The Best Pianos in the World
The best pianos in the world are built in New York. Since 1853, Steinway and Sons has defined the modern piano and has been the standard of excellence for over 150 years. If you really want to know who makes the best pianos, start by looking at what pianos the best pianists play.
About Artist Endorsement
Ninety-Eight percent of all concert artists exclusively perform on Steinway Pianos. This is significant because Steinway does not pay endorsement fees. Furthermore, every Steinway artist has purchased his or her own Steinway long before being chartered as a "Steinway Artist." If an artist is endorsing a piano other than Steinway, he or she is probably being compensated to do so.*
* Yamaha Corporation of America has advised me that they do not pay endorsement fees to artists, however, very few of their artists are established classical pianists. Many are pop and jazz performers like Britney Spears and Elton John.
The Second Tier of Piano Builders
Several adequate pianos are built in Germany and Austria. They are Bechstein, Grotrian, Forster, Bluthner, Fazioli (Italy) and Bosendorfer*. Fazioli and Bosendorfer however, are distinguished only by their high price and perceived obscurity and are not taken seriously among artists, concert halls or music schools. The others are slightly more or less expensive than Steinway depending on the relative value of the Euro currency valuation and are almost always sold at huge discounts. They are generally found in larger cities where there is a dealer interested in quality pianos, but who is unable to obtain a Steinway dealership. The main disadvantages to these pianos are their lack of dynamic range and stability and their poor investment value. The single reason most often stated by artists for their preference of Steinway pianos is dynamic range, the ability of one to express oneself with the instrument. Very few artists perform on these other pianos unless they are being compensated to do so.
Because most buyers of used pianos are unfamiliar with obscure brand names, other brands can be difficult to sell in the secondary market. Steinway Sound Investment. According to government import data reported in major trade publications, these brands export less than 200 grand pianos to the United States annually. This compares with about 3,000 Steinway Grands purchased each year in the US.
The Third Tier (Most of the Pianos)
The vast majority of pianos are manufactured in China and Indonesia by Pearl River, Yamaha, SMC, and Kawai. A few are still manufactured in Korea and Japan. These are generally medium-to higher-quality pianos. The best of these pianos are the Boston and Essex pianos designed by Steinway and manufactured to their strict specifications overseas. Story and Clark has very good pianos built in China by Heintzmann.
Boston and Essex pianos incorporate design features previously available only from Steinway, like the diaphragmatic soundboard which is thicker in the center and tapered to the edges and maple rims. (Most Asian pianos use vastly inferior mahogany rims.) The least attractive pianos of this group are instruments manufactured by foreign companies in their Chinese, East European and Indonesian factories. These pianos are built to a significantly lower standard of quality than pianos built in their home country. Simply stated, if you're buying a German, Japanese, or Korean brand, make sure you get one that is actually manufactured in Germany, Japan or Korea.
Made in the U.S.A.
Piano manufacturing is a noble effort, but many countries just don't have an economic advantage or sufficient domestic market to compete globally. The United States is a perfect example. Our domestic piano industry, except for Steinway has practically vanished. A few boutique builders still exist, but rely on other suppliers for critical parts and processes. Today, no one is able to produce low or mid priced pianos here and compete in the world economy. On the other hand, Steinway is the most successful piano company in the world and both of the large player piano system manufacturers are American. Like other countries and industries, we have found our niches.
The History of Private Label Pianos
The practice of putting a 'private' label on a piano started in the early 1900's in America. As more than 2,500 American piano builders failed around the time of the great depression, their once prestigious brand names became available, sometimes as the only remaining asset when a company was liquidated. After WW II, many companies who both built and sold pianos, like
Grinnell in Michigan, Steinerts in Boston, Lyon & Healey in Chicago and Sherman Clay on the west coast, decided to specialize in retailing and eventually contracted with the larger surviving manufacturers, like Kimball, Baldwin or Aeolian, to build their pianos for them. Many of these were fine pianos.
