What’s in a name?

In the piano world, there are many brands to consider.  Among them are Yamaha, Kawai, Baldwin, Wurlitzer, Kimball, Boston, Steinway, Perzina, Samick, Nordiska, Petrof, Ravenscroft, Whitney, etc…- the list is fairly endless.  What makes a name is consistent performance from instrument to instrument.  However, anyone can put any name they like on a piano, if they know what they’re doing.   I will do my best to try to help you decide what brands actually mean, and what influence they should have on your decision when it comes time to buy a piano.

Brands are actually companies that make the instrument.  Steinway makes the Steinway piano.  But, they also started the Boston and Essex piano lines.  Now, Essex is made by Pearl River to Steinway’s specifications.

Does this mean that they’re as good as a Steinway?  Well, yes and no.  Are your Levi’s as good as Gap jeans?  Are Sketchers as good as Nikes?   How about this… What if the Levi’s were made to Gap’s specifications, and the Levi name was put on them?

When you think about it that way, it is kinda weird that Steinway would want to make any piano under another name.  However, many of the major piano companies have done this over the years.  Kimball is a big example of that.  I think they made at least 4 other brand names (Whitney, Dunbar, Hinze and Harrison).  One of the reasons piano manufacturers make other brand names than their original is to cover different markets and price points.

Now, lets think about that another way.  Say you make really nice jeans, like super nice jeans.  The best damn jeans on the planet.  They cost $500 a pair, and they last forever.  The problem becomes just that.  They last FOREVER.  No one ever needs a second pair.  Now, let’s say you need to make more money, because everyone already has a $500 pair of life-long jeans and aren’t buying any more.  Now, you put out cheaper jeans, say at $50 a pair.  They don’t last forever, they only last a little while.  Sooner or later, all your $500 jean customers die.  Now, you have only $50 jeans customers.  You start selling a lot more pairs of jeans, your company lives on.  Yep, that’s kind of the way this goes too.  At least for Steinway.

That’s not the case for every piano company that makes multiple brands, however.  Sometimes, the original company wanted to try a new model, but they wanted to do so sorta incognito.  Sometimes, they really just wanted to have price tiers.  It all just depends on what that particular company wanted to experiment with.

What do these brands mean to you?  You just need a piano so you can play Christmas Carols for your mom and what not… Does it matter if mom’s carols are produced from a Steinway or a Wurlitzer?  The answer is… yes and no again.

Yes – it does matter – different brands have different reputations, different warranties, different specifications and attention to detail.

No – it doesn’t matter – no two pianos are alike.  A Steinway and a Wurlitzer in a side-by-side blind test could come out neck and neck, depending on a huge number of factors.

(I really hope none of my colleagues take offense to that statement)

The facts are:  Not every Steinway or high-end brand piano is perfect.  Not every Wurlitzer or Kimball is imperfect.

Now, with that being said – there are broad generalizations that can be made about each brand.

Here’s what I know about them from my experience:


Steinway – I haven’t had the opportunity to play too many Steinways, unfortunately.  The ones I have were big 9 footers that were seemingly ancient.  The actions on those pianos was somewhat heavy, the sound was very nice, and the tones were super rich.  It’s actually pretty cool to play one, just because of the name.  I heard an NPR story one day about violinists doing a blind test between a cheap, chinese made violin and a Stradivarius.  The winner was… (wait for it)  the cheap violin.  Long story short, playing an instrument with a remarkable name like Steinway has its own sort of magic.  If you’re lucky enough to own one, expect this spell will work on you and your listeners.


Yamaha – Yamaha pianos have a super nice touch.  It’s delicate, and able to play freakishly fast.  Although, I don’t personally usually like the tone of the Yamaha’s.  They tend to be a bit bright.  Cool fact about these guys – their pianos haven’t changed much since the 70’s.  It’s almost impossible for an untrained eye to know the difference between a new Yamaha and one that’s 40 years old.


Kawai – K. Kawai – I actually really love the Kawai’s.  They used to be my favorite.  My teacher had one, though – so that could help explain why.  I do still love their tone, they usually sound really nice and mellow.   The action is not bad either, although a bit heavier and deeper than a Yamaha.  Again, much like Yamaha, it’s very difficult to tell an old Kawai from a new one.


Boston – I like the Boston’s – but not as much as I wish I did.  I was introduced to them by a piano salesman, who told me that Boston’s were what happened when Steinway and Kawai had a baby.  I really wanted to like them, really bad.  I was so excited to play it.  But the salesman kinda blew it for me, he wouldn’t shut up.  I did play a couple more over the years, but I gotta say, I am just not as impressed as I wish I was.  They have a nice touch, simple and clean tone, but nothing overly remarkable that I have noticed otherwise.


Essex – I actually don’t personally know much about this line.  I have played one or two, but at the NAMM convention where you can’t hear anything really.  I don’t remember them being bad action wise, but I personally can’t speak for them at all.


Pearl River – I have had some experience with a few of these pianos.  They are generally ok – pretty for sure.  But I wasn’t super impressed with anything about them.  Nothing extraordinary.


Petrof – love the Petrof’s – a European-made piano is always a special treat to play.  The action on Petrof’s tends to be a bit like a living thing.  It responds quite well to the touch.  The tone is rich and full in the bottom, and singing and beautiful in the top.  Just a great instrument all around.


Bosendorfer – Ok, I have only played one of these.  If you have the dough to spend on a Bosendorfer, get one.  For sure.  No questions asked.  You can park it next to your Steinway.  The coolest thing about these, other than they’re impossibly cool to begin with, is the extra keys in the bass.  Nice touch,  thanks for the super-low vibrations guys!


