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Good Piano Brands (Music Knowledge)
Source: Singapore Piano Shop
General Information
My technician (make sure you deal with a Registered Piano Technician, not a "tuner") told me that in the last 200 or so years, there have been about 12,500 different brands of pianos made (not model names - - brands)!
Here are some general thoughts on piano brands:  which ones are good, which ones to stay away from.  Please note that these are my personal opinions.  Instruments from the same manufacturer differ from year to year, and within a given year!  In the same way some cars are just lemons. It also may make a difference in which factory the instrument was made.  Sometimes a company (Yamaha, Kawai) has factories of different "qualities," so piano quality is affected by the factory that made the particular piano you are looking at/seeking.
German-sounding names are often chosen by non-German manufacturers because Germany has such a good reputation for piano-building, at least in the past.  Just because it's a German name doesn't mean it was made in Germany or by German expatriates or at a factory founded outside of Germany by Germans.  Inquire.
As of this date (2006), Chinese pianos are usually of inferior quality.  A decade or two ago, this was true of Korean pianos and Japanese pianos before that, so expect Chinese instruments to improve in quality.  The Russians also are making pianos now.  I wouldn't expect good quality from them [yet?], so buy a Russian/former Soviet Union country piano very cautiously.
Stencil brand pianos (sometimes called store brands) are common in the US.  These are like the house brands at a grocery store.  A piano store (usually a nation-wide or at least a regional piano company) buys these from a factory and puts a name on it. Therefore, many "different brands" of pianos - - at varying price points - - are actually from the same factory. And could, in fact, be the same model except for the brand name!
Also note that some factories buy parts from all over the world.  An American company can buy German actions (that's the "guts" of the piano).  Sometimes a company with a good reputation farms out its manufacturing process to a country with cheaper labor rates.  For example, Pratt-Read, which makes actions, moved their factory to Mexico, with disastrous results because the labor was unskilled (and sometimes unreliable).  You can find Chinese parts in non-Chinese instruments. And, in a curious turn-around, some Japanese pianos are manufactured in America and Europe!
Similarly, sometimes a piano factory sold its brand name to another piano maker, usually an Asian company.
With the serial number (and name) of a piano you are examining or thinking of purchasing, your tech should be able to furnish you with exact information about where the piano was made and when, whether this date was before the company was sold and/or acquired new manufacturing equipment, what kinds of parts were used and where those were manufactured, and so forth.
I'll say again that you need a tech to examine any used instrument. Don't agree to buy a piano on your first visit to a dealership unless you love it and everything about it, including the price, AND you have taken your tech along.
Types and Sizes
There are only two kinds of pianos - - grands, uprights - - but there are several sizes in these general categories.
    * "parlor" (sometimes called "petite"):  4'5" to 5'5"
    * "baby":  5'0" to 6'5"
    * "medium" (sometimes called "parlor," "living room," or "medium studio"): 5'6" to 6'5"
    * "semi-concert" (sometimes called "professional"): 6'6" to 8'0".
    * "concert": 8'9" to 10'2". Most concert grands are 9' in length
    * spinet: 35" to 39" in height
    * consoles: 40" to 44" (those 39" to 40" are sometimes called "consolettes;" and "consoles" 40" to 43")
    * studio:  45" to 47"
    * professional (sometimes called "full size"): 48" to 52" (Note: Prior to 1930, some uprights soared to 60" in height.)
A "square grand" (built ~1700-1900) is always an antique piano.  "Birdcages" (~1840-1940) often are, too. Be careful with these!  You may be buying a lot of repair! (Ask your technician....)
What You're Looking For
Remember that you are looking primarily at the touch (a function of the action) and sound (bright treble? lots of bass?).
Sound is a personal preference (I personally like a bright treble and medium-firm touch, but this is only my opinion!)  Evaluating a piano's sound is a lot like buying stereo speakers.  What sounds good to you?
If the action is too light, it's hard to control dynamics [loud and soft].  Also, the hand doesn't build up much strength so that when the player sits before a piano with a firmer action, playing is quite difficult.  Pianists are prisoners of the instruments they are given (though Vladimir Horowitz toured with his own instrument and technician!).  We are not like violinists. Their violin is the same, no matter whether they are playing it in a ditch or in a concert hall.
Casework is important, but make sure the insides (action) are good.  Don't be fooled by a gorgeous piece of furniture with inferior action.....
