By Dr. Owen Lovell, Piano Review Editor
For a generation of pianists, piano buyers, technicians, and retailers, the mid-level grand pianos made by Yamaha have achieved benchmark status among mass-produced instruments. These pianos have historically offered levels of quality, performance, and value that less well-established or cheaper brands have aspired to match, and are often purchased as less-expensive substitutes for instruments costing twice as much.
In the past two years, model lines have been revised: Yamaha’s C models have been replaced by the CX line. With the assistance of the company, I had a chance to do side-by-side comparisons between the new models and their immediate predecessors. How have their tone, touch, and/or appearance changed? Can the changes be described as evolutionary or revolutionary? My observations follow.
Yamaha C7X vs. C7
Released in 2012, Yamaha’s CX series of grand piano models replaces the established C series, formerly known as the Conservatory Collection. Over the past five decades, the C-series pianos have earned an almost legendary reputation for consistency, durability, and value, and can be found in frequent use in institutions, homes, and even concert halls. Like the C models, the CX instruments are made in Japan, and are priced and positioned between the lower-cost, basic GB and GC lines and the premium, hand-built CF series.
Refinements in the CX series include materials trickled down from Yamaha’s flagship CFX concert grand, an instrument that underwent nearly two decades of design and development before being launched in 2010. Throughout the CX series, hammer felt is identical in quality to that of the CFX, while the 6′ 1″ C3X and larger models also benefit from the same method of soundboard-bridge-rim assembly as the CFX. In its description of the new models, Yamaha also points to a strengthened back frame, changes in cabinet appearance, higher-quality music wire, and a slow-close fallboard and a lid-prop stopper. (Re: the last two features, the piano industry seems obsessed with finger-pinching accidents, which, in 33 years of playing, I’ve yet to experience.)
Yamaha provided both a C7X and a C7 from its concert reserve at Yamaha Artist Services in New York City, for a side-by-side comparison in the Piano Salon — a small, multipurpose performance space housing some dozen concert grands. Although the C7 was not new, it had been beautifully maintained (tuned, voiced, and regulated) by their concert technicians, and played as well as any C7 I’ve tried. Formidably long at 7′ 6″ (admittedly, larger than the instruments we typically review in Piano Buyer), the outgoing C7 model sees frequent use in recording studios, churches, and concert halls. I wanted to see — away from trade-show noise and sales hype — what Yamaha was really after with the new CX series: an evolutionary step, or a complete departure from the tonal characteristics, both positive and negative, that are attributed to the C series and to Yamaha pianos in general.
The exterior of the new CX models has many subtle design touches that modernize the grand piano’s traditional appearance. Particularly noteworthy are the piano’s arms, which have a more expressive, sculpted shape. The lyre on the new model has a clean, modern look, and the legs are straight, without a flare at the bottom. Also, the shape of the music desk has been simplified in an elegant way that matches the rest of the case.
A look under the lid of the C7X at the plate, strings, bridges, and tuning pins revealed no changes from the C7 obvious to the naked eye. From my seat at the keyboard, however, I could see that the pronounced curve at the front of the C-series sharp keys (something I found a little unusual on later C-series pianos) has given way in the CX models to the more typical slight taper, and I was told that the sharps were now made of real ebony. The white keys of both the new and old models are made of Yamaha’s synthetic Ivorite. This material is less slippery under the fingers than other plastics, and provides the more matte look of ivory keys.
While it had always been my experience that Yamaha pianos possessed a clean sound quality with a clear attack, the company appears to have been voicing its pianos less brightly in recent years, a point also made by Rhonda Ringering in her review of the 48″ U1 vertical (Piano Buyer, Spring 2013). That was certainly what I heard from the C7 at Yamaha Artist Services, which I played first. This piano had been voiced to have a surprisingly warm midsection tone. Although the attack sound was still clearly defined, this expertly voiced sample didn’t begin to sound edgy until I really pushed the volume to fortissimo, or attacked the keys rapidly with my fingers. Chick Corea’s delightful set of 20 Children’s Songs — pieces I occasionally program in solo recitals to clear the air between denser or longer works of the traditional classical literature — were a delight to play on the C7. Re-creating Corea’s senses of articulation, inflection, and atmosphere was effortless in Children’s Song No.4; and the piano’s low-bass section was chest-thumpingly visceral in No.12. The C7 also had a sustain long enough to play long phrases and slow tempi in the more contemplative Nos. 17 and 19, while the action was controllable enough to allow me to pull out inner voices from the texture whenever I wished. The characteristically clean sound quality was still present in sustained treble notes, though it’s worth noting that some pianists find this sound a bit sterile and lacking in complexity, one of the stereotypes of Yamaha pianos in general.
This brings us to the new Yamaha C7X, which I played next. Immediately noticeable was a less percussive attack sound at all dynamic levels. The combination of chords and melody in the opening themes of Schubert’s iconic Sonata in B-flat Major, D.960, had a lovely legato quality. Though both the old and new models had a decent amount of sustain, the C7X distinguished itself from the C7 in having what piano technicians often call “bloom”: after the key was struck, the tone ripened instead of simply dying away. This aspect of the C7X, and its more delicate attack sound, combined to make an instrument that seemed at once more colorful, more intimate, and better suited to the romantic repertoire than the typical C7. Chopin’s introspective Polonaise-Fantasie, Op.61, was a surprisingly rewarding experience on this instrument. That’s not to say that the mild-mannered C7X is incapable of a wide dynamic range — when pushed, it can create an interesting after-ring — but it differs from the C7 in that brightness and explosive dynamics aren’t the first things that come to mind when playing one.
Taking a moment to stretch my legs and walk around the facility, I met Yamaha’s chief concert technician, Hiro Mizutani, who invited me to try the flagship CFX 9′ concert grand on the stage. As this would be only my second experience of playing this model, I happily accepted his invitation and enjoyed the CFX’s marvelous evenness of tone. After a few minutes, I made a beeline back to the 7′ 6″ C7X. The more colorful sounds of these newer Yamaha models were surprisingly similar, especially considering that the CFX costs twice as much as the C7X; still, the C7X lacked the buttery-smooth perfection of the CFX’s ideally regulated action.
As my time in the Piano Salon drew to a close, I reflected in a more general way on the changes Yamaha has incorporated into its CX series. The C7X has acquired many of the positive attributes usually associated with more expensive American and European pianos. Elements of the tone have certainly undergone a transformation and matured, while the exterior design of the piano shows a subtle inventiveness. Instantly audible in a side-by-side comparison of the C7X with its predecessor model, these timbral changes could be considered a revolutionary departure from the brand’s historical norms.
Dr. Owen Lovell is an Assistant Professor of Piano at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire. He concertizes frequently as a soloist, chamber musician, and advocate of new music. For more information, visit his website at www.owenlovell.com.