Mike buys a piano

Buying a piano is a difficult undertaking for those of us who face the usual constraints on resources (time and money). Having played when I was young, I had been toying with the idea of buying a piano for several years, but was in no hurry as my wife and I focused on other things. But my babies started to grow into kids, and our house grew accordingly, so the timing seemed right to buy. I’d like to share some things I learned in case it helps others going through a similar exercise.

First of all, the disappointing news is that online research is only going to get you half way. That is, it may eliminate certain pianos due to price, quality, and style. However, that will still leave too many options. To pick the right piano, you really need to go and test a whole bunch.

Further, there is no sure-fire method for arriving at the “right” piano – such an algorithm doesn’t exist. Why is this? The best way I can put this is to say that each piano gives you an overall experience comprised of many, many aspects. I liken it to buying a car (except that pianos tend to hold their value much better!). ALL cars (worth buying) will get you from point A to B, but that is really where the similarities end. Same with pianos – they will all make some sort of piano or piano-like sound, and crucially, will be able to play their sound softer or louder (hence the reason for the piano in the first place: its full name is pianoforte, or soft-loud). But this is where the similarities end. Pianos will differ in at least the following ways:

  • Initial cost
  • Ongoing costs (for acoustic pianos – not usually applicable for digital pianos)
  • Sound (volume, tone and how the notes interact with each other when played)
  • Feel of the keys (“action”)
  • Size (of cabinet, relates to string length)
  • Style
  • Engineering / design
  • Quality of materials
  • Quality of craftsmanship (sometimes a function of where it is made, but beware of these claims!)
  • Technology (“silent” options for acoustic as well as ABS plastic for some parts, and countless options on digitals)
  • History and care (very important for acoustics)

So the ‘right’ piano for you is whichever piano possesses a mix of those qualities above that maximizes your enjoyment/ability to make music.

There are some natural tradeoffs that affect a piano’s ability to make music and enhance enjoyment. For example, acoustics generally sound and play better as you increase the string length (longer the better, all things being equal), quality of design, quality of materials, quality of craftsmanship, and maintenance. Accordingly, the cost also goes up as you increase these factors. Internet research/ratings on these aspects will help you make predictions about how much you’ll like a particular piano based on its make and model, but you will still need to judge for yourself how much each aspect matters in practice. Some of the aspects touted by marketers may not even be detectable to you, while others may in fact turn out to be quite important. And you won’t know how long this process will take – you aren’t done until you find that one piano that just seems right.

My advice is to have a little snippet of a song or even a scale that you can play on each device you test to get a good baseline for comparison. If you can’t really play, simply strike all the F’s up and down keyboard as an example to test for consistency in tone and feel. And don’t worry – not everyone who buys a piano knows how to play. Don’t listen to what the salesperson or owner says so much as to the sound and feel of the piano itself. Salespeople are usually happy to play a song sample on a variety of pianos for you as well which can be useful. Take notes after you leave and write down things you like or don’t like about particular pianos or piano lines.

During this time also listen to youtube videos of songs on various pianos. It won’t take long until you begin to appreciate how pianos differ, and develop ideas about what sounds good to your ear. Start ruling out pianos or piano lines as best you can. This may leave you with a shortlist of piano types that you find to be acceptable. Then, it is really up to you to find the piano you like the best. When you do find one you think fits the bill and gives you that desired experience, remember to hire an inspector to give you an independent opinion before making the offer (crucial for acoustics).

What happened to me:

I wanted an acoustic (“real”) piano, but I also wanted to be able to play after the kids go to bed or as the wife hangs out in the same room. I was thus attracted to the ‘silent’ pianos. These pianos are the full real deal, but in addition they have sensors that detect the keys you are playing and translate this into a digital signal to be recorded and heard through headphones. Perfect combination of both worlds! But alas, the only pianos like this in my area were BRAND NEW. And with my flexible but still constrained budget (I was targeting to spend between CAD$4K to $6K), it meant that I would have to sacrifice a bit on some aspects in order to get a new silent piano.  And even then, it would STILL blow my budget.

So, I looked much more closely at the digital pianos. Why not? I had heard great things. Indeed, the sound of the mid-range digitals (around CAD$2K – $3K) was good. Surprisingly good in fact. Plus they had all the technological gadgetry you’d want. The feel was even very good, although not exactly like an acoustic. But as good as they were, when I went back to a new acoustic for comparison (side by side in the same store) it became very clear: the acoustic just had that feel and sound I craved. Perhaps it was all psychological, but I knew then and there that no matter how good a digital was, I would still know in the back of my mind that I’m not actually hitting strings with hammers to make that sound. And if there was one thing playing the piano was all about to me, it was about hitting real strings with real hammers!! 🙂

This of course forced me back into my dilemma: although my budget was somewhat flexible, I just didn’t want to spend what it would take to get a new silent piano of the quality I wanted. And I simply wasn’t going to buy a piano that I didn’t really like just to get the silent option, so I shut that door, so to speak. However, shutting that door opened up another. Having decided to get an acoustic no matter what, and giving up on the idea of the silent option, meant that I could go buy a used piano of possibly much superior quality and stay on or under budget at the same time. Any money saved could then be used to upgrade my existing very cheap ($150!) electronic keyboard to a more realistic digital piano for those quiet times – if it is really needed at all (I could just wait and see if it is a big enough issue). I could then get a piano worthy of hanging onto for decades to come and that myself and my kids can grow into instead of out of as we learn.

I had an idea of the type of piano I wanted (a couple different brands and models) and it wasn’t too long until I found a screaming deal on a piano that I thought I would NEVER be able to own: a Kawai K-80 in practically perfect condition. As a bonus, it has a ‘practice’ mode (felt curtain that quiets down the piano) if needed. I’m now just waiting to see if I ever need that digital…

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