Steinway-Designed vs. Yamaha/Kawai

After 60+ years in the piano business, we had to ask ourselves:

Why does it take Yamaha $37,999 to offer almost the same premium core features as Steinway’s Essex does for $14,300?
 

NOTICE ANYTHING MISSING?

WHAT IS IN A PRICE?

Though it has the lowest price on the chart, The Steinway-Designed Essex EGP-155 has EVERY DESIGN FEATURE AND PREMIUM MATERIAL KNOWN IN THE INDUSTRY TO ENHANCE PERFORMANCE AND LONGEVITY. One has to wonder what justifies the price of the Yamaha C1X?

“STEP-UP” FEATURES VS. “ONE PIANO” PHILOSOPHY

The Yamaha GB1K has no premium features. In the Yamaha lineup, you would have to pay thousands of dollars to get duplex scaling on the GC series and then many more thousands to get the additional features of the CX series. In the marketing world, these are called “step-up” features. However, Steinway & Sons has a “one-piano” philosophy, where EVERY BOSTON AND ESSEX IS MADE THE SAME. Core features are never left out to meet a price point.

What makes a piano great?

In the 300+ year history of the piano, there have been some specific advances in design and construction that we know will make a piano perform better and last longer. Most manufacturers treat these as step-up features to justify price differences between models. We are proud that in each line of Steinway & Sons, Boston, and Essex pianos, EVERY MODEL IS MADE THE SAME and never are features left out simply to cut costs. Even the most affordable, small Essex upright has EVERY PREMIUM DESIGN FEATURE.   

Premium vs. Standard Features

PREMIUM SOLID SPRUCE SOUNDBOARD

All the finest pianos have premium solid-spruce soundboards, but spruce soundboards are not created equal. A premium soundboard will be made of straight-grain solid spruce (not laminated) with a minimum of 8 grains per inch and be free of knots and irregularities. These qualities ensure overall structural integrity and even distribution of vibrations. Most manufacturers do not specify anything beyond solid vs. laminated, allowing for a wide variance in wood quality.

STANDARD SOLID SPRUCE SOUNDBOARD

This manufacturer does not publish specifications for the soundboard material for this model beyond the species of wood. Model to model, these soundboards may have variances in grain density, irregularities, knots, or areas where material was cut out and filler material was glued in to take its place. We inspect the soundboards of every piano we sell and encourage shoppers to inspect the soundboard of any piano they may consider purchasing to determine the quality of the soundboard material. Steinway soundboards have a minimum of 11 grains-per-inch and our Boston and Essex pianos specify quality with a minimum of 8 grains-per-inch on every piano.

TAPERED SOUNDBOARD CONSTRUCTION

To promote flexibility, the soundboard is sanded down to be thinner from treble to bass. Because the board is able to vibrate more freely, bass notes sound richer and fuller, and the overall tone and dynamic range are improved.

ONE-DIMENSIONAL SOUNDBOARD

A one-dimensional soundboard (top) is the same thickness across its width.  This piano does not have a tapered soundboard or this manufacturer does not specify whether or not the soundboard is tapered on this model. However, if a piano has a tapered soundboard, it is generally something that a manufacturer would want a shopper to know. All else being equal, a tapered soundboard will provide a deeper, richer tone and longer sustain. All Steinway, Boston, and Essex pianos have tapered soundboards.

VERTICALLY LAMINATED BRIDGES

Originally patented by Steinway in 1880, this groundbreaking design is now found in nearly every high-performance piano in production. The solid bridge is replaced with multiple layers of wood, like a layer-cake on its side. This design transfers vibrations from the strings to the soundboard most efficiently and with the least loss of energy. This improves every aspect of tone, projection, sustain, and dynamic range.

ONE-PIECE BRIDGES

Bridges conduct the vibrations from the strings into the soundboard. This piano has bridges made of one piece of wood and may have a maple cap. Most uprights and entry-level grands have one-piece bridges. Nearly all performance grands include vertically laminated bridges to improve tone, sustain, and dynamic range.

HAMMERS WITH UNDERFELT

Dense under-felt is applied before the white hammer felt is glued and fastened to the hammer molding. This reinforcement will help the hammer retain its shape through years of impact with the strings. Often overlooked and not something that will cause an issue right away, this is a feature many manufacturers will eliminate in order to cut costs.

