Yamaha's NU1 Hybrid: A Peek Under the Digital Hood, continued
One immediate advantage of the vertical-based NU1 over its grand-based AvantGrand siblings is a smaller footprint. If space is at a premium, the NU1's cabinet depth of 18¼" occupies 25% less floor space than the AvantGrand N1's 245⁄16" depth, or the acoustic U1's 24" depth. And its cabinet height of just over 40" makes it no more imposing than a spinet piano, whose only real virtue was its compact size.
In addition to using a vertical rather than a grand action, Yamaha is able to charge less for the NU1 than for its AvantGrand siblings by omitting such features as Ivorite keytops, Tactile Response System, Spatial Acoustic Sampling and Speaker System, and Soundboard Resonator. While each of these adds a noticeable dimension of realism to the sound of the AvantGrand, the price tradeoff seems well considered. The NU1 is the practice piano extraordinaire, offering at low cost an acoustic action, and headphone options for home and school practice rooms — and unless you tell it otherwise (see below), it's always in tune.
Of course, the NU1 supports the usual array of features expected on today's digital pianos. The Master Volume control is located under the left cheek block, along with two headphone jacks and a USB to Device port. The last allows connection of a USB flash-memory device to store either the MIDI (data) or WAV (audio) files the instrument is capable of recording. On the MIDI front, both traditional round DIN connectors and the more convenient USB to Host connectors facilitate connection to a computer or to other MIDI devices. Don't be afraid to connect the NU1 to your computer! Adding the wealth of software resources available is simpler than you might imagine. (For some ideas, see my article, “My Other Piano is a Computer: Introduction to Software Pianos," elsewhere in this publication.)
Also present are Reverb, with 20 different depth settings, to add some acoustic life to your room; Transposition, which allows you to play in your or your musical partner's preferred singing range; and that most humble of musical aids, the Metronome. In the case of the NU1, the Metronome can be instructed to provide a more pronounced downbeat for time signatures ranging from two to six beats per measure; so, yes, you have a fighting chance of learning to play Brubeck's “Take Five."
There are four levels of Touch Sensitivity, which adjusts the perceived touchweight of the keyboard by changing how the sound volume varies according to how hard you strike the keys. (The actual touchweight doesn't change, but it feels as if it does.) The Off setting — no sensitivity — is the default for the Harpsichord voice, as that instrument does not respond to different strike velocities. The remaining three levels provide standard, lighter, and heavier touchweight, the latter two allowing you to prepare for performance on other instruments that may have different touchweight characteristics.
The NU1 also provides controls for Pitch and Tuning. While we're accustomed to hearing keyboard music in equal-temperament tuning with an A440 pitch reference, that has not always been the standard. In the time of Scarlatti (1685–1757), Mean-Tone tuning was the norm, with the pitch standard varying from A404 to A423. Changing the pitch and/or tuning on the NU1 is easily accomplished using the Function button, located on the left cheek block. Besides Mean Tone, available tunings include Pure Major, Pure Minor, Pythagorean, Werckmeister, and Kirnberger. The pitch standard can be varied from A414.8 to 466.8. Try setting the tuning to Mean Tone and the pitch to A415, for example, and you're likely to learn a great deal about how relatively early compositions sounded to their composers. Alternating between our current temperament and tuning, and those in effect at the time of composition, can be an ear-opening experience.
Like most pianos, the NU1 has three pedals: damper, sostenuto, and soft. While a great deal of effort has been expended on the feel of digital piano actions, pedals have not typically been afforded the same attention. It's relatively common for the damper pedal on digital pianos to have half-pedal capabilities, but actually finding the sweet spot in the pedal's travel can be a bit of a challenge. The NU1 employs a mechanism that allows the pianist to not only feel the half-pedal point, but to choose where in the pedal's travel that point will be, making it far easier to put the capability to use.
Finally, because digital pianos can be played at much lower volume levels than acoustic pianos, Yamaha employs what it calls Intelligent Acoustic Control to automatically compensate for the perceived weakness of bass tones by the human ear as the overall volume is reduced. To allow for individual variations in hearing, this feature can be adjusted on the NU1 through seven different levels. The adjustment applies only to the sound coming from the instrument's speakers, not through its headphone jacks.
If your wallet dictates that you stay south of $5,000, it's hard to beat the NU1 for sound, feel, features, and flexibility. It would be my choice over many similarly priced acoustics.
Alden Skinner is Piano Buyer's Digital Piano Technical Consultant.