.....unless you just want something upon which to perch sterling picture frames.  I am sure you've seen the "interior decor" magazines with a beautiful piano, lid down, in front of a window (ack!), and covered with framed pictures and a voluptuous of arrangement of roses. Presumably, you are reading this file because you want a piano to use!
Also know that pianos depreciate rapidly - - some more than others.  Check the want-ads for ideas of price.牋
Information about Specific Brands
People ask me all the time about this piano or that one.  Here is what I think of certain pianos.  (If it's not listed here, there's a 98% chance I have never heard of it, let alone played it.)  Ok, here goes!
~ ~ ~
Acrosonic: This piano was introduced by Baldwin in 1935 and produced into the 1980s by Baldwin, but some think it is a different brand, so I am listing it separately. The pianos made early on (1930s, 40s, and 50s) were decent instruments. Modern Acrosonics sound tinny and cheesy (IMO - - if you have a modern Acrosonic, I apologize for insulting you!). Remember to compare these instruments with other spinets, not with other upright pianos.
Aeolian:  This company owned many brands, among them:  Knabe, Mason-Hamlin, Chickering, George Steck, and H.F. Miller. (In fact, at one time they controlled over 40 brands!). All of these brands were made in the Aeolian factory. American.
Baldwin:  Good piano.  Many concert grands are Baldwins.  In general, you can't go wrong with a Baldwin. Excellent quality up to 1970. Quality problems on some actions beginning after about 1970. Concerts grands of 7'0" and 9'0" had Renner actions and so were better quality. (A piano action is the moving parts inside.) Baldwin had various owners until it filed for bankrupcy. Gibson Guitar bought the assets in 2001 and is trying to focus on building a piano that lives up to the Baldwin tradition. Gibson's Baldwins do seem to have better quality, but there is not much production by which to judge this, although production seems to be increasing lately. Other brands owned under the Baldwin "umbrella": Wurlitzer, Cable, Chickering, Ellington, Howard, Kranick & Bach, Hamilton. American.
Bechstein:  This is a high-end instrument.  If I were buying a new piano for myself, I'd look at this one, as long as it were not a modern one.  German.  (Bechstein recently bought by Samick, so I would not buy a recent one.)
Belaruse: Terrible piano. It's the worst piano on the market, according to my tech. Avoid. Belarus.
Bluthner:  Very good piano.  Can be expensive.  German.
Bosendorfer:  Another high-end instrument.  I'd look at this one, also. Bought jointly by Kimball (which now makes hotel and office furniture) and an Austrian bank (with Austrian government backing).  Last Austrian/Viennese piano company left, out of the hundreds in business in Vienna in the 1800s. Austrian.
Boston:  Very good piano.  This piano is made by Kawai.  It was designed by and is marketed by Steinway, but not made by them - - this is not clear in their advertising! I'd look at this one, too. A Boston is better than a standard Kawai because it is built in Kawai's "better" factory. Uprights (44"-52") and grands. American.
Broadwood: I know nothing of this piano, except the history. The company began as harpsichord-makers (1718). The founder's daughter married Broadwood, who took over the business and started making pianos about 1775. Beethoven's Broadwood was a gift from the company (it was later owned by Liszt). The company, in a shrewd marketing move, also gave pianos to Chopin and Mendelssohn (and harpsichords to Handel and Haydn), as well as instruments to several royal houses of Europe. Antique instruments are available, also, through dealers, including "boudoir" (6'11" to 7'6" ) and "cottage" (5'8") grands. Current production entirely uprights. I don't know anything about the quality of these pianos (the company no longer makes harpsichords), but they're likely to be good/very good/excellent since the company has been in continuous business for so long. English.
Brodmann: (Not to be confused with Broadwood.) I know nothing of the quality of this piano. "Vienna Edition" and "Professional Edition" instruments are made in Vienna, and the "Conservatory Edition" is made in Asia (probably China). Austrian/Chinese(?).
Cable: Cable was one of the brands owned by Baldwin. Cable may be in current production, but if the company exists, the pianos would be made in China or Indonesia. Be careful.
Chickering:  Excellent prior to 1960 and even better before 1932, but age of the instrument will be an issue in regards to condition. Quality declined after 1960. Rochester factory closed 1982 and Memphis factory in 1985. Names sold to various manufacturers. Chickering had no product between 1982-1985. The piano was made in the US by Wurlitzer from 1986-88. Baldwin purchased Wurlitzer in 1994 and produced Chickerings between 1994 and 2001. Baldwin went bankrupt in 2001, and Gibson Guitars purchased the company and all its associated brands. Chickerings are no longer being made. American.
