The Piano Marketplace in a Nutshell

Pianos being made today, similar to other mass-produced consumer products, are generally designed with a price point in mind. Although instruments made by competing piano manufacturers often appear very similar, the quality of design, materials and workmanship, and the price, varies immensely. Some pianos of lower price and quality are literally “thrown together” on an assembly line where speed, and cutting costs, are the ultimate objectives. Higher-quality (and higher-priced) pianos are usually constructed with much more care, and with better quality materials, and the results, in touch and tone quality, are quite apparent. In general, in the piano world, you get what you pay for. This pertains to both the new piano market and the used piano market as well.

As always, there are exceptions to this rule. Private parties selling a used instrument are frequently clueless about how to price it, and may ask either too much or too little. They often base the price on what new ones are selling for, without regard to the condition of the used instrument. Or they may be comparing it with another used piano of a similar size, brand or model they saw for sale in the classified ads or on the web, again without knowing whether the piano in the paper was over- or underpriced, or in better or worse condition than their own. (To help you sort out whether a private party is asking a reasonable price for a used piano, we offer the Ballpark Appraisal Service.) Dealers of new instruments often set ridiculously high retail price tags on pianos, assuming that customers will always insist on negotiating prices down; and if they don’t, well, so much more money in the dealer’s pocket. To help you ascertain whether a dealer is asking a fair price for a new piano, we offer a comparative pricing guide at this site. On the other hand, these same dealers will also often have clearances and other sales events where deals can sometimes be had, because they need to move the pianos and get out from under the flooring charges and interest.

The piano marketplace can be divided up into two major areas: new and used. Throughout this document we will be talking about both new and used instruments and making comparisons between the two. In your travels, you may encounter both types, side-by-side at certain dealerships, or in other places where pianos are being featured or sold. This is true also of the new e-marketplace, the Internet. Today many pianos are changing hands over the Internet, as piano buyers become more comfortable with that medium. In both the “virtual” and “real” piano marketplace, however, caution is always necessary.

There are many similarities, but also significant differences between the new and used piano markets, and how business is done in each. Sometimes it is better, in your particular situation, to start shopping in the “new piano” market; other times, in the “used”; many people actually enjoy doing both at the same time. Both new and used pianos have their pros and cons. (Yes, just like with cars, new pianos can and do have problems, too.) There are of course, some people who will only buy “new”; others have a special love for the “old.” But used pianos don’t necessarily have to be “old,” “antique,” or even “vintage.” As with cars, some can be almost “like new”, “used but still young,” or have had very little wear or use. In reality there is new, old, and a whole spectrum in-between. In yet another category are “re-newed” pianos: those that have been restored, refinished, reconditioned, or rebuilt. So there really are a lot of different options available to you.

Today, as always, there is the perennial question, “are new pianos as good as those they used to make?” Manufacturers of new pianos often go to great lengths to maintain hard earned reputations of quality, but they still have to turn a profit, which is getting harder nowadays, because they have to pay their workers at least minimum wage, and also keep from running afoul of government watchdogs like O.S.H.A and the E.P.A. That gets expensive. Often, these days, it seems the preservation of quality (or at least the reputation) is left up more to the marketing department than to production or engineering. New piano models frequently come out that are not constructed the same way as the old ones. They may sometimes have additional features or better materials; though it seems more often today, additional “features” but skimpier construction is more the rule. Piano makers are always trying new things, which they believe will solve the multiple objectives of making the pianos easier or less costly to build, more attractive for the buyer, and easier for dealers and salespeople to sell, while still somehow not diminishing the quality. All-too-often neither management nor production completely grasp how in subtle yet significant ways the quality of the instrument is being undermined, because they are not the end user, and have unfortunately become too far removed from those who perform on their products. Because these instruments are often inserted into the line among recognized pianos whose quality and features are time-tested and well-known, consumers often make erroneous assumptions about the new models’ construction and quality. In recent years many buyers have become aware that the application of a well-recognized and respected name to the fallboard of a piano is no longer a guarantee that the instrument is the same quality it once was. Many manufacturers now have many of their parts, or the entire piano, made by someone else. More on this later.

The reason, of course, that there are so many different sizes, styles, and qualities of pianos today is because everybody has different needs, whether they be budget, or musical, or style, or space. Most people simply don’t need a 9 foot concert grand, (and most simply can’t afford it, although many would love to have one if they could!) Although electronic and digital pianos and keyboards have taken over much of the low end of the piano market (the segment that used to be filled by the small vertical pianos called spinets and consoles), most of the pianos sold today still lie in that broad median between studio and serious grand. Far more vertical pianos are still sold than grands. Many people, particularly those who don’t play or are just learning to play, now buy pianos with electronic player units installed, or else they have the electronic player units installed as retrofit kits.

