Can you hear the difference between cheap and expensive pianos?


#1

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2018/03/19/can-you-hear-the-difference-be.html


#2

They’re both brown, so no there is no difference.


#3

Are old pianos considered better than modern pianos? In stringed instruments, like guitars and violins “vintage” is prized for a sound quality unmatched by modern instruments. (Said to be, at least. The evidence for this assertion is arguably a little subjective). Is it the same for pianos?

A friend plays English Horn and Oboe professionally in an orchestra, and for these instruments, older is definitely not better. They lose tonal quality with age. To extend longevity, synthetics are being used in high-end instruments, too. The hand-making of reeds is still a thing, and she makes her own. She says it is difficult and time consuming, with a very high reject rate (she’s been at it for decades so she knows what she’s doing), but that purchased reeds just don’t do it for her.


#4

I often find pianos too bright and percussive for my tastes, but the more expensive ones here were definitely more mellow and nicer sounding. I love the piano Nils Frahm got made that only has one string per key though. It is absolutely stunning because it is so dark sounding.


#5

On my computer speakers I certainly couldn’t discern much difference one-by-one along the progression, but comparing the first to that last, there is a discernable change. I also think that is mic technique is probably a little inadequate. It looks like he has the digital recorder sitting on the piano itself with a piece of cloth under it. This is likely to to colour the sound a fair bit. I’d really be interested in doing the comparison live, or at least with the pianos professionally recorded in a controlled acoustic environment.

HiFi enthusiasts consider pianos to one of the hardest instruments to reproduce in recording and playback.


#6

The first one could have done with a tune. I think it would be a lot harder to hear the difference then.

The major difference is how easy are they to play. I found I could play things on an expensive piano with less mistakes than on a cheap one. I don’t think the sound feedback to the user is a big deal unless it really sounds awful. If you poke a key, you have given the hammer its momentum and lost control of how the note will sound before it hits the string. One difference is how long the key levers are. Try playing up the top of the keys on a compact piano and you will feel the difference. Try the same on a grand, and you won’t.

I found for electronic pianos I went on feeling the difference up to about £4K, though the sound production was probably the same, and I was listening through headphones. I eventually bought something about £800, and that is probably more than my piano technique is worth.


#7

Can you hear the difference?
Not when I play them.
But with someone competent at the keyboard?
Oh yes. It’s a world of difference.


#8

Something seems way off on the $15K piano, it didn’t sound right to me at all. Other than that, with headphones in there seemed to be a distinct improvement as the price skyrocketed. That said, the $6400 piano still sounded really nice.


#9

there is a lot less hand-crafting in the modern pianos. i wish i could find the citation, and i’ll put it in this thread if i do, but a few years ago i listened to a long story on a public radio program about pianos and several concert pianists refuse to play instruments less than 50 years old because of the decline in quality and they were talking about high end bosendorfer’s and steinways.


#10

I came here to say this. FWIW, I preferred the sound of the $6400 piano to the $15K one.

With the exception of the above, I found I could tell the difference in them, though I’ll be the first to admit that I know nothing of music or instruments. I do like me some Debussy, though. Nice way to start the day today.


#11

There was a radio programme this last week here in the UK about a guy who prepares pianos for concerts.


It should be available to folk outside the UK but I’m not sure.


#12

Exactly this! When I was looking for my first guitar I spent so much time reading about different models and guitars from different eras. I thought I needed the perfect instrument.

The sales person that sold me my guitar talked me down. All I needed was a guitar that was comfortable to hold and didn’t go out of tune constantly. It was going to be a long, long time before I outgrew an instrument like that.

He was right. I ended up buying a made in Mexico Stratocaster and paid for a setup.

Years later I bought a second guitar to keep at work and this time I just bought an inexpensive Korean clone of a Les Paul. I have two fantastic instruments that I can barely play.


#13

My son’s piano school had an open-house with a piano technician recently, and this was his jist. The action on a grand piano is entirely different from an upright, and especially a spinet or console piano.
With the action on a grand piano, one can physically play a significant number greater notes per minute than one can on an upright. I can’t imagine ever reaching that limitation myself, but it’s an interesting factoid.

