Affordable Acoustic Pianos

May 31, 2013
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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.

 

Hands On

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

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 room.

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 everything.

 
 
 

Hardman

Hardman Upright PianoUntil 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.

 

Perzina

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

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.

Yamaha B1 Upright PianoTwo 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 beginner-friendly vibe.

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
 

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