Christman: An antique piano. Production stopped about 1930 (started about 1885). Have the instrument examined thoroughly before purchase. American.
Cor[o]nado: See Starr.
Cumberland: See Starr.
Duchess: See Starr.
Ellington: Part of the "Baldwin group" (now owned by Gibson). Be careful. Chinese.
Essex: Likely an average piano. This is the "bottom tier" of the Steinway line. The Boston is the price-point between the Essex and Steinway. Specs are by Steinway, as well as advertising and distribution. Made in China in a factory that makes other piano brands, too. I'd be hesitant (2009). You can probably get a better piano for about the same price. Uprights and baby grands. Chinese.
Estonia: Good piano.  Grands only.  Note:  There are many piano company names emerging from the dust caused by the fall of the Soviet Union. For now (2006), avoid these.  (The Belaruse, for example, is horrible. But it's cheap.) Do not confuse these post-Soviet pianos with the Estonia, however! The Estonia is a very fine piano because the Soviets left the factory alone, probably because Estonia was so far from Moscow and made few enough instruments that it was not worth the Soviet government's effort to take over the factory.燛stonia.
Everette: In a word: no. American.
Falcone: Can be a good instrument. Sold trademark to Knabe (1983), but the company never did anything with it. Italian.
Faziolo:  Good piano.  Also on the high end.  Italian.
Feurich: Firm established mid-1850s. Maybe pretty good? German.
F鰎ster: I know very little of this piano. The company was "hidden" during the partition of Germany, and production must have slowed and/or it was difficult to sell the pianos beyond the border. Ok-to-good? German.
Foster: Another antique brand. Possibly associated with Aeolian. Be cautious. American.
Gennett: See Starr.
Gerhard: Appears to be an American company. I can't find any information on it. It must have been a forgettable piano! Keep looking.
Grinnell: Pianos were manufactured starting in the early 1900s, though the company started in the 1880s as an reed organ firm. Amercan. Samick (Korea) has built some pianos for Grinnell in the mid-1990s. Look elsewhere. Korean.
Grotrian:  Good piano, generally speaking.  Also on the high end.  German.
Gulbransen: Related to Story and Clark. Company founded as player piano firm (1904), making organs starting in 1928. At some point (1930s?), pianos without the player mechanism were introduced. The firm has taken many sideroads. There are nickelodeons ("band-in-a-piano-case"), a "player violin," and a bottle organ (!). In 2003, Gulbransen was acquired by QSR, owner of Story and Clark (modern). Gulbransen, now made in Pennsylvania, markets a player piano, made so by a wireless MIDI feature ("Pianomation"). The player violin may be paired with the player piano. The Story and Clark PNOScan is more sophisticated and has Internet connectivity (see below). Both brands are owned by QSR. American/Chinese.
Hailun: I do not know this piano, probably would not consider it, and would continue to look. This company also uses other brand names, such as Steigerman. The differences seem to be about type of wood chosen and manufacturer of parts of the action. Chinese. (See also Wendl & Lung.)
Hallet Davis: Ok to not-so-ok. You probably should pass on this one. American.
Hardman Peck: You won't find many of these, as they were manufactured at the turn of the 20th century and thus tend to be in pretty poor shape. Be sure to ask your technician to give you a close estimate for repair/renovation costs. American.
Harrison: These date from the 1890s and are likely to need a great deal of work done on them to make them playable. You probably want to look at something else. American.
Heintzman: Company established in 1866. These were good pianos in their day. Company bought Nordheimer. Heintzman subsequently bought Sherlock-Manning. About 1930, the Great Depression had an impact on the company, and it began to make cheaper pianos. The Music Stand bought the trade-mark and the pianos that Heinztman had in stock (1985). As these were doubtless the post-Depression instruments, I'd be very cautious, as it would probably need a lot of work. Canadian. A company called Heintzman Piano Company (established 1989) currently makes instruments but has no relation to the original Heintzman firm, although it claims to be using "the Heinztman plans" and "maintaining the quality". I would be suspicious. Canadian/Chinese.
Howard: Once owned the Baldwin; now owned by Gibson. Quality varies. American.
Janssen: I don't know anything about this piano, not even where it is/was manufactured. Sorry.
Kawai:  I like this piano a lot.  Very good piano.燤ake sure you know which factory manufactured the one that interests you. You want the "good factory." Japanese.