Fazioli – These are in the same category for me as Bosendorfer – if you have the dough, get one.  These are Italian made pianos which I’m sure are totally fabulous, and can come with a 4th resonance pedal – which is totally far out.  Now, that being said – I have never played one.  I can’t vouch for them at all, but they look really cool.  I was thinking about driving over to Chicago to check them out, if I do, I’ll write another post.

With the Fazioli’s and my inexperience with them, comes a bunch of other rare, high-end brands that I’m going to just list here.  I have never played a Fandrich, an IBach, a Bluthner, August Forster, Chavanne, Estonia, Haessler, Irmler, Overs, Pleyel, Ridgewood, Schulze Pollmann, Steingraeber, Stuart, Schimmell, Framburger, or Welmar.  I will not be commenting on any of these brands.  I just don’t know enough about them, other than I have never had the opportunity to play any of them.


Perzina – My personal favorite brand of all.  European manufactured and assembled in China, these pianos should be at the forefront of the industry.  Superior touch, tone, looks, quality.  Everything from the floating soundboard design to the hand-weighted keys makes these pianos simply wonderful to play.  At a fraction of the cost of comparable makes, it’s a wonder these guys haven’t taken the market by storm.  Personally, I have one in my studio, and have recorded on it several times.  I can’t say enough good things about them.  Just love, love, love these instruments.


Baldwin – I have mixed feelings about Baldwins.  As a retailer, I can tell you that they always sell.  Everyone seems to love them.  As a tuner, I really don’t like them, it’s tough.  As a player, well, I’ve played much better.  They are truly America’s sweetheart of pianos.  THEY ARE NOT MADE HERE ANYMORE!  They are made in China, just like nearly all the others.  The actions are sloppy, the tone varies.  They made so many models that were just awful, but they’ve made some good ones too.  Like I said, I have some mixed emotions.


Kimball – Ok – another American darling of pianos.  I can’t tell you how much people still know and love this brand, even though they haven’t made any for quite a while.  As one of my colleagues once said “They sure do make a nice bench”.  That being said, the pianos themselves can be charming, but lacking in the finer points of tone, touch and clarity.  In other words, if you want a cute, antique piano that sorta plays, but it’s not really for playing, a Kimball is a great purchase.  At this point, I haven’t seen one that’s less than 40 years old.


Knabe – I really like these pianos.  For the price, you can do a lot worse generally.  They are solidly built, nice sounding and well balanced in the touch.


Wurlitzer – The last of the American charmers.  I can’t seem to keep them in stock at the shop.  If it says Wurlitzer, people just love it.  Shame too, as they have the worst “gremlins”.  I swear, everytime I get one in, it needs a ton of action work.  I’ll work on it all day, get it playing right, leave, come back the next day and more has gone wrong.  I just don’t get it.  I had one of my own for quite a while, a 1937 petite grand.  Loved it, as it was my first grand piano.  However good the tone was, the action was super heavy.  It also had a host of other problems, and has now graduated to my first solo revamp of a grand.  With my regular workload, you can expect to see a blog on that in about 2018.


Young Chang – a Korean brand of pianos, I find these pianos to be attractive and simple in their appearance.  The tone and touch is also generally good enough for the average player.  They also seem to require very little maintenance, and don’t often need adjustments to the action.


Samick – A good piano for the price.  These pianos are seemingly consistent from one instrument to another.  They look nice in the home, and are easy to tune and repair if needed.  Although, as a player, I consider these good entry level instruments.  You can get them in shiny black, which keeps the kids interested.  Sooner or later though, they may reach the limit of this line’s capabilities.  For an average player, they do just fine.  Reasonably good touch and tone.


Seiler – These are super nice pianos – excellent tone, touch, look all that.  That being said, I haven’t played any in a quiet situation, only at NAMM.  Which is not an ideal place to try new instruments.  However, their reputation is solid, and deservedly so, as is their price point.


Mason & Hamlin – I have only had the opportunity to play one of these over the years.  That one had been completely refurbished/restored by a colleague of mine.  It was amazing.


Suzuki – Yes, they did make acoustic pianos.  I have only played one or two that I can remember.  I really can’t recall anything remarkably bad or good about them.  Other than they’re sold by Musician’s Friend.  Never trust a mail order piano.  Just don’t do it.


Hyundai – Believe it or not, these guys made pianos too.  I played a white grand made by them once, it was all right.  I have no other experience with this brand.


Ravenscroft – One of the last American made pianos in existence.  I know the nice folks who make this brand, father and son.  They are only making 7 and 9 foot grands and tinkering with digitals.  Of the models that I’ve played that they’ve produced, they are super nice.  Sound and look and play wonderfully.  I hope to see this company grow.

I know I missed some good brands, there are really a lot of decent piano makers out there.  That being said, there are a handful of brands that I won’t be reviewing here.  Simply because they are still found in many households, and I really just don’t care for them.  Among those names are Cable, Etsy, Winter, and Fischer.  Of all the pianos I have played, these were never that great (my own mother still has my grandma’s Cable piano in her house, ugh)   Sloppy in touch, tone and looks.  Some of them have been impossible to tune and work on.  Best advice, stay away, or at least get it at a super cheap price, with a warranty if possible.

Well, that about sums up what I know from personal experience.  I should say here, that all this info here is only from my noodle, and should not be construed as absolute fact, but mere conjecture and opinion.

You should always play the piano you intend to purchase as each one has it’s own set of variances and every ear is different and has different tastes, take the time to find what suits you the best.  Most importantly, never let a salesman or some kind of “special deal” push you into making a decision to purchase a piano.  Educate yourself, try lots and lots, make sure it’s the one for you before you lay down your dough.

Thanks for Reading & Happy playing!








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