Whether you’re new to playing pianos or you’ve been playing for years, if you haven’t looked at the market for pianos, you’re in for a surprise. While piano manufacturers and dealers like to focus their marketing on the timeless quality of acoustic pianos, the industry itself is in a major state of change. The lowering value of the dollar, especially against the euro, has sent the price of European pianos skyrocketing. At the same time, pianos from Asia, including Japan, Korea, China, and Indonesia, have dramatically improved in quality – with an emphasis on dramatic. Finally, American-made piano companies have fallen by the wayside to the point that only a handful exist.
But market changes are only one part of the story. The Internet has completely changed how people research and buy their pianos. In particular, the Net has created some major research points, such as Piano World, The Blue Book of Pianos and the publication, The Piano Book.
The Bottom Line: Whether you’re a new player looking for your first piano, an experienced player looking to upgrade, or one of the largest piano dealers in the country, you have to keep up with a dramatically-altered landscape for pianos. The Piano Buyer’s Guide is Hollywood Piano’s contribution to helping our customers understand how to buy a piano in today’s market. It’s also our way of showing our customers the extent to which we have kept up with those changes, so that they can feel comfortable that we are providing them with the highest-quality choices at each segment of the market.
Understanding The Market: Good, Better, Best & Exquisite
As we have said, the market for pianos has changed from even five years ago. For example, if you’ve heard that Asian pianos made in China, Korea, and Indonesia are inferior in quality, that’s now a myth. Over the last decade, two important changes have taken place.
First, the major Asian manufacturers have all established relationships with world class piano designers from both America and Europe. These designers have completely revamped the scale designs of Asian pianos.
Second, European and American piano manufacturers have established numerous joint ventures and OEM manufacturing relationships with Asian piano manufacturers, which has transformed the industry from regional to global.
Virtually all major Asian manufacturers have improved their manufacturing techniques and quality control significantly. There is also such a free interchange of parts that it is now common for pianos to be assembled in Asia with high quality parts made in America or Europe. In turn, this has also led to a substantial increase in the quality of parts made in Asia.
The end result is that there are now no bad pianos being provided by the leading manufacturers in the market. As long as you are buying from a reputable source, you can expect to get a good upright piano at the entry level starting below $2,500, and a good grand piano starting below $6,000. Quality, furthermore, improves from there.
Today, pianos from reliable sources can be considered as good, better, best, and exquisite.
The Price-Performance Value Curve
Buying a piano has always been about getting the best piano you can for the price you pay. In the vernacular, it’s getting “the best bang for your buck.” Today, the biggest bangs you can get may just be at the lower end of the market.
Improved Low End: Let’s look at this from another perspective. The world’s finest pianos still come from its most well known names, such as Steinway & Sons, Mason & Hamlin, Bosendoerfer, and Bechstein. The price for these pianos is now $30,000+ for a baby grand to $80,000+ for concert grands.
To take one example, if you compare Steinway S baby grand priced at about $40,000 to an entry level baby grand from one of the Chinese manufacturers priced at $10,000, there’s no question that the Steinway is a better piano. However, the lower end pianos have improved in quality to such a degree that it is questionable whether that Steinway is really four times better.
While it’s not likely that someone who can afford a Steinway would buy an entry level piano, the point we’re making is that entry level pianos from Asia are no longer a weak part of the market.
New Mid-Level Market: This same Price-Performance Value Curve exists at a new “mid-level” segment of the market that has emerged in the last few years. Most Asian manufacturers, for example, are now making pianos with scale designs from top American and European designers and high quality parts sourced from both America and Europe.
These pianos have created a new mid-level in the range of $6,000 to $10,000 for verticals and $10,000 to $20,000 for grands. The quality is amazing, especially when you compare them to much higher-priced pianos from America and Europe.
In our opinion, this segment of the market is giving birth to what you might call the worldwide piano, which is a collaboration of high-quality design and parts from different parts of the world. It may be designed in Europe, and manufactured somewhere in Asia with parts from America, Europe and Asia. It also may be designed in America, and manufactured in Eastern Europe with parts sourced from Europe and Asia.
