ('Ratings')

LARRY FINE

The chart and commentary that follow are intended to provide the newcomer to the piano market with a simple summary of how this market is organized. Although summarizing the market requires making a certain number of subjective judgments, this summary is intended less as a ranking of quality than as a description of how manufacturers and dealers position their products in the marketplace. That is, if a dealer carried every brand, how would he or she position those brands, in terms of relative quality, when presenting them to prospective purchasers? This positioning is usually done along lines of price, country of origin, and reputation; however, while these factors are often associated with quality, that association is far from perfectly consistent.

Why don’t we strictly judge piano quality in Piano Buyer? During the last half of the 20th century, a great many pianos, especially low-end instruments manufactured in the U.S. and in developing countries, had significant defects that made separating good instruments from bad relatively easy. That is no longer the case. Due to globalization and the computerization of manufacturing, virtually all pianos now sold in the West are competently made and without major defects, and the differences between them are increasingly subtle and subjective. In addition, price is sometimes more a reflection of labor costs in the country of origin than of quality. While it’s still clear that high-end pianos are better than entry-level ones, comparisons of instruments that are closer in price are less conclusive, and much more subject to the whims of personal preference, how well the pianos have been prepared for sale, room acoustics, and so forth. Furthermore, even those responsible for the technical design of pianos often can’t agree on which features and specifications produce the best instruments! In such a context of extreme subjectivity, contradictory expert opinion, and a changing market, making too many judgments about piano quality tends to give a false impression of scientific objectivity, and inhibits shoppers from making their own judgments and possibly discovering something wonderful for themselves.

For these reasons, we have chosen to take a less active but, we think, more honest approach to giving piano-buying advice, by providing newcomers to the market with a simple frame of reference and a few personal recommendations (see our “Staff Picks” section beginning on page 43), and otherwise letting them explore and discover for themselves what appeals to them.

The key to proper use of this chart, then, is not to follow it religiously, but to understand that, given its nature, it should be used only as a learning tool. In addition, use common sense when comparing one brand with another. Compare verticals with other verticals of similar size, and grands with similarly sized grands, or models whose selling prices fall within the same range. Don’t get hung up on small differences between one subgroup and the next — the distinctions can be quite subtle. Furthermore, the preparation of the piano by the dealer can be at least as important to the quality of the product you receive as some of the distinctions listed in the chart. Note that, for the sake of simplicity, there may be quality differences within a single product line that are not indicated here; and a few brands have been omitted due solely to lack of sufficient information about them. Within each group or subgroup, the brands are listed in alphabetical order. No judgment of these brands’ relative quality should be inferred from this order.

Prices shown for each group represent, in round numbers, a typical range of Suggested Maximum Prices (SMP) of new pianos in the least expensive styles and finishes (significant discounts from these prices are likely — see Model & Pricing Guide).

A generalization useful to understanding the piano market is that pianos can be divided into two types, Performance Grade and Consumer Grade, both of which are necessary to meet the needs of the wide variety of piano buyers.

PERFORMANCE-GRADE PIANOS
Iconic

Verticals:
$30,000–$70,000

Grands
5' to 7':
$75,000–$150,000
C. Bechstein
Blüthner
Bösendorfer
Fazioli
Steingraeber & Söhne
Steinway & Sons (Hamburg)
Venerable

Verticals:
$20,000–$40,000

Grands
5' to 7':
$60,000–$105,000
August Förster
Grotrian
Sauter
Steinway & Sons (New York)
Distinguished

Verticals:
$17,000–$35,000

Grands
5' to 7':
$50,000–$90,000
Bechstein (B)
Estonia
Haessler
Shigeru Kawai
Mason & Hamlin
Petrof
Schimmel (Konzert/Classic)
Seiler (Germany)
Yamaha (CF)
Notable

Verticals:
$16,000–$24,000

Grands
5' to 7':
$45,000–$76,000
W. Hoffmann (Tradition/Professional)
Rönisch
Schulze Pollmann (Masterpiece)
Wilh. Steinberg (Signature)
Charles R. Walter

Notes: Unless otherwise stated, brand names refer to both grand and vertical models. Prices are Suggested Maximum Prices (SMP) of vertical models, and of grand models from 5' to 7' in length, regular style, lowest-price finish (usually polished ebony). Substantial discounts from these prices are common — see p.204 for further explanation. The prices shown for a category reflect, in round numbers, the approximate range into which most of the brands and models in that category fall, but a few models may fall outside the range. Also, keep in mind that an individual brand’s price range may be narrower than that of the category it is listed under.

CONSUMER-GRADE PIANOS
  Samick/Young Chang Yamaha/Kawai Other Companies
Professional

Verticals:
$10,000–$20,000

Grands
5' to 7':
$28,000–$55,000
  Boston (Japan)
Kawai (GX) grands
Kawai verticals (Japan)
Yamaha (CX) grands
Yamaha verticals (Japan)
Brodmann (AS)
J.F. Hessen
W. Hoffmann (Vision)
Hupfend (Europe) grands
Irmler (Professional) grands
Kayserburg (Artist)
Wilhelm Schimmel
Premium

