A modern grand piano is made up of over 12,000 parts and each manufacturer has its own “recipe.” Piano makers build their reputations based on the designs, materials and workmanship that go into their instruments. …but would a Steinway piano be just as good if it were built in England instead of the US or Germany? Would a Yamaha be a Yamaha if it didn’t come from Japan? Are pianos built in China of lower quality? Does ‘where a piano is made’ matter?
To better understand this question, let’s look at how the piano industry has changed in the last few decades.
If we go back to the early 1900s (during what many call “The Golden Age of the Piano”), we would find nearly 400 piano builders in the U.S. alone. American demand for pianos was at its highest point with over 350,000 pianos sold each year. Two world wars took their toll on the American piano industry, but sales peaked again in the 1950s with over 240,000 pianos sold. By the end of the 1970s, piano sales in the US were again approaching pre-war levels with nearly 290,000 pianos sold – thanks to the influx of brighter, shiny-black pianos mass-produced in Japan and South Korea. Because of their durable finishes and lower production costs (thanks to computer automation), foreign manufacturers put many of the American piano builders out of business. These less expensive foreign pianos sold well because they seemed to perform just as well as American pianos, but – as many early adopters came to learn – they didn’t hold up well in the US climate. Foreign piano builders didn’t season their wood stock in the same way American builders did. As a result, pianos made from inappropriately seasoned wood developed mechanical problems and gradually sounded worse over time. Because of this, it became “common knowledge” that pianos made in Japan or Korea were inferior. Those “in the know” recommended American or European made pianos.
For those who could afford handcrafted American or European pianos, the choice was clear for awhile. Then, some Japanese piano makers (like Yamaha) began to season their wood for American climates and even built some pianos in the U.S. using their computer automation – creating very good quality pianos that even more people could afford. Many pianists (especially touring musicians) came to rely upon the consistency these pianos could deliver and – despite their “sharper” sound – began to prefer these pianos over their more expensive (and less reliable) local competitors. By the late 90s, Japanese pianos (and even a few of the more popular Korean brands) were in high demand all around the world, including the US. …but prices were on the rise due to rising wages in Korea and increased wood costs around the world. This opened the door for piano production in China. The economic emergence of China during the 2000s resulted in a new wave of low-priced, low-quality pianos appearing in the U.S. and around the world. These pianos were not well rated because they weren’t well made – nor were they properly seasoned for American homes. Thus, the common perception was “pianos from the US, Europe, Japan and even Korea are ok… but Chinese pianos are no good.”
Fast forward past economic challenges, trade wars, and competition from new entertainment products like the television and video games… and the piano industry today looks very different.
Currently, just over 30,000 new acoustic pianos are sold in the U.S. annually under about 70 different brand names (which are made by over 30 companies in a dozen different countries). Here are a few examples:
The cradle of the piano industry, Europe still houses some of the oldest and highest quality piano builders in the world. Brands like Bosendorfer (the oldest continuously operating piano builder in the world) have been building artisan pianos by hand since the time of Franz Lizst. Other brands like Bechstein, Bluthner, Fazioli, and even Steinway (Hamburg) have built stellar reputations around the world. In fact, this has caused some foreign brands to purchase “cottage industry” piano builders in an effort to associate their companies with those brands’ prestige (much like Pearl River has done with Schimmel or Samick did with Seiler). Aside from the companies who buy European factories so they can capitalize on their reputations, most European piano builders still build their pianos by hand – making them expensive, but of tremendous quality. European pianos tend to have a “darker” sound than Asian or American pianos, but many manufacturers are redesigning their instruments to make their pianos more appealing to ears around the globe.
There are only three manufacturers still making pianos in the U.S. – Steinway & Sons, Mason & Hamlin, and Charles Walter. All of these pianos – though quite expensive – are generally well-made.
Today, the two main Japanese manufacturers are Yamaha and Kawai. Yamaha has been making pianos since 1900 and Kawai from 1927. Yamaha has built a tremendous reputation among professional musicians and, today, over 3600 musicians claim to be “Yamaha Artists” (without any direct compensation from Yamaha). That, plus Yamaha’s enormous research and development budget and focus on integrating hybrid technologies into their pianos, has made Yamaha one of the top two brands in the world. Kawai has made agreements with other piano companies to produce pianos under different names with varying levels of quality (like Boston pianos for Steinway).
