Enticing Alternatives in the Mid-Level Market
Mario Igrec (Fall 2020)
I became aware of W. Hoffmann pianos a few years ago, when I worked as chief piano technician at Faust Harrison Pianos, a W. Hoffmann dealer in the New York City area. The pianos were well built and surprisingly satisfying, both tonally and mechanically. They were generally well prepped, and easy to voice and regulate. When Piano Buyer approached me to review W. Hoffmann’s midsize pianos, I immediately agreed, excited to take a fresh look at them, this time wearing a pianist’s hat rather than focusing only on technical details. The W. Hoffmann brand, owned by the German piano maker C. Bechstein, is positioned as a lower-priced alternative to C. Bechstein’s own high-end lines of grand and vertical pianos. W. Hoffmann achieves its lower prices by building their pianos in a large, modern factory in Hradec Králové, in the Czech Republic. A country with a strong tradition in piano building, the Czech Republic is home to Petrof and the piano-key maker Detoa. Bechstein emphasizes that W. Hoffmann pianos are crafted by hand, with automated machinery used in areas where precision is more important than human judgment.
With W. Hoffmann, C. Bechstein enters the lucrative mid-level market, which for decades has been dominated by Asian manufacturers, Yamaha and Kawai in particular. For years, the ubiquity of these two brands seemed unassailable—and, without question, they still dominate this segment of the market. Can a brand such as W. Hoffmann compete against these giants? Can it produce an attractive and reliable product at scale, and is that product distinctive enough to stand on its own? W. Hoffmann emphasizes that one of the main advantages of its pianos is that they provide a tonal alternative rooted in the European tradition. But is this “European tone” a real advantage, and will the market prefer it?
I set out to answer these questions by reviewing four medium-size W. Hoffmann pianos—two 6′ grands (V183 and T186) and two 48″ verticals (V120 and T122)—and comparing them with Yamahas of similar size. I also compared the grands with shorter models, as well as with a similarly priced vertical in the C. Bechstein line, for buyers who are weighing the benefits of a grand against the space savings and possible tonal advantages of a vertical from a more prestigious line.
In both grands and verticals, W. Hoffmann offers three lines of pianos of ascending price: Vision, Tradition, and Professional. The first letter of the model number—V, T, or P—denotes the line. Vision pianos, such as the reviewed models V120 and V183, are the least expensive and are assembled in Hradec Králové; their backs, including a laminated soundboard, are imported from Asia. Tradition pianos, including the reviewed models T122 and T186, are built entirely in Hradec Králové, and use a conventional solid spruce soundboard with bridges made in Germany by C. Bechstein. The Professional models (none reviewed) incorporate more German-made components—e.g., bridges, back, soundboard support, and pinblock—and are regulated and voiced to a higher standard.
It’s worth noting that all W. Hoffmann pianos are equipped with hammers made by C. Bechstein. These hammers are of exceptional quality and are made of a particularly resilient felt that enables a lastingly musical and singing tone. As a voicer, I always look forward to working with them—they’re easy to needle, and can be voiced down or up with ease.
I played the pianos in the White Plains and Melville, New York showrooms of my former employer and W. Hoffmann dealer, Faust Harrison Pianos (www.faustharrisonpianos.com). I thank Sara Faust and Sam Varon for making that possible. I was given a generous amount of quiet time, which allowed me to film my playing. You can access the videos by clicking on each link as it appears in this review, or find all of them in one place here.
[My iPhone videos, taken in widely varying acoustic conditions, are by no means perfect. In some cases, a piano was in front of a reflective wall and the sound is downright boomy, whereas another piano, placed at the center of a large space, sounds thinner and quieter. For a fair comparison, each piano should have been placed in the same spot and recorded with professional-grade equipment with fixed microphone gain. Still, these videos do provide senses of sound color, dynamic response, and sustain, and capture my first contact with each piano—before filming, I’d played none.]
Like most new pianos, W. Hoffmanns reach dealers with protective boots covering their pedals. These boots squeaked loudly under my shoes, and I ended up removing my right shoe when playing them. W. Hoffmann should consider changing the material of these boots—the noise is distracting, and needlessly casts doubt on the functioning of the pedal mechanism.
On each piano, I played and recorded snippets of three pieces that I routinely play when evaluating pianos: The beginning of the first movement of Mozart’s Sonata in C Major, K.545, “Facile”; the beginning of the Prelude in G-sharp Minor from Book I of J.S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier; and the melodic theme from Chopin’s Scherzo No.2 in B-flat Minor, Op.31. Those are the pieces you can hear in my videos. I also improvised, and played various patterns that let me evaluate each instrument’s response.
