How do I assess instrument quality?

Posted by: Matt M

How do I assess instrument quality? - 09/14/10 08:22 AM

So here's another question from a newcomer to piano playing and piano buying prompted by the insightful and thought provoking comments of a member here.

I've been looking at pianos in the $8-10K price range. At that point I am considering good uprights, smaller grands, and used instruments. My question may apply to all of these but is directed more at the latter two categories where quality might vary more.

Being an instrument, I agree that the first requirements are in tone and touch. Does it sound and feel good? Does it convey or even elicit the musical ideas of the player? Let's say the answer to both of these is "yes."

Now what? How do I know the instrument will continue to do so for years to come and, if maintained well, stand the test of time?

Here are some things I'm wondering:

1) How indicative are a good touch and tone of a piano that is otherwise constructed well?

2) Are cabinet details like a slow close fallboard, sturdy legs and lyre, or thick lid prop demonstrative of a quality piano that should maintain it's tone and blossom over time?

3) Is the reverse true? That is, if a piano locks such attention to detail, will it likely encounter more problems even in other areas and degrade in tone or action?

4) Do such identifiable qualities exist? Upon inspection of a new piano, could a piano buyer or tech say with reasonable confidence that it will last?

5) How much weight is placed on brand and country of origin? What do you do if there is little track record?

6) Are there any details on the spec sheet that should indicate quality? How do you weigh the materials as compared to design and construction methods? (from the extensive thread on rim construction and laminated soundboards: http://www.pianoworld.com/forum/ubbthreads.php/topics/1479194/1.html )

I'm curious how others have approached this and what you recommend.
Posted by: BDB

Re: How do I assess instrument quality? - 09/14/10 11:42 AM

There are very few new pianos available now which are poor quality. They might be in some stores as loss leaders designed to get you into the store, but these days few stores can afford to do that.

If you want to buy a piano that will last you a long time, your best bet may be to shop for a good piano technician to advise you. That person is the one who will insure that your piano will be pleasing for the longest time.
Posted by: elecmuse3

Re: How do I assess instrument quality? - 09/14/10 12:04 PM

At this level, you might well benefit from the used market, and be advised to research/ask friends about piano technicians to travel with you to check out your candidates for purchase.
Used will buy you lots more piano for the money. You might find some for, say, $7,500 which need $500 or $1,000 in work that the seller couldn't afford, and the piano would then be in great shape for decades. You might find one for $9,000 that has had work in the last 10 years but the owner is downsizing into a condo. The possibilities, especially if you're willing to travel a few hundred miles, are almost endless.
Good luck and have enjoyment!
Posted by: kpembrook

Re: How do I assess instrument quality? - 09/14/10 12:06 PM

One very broad but quite accurate indicator of piano quality/value is content -- as measured by weight.

It's really very simple -- material costs money and manufacturers won't spend the money for the material in a lower quality instrument that can't justify its price in the market. Conceivably, better pianos will require greater investment in design and they won't pay for as much design effort on a cheap piano, either.

Weight is also directly related to size and it always helps to have the laws of physics on your side. Again, this is painting with a broad brush, but a 7' piano of any brand is likely to be better than a 4'7" piano of any other brand -- and certainly better than upright models.

Under no circumstances should you pay attention to the special names for given engineering features or treatments like "Synchrotone Bass Strings" or "Thermoneal Stabilisor Treatments" or "Tension Resonators" or "Accelerated Action" or any of the rest. Quality is not dependent on individual engineering solutions but rather on the totality of how all the solutions are wedded together into a unified performing instrument. This is not to say that a given feature may have its merits but rather that the presence or absence of any given feature does not establish a quality piano.

Another thing you'll find is that there is considerable parallel between quality and price -- particularly within given families or classes of piano.

However, rather than looking for the magic principle that will spare a person the effort of thinking, the best thing to do is simply to expend the effort to become educated about what pianos are, what they can do and what prices are by just going out and playing a lot of new and used pianos. Eventually, you'll trust your own ears and fingers.

For help in selection, you might engage a qualified technician to examine the internal workings and structural condition. I wouldn't bring along another musician or teacher because you are getting the piano for yourself, not them, and they tend to be a good source for misinformed lore. A technician can also help you sort out whether a particular negative feature (slow action, for example) is intrinsic to the piano or can be corrected and if so, whether for major or minor expense.