The biggest collector of brand names was the Aeolian company. Aeolian had been the primary supplier of the player piano systems that piano builders could install into their instruments. With the invention of the modern radio in 1925, the great depression in 1929, the presence of millions of late model used pianos and changing consumer tastes, cash rich Aeolian found their customers, the piano builders, going out of business en mass. Often Aeolian was a receiver in bankruptcy court. As a result, by the end of WW II, Aeolian owned Mason & Hamlin, Chickering, Knabe, Winter, Weber, Steck and many other names. In their attempt to become the 'General Motors' of the piano business they built thousands of 'low end', budget pianos in their then new factory in Memphis, TN. They could give each dealer in town a different brand name piano with only slight cosmetic differences. Their focus on low quality and the advent of Japanese and Korean competition foiled their plan and they too passed into oblivion in 1980. Consequently, all those famous old names passed to new owners, sometimes dealers, sometimes middlemen, sometimes off shore manufacturers. (Of interest is the recent attempt of SMC to repeat the Aeolian model. They have acquired about a dozen brand names "Knabe, Sohmer, Kohler & Campbell, Beckstein, Pramberger, Conover Cable and others). They have opened an assembly facility near Nashville, TN.
As the supply of pianos dramatically increased in the 1980's and 90's, some desperate manufacturers offered private label pianos to dealers who would buy as few as 6 pianos. Many dealers just made up fictitious, usually German sounding names. The advent of internet sellers exacerbated the trend. Today there are hundreds of piano brand names, but 95% of all the pianos in the world are built in about 20 factories. Major companies like Steinway, Yamaha and Kawai and the small boutique factories like Mason & Hamlin and Walter don't make private label pianos. Therefore, hundreds of private label brands are all being made by a very small number of factories, and certainly not the best factories.
Today China is the leading, and for all practical purposes, the only supplier of private label pianos. A 'private label' piano is specifically designed to provide the dealer with a brand name that cannot be compared competitively and to conceal the identity of the factory. There is no benefit to the consumer in either of these motivations.
How Can You Recognize a Private Label Piano?
The easiest way to identify a private label brand is to do a Google search on the name. If you find only one or two dealers it is definitely a 'private label'. Sometimes, a few dealers in distant markets will share a brand name. The first sign, and a surefire giveaway, is that the brand name is not cast into the plate. Sometimes a plastic pattern of the brand name is glued to the plate before painting. A close look will reveal that the letters have too fine an edge to have been cast in a mold. Every piano manufacturer casts the name of their brand on pianos they are proud to sell. You can also check the Pierce Piano Atlas. If the name is not recorded, or if the company went out of business 50 years ago, it is a 'Private Label' piano. A fancy decal with a German sounding name on the fallboard does not make a piano better. It just makes it easier to sell.
Some factories will even sell 'Blanks', pianos with no identification; if a dealer is not prepared to commit to a full container. These dealers create their own decals for the fallboard or purchase decals from others. As you can see, anyone can put any name on any piano for about $8.00. This is not illegal or immoral. It is just deceptive.
So, why not buy a private label piano if the price is low enough?
These are not the best pianos, or even the second best pianos coming out of that factory. The factory offers no warranty and sometimes won't even acknowledge manufacture. Finding parts for the piano in a generation will be a difficult task, as it is today for 'Private Label' pianos of previous generations. Furthermore, the dealers selling these pianos may not be around to service them, or even answer questions, about them in later years.
Usually 'Private Label' pianos are offered by medium sized dealers who can't obtain a major line, or internet sellers branding a low end import. The math and logistics just don't work. It just can't be a good piano or a good value. These sellers don't have enough clout or volume to deal with the best factories and don't have any recourse if there is a problem. If you are considering one of these pianos, find out which factory manufactures it and ask a lot of questions. Like for instance, who will actually honor the warranty.
If price (as opposed to value) is the most important consideration in your selection, and you have decided to purchase a private label piano, we recommend Costco. Costco's private label brand is as good as anyone else's and you will have the peace of mind of knowing that you can return the piano to Costco if you are unhappy.
Gray Market Pianos
The worst piano you can buy is a 'gray market' piano. In 2005 one in five pianos shipped to the U.S. from Japan was a used piano. By 2009 it was one in three. Mostly, they are 20 or 30 year old Yamaha U,G and C models, Kawai KG, and a few Young Chang, Atlas and Diapason models. They are almost all black many have only 2 pedals. Sellers will try to pass them off as ordinary used pianos. Almost all the used Yamaha and Kawai pianos you find on the internet are gray market. Sellers often have a great story about how these pianos are restored. The truth is these are worn out, used pianos, mostly from educational institutions in Japan.
