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Mason & Hamlin's New Virtuoso X (VX) Series: American Innovation

Updated: 7 days ago

By Dr. Owen Lovell


The history of piano building in America is the history of the “modern” acoustic piano. Although keyboard manufacturers were most prevalent in Europe during the 19th century, advancements, inventions, and patents made by American manufacturers turned the tide in global piano design from the second half of that century and into the next. This change can be seen and heard today, where we find prestigious makers from Europe or Japan, integrating 100-year-old design elements of American pianos in their “new” model lines, to lower-cost upstart manufacturers in Asia who copy entire scale designs of American pianos that are considered to be successful in the market.


At Mason & Hamlin, an American spirit of innovation in engineering pianos hasn't stopped. Witness their new flagship Virtuoso X, or “VX” Series of grand pianos, which Piano Buyer staff had the chance to try earlier this year at their factory in Massachusetts.

Mason & Hamlin’s history dates back to 1854, and has its ups and downs, changes of ownership, and places of manufacture (Boston, MA, East Rochester, NY, Haverhill, MA) but they have always enjoyed a reputation among the very best pianos in America, and during certain periods, the world. For a more detailed company history, I suggest reading the Piano Buyer brand profile or Bruce Clark’s (Senior Design Engineer at Mason & Hamlin), three-part article, “An Insider’s History of Mason & Hamlin.'' Suffice it to say these pianos had significant endorsements from virtuoso performers and composers during their tours of the USA. We see them in teaching studios and institutions, and even 100+ year-old examples are prized as “core” pianos for rebuilding and restoration by technicians everywhere.


For those who may not be so familiar with Mason & Hamlin pianos, probably the more traditional and older innovations they’re known for (and still use) are all about being overbuilt and long lasting. Hardwood laminated rims are massively thick— more so than any new piano I can think of. Glossy, full perimeter plates make the innards of their grand pianos look like they’ve been drizzled in a candy coating of cast iron. Soundboards are built and crowned differently than Steinway’s; they use a different species of spruce (Eastern White) than most manufacturers today, and the whole thing is fixed in place by the turnbuckle-set Tension Resonator - a patent dating to 1900 whose efficacy and use is a topic of discussion among piano rebuilders and technicians.

Hard Rock Maple rim and Tension Resonator

The tonal philosophy of modern Mason & Hamlin pianos is mostly unified across the VX Series and recognizably American in character: warmth and fullness permeate the bass and midrange of these pianos, and plenty of dynamic power is available in each size. Piano Buyer staff also admired the excellent treble sustain of these pianos, surpassing that of new examples we have recently played at an aforementioned, prestigious piano factory and showroom, some 200 miles to the southwest…



In my sometimes cynical worldview of today’s piano industry, it seems some manufacturers are run by their marketing departments, others by economic “bean counters.” Perilously few by actual pianists (though we spend so much time practicing and so little time studying economics that you likely wouldn’t want us running things)! In the case of Mason & Hamlin, I have always thought of it as a company run by its engineering department. That brings us to their 21st-century innovations. Although not the first to do so— experiments in their use go back more than 50 years now— Mason & Hamlin has wholeheartedly embraced composites in the manufacture of piano actions, in an effort to optimize both performance, reliability, and uniformity in any environment. Their trademark name for these in-house-made actions is Wessell, Nickel, and Gross (WNG), a name used at various times in their history for traditional wooden actions, but since 2009 (and refined since then), it’s a completely different beast. 



WNG actions use a mixture of anodized aluminum parts on the keyframe and atop their traditional wooden keys, composite action parts that feature adjustable geometry, composite action bushings (the many pivot points in a piano’s action, which require a specific amount of friction to be maintained) where the rest of the piano industry uses felt, which can wear or bind, and carbon fiber for the shanks that connect the hammers to the rest of the action. The WNG action is also marketed to piano technicians and rebuilders as entire actions or parts, and has drawn the attention of other piano manufacturers as well. One design goal from the Mason & Hamlin engineering team was to significantly lessen the action’s inertia by eliminating weight from the action parts, which results in excellent repetition and control. To take full advantage of these capabilities, technical maintenance and highly-refined regulation are especially necessary, but should result in a very stable action.

For more information on traditional vs. innovative approaches to piano parts, please see Nontraditional Materials and the Piano, by Steve Brady, RPT.


