Review: Inexpensive, Entry-Level Vertical Pianos
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.
For this review, we have chosen only the least expensive 42″ to 44″ pianos — those with a Suggested Maximum Price (SMP) less than $4,000. (The SMP is a benchmark price useful for comparing one model with another. It’s not necessarily the price at which the piano will be sold.) Most of these instruments will actually sell at a “street price” of between $2,500 and $3,500. When used as a promotional “loss leader” to get people into the store, they may even be advertised for as little $1,995, a price at which the dealer makes virtually no profit, the hope being that, once you’re in the store, you’ll instead buy something more expensive. (To encourage you to do so, some dealers will actually make the sale model less attractive by not preparing it well for sale.)
Note that because these particular models are made as much to be advertised as to be sold, they are not necessarily representative of the best their manufacturers can make. Higher-priced models are available, from these and other manufacturers, that are also classified as “entry-level” but are of higher quality (with better components or musical designs, fancier furniture, etc.). We may review those at a later date.
Our reviewers, recruited from the Piano World online community, include both professional pianists and experienced amateurs. The brands tested were those available at dealerships in the areas where the reviewers resided or frequently traveled: New York City, Chicago, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Permission to audition the pianos was requested from the dealers, who were given the opportunity to prepare the pianos to show their best. — Larry Fine
PRICES OF MODELS REVIEWED*
|Brand/Model (alphabetically)||Size||MSRP† ($)||SMP‡ ($)|
|Hallet, Davis & Co. H-108||43″||4,750||3,710|
|Hallet, Davis & Co. H-111||44″||4,750||3,710|
|Hardman, Peck & Co. R110S||44″||4,750||3,710|
|Kohler & Campbell KC-142||42″||3,490||3,490|
|Otto Altenburg AV108||42.5″||5,000||3,690|
|Pearl River UP-108D3||42.5″||3,795||3,590|
*Prices are for models in continental style (except Hardman, Peck), polished ebony
†MSRP = Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price ‡SMP = Suggested Maximum Price. Most sales take place at a discount to the SMP.
See Model & Pricing Guide for more information about prices.
Note that models, prices, and specifications may have changed since this article was first published. See www.pianobuyer.com for current information.
Our first reviewer, Mark Cannon
My favorite by far was the 42″ Kohler & Campbell KC-142. This reflects mostly my personal taste, but also perhaps its having been the best-prepped of the three. I loved the fine control of touch and dynamics. The abilities to get very soft, and to achieve fine gradations of volume through its entire dynamic range, were extraordinary for a vertical, and were aided by the great feel of the keys and the precise, clean responsiveness of the sustain pedal and dampers.
For the most part, the tone was quite lovely and rich. However, the upper treble sounded a little tinny, with quick decay, and I was unable to get enough volume from that section when I needed it. This limitation was frustrating in “big” passages, but with music requiring less volume, I could enjoy playing this piano for hours. The bass was a bit tubby, though not badly so, and the pitches of the lowest notes were quite clear down to D6 (the sixth note up from the bottom). The transition from tenor to bass was noticeable, as one would expect in a piano of this size, but was not distracting.
The action was responsive, with excellent note repetition, comparable to some grands. My perception was that the key dip was a bit shallow and the keys seemed to hit bottom too soon, but this negative was offset by the fact that the keys had just the right amount of resistance, giving the keyboard a substantial, “meaty” feel that contributed to the instrument’s remarkable dynamic control.
The soft pedal worked by bringing the hammers closer to the strings, and was wonderful, giving a distinctly softer sound and further aiding the piano’s great control of dynamics and tone. The middle pedal, which engages a “practice” mode, was likewise excellent, resulting in a very muted sound that still had fine dynamic control.
One practical limitation was that the keybed, on which the keyboard rests, seemed quite low; in fact, my knees came right up against it. I measured it at about 23½”.
The cabinet was in a continental style (no front legs), in a strikingly gorgeous, creamy ivory color. The fallboard was folding style, not “slow-close,” but easy to manage. The music desk, which flips out from the inside of the fallboard, has a suede-like strip across its length, a nice touch that helps keep sheet music from slipping off. No bench was available for me to see, but I was told that the piano comes with a matching wood bench with music storage.
The 44″ Hallet, Davis & Co. H-111, seen at the distributor’s warehouse, was not well prepped — apparently it had been only tuned — and some of the details I’ve noted may reflect this.
The Hallet seems to be an average entry-level console with decent all-around capabilities. At first blush, its sound was uninspiring and on the “wooden” side, with a very quick decay in both bass and treble, but further inspection revealed a more varied sound. Some groups of notes had better sustain than others, and most of the bass had a more substantial and resonant tone than the treble. In fact, the lowest notes of the piano were impressive, their pitches clear to within four notes of the bottom. The transition from tenor to bass was prominent, but in actual playing this was not a major issue.