A quick, "gray market piano" search on Google will reveal a plethora of information, but it is easy to become confused. There is a great deal of focus on the debate over whether or not such pianos are seasoned for the U.S. climate. Yamaha says their pianos are built appropriately for any climate, and we believe them. However, this debate skirts the real issue. Climatically appropriate or not, these pianos are worn out beyond their useful lives. Otherwise, they would not be shipped thousands of miles and dumped in North America.
Ironically, the greatest critic of gray market pianos is Yamaha America Corp., which will tell you if a piano is gray market. They disavow all responsibility for these pianos. There are a few sellers who say they rebuild the better grands like C-3's and C-7's, but it is really not economically viable.
Steinway Piano Gallery does not sell gray market pianos and we won't take them on trade.
Used Pianos: How to Find a Nice Used Piano
The first thing you need when shopping for a used piano is information. Buying a used piano is much scarier than buying a used car. We all know a little bit about cars or we know someone who does. Pianos are much more problematic. The names are unfamiliar and the problems are invisible. Most people selling their used piano haven't played it for years and really don't know much about it. Only an expert can tell you if it will hold a tuning. This section will give you a general overview. Several good books on the subject are available. See the Book Self.
The best used pianos are pianos that have been in use and have been maintained by a competent piano technician. Often they have been traded in for new, better pianos. The best place to start looking for a nice used piano is at your local Steinway piano dealer because almost no one buys a Steinway for his or her first piano. Therefore, Steinway dealers often have recent trade-ins and they often have excellent service departments to prepare and certify their used pianos.
The next best place to look is in the classified section of your local newspaper or Craig's List. However, you should expect to find pianos that have not been used for some time. Generally, people will keep a piano for many years after the last child has moved out. Consequently they stop tuning the piano for years before they sell it. You should expect to pay less for these pianos than fully restored pianos from a dealer. Since only a qualified expert can tell you if a used piano is capable of holding a tuning, and therefore has any value at all, you should always have a piano tuner inspect and test the piano BEFORE you agree to purchase the piano and pay to have it moved. Because of the way weight is distributed in a piano and the special equipment required, it is extremely dangerous to attempt to move a piano yourself. In most cases, renting a good piano is less expensive than purchasing a used piano if the purpose is to provide an appropriate instrument for a student.
Rebuilt, Refinished, Restored
No words are more loosely used in the realm of used pianos than rebuilt, refinished and restored. These terms mean different things to different people. Simply stated, 'restored' means that the piano was not rebuilt, regulated, voiced or refinished. Usually, it just means the piano was polished and vacuumed.
Rebuilt should mean that the belly, action and trap work are rebuilt with new parts to like new condition. We charge approximately $21,000 to fully rebuild and refinish a piano. Since it cost just as much to rebuild a Steinway as (see Rebuilt and Refinished) it does to rebuild a lesser piano, most of the work we do is on Steinways. If someone is presenting a piano as rebuilt and refinished, and the price is less than $25,000, something is wrong.
There is no practical way to rebuild uprights and sell them at a profit, so if someone is presenting an upright as being rebuilt, something is wrong. Refinishing requires the removal of the old finish, several steps of preparation of the wood and application of a new finish. Most good shops charge about $7,500 to do this properly and require at least 3 months. If you have a refinishing quote or $4,500, steps are going to be skipped and materials are going to be compromised.
You should be able to find a nice used piano that does not require refinishing or rebuilding. If a piano is 30 or 40 years old it is going to need a lot of work, notwithstanding its use or maintenance. If it is an upright or an Asian grand it is probably not going to be worth investing in when you consider the cost of moderately priced new pianos. If it is a Steinway, make sure you independently verify that work was done right, or discount the price sufficiently to cover your refinishing or rebuilding costs. Over a third of the pianos we refinish and rebuild have previously been improperly refinished and rebuilt.
eBay and Other Used Piano Sellers
In the August 2005 issue of the trade magazine Musical Merchandise Review, Bob Hebeler, eBay Vice President of Seller Development, was interviewed about musical instrument sales on eBay. Among other outrageous things he said was the following quote, "a piano is sold every 3 minutes on eBay" This is an astounding claim. Let's take a close look at the numbers.
