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The Definitive Piano Buying Guide for
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 new "Staff Picks" section), 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).
Grands 5' to 7':
|Very High Quality/Prestige|
Grands 5' to 7':
|Very High Quality|
Grands 5' to 7':
Grands 5' to 7':
Steingraeber & Söhne
Steinway & Sons (Hamburg)
|Steinway & Sons (New York)||Bechstein (B)
Mason & Hamlin
|Schulze Pollmann (Masterpiece)|
Wilh. Steinberg (Signature)
Charles R. Walter
Grands 5' to 7': $25,000–$50,000
|Deluxe Consumer (Japanese)|
Grands 5' to 7': $21,000–$55,000
|Deluxe Consumer (Other Asian)|
Grands 5' to 7': $22,000–$40,000
Schulze Pollmann (Studio)
Kawai (RX/GX) grands
Kawai verticals (Japan)
Yamaha (C/CX) grands
Yamaha verticals (Japan)
Wm. Knabe (Concert Artist)
J.P. Pramberger (Platinum)
|Samick/Young Chang||Yamaha/Kawai||Other Companies|
5' to 7':
|Boston verticals (Indonesia)
Kawai (GE/GL) grands
Kawai verticals (Indonesia)
Yamaha (GC) grands
Yamaha verticals (Indonesia)
5' to 7':
|Wm. Knabe (Academy)
|Kawai (GM) grands
Yamaha (GB) grands
Story & Clark (Signature)
5' to 7':
|Wm. Knabe (Baltimore)
Hallet, Davis & Co.
Story & Clark (Heritage)
To better understand this chart,
please read the
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 generally have several of the following attributes:
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 are built to be sold at a particular price, and adjustments to (i.e., compromises in) materials, workmanship, and method and location of manufacture are made to meet that price. Most 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. As mentioned earlier, in the current piano market, price is not a perfect indicator of technical or musical quality. However, price becomes a better indicator of quality 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. This is especially relevant for consumer-grade pianos, where purchasers often are more interested in these other factors than in the instrument's 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. In a few cases we've made small adjustments when we felt that considerations of price alone seriously under- or overvalued a brand.
As can be expected, upper-level consumer-grade pianos generally have premium components and better performance than lower-level instruments. The economy models are basic, no-frills pianos suitable for beginners and casual users, but which a conscientious student may outgrow in a few years. As piano quality in general improves, the distinctions between levels become more subtle and difficult to discern.
As discussed earlier, globalization and the computerization of manufacturing have, to some extent, blurred the distinctions between performance- and consumer-grade pianos. Increasingly, makers of performance-grade instruments have been creating lower-cost brands by manufacturing instruments and components in countries with cheaper labor, while makers of consumer-grade pianos have been bringing to market higher-quality models by perfecting automation and sourcing parts worldwide. This has created difficulties in classifying brands by means of a two-grade system, both because some brands defy such classification, and because of the bottleneck that results from the attempt to rate too many brands relative to one another in a restricted space. To alleviate this problem, we've spun off a third type of piano, called Intermediate Grade.
Intermediate-grade pianos are of two types. One, here called Deluxe Consumer, consists of former consumer-grade brands that in recent years 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 second type, here called European Affiliated, consists of lesser product lines of companies, mostly European, that are principally known for their performance-grade models. Increasingly, instruments from this latter group are being partly made in China or Indonesia, then shipped to Europe for completion. Exactly how much of their manufacture is actually done in Europe — which, after all, is offered as a justification for their higher price — is sometimes a well-kept secret and the subject of much speculation. As the quality of pianos throughout the market rises and becomes more homogeneous, debate about these dual-origin models tends to seesaw between "What a rip-off for what's basically a Chinese (or Indonesian) piano" and "What a great deal for an instrument that's virtually the same as a high-end European one." We'll let you be the judge of which of these extremes is closer to the truth.