People shopping for a piano often ask for the sort of objective, scientific ratings they’re used to using when looking for a new car or refrigerator or other big-ticket item. But just because people want such a thing doesn’t mean it can be done — at least, not with a clear conscience and a straight face.
During the last few decades of the 20th century, when so many pianos sold in the U.S. were of less-than-stellar quality, I attempted to produce such a rating in The Piano Book, largely by identifying defects in the pianos’ designs and/or manufacturing. For 20 years or so, separating good pianos from bad wasn’t difficult. But since about 2000, globalization and the computerization of manufacturing have all but eliminated such defects. Most differences among brands are now quite subtle, and more easily obscured by factors such as personal preference, room acoustics, and how well dealers prepare instruments for sale. If, today, a team of pianists and piano technicians were to inspect, play, and rate each piano model without knowing its brand and price, I suspect that, with the possible exception of the most and least expensive instruments, the results would be so scattered and inconclusive as to be virtually useless. Perhaps a team of piano engineers with high-tech testing equipment could do a better job, but I certainly don’t have the resources to conduct such testing, and I’m not sure how relevant the results would be to most piano buyers.
So in 2009, when I began publishing Acoustic & Digital Piano Buyer, I had to ask myself: Given the resources at my disposal, what can I provide that would be genuinely useful to the average piano buyer? I decided that there were several things, each useful to a different class of buyers, depending on how much prior piano-related knowledge and experience they bring to their piano search, the time and energy they’re interested in spending on reading and research, and at what point they are in the shopping process.
One of those things is what I call the Map. The Map attempts to show how the various brands are positioned in the marketplace. That is, it attempts to answer this question: If a dealer carried every brand, how would he or she position those brands in terms of relative quality when presenting them to a prospective purchaser? It turns out that, especially for Consumer-Grade pianos, this positioning is done largely on the basis of price, which itself is a distillation of many factors: the piano’s size, quality of materials, method of manufacture, country of origin, technical features, attractiveness of cabinet styling and finish, performance quality, intended audience, and the brand’s reputation for warranty service and resale value. For Performance-Grade pianos, a brand’s reputation as a “prestige” marque also factors into its price and market position.
In my experience, price is, generally and in the larger picture, a pretty good indicator of a piano’s overall quality — but when the focus is narrowed to a smaller segment of the market, the relationship between price and quality breaks down somewhat. For one thing, what exactly constitutes “quality” can differ from one person to another. One person may be interested primarily in a piano’s musical performance, whereas another may be more concerned with its furniture styling or resale value, or the manufacturer’s reputation for warranty service. Two brands that are roughly equal in price and overall quality may have different blends of strengths and weaknesses. In fact, some lower-priced models may appeal to you more than some higher-priced ones because of their particular characteristics or features.
For another thing, some brands may temporarily be better values than others because their manufacturers are reducing prices to gain market share. Finally, some brands or models, especially those that are new to the market, may be mispriced because their manufacturers have not yet learned from experience what the public is actually willing to pay for them. Nonetheless, for a buyer coming to the piano market for the first time, faced with 75 or more strange brand names, and prices ranging from $3,000 to $150,000, having a map that shows each brand’s approximate price range and market position can be enormously helpful — even when the market position doesn’t perfectly correlate with quality, or with those aspects of quality that most interest the buyer.
To create such a chart for Consumer-Grade pianos, I first prepare a spreadsheet displaying the prices of each brand’s smallest and largest vertical models, and smallest and largest grand models between 5′ and 7′ in length. I consider only regular (not fancy or special) models in the least expensive finish (usually polished ebony). If the brand makes multiple model lines, with different price ranges, I list the prices of the smallest and largest models within each line separately. Then I group the brands and/or model lines together by similar price range, verticals and grands grouped separately. I also take into account the fact that not all brands offer a full range of models from small to large — some may make, for example, only small grands, or only large verticals. Finally, I record the approximate price range into which fall most of the brands and models in each group: smaller pianos toward the lower end of the range, larger models toward the upper end. However, each brand or model line may have a somewhat narrower price range than does its group as a whole.
Although the above process is reasonably objective, there are judgment calls to make. For example, where should I draw the dividing line between adjacent groups? Or, because the groups’ prices overlap somewhat, what should I do with brands that could conceivably fall into more than one group? Here I look at factors other than price, including how a company differentiates its own model lines, which brands or model lines are known to be competitors in the marketplace — or, though only as a last resort, our staff’s subjective opinion about a brand’s quality and reputation. Sometimes we also consult with others in the industry.
The process for Performance-Grade pianos involves both reputation and price — the former more than the latter—because someone considering spending $50,000 or more on a piano is less likely to choose by price, and more likely to make a choice based on personal preference and a brand’s reputation. Here, I group some of the best and most expensive pianos based on what I call their “prestige” value. Brands now labeled Iconic are those that seem, by general agreement, to be the ones that would be the flagship line of any dealer that carried them — they are, so to speak, the “gods” of the piano industry. Those now labeled Venerable are not quite Iconic, but have a virtually uninterrupted period of 150 years or more of very high quality, and some have been owned by the same family for generations. Most of the other brands in the Performance-Grade category are also of very high quality, but are either fairly recent arrivals to this category, or have returned to very high quality in the last 20 years or so after a period of decline. Though not Iconic or Venerable, they are nonetheless excellent in every way, and thus are now referred to as Distinguished. The last group in this category, Notable, consists of a few brands that are less often thought of as Performance-Grade, but by price and reputation should probably be separated from the Consumer-Grade category.
In the recent past, we have sometimes changed a brand’s position in the chart based on personal preference: We thought a brand should have a higher position in the marketplace than it does, or that it was an especially good value for the money, or that its pianos were overvalued, etc. In retrospect, this has, in many cases, been a mistake: It has created confusion about the Map’s purpose, and has invited attempts at arm-twisting to get higher ratings. It has also made it difficult, later on, to lower a rating when a brand that received such treatment no longer stood out as being special. We now rarely make such exceptions, and do so only when the change results in a more accurate indication of a brand’s actual market position.
That said, there is a legitimate need for such special, expert information. For that reason, we have created the Staff Picks section, which expresses our unabashedly subjective preferences based on such factors as “musical standout” and “good value,” without the compulsion to evaluate every brand and model. We also publish reviews by guest writers, which give more in-depth looks at individual brands and models by other pairs of ears, hands, and eyes. In these ways, we supplement the fairly perfunctory, price-oriented Map for beginners with the more subjective but experienced opinions of experts, for those readers who are further along in their search for a piano.
Acoustic & Digital Piano Buyer, the successor to The Piano Book, by Larry Fine, is a FREE, semiannual piano buying guide that will help you make an informed decision concerning the purchase of a new or used piano or digital piano. Read it FREE online or purchase it in print at http://www.PianoBuyer.com.