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From time to time I receive an e-mail or phone call inquiring why a particular piano brand is not rated higher or lower in Piano Buyer. Usually the caller has recently played or serviced a piano, been either smitten with or disappointed by it, and disagrees with the rating I’ve given it. Sometimes the questioner simply wants to better understand how I arrived at that rating, or at the ratings in general.
The difficulty of rating pianos has increased over the years. In the early days, there was a huge gap between pianos that were competently made and those that were shoddy in design and/or execution. One didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to place most brands somewhere within a rating system. Over the past decade or so, however, due to globalization and the computerization of manufacturing, shoddy pianos have become a thing of the past, and the quality differences between brands have become very subtle, even as the differences in price have become greater.
The rating system itself has also gone through changes over the years. In the fourth edition of The Piano Book (2001), for example, each brand’s rating was subdivided into individual ratings of its component aspects of performance, quality control, warranty, etc. The number of categories of quality used in the classification system has also varied. Providing rating details and numerous categories may bring a smile to the face of the aficionado, but it makes the novice’s eyes glaze over, creates much more work for me, and generally invites more controversy. Not providing detail, or using fewer categories, on the other hand, makes it more difficult to differentiate brands. Over time, I’ve actually found that a combination of providing less information about each rating and using a moderate number of quality categories better satisfies readers.
Perhaps the biggest change in the rating system, however, has been in the role I’ve assigned to myself. In the days of The Piano Book, I attempted to play judge, using a far-flung network of piano technicians to supply the evidence. That worked well as long as there were pianos with plenty of clear defects by which I could separate good instruments from bad. But as automation has become more sophisticated and companies have cleaned up their acts (or have gone out of business), I’ve come to realize that the differences between brands—and the very definition of quality itself as it pertains to pianos — have become too subtle and subjective for me to feel comfortable in the role of judge. I’ve therefore gradually changed my focus: Now I try to simply reflect, for the sake of the novice, how the piano market is organized.
Of course, the piano industry does not speak with one voice on that subject, so I continue to have to make some judgments to resolve conflicts and to take into account other factors. Generally I begin by laying out the ratings according to how the companies themselves position their pianos in the market — that is, by price and features — noting especially how the various offerings from a single manufacturer compare with one another, and which other companies each manufacturer considers to be its competitors. Then, I make small changes in the ratings to reflect aspects of quality that may be — or, in my opinion, should be — of importance to the consumer, but that are not sufficiently taken into account by price and features alone: the length of a company’s track record for quality manufacturing and warranty service, where various components are made (which also relates to the issue of track record), the depth of its technical know-how, how much dealer prep the pianos require, how much of a U.S. presence the company has (this indicates the future availability of warranty service and parts), and, for high-end pianos, to what extent a company’s name, history, and reputation contribute to the perception of its pianos’ quality and the buyer’s pride in owning one. I still take into account anecdotal reports from pianists and technicians, and my own impressions of a piano when I’ve had an opportunity to try one, but I assign less importance to these than before, and no longer systematically seek them out.
The piano aficionado who is looking for a hardheaded, expert scientific assessment of how one brand compares to another will be disappointed by what may appear to be a shirking of my responsibility. But given the advanced state of piano manufacturing today, it would be dishonest and pretentious of me to set myself up as the final authority on the subject, and to try to make a scientific enterprise out of what is, more often than not, a subjective judgment. Rather, I have chosen to simply provide a road map for novice piano buyers — who, after all, often don’t know a Bösendorfer from a Hobart M. Cable — and to leave the more controversial technical and artistic judgments for aficionados to make on their own.
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