The NU1 has five voices: Grand Piano 1, sampled from the CFX concert grand; Grand Piano 2, a bright and clear piano sound; Electric Piano 1, a sound reminiscent of 1980s synthesizers; Electric Piano 2, simulating the sound of hammer-struck metallic tines, like a Fender Rhodes; and Harpsichord, which, like an acoustic harpsichord, lacks velocity sensitivity (i.e., it produces the same volume regardless of how hard the key is struck). I explored all five voices and found them to be realistic. The NU1 also has such digital perks as never needing tuning (although it provides a number of built-in alternate tunings), volume control, adjustable touch sensitivity, headphone options, transposition, a built-in metronome, recording via USB or onboard memory, and MIDI connectivity.
Yamaha's promotional materials suggest that the experience of playing the NU1 is almost indistinguishable from that of an acoustic piano. In an attempt to make this as close a comparison to the U1 as possible, I chose the NU1's Grand Piano 1 voice and pressed the Reverb button as well. My first test was performed without headphones. When used this way, rather than the entire instrument resonating, as an acoustic piano does, the NU1 produces sound only from four speakers in the front of the instrument, under the keyboard. When I played the quicker Chopin and Scriabin pieces, I found the NU1's action up to the challenge, but the edges of the black keys felt sharp under my fingers. I then returned to the Scriabin No.10, and confirmed what I'd suspected while playing the other works: Using only the built-in speakers, the decay of the NU1's sound was unlike that of the acoustic U1. I played a C octave on both instruments at similar volumes, then timed their decays. The NU1's sound lasted half as long as the U1's, and, rather than tapering off slowly, as an acoustic instrument's sound usually does, after several seconds it just stopped. Changing the voice options or turning off the reverb didn't alter the result. Whereas the U1 wrapped me in a blanket of sound, the NU1 produced what was more like a column of sound that came at me as if through an open door to a loud room — very focused, and a little canned.
Next I tested the instrument using Yamaha HPE-170 headphones. This time I found the sound to be rich and realistic, and very close to the sound of the acoustic U1. The tone was lovely and warm, and the closed-ear headphones had the added benefit of blocking out ambient noise in the room. Using all my years of classical training, I was able to control dynamics, phrasing, and voicing, but creating these effects was, admittedly, more difficult on the hybrid than on the acoustic. It was harder to achieve a true pianissimo when allowing the weight of my arm to gently drift to the bottom of the keybed. Despite these comparative shortcomings, the NU1's impressive action response, and Yamaha's use of samples from their CFX concert grand, made a credible case for customers interested in a hybrid piano.
The NU1 (MSRP $5,499) would best serve players who frequently practice with headphones, and who desire MIDI and recording capabilities and a greater choice of keyboard voices, but are not seeking a piano suited to advanced artistic demands and repertoire. Pianists in need of an upright with more nuanced control and a richer sound may be better served by the traditional U1, despite the higher purchase price (MSRP $10,199) and maintenance requirements of the acoustic instrument.
Rhonda Ringering, NCTM, is a professional pianist, recording artist, independent music teacher, and writer whose articles have appeared in American Music Teacher, Piano & Keyboard, and Clavier. She is currently editor of The Oregon Musician. Her blog can be found at www.ringeringpiano.com.