The High End: Because the market has gone worldwide, there are also values at the higher end of the market. The best example is the Estonia piano, which is made in the tiny country of Estonia that is nestled between Finland and Russia. An Estonia sells for about 35% less than better-known European brands, like Bosendoerfer, Bluthner, or Bechstein, yet many people consider it to be every inch their equal.
In our opinion, there will always be a high end of the market for discriminating buyers who want the absolute best and are willing to pay for it. While this segment of the market has always been dominated by a few American and European firms, primarily from Germany, Austria, and Italy, we believe that a select few pianos from other countries will break into this market. We can already see it happening with the Estonia.
Sources of InformationIn the past, people learned about pianos through contact with piano dealers, and with a small number of teachers and technicians. Today, the Internet has completely changed how people acquire information about pianos. Every dealer and manufacturer is expected to have a website. More importantly, independent sources of information are now available that make it much easier to find comparative information about pianos.
In particular, there are three main sources that are widely used: The Piano Book and Annual Supplement by Larry Fine, The Blue Book of Pianos, and Piano World.
The Blue Book of Pianos: The Blue Book of Pianos is a great source of information on both new and used pianos. If you’re looking for a used piano, it has listings of the serial numbers of virtually every piano manufactured by age, so you can determine when a piano was manufactured. Today, the Blue Book of Pianos is available online.
It also has a listing of the base “list” price of new pianos from virtually every manufacturer. Some pianos, but not all, sell for significant discounts from that “list” price, typically in the range of 20% to 30%. The discount varies from brand-to-brand and current market conditions. One warning about the Blue Book is the site does not keep up with the rapid changes in pricing in the market place and some of the retail pricing is not accurate. For the most up to date MSRP it is always best to contact the piano manufacturer.
The Piano Book and Piano Buyer Supplemental Website by Larry Fine: In 1987, an enterprising piano technician, Larry Fine, published The Piano Book, which was a guide to understanding and buying both new and used pianos. Today, The Piano Book is in its 4th Edition, which was published in 2001. In addition, Fine publishes an Annual Supplement every year, which updates information about manufacturers, including descriptions, prices, and the controversial industry “tier” structure, which rates piano by their level of quality.
The Piano Book has become almost like a bible in the industry. At a price of $16.47 on Amazon.com or $24.95 from the publisher’s website, it is well worth the money if you’re considering a new or used piano. The book includes excellent descriptions of how pianos are made, and has numerous tips about how to go about researching and buying them.
This year, the annual supplement underwent a major change. It is now being published twice yearly in both online and paper form as the Acoustic & Digital Piano Buyer. In addition, Fine has also begun accepting advertising, which is going to be a controversial decision because of his piano ratings. It will be hard for many people to believe that advertising revenues will not impact future rating decisions.
The Pianos Book’s Ratings: The Piano Book’s ratings are worth discussing separately. They have become the equivalent of the J.D. Power quality rating for automobiles or a Consumer Reports rating of quality. Until this year, Larry Fine has broken the market into four “tiers,” and then further segmented the tiers by A, B, and C categories. Supposedly, the higher the tier and category, the better the piano.
This year he has made a major change, dividing pianos into two overall categories: Performance-Grade and Consumer-Grade. Each overall category has three levels. Performance-Grade pianos are divided into Highest Quality, High Quality and Good Quality, while Consumer-Grade Pianos are divided into Upper Level, Mid-Level, and Entry Level.
Unlike JD Power's or Consumer Reports' ratings, it’s important to understand that the piano ratings are based upon Larry Fine’s opinion, which is created by consulting with a network of piano technicians. It is not based upon extensive surveys of actual users, which is how J.D. Power creates its quality ratings, or by a systematic testing of products, which is how Consumer Reports creates its ratings. Furthermore, now that the Acoustic & Digital Piano Buyer is accepting advertising, it may sorely impact the ratings' credibility going forward.
