If you’re in the market for a new piano and want to keep
your expenditure comfortably in the realm of four figures, you’re most
likely looking at uprights, also called vertical pianos. In addition to
the lower costs of overseas manufacturing, the piano industry has seen
dramatic improvements in build quality over the past 20 years. The used
market can offer great deals, but can be like the Wild West if you’re
new to piano shopping. The warranty and service that come with buying
new from a reputable dealer are made more appealing by the fact that
these days, you get more piano for your money than ever.
At this year’s Winter NAMM show, I checked out a number of
pianos priced under $10,000, with an emphasis at the $5,000 price point
or even less. As is common when auditioning any budget acoustic
instrument, what I able to played ranged from “pretty bad” to “amazing
for the price.” The pianos in this roundup represent the most memorable
of what I found there. The Yamaha pianos (click to page X of this article) were reviewed by Keyboard Editor Stephen Fortner.
From talking to the various manufacturer reps, it became
clear how important the preparation phase before delivery to the
customer is for both the playing condition of the instrument and how
that affects final pricing. As a matter of course, most high-end pianos
are prepared by the distributor to ensure consistent tone, feel, and
operation. However, not all budget pianos get this treatment before
delivery, as it usually affects the cost to the buyer.
The result is that overseas pianos prepped after
they arrive in the United States sound much better in the dealer’s
showroom, and that experience makes all the difference for a prospective
buyer testing budget-priced instruments. The improvement is not just
noticeable, but really a world of difference. This aspect muddies the
waters a bit for someone trying to make a buying decision, because a
really decent piano might not be presenting itself in a way that
reflects its true potential and value if it hasn’t been prepped.
So what can you do? Search out a piano that feels and
sounds good to you right now, and leave it at that. If a distributor or
showroom has gone to the trouble to prep their budget pianos upon
arrival, then that’s probably a good sign that they care about the
process and are more worthy of your business. It’s not your problem if a
sleeper piano is getting overlooked because it doesn’t sound good on
the showroom floor. Move on, because it’s too difficult to guess to what
degree tweaking and adjustment will improve a budget piano.
Baldwin pianos are now built in China, and Gibson has
owned the brand since 2001. The most affordable model, the BJ120 (so
named because it’s 120 centimeters tall), carries a manufacturer’s
suggested retail price of $7,985. However, we’re told it can be found
for much less at dealers. The piano I played had a gorgeous black gloss
finish that would look beautiful in either a modern or vintage decorated
The BJ-120 features Baldwin’s new “Stealth Action,”
designed to greatly minimize the mechanical noises typically found in
vertical pianos and available in many Baldwin uprights of 43", 45", or
48" heights. The action was firm and the tone slightly bright on the top
end. Although the bottom end of the unit I played was unfocused due to
some tuning issues, it sounded balanced for this instrument—as far as I
could tell in the noisy NAMM environment that drains the the bass out of
Until this last year pianos bearing the name of “Hardman,
Peck, & Co.” were built in China by Dongbei, an established
manufacturer. This past year, Hardman began manufacturing their pianos
through Beijing Hsinghai Piano Group. The vast majority of these pianos
found in the U.S. are branded as Hardman; however, if you come across a
Hsinghai, they’re virtually identical to the corresponding Hardman
models. I tried several Hardmans and one Hsinghai. I was told that the
ones I played would all sell under $5,000 street price.
By coincidence, the Hsinghai was my least favorite, with a
thin, nasal tone and spongy action. The 46" Hardman Chippendale fared
noticeably better in overall tone and playability, but didn’t cross a
threshold where I’d recommend it as a good investment. Surprisingly, the
44" Concert Console sounded best of all the Hardman uprights on the
floor. I suspect it had seen a little prep work, as the action,
response, and tuning were in good shape and the mechanical noises were
minimal. Slightly opening the lid on this piano really helped open up
the tone at the player position, but there was still an unnatural
midrange coupled with a dull top end and lackluster bottom.
The finishes were nice on all three, with mostly glossy
dark wood treatments. I liked the adjustable benches that were provided
for these pianos. Overall, I found the Hardman tone a bit lacking for
serious players and think these would be better suited for young
students practicing at home in a small room.
By far, the standout upright piano I played at NAMM was
the Perzina Vertical. According to the spec sheet I was given, the model
number was GP-129BBZ; however, the picture on the sheet and those I’ve
seen online don’t match up exactly with the floor model I played. Most
notably, the music desk design was quite different.
The Perzina is available in 48" and 52" models (I played
the larger), making it one of the largest new vertical pianos available.
Those extra inches really matter; the tone is generally big and rich on
the bottom and sparkly clear on the top. The midrange is even, for the
most part, with the weakest spot being the octave or so below middle C.