Knabe:  Knabe product is medium quality and price now. Bought by American Piano (1908), then Aeolian (1932). Aeolian's Baltimore factory closed about 1932, and production moved to Aeolian's plant in New York. It was sold when Aeolian went into backruptcy (1982). Falcone bought the tradmark in 1983, but there was no production and no Knabe factory of any kind. Company then sold to Bernard Greer (1989). Then Knabe was bought by MSR/Burgett (1996). (MSR - - Music Systems Research - - is the maker of PianoDisc, a computer product that can transform an acoustic piano into a player piano.) There was no Knabe production between 1982 and 1996. Starting in 1996, Knabe then produced by Young Chang (Korea). The company was sold (about 2000) to Samick (Korea). The current Knabe product is medium in quality and price. Korean. Also see comments under Chickering.
Kimball:  Ok to not-very-ok.  Kimble is now making office and hotel furniture.  They also are partial owners of Bosendorfer. American.
Kohler and Campbell:  Ok.  Company (Samick) makes pianos under its own name, but also makes house brands (as for Schaffer and Sons).  American/etc./ask.
Update 2009: A reader emailed me: "You may want to update your information on the Kohler and Campbell grand pianos. I purchased one in 2000. It has been a constant headache since the day I bought it. Now the keyboard is locking up. My tech will no longer work on it. I purchased it from [store name], and they are replacing it with another (new) Kohler Campbell grand until I can afford to purchase a Yamaha. Thankfully, [store name] has been a very reputable company and will put my purchase price of this piano toward another one! My tech has unfortunately had to replace several other customers' Kohler and Campbell pianos because the keyboards lock up. He works primarily on Steinways and tunes for concert pianists all over Colorado. [store name] has had only him work on my piano since it has been such a nightmare. I've tried to be patient with the piano and have hung in there - largely because I couldn't afford another piano - but now the poor thing is finally dying. Please do not recommend them! They have turned out to be very bad pianos! [store name] will no longer carry that brand in their store because of all the problems these pianos have had."
Krakauer/Krakauer Bros.: Basically no information on this one. Mid- to late-20th century. American.
Kranich & Bach: Not-so-ok to poor (the current production). This company, established in 1864, was bought by Aeolian in 1932. Quality is good thru the 1950s (America) but has declined precipitously since. Production continued in Aeolian's plant in Memphis until Aeolian's bankruptcy (1982). Wurlitzer bought the company (1985) and sold it to Baldwin (1995). When Baldwin went bankrupt, it was part of the package bought by Gibson. Chinese.
Krell: See Starr.
Lenox: Made by Sauter. Probably 100 years old. It would need a whole lot of work! Keep walking. German?
Mason and Hamlin:  Ok to good.  See comments under Chickering. Mason was sold to Falcone in 1983 (America), then to Bernard Greer in 1989 (America), then to Premier possibly in 1993 (America), and went bankrupt in 1995. Purchased by 1996 Music Systems Research (maker of PianoDisc; Sacramento, CA). Factory presently in Haverhill, MA. Current Mason and Hamlin pianos are fine quality and are sold by Colton Piano Company (chain in Northern CA ). American.
Minum: See Starr.
Milton: Pianos manufactured for a short time at the turn of the 20th century (early 1890s to late '00s). Evidently were high quality. Player and non-player pianos. In 1907, bought by Kohler and Campbell. It appears they kept up the quality until about late 1930s. Hardman Peck (see below) introduced a small grand, which became the rage, so Kohler and Campbell started making them, too, and used the Milton name. Production stopped in late 1950s and no more "Miltons" were made. Kohler and Campbell brought back the "Milton" about the 1980s and sold it as a cheap instrument. Quality plummeted. Not-too-ok piano after the 1930s. American.
Morris Listowel: Morris Piano Co. established in early 1890s in Listowel. It merged with about Karn Piano Co. about 1910 and became known as Karn Morris. It separated from Karn about 1920 and was renamed Morris. As with any piano this age, have it inspected by a piano technician before purchase. May be ok. Maybe not ok. Canadian.
Nordheimer: Company taken over by Heintzman about 1920. Instruments under this brands were presented as the bottom of the Heinztman line. See Heintzman, above.
Petrof:  Good piano.  Czech.
Pleyel:  Good piano.  Rare. This piano is an antique, so you for sure need a technician to evaluate it for you. French.
