Yamaha's NU1 Hybrid: A Peek Under the Digital Hood
by Alden Skinner
NOT HAVING THE DEEP POCKETS that would allow me to buy any piano I might desire, but still pursuing the best possible playing experience, I'm all about digital technology — and I'm a huge fan of hybrid pianos. How Yamaha's NU1 Hybrid sounds and feels to a pianist accustomed to playing acoustic pianos is the subject of a separate article. However, no review of a hybrid would be complete without a discussion of the features and technologies that are unique to digital instruments.
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 24 5/16" 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.
YAMAHA NU1 HYBRID UPRIGHT: SPECIFICATIONS
Side-by-Side Comparison: Yamaha's U1 Acoustic Upright and New NU1 Hybrid
by Rhonda Ringering
Since its introduction to the American piano market 50 years ago, Yamaha's 48" U1 upright has been a perennial favorite in both the new and used piano markets, and its consistency and reliability have given it pride of place in institutional and home settings. Yamaha's newest hybrid piano, the NU1, is a version of the U1 that blends acoustic and digital technologies.
In my work as a performer of the classical repertoire, the music of living composers, and some jazz, I perform and practice almost exclusively on acoustic grand pianos. I did most of my pre-college practicing, however, on the Yamaha U1 my parents purchased for me when I was eight years old. When, at Classic Pianos, in Portland, Oregon, I sat down and played the U1 provided for this comparison, I was pleased to hear that the model sounded more resonant than I remembered. I ran some scales and arpeggios to get reacquainted with the sound, touch, and pedals before I began my side-by-side comparison of it with the NU1.
For the purposes of this test, I played Chopin's Étude Op.25 No.12, Scriabin's Préludes Op.11 Nos. 10 and 14, several jazz standards, and some blues. My goal was to hear and feel how both instruments responded to the different technical demands of these pieces, and to compare their suitability to different musical styles.
U1 Acoustic Upright
One of the best features of the U1 was the tactile feel of its keytops. They were smooth, with rounded edges, and the keys had a rapid return. When playing the intense and fast-paced Chopin and Scriabin No.14 excerpts, I never felt constrained by the action. The sound's pleasingly long, tapered decay allowed the soulful and lyrical Scriabin Prélude No.10 to sound full and round, even in the long held notes toward the end of the piece. The lower octaves sounded a bit thin compared with larger grand pianos, but the middle and upper registers had surprising volume and richness. The pedals were smooth and easy to control.
When I switched repertoire, and technical approach, from classical to jazz, I was pleased that the instrument responded to the change of style, from a more refined and elegant tone quality to one that was a little brighter and edgier. I would have liked a little more clarity in the lower register — my walking bass line sounded a little fuzzy — but overall, it felt satisfactory.
The U1's general quality of sound was mellow and pleasing. The acoustics of the room in which I was playing were ideal, and the entire instrument resonated, making the sound "round," with lots of overtones. The experience was a bit like being wrapped in a blanket of sound.
NU1 Hybrid Upright
Yamaha is marketing the hybrid NU1 as a lower-cost, lower-maintenance alternative to the U1. Its sleek, beautifully designed cabinet has clean lines and looks like a real piano. The hybrid has a piano action nearly identical to the U1's, and digital sound sampling from Yamaha's critically acclaimed CFX concert grand and other instruments.* It's extremely easy to operate, and once shown how to change voices, I was able to scroll through all the options without needing to refer to the owner's manual.
*The similarity of the model names begs a comparison of the NU1 with Yamaha's celebrated U1 upright that the company's marketing materials seem to encourage. However, just before this issue went to press, it came to our attention that the action used in the NU1 is built with the slightly smaller parts characteristic of a console-piano action, which, as Rhonda Ringering has noted, don't provide quite the same level of musical control as the full-size parts of an upright action such as that used in the U1. On the other hand, the NU1 has the sound of a Yamaha concert grand, which compensates somewhat for the action's shortcomings. — Editor
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.