By Larry Fine
The chart and commentary that follow are intended to provide the newcomer to the piano market with a simple summary of how this market is organized. This summary is not, strictly speaking, a ranking of quality; rather, it is intended as a description of how manufacturers and dealers position their products in the marketplace. That is, if a dealer carried every brand, how would he or she position those brands, in terms of relative quality, when presenting them to prospective purchasers?
For pianos intended for consumer use, this positioning is usually done along lines of price; for high-end and luxury instruments — where price is less likely to be a buyer’s primary concern — there is a rough pecking order based on reputation. As will be discussed later, while price and reputation are often associated with quality, that association is far from perfectly consistent. Nevertheless, in the larger picture and speaking very generally, price and reputation are associated with quality closely enough that this chart can be used as a rough guide to the quality of today’s new pianos, though not as a precise or authoritative one.
Why We Don't Precisely Rate Piano Quality
Why don’t we strictly judge piano quality in Piano Buyer? During the last half of the 20th century, a great many pianos, especially low-end instruments manufactured in the U.S. and in developing countries, had significant defects that made separating good instruments from bad relatively easy. That is no longer the case. Due to globalization and the computerization of manufacturing, virtually all pianos now sold in the West are competently made and without major defects, and the differences between them are increasingly subtle and subjective. While it’s still clear that high-end pianos are better than entry-level ones, comparisons of instruments that are closer in price are less conclusive, and much more subject to the whims of personal preference, how well the pianos have been prepared for sale, room acoustics, and so forth.
In addition, the definition of quality itself is extremely vague. Depending on the buyer’s priorities, quality could refer, among other things, to a piano’s musical performance, to the aesthetics of its furniture, to its ability to hold up under the demands of heavy use in a school, or to its ability to survive in difficult climates. If quality refers to its musical performance, is that in a concert venue, a teaching studio, or a living room? If in a concert venue, solo or with an orchestra? For playing Mozart, Debussy, Rachmaninoff, or Gershwin? And whose preferences in tone and touch should we enshrine as the standard by which all pianos should be measured? Each answer to those questions will produce a different ordering of pianos by quality. Furthermore, even those responsible for the technical design of pianos often can’t agree on which features and specifications produce the best instruments.
In such a context of extreme subjectivity, varying priorities, and contradictory expert opinions, making too fine a distinction among brands based on their quality tends to give a false impression of scientific objectivity, and inhibits shoppers from making their own judgments and possibly discovering something wonderful for themselves. For these reasons, we have chosen to take a less active but, we think, more honest approach to giving piano-buying advice, by providing newcomers to the market with a simple frame of reference and a few personal recommendations (see Staff Picks), and otherwise letting them explore and discover for themselves what appeals to them.
The key to proper use of this chart, then, is not to follow it religiously, but to understand that, given its nature, it should be used only as a learning tool. In addition, use common sense when comparing one brand with another. Compare verticals with other verticals of similar size, and grands with similarly sized grands, or models whose selling prices fall within the same range. Don’t get hung up on small differences between one group and the next — the distinctions can be quite subtle. Furthermore, the preparation of the piano by the dealer can be at least as important to the quality of the product you receive as some of the distinctions listed in the chart. Note that there may be quality differences within a single product line that, for the sake of simplicity, we do not indicate here; and a few brands have been omitted due solely to lack of sufficient information about them. Within each group, the brands are listed in alphabetical order. No judgment of these brands’ relative quality should be inferred from this order.
Prices shown for each group represent, in round numbers, a typical range of Suggested Maximum Prices (SMP) of new pianos in the least expensive styles and finishes — smaller models toward the low end of each range, larger models toward the high end. (Significant discounts from these prices are likely — see Model & Pricing Guide).
Note: This chart is not, strictly speaking, a rating of pianos by quality. Consumer-grade pianos are listed here by price range, performance-grade pianos are listed by general reputation. For explanation, see the accompanying article. See also Staff Picks for recommendations of specific models.
Notes: Unless otherwise stated, brand names refer to both grand and vertical models. Prices are Suggested Maximum Prices (SMP) of vertical models, and of grand models from 5′ to 7′ in length, regular style, lowest-price finish (usually polished ebony). Substantial discounts from these prices are common—see the Introduction to Brand Profiles, Models & Prices for further explanation. The prices shown for a category reflect, in round numbers, the approximate range into which most of the brands and models in that category fall, but a few models may fall outside the range. Also, keep in mind that an individual brand’s price range may be narrower than that of the category it is listed under.