Pramburger: Made by Young-Chang (see below). Perhaps ok-to-fair. Possibly Korean (Samick?).
Pullman: See Starr.
Raymond. Possibly acquired by Janssen. Probably not very good. American.
Remington: Upright and player pianos. See Starr. American.
Richmond: Factory established 1875. See Starr. American.
Royal: See Starr.
Samick: Also makes pianos that are sold under different names ("stencil brand" - the stencil is the name above the keyboard). Ask.  Ok to medium quality.  May be better now (2006) than when I last investigated them.  The other brands the company owns vary in quality. The Samick appears numeous times in this file. Korean.
Sauter: Established in the early 1800s. Maybe good? German.
Schimmel:  Excellent piano.  I like this piano's tone and touch a lot.  This is another piano I'd consider seriously. German.
Seiler: This company will put art on the case for you or unusual paint jobs (think "solar system done with an airbrush")... Don't know anything about quality of this one, but the art idea is kind of a put-off. Maybe ok. German.
Sherlock-Manning: A medium quality instrument in its heyday. Hammers in 1960s and -70s had sponge instead of felt! I'd let this one go. Canadian.
Sohmer:  Pianos made by the original factory are good.  Founded 1872. Bought Mason & Hamlin and Knabe trademarks (1985) from Aolian when it went bankrupt. In 1986, Sohmer was sold to Pratt-Read (makers of piano actions - - that's the moving parts inside) and then sold to a player piano company (Music Systems Research, which makes PianoDisk).  At the point where Sohmer went to Pratt-Read is the cutoff date between excellent and mediocre pianos. American. There is no longer a Sohmer factory.  Currently (2006), there is a lawsuit brought against a Korean firm (Samick) that is manufacturing them and selling them under a name with Sohmer in it (Sohmer and Company). Samick also manufactures other brands (Knabe, Kohler and Campbell, and Remington brands.) Korea.
Starr: Founded 1849 in Indiana, under the name Trayser Melodeons. In 1869, Trayser began to make pianos. The company name changed when the Starr brothers became partners with Trayser. When Trayser retired, Milo Chase came onboard, and the company was renamed Chase Piano. There must have been some discord because in 1884, Starr Piano re-emerged. In 1949, the firm closed. You likely will not find any of these pianos available. Would doubtless need a lot of work. Likely to be venerable old warhourses. Noble beasts, but pass. (Other brands held by Starr: Cor[o]nado, Cumberland, Duchess, Gennett, Krell, Minum, Pullman, Remington, Richmond, Royal, and Schmoller & Mueller. All of these are likely to be lumbering warhorses, too. You can find something way better.) American.
Steck: Owned by Aeolian. Probably mid-1900s. Likely not very good. American.
Steigerman: See Hailun.
Steinway:  This is many people's dream piano.  I personally do not like the touch or the sound, but I think I am in the minority!  I would look at Steinways (particularly old ones), if I were buying for myself, but I likely would buy another brand unless I found a Steinway that isn't what I think of as the "typical" Steinway.  Bought by CBS, who put no money into the business and squeezed out as much revenue as possible from its reputation.  Steinway bought by Selmer (the brass instrument company). We don't know much about quality of the Steinway instrument under the Selmer regime. If you want an "authentic Steinway," you'll have to buy an older model. Ask your tech for details. Steinway makes uprights (45" and 52"), as well as grands. German/American.
Stodart: These were made in the 1890s, and probably any one you'd find would need a whole lot of work done. You'd be better off to pass on this one. American.
Story and Clark:  Founded 1884 as Story (employee of a music store) and Clark (builder of reed organs). Previously, Mr. Story had built pianos with other partners - - Story and Powers (1862), Story and Camp (1868). Firm was a success, and, in a curious twist, factories were established in Europe. About 1900, Mr. Clark went his separate way. Mr. Story moved the factory to Michigan. In the early 1960s and in another twist, the firm was sold to Lowrey Organ Co. Business declined, and production stopped in 1984. Lowrey sold the brands. In the very early 1990s, it was bought by Classic Player Pianos Corp., and only a year or so later, sold again to QRS Music Technologies, which began as a player piano company (guess who founded it? Mr. Clark!). American. Currently, the name is used on an instrument, probably from an Asian facatory. This iteration has been reborn with something called PNOscan�. This is some sort of recording device; there are also USB and MIDI ports onboard. Theoretcially, you could email a recording of you playing this piano, directly from the piano. The idea is that the Story and Clark can do anything a digital piano can do, in addition to functioning as an acoustic piano. What this amalgam means in terms of quality, I don't know. Chinese. (See also Gulbransen.)
