Performance-Grade Pianos

Highest Quality

Most of the pianos in this group, and in the next, "High Quality," are for those buyers who want the best and can afford it. The companies that make them use the very best materials, and their manufacturing processes emphasize much hand labor and refinement of details. These companies' painstaking execution of advanced designs puts considerations of quality far ahead of cost and volume of production. These instruments are suitable for the most advanced and demanding professional and artistic uses.

It was easier to arrive at a consensus about the brands in this group than about any other group in this rating system. So celebrated are the brands in this group that dealers eagerly nominated even their competitors for the list. These pianos have everything, and the attention to detail paid in their manufacture can only be called fanatical. (Note that pianos made by Steinway & Sons/Hamburg are not routinely available in North America; I include the brand here for informational purposes only.)

High Quality

The pianos in this group are also fabulous, but are in second place here either because their workmanship is not quite as refined as the first group, or because their musical designs are considered slightly less desirable, or perhaps because their names have not yet earned as much prestige value as those in the first group. However, preferences among performance-grade pianos are greatly dependent on musical taste, and most of the brands in this group have their devoted followings.

Most knowledgeable observers of the piano business would consider the brands in this group to span quite a range of quality within the rarefied air of high-end pianos, and would insist that it be divided into two or more subgroups. The problem is that I found an utter lack of agreement among my many contacts as to which brands each subgroup should contain. Furthermore, the relative ranking of these brands is one of the most hotly debated topics among piano aficionados. Rather than arbitrarily impose my own preferences, I have chosen to leave the group undivided. Since this chart is primarily intended for newcomers to the piano market, any further division of this group would be academic.

Good Quality

The brands in this group, though very good, are considered to have less finesse than those in the first two groups. However, most of these models are also considerably less expensive than the ones above, and may be a better value where the highest quality or prestige is not needed.

Consumer-Grade Pianos

The chart for consumer-grade pianos is organized differently from that for performance-grade pianos. The Korean-based companies Samick and Young Chang each has its own column listing all the brand names each makes for the U.S. market, including brands made under contract for other distributors; the Japanese-based companies Yamaha and Kawai share a column for their brands (other than those listed under Professional Grade); and there is a column for all brands made in China not already included in the other columns.

Within the Samick, Young Chang, and Yamaha/Kawai columns, the various brand names or model groupings are organized approximately as the respective companies themselves position them in the marketplace by price and features. Some small adjustments have been made for subjective reasons. The brands within the Chinese column are organized by approximate overall recommendability, which also tends to fall along lines of price and features, though not uniformly so.

The tricky part of organizing this chart was figuring out how to align each column with the others to indicate the relative recommendability of the brands. As you can see, the brands and models in the Yamaha/Kawai column are concentrated toward the top of the chart, whereas those in the Chinese column are skewed slightly downward. This reflects, in large part, the differences in these brands' track records for durability, reliability, and warranty ser-vice. It must be noted that many dealers and others compare pianos only on the basis of their musical performance qualities when new, but a true comparison must also include their track records for these other factors. How much each factor is to be valued is a highly subjective matter, thus reasonable people will disagree as to how these columns should be aligned.

As can be expected, the upper-level consumer-grade pianos generally have premium components and better performance and quality control than the lower-level instruments. In fact, as mentioned earlier, some may even compare favorably to professional-grade instruments, and may be less expensive, too. The entry-level models are basic, no-frills pianos suitable for beginners and casual users, but which a conscientious student may outgrow in a few years. The mid-range pianos usually have better design, performance, quality control, track record, and/or components than the entry-level ones, but not as good as the upper-level ones. As piano quality in general improves, the distinction between levels becomes more subtle and difficult to discern.