HAMMERS NO UNDERFELT

This manufacturer did not include under-felt on this piano. Instead, the white hammer felt is glued directly to the wooden hammer-head. Under-felt is a layer of very dense felt that is applied first. This helps the hammer take shape at production and retain shape over years of impact with the strings.

5-POST BACKFRAME

A 5-post backframe is the first indicator that a manufacturer has taken the design of a piano seriously. However, the thickness of the individual back posts matters. A CROSS-SECTIONAL SURFACE AREA(CSA) of 400cm2 or more provides massive support, year after year, for the soundboard’s crown and the nearly 40,000lbs of tension from the strings. The CSA is calculated by multiplying the width and depth of a post, times the number of posts, and it is a good indicator of an upright piano’s structural integrity. The cheapest pianos will have very small backposts or no center backposts at all. 

4 POST BACK FRAME

If the posts are thick, a 4-post backframe can be solid, but nearly all premium uprights have 5 posts. The back-frame of a piano is responsible in large part for a piano’s longevity and performance later in life. Inspect the back-frame of every upright you consider purchasing, because the thickness of the back-posts will be one of the first indicators of an upright piano’s quality.

DENSE, MAPLE WOOD RIM

The rim of a grand piano is primarily responsible for maintaining the crown, or curvature, of the soundboard. This curvature is absolutely critical to a piano’s ability to project sound and maintain a tuning to proper pitch. As such, strong, rigid, dense wood makes for solid rim construction. Steinway pianos have a unique one-piece, continuous bent, hard-rock MAPLE rim, Boston pianos have a hard-rock MAPLE inner rim and the outer rim is MAHOGANY. Essex grands have BEECH inner rims and MAPLE outer rims. Many manufacturers do not specify their rim material, possibly obscuring the use of inferior materials or allowing for variations in production. 

UNSPECIFIED RIM MATERIAL

Some manufacturers often use terms like “select hardwoods” and “carefully selected wood based on its acoustic characteristics” to describe their materials. Most often in the piano industry, this can be interpreted as “may change without notice.” This manufacturer either does not provide specifications for rim material, uses non-specific terms to describe rim materials, or, in the case of some older pianos, the information was not able to be verified by our research.

DUPLEX SCALE DESIGN

Originally patented by Steinway in 1872, similar designs are now implemented in countless performance grands. Each treble string is sectioned into three separate vibrating lengths. The longest is in the middle and this is the main note we hear. The duplex sections on either end are tuned to the upper harmonics of the main note. This design greatly enhances the complexity and richness of the tone and increases the strength of the very highest notes. 

NO DUPLEX SCALE

This manufacturer did include duplex scale design on this model. Instead, felt (red in this example picture) is used to prevent the length of string that extends beyond the bridge from vibrating. Duplex scale-design is used to improve the complexity and harmonic content of a piano’s tone.

So, which pianos have premium features?

Every Boston & Essex grand has every premium feature. Similarly priced competitors do not. Period.

NOTICE ANYTHING MISSING?


The Yamaha GB1K has none of the premium features found in the higher-priced Yamaha grands, yet the ESSEX EGP-155 has ALL of them!

At nearly 3X the price, the Yamaha C1X almost delivers all the premium features, but why are the soundboard quality and rim material left unspecified? The rim material on the SX series pianos is specified (it ought to be, for the price), which seems to acknowledge maple as a superior wood for rim construction, but rim material is not specified for any other pianos.

We dug deep enough in our research to find a European brochure that listed Roslau strings on the CX series grands and up, but we cannot be certain that Roslau strings are used in the Yamahas sent to the USA. Roslau strings are not listed anywhere on the Yamaha USA website. We decided to give them the benefit of the doubt.

As experts in the field, we cannot imagine the difficulty a shopper might have in trying to compare pianos with Steinway’s competitors leaving so many major components unspecified. But this chart shows clearly the components left out altogether.

ABOUT MAPLE RIM MATERIAL

“So when a piano ad touts a “hardwood rim,” or a rim made from “select hardwoods,” chances are that the woods involved are not very hard at all; if they were, the ad would likely name the actual species of wood instead of hiding behind such general and potentially deceptive terms.” 

-LARRY FINE, PIANOBUYER.COM


We feel the same way about “not specified.”

ABOUT ROSLAU STRINGS

Stahl- and Drahtwerk Röslau GmbH is a German manufacturer of some of the finest piano wire in the world. Known for its consistency and rich tone, it is found in many high-performance pianos…including Essex, by Steinway & Sons.