The piano’s dynamic range was potentially quite wide, and the action permitted fair control of dynamics, but not consistently or reliably. Notes sometimes wouldn’t sound at all, even when played with moderate touch, and note repetition was fair at best. (These are symptoms of an action that needs regulating, something a good dealer would do when preparing the piano for sale.) These problems were especially noticeable when using the middle, “practice” pedal, but the pedals and dampers were otherwise fine and worked cleanly.
The piano’s cabinet was in a continental style with a beautiful light-cherry color — a lovely instrument to look at. The absence of front legs did result in some slight instability; the piano rocked a bit to and fro when pushed, but not during playing. At slightly less than 23″ from the floor, the bottom of the keybed was the lowest of the three instruments I measured, and my knees came right up against it. I found the folding fallboard quite heavy, and a bit difficult to open or close. The fallboard’s thick front edge opens out to serve as a music desk. A matching vinyl-padded bench, with music storage, comes with the piano.
The 44″ Hardman, Peck & Co. R110S, like the Hallet, Davis model, was seen at the distributor’s warehouse and was tuned but not well prepped.
The sound of the Hardman was metallic and a little wooden. It struck me as a good entry-level console for popular music, especially rock, but probably not for classical music unless voiced less brightly. Despite the brightness, the Hardman actually had the widest dynamic range of the three pianos, with fair control of dynamics, even at the soft end of the range. Sustain was good, the transition from tenor to bass was prominent but not problematic, and the lowest notes were impressive, with clear pitches heard to within three notes of the bottom.
Generally, when it functioned properly, the action had a good feel. However, the problem with the Hardman, as with the Hallet, was that neither the tone nor the action was consistent or reliable; sometimes notes would not play, even with a moderate touch. Presumably, this problem would be cleared up by better dealer prep.
The pedals and dampers worked cleanly and reliably. The “practice” mode (middle pedal) was excellent, with a surprising range of dynamics from whisper to mezzo forte.
Unlike the other instruments I played, the Hardman was in a more traditionally styled cabinet, with front legs and toe blocks, rather than continental; the color was a lovely dark mahogany. This model had a slow-close fallboard, an elegant touch that never fails to entertain the uninitiated observer. The piano comes with a matching wood bench with music storage.
Cannon concludes by summarizing and comparing the three models:
If these pianos were cars, the Hallet, Davis might be a Toyota Corolla, the Hardman, Peck a Ford Mustang, and the Kohler & Campbell a tiny, three-cylinder Mercedes. Each was lovely in terms of cabinet design and appearance, and, when properly prepared by the dealer, a very acceptable instrument for most entry-level buyers — but I would not recommend any of them for an advanced player. The Kohler came closest, and is a remarkable piano for the price, but its lack of greater high-treble sound and its shallow-feeling key dip would likely be too limiting for such a player. A more serious pianist looking for a vertical piano in this price range should instead consider a used, higher-quality upright.
Kevin A. Brown, of Chicago, reviewed the 42½” Cristofori CRV425. Cristofori is a house brand of the Jordan Kitt’s Music and Schmitt Music piano-store chains, and is manufactured in China by Pearl River. Brown writes:
Generally, I’d characterize the treble tone as “light and airy,” not harsh, brittle, or bright. Sustain was good, especially in the bass, and the pitch of the bass notes was quite clear, though down to only G11. However, the piano didn’t seem to have a distinctive voice of its own, largely because the tone was so inconsistent, with variation from section to section or even note to note. Music that emphasized the treble and didn’t require complex harmonies sounded pleasant, but when I combined several low bass notes with the treble, the sound became thick, muddy, and “boomy,” with the bass overshadowing the treble and detracting from the treble’s positive qualities. The piano had been prepped for my visit, but perhaps these problems could be overcome with additional voicing, and learning how to better balance playing the bass with the treble.
The action was very light, almost springy, and felt a bit inconsistent up and down the keyboard. It was fairly responsive, and note repetition was good, at least for the needs of beginning or intermediate-skill players, but I found it hard to achieve subtle changes in dynamics. As expected, striking a key hard produced a loud sound, and striking it gently yielded a somewhat softer sound, but achieving a more expressive middle ground was difficult. I was also distracted by a loose and sloppy feel to the keys, which made mechanical noise when played rapidly.
Although my comments may sound critical, this instrument did strike me as a good first piano for a budget-conscious buyer, or a second instrument in a home studio. Overall, and despite the inconsistencies, the tone was acceptable, and the action would probably be comfortable for young, small hands. This piano would work well for beginning students playing music that doesn’t demand a broad range of dynamic or tonal expression, but the light, loose, springy action could limit the range of expression for a more intermediate or advanced player.
The piano’s cabinet was in the continental style, with clean, simple lines and a smooth, attractive, glossy finish. The piano’s lid can be propped open grand-style for better sound. The piano had a locking fallboard — a nice feature, but of questionable value in an entry-level instrument for the home; a slow-close fallboard might have been more useful for this market. The fallboard’s small, fold-down music desk was a bit flimsy and not very deep or wide. However, it may be sufficient for the entry-level student, whose music is likely to be lightweight and small. The piano comes with a padded bench with music storage.