The newest refinements that contribute to the Virtuoso X series include unique action geometry for black vs. white keys for smoothness, and an updated method of crowning the soundboard for best response. The front termination point in the speaking length of the high treble strings, sometimes called the V-bar, has been made much more massive with a different shape for better purity of tone, and the placement of bridges (the rear termination point of the speaking length of the strings, which transmits the tone to the soundboard) has been optimized for better sustain. These are improvements I could hear and feel, compared with my experiences playing prior versions of the “modern” Mason & Hamlin. There are five grand piano models and one vertical piano in the series, ideally suited for nearly any professional need: the 5’4” Model B, 5’8” Model A, 6’4” Model AA, 7’ Model BB, 9’4” Model CC, and the Model 50 upright pia.



I feel there are three common experiences one must have to be a card-carrying piano nerd: You must visit a large piano store (or large city with multiple dealers) that stocks the top-tier, pianistic exotica that you have only read about. Second, you should tour and meet a respected piano rebuilder, hopefully with an almost-finished instrument or two on display. And finally, you have to tour at least one piano factory. Mason & Hamlin’s factory in a large, historic brick building in Haverhill, Massachusetts, is worth a half day of your time if your travels take you anywhere between Boston to the southern beaches of Maine. This factory is a wonderful amalgam of old and new ideas and equipment— the old Model A rim presses in the basement, the innovative use of pneumatically inflated fire hose segments in a one-off jig, for fixing soundboard ribs in place, purpose-built electric solenoid-driven devices to help with assembly. The use of multiple, thoroughly modern CNC machines/routers, while trained craftspeople are still stringing every piano, completely by hand (yes, industry people and techs, you read that right). During a late winter weekday visit, a small crew worked unhurriedly with dozens and dozens of pianos at different points in the assembly process, with paper checklists and manila folders bearing the initials of the technicians and supervisors overseeing each build. The Burgett family, owners of Mason & Hamlin, are present with now two generations working to preserve the company's legacy. There is very much a family feel throughout the facility.



In addition to welcoming tours and tour groups, the Mason & Hamlin factory has a showroom onsite, with (at the time of our tour), multiple examples of every top-tier VX model in an admirably good state of tuning, as well as other pianos from the Artist Series line (built in Asia, but using their premium WNG actions). It’s not a concert hall, nor a high-pressure sales environment, but this addition to the factory experience is a great way to start or end your tour. Where else could I possibly get to try two giant new 9’4” Model CC concert grands, back to back?



High quality and hand-craftsmanship do not come cheap in 2024, which is reflected in both the price tag and the somewhat limited dealer network throughout the U.S. However, anyone shopping a high-end, new, or rebuilt American piano needs to experience the modern Mason & Hamlin, because it’s unlike anything else in the market.


 

For our TL;DR take on these high-end pianos and specific models, here’s our unbiased opinion on the new Mason & Hamlin VX Series—


Pros:

  • Smooth, light WNG action with excellent repetition capability and control

  • Warm, recognizably American tone quality

  • Good treble sustain

  • 5’4” model B and 7’ model BB outperform their size, 6’4” model AA is nicely balanced from top to bottom

  • Designs that use elements of every era of the company’s technical and engineering innovation

  • Prestige among American pianos, based on brand history

Cons:

  • Although the capability of the WNG action was unquestioned, the extent to which all 88 notes of each piano were fully sorted after factory regulation showed a need for some hours of additional technical refinement to reach full potential

  • High quality and hand craftsmanship doesn’t come cheap

  • Limited dealer network

  • Brand recognition, outside of North America 


 

Pianist Owen Lovell has appeared as a soloist and critically acclaimed chamber musician in twenty U.S. states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, Canada, Mexico, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. Dr. Lovell earned his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in piano performance from the Peabody Conservatory of the Johns Hopkins University, and holds a Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the University of Texas at Austin. Appointed in the fall of 2016, Dr. Lovell is an Associate Professor of Music and coordinates the keyboard area and Bobcat Keys after-school program at Georgia College, the state’s designated public liberal arts university. Additionally, he is a piano technician and the piano review editor for Piano Buyer. Please visit his YouTube channel for additional information and recordings, www.youtube.com/@classical_pianist

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