See the table at bottom for price comparisons of all pianos reviewed.
Verticals: V120 vs. T122
The first piano I played was a V120 (47.5″; $13,500 MSRP) [video], a vertical model from W. Hoffmann’s least expensive line, Vision. The piano was positioned against the wall, similar to how it’s likely to be placed in a home. The sound was rounded and projected well for a vertical, with a nice singing quality and medium sustain. It quickly drew me in, and I didn’t feel undue action resistance or need to compensate for tonal unevenness between sections. The melody in the Mozart sonata stood out without extra effort, and bringing out the iterative motif in the Bach Prelude was easy, even in the middle voices. The accompaniment in the Chopin Scherzo didn’t overpower the melody, as it does on many pianos. Overall, it was a pleasant, musical experience.
I then played another V120, this one with mahogany veneer [video]. This piano was voiced more brightly, but was tonally more even than the first one. Its action was less well prepped, and the sustain in the treble was a tad shorter than the first V120’s, all of which illustrates the importance of selecting a piano in person. Overall, however, both pianos left good impressions.
W. Hoffmann T122 Vertical Piano
I moved on to another vertical, this time a T122 (48″; $16,900 MSRP) [video], expecting better response and sound, but was met with action-prep problems. The note F5, or second F above middle C, for example, was “missing” (sporadically not playing) in repeats and trills. This is not unusual in a new piano, as parts can get slightly out of regulation as they settle. If you notice such a problem, the dealer should be able to easily resolve it before delivery. The piano’s fuller sound was offset by its being placed away from the wall and back-to-back against another piano. The low bass was appreciably stronger and better defined than on the V120, but the top notes on the bass bridge (A2–C#3) tapered off slightly in volume, making the bass/tenor break somewhat uneven. But these are minor quibbles. The overall sustain was longer than from either of the V120s, and the T122 had a nice melodic quality. If I were in the market, I’d seriously consider this model, but would ask to have the piano moved against the wall to better compare it with the V120.
To round off my evaluation of these W. Hoffmann verticals, I thought it would be interesting to compare them with a Yamaha U1 (48″; $11,399 MSRP), the perennial choice of teachers and students. Keep in mind that a U1 costs less than a V120, and significantly less than a T122. The U1 I played was voiced more mellowly and was a tad quieter than either Hoffmann. It played well, had a very even bass/tenor break, and a reasonably melodic quality with medium sustain in the treble. However, it was more difficult to bring out the theme in the Bach Prelude, or make the melody sparkle in the Mozart sonata. Compared to the W. Hoffmanns, the sound had less color and less dynamic gradient—i.e., timbral difference at different dynamic levels. When I then played the W. Hoffmanns again, their sound struck me as more open and interesting.
Grands: V183 vs. T186
I began the comparison of grand pianos by first playing a W. Hoffmann T186 (6′ 1″; $52,900 MSRP) [video]. The piano immediately drew me in, and its action—neither too resistive nor too light—melted under my fingers, letting me focus on the music. Although the treble section from C6 to F6 was somewhat nasal, overall the sound was full and pleasant. Treble sustain was medium long, most notes had nice bloom, and the bass was well defined. The top of the bass section was slightly weaker than the rest, but the bass/tenor balance suffered little as a result. I was particularly taken with how effortless it was to voice the melody over the accompaniment in the Chopin. Whatever I played came out just as I wanted it.
I particularly enjoyed the T186’s quality of attack noise. All W. Hoffmanns have a pleasant, slightly woody attack, but this piano sounded almost as if a marimba was playing along. I believe it is this interesting yet warm percussive noise, followed by a quickly forming open and clear tone with nice bloom, that is perceived as the “European” tone. This piano certainly had that quality, which, combined with its tonal gradient, makes it an expressive instrument suitable for a professional musician or an advanced piano student.
I played one more T186 in another session [video], and that instrument left a similar impression. Its action didn’t feel quite as transparent as the first piano’s, but it had an even deeper tone, and exhibited no nasal qualities in the treble. The low bass was particularly tight and powerful. It would be tough to choose between these two pianos.
As soon as I played the first few notes of Mozart’s “Facile” Sonata on a V183 grand (6′; $35,900 MSRP) [video], I thought: The sound is open—not bright, just clear and unrestrained—and exact, the action is very fluid, and . . . the sharps are really slippery! I compared the plastic sharps with those on the T186 and they looked exactly the same, but the last person playing this V183 must have used hand lotion—another lesson in how much small things can affect one’s perception of a piano. Even the height of the bench, or whether the music desk is up or down, can play a role.
