By Larry Fine and Volunteer Reviewers
There was a time when, as they say, I wouldn’t have wrapped fish in a grand piano under five feet long. The short cases of these pianos place severe constraints on string length and soundboard design, and often result in instruments with poor tone. Given these pianos’ lack of musical qualities, most buyers have been understandably more interested in them as pieces of furniture than as musical instruments. To compete at this end of the market, manufacturers have traditionally needed to make and sell such pianos as inexpensively as possible, sometimes skimping on materials until the pianos just barely hold together. The smallest of these instruments made by American manufacturers in the 1980s were referred to derisively by piano technicians as “piano-shaped objects.”
Times have changed. While much of the above is still true to some extent, great strides have been made in the intelligent design and construction of small pianos. Piano-scaling software, advances in soundboard design, globalization, and the computerization of manufacturing have all contributed to the ability to produce grand pianos that are compact and inexpensive, yet still fully functional and satisfying to play. This was brought home to me recently when, at a trade show, I heard from some distance a piano that sounded exceptionally lovely. Drawing near to find out what it was, I was amazed to discover that it was only 4′ 10″ long. I decided it was time to take another look at these instruments. Of course, some are better than others, and some guidance in listening to and choosing one is advisable.
The place to begin is with the strings in the low bass. Normally among the longest in a piano, these copper-wrapped strings must be made thicker than normal to compensate for the length that the piano’s small size makes impossible. The extra thickness makes them stiffer, causing the harmonics they produce to deviate from their theoretical frequencies, in a phenomenon known as inharmonicity. (This happens to some extent with all pianos; it’s just much worse in small ones.) The problem here is that the fundamental frequency of a bass string is weak in comparison to its harmonics, and the ear “hears” the pitch of the note largely by listening to the harmonics and inferring from them which fundamental would have produced them. When the inharmonicity is extreme, however, each harmonic suggests a different fundamental, thus confusing the ear, which hears an indistinct pitch. So when trying out a small piano, play each note in the bass to see how low you can go before the pitch becomes unclear. (If you can no longer hum the note, the pitch is probably not clear enough to discern.) If this point on the keyboard is well within the normal range of the music you play, the piano may not give you the musical enjoyment you’re looking for. Another area to pay attention to is the transition between the tenor and bass; here, the lowest unwrapped treble strings can sometimes give off an indistinct or otherworldly-sounding pitch much different from the wrapped strings just below.
Quite apart from the distinctness of the pitch, the bass tone can be deficient in other ways. Unless carefully designed, the soundboard of a small piano can be much stiffer than that of a larger one due to its smaller surface area, and its vibrations are more easily stifled by careless bridge placement. For the low frequencies of bass notes to be properly produced in a piano, however, greater soundboard flexibility is required, so traditionally there has been a tendency in small pianos for the bass tone to be dull and thumpy, with short sustain. When testing a piano, then, listen for resonance and sustain in the bass notes, and reject instruments that sound stifled and dull.
Modern piano designers are beginning to make progress in mitigating the problems inherent in the very small piano. Ironically, one of the biggest obstacles to this progress comes from the manufacturers’ own marketing departments. The dull, thumpy sound of the typical small grand is the inevitable result of several common and widely promoted, but ill-advised, design characteristics, perhaps chief among them the quest for the maximum possible speaking length (string length). While it’s true, in a very broad sense, that longer strings give off a better tone due to their lower inharmonicity, among very small pianos, a slightly shorterbass-string speaking length allows the bass bridge to be positioned more optimally on the soundboard, the resulting enhanced resonance and sustain more than making up for the slightly greater inharmonicity. So when the salesperson tries to persuade you that his or her very small piano is better than the competition because of a longer speaking length, politely offer your thanks . . . and seek out the competition — it may well be a better-sounding instrument.
Interestingly, regardless of the quality of a small piano’s bass, its treble will often sound quite lovely. The reason lies in the fact that the strings in the highest three octaves of any piano are naturally fairly short, and so are relatively unaffected by the piano’s size; and because soundboard stiffness, while a detriment to the bass tone, actually enhances the higher frequencies.