Verticals:
$6,000–$13,000

Grands
5' to 7':
$14,000–$40,000
Wm. Knabe (Concert Arist)
J.P. Pramberger (Platinum)
Seiler (ED)
Albert Weber
Boston verticals (118S)
Kawai (GL) grands
Kawai verticals (UST-9)
Yamaha (GC) grands
Yamaha verticals (P22)
Baldwin
Brodmann (PE)
Cunningham
Fandrich & Sons
Hailun
Heintzman verticals
Hupfeld verticals
Hupfeld (Studio) grands
Irmler verticals
Irmler (Studio) grands
Perzina
Ritmüller (Premium)
Schulze Pollmann (Studio)
G. Steinberg
Wilh. Steinberg (P)
Wertheim (Euro/Platinum)
Mid-Range

Verticals:
$4,500–$8,000

Grands
5' to 7':
$11,000–$21,000
Wm. Knabe (Academy)
Pramberger (Signature)
Johannes Seiler
Weber
Young Chang
Kawai verticals (Indonesia)
Yamaha verticals (Indonesia)
Yamaha (GB) grands
Cline
Essex
Heintzman grands
Gerhard Heintzman verticals
Kingsburg
Palatino
Ritmüller (Performance) verticals
Story & Clark (Signature)
Wertheim (Gold)
Economy

Verticals:
$3,500–$6,500

Grands
5' to 7':
$9,000–$15,000
Wm. Knabe (Baltimore)
Pramberger (Legacy)
Samick
  Altenburg
Brodmann (CE)
Cristofori/Lyrica
A. Geyer
Hallet, Davis & Co.
Hardman, Peck
Gerhard Heintzman grands
Pearl River
Ritmüller (Classic)
Ritmüller (Performance) grands
Story & Clark (Heritage)
Wyman

Note: Consumer-Grade pianos are rated here primarily on the basis of price. Performance-Grade pianos are rated on the basis of price and reputation. For a detailed explanation, please read the accompanying article.

Notes: Unless otherwise stated, brand names refer to both grand and vertical models. Prices are Suggested Maximum Prices (SMP) of vertical models, and of grand models from 5' to 7' in length, regular style, lowest-price finish (usually polished ebony). Substantial discounts from these prices are common — see p.204 for further explanation. The prices shown for a category reflect, in round numbers, the approximate range into which most of the brands and models in that category fall, but a few models may fall outside the range. Also, keep in mind that an individual brand’s price range may be narrower than that of the category it is listed under.

Note: Consumer-Grade pianos are rated here primarily on the basis of price. Performance-Grade pianos are rated on the basis of price and reputation. For a detailed explanation, please read the accompanying article.

Performance-Grade Pianos

Performance-grade pianos generally have several of the following attributes:

  • They are built to a single high standard, almost without regard to cost, and the price charged reflects whatever it takes to build such a piano and bring it to market.
  • A greater proportion of the labor required to build them is in the handwork involved in making custom refinements to individual instruments, often with fanatical attention to detail.
  • Most are made in relatively small quantities by firms that have been in business for generations, often under the ownership of the same family. As a result, many have achieved almost legendary status, and are often purchased as much for their prestige value as for their performance.
  • These are the instruments most likely to be called into service when the highest performance level is required, particularly for classical music.
  • Most performance-grade pianos are made in Europe or the United States.

Performance-grade pianos are divided here into four subcategories, based on our perception of their reputation in both the musical and technical spheres of the piano business. The first two subcategories are reserved for those brands whose prestige figures prominently in their value. Of course, this prestige is based in large part on their extremely high quality, but marketing success and historical accident also play important roles in the reputations of these and other high-end brands. Also, preferences among performance-grade pianos in general are greatly dependent on musical taste in tone and touch. For these reasons, a number of brands in the third subcategory have devoted followings and, practically speaking, may be just as good despite not having as much prestige associated with their names. The brands in the fourth subcategory are considered runners-up; however, most of these are also considerably less expensive, and may be a better value when the highest levels of quality or prestige are not needed.

Consumer-Grade Pianos

Consumer-grade pianos are built to be sold at a particular price, and to meet that price, adjustments — i.e., compromises — are made in materials, workmanship, and method and location of manufacture. Most consumer-grade pianos are mass-produced in Asia, with less in the way of custom refinement of individual instruments.

Consumer-grade pianos are subcategorized here mostly, but not entirely, by price. In the large picture, price is a reasonably good guide to quality. But as one focuses more closely on smaller areas of the market, the association of price with quality breaks down somewhat. For example, some brands may offer a better value than others because they are temporarily reduced in price to gain a larger market share. Some brands, despite a lower price, may have characteristics, or include features, that appeal to you more than do those of higher-priced brands.

Also, when quality is understood to include all factors that consumers value — not only an instrument’s performance, but also the brand’s reputation and its track record for durability, reliability, warranty service, and resale value — then the relation of price to quality becomes more complex. This is especially relevant for consumer-grade pianos, whose buyers often are more interested in these other factors than in the instrument’s musical performance. It also means, however, that some brands may be rated a little higher or lower than they would be if rated on musical performance alone, or that the prices of brands with great reputations may not perfectly reflect their positions in the market.

As can be expected, upper-level consumer-grade pianos generally have premium components and better performance than lower-level instruments. The best of them are made in Japan or Europe, or are partly made in China or Indonesia and then shipped to Europe for completion. Some have become so advanced in their designs, materials, and manufacturing technologies that they now rival some performance-grade pianos in musicality, and are sometimes recommended as substitutes for them, often at considerably lower prices. The economy models, on the other hand, are basic, no-frills pianos suitable for beginners and casual users, but which a conscientious student may outgrow in a few years.



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