Stencil brand.  Ok.  Some pianos come from Asia; ask.  Chinese/American.
Yamaha:  This is a wonderful piano.  Holds value well, even uprights.  I like this piano a lot. It would be on my short list were I to purchase now.  Bright treble.  Japanese.
Young-Chang. Started in 1956 by three brothers (Jai-sup, Young, and Chang Kim) to assemble Yahamas for the South Korean market. Spun off in 1975. Sold to Samick, but the sale was not approved by Korean goverment and fell through. Young-Chang is now in bankruptcy. Good piano. Korean.
Walters: Very high quality. Handmade, excellent actions, beautiful cabinets. Primarily uprights, but now make a 6'5" grand. I'd look at this piano seriously. American.
Wendl & Lung. (I'm sorry....I had to laugh at this name.) Factory established in Vienna in 1910 and developed into primarily a piano restoration firm. A great-grandson by the name of Veletzky took over the business in the mid-1990s. He also happened to be a technical consultant to a group of Chinese piano manufacturers. In 2003, Wendl & Lung pianos were resuscitated (please forgive me!) and began being built by Hailun Piano Company. It appears that this piano is nominally, at least, a Viennese instrument produced in China by partnership, rather than a Chinese piano simply with a Viennese name. (Hailun also produces pianos under its own name.) I have no information about the quality of this piano. It may be ok. I'd tread carefully, nonetheless, and compare it with comparably-priced non-Chinese instruments. Chinese.
Wurlitzer:  Ok to not-so-ok piano.  Now made by Baldwin. Baldwin bought Wurlitzer in 1985. Wurlitzer, in turn, had bought Chickering (1983), Kranich & Bach (1985), and Cable (1985). Wurlitzers are now made in China (though there may be a few made in the US by Baldwin [Gibson]). Can by tinny. I'd try to find something else. American.
Update, 2007: I am informed that the above discussion of Pratt-Reed's moving its factory to Mexico, with negative results, implies that I think everything manufactured in Mexico is of inferior quality. Let me hasten to clarify that this is not so! Every country has well- and poorly-manufactured products. As it stands now, in my opinion, Pratt-Reed's business decision and its ramifications are reflected in the quality of Pratt-Reed actions. I apologize for any offense given.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
So, then, what's a good buy?  My technician said that now (2006) a Boston upright (about $7000) is a good value.  Also a Yamaha "school model" upright (about $6000) should be considered.  It's not as pretty as their regular upright, but it's very sturdy because it was made for school use.
In a grand (5'4"), look at a Boston (about $20,000). A Yamaha grand (5'3"), model C1, is also good value (also about $20,000).
Update, 2009: Look at a Walter (U.S.). Excellent materials and parts, family-owned, high-end craftsmanship, hand-made. An upright is $7500-$8000. They also make a grand for $30,000 (6'4" size only). A comparable Steinway is $50,000.
Bostons are very good values now. Bostons (both uprights and grands) are made in Kawai's "annex" factory (Japan). This is where the Kawai concert grands are made. This factory uses better materials and parts, and pianos made in the "annex" are made by Kawai's most experienced and skilled staff. About 20 Bostons are made annually (30 max).
Shopping for a Piano
Go to several piano stores and play the same pieces on each piano.  Write down the serial number of each instrument and make notes.  I suggest you play [part of] the types of literature you prefer (for example, your preferences might be Mozart, Beethoven, no Liszt, no Tchaikovsky) on each instrument.  One might be wonderful for Mozart but too wimpy for Rachmaninov (particularly in the bass).
If the instrument is for a non-player (or is being bought by a non-player for his child or teen), ask the salesperson to play the same piece or two on each piano.  Call ahead and make sure (1) you get the person who plays the best - this is often the manager; and (2) you go in at a time where that person can give you undivided attention (likely to be an "off" day at an "off" time); ask to make an appointment, indicating you want to come in at the least busy time of the least busy day. Ask the person to play, say, Mozart and Beethoven and maybe a show or pop tune. Make sure you don't hear -only- pop stuff, as the teacher will be teaching Mozart and Beethoven [too]! Request this when you make the appointment. This is why you want the best pianist to help you select a piano, not someone who can play only pop.
Any brand's cheapest model is its worst piano.  Go up a level.
