By Dr. Owen Lovell
The Pearl River Piano Group is the world's largest producer of acoustic pianos by unit volume, with more than 150,000 pianos made every year. The Chinese company, which operates the world’s largest piano factory at 3.2 million square feet, makes Kayserburg, Ritmüller, and Pearl River branded pianos for the global market.
Although Pearl River and its brands may not be as well-known to American consumers, they are a major player in today's piano industry—in fact, the world’s best-selling piano. They hold manufacturing contracts with a number of other companies and have made significant investments in parts suppliers.
Out of the group's three brands, Pearl River is marketed as the most affordable line of pianos (their SMP prices start as low as $6,000 for their upright models and $14,500 for their grands), the Ritmüller line fills the company's middle tier of quality and affordability, and the Kayserburg pianos represent their higher-end.
That said, these quality breakdowns are not quite that simple; There are a few sub-lines within each brand that have varying features. We recommend reading the Piano Buyer brand profile for a more comprehensive explanation of the brand’s structure.
Back in June 2022, at the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) trade show, the Piano Buyer staff was given the opportunity to try two Pearl River Piano Group pianos: one was the first Pearl River P9 grand piano imported to North America, while the other was a factory-new Kayserburg GH160C. These models—both of which measured 5'3"—are the company's second least expensive and second most expensive pianos sold at this size.
As a means of giving us a chance to try these pianos in a quieter, more secluded environment, the Pearl River Piano Group opened up their display room for an after-hours meet-and-greet. These pianos were not given any special treatment for our review—they had only just been shipped to the United States, unpacked from their crates, tuned, and put out on the trade show floor for a day's worth of visitors hammering on the keys before we got our hands on them.
We found that although the Pearl River P9 and Kayserburg GH160C share the same 5’3” (160cm) length, the two pianos sound markedly different.
It’s easy as a piano shopper to get lost in spec sheets and marketing buzzwords that offer no real useful explanation or benefit. In this case, I can safely say the P9 had the more neutral, slightly warmer tone quality of these two models with a treble range that brightened a bit towards the 6th and 7th octaves. The default factory voicing of this piano seemed very appropriate for a small- to medium-sized room—perhaps in a home, office, or studio setting.
On the outside, the two piano rims and stringing scales looked identical, as did the polished ebony finish and case hardware. The pedals, including a true sostenuto middle pedal, looked and felt the same. The models also shared two traits that suggested a more modern style of piano design: a greater number of wound bass strings and a relatively wide tail meant to maintain a more uniform string tension across the bass/tenor “break” between bridges. The tail is also meant to maximize bass string length and optimize the bass bridge's placement on the soundboard compared to older, more traditional piano designs.
The benefits of this feature can immediately be heard in the lowest bass notes (also known as the "monochords"). On the Pearl River P9, these notes were well-defined with a nice clarity of pitch. On other more expensive pianos of this size, however, you are typically treated to a bunch of inharmonic noise and fundamental pitches that disappear within the first octave since the antiquated designs and materials don’t work well together.
To be blunt, I preferred the low bass of these pianos over, say... most Steinway model M pianos I’ve played.
When playing across the break between the wound bass and plain-wire tenor strings on both pianos, there are some minor voicing issues—such as poorly matched strings and imperfect hammer-to-string connections—that are made more apparent by the wound bass string pairs (or "bichords") extending as high as they do, but this less-than-optimal tonal transition is something that can typically be sorted by a dealer who has skilled technicians doing thorough pre-sale “prep” work.
The Kayserburg GH160C uses Renner hammers (an esteemed German company responsible for some of the most well-crafted piano parts and supplies) and a more refined, cost/labor-intensive solid spruce soundboard design tapered similarly to other high-end pianos to optimize its response as a transducer of sound energy into the room.
While the P9 had a more neutral and intimate personality, the Kayserburg GH160C was a more lively and energetic extrovert. The tone sang well through the treble with a brighter voice; the projection was impressive yet controllable, and you could sense how the combination of the hammers and soundboard made the instrument feel very much alive. I could even feel the sound vibrations of the piano in the keys under my fingers during louder musical passages.
The Kayserburg did share the same benefits (low bass clarity) and liabilities (the bass-tenor break) as the P9, but it was quite fun to hear the tonal differences between the two. While I preferred the GH160C, another pianist and technician who was with me liked the sound of the P9 better. The repetition and response of the all-maple Pearl River action was good on both pianos, although they could benefit from additional regulation work at the dealership to better compete against the touch consistency of the smallest Kawai and Yamaha grand models to which they’ll inevitably be compared. However, I found the overall tonal qualities of the Pearl River P9 and Kayserburg 160C to be more interesting than these competitors.
As with any market segment, price comparisons are inevitable—and if we look at the numbers for these two new pianos, it's easy to see why they are likely to succeed.
At $21,437, the 5’3” Pearl River P9’s Piano Buyer MSRP price is fairly comparable to the entry-level 5’0” GL-10 grand from Kawai and 4’11” GB1K grand from Yamaha. Although there may not seem to be a large difference between the size of these three models, a few extra inches of length can have a dramatic impact on a piano's overall tonal performance, particularly in the low bass region as it is used in romantic, impressionistic, contemporary, and jazz works. Additionally, most people who can fit a 4’11” grand in their office, music room, or living room can fit a 5’3” grand like the P9 or GH160C in the same space.
At $22,736, the Kayserburg GH160C has an MSRP price that is lower than the 5’3” Yamaha GC1M and 5’5” Kawai GL-30, but slightly higher than the shorter 5’2” GL-20 model. Actual negotiated street prices from the dealers will, of course, vary.
Other similarly-sized Pearl River Piano Group models that you may encounter at dealerships include the Pearl River GP160 (which includes a distinct, silver-colored plate and hardware option), Ritmüller RS160, Ritmüller GH-160R, and the Kayserburg KA160, which are produced in a “factory within a factory” at the Pearl River facility and represents the company’s attempt to compete with the world's best pianos at any price.
At the popular 5’3”/160cm size, I cannot think of another piano maker that offers this many options. If you want to upgrade from a vertical or digital piano to a reasonably-priced baby grand piano, try out one of these models. Given the extremely high market prices for popular used grand pianos at the time of this writing, a new Pearl River P9 or Kayserburg GH160C with a 10-year factory warranty could provide an interesting alternative to a 30- to 40-year-old grand piano that is past its prime.
Dr. Owen Lovell, Piano Buyer’s Piano Review Editor, is the Associate Professor of Music at Georgia College. He can be reached at email@example.com.