The best pianos in the world are built in the United States by Steinway & Sons of New York.
Steinway is the standard of excellence by which all other pianos are compared. Last season, 99% of concert artists played Steinway pianos exclusively, even though Steinway has never paid for artist endorsements.
Like many other works of art, a Steinway piano has enduring value. The fact is Steinway pianos appreciate remarkably well over time. Independent sources such as Forbes Magazine, The Washington Post and RH Bruskin Associates "Piano Market Survey" note that Steinway pianos perform better as an investment than a wide array of luxury symbols renowned for their enduring prestige.***
New York vs. Hamburg Steinways
Steinway also builds a small number of pianos for the European market in Hamburg, Germany. The primary difference between New York and Hamburg pianos is the hammers. New York Steinways use softer hammers which produce the richer tone most preferred by American performers and audiences. Hamburg Steinways use 'steam pressed' hammers. This gives the piano the slightly darker sound popular with Europeans. Neither New York nor Hamburg Steinways are better than the other; they're just slightly different. All models are available world wide, however local dealers stock styles that are most popular locally. Noted Pianist Keith Jarrett owns both a New York Steinway and a Hamburg Steinway and says he loves them both.
Other European Pianos
"Western European instruments tend to be extremely expensive here due to... the high European cost of doing business and unfavorable exchange rates."
-Larry Fine "The Piano Book" 2000-2001 Supplement
Following Steinway & Sons are a handful of brands manufactured in Western Europe including Fazioli, Pleyel, Blüthner and Bösendorfer. These fine pianos are generally found in cities where there is a dealer interested in quality pianos who is unable to obtain a Steinway dealership. While these are very good pianos, they are not comparable to Steinway and they receive almost no acceptance among artist, concert halls or recording studios. They are mostly purchased by eccentrics and collectors. Following are the reasons for their lack of popular acceptance.
Investment... Quality pianos last for generations, not just years. Conscientious piano buyers should always consider resale value, even if they have no plans to ever sell the piano.
* Good European pianos always cost more than Steinway because of the unfavorable currency exchange.. Plan on investing more to get a piano similar to the comparable-sized Steinway.
* Most used pianos buyers are unfamiliar with these brands. If you do decide to sell the piano, expect it to take awhile to find a buyer even at a fraction of the price you originally paid.
By contrast, independent piano market research confirms that used Steinways often sell for substantially more than the original purchase price.**
Shipping Charges... Because of the relatively small quantity of pianos these companies export (about 300 each year) the only reasonable way to get them here is by airplane. U.S. wholesale prices must be increased to absorb thousands of dollars in air freight charges which are, of course, reflected in the retail price.
Exchange Rates... Since the introduction of the Euro, the relative value of the U.S. Dollar has declined. This means that it costs more US Dollars to build a piano in Europe than it costs to build a piano in the United States.
Are you getting a used piano? Inventories of these pianos turn much slower than more popular brands. Therefore, the piano on display might be five years old or older, significantly reducing its value. If you have any doubt, take down the serial number of the display model and insist that the dealer order a brand new piano at the same price.
To find out when a piano was built take down the serial number and look it up in the Pierce Piano Atlas, the standard industry guide. Virtually all piano dealers have a copy. If can't get your hands on a copy, or you'd rather not buy the book, email us with the serial number and brand.
Low End European Pianos
Over the last 10 years, we have seen the importing of a few pianos from Eastern Europe. While the marketing of these pianos displays European craftsmanship and appeals to anti-Asian bias, the fact is that these are generally poor pianos and terrible investments. We don't sell them and we don't take them in on trade.
"...manufacturers make 'promotional' models that are made to sell at lower prices. This allows the manufacturer to "cash in" on the reputation they have earned with their higher quality pianos. Often they cut a lot of corners and the quality of these pianos is significantly less than the full-featured models."
"The Lazy Man's Guide to Buying An Acoustic Piano"
More important than where a piano is built or whose name is on it is whether or not it is a "promotional" model.
Some companies build as many as three pianos the exact same 'size', while promotional models use thinner plates, rims and back posts leading to shorter life expectancy and the need for more frequent tunings. The use of lighter "weight" hammers and lower grades soundboards in these pianos substantially reduces the quality of the instrument's tone. It is important to determine if a piano is the only model the manufacturer makes in that particular size. If there’s a higher priced piano available in the same size, the lower priced model is a promotional model.
Private Label Pianos
Many consumers are deceived by private label (also referred to as stencil or house brand) pianos. These are sometimes "built" by reputable companies, then sold to a distributor, who then sells them to a dealer, usually without ever physically touching the piano. Those who sell them claiming them to be "the same as" more reputable brands fail to mention that the quality of materials and assembly is always substandard compared to pianos good enough to carry the manufacturer's name. Since these are only about 20 piano manufacturers in the world, it’s pretty easy to figure out if a brand is real.
Before spending money on a private label piano it is important to consider:
* Distributors buy pianos in bulk (containers) with no manufacturer warranty. When the distributor goes out of business the manufacturer bears no responsibility for repairs.
* Manufacturers are constantly focused on their own brand's reputation and prefer to be represented by established, dedicated piano dealers. Thus, private label pianos are typically handled by internet sellers, piano tuners, traveling event promoters and big "superstores."
(Superstores love "house brands" and often order them in containers of 40-50 pianos, with an obscure stencil making comparison shopping virtually impossible.)
* By adding a "middle-man" (the distributor) to the equation, the price of these inferior pianos inherently increases without necessarily increasing the quality of the product.
Before you buy a private label piano, find out who built it. Manufacturer branded pianos cost less, sound better, are built with higher grade materials and have much stronger warranties behind them.
There is now way the piano can ever be marketed at a price low enough to compensate for the middleman cost. Simply put, you will almost always be able to find a better piano for less money than the private label piano.
Gray Market Pianos
The worst piano you can buy is a ‘gray market’ piano. In 2005 one in five pianos shipped to the U.S. from Japan was a used piano. (in 2009 it was 1 in 3) Mostly, they are 20 or 30 year old Yamaha U, G and C models, Kawai KG, and a few Young Chang, Atlas and Diapason models. They are almost all black and many have only 2 pedals. Sellers will try to pass them off as ordinary used pianos. Almost all the used Yamaha and Kawai pianos you find on the internet are gray market. Sellers often have a great story about how these pianos are restored. The truth is these are worn out, used pianos, mostly from institutions in Japan.
A quick, "gray market piano" search on Google will reveal a plethora of information, but it is easy to be mislead. There is a great deal of focus on the debate over whether or not such pianos are seasoned for the U.S. climate. Yamaha says their pianos are built appropriately for any climate, and we believe them. However, this debate skirts the real issue. Climatically appropriate or not, these pianos are worn out beyond their useful lives. Otherwise, why would they be shipped thousands of miles away from their home in the first place?
Ironically, the greatest critic of gray market pianos is Yamaha America Corp. who will tell you if a piano is gray market of you call them. They disavow all responsibility for these pianos. There are a few conscious sellers who actually rebuild the better grands like C-3's and C-7's, but these pianos are much more expensive. Steinway Piano Gallery does not sell them and we won't take them on trade.
China has evolved to become a major producer of pianos. Pianos built in China with guidance from major manufacturers can be extraordinary values.