Beware of "loss-leaders." Most companies make small grands to sell for under $10,000. Music stores advertise them as "You can buy a grand today for less than $10,000 at our piano sale!" ($8999 is a common price for these.) The low price means the piano is the most stripped-down model in the company's line of grands. Because these instruments are meant to get the buyer into the store, that's how they're sold: draw the buyer in to view the store's inventory, explain that "for not that much more money" one can trade up to the next level and get better quality in materials/sound/etc., and induce the buyer to purchase a more expensive instrument. This can be a very good idea for the buyer, actually, as the instrument's value (not just price) is noticeably better. Don't buy the piano with the rock-bottom price. Think very carefully if you are purchasing one of these "loss-leader" instruments. You might well be better off buying up. (Be sure to bargain down the asking price of the next-level instrument. See how close you can get it to the loss-leader price!!)
I'll do some research to find out what a "special factory sale" and "selling off a university's practice pianos" mean. These "events" may be designed to move close-out stock brought in from other locations.
A piano is an investment that lasts a lifetime.
Get the best piano you can stretch to afford. You won't be sorry.
Final Tidbits
An expensive brand's upright might not be as good as another brand's grand. Or, vice versa.
A grand will have better tone than an upright, generally speaking, though one manufacturer's grands will not sound as good as another manufacturer's uprights.
A used piano should be considered seriously.  Bear in mind, however, that used pianos are a law unto themselves. Do not fail to ask your tech to physically examine any used piano you are considering!  Caveat emptor!
Pianos are as individual as children!
Update, 2009: Larry Fine has a new piano-buyers guide available. Updates are through his website. - Sohmers are being made under two names, though both are being made in China. The mess is the result of not renewing trademarks, sale of a company, and so on. - Some Samicks, a Korean company, are now being made in the U.S.(!!) and in China. - Some Yamahas are being made in China, but in a new factory and closely supervised by Yamaha. I think you're very safe buying this brand, as always. - Some cheaper pianos are now being made in Malaysia and Indonesia, rather than China. Be careful of quality.
Piano Service
I have spoken several times in this file (and in others on my site) about piano techs.
The field of piano tuning/repair/restoration is not overseen by any government agency (US or otherwise).  In an effort to standardize training, as well as methods and quality of work, the Piano Technicians' Guild was formed. To qualify as a Registered Piano Technician requires passing a rigorous written test, plus an exacting hands-on tuning exam. You will always get better work from an RPT than a 'piano tuner,' so I encourage you to seek a real piano tech to care for your not-inconsiderable investment! A tuning should cost you $125-$225, depending on where you live and what the service includes. RPTs usually include more than just tuning when your instrument is serviced.
Ask for references for any tuner or RPT you are considering hiring.
Update, 2007: I am reminded by a tuner that reputable and exceedingly skilled piano technical people choose not to join the Technicians' Guild. My apologies for insulting these professionals.
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There you have it.  These are my opinions only, not Holy Writ.  Please do your own homework before you buy!  Ask friends, ask piano teachers (ask what they would buy now if price were no object and if price must be considered), use search engines, post on one of the piano newsgroups, and so on. Asking piano salespeople probably will not net you much unbiased information, sad to say!
A special thanks to my RPT, David Abdalian of Abdalian Pianos for his gracious and generous assistance in vetting and correcting this file and adding details only someone with his knowledge, experience, and connections would know!
I am often asked to give my opinion on harpsichords. Here are my thoughts, including a discussion of the Roland C-30 digital harpsichord.
Acoustic Harpsichords
I have a Hubbard Flemish reproduction (after Ruckers). Hubbard makes complete kits, partial kits (perhaps keyboard, action, and bentside), and finished instruments.
When I bought my Hubbard (about 1975), I also looked at Zuckermanns, but the quality was markedly below a Hubbard. I felt quite confident in my purchase of a Hubbard. Quality of Zuckermanns may have gone up, so check those out, too. There are many brands of harpsichords, so do a thorough search before purchase.
I have not done any research to speak of on harpsichord-makers. There are many ateliers. Some start with kits (often Hubbards), and some craft from scratch.
I have a list of makers, however, I cannot vouch for currentness of the links, nor do I know anything about quality of any but Hubbards (which I love!).
If you are looking for a harpsichord, check the local want-ads for estate sales, as well as searching on the web. Sometimes they turn up on craigslist.