Fine's ratings already show what we believe is a bias towards European and American pianos. For example, only one piano made in Asia, the Shigeru Kawai, is listed as a Performance-Grade Piano even though there are a number of Asian pianos rated as Upper Level Consumer-Grade that are highly competitive with European made models that are rated as Good Quality Performance-Grade. In short, the rating structure is highly subjective in nature, and more than anything else, represents the general market buzz about piano models and manufacturers, with all its inaccuracies and biases. As such, while it has an overall validity, any specific make or model can vary in actuality by a category or two, and the consensus among many professionals is that some pianos are completely mis-categorized.
Furthermore, not only is the barrier between Good Quality Performance-Grade pianos and Upper Level Consumer-Grade pianos becoming more and more blurred as high quality pianos from Asian manufacturers catch up to their more expensive European competitors, but also the quality level of Mid-Level and Entry Level Consumer-Grade pianos is also increasing significantly as Asian piano manufacturers invest heavily in improving their piano designs and manufacturing quality.
Piano World: Anyone researching pianos on the Net eventually ends up on Piano World, which is a series of forums on pianos that attracts manufacturers, dealers, technicians, and piano players worldwide. Piano World was started in 1997 by Frank Baxter, a computer programmer who also loves pianos.
Today, it is a website that has classified ads and numerous forums, including seven main forums on piano topics, including Piano Forum, Pianist Corner, Pianist Corner – Non-Classical, Piano Teacher’s Forum, Adult Beginner’s Forum, Piano Tuner-Technician’s Forum, Digital Pianos – Synths & Keyboards, and Composer’s Lounge.
If you’re looking for a new or used piano, you would go to the Piano Forum. We suggest that you “lurk” (just read the posts) for awhile to understand how the bulletin board operates, but eventually you’ll want to start a thread about the pianos you’re researching.
The people on the board are amazingly helpful. Quite literally, Piano World transforms the piano buying experience from a solitary venture into a group experience. While you’ll discover that nobody can tell you what piano you should buy, you’ll get good advice about how to go about finding the right piano for you. In particular, you’ll find out what people in similar situations to you decided to do.
As we’ve said, today’s marketplace is hotly competitive on a global scale. Nevertheless, the market for acoustic pianos is not expanding. Instead, it is slowly contracting because of competition from other forms of entertainment, and from competition from digital pianos. When this is combined with the recent economic downturn, it adds up to a difficult time in the piano business.
Issues for Manufacturers: Competition today is almost relentless. Asian companies, in particular, have taken over the lower end of the marketplace, and are threatening to take over the middle tiers as well. The increasing value of the euro, furthermore, is sending manufacturing costs skyrocketing in Europe, which has translated to huge price increases for pianos made in Europe.
This relentless competition is causing piano manufacturers worldwide to change their strategies. Both American and European firms are increasingly developing relationships with Asian firms by sourcing parts and by having brands of pianos manufactured in Asian plants. Western European companies, furthermore, are also doing the same in Eastern Europe, which has much lower wage structures.
The Asian firms are also opening their doors to top designers from both Europe and America, so that most of the pianos made in Asia today were designed as part of a worldwide collaboration.
Emergence of A Worldwide Piano Market: The trendline is inescapable. The major names in pianos are not going out of business. They are going global. Until salaries equalize themselves globally, most of the pianos designed by American or Western European companies will be manufactured in Asia, Eastern Europe, or even Latin America. These pianos will then be shipped to their respective home countries for a final round of prepping, which is a critical part of the manufacturing process.
While there will always be a high end of the market in which pianos are designed and manufactured in their home countries, the number of pianos in this category will get smaller and smaller. It wouldn’t surprise us, for example, to see the manufacture of Tier 1 vertical and baby grand pianos shifted to Eastern Europe or Asia, although parlor and concert grands will likely still be made at home.
Stencil Pianos: Today, a precursor of this worldwide market is taking place with certain brands of “stencil” pianos. A “stencil” piano is one that does not have the name of the factory’s owner on the piano.
While the industry has placed somewhat of a negative stereotype on so-called stencil pianos, it is unfair when the stencil is the brand name of a major piano maker. In the world of automobiles Lexus, Acura, and Infiniti are stencil automobiles because they are manufactured by Toyota, Honda, and Nissan, respectively. Nobody would consider them somehow inferior.