Ebay is a 24/7 enterprise; so one piano every 3 minutes equals 3,360 pianos a week, 174,720 pianos a year. This is amazing when you consider that all 7,500 music stores in America, with their delivery trucks and piano tuners, sold and delivered only 95,000 new pianos and about 30,000 used pianos in 2004. By 2009 these numbers were reduced by about 50% See Statistics,
Where do the pianos come from? Where do they go?
Keyboard Carriage Corp. and Walter Transportation deliver almost all the new pianos to dealers. For the most part, they are the only practical and economical way to get a piano moved across the state or country. They only serve piano dealers and manufactures. They do not have the ability to deliver to homes, so a dealer must handle the piano on both ends of the transaction. There are also a few small door-to-door movers who have a combined capacity of less than 1000 pianos per year. Either way, it costs $1,500 to $2,000 to move a piano long distance if you're not crossing the Rockies. Keyboard Carriage would have had to triple their capacity to accommodate all these moves.
When these ficticious eBay pianos found their new homes, they would need to be tuned. 174,000 additional used pianos to be tuned would overwhelm our nation's piano tuners.
When people buy used pianos they inevitably end up using local dealers, movers and tuners. Any dealer who has a nice used piano can find plenty of local buyers. Therefore, except in rare cases, most used piano transactions are local.
Because of the significant logistical issues, it is unlikely that eBay or other internet sellers are delivering many pianos outside their hometowns. If we cannot rely on their outrageous claims, suspicion is in order. If you do purchase a piano online, in all likelihood, it will either be a gray market or private label piano. In both cases, you could probably buy it for less locally. Because 'condition' is the most important single aspect of a used piano, it is dangerous to purchase a piano you have not actually played and had inspected by an independent expert you trust. We don't market pianos on line. We have a term for people who purchase pianos they have not seen; Fool.
New York vs. Hamburg Steinways
Steinway also builds about 400 pianos a year in Hamburg Germany for the European Market. Because these pianos are rare in the US, they have developed a mystique. Some insist that the Hamburg Steinways are superior, but those familiar with both pianos find that they are only slightly different. All of the scale designs and specifications are identical. (Except that the model 'C', long ago discontinued in the US, is still built in Hamburg). The primary difference between New York and Hamburg pianos is the hammers. Hamburg Steinway uses 'steam pressed' hammers. This gives the piano the slightly darker sound popular with Europeans. Hamburg Steinways aren't better; they're just slightly different.
Hamburg Steinway Pianos are available from the Steinway Piano Gallery and from every other Steinway dealer as well. The price is adjusted for additional transportation costs and currency valuation differential. We have accommodated several of our European clients by installing Hamburg hammers in their pianos, achieving the Hamburg sound without the inconvenience and expense of importing a piano.
Steinway Hall keeps several Hamburg grands in their New York concert rental fleet. They are occasionally used by European artists performing here and are rarely selected by anyone else. There is a story that pianist Keith Jarrett, who owns both a New York Steinway and a Hamburg Steinway, says loves them both. I did some research and confirmed that he does own a Hamburg 'C' and a New York 'B' and does indeed love them both.
While German pianos are generally considered to be better than Japanese pianos, and Japanese pianos are generally considered to be slightly better than Korean pianos, and Korean manufacturers claim to build slightly better pianos than the Chinese, none of this is necessarily true. Economic racial biases exist, but like most biases, they are not based on facts. You have to look at specific models, features, and specifications to determine how well the piano is built and from what materials it is made. You need to listen to the sound, touch the keys and look at the fit and finish.
For example, while they build many fine pianos, less expensive Yamaha or Kawai Piano lines (models with the GB, GC, GM or GE in their prefix) are actually inferior to the best Chinese models costing thousands of dollars less. Console and School Studio pianos manufactured in Indonesian facilities, owned by the Asian manufacturers, are noticeably inferior to their best pianos manufactured in their home countries.
