Inexpensive, Entry-Level Vertical Pianos
Larry Fine and Volunteer Reviewers
NEW, ENTRY-LEVEL CONSOLE PIANOS provide a reasonable option for consumers who wish to spend the least amount of money for an instrument. Advantages of purchasing such a piano over a used one include a factory warranty, knowing that the instrument is starting life in your home in new condition, and perhaps more easily finding a cabinet style that matches the furniture in your home. Though certainly built to a "price point," and with other limitations that accompany a small size, an entry-level console is a practical starter piano for the price-conscious beginner or casual hobbyist.
In the last issue of Piano Buyer, several volunteers reviewed grand pianos less than five feet long and found that, despite some severe limitations imposed by their short lengths, the current crop of these instruments was vastly better than those of a generation ago. It occurred to me: Is this also true of today's smaller verticals?
Actually, the smallest verticals of yesteryear, particularly spinets, are no longer being made. Today's shortest are 42" high, a nearly respectable height. I decided to focus on the least expensive of these, to see whether the same forces of globalization and creativity that have improved the inexpensive grand piano have also worked their magic on the inexpensive vertical.
As explained in the last issue, in shorter pianos, the bass and tenor strings must be made thicker to compensate for the length that the pianos' small size makes impossible. When the strings are thicker, the harmonics (overtones) they produce are distorted in such a way that the musical pitches of these strings become less distinct to our ears. This is why the bass of a larger piano generally sounds "deeper" than that of a smaller one. In the extreme case, the lowest octave or more of a small piano may be so indistinct in pitch as to be nearly useless musically. Smaller pianos also tend to have stiffer soundboards, which can make the bass sound "tubby" (the treble, preferring stiffness, is not affected). Recent advances in scale design and bridge placement have enabled manufacturers to compensate somewhat for these limitations, which was the case in some of the small grands we reviewed.
The keyboards and actions of small vertical pianos may also be compromised. First of all, vertical actions are, in general, less sophisticated than grand actions, and their speed and reliability of repetition are usually lower. In addition, pianos under 43" or 44" in height may use slightly smaller action parts to enable the actions to fit into the smaller cabinets, further affecting their performance. (The instruments we'll be looking at, with heights of 42" to 44", are right on the edge of this specification.) These limitations are unlikely to affect beginners or very casual users, but more advanced players should beware.
Quite apart from their size is the fact that these pianos are the least expensive new instruments on the market, a fact that is likely to affect some choice of components, as well as the degree of musical and cabinet detailing. As we saw with the grands, computerization of manufacturing and the lower cost of Chinese and Indonesian labor now make it possible to manufacture a respectable product even at a low price point. One thing that hasn't changed, however, is that the dealer is unlikely to prepare an entry-level piano for sale as meticulously as he or she would a more expensive instrument. Sometimes, all such a piano will receive is a quick tuning.
The least expensive vertical pianos often come in a continental-style cabinet, with plain, simple furniture lines and no front legs. (Most are also available in other styles but are otherwise nearly identical, at a slightly higher price.) There are a few practical considerations related to the continental style that you should know about. Most pianos in this style, in addition to having no front legs, also have no casters, and thus sit directly on the floor. The absence of casters may reduce their height by an inch or more, as well as result in a shorter distance from the floor to the bottom of the keybed, the structural part of the piano on which the keyboard rests. This can be an advantage for small children or very short adults, whose posture at the keyboard will, as a result, be more natural. But adults of average or tall stature may find their knees pressing up uncomfortably against the keybed. If this is likely to be a concern, the prospective pianist should try sitting at the piano in the showroom, on the bench that comes with the piano, even if he or she does not yet know how to play. Another consideration related to the continental style is that the absence of front legs may make some instruments appear to be less stable. I've never heard of one falling over, but some may rock to and fro a bit when pushed, particularly on plush carpeting.