Playing this piano some more, though quite enjoyable, made it clear that the V183 is not in the same league as the T186. Nor should it be—its sale price is $17,000 MSRP lower. The low bass was less well defined, and the upper bass (G2–A#2) was weaker than the tenor, creating a tonal step between those two sections. The lowest notes in the tenor section (B2–E3) sounded a bit “tubby,” and the lower treble (G#5–B5) was nasal. However, the sustain and the overall tone quality were not bad, and the sound was quite musical. It was easy to get the melody to stand out in the Mozart and Chopin, not so easy in the Bach. Voicing out the motifs below middle C (C4) was increasingly difficult, as the piano lost its singing quality in the tenor and bass sections.
When I switched back to the T186, the contrast became even clearer: The T186 has a much deeper, more satisfying oh sound, indicating the dominance of low partials, whereas the V183 evokes the sound of a singer singing the vowel ah, in which upper partials are more prominent. The actions felt comparable, but the T186—especially the first one I tried—provided more nuance and control.
Although the V183 is a good value, I thought it would be useful to compare it with a few other pianos of similar price.
A 46.5″ C. Bechstein Contur 118 with mahogany veneer costs $2,000 MSRP more than a W. Hoffmann V183, and ups the performance with a very even response and long sustain. If you’re on the fence regarding space, and the superior repetition performance of a grand action is not a priority, this vertical might be your ticket.
For $6,941 MSRP less, the 4″-shorter Yamaha GC2 grand provided comparable performance, though its tone had a more pinched quality. The sustain was long, but softer and with less bloom, resulting in more effort needed to bring out inner voices. The sound had less color, was nasal in the low tenor (B2, C3), and was overall less interesting than that of the W. Hoffmann V183.
A 5′ 2″ Hoffmann T161 grand, priced $6,000 MSRP higher than the V183, impressed me with its long sustain, more pleasant overall tone quality, and fluid action. Its 9″-shorter length hurt its bass response and definition, but overall I liked this piano more than the V183. It’s also worth looking at the 5′ 10″ T177, which is only 2″ shorter than the V183 (and $12,000 MSRP more expensive).
For $8,099 MSRP more than the V183 you could buy a 5′ 8″ Yamaha C2X grand, which offers ebony sharps (a decided tactile improvement), an easy-to-control action, and the signature Yamaha sound. In the piano I played, the top bass notes sounded somewhat nasal and the sustain was medium overall, but the piano sounded well balanced and musical. This model could also be a less expensive alternative to the T186.
One last piano I played (but didn’t film) was a 6′ 1″ Yamaha C3X grand, which costs $5,099 MSRP more than the T186. Though of the same length, it’s interesting that it actually sounded somewhat softer overall than the T186. In some ways its tone was more nuanced, but to my ears and fingers the T186 sang better. The C3X’s bass was very clear and well defined, with only minor weakness on the top bass notes. Similar to most new C-series Yamaha grands, the action felt a tad spongy, probably due to tight balance holes in keys—the W. Hoffmanns fared better in this respect. The ebony sharps, however, give this Yamaha a clear tactile advantage. This is not a big point, but W. Hoffmann would do well to consider switching to ebony sharps in their Tradition grands.
All four midsize pianos by W. Hoffmann compete well in the medium-price market, providing qualities that some buyers will find superior to their Asian competitors. They are reliable alternatives, with tonal characteristics associated with European pianos. The verticals of the Vision and Tradition lines are closer together in performance and value than the grands, but their pricing is also closer. While the T186 is the winner among the pianos reviewed, the shorter Tradition grands outperform the V183, albeit at higher prices. If the control of repetition is not your primary concern, and especially if space is at a premium, C. Bechstein verticals are an appealing alternative to W. Hoffmann grands, providing greater tonal refinement, added sparkle, and more color.
Here are the prices of the pianos I played. The pianos in bold are the focus of this review. Unless indicated otherwise, the prices are for polished ebony (black) finish. Note that actual sale prices will vary from dealer to dealer, and are typically discounted from the MSRP.
Contur 116 Mahogany
Mario Igrec, RPT, MM, is Chief Piano Technician at the Juilliard School in New York City, where he is in charge of piano maintenance for over 260 pianos and all of the school’s performances in multiple venues. As an award-winning pianist with a Master of Music degree from Stony Brook University, Mario bridges piano technology and pianism, providing a unique perspective on pianos’ touch and tone. He is the author of Pianos Inside Out: A Comprehensive Guide to Piano Tuning, Repairing, and Rebuilding, “the most ambitious book on piano technology ever written” (Piano Technicians Journal), and is a frequent instructor at piano technicians’ meetings and conferences. For more, visit www.pianosinsideout.com.