Dr. Owen Lovell is a professional pianist from Eau Claire, Wisconsin. On a recent trip through New Jersey and Pennsylvania, he reviewed the Pearl River UP-108D3, the Otto Altenburg AV108, and the Hallet, Davis & Co. H-108. Lovell writes:
I was able to sample two 42½” Pearl River UP-108D3s side by side. This maker, one of the better-known Chinese manufacturers, operates the world’s largest piano factory, producing instruments bearing its name as well as “stencil” pianos for many other companies worldwide. The UP-108 instruments I played were both finished in polished ebony. Though continental case designs are very basic, the quality of the exterior finish was surprisingly good for the price — larger panels had no noticeable waviness, and looked very smooth. A few minor flaws in smaller case parts could be seen up close, but overall, these instruments’ cosmetics compared favorably with that of other pianos in the showroom costing many times the price. The general tone quality of the UP-108 was neutral — neither bright nor dark. The tenor section had more presence than the rest of the instrument, and the bass/tenor “break” was handled fairly smoothly. The treble section lacked sustain, and the mid- and low-bass sections didn’t have much depth (not surprising from any short upright piano, no matter the brand). However, I was truly impressed with the Pearl River’s action: nicely uniform across the entire keyboard, and capable of faster repetition than the other pianos I tested, providing good dynamic control. Though the touch was a bit on the light side and the key dip may have been slightly shallow, nothing about the feel of this piano’s action felt at all “entry-level.”
Pearl River UP-108D3
The 42½” Otto Altenburg AV108 is manufactured by Beijing Hsinghai Piano Group in China, and sold as a house brand of the generations-old Altenburg Piano House in New Jersey. It’s pretty much identical to the nationally-distributed Wyman WV108 from the same manufacturer. Compared with the Pearl River, this piano had different strengths and weaknesses. Its treble sang nicely, and its more focused tone was biased toward the brighter side of the spectrum. Most notable was the clarity of the low bass section — a pleasant surprise for a piano of this size and price. The case finish was good, with a nice sense of depth and smoothness, save for a subtle recurring wave on one larger panel. The action seemed suitable for a piano geared toward beginners and casual players: fairly uniform and slightly on the lighter side, with a key dip that felt appropriate under my fingers. Pushed to extremes, repetition was not as fast as on the Pearl River, and the trichord-strung section of the tenor didn’t project as well as the rest of the instrument, but I felt it offered a good overall value for an entry-level piano.
The final piano I tested for this article was a 43″ Hallet, Davis & Co. H-108 in polished mahogany. Shoppers looking for a finish that doesn’t as readily show dust or fingerprints may wish to consider this wood-veneer alternative to traditional (and sometimes less costly) black finishes. The Hallet, Davis piano may not have had the surprisingly fast action of the Pearl River or the striking low-bass clarity of the Otto Altenburg, but it succeeded quite well as a complete and balanced piano. It produced a satisfying range of dynamics, but its trump card was its uncanny ability to produce distinct tonal colors based on the pianist’s technical approach — a characteristic treasured by advanced pianists. The well-prepped example I played had a touchweight that was more moderate than the others, and similar to that of a larger piano. The treble tone projected strongly from the top of the instrument to below middle C, a little less so in the bottom trichords of the tenor section, with a fairly smooth transition down to the bass region. Depending on the player’s choices in dynamics, this particular piano could sound neutral, bright, or very bright. I believe the Hallet, Davis & Co. H-108, like the other instruments discussed here, represents an enticing value for the money, and merits serious consideration by shoppers looking for an inexpensive new piano.
Thanks to the following piano dealers and distributors for their cooperation:
Altenburg Piano House, Elizabeth, New Jersey (Otto Altenburg)
Frank & Camille’s Fine Pianos, Melville, New York (Kohler & Campbell)
North American Music, Stony Point, New York (Hallet, Davis & Co.; Hardman, Peck & Co.)
Reifsnyder’s Piano, Lancaster, Pennsylvania (Pearl River)
Steinway of Chicago, Downer’s Grove, Illinois (Cristofori)
Worldwide Piano, Edison, New Jersey (Hallet, Davis & Co.)
Kevin A. Brown ([email protected]) has more than 20 years’ experience as an amateur pianist, including accompanying for a community chorus and playing at church. He works at a national laboratory as a technical communicator, and lives in the Chicago area.
Mark Cannon is an amateur pianist who has given many solo recitals and has been a finalist in amateur piano competitions. By profession he is a psychiatrist in private practice in New York City, often working with musicians and others in the arts.
Dr. Owen Lovell is an Assistant Professor of Piano at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire. He concertizes frequently as a soloist, chamber musician, and advocate of new music. For more information, visit his website at www.owenlovell.com.