Basically, there are three types of stencil pianos: OEM, OEM for a distribution company, and branded. OEM stencil pianos are manufactured by one company for another. For example, Steinway has contracted with Kawai to make the Boston line of pianos, and with Young Chang and Pearl River to make the Essex piano. In general, most OEM stencil pianos are made in Asia or Eastern Europe.
Branded stencils are manufactured in a factory owned by the manufacturer, but the manufacturer does not place its own name on the piano. There are two main reasons why a manufacturer might do this. First, many manufacturers perceived that there would be a bias in the marketplace if it placed its name on the fallboard. Both Chinese and Korean manufacturers, for example, were concerned that American and European buyers would not buy a piano with an Asian name, so they purchased the rights to the names of well-known pianos from America or Europe that were no longer in business.
Second, the manufacturer may be trying to create different brand names at different parts of the marketplace, which is what the Japanese auto manufacturers did when they went into the luxury market for cars. Toyota created the Lexus brand because it felt that it would be difficult to sell Toyotas in competition with Mercedes, BMW, and Audi.
Evolution of Stencil Brands: hile many stencil brands almost deservedly had bad reputations when they first reached the market about 20 years ago, stencils in today’s market have a very different reality. The real question today is who stands behind the name on the fallboard. With quality pianos at even the lowest tier in the market, the bigger question is whether the manufacturer has the financial muscle to survive today’s economic downturn in a hotly-competitive marketplace.
In particular, there are a number of smaller companies in the market today who do not own piano factories. They bought the rights to a defunct brand name and have contracted to have the piano manufactured OEM. Essentially, they are distribution and marketing companies. Even though their pianos may be of decent quality, it is questionable whether they have the financial muscle to sustain themselves against companies with global brand names or the backing of national governments. If the company fails, their warranties will be worthless.
Issues for Dealers: Today’s piano dealer has a much more difficult job than in the past when the major criteria for success were based upon local advertising and developing networks of teachers and technicians to create a steady flow of customers into the dealer’s showroom. Today, we believe that successful dealers have to become highly educated about the marketplace, so they can choose brands that not only have high quality, but are manufactured by companies with staying power in the marketplace.
Both dealers and their customers get hurt when a manufacturer falters in the marketplace. Today’s dealers have to take a proactive role in keeping abreast of market trends, so they can make the best decision possible in choosing brands that sound great, can be sold at competitive prices, and will retain their value.
While it’s also important to keep up strong relationships with teachers and technicians, this relationship is changing as well. The more a dealer can do to pass on valuable information to teachers and technicians about today’s market, the better it can help them serve their clients as well.
The bottom line is that today’s dealer must be ready to serve customers who are educating themselves in today’s open marketplace. Look at it from this perspective. What kind of impression will a customer likely form if he seems to knows more about the piano marketplace than the dealer?
The Buying Process
The best advice we can give piano buyers in today’s market is to first determine your need and then determine a budget that will meet that need.
It's also wise to get the Piano Book Annual Supplement to understand the pricing structure of the market. If you’re not an expert, also buy The Piano Book. The more informed you are the better decision you’re going to make.
We also strongly recommend going to Piano World to read the Piano Forum. Even if you don’t post yourself, you’ll find some valuable information. As you start to zero in on two or three models, you’ll likely discover threads on those same models with interesting discussions about them.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is that today’s piano marketplace is radically different from even five years ago. The manufacturers are rapidly evolving a worldwide industry, while piano buyers can educate themselves to an unprecedented degree. In today's economic climate, we also recommend choosing brands from companies with strong financial backing. Let's face it. Nobody wants to buy a piano from a manufacturer who isn't around to back up their warranty.
At Hollywood Piano, we are embracing this new reality. We encourage you to explore our web site, which is filled with valuable information, and to come by in person to talk pianos with us, and to play the piano brands we’ve assembled to meet the needs in today’s marketplace.
For more information, please go to the Piano section on our website. Thank you for visiting with us.
Piano Dealer for the Los Angeles, Burbank, Glendale, and Pasadena areas.