The illusions don't stop there. When you depress a digital piano's sustain pedal, you're pressing a spring with a constant tension. This is not how the sustain pedal feels on most acoustic pianos, in which the initial movement meets little resistance as the pedal takes up a bit of slack in the mechanism that lifts the dampers. Once the mechanism begins to lift the dampers, the resistance increases noticeably. Here again, the AvantGrand does a convincing job of conveying the feel and — perhaps more important — the pedal control available on an acoustic piano, including half-pedaling and incremental control. A four-channel sample set and a 12-speaker audio system are also convincing, easily tricking your ear into thinking that there are considerably more than four feet of piano in front of you.
Which Side Are You On?
One area in which digital pianos are not intended to emulate acoustics is that of price. The AvantGrand model N3, with the sound, and perhaps the feel and experience, of a Yamaha concert grand, has an MSRP of $19,999 and a street price of around $15,000. This is roughly comparable to the price of a 5' 3" Yamaha model GC1M, one of Yamaha's lower-level consumer-grade acoustic grands. This could create something of a dilemma for a potential buyer: acoustic or digital? Actually, the comparison would be more valid if the GC1M were fitted with an aftermarket "silent" mechanism, sound card, and MIDI sensor strip at a cost of about $2,500, or if the comparison were with, say, a Yamaha 5' 3" model C1S Silent Piano, with a street price of about $22,000. Then, the AvantGrand would be from 15% to more than 30% less costly than the acoustic-based hybrid, and with features the acoustic did not have, such as onboard recording, USB memory, transposition, and alternate tunings. (Of course, if you compared the price of the AvantGrand with an actual Yamaha concert grand, which the AvantGrand is intended to emulate, the savings would be around 90%.)
As the market for hybrid pianos heats up, buyers will increasingly have to choose between acoustic pianos with digital enhancements and digital pianos that try to create the acoustic experience. Decisions will be made by weighing the relative quality, and importance to the buyer, of action, tone, looks, price, and features. More advanced classical pianists whose digital needs are modest, and buyers who, among other things, are looking to fill up a living room with a large, impressive piece of furniture, will probably tend to stick with the acoustic-based hybrid for now. Those whose musical needs are more general, or who have a strong interest in digital features, may find digital-based hybrids more cost-effective.
Another factor that may come into play is that of life expectancy. A good acoustic piano will typically function well for 40 or 50 years, if not longer. Few digital pianos made 15 to 20 years ago are still in use, due either to technological obsolescence or to wear. True, the relevant technologies have evolved, as has the design of digital pianos and the quality of their construction. Realistically, however, if past experience is any guide, pianos that are largely acoustic with digital enhancement may well last for many decades, while those that are digitals enhanced with acoustic-like features are unlikely to last as long.
The piano has evolved a great deal since Bartolomeo Cristofori invented it in 1700, and that evolution continues. Today it is possible to buy a piano with an ABS-Carbon action (Kawai), a carbon-fiber soundboard (Steingraeber Phoenix), or one that looks as if it was made for the Starship Enterprise! The hybrid piano's blending of acoustic and digital technologies is just another step — or branch — in that evolution.