- How many notes play back? Some systems provide playback support for all 88 notes, while others come standard with as few as 80 solenoids (the highest and lowest four notes are not supported), with 88 as an option. The reason for providing only 80 is that installing more than that number sometimes requires removing some wood from the top of the piano legs to accommodate the extra solenoids. This is not visible and doesn't harm the piano, but may not be desired by some customers. Most available music software will play just fine on 80 notes. But if you're planning to record yourself and use the notes at the extremes of the keyboard, or if you know you'll be playing back music recorded elsewhere that uses all 88 notes, you'll want the system to be able to play them. If that's the case, be sure to let the dealer or installer know.
- Pedals: Which pedals are played by hardware (solenoids) and which, if any, are mimicked by software? Hardware provides a more authentic piano performance, but duplication of pedal functions by software is simpler. Most important is hardware support for the sustain (damper) pedal, and all systems currently provide that. Only a few also provide hardware for the soft pedal (less important), and fewer still for the sostenuto (middle) pedal (unimportant).
- Damper Pedal Performance: Does it record multiple damper-pedal positions, allowing for pedaling techniques such as "half-pedaling," or does it simply record an "on" or "off" position? As with dynamic resolution, the recording and playback of multiple pedal positions is desirable for an authentic performance experience. The on/off mode is sufficient for very casual or simple uses.
- Pedal Functionality: Some add-on (retrofit) systems, when installed, may alter the functionality or feel of the pedals, especially the middle pedal. If possible, try playing a piano on which a similar player system is installed to see if the pedal operation is okay for you. If only the middle pedal is affected, it might not matter to you, because this pedal is rarely used.
- Playing Softly: How well does the system play softly without skipping notes and without excessive mechanical noise? This is especially important if you plan to use the player piano for soft background music. If so, be sure to try out the system at a low volume level to be sure it meets your expectations.
- Music Software: How well does the available music software satisfy your needs?
- Options: What special features, advantages, and benefits are included or are optionally available? Examples include the ability to synchronize the piano with commercially available CDs and DVDs, features used for teaching purposes, built-in video monitor, subscriptions to Internet music libraries or streaming radio that make available virtually unlimited input to your piano, bundled music software, and so forth.
- Upgradability: To what extent is the system upgradable? Most systems are highly upgradable, but the upgradability of some entry-level systems may be limited.
How Much Player-Piano Systems Cost
The cost of electronic player-piano systems varies enormously, not only from one system to the next, but even for the same system, depending on where it is installed and other factors.
A dealer has several ways of acquiring an add-on (retrofit) player system, which can affect the price at which the system is sold. Factory-installed systems — installed while the piano itself is being manufactured — are the least expensive for the dealer to acquire. Several large piano manufacturers are authorized to do this. In addition, the companies that make the player systems may factory-install them into brands that they own; for example, QRS Pianomation into the Story & Clark brand, and PianoDisc into the Mason & Hamlin brand. When installed this way, the difference in price between the piano alone and the piano plus player system may be quite moderate. The next more expensive options are when the player system is installed at an intermediate distribution point before reaching the dealer, or when a larger dealer, in his own shop, installs a system in a piano already on the showroom floor — with most brands of piano, either of these can be done. More expensive yet is when the smaller dealer must hire a local independent installer to install a system in a piano that is on the dealer's showroom floor. The most expensive option is to have a system installed in a piano you already own. In that situation you also incur the expense of having the piano moved to and from the installer's shop. The resulting retail price of the most expensive option can be double that of the least.
The cost can also vary because player systems are often used by dealers as an incentive to buy the piano. The dealer will charge well for an expensive piano, then "throw in" the player system at cost. Or vice versa — the dealer lets the piano go cheaply, then makes it up by charging list price for the system. The more modular systems can also vary in price, according to which options and accessories the dealer includes.