The “feel” of the action and keyboard depends to some extent on the length of the keys — specifically, the distance between the front of the keys and their balance point, the latter hidden inside the piano behind the fallboard (key cover). When this distance is short, as it might be in a very small grand, there can be a pronounced difference in touch weight between playing at the front of the key and playing at the point just in front of the fallboard — both are common hand positions — making sensitive control of the keyboard difficult to maintain. Manufacturers vary in how they divide the total length of the piano between the front end (keyboard and action) and the back end (strings and soundboard), a decision that can affect a small grand’s playability. While this is unlikely to present problems for the beginner or casual player, more advanced pianists should pay careful attention to whether the keys and action of a very small grand will provide the desired degree of control.
Aside from the aspects of quality-related to a piano’s size, it’s perfectly possible to make smaller pianos to standards that are just as high as those to which larger instruments are built, and several manufacturers do that in the five-feet-plus range. Smaller pianos built to those standards cost almost as much to make as do larger ones, and so sell for nearly as much. But in the below-five-feet range, the competition tends toward the least expensive, which sometimes requires skimping on materials and simplifying design; the results may compromise only the piano’s appearance, or may affect its functionality and sound. Occasionally, skimping on structural materials results in tuning instability — something you can’t see by inspecting a piano, and won’t find out about until it’s too late — though this is encountered less frequently today than in the past. Other areas to consider: Has the construction of the pedal lyre been cheapened to the point that it moves and twists when the pedals are pressed? Are the legs so weak that the piano sways excessively under hard playing? Are the music desk and rack sufficiently movable, adjustable, and robust for your needs?
Today, new grand pianos less than five feet long are made in some three dozen models under more than two dozen brand names. To see how these instruments measure up, I recruited four volunteer pianists from the Piano World online community to test them. The group included both professional pianists and experienced amateurs, and two were also part-time piano technicians. The brands tested, 13 in all, were those available at dealerships in the cities where the reviewers resided: New York, Chicago, Houston, and Denver. Permission to audition the pianos was requested from the dealers, who were given the opportunity to prepare the pianos to show their best. The volunteers were given little direction other than a checklist of important things to look for. Their responses ranged from rough notes to eloquent prose, so my presentations of their findings vary in style and length.
First up is the 4′ 11″ Yamaha GB1K, Yamaha’s only Indonesian-made grand sold in the U.S. It was reviewed in the Chicago area by Kevin A. Brown. Brown found the treble tone on this instrument to be typically Yamaha: bright, crisp, and pleasant, but a bit generic and lacking in tonal color. As one descended into the tenor range, the tone, at first pleasant, gradually became muddier; then, after a rather rough transition not unlike what one might find in a small vertical piano, the bass turned both tubby and thin, lacking in resonance. The action was consistently smooth and controllable, though a bit “spongy” in the bass. Brown noted, “A pianist could play most types of music with some degree of control, but a pianist more skilled than I would not find playing this piano for any length of time satisfying,” in part because of the limited tonal color. The cabinet style is simple and functional, and has a slow-close fallboard, a nice feature designed to protect fingers. On the negative side, however, the music desk is fixed in place — it can be removed for tuning the piano, but cannot slide fore and aft. Despite the criticisms, Brown says that “it was a nice little piano, and seems like a suitable choice for budget-conscious shoppers looking for a small grand for children to learn on. However,” he cautions, “I question the decision to install a fixed-position music desk. Players may not find a comfortable position.”
Brown also reviewed the 4′ 9″ Hallet, Davis & Co. H-146C, made in China by the former Dongbei Piano Company, now owned by Baldwin (in turn owned by Gibson Guitar), and which currently makes most Baldwin grands. Brown liked the sound of this instrument, finding all registers to be bright, crisp, and surprisingly clean, without any harshness; the transition between the tenor and bass ranges was not particularly noticeable. The bass “had a purity that I did not expect in a piano of this size,” and “the tonal quality was quite consistent from mezzo piano to forte. Playing octave chords in the lowest bass range revealed the piano’s tonal limitations, but they were not so great that most players in this market would find the sound objectionable.” Brown also found the action to feel smooth, consistent, moderately firm, and controllable. “The piano played like a larger instrument. The action provided just enough resistance to achieve a variety of dynamics, and enabled greater musical expression than I had expected. My impression was that a pianist of late-intermediate to early-advanced skills would find the action suitable for playing most types of music requiring a wide range of musical expression.” Brown was also impressed with some of the cabinet features and with the overall attention to detail, such as the slow-close fallboard, the natural wood veneer on the inner rim, and a number of smaller cabinet details. “The piano had a quality look and feel, and most important, the tone and action were quite good for a small grand. Skilled pianists would be able to play the instrument with a relatively high level of musical expression.”