ABOUT MAPES STRINGS

Known for their “singing tone” and made right here in the USA, Mapes strings have been found on Steinway & Sons pianos for over a century. A fourth-generation company, Mapes holds the first patent for a string winding machine. 

Even the most affordable Essex upright has every premium design feature.

NOTICE ANYTHING MISSING?


At nearly 2X the price of the Essex EUP-123S the Yamaha U1 is one inch shorter and has HALF THE BACK FRAME cross-sectional area (CSA). At the same price, Yamaha’s P22 is 4″ shorter! Is it any wonder schools are switching to Essex? We came to the conclusion that Steinway simply delivers a better value with the Essex brand pianos.

The Yamaha B2 is certainly affordable, but has 25% of the back frame CSA of the Essex EUP116 and NONE of the premium features!

ABOUT BACK FRAME CROSS-SECTIONAL AREA

A 5-post back frame is the first indicator that a manufacturer has taken the design of a piano seriously. However, the thickness of the individual back posts matters. A cross-sectional surface area of 400cm or more provides massive support, year after year, for the soundboard’s crown and the nearly 40,000lbs of tension from the strings. The CSA is calculated by multiplying the width and depth of a post, times the number of posts, and it is a good indicator of an upright piano’s structural integrity. The cheapest pianos will have very small back posts or no center back posts at all. 

Roslau strings? Only found on the most expensive Yamaha available, the YUS5. Why would you have to spend over 3X the price of an Essex to get the best strings?

“Why we switched.”

“Big decisions require a lot of research; we did so much of it, this page became one of the most talked-about pages in the piano world. When we sold Yamaha and Kawai acoustic pianos side-by-side, our impression was that dollar-for-dollar, these two brands were equal in quality and performance and it really came down to which piano had the touch and tone a shopper preferred.

When the new Yamaha B Series uprights came out, we noticed several departures from what we considered to be good design. The new Yamaha pianos were not like the ones we had represented for over 20 years. Most of our clients are parents shopping for a starter piano for their children to practice on while they are taking lessons, so pianos in the more affordable price ranges represent a large part of our business. We have always prided ourselves on being “good shoppers,” able to select the best values for our customers, so we set out to discover who was producing the finest affordable pianos in the world.  ”
-quote taken from “artistpianos.com”

 

Yamaha beat Baldwin.

It is worth noting that through the 1960s and 1970s, many would agree that Baldwin was the predominant affordable piano, recommended by teachers and technicians alike for beginners and recreational pianists. When Yamaha pianos were initially exported to North America they were not considered to be well made. In fact, the Japanese manufacturer had much to learn about seasoning wood materials for the North American market, as homes in this region are typically much drier than those in Japan—especially during the winter months when we heat our homes and dry the air. Today, Yamaha touts their “Seasoned for Destination” pianos, where the wood for pianos destined for North America is seasoned longer than the wood for pianos destined for the domestic Japanese market. 

By the 1980s and 1990’s, Japanese and South Korean factories produced very consistent quality products, beating out American manufacturers across a myriad of industries, pianos included. It took a long time, decades in fact, but Yamaha, and to a lesser degree, Kawai and Young Chang, won the hearts and minds of piano technicians and teachers, eventually replacing Baldwin as the most recommended affordable piano. Baldwin went bankrupt in 2001.

But that was before Boston & Essex.

In 1991, Steinway & Sons developed an entirely new line called BOSTON PIANOS. This new brand incorporated all the best design features of a Steinway, but instead of being handmade, it was manufactured on a production line under the supervision of a team of Steinway engineers. It was an unqualified success. TODAY, BOSTON IS THE #1 EXCLUSIVE COLLEGIATE PRACTICE PIANO. Over 200 top colleges and universities use Boston pianos exclusively in their practice rooms, faculty offices and for any purpose not fulfilled by a Steinway piano.

Essex simply delivers.

In 2001, building on the success of the Boston line, Steinway developed ESSEX PIANOS using the same formula. ESSEX benefits from global labor rates, bringing the cost down to about half that of a Boston, but retains ALL OF THE CORE DESIGN FEATURES. Essex is the only affordable brand we have ever encountered where EVERY MODEL IS BUILT THE SAME. Steinway does not eliminate features or alter material specifications simply to meet a lower price point. In fact, Essex pianos compare favorably with similarly-sized pianos by other manufacturers priced two to three times higher.