This piano sounds fantastic, and I would not hesitate to
have one in the studio. The floor model had the bottom panel removed,
which is one of two spots where I’d point a mic for recording—the other
being the back. Opening the lid further opened the tone, and even in as
unforgiving and noisy an environment as the NAMM show, it was easy to
tell that this piano was all about tone. One reason for this is a
signature Perzina feature, a soundboard that “floats” as opposed to
being glued in all the way around.
Although manufactured in China for labor cost reasons,
over 90 percent of Perzina components are European, as is the design.
This is really a case where the best of both worlds (European design
meets cheap labor) makes for a lot of piano in the hands of the buyer.
Although the on-paper price is upwards of $9,000, I was assured by the
rep that these pianos can be had for much less. According to that same
rep, all Perzina pianos get a round of preparation treatment once they
enter the U.S.
Yamaha acoustic pianos are known for their high build
quality and sonic consistency: Given baseline maintenance and tuning,
any specimen of a given model anywhere in the world is going to sound
and play like any other. You know what you’re getting—and in the case of
time-tested products like the C series grands and U series uprights,
what you’re getting is world class.
Two models I tried (first at NAMM, then more extensively
at Oakland, California’s Piedmont Piano Company) brought a lot of what
we like about Yamaha to far below our real-world ceiling price. The B1, a
new model introduced last September, is Yamaha’s most affordable
acoustic. At 43" high, it’s only about three inches taller (and a like
amount deeper) than Yamaha's NU1 digital "hybrid" piano. The crisp angles of its
cabinetry give it a decidedly modern look that’s still understated
enough to fit in with any décor.
The B1 gave a clean and clear presentation of tone across the keyboard, with a of “singing” sustain in the range around middle C
that I found surprising given the piano’s compact size. Yamaha tweaked
the individual key weights on the B1 to create an even response across
the keyboard—a curious sort of opposite of how digital pianos employ
graded actions. The action is on the light side overall, and the
response to varied playing dynamics was forgiving—almost as if there was
slight compression on the sound to ensure that if a beginner’s finger
comes down too softly or too hard on the next note, you’ll hear neither
unintentional silence nor a loud clunker.
As is the case with any piano this compact, the lowest
couple of octaves have enough bass for hearing the correct notes but not
necessarily for their full emotional impact to come across—an analogy
would be listening to music on a pair of audiophile bookshelf speakers,
but without a subwoofer. Moving over to the T118 model, a 47" tall
upright with a slightly larger footprint, I heard a lot more of the
fundamental frequencies in the bass notes, with sustain and fullness
around middle C benefitting from the larger soundboard. The T118
action is a bit heavier as well, in a way that many teachers might
consider more suitable for traditional practice. Still, something about
the B1 kept me coming back—call it an overall tonal cohesion and
Yamaha told me that the T118 will soon be replaced by two
taller B models, the B2 and B3—making clearance deals on a T118 more
likely. (Note that the B1’s concession to low cost and size is a
laminate soundboard; all other models mentioned here use spruce.) While
street prices of acoustic pianos are more dealer-driven and thus vary
more than synths and pro audio gear, our research says you should be
able to score a T118 under $5,000 and a B1 for less than
$4,000—including sales tax in both cases.
Grand Aspirations: Tips for Buying a Used Grand
You can find a diamond in the rough on the used market,
perhaps even getting a grand on an upright budget, but be forearmed with
some knowledge. Robert Friedman has been a professional trader
of used pianos (particularly Steinway) for over 40 years. His experience
has helped thousands of piano buyers make sound investments, and here’s
his sage advice. He can be reached at virtuosopiano.com.
- Steals and Deals: Mason & Hamlin, Yamaha, and
Baldwin. Their five- to six-foot grands can retail for up to $35,000,
yet if you shop around you can find older ones that are hardly played
for $5,000 or less.
- Tale of the Tuning: Insist on seeing a record of
the last tuning. If the piano is out of tune after a recent tuning, the
pinblock (which holds and stabilizes the tuning pegs) might be dried
out. On the other hand, it’s a good sign if it’s in tune but hasn’t been touched for two years or more.
- One Owner ≠ Better: Whoever
bought the piano new at retail suffered the most front-end
depreciation. In my experience, an original owner will most likely ask a
significantly higher price than a second or third owner.
- It’s the Miles, Not the Year: Ask the seller how
many people played the piano for how many hours per week. If it’s been
overused, moving parts may need replacement soon.
- Let It Be: Once you take the piano home, the wooden
parts (including the pinblock) will need at two weeks to acclimate to
temperature, humidity, and barometric differences from the previous
location. Only then should you spend money on tuning, regulation, or
other tweaking. Jon Regen