He was also kind of adamant that nobody should ever buy an upright for this (and other) reasons (which I respectfully disagree with and disregard).


#14

The problem with old piano is that if they develop a problem, repairing them become really costly. A broken pinblock in an upright means normally a complete rebuild, so an humid room could damage strings and wooden parts, and a piano left untuned for a long time becomes very difficult to retune.

So a 60 old upright left in a cellar is normally usable only as a furniture.


#15

I’ve always liked the Yamaha (and by extension Kawai) sound, though I know there are strong opposing positions. That CTX at the end is so velvety without losing articulation.

If you found this at all interesting, you might enjoy The Piano Shop on the Left Bank by Thad Carhart. It’s a really wonderful dusty deep dive into the world of old pianos and the differences between them.


#16

BRB, gotta buy better earbuds so I can hear the difference.


#17

Yeah, that’s the way you do it. I like to do the same thing with tools or instruments. Start off with something cheap (but that works correctly). Then if you prove that you are committed you get something better. Also, helps because you learn what you are looking for and what you don’t care about.


#18

I could certainly hear difference from instrument to instrument as he went through. But I immediately noticed two issues:

• The loudness was not matched between recordings.

• some pianos were recorded with nearby adjacent walls, some not. So one cannot really know how much of the timbral difference in the recording is because of differences in the acoustical environment surrounding each piano, rather then the sound of the piano per-se.


#19

Not that I know.

“Old” old pianos, pre-1900 or so, will have missed out on the “latest” improvements in piano mechanics, so they’re not superior. Some people might consider them more authentic for pre-1900 music.

And then there’s the supply and demand story. Here in Austria, every “proper” city household used to own a piano at some point. While we still have a lot of people playing the instrument, all the people who never bothered to learn to play it have been getting rid of these voluminous pieces of furniture. And many in the younger generations, even if they do learn to play piano, make do with electronic pianos until they can afford a bigger appartment / until the kids are old enough to not spill juice over the expensive piano / until someone starts to play it “seriously”, etc.

So, old pianos are not a rarity, so you don’t really pay extra for the fact that they’re old.

And third, a piano built in 1910 will require a major overhaul (most likely at least the second one in its lifetime) in order to be playable. A 1910 Bösendorfer baby grand that “needs restoring” is worth no more than a 1000 Euros in Austria. A nicely restored one, on the other hand, is worth at least twenty thousand. Unfortunately, completely restoring one costs about the difference.

A new Bösendorfer baby grand costs more like 75,000. They’re still mostly hand-made. The tradition is unbroken, no knowledge has been lost. Only, they don’t have ivory keys any more.

Yamaha, Kawai, etc. are essentially mass-produced. Those folks applied modern engineering to the question of how to make a good piano. Which means that a modern Yamaha sounds better than mass-produced pianos have ever sounded, and probably gives you one of the best quality to price ratios.


And then there’s the art of tuning.
A decent piano tuner will tune the piano roughly by ear and then turn to an electronic device to help with the fine tuning.
A bad piano tuner will need the electronic device from the beginning.
A good piano tuner will start out with the electronic device, and then do the fine tuning by ear.
My old Bösendorfer hasn’t sounded quite the same since my old piano tuner retired.


#20

Well, I don’t know if what I’m about to tell you is good news or a sign of a cultural apocalypse, but here goes…

During boom economic cycles, I work at white-collar jobs. During recessions, I work at those jobs that Americans supposedly won’t stoop to. For the past 2 recessions, I’ve worked moving furniture for second-hand dealers. Here’s the bad omen: Piano benches and piano stools are worth more than the piano. In the early aughts, my fellow auction house employee and I watched in horror as two antique dealers fought over the bench for a baby grand - the auction house knew what was coming and split the consignment so that the winning bidder didn’t ‘have to’ take the piano. The baby grand was sold for $250. It’s bench went for $400.

Every auction, every estate sale, every thrift store, I’ve seen the same thing repeated, regardless of whether it’s baby grand (too large for anything but a McMansion) or a Yamaha upright - people want the bench (or the stool) to paint or decoupage as a decorative item, nobody wants the piano.

If you want a nice piano, you can get a baby grand for less than an upright. Park the car outside and turn the garage into a concert hall.