A few decades ago, this would have been a much easier question to answer. The three most important considerations would simply have been age, condition and origin. As I mentioned previously, pianos are not like violins or cellos in that their tonal quality and responsiveness does not necessarily improve with playing and age. Granted they can, if properly maintained, last generations but the complex mechanics of the action and sheer volume of components means that a piano will require a degree of maintenance and restoration if it is to be played regularly over many years. It would be unfair to try to compare a piano made over forty years ago (however prestigious the manufacturer) against a more modern or new one. Although the basic design hasn’t significantly changed in over a hundred years, increased precision building techniques and innovations have made pianos more resilient to modern climate controls such as under-floor heating and air conditioning. The lovely looking turn of last century Bechstein on Ebay may seem a tempting prospect but unless it has had extensive (and very expensive) restoration, it will simply not be equipped to withstand your home’s central heating system as the manufacturing methods down to the animal based glues used wouldn’t have considered this.
If you are choosing a pre-owned piano, condition is another crucial factor given the complexity and consistency required for all those 88 notes. Again, to use our four wheeled friend, the ‘mileage’ and the way it has been played is such an important consideration and can make the difference between an absolute liability and a lifetime of pleasurable. I have seen five year old prestige German pianos in terrible condition from the battering of professional hands, twenty four seven. Conversely, I have seen far more modest and older instruments that look like they have never been touched. There are signs to look out for but essentially it is only a qualified piano technician that can give an accurate appraisal of any particular instrument. This is again why it is so important, particularly with pre-owned instruments, to choose a piano from a dealer like ourselves, who not only have the knowledge of what to look out for but, particularly in our case, the staff and expertise to correct and restore any problem.
Origin of manufacture (particularly with new pianos) is now a very complex, somewhat muddy and yet obviously very important consideration. It is probably the hardest question to answer regarding your choice. Back in the day, the European manufacturers, particularly the German and Austrian, were considered to produce the finest pianos in terms of quality and expressiveness. Instruments from Japan and Eastern Europe were considered excellent mid-level instruments and budget pianos tended to come from China and Russia. This is of course a generalisation and there have always been exceptions. However, with the movement of manufacturing bases and the prestige manufacturers now producing ‘second tier’ instruments in the Far East, things have profoundly (and in some cases rather confusedly) changed. China for example produces an enormous volume of pianos, not just for their own domestic market but for export all over the world. They have some of the most technologically advanced production facilities in the world and I have personally visited one factory where I saw a piano coming off the production line every two minutes! Some of these instruments now house top quality European action parts and soundboards and, to the layman, look indistinguishable from the German and prestige manufacturers. To confuse matters further, they all tend to have German or European names.
I can go into far greater detail about all the variables and specifics for each manufacturer but not only would I have to make this buyers guide of Silmarillion proportions, it would probably confuse you further. Simply put, the quality of the seasoned woods, technical know-how and historical expertise all have their part to play in why many of the European manufacturers are still unsurpassable in quality, tone and expressiveness. However, Japanese manufacturers such as Yamaha and Kawai do also produce fabulous and comparable pianos at certain price points. Visiting us and seeing/hearing our varied and superlative stock of pianos, new and pre-owned, is always the best course of action and we have wonderful instruments to meet all budgets.
I will end this section with one important point. Many times I have heard clients say “I am not worthy of such and such an instrument. I am only a beginner etc etc”. Not to offend, but I think this is a somewhat narrow way of thinking as, whether you are playing chopsticks or Gaspard de la nuit, the better the piano, simply the better your ability to express the music will be. Please don’t think that by saying this, it is our remit as a company to always sell the most expensive piano as we have excellent instruments at all price points. However, I would personally recommend choosing the best you can afford as, for many, it will be a once in a lifetime purchase.