Making the decision to buy a brand new piano can be, at the same time, the most exciting and most terrifying musical decision you ever make. Because of the significant financial investment involved and the semi-permanent nature of the purchase, it’s natural that you want to make sure you “get it right” the first time. Here are some questions, answers, and tips that I have learned in my time in the piano industry. NOTE: these are specifically geared towards buying a NEW piano. I’ll have a separate post about used pianos coming soon.
My number one tip: If at all possible, try before you buy. You should play the specific piano you are considering purchasing. Never make an order out of a catalog based on a store's floor model. Every piano is a little bit different, with a subtly different touch and tone, and you may love one copy of a model and dislike another copy.
The number one question I get asked:
What brand of piano should I buy?
This is a difficult question to answer, because there are so many variables involved.
-Certain brands have established a reputation over many years for consistent high-quality workmanship. Among common brands seen in America, Yamaha, Kawai, Steinway, Mason & Hamlin, and Charles Walter all have established reputations and proven track records, and will give you the peace of mind that your piano will be a well-functioning instrument for many years. Of course, if you have the money for a new Boesendorfer or Fazioli, you probably aren’t asking me which brand to get.
-A few other brands have recently come to the front offering well-playing, beautiful-sounding instruments at a reasonable price point. Chief among these, in my opinion, are Hailun and Weber pianos. They seem to be well made, play responsively, and have pleasant sound qualities.
-At lower price points, brand names are, to some extent, irrelevant. The quality of most Asian manufacturing companies has greatly increased in the last 10 years, to the point where most of the pianos at any given price point will be around the same quality. However, because some brands have higher quality control standards than others, you should always play the specific piano you are considering buying before you buy it.
-You generally do get what you pay for. A new Yamaha CX-series can be expected to be a fantastic instrument for 40+ years, and the attention to quality materials and expert workmanship is reflected in the price. As always, there are minor exceptions – with famous brands like Steinway, you are paying extra just because it has the famous name on the fallboard, just like how you have to pay extra for Nike shoes because they have the famous Swoosh on them.
Conclusion: The particular brand you buy is not as important as liking the piano before you buy it. Set your budget, do your research, and come up with what is most important to you in a piano.
What should I look for in a new piano?
Tone, Touch, Features, Finish
I wish I could come up with some witty alliterated series here, but this is, in order, how I evaluate every new piano. I’ll try to give facts first, followed by my personal opinion on each point.
If you don’t like how it sounds, you are going to hate playing it no matter how gorgeous it looks or how smooth the action feels. Every person has a different opinion on what constitutes the best sound in a piano, so I’ll stick with generalities:
-The classic American “low-tension” scale is rich in harmonics and warmth. Depending on your personal preference, you could perceive this as “mellow and warm” or “muddy and dull.” Steinway is the quintessential example of this sound. I personally find low-tension pianos to be the best pianos for the lush harmonies of Romantic and Impressionistic piano pieces, but too muddy for church use or Baroque/Classical piano. Mellow pianos are also potentially better in smaller rooms because the small space can amplify the piano to make it sound much bigger/louder than it would otherwise.
-High-tension scales were first introduced when American factories began to make smaller pianos, because the scale makes a louder, brighter sound in the same size case. Yamaha and most other Asian manufacturers use high-tension scales because of their clarity and ability to cut through other noise. This can be pushed too far, however. Some cheaply-made Asian pianos, especially from the 80s and 90s, are painfully bright. A well-produced high tension piano should sound “clear and bright”—although a fan of lower-tension sound might say it is “glassy and painful.” I personally find a well-made high tension piano to be the best for Classical era and church use. I am somewhat unique in my tastes for Baroque piano, as I prefer an extremely bright piano for Bach, because I feel it gets me closer to the sound of a harpsichord. But I wouldn't recommend that for general use.
-The size of a piano does have a major effect on its tone. The larger the piano, the less important scaling tension becomes. A 9-foot Yamaha and Steinway will sound much more similar to each other than a 44-inch console from those two brands would.
OVERALL, I feel that a moderately high-tension scale, such as those produced by Yamaha, Kawai, and Weber, is the most versatile. It has the clarity and power required to project into a large building, but the flexibility to still be able to play enjoyable Romantic music. Your decision here must be driven by what you plan to do with your instrument.
The touch of most new pianos should fall within standardized parameters, although there will be nuances in touchweight and dynamic response from piano to piano. In general, high-tension pianos require less work to produce the same amount of volume, tricking the brain into thinking they have a lighter touch. To offset this, low-tension pianos are often capable of playing at softer dynamics.
Even though the touch of a piano is set to standard specs before leaving the factory, two pianos of the same model can have drastically different touch feels by the time they get to your living room. The factory regulates a piano assuming that parts will shift a certain way during shipment. In a high quality store, a technician performs a final regulation on the piano as part of its preparation for sale. And this is why it is critically important to play a new piano before you buy it: I have seen two identical pianos come out of crates needing very different regulations to play well. And even once a piano is perfectly regulated, it can have subtle differences in touch when compared to its cousins. It’s impossible to predict how the touch will turn out before hand, so make sure you are happy with the touch when you purchase it!
Here is where some fun stuff can happen. Manufacturers have developed so many cool bells and whistles to put on their pianos!
-Do you have small kids? Are you afraid they’ll pinch their fingers in the key cover? They have slow-close hydraulic units to prevent fallboards from slamming shut.
-Do you use your computer for composition or recording a lot? Do you wish you could plug your piano into it? You can! Key scanning strips with USB and MIDI output are not difficult to install! You can buy a piano with a touch screen installed in it at the factory, even.
-Do you use your piano for part entertainment? Do you have trouble finding someone to come play it? Or do you have a piano that you want to keep but don’t know how to play? Install a player system! You can have a self-playing piano right in your own living room!
-There are so many other things – countertops that attach to the rim of the piano. See-through case pieces. Silent practice systems. If you can dream up putting it on a piano, odds are somebody is producing it!
-Black and Mahogany are the two finishes that are easiest to find right now. Pianos finished in traditional American woods like oak and maple are more difficult to get from Asian factories, but depending on if you have a strong brand preference, it can still be done.
-It is possible to order a piano with custom plate colors like silver or Rose Gold, or with custom pedal and hardware colors like chrome or nickel. However, these custom orders do often take longer to be delivered, and sometimes even have to be custom made for you at the factory.
-In my mind, the last consideration is what the case looks like. I want my instrument a certain way, and as long as it sounds and plays like I want it, the look is secondary. But there are people who need their piano to be a certain color. If that is you, no problem! Order the color you want!
To sum up, I'm going to reiterate what I said almost first thing: try before you buy. Because buying a new piano is such an important investment, you owe it to yourself to actually try out the piano that you want to purchase before you plunk down the money on it. If you can't try it, you need to either have a proxy that you trust try it for you, or a fantastic relationship with the dealer you are buying it from, with full confidence that he will stand behind his product.
And most importantly, once you have bought it, have it regularly maintained by a qualified piano technician!