Many pianos that are sold today are not considered top quality artist instruments, but are nevertheless fine quality, rewarding products on which a student or aspiring artist can make good progress and have a good experience, whether vertical or grand. These are often spoken of by piano salespeople as being a “good value” or “an affordable piano”. This can mean anything from “you get more for your money”, to “this piano is not an “actual” Steinway (or Baldwin or Bosendorfer),” but it has many of the same features and basic quality and you don’t have to mortgage your home to buy it.” (It also often means nowadays it’s made overseas rather than in the U.S.) (–And don’t get me wrong, even so it may still be quite expensive.)

If you are really attracted to a (new) big name piano but don’t quite have the budget to take it home, there are alternatives: Second or third line pianos (meaning “second place” or “third place” in quality) made by (or, at least, designed by) the big name piano companies, are usually also available at the dealership, so that you can at least own a “piece” of the dream instrument (or a piece of the name). An example of this would be buying one of Steinway’s Boston line pianos (built for Steinway by Kawai ), if you can’t afford a “real” Steinway. Or, you could also buy Steinway’s Essex piano (built for Steinway by Young Chang), if you can’t afford the “Boston.” This same system of “second” or “third” line pianos is also utilized by other big name piano makers, such as Baldwin.

The challenge here for the piano buyer is in being able to discern whether the substitute “value” or “affordable” piano will really fulfill their needs. In some cases it will. Other times it just doesn’t inspire them like having the “real thing”. (Or impress their guests, one of the other main reasons why pianos are purchased.)

Still, other folks often end up taking out a second mortgage or getting into financing because they just have to have that “new” “big name” $50,000.+ grand, or $20,000.+ upright. That’s o.k. too.

Another alternative, for those who would like to keep the cost down, is to see if you can’t find the “dream instrument” on the used market for the same price as you would pay for, say, a second line “new instrument”. Actually, that’s what many people end up doing. (You may well be able to get a used Steinway grand in good original condition, or even rebuilt, (refinished is nice too, if you just have to have that new piano look) for what you would pay for the new Boston or Essex grand. Also remember that private party sales don’t require you to pay sales tax, which can be substantial on a $20,000. to $50,000. purchase. Dealers of used pianos may or may not charge sales tax, depending on the particular situation.)

Yet another option, taken increasingly today by buyers in search of a quality instrument on a budget, is to buy a vintage instrument similar in quality to the “big name” pianos, but without the big name. Because they don’t have the “big name” on the fallboard, these pianos are often sold at a substantial discount by parties who are not aware of their intrinsic quality or worth.

In the early 1900’s (up through around 1940) there were many manufacturers of quality pianos who made what were essentially Steinway or Mason & Hamlin “clones”, or “copies” (although not exact copies of course, because of patent protection on the genuine articles, but nevertheless very, very similar construction, materials, and design). Piano technicians, and also many pianists, are usually familiar with these instruments, having run across them in their travels. Conover, A.B. Chase, Steinert, Hume, Jewett, and Wissner are some of the names of reputable manufacturers, well-respected in their day, who made quality instruments that are often the equal of (and sometimes even superior to) the equivalent “big name” pianos. These pianos, which are often flippantly referred to as “a poor man’s Mason & Hamlin” or “a budget copy of a Steinway” are most often far from that, being superb instruments in their own right. They do, however, too often lie in the shadow of “big name” pianos, mostly because the advertising dollars to enhance their reputations are no longer there.

Caution: do not confuse these quality vintage instruments with newer instruments that may have the same name on the fallboard, which were made after the original U.S. company went out of business or the name was sold. Many of these piano names, which still have a good deal of reputation and advertising clout 50+ years later, have been recently placed on Asian or other overseas-built pianos that are nothing like the original instrument, either in design or quality.

There are often also quality instruments hiding behind names where you wouldn’t expect to find them. For example, in recent years the names Wurlitzer and Kimball have not represented what was considered a top-flight piano, to say the least. However there were many Wurlitzers and Kimballs made before 1940 that were really superb instruments, and help explain why the names lived on so long after the quality of the piano had faded.

It’s important to keep in mind that dealers of new pianos often also have used pianos for sale, but will use them mainly to try and leverage you into the purchase of a new instrument. Frequently the technique employed is to keep a used piano on the floor at a high price and in poor condition, so as to make the new models look like a better deal by comparison. Dealers would do well to recognize that this strategy has its drawbacks, one of the main ones being that when the customer who continues to look around happens to find the same model used piano for sale from a private party, one that is in better condition and being offered at a lower price than the dealer’s inflated figure, they will grab that piano rather than buying from the dealer. Often heard from dealers of new pianos, in answer to the question “do you have a used one?”, is, “Oh, let’s see, we had one of those come through here last January…” (this is now August) ” …we just don’t get them in very often. We could put your name on a waiting list if you’d like…maybe sometime in the next year one will show up…” There are, fortunately, dealers of new pianos who don’t play those games, and who realize that selling used pianos or trade-ins is an important part of their business. But many dealers of new pianos really do not want to sell, or even deal with, used pianos. It’s easier for them to try and “keep things simple,” even though it may not be what’s best for the customer.