Before You Buy...
Baby grand pianos are beautiful pieces of furniture. Most people only ever buy one piano in their lifetime, so it's important to do your research and really understand the differences. Your individual preferences and musical needs are ultimately, the most important questions to answer. However, once you've identified the goal for your piano, knowing the truth about various models can help you make accurate comparisons between different brands. Most people don't know what questions to ask and even what a baby grand piano should cost.
What's your goal?
That could be one of the most important questions to start with. Is the piano going to be mostly a piece of furniture in your home? Or do you have a piano student or serious player in the family who might take lessons? If lessons are in the future, you'll want an instrument that has growth potential as the students' expressive and technical skills advance. The quality of the materials and construction techniques used to construct the piano are one place to begin. Look for:
- Thick, butcher block maple and walnut inner rims. The denser materials reflect vibrations from the soundboard back into the piano, creating a more resonant and richer tone. You might not notice it right away, but as your musical ears develop, you'll appreciate the expressive characteristics of a higher quality piano.
- Hand-weighted action - Piano keys and the actions in most pianos are made of natural materials such as wood and felt. If the piano you're looking at doesn't have keys that were individually weighted to balance the action, it won't be as responsive and capable of efficient movement for an advancing player.
At first glance, many baby grands look alike. Shiny black with some brass accents and a beautiful curved rim. But take a closer look. Can you spot the differences? (click to enlarge)
Some are cosmetic. Others are not.
- Some pianos have a fixed position music desk. This means that rather than sliding back and forth to a comfortable distance for the individual player, you're stuck with what the manufacturer gives you.
- Thin outer rim. Take a quarter and lay it across the upper lip of the piano rim. A thicker rim is more stable when the piano is transported on its side and over the lifetime of the piano.
- Stretcher bar and lid reinforcement - Some pianos are built with thinner wood materials, resulting in a cheaper instrument at the expense of long-term stability.
- Tapered legs vs. brass ferrules. No performance benefits, but a cost saving measure.
- Brass hardware vs. Plastic hardware.
- Beveled lid. The craceful lines of the curved lid are accentuated by hand routering to soften the appearance on some pianos. On others, the manufacturers save a few dollars by simply finishing the straight edges.
What You Can't See
Shortcuts in the manufacturing process for the cosmetic components typically reflect a manufacturer's real intent for the product. By building to a price point rather than a quality point, it's easy to provide the low-cost option and take advantage of what consumers don't know. And these shortcuts are usually found deeper inside the piano where the manufacturers know you can't see. Here's what you should look for in a quality entry level piano:
- Front and rear duplex scale. Originally invented for the Steinway grand piano, this feature provides the overtones that create the clear, bell-like tone of the piano. A cheaper piano without the front and rear duplex lacks the fundamental qualities that are expected in a piano. As the pianist improves, he/she will notice they can't generate the same tone color and expression they can on their teachers' piano and other quality instruments.
- Tapered Soundboards. As vibrations move away from the bridge, the energy dissipates through the soundboard. A tapered soundboard gets narrower as you move away from the bridge, reducing resistance and enabling a more resonant and long-sounding sustain in the piano.
- Wide-Tail Design. The original "baby grand" was 6'2" for a reason. Smaller pianos are too small to really sing in the lower frequencies like their larger counterparts. By widening the tail of the piano, the manufacturer can fit a larger soundboard and longer strings in the instrument, simulating a larger piano in a smaller case. Just like a Tardis. Bigger on the inside.
- All-Wood Action. This is a point of contention among many piano enthusiasts, retailers, and online forum trolls. But just look at the concert series pianos built by EVERY piano builder in the world. That's right, the ones they point at to get you to buy a smaller instrument. They all feature an all-wood action for the most consistent, stable, and fastest repetitions.
The Difference in Price
- Many retailers point to their entry-level instrument and its lower price tag to convince the buyer that their instrument is a better value than a Steinway-designed piano. However, it's important to demand these key features if quality is important to you in the buying process. Make sure you're making an "apples to apples" comparison.
As the old saying goes, "Buy Nice or Buy Twice." You just don't have to confuse "nice" with "more expensive" if you know the truth.