Good luck in your search!
Posted by: Steve Jackson

Re: How do I assess instrument quality? - 09/14/10 12:09 PM

Originally Posted By: Matt M



1) How indicative are a good touch and tone of a piano that is otherwise constructed well?

2) Are cabinet details like a slow close fallboard, sturdy legs and lyre, or thick lid prop demonstrative of a quality piano that should maintain it's tone and blossom over time?

3) Is the reverse true? That is, if a piano locks such attention to detail, will it likely encounter more problems even in other areas and degrade in tone or action?

4) Do such identifiable qualities exist? Upon inspection of a new piano, could a piano buyer or tech say with reasonable confidence that it will last?

5) How much weight is placed on brand and country of origin? What do you do if there is little track record?

6) Are there any details on the spec sheet that should indicate quality? How do you weigh the materials as compared to design and construction methods? (from the extensive thread on rim construction and laminated soundboards: http://www.pianoworld.com/forum/ubbthreads.php/topics/1479194/1.html )

I'm curious how others have approached this and what you recommend.


1:) I don't understand your question

2:) No. Slow close etc. are marketing features found on entry level pianos. They indicate nothing of the piano, nor do the other things you mention

3:) No

4:) No

5:) Brand is important. Country of origin may or may not mean anything in your price range.

6:) The longer the 'spec' sheet, and the more often it says "German", usually the cheaper the piano.

As BDB says, you need an advisor, and you also need to look and try a lot of pianos.

Take care

Stev
Posted by: Silverwood Pianos

Re: How do I assess instrument quality? - 09/14/10 12:15 PM


This is the incorrect question to ask.

The person who assesses/investigates the quality of an instrument is the person with years of experience in the piano trade you hire to do the assessment for you.
The correct question is;

How do I asses the quality of the technician I hire to appraise the instrument I am interested in?

And this question has also been answered in a previous posting:

Originally Posted By: BDB

If you want to buy a piano that will last you a long time, your best bet may be to shop for a good piano technician to advise you. That person is the one who will insure that your piano will be pleasing for the longest time.
Posted by: Del

Re: How do I assess instrument quality? - 09/14/10 04:42 PM

Originally Posted By: kpembrook
One very broad but quite accurate indicator of piano quality/value is content -- as measured by weight.

It's really very simple -- material costs money and manufacturers won't spend the money for the material in a lower quality instrument that can't justify its price in the market. Conceivably, better pianos will require greater investment in design and they won't pay for as much design effort on a cheap piano, either.

Weight is also directly related to size and it always helps to have the laws of physics on your side. Again, this is painting with a broad brush, but a 7' piano of any brand is likely to be better than a 4'7" piano of any other brand -- and certainly better than upright models.

I think a good argument could be made that the opposite is true.

For example, most folks would probably prefer a piano with a lid they can actually lift without asking Arnold Schwarzenegger for assistance. A lid built cheaply and simply out of MDF does give a flat surface on which to build a nice, thick “mirror-like” polyester finish but it will be heavy and will sag over time if left in the up position. Just because that lid is heavy does not mean it is a high-quality component. A well-engineered lid—such as those often seen a century or so back—could weigh half as much and remain straight and true even if left in the up position for long periods of time.

The soft-fall mechanism has now become an essential sales feature primarily because the key covers are now universally made of thick, massive, MDF. The modern keycover is so bloody heavy that dropping one on one’s hand may well break a finger or two. So, does the presence of the soft-fall mechanism really represent high quality? Or is it an indicator that the keycover is of such low-quality that this mechanism is necessary to compensate?

Another example is the frame (or plate) of the so-called “modern” piano. Even a poorly designed and engineered frame can be made stable and acoustically acceptable if enough iron is thrown at it. It takes both better design and better engineering to achieve good stability and acoustic performance using, say, one-third less iron. So, is the massive frame, with its thick cross-sections really an indicator or quality? Or is it a sign of poor design that is being masked by all that extra iron?

There are many ways for the creative designer and/or engineer to start the piano on a long past due diet. In my humble opinion it is long past time for piano makers to be looking for ways to design and engineer smaller (though not necessarily shorter) and lighter pianos while at the same time improving their aesthetics and performance. At its best design will do all of these things.