Also check out The Harpsichord Clearing House, which features finished instrument by professional and amateur builders. Partially-finished instruments appear from time to time, as well as un-started kits. Prices appear to run $6000 and up for finished harpsichords. Although a kit is cheaper to start with (usually!), by the time you buy special clamps, veneer, wood, etc., the price is right up near $6000. Of course, you had the pleasure of building it and making it yours in all ways!
I wish someone made a small $3000 "student" harpsichord (finished, not a kit). I could sell dozens of them! Almost all of my students would love to have a harpsichord, in addition to a piano! A bunch more would like a fortepiano, too!
I have another file about the difference in touch between and piano and a harpsichord, along with pictures of my virginal and clavichord.
Roland Digital Harpsichord
Roland has recently (2008) introduced a digital harpsichord. There is a 14-part series on YouTube, featuring the astounding organist Hector Oliveras explaining and demonstrating the instrument. This series is a must if you are considering this instrument. Search on "Roland C-30." (Search on "Hector Olivera," too, while you're there!)
I want to make it very clear that I have not played on this instrument, nor seen it. I base the following review on what I hear and see on the YouTube videos, plus my experience with and knowledge of acoustic instruments.
My choice is still an acoustic harpsichord, and I would recommend that anyone interested in owning one look at a traditional instrument first.
Immediately on the plus side of the ledger is that the Roland would be impervious to weather changes and never need tuning. The Roland is doubtless more portable than any but the tiniest acoustic harpsichord since the stand and the instrument are separate pieces. (There is also an earphone jack. And probably some MIDI ports.)
The Roland sounds surprisingly good! (Tiny aural snippets were "sampled" from the sounds of real harpsichords and used to construct the digital matrix. A digital instrument is not the same as a synthesizer, which is what 99% of all "electronic keyboards" are. A synth is an instrument in which the harpsichord sound is formed by manipulating sound waves and generating the sound artificially. A digital instrument starts with real sounds. A synth is far, far less expensive.)
Cost is approximately $5000 (you would expect a Roland product to be expensive), as far as I can find out on the 'net. Nobody seems to want to quote/list a price, maybe because it's so high they're afraid the shoppers will bolt immediately!
The keyboard compass of the Roland is larger than a harpsichord's. There are two octaves above and two below Middle C, as well as three additional white keys above and four white keys below (with their appropriate black keys, of course!). A harpsichord normally has only one note below the last octave. On my Hubbard, I can tune it to GG or BB (Contra G and Contra B, for those of you who like to track that sort of thing!). The Roland gives you the convenience of having both notes all the time.
It's a rectangular instrument, similar to virginals and clavichords (like a shoebox). I'm guessing at the size: 30" x 15", as this information is also difficult to come by! You sit at the long side.
There are several different sounds: Flemish (Ruckers) and French (Taskin) harpsichords, fortepiano, celeste, and a small pipe organ (positif).
From the YouTube video files, it appears that the touch is the two-part harpsichord touch (virtually no resistance until the plectrum jack passes by the string, thus plucking it to produce the sound). The sound also includes the subtle "clatter" of the action of the wood in the keyboard and jack mechanisms. (But in good technique one should not "thump"! Roland has added just the right amount of "wood" sound, in my opinion.)
A weird aspect of the Roland harpsichord sound is that the keyboard is touch sensitive! (hard = loud; light = soft). The proper way to make loud/soft on a harpsichord is to add another set ("rank") of strings or thin out the texture. The Roland appears to have the "coupling" feature (which adds the ranks from the second manual), so use that instead of using the touch-sensitive feature.
The Roland has both the Flemish (brighter) and French sounds (see the 5th of the 14 files). In 6/14, the instrument plays a fortepiano sound. Part 7/14 demonstrates the positif organ (two dispositions: either Rohrfl鰐e 8' or Principal 8' + Oktav 4'), and celeste is featured in 8/14.
There are different temperaments and tunings, also (9/14). Have fun with [really, really] old music! Amaze your friends with just intonation! Enjoy the minutia of the comma of Didymus. Savor Werckmeister III!
Concert/demonstration of entire pieces on 10-14/14. Part 1/14 is a quick overview of the sounds.
Perhaps in Roland's future plans there will be that $3000 "student" harpsichord!
Note: Virginals and harpsichords were contemporaneous, rather than the harpsichord's developing from the virginal, as Olivera states.
I would be pleased to add reviews of those who have played this instrument.
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copyright 2006-2009, Martha Beth Lewis, Ph.D.
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