Performance-grade pianos generally have several of the following attributes:
They are built to a single high standard, almost without regard to cost, and the price charged reflects whatever it takes to build such a piano and bring it to market.
A greater proportion of the labor required to build them is in the handwork involved in making custom refinements to individual instruments, often with fanatical attention to detail.
Most are made in relatively small quantities by firms that have been in business for generations, often under the ownership of the same family. As a result, many have achieved almost legendary status, and are often purchased as much for their prestige value as for their performance.
These are the instruments most likely to be called into service when the highest performance level is required, particularly for classical music.
Most performance-grade pianos are made in Europe or the United States; a few are now made in Japan.
Performance-grade pianos are divided here into five groups, based on our perception of their reputation and market position in the piano industry. (Of course, our perceptions are ultimately subjective, and reasonable people, especially outside the U.S., may disagree with our rankings to varying degrees.)
The first two groups are reserved for those brands whose prestige figures prominently in their value. Brands labeled Iconic are those that seem to be the flagship line of any dealer that carries them—they are, so to speak, the Maseratis and Lamborghinis of the piano industry. Those labeled Renowned, though not quite Iconic, enjoy an elevated position in the piano industry due in part to their having a virtually uninterrupted period of 150 years or more of very high quality, some having been owned by the same family for generations. Of course, the prestige of these two groups is based in large part on their extremely high quality, but marketing success and historical accident also play important roles in the reputations of these and other high-end brands.
The brands in the third group, Distinguished, are also of very high quality, but are either fairly recent arrivals to the Performance-Grade category, or have returned to very high quality in the last 20 years or so after a period of decline. Though not Iconic or Renowned, they are nonetheless excellent in every way. Preferences among performance-grade pianos in general are greatly dependent on musical taste in tone and touch. For these reasons, a number of brands in the third group have devoted followings and, practically speaking, may be just as good despite not having as much prestige associated with their names.
The fourth group, Notable, consists of high-end models that are positioned as secondary lines to some of the brands in the first three groups. Whereas we differentiate the first three groups according to perceived levels of prestige, this group consists of brands that are positioned by their own manufacturers as being of slightly lower quality and price than their primary lines—usually due to less customization or attention to detail at the factory, using less-expensive parts, or having a more conventional design. In most instances, these differences would be significant only to buyers who require the very highest level of musical or visual aesthetics.
The last group in this category, Honorable Mention, 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. Most of these brands are also considerably less expensive than those in the other groups, and may be a better value when the highest levels of quality or prestige are not needed.
Consumer-grade pianos are built to be sold at a particular price, and adjustments to (i.e., compromises in) materials, workmanship, and method and location of manufacture are made to meet that price. Most are mass-produced in Asia, with less in the way of custom refinement of individual instruments.
Consumer-grade pianos are grouped here by price range. As mentioned earlier, in the larger picture, price is a reasonably good guide to quality. But as one focuses more closely on smaller areas of the market, the association of price with quality breaks down somewhat. For example, some brands may offer a better value than others because they are reduced in price to gain a larger market share, or because they are made in a country with lower labor costs. Some brands or models, especially those that are new to the market, may be mispriced because their manufacturers haven’t yet learned from experience what the public is actually willing to pay for them. 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.
As can be expected, upper-level consumer-grade pianos generally have premium components and better performance than lower-level instruments. The best of them are made in Japan or Europe, or are partly made in China or Indonesia and then shipped to Europe for completion. Some have become so advanced in their designs, materials, and manufacturing technologies that they now rival some performance-grade pianos in musicality, and are sometimes recommended as substitutes for them, often at considerably lower prices. The economy models, on the other hand, are basic, no-frills pianos suitable for beginners and casual users, but which a conscientious student may outgrow in a few years.
In my view, the brands in the Premium group tend to offer the best ratio of price to performance (i.e., the best value) among consumer-grade pianos. However, shoppers on a limited budget, or those looking for something a little more upscale, may benefit from the other groups shown.