Finally, Brown reviewed the 4′ 8″ Hobart M. Cable GH-42D, made in China by Sejung. Substantially similar pianos are also made under the George Steck and Falcone labels. In general, Brown found this piano’s tone to sound a bit “woody” when played from piano to mezzo forte — like, he said, an old upright piano — but to become a bit more harsh or metallic when played more forcefully. The treble sounded somewhat subdued, but inconsistent, which “could prove frustrating for a player looking for a pure, crisp, clean tone for certain types of music, such as baroque and early classical.” Brown went on to say, “Initially, I kind of liked the somewhat subdued, woody quality to the sound, but the more I played it, the more I thought the woodiness bordered on metallic. This sound could become tiresome with certain types of music.” Brown also found the bass to be somewhat harsh and “thuddy,” significantly deteriorating at about F9; however, the transition from tenor to bass was not too distracting. Brown found the action too light and difficult to control. “Players more advanced than I would probably find that the action was not very satisfying because controlling the tone would be difficult. Even at my skill level, I had trouble bringing out the kind of sound I wanted.” Although he noted that the key surfaces had a particularly nice feel, Brown described the action as “clickety” in fast repetitions. “An advanced pianist would find this characteristic annoying,” he said. The instrument Brown tested was finished in a polished wood veneer, appeared to be free of blemishes, and had a slow-close fallboard. However, Brown described the finish as having a “plastic feel,” and that, in general, the cabinet lacked attention to detail and appeared cheaply made.
Houston reviewer Tom Gruenert tried out two models made by the Brodmann Piano Company, a firm started by two former Bösendorfer executives who desired to combine European design and components with Chinese manufacturing to produce an excellent piano at a lower price. Following several years of success with the Brodmann line, this year the company introduced its budget line of Taylor pianos. Gruenert had this to say about the 4′ 9″ Taylor TG 145: “The tone was nicer than I expected from a very small grand, but not great. Sustain was fair. The two octaves on either side of middle C were pleasing, but the tone in the treble tended to thin and get brighter and more brittle as one proceeded up the keyboard. The bass tone was more than adequate, but inharmonicity really became noticeable at G11; below that, the wound strings were noticeably guttural and not pleasing. The action was far better than I would have expected.” The cabinet was simple but nice. However, the wood music desk, mounted at the center of a metal frame that’s exposed on both sides, was “either tacky or modern, depending on your taste” (the reviewer thought it tacky). Overall, Gruenert says, “I would recommend this piano to the budget-conscious or space-limited customer. However, I would have to say that the same money (asking price: $7,999) spent on an upright would probably net the purchaser a better piano experience, though not necessarily as nice a piece of furniture. Was it a joy to play? Not really. But certainly not a disappointment either.”
Gruenert also tested the 4′ 11″ Brodmann PE 150: “This was a noticeable upgrade from the Taylor, at a considerably higher price (asking price: $12,999). As soon as I hit the first chord, I knew that the tone and action were really of a very nice standard.” Gruenert found the tone to be good in all registers: “A very nice, round tone. Not a sophisticated tone with a lot of harmonics, but sweet in the treble and forceful enough in the bass, with a clearly-defined pitch and tone much lower in the bass than the Taylor had.” About the cabinet: “Interestingly, they had the Brodmann logo on the side of the case, like a concert grand. Struck me as perhaps something that the purchaser looking foremost for a nice piece of furniture might not like.” Overall, however, Gruenert was impressed: “This is a piano one would do well to purchase instead of a larger, 10- to 20-year-old Yamaha or Kawai. It was very enjoyable to play. The action was nice by anyone’s standard, the tone very even and subtle across the scale. Using my ‘would I enjoy sitting here and playing this all day?’ standard, this was a keeper. And, in contrast to the Taylor, I can’t imagine getting more piano for the buck by purchasing a good upright with the same money.”