When we did most of our research, we found a lot of chatter about Essex in piano forums. We do not recall ever seeing anyone say they did not like the performance of Essex pianos. The only recurring criticism, however unsubstantiated, was that shoppers would be “paying for the name.” In other words, the price of Essex was assumed to be elevated because it is a Steinway product. We can say, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Essex delivers value far beyond its price. In fact, when you compare similarly-priced pianos side-by-side, it might be said that shoppers are paying too much for the Yamaha name these days.

In fact, when you compare similarly-priced pianos side-by-side, it might be said that shoppers are paying too much for the Yamaha name these days.

ESSEX EGP-155 VS. YAMAHA GB1K

5′ 1″ ESSEX EGP-155
MSRP $14,900

PREMIUM SOUNDBOARD

VERTICALLY LAMINATED BRIDGES

DUPLEX SCALE DESIGN

TOTAL RIM 6.22 CM THICK
MAPLE WOOD

Outer rim pictured in inches.

STEINWAY-STYLE
ROSETTE FLANGE

STEEL REINFORCED
ANTI-WARP KEY SLIP

SPADE LEG

BEVELED CABINETRY

 

5′ 0″ YAMAHA GB1K
MSRP $14,999

STANDARD SOUNDBOARD

“STANDARD” SOLID BRIDGES

STANDARD SCALE DESIGN

TOTAL RIM 5.4 CM THICK
UNSPECIFIED MATERIAL

Outer rim pictured in inches.

BEAD & SANDPAPER
FLANGE

NON-REINFORCED KEY SLIP.

SQUARE LEG

BOX-SQUARE CABINETRY

 

ESSEX EUP-123 VS. YAMAHA U1

49″ ESSEX EUP-123
MSRP $7,890

500CM CSA BACK FRAME

MASSIVE! 2X the U1!
5 Posts each 10cm x 10cm​

VERTICALLY LAMINATED BRIDGES

STEINWAY STYLE KEY
BUTTONS: LESS FRICTIOn

ALL WOOD ACTION PARTS

BRASS ACTION KNOBS

48″ YAMAHA U1
MSRP $11,399

238CM CSA BACKFRAME

Cross Sectional Area (CSA)
5 Posts each 6.6cm x 7.2cm

“STANDARD” SOLID BRIDGE

STANDARD KEY BUTTONS
GLUED INTO KEY STICK

PLASTIC ACTION PARTS NOT USED IN GRANDS

PLASTIC ACTION KNOBS

ESSEX EUP116 VS. YAMAHA B2

46″ ESSEX EUP-116
MSRP $7,690

.

PREMIUM SOUNDBOARD

VERTICALLY LAMINATED
BRIDGES

5 Massive Backposts

450 CM CSA BACK FRAME​

Each post is 10cm x 9cm thick

MASSIVE BACKPOSTS

LONGER KEYS STICKS
STRAIGHT AT MIDDLE C

MAPLE-WOOD ACTION PARTS
SAME WOOD AS STEINWAY & BOSTON

BRASS ACTION KNOBS

DOUBLE BRASS CASTERS

44.5″ YAMAHA B2
MSRP $6,749

Actual plugged knot on B2# J30264709

STANDARD SOUNDBOARD

STANDARD SOLID BRIDGE

4 Posts

104 CM CSA BACK FRAME

Each post is 6.5cm x 4cm thick

BACKPOSTS

SHORTER KEY STICKS
BENT AT MIDDLE C

PLASTIC ACTION PARTS NOT
USED IN YAMAHA GRANDS

PLASTIC ACTION KNOBS

STEEL CASTERS

So, What Does All of This Mean?

We thought to ourselves: if we were presented with two pianos with NO BRAND NAME, how would we tell one from the other? After playing each piano to get our first impressions, we would search for these features and materials, because we know they are found in the industry’s best pianos. This is not just a list of Essex or Boston or Steinway features, it is an explanation of specifications found on most performance pianos. It just so happens that Essex pianos have them all, and at an affordable price.

While the “test drive” will ultimately tell you which pianos will inspire you, not all shoppers are accomplished pianists and some do not play at all! We hope this article makes your piano search more enjoyable. 

There is always something better and more expensive. With Essex, Steinway has created a unique affordable piano line, where EVERY MODEL IS MADE THE SAME and never are advanced features left out simply to lower the cost. Essex delivers exceptional performance well above its price and we feel anyone looking at new or used pianos in an affordable price range should absolutely give them a try.

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