This is the confusing part. Most of us want simple answers to our questions. We want to assure that this company's products are better than that company's products relative to price. The truth is, they all overlap. Big companies have product lines so diverse, and they build pianos in so many places, that the wise consumer must look past the label. The Yamaha and Kawai web pages each show 4 or 5 distinct quality categories of grand pianos just for distribution in the US market. They have sound commercial reasons for product segmentation, but it can be very confusing for consumers. Steinway however, has only one standard; excellence. Steinway pianos vary in size and style, but they do not vary in quality.
Dynamics, the heart and soul of the piano
Japanese and Korean pianos generally are louder (some say brighter) than premium German or American pianos. Actually they aren't really louder, though this is what the unsophisticated player experiences. They are really just less dynamic, which means there is less difference between the softest and loudest performance level at which they can be played. There is less range of expression. If you lightly touch one of the keys on these pianos you will get a louder sound than if you lightly touch a Steinway key. A Steinway will ultimately play as loud or louder, but it will take more effort, thus allowing more range of expression and interpretation.
Many amateurs like the instant gratification of a loud piano. Most artists don't. The word 'piano' literally translates from the original Italian as 'softly'. Originally, pianos were called 'Forte-pianos', or 'loudly softly'. Dynamics are at the heart and soul of piano repertoire. Ironically, most pianists who have studied on lesser instruments find their first experience on a Steinway disconcerting. However, once they embrace the greater dynamic range of the Steinway, they rarely ever want to play anything else. For this reason, you can visit any Steinway dealer and find Baldwin, Yamaha and Kawai trade-ins, but you almost never find a trade-in Steinway at a second tier piano dealer.
Many rock, jazz and country performers prefer loud pianos, although some of the very best artists in these genre, like Billy Joel, Billy Taylor, Chick Corea, Bruce Hornsby, Nora Jones and Diana Krall, play only Steinway Pianos.
Why are some pianos less dynamic than others?
Piano design and construction is very complex involving more than 10,000 parts and hundreds of different materials. Simply stated, a the typical Asian design, incorporating 'high tension' scale over a 'vacuum-process' plate inside a mahogany rim, is going to result in a less dynamic piano than the traditional Steinway design incorporating a low-tension scale and a 'sand cast' plate inside a maple rim. But, it takes more time and costs more money to build a piano with a low tension scale. If you study their specifications you will discover that some manufacturers who promote the benefits of vacuum process plates for their production pianos actually do not use vacuum process plates in their concert pianos, the very piano on which they get their endorsements.
The exceptions are Boston and Essex which are designed by Steinway. While these pianos are manufactured in the best Asian factories, they use low tension scales, diaphragmatic style soundboards, maple rims and many other Steinway design and material specifications. These pianos have significantly better dynamic response than other pianos in their price class. Boston Pianos are the overwhelming choice of Universities, Conservatories, and Music Schools.
Where do pianos come from and where do they go?
Sadly, with the exception of Steinway, no one has been able to figure out how to profitably manufacture pianos in the U.S. The following chart shows how Americans favor imports, and how the rest of the world has little interest in American pianos, except Steinway. (Source: NAMM MUSICUSA 2006 Statistical Review of the Music Industry).(Import/export numbers are specific from government sources. Sales numbers are estimates from industry trade magazines and the numbers have significantly declined since 2006)
In 2006, the United States imported 6,823 upright pianos and 16,036 grand pianos. Almost all of the imports were manufactured by the Big 4 Asian companies. Further analysis shows that China is by far the largest exporter, and with Indonesia, has almost completely displaced Korea as an exporter of pianos. Grand Piano shipments to the U.S. from Japan are now almost exclusively player pianos and used gray market pianos. All of the European manufacturers combined account for only a few hundred grands and almost no uprights.
In contrast, we exported only 1,186 grand pianos (mostly Steinways) and only 1,437 upright pianos. Many of the exported uprights were pianos manufactured by two Asian companies in factories they operate in the United States (since closed). Canada was the largest importer of American upright pianos.
In conclusion, almost all of the Grand pianos built in the USA, that are sold in the USA, and virtually all of the Grand pianos exported from the USA are Steinways. The other American manufactures combined, account for only a few hundred grand pianos.
Where is the piano really made? (And how important is where it's made?)
No subject is more topical than where a piano is manufactured. Unfortunately, you cannot assume a piano is made in the home country of its brand name. American icon Steinway also builds pianos in Germany. German companies build pianos in Poland and Korea. Korean companies build pianos in China and Indonesia. And Japanese companies build pianos everywhere.