Glen Rosenthal, in Denver, reviewed a couple of Indonesian-made models that are part of the Samick family of brands. About the 4′ 8″ Pramberger LG-145, he wrote: “I had played a variety of Prambergers over the years, but had never seen this model. The instrument I tried out was finished in high-gloss mahogany, and it looked beautiful! The first thing I noticed when I sat down to play was how much the bass resonated and sustained, sounding as if it had recently been voiced — it was amazing, really. Below F9, the lowest note with clearly identifiable pitch, it didn’t sound musical, but wasn’t tubby either. The bass notes were all quite lively, the middle register was melodious, and the upper register, while not bell-like, was very clean and complemented the midrange of the piano quite well. There was almost no change of tonal character across the bass/tenor break. The action was a little light for my taste, but it provided good feedback from pianissimo to fortissimo and allowed for speedy scale sequences. This Pramberger exceeded my expectations. If I were in the market for a mini-grand, I’d most certainly take this model for a test drive.”
Rosenthal also tried out the 4′ 8″ Kohler & Campbell KIG-48, also made by Samick. His comments about the tone and action of this model were very similar to those about the Pramberger, except that in the Kohler & Campbell, both bass and treble, though still pleasing, sounded a little darker, with the bass sounding musical beginning at note G11. This model also exceeded the reviewer’s expectations, though not as much as did the Pramberger.
My sources tell me that, unlike the larger sizes of Pramberger, whose designs are based on the work of the late piano engineer Joseph Pramberger, this small Pramberger grand is a stock Samick design in use for many years under a variety of names, and that these particular Pramberger and Kohler & Campbell models are, in fact, identical instruments with different names. Therefore, any differences between the Pramberger and Kohler & Campbell in this model must be attributable less to differences in design than to manufacturing variations, to differing amounts of preparation at the factory or by the dealer, or some combination of these.
Our last reviewer, James Carney, in New York City, had the arduous but fun task of reviewing six piano models at two dealerships. He began by trying out two new Chinese-made instruments designed for Young Chang by American piano designer Delwin Fandrich: the 4′ 11″ Young Chang Y150 and the 4′ 11″ Weber W150. In the past, Young Chang and Weber instruments have been identical, but this time the company gave Fandrich instructions to give each its own musical personality. In addition to playing the new instruments, Carney also had the opportunity to tune them. He describes his experience:
“Both the Young Chang and Weber models I played feature very nice cabinets, legs, lyres, and music desks, and slow-close fallboards that worked perfectly. The Y150 I tested had an interior case veneer that looked exotic, like something one might find on a more expensive piano.
“In both pianos, the copper-wrapped (bass) string scaling extends upward to note F#34 — a much higher position than a wrapped string would normally appear in a longer grand. This means that the highest wrapped strings on both the Young Chang and Weber are within the temperament zone, an area where the piano technician establishes the basic tuning pattern for the piano. Because of the large amount of inharmonicity often present in this section, and the difficulty of scaling wrapped bass strings to blend well with unwrapped, plain-wire strings, the presence of wrapped strings in the temperament section is often a serious challenge for the tuner, and sometimes it’s hard to set a temperament pattern that sounds good. Yet in the case of both of these pianos, I was pleasantly surprised to be able to tune a great temperament that seemed unaffected by the presence of the wrapped strings. I was also astonished at the smoothness of the break (bass/tenor transition) on these two pianos. Of all the instruments I tried in my short-grand survey, both the Young Chang Y150 and Weber W150 had the least noticeable break; its smoothness rivals or even exceeds that found on much longer (and much more expensive) pianos.
“The bass section on both instruments sounded full, round, and complete. I felt that the tone was excellent all the way down to C4 on the Young Chang, and down to B3 on the Weber. Perhaps the lowest two or three notes didn’t sound all that great, but isn’t that most often the case, even with longer grands? The actions on both pianos felt even and extremely controllable, and I had no trouble playing any kind of music, including some Bach inventions played at a fast clip. Both instruments also had admirable sustain properties across their entire range, and if I had any criticism at all about tonal balance, it might be that I had to work a bit harder to get the treble to ‘sing’ melodies above the volume of the midrange and bass. Yet this is also a bit of a compliment, in that the bass and tenor sections are capable of putting out serious amounts of tone, volume, and sustain. However, this is where the similarities between these two pianos ended.