It is becoming increasingly important, as societies increasingly outstrip the planet’s ability to renew resources, to use careful design to achieve higher levels of performance while at the same time utilizing fewer, and more readily renewable, resources.

I believe there will be a waiting market for the first piano maker that makes these things a priority and gives the market some real, substantive choices.

(The fact that I already have some of these designs in my computer, of course, has no bearing on the opinions expressed in the above post….)

ddf
Posted by: Roy123

Re: How do I assess instrument quality? - 09/15/10 07:26 AM

Originally Posted By: BDB
There are very few new pianos available now which are poor quality. They might be in some stores as loss leaders designed to get you into the store, but these days few stores can afford to do that.

If you want to buy a piano that will last you a long time, your best bet may be to shop for a good piano technician to advise you. That person is the one who will insure that your piano will be pleasing for the longest time.


I would argue, however, that there are many pianos available with poor tone.
Posted by: apple*

Re: How do I assess instrument quality? - 09/15/10 08:19 AM

interesting points Del.

how does the uninformed customer assess quality tho? what should they look for?
Posted by: Steve Cohen

Re: How do I assess instrument quality? - 09/15/10 09:23 AM

I agree that a well-qualified, INDEPENDENT technician can be used to predict the likely stability and longevity of a piano.

Another factor that can be used is the track record of the manufacturer. If there is a long track record one can read the history of the company (in Piano Buyer, of course), and ascertain the consistancy, or lack there of, of the brand over time.

The fact that the top tier's brands have been making top quality pianos consistently for many years speaks to the arguement that new ones, with similar construction, will also stand the test of time. The same can be said, for the most part, of Yamaha and Kawai.
Posted by: Rickster

Re: How do I assess instrument quality? - 09/15/10 09:24 AM

In my view, paying an expert a nominal fee for an unbiased professional opinion/recommendation on finding and buying a quality piano at a fair market price would be money well spent. There are some piano professionals who are members of this forum, Del for one, whom I would be glad to pay to help me find a high quality piano at a fair price. I believe this is what they call consulting or brokering.

The expert would need to be someone that you trust totally. With all due respect to dealers, they are not usually unbiased when it comes to selling you one of their quality pianos, though they might feel they have the customer’s best interest in mind and the best pianos in the world.

Often, the experts in question also have pianos they want to sell. So, that leaves the pool of experts who may be totally and unequivocally unbiased very limited.

As Apple mentioned, it is up to the consumer or piano shopper to do their homework, as much as they can, in order to make an informed choice… not necessarily an easy task.

The bottom line is, there is always some risk involved in buying a piano since we don’t live in a perfect world and there is not a perfect piano.

Just my .02…

Rick
Posted by: acortot

Re: How do I assess instrument quality? - 09/15/10 09:57 AM

you need years of experience and a musical ear.
Posted by: sophial

Re: How do I assess instrument quality? - 09/15/10 12:25 PM

Great post, Del! real food for thought there and an antidote to the constant barrage of "more must be better" PR!

Thank you!!

Sophia
Posted by: Kurtmen

Re: How do I assess instrument quality? - 09/15/10 06:40 PM

1)Touch and tone are not indicators specially if you don't have experience. The average new piano can be prep to have fairly good touch and tone at least temporarily.

2)The cabinet can tell you quite a bit about the quality if you know what to look for and where.

3)Detail and quality it is not the same. Steinway's are not well detailed but they are high quality.

4)Those qualities exits but they are not easy to identify; for example the quality of the bushings, knuckles, cabinet joints, hardware, glues, notching of the bridge, the design of the soundboard system.
an average piano buyer can't tell the difference a experience tech yes.. Look out a said a tech not a piano tuner or somebody in the process of learning.

5) Because you can turn into an expert in order to buy; I will put a lot weight in the brand name, history, consumer rating, model and resale value. Off course somebody here will tell you otherwise because ALL OF US have a "stencil brand" to sell or a price point baby grand under 10K therefore these kind of statement doesn't help their cause.

6) Don't bother you'll go crazy; this why is answer number 5 is valuable. As I said don't push the envelope; there is not such a thing as a great baby-grand for less than 10K this is a budget for a very good upright.