There are many reasons for a manufacturer to move off-shore. Labor cost is the first thing to come to mind, but that is overly simplistic. There is always some other country with lower labor costs. As a broad generalization, it's fair to say that piano building, over the last 200 years, has migrated from Europe, to America, to Japan, to Korea, to China and most recently to Indonesia.
In none of these cases was the cost of labor the reason for the shift. In each case, a growing middle class population established a demand for pianos. Importing pianos was either too expensive or politically untenable. In each case an export market evolved from the domestic industry because the developing countries had either a labor cost or currency exchange advantage. The process usually takes about a generation.
Ultimately, developing countries loose their economic advantage and become importers, as is the case in Japan and Korea today. 100% of the increase in the cost of Japanese pianos over the last 25 years can be attributed to the change in currency exchange rates. Consequently, Japan has become a much smaller exporter and actually imports pianos from China and quite a few Steinway & Sons pianos from the U.S. A majority of the Yamaha, Samick, and Kawai pianos sold in the U.S. are built in Indonesia.
Indonesia is unusual because there is not really a domestic market. Pianos and guitars are being manufactured strictly for export. Rather than the evolution of a local piano industry, which is a dynamic and productive process, individual Japanese and Korean companies have constructed factories that are geographically isolated from each other for the exclusive purpose of manufacturing low cost exports. There has never been a piano industry model like this before. This may be very beneficial to the companies because, in a factory town, there is little opportunity for liquidity of the labor market or potential for unionization.
So far, Indonesia has been able to consistently produce pianos of modest quality at very low cost. Unfortunately, the savings are not passed on to consumers. Japanese manufacturers have shifted production of many models to Indonesia with only a slight modification of the model identifier and no change in the price. This as been very profitable for the companies, but of questionable value to consumers who assumes they are buying a medium quality Japanese piano.
No one has attempted to build a high quality piano in Indonesia. Because manufactures market these pianos exclusively with their own brand names, they are able to charge a relatively high price for a piano of moderate quality. These pianos are certainly a better value than a private label or gray market piano, but they are not outstanding musical instruments. They do have the warranty and technical support of a major company. The only problem is that it is a relatively expensive way to get a pretty ordinary piano. The consumer pays a big premium, two or three thousand dollars, for the brand name and support.
Conclusion: If you want to know where a particular piano is made, you have to ask a specific question of a knowledgeable source. In some cases you can get specifications from the web page of the manufacturer with country of origin information.
How important is where the piano is made?
Not as important as you think. Every country that has the ability to make a great piano has the ability to make a poor piano and usually does. The manufacturing process encourages this because when piano builders are processing and fabricating the wood component from whole logs, they get a wide variety of quality. The same log that produces a small amount of high grade, close grain, spruce for soundboards also generates a lot of material only suitable for pulp to make newsprint. Also, wherever you build a piano, you are going to have to import many of the materials and parts.
A major Japanese piano manufacturer, with factories all over the world ran an advertisement in Trade Magazines encouraging dealers not to worry about the "country of origin" rather consider the "company of origin." This was very clever, but when it became apparent that it was an excellent argument in favor of Steinway's Boston and Essex brands, they discontinued the ad campaign.
Developing countries almost always manufacture private label pianos until they achieve sufficient market share to devote all their production to their own brand. By building pianos with someone else's name on them, evolving manufacturers can use more of their lower quality materials and run their factories at full capacity and more efficiently. Middlemen or domestic companies who can no longer efficiently manufacture pianos then sell these pianos in markets like the US and Western Europe. Everyone wins except the unsuspecting consumer who gets a relatively low quality piano, but with a vaguely familiar brand name and a relatively high price.
In conclusion, it is not reasonable to assume the quality of a piano based on the home country of the brand name. In fact, it is usually a mistake. A buyer could pay a premium for the brand name on a private label piano that is not necessarily reflected in the quality of the piano. Rather than ask what country the piano is built in, ask, "Is this piano the best piano that comes out of that particular factory?"
It is more important to look at the materials and specifications of a piano than to look at the 'Made in ' label. It is more important to touch the keys, listen to the sound, and inspect the fit and finish, than to allow some salesman to engage you in economic racism.