“Scale design involves the engineering of certain specifications for the plate, bridges, and strings, and the Y150 and W150 share the same specs for their plates and bridges. However, their string-tension properties were engineered differently; thicker plain-wire diameters were incorporated into the Young Chang’s stringing scale, resulting in higher tension for that model. This difference, along with the use of contrasting styles of hammers, has resulted in two unique-sounding pianos that I found fascinating to compare. The Young Chang’s tone seemed lighter, brighter, and possibly a little thinner, yet pleasant and certainly musical. The Weber had a much darker and ‘bloomier’ sound that I found quite appealing, and I felt like I could extract more shades of color within a slightly larger dynamic range. I also felt that the treble in the Weber held its own against the bass/midrange a little better than it did in the Young Chang, especially when playing melodies against left-hand accompaniment. But, as piano tone is very subjective, I urge the reader to try both instruments; some pianists might well prefer the brighter sound of the Young Chang.”
Next for Carney were three Chinese-made models by Pearl River and one by Hailun:
“I didn’t care much for the 4′ 7″ Pearl River GP-142, due to its thin sound, noticeable break, and an action that felt strange (I suspect short keys as the culprit), but the 4′ 11” Pearl River GP-150 was basically the opposite: an excellent action, combined with an appealing tone that was especially effective in the treble section from middle C up. The overall quality of the bass sound was slightly less impressive than what I’d heard from the Young Chang and Weber, with clear-pitched bass notes beginning only at D6. I also felt that the break between bass and tenor was not as refined as on the Young Chang and Weber. Still, I was attracted to this model’s sound and playability, and found the balance between registers to be possibly more evenly matched than on any of the other instruments. Another notable feature of the Pearl River GP-150 is the presence of both front and rear duplex scales from C#53 up, which may contribute to the nice qualities of the treble sound in this piano.
“Pearl River also makes pianos under the Ritmüller label, the company’s upper-level brand, whose models were recently redesigned by renowned German piano designer Lothar Thomma. I tested the 4′ 10” Ritmüller GH-148R, which I found lovely overall. The keyboard and action on this piano, complete with real ebony-wood sharps, was my favorite of all the instruments I played, with a refined feel and excellent controllability. The top three octaves of the GH-148R have a front and rear duplex scale, and the workmanship of the plate finishing, bridges, tuning pins, and stringing resembles that found on much more expensive instruments. The very high quality of the bass tone extended all the way down to note A1, a trait I rarely encounter on pianos of any length. The amount of fundamental tone present in the lowest bass notes was really surprising and admirable, although the overall bass sound throughout the entire range of wrapped strings was just slightly less impressive than that found on the Weber and Young Chang. The break on the Ritmüller was also perhaps a bit more noticeable than on those two pianos, but this comparison shows just how difficult it is to get everything perfect in a single instrument. I really loved the way this piano sounded and performed; it was easy to forget that I was playing a short grand.
“My last instrument was the Chinese-made 4′ 11½” Hailun 151, which I found as impressive as the others. As with some of the other pianos I examined, the beautiful veneer on the inside of the case, as well as the nice plate finishing, looked like something normally obtainable only at a higher price point. This piano had a dark tonal quality similar to what I heard in the Weber, yet with its own musical personality. In fact, the tone seemed to have an interesting mix of fundamental and harmonics that resulted in a very pleasing overall tone, complete with a thoughtful and effective balance of bass, low tenor, and treble. The transition between tenor and bass was not as smooth as on some of the other models, but the bass section sounded very good all the way down to B3, and I noticed some other design features that may be the reason for the interesting and complex tone in the treble: a front and rear duplex scale starting at D#55, with a rear duplex that appears to be tunable. The action and keyboard felt great, and it was easy to play a variety of music with complete control and dynamic range.
“The casework on all six instruments I surveyed ranged from good to high quality, and all had sturdy legs, pedal lyres, and slow-close fallboards. The pedals on some models made a few squeaks that could probably be easily eliminated by the store technician.”
Carney closed by saying:
“Based on my hours with these pianos, I was very impressed with the sound, p