Yamaha and Kawai (both Japanese brands) have moved much of their production to Indonesia – choosing to build their high-end pianos in Japan and most home models in Indonesia. Samick (a Korean brand) also owns a large and relatively modern piano factory in Indonesia. In order to make their home pianos as affordable as possible, many Indoneisan factories use particle board and/or laminates in key areas where solid wood was traditionally used. On smaller home pianos, this makes little difference. On grand pianos and professional uprights, however, this technique rarely produces a really satisfying instrument. …but that doesn’t mean Indonesian pianos should be avoided completely. Yamaha in particular has had a factory in Indonesia for over 40 years. They proudly put their name on their Indonesian pianos because they are made with the same attention to detail as their Japanese instruments. They also cross-train their Japanese and Indonesian builders to ensure industry-leading consistency and quality from both groups. Yamaha often jokes that their Indonesian factory is “made in Japan.” Samick has chosen a different business model. For about 30 years now, they have made a variety of brands for themselves and for over a dozen different companies. Like any OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturers) business, their quality varies depending on the price point their contracting companies require. As a result, some of their pianos may sound good initially, but they do not age well at all.
Over 80% of the pianos sold in the world today are sold in China. That’s why China’s piano building landscape is as crowded as America’s was in the early 1900s. Unlike early 20th Century America, however, today’s piano builders are more globally focused. Because of this, hundreds of small companies are building sub-assemblies with parts obtained from dozens of suppliers and selling them mostly on a regional basis. Thus, many of the brands sold in the Chinese domestic market are pretty primitive by Western standards. While overall quality has improved in recent years, the only pianos good enough to be widely accepted in the U.S. are those with foreign investment and oversight. For example, Pearl River made a big splash in the U.S. about fifteen years ago. …but – like the early Japanese and Korean pianos – they didn’t hold up well in the U.S. and, today, they don’t even have an American office. In fact, you’re more likely to see a Pearl River piano under the name Essex (made by Pearl River for Steinway), Henry F. Miller (made by Pearl River for certain U.S. piano retailers), Ritmuller (another Pear River product) or various brands with the name “Schimmel” (Pearl River owns Schimmel). A. Geyer is another example. Using the notoriety of their German name (The Geyer family had a piano factory in Germany during the late 1870s), A. Geyer pianos promote themselves as modern pianos built with European designs – though their entire production takes place in China’s Zhejiang Province. They use “locally sourced” woods (not seasoned for the US market) and lack the durability and long-term performance most American buyers expect. Not all Chinese pianos fail to meet U.S. piano building standards, though. When Baldwin, for example, purchased their Chinese factory, they brought in leadership from their Arkansas manufactory to maintain the high standards that Baldwin’s brand is known for. Today’s Baldwin pianos benefit from over a hundred years of experience as well as materials and components brought in from the U.S.
Schumann is another piano brand that benefits from its partnership with an American firm. As the U.S. distributor for Schumann, Riverton Piano Company is directly involved in maintaining high quality control in Schumann pianos. The point here is that Chinese piano builders will build whatever you want. You want high quality instruments at a higher price point? They will build it. …but if you want a cheap, piano-shaped object, they will build those for you as well. It’s a very mixed bag.
So, what does this all mean?
It means that – though there are a few brands still built in the US and Europe – most pianos today are made in Indonesia or China… and the quality can vary dramatically between brands. Even worse, some companies build pianos under several different brand names – making your decision even harder.
When considering a new piano, it’s important to ask these questions:
Was this piano made for the U.S. Market?
What the piano’s wood cured for the dry air in American homes? If not, this can cause major issues as the piano ages. It’s easy to make a piano that sounds good today, but how LONG will it sound and play the way you want it to? …and how much will you have to spend to tune and maintain it?
Is the piano made with high quality materials?
This is especially important because it’s what you’re paying for! Premium wood cabinets project sound better (and longer) than cheap particle board cabinets that are made mostly of sawdust and glue. Tuning pin blocks made from top-grade laminates that are properly cured and cross-grained for longevity hold tune better and longer than cheap multi-layered boards. Finally, a few manufacturers have replaced entire sections of their acoustic piano key actions with plastic parts (and entire sections of their digital piano key actions with wood parts). They give compelling reasons for this, but the truth is, it’s just a cost-saving gimmick. Plastic gets brittle as it ages; wood does not. Fine quality pianos are made from wood. This is why pianists around the world demand wood key actions.
So. Does ‘Where a Piano is Made’ Matter?
Of course it does – but not in the way you might think. It’s not the country of origin that matters – it’s the company of origin. You shouldn’t be afraid of where a piano is made. You should be focused on how a piano is made and who is making it. The simple fact is – an American-made piano or a European-made piano is going to be a great instrument, but it’s going to cost quite a bit more than most foreign pianos. …but – like everything we buy – there are good quality and poor quality pianos made around the world. It is certainly possible to find a piano that will perform the way you want it to for decades without breaking the bank. …but you have to do your research.
Need some help? Contact us today and ask for a FREE copy of our Piano Buyer’s Guide. It doesn’t discuss specific brands, but it will give you the basic information you need to make a good buying decision. You can also read our Piano Basics blog and our Digital Piano Basics blog for even more information.
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