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The Definitive Piano Buying Guide for
SINCE THE PIANO'S INVENTION by Bartolomeo Cristofori in 1700, its evolution has been driven by the desire to meet the changing musical needs of the times, by advances in technology, and by the business and marketing requirements of the piano manufacturers. High-end pianos exemplify this evolutionary process.
Early pianos were limited by the technology of the day to a lightweight structure, and a design that produced a tone — bright and intimate, but with short sustain and low volume — that evolved from the sound of the harpsichord. This complemented both the musical styles favored by the Classical period, especially chamber music, and the smaller, more intimate venues in which music was then customarily performed. As technology advanced, it became possible — using cast-iron plates, stronger strings, and higher-tension scale designs — to produce more robust instruments capable of filling a large hall with sound. This suited the composer-virtuosos of the Romantic period, such as Liszt and Brahms, whose works for the piano demanded from the instrument greater power, and the ability to be heard above the larger orchestras of the day. However, this louder, more overtone-filled sound could also conflict with and overpower other chamber instruments and their performance settings.
The great American pianos, having come of age during the Romantic era, tend toward the Romantic tonal tradition. The great European piano makers, however, embedded in a culture steeped in centuries of musical tradition, have long had to satisfy the conflicting tonal styles of different ages, and this has resulted in a wide variety of instruments with different musical qualities. As the American market for European pianos grows, the European companies are further having to reconcile remaining true to their own traditions with evolving to please the American ear. While all brands make full use of technological advances and are capable of satisfying diverse musical needs, some tend toward a more pristine tone, with plush but low-volume harmonics, perfect for chamber music or solo performances in small rooms; others are bright and powerful enough to hold their own above the largest symphony orchestras; and many are in between.
The good news is that the best way to find the right piano for you is to play as many as you can — a simply wonderful experience!
What follows is a story with a valuable perspective from a well-respected dealer of performance-quality instruments. — Editor
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I’m tone deaf,” declared the husband. “I can’t tell the difference between one piano and another.”
His wife nodded in agreement. “He is tone deaf. And while I can hear some differences, it’s all so confusing. All we want is a piano that our kids can learn to play on. We don’t need a great piano.”
A short conversation ensued in which I learned, among other things, that this couple had three children, ranging in age from seven years to six months.
“Our daughter just turned seven,” the wife said. “She’s interested in piano lessons, but we’re not sure how committed she’ll be.”
“You know kids,” the husband shrugged. “She may want piano lessons now, but in a few months’ time . . . ?”
“You’re right,” I said. “Kids change their minds all the time. I started piano lessons at the age of six, and stopped only a few months later. But the piano stayed in our home, and at the age of 12 I was drawn back to it. I played a few tunes by ear, and after a while I started lessons again. But . . . would you like your youngest child to play the piano as well?”
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They looked at each other. It seemed that the possibility of their six-month-old baby taking lessons sometime in the future was something they hadn’t considered.
“This means that whatever instrument we choose, it will probably stay in our home for a very long time,” the woman said to her husband. “Perhaps we should look at a greater range of instruments than just the few we had in mind . . . ?”
“But still,” he said, turning to me, “is there enough difference in the tone of the pianos to justify a greater investment, and a possible increase in our budget?”
Such conversations are not rare. Some people feel they won’t be able to hear the differences between pianos, or that a high-end piano will be wasted on them. Others try to accommodate only what they perceive their needs to be at the time of purchase, rather than over the many years they may end up owning a piano.
Often, piano buyers form an idea of what they want and how much to spend, and consider only a few brands, without ever sufficiently researching the differences in manufacturers’ philosophies and how these might affect the tone, touch, musicality, and price of the instrument. However, such information can help the consumer clarify his or her true needs and preferences. Many shopping for a piano all but ignore higher-end models, considering them beyond their needs or means. But for more than a few of these buyers, a better-quality piano may prove the better fit and value.
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There are significant differences in manufacturing methods between performance-oriented instruments, which are often referred to as “handmade,” and mass-produced instruments, in which some musical qualities are sacrificed to meet a lower retail price.
Performance-oriented manufacturers, especially at the highest level, are looking to capture a wide range of tonal characteristics. Some of these qualities, such as sustain, tonal variation, and dynamic range, are universally accepted as helping the playing of pianists of all levels sound more musical. All makers of high-end pianos strive to make pianos that excel in these areas. Other tonal characteristics, however, such as tonal color — the specific harmonic structure of the tone — can reflect a particular manufacturer’s philosophy of what the best piano should sound like, and are the elements that separate one high-end make from another. A piano maker’s decision to emphasize certain musical qualities over others is manifested through differences in the instrument’s design, in the instrument’s resulting tone and touch, and in its appeal to a particular player or listener.
“Would you like to hear some higher-end instruments as well, just to compare?” I asked the couple.
“Yes, please,” replied the woman.
And so we went on a tour of Piano Land, playing, listening to, and assessing the tone of a variety of instruments. “Ooohhh,” said the wife in response to one particular make. “Aaahhh,” sighed her husband, as the realization struck him: He actually could hear the differences between these pianos; not only that, he had some rather clear preferences.
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“But which is the best piano?” he asked. There are quite a few instruments here, all so beautiful, but so different from each other. Which is the best?
This is a question customers ask me again and again when visiting our showroom — we represent most of the high-end makers, and side-by-side comparisons are always possible. And while, time after time, our customers do find the absolute “best,” for each of those customers the “best” is represented by a different make, according to his or her preferences. The combination of musical qualities emphasized by one piano maker may speak to one customer while leaving another indifferent — who, in turn responds enthusiastically to an instrument made by another manufacturer that has left the first customer cold. Some people prefer a bold, outgoing, and powerful sound; others want a more delicate, clear, and melodic tone. Some like focused, defined, and pure tonal characteristics, while others look for instruments whose sound is more robust, deep, and dark.
At the top end of piano manufacturing, each instrument should have a high level of design, parts, materials, execution, workmanship, and attention to detail. However, it is personal preference — the buyer’s response to the various manufacturers’ interpretations of the “perfect sound” — that determines the answer to the question of “But which is the best piano?” The answer is different for every customer.
But which piano is the “best” is also a matter of other factors. Some high-end instruments might be considered the “best” in one setting, but not quite the best in another. A piano that sounds its best in a large concert hall with hundreds of people may not necessarily be the right fit for the typical living room.
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“The best instrument,” I replied to the couple, “is the one that you’ll most enjoy listening to as your children — and perhaps, before you know it, your grandchildren — play and develop their musical skills. The ‘best’ piano is the one you’ll be happy with over the many years it will live in your home, and that one day, when you have the time, perhaps may tempt you to take lessons yourself. The best piano is the one that will deliver to you and your family the joy of music, now and over the long run.”