Boston Piano Silent Salesman

From the beginning, Boston pianos were advertised as completely “Designed by Steinway & Sons.” Many of the features Steinway emphasized turned out to be common on most similarly-priced pianos.

As one of the most – if not the most – expensive pianos made in America today (with uprights starting over $50,000 and baby grands starting at $87,000), Steinway & Sons pianos are simply not accessible to a majority of piano buyers.  Making matters worse for Steinway is increased competition from high quality – yet more affordable – piano brands like Yamaha and Baldwin.  This is why a company surrounded by romance and global esteem has seen such a catastrophic drop in piano sales from around 6000 pianos per year in the 1920s to an estimated 1000 or fewer pianos per year today.  Faced with these sobering numbers, Steinway & Sons was forced to diversify their offerings and increase their appeal among piano shoppers.  Thus, in 1991, Steinway introduced its first line of “mid-priced” pianos.  Boston was born.

The Boston Piano Company

Steinway Promise Certificate

Steinway reasoned that Boston buyers would trade their pianos up to Steinways over time. This full-trade guarantee was designed to encourage Boston piano owners to trade up.

At the time, Steinway was owned by a finance company in Waltham, Massachusetts, and the Birmingham Family (who owned the finance company) planned to name the new line “Waltham” after their home city.  At the very last minute, they chanced the new piano’s name to Boston thinking it would be more recognizable and easier to pronounce around the world. Boston was conceived as a Steinway-branded alternative to Yamaha pianos – one that could appeal to universities and other institutions who were filling their classrooms, practice spaces and performance stages with Yamahas.  Boston pianos would feature a number of Steinway-designed “upgrades” and sell for less than half of the price of an American-made Steinway piano.  With this strategy, Steinway hoped to make headway into the growing market for high-quality, mid-priced pianos and somewhat mitigate the sales slump they were experiencing with their flagship brand.   Their marketing strategy was to offer Boston owners a 10-year full-trade guarantee should they upgrade to a Steinway & Sons piano.

Due to its limited space and extreme age, the Steinway factory in New York didn’t have the ability to manufacture mass-produced pianos.  In addition, the cost of building a bespoke factory for Boston would be prohibitive, so Steinway began a 3-year search for a modern piano factory that could build Boston pianos for them.  In the end, they made an OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer’s) arrangement with Japanese piano builder, Kawai, who was eager to boost their own sales.  Surprisingly, the first announcement for this new partnership came – not from Steinway – but from Kawai, who claimed they would soon begin “designing and building” upright and grand pianos for Steinway.

Kawai claims it designed and built Boston pianos

The announcement that Steinway would offer a new, mass-produced piano didn’t come from Steinway. It came from Kawai.  Kawai claimed it would both design and build the new piano. Click to read the LA Times article.

This is interesting because Steinway often says Boston was designed “from the ground up” by Steinway & Sons.  It would appear that this claim isn’t true – at least not completely.  In any case, the two companies eventually agreed upon designs for a variety of upright and grand pianos that would share several structural and functional components with Kawai pianos, but offer Steinway-designed “upgrades” like an all-wood action, tapered soundboard, wide-tail design and more.  (Steinway even acknowledges that many of their “Features of Distinction” are found on several competing pianos.  Baldwin pianos, for example, have used “wide tail” designs for decades.  Yamaha pianos have tapered soundboards.  …and it’s almost hard to find a piano that doesn’t use hard wood key buttons nowadays.  That would seem to detract from the “Designed by Steinway” narrative somewhat, but I guess they’re hoping we don’t notice.  It’s also important to note that Kawai disputes Steinway’s assertion that these features elevate Boston pianos over Kawai and other pianos, claiming that they would never build a piano for someone else that was better than instruments that carry their family name.  Perhaps the jury is still out on which of the two pianos is better.  Both have their fans, but – in my opinion – neither offer strong competition for global mainstays like Yamaha.)  One important note is that Boston pianos are not built in the US.  They are not “made by Steinway.”  They are built in Kawai’s Japanese or Indonesian plants (depending on model) on the same assembly line as their Kawai siblings.  Some Steinway dealers have misrepresented this information either in error or in an attempt to justify the piano’s comparatively high price… but one thing is for sure:  there is no “Boston Piano Factory” anywhere in the world.

Were Boston Pianos really designed by Steinway?

This screen cap from shows Steinway’s claim that they designed Boston “from the ground up.” However, Boston pianos appear to have far more in common with Kawai than Steinway. Who really designed Boston – Steinway or Kawai? …or did they do it together?

After a seemingly soft start, Boston got a major upgrade in 2009 with “The Performance Edition.”  This upgrade introduced the “Octagrip Pin Block” (a multi-layered design based on Steinway’s “Hexagrip” patent), a maple inner rim and upgraded keytops.  Boston received yet another update in 2016 with “The Performance Edition II,” which introduced a “lower-tension” scale design and some cosmetic improvements.  With each variation, the price for Boston pianos rose – limiting their appeal to first-time piano buyers and mid-priced piano shoppers.  Today, most Boston Piano models range anywhere from 10% – 50% more expensive than a Yamaha piano with the exception of their two largest grands.


Introducing Essex

Essex Pianos designed by Steinway

It seems that Steinway has tried hard to bury the original Essex piano designs that came out in 2001. They were “aggressively Art Deco.”

Looking back, Steinway’s introduction of the Essex brand was probably one of the greatest blunders in Steinway history.  The idea was to introduce a lower-priced brand of pianos with an  upscale look and a distinctly “Steinway Designed” performance.  This third line would give Steinway a “good-better-best” solution for their dealers, thus removing the “need” for other brands.  Steinway was well known for strongly discouraging their dealers from carrying competing brands like Yamaha or Baldwin, but this new three-tier retail solution would give Steinway everything it needed to both grow its mid-priced market share and to push other brands out of Steinway dealerships worldwide.  Unfortunately, this plan nearly shattered completely in 2001 when the world saw Essex pianos for the first time.  Perhaps Steinway miscalculated how popular the Art Deco style was in early 2000s America, but these new pianos – including two grands and five upright styles all made via an OEM agreement with Young Chang – were not popular at all.  One might say they were “aggressively” Art Deco (this was especially true of the vertical models) such that their connection to Steinway made little difference to consumers.  Even their name “Essex” – which had long been affiliated with New York City’s Essex House – seemed more focused on evoking a style than any connection to Steinway.  Unfortunately, potential buyers were so put off by the pianos’ cabinet designs that their technical features and connection to Steinway didn’t matter much anyway.  Interestingly enough, the grands were fairly good pianos.  The EGP-160 (5’3”) in particular was fun to play and the EGP-183 (6’1”) grand was a good, low-price alternative to a Boston or Steinway piano… but Essex Piano sales were, apparently, so soft that Steinway went back to the drawing board almost immediately.


Introducing Essex… Again

Essex Pianos designed by Steinway & Sons

Re-released in 2008 with far more traditional cabinet designs and styles, the Chinese-built Essex pianos were more successful than their Korean-made predecessors.

Finally, in 2008, Steinway reintroduced the Essex brand with an entirely new lineup of pianos – designed in partnership with Pearl River in Guangzhou, China.  (At the time, Pearl River was thriving around the world and Steinway – apparently frustrated with Young Chang’s design and quality control problems – was ready to make a change.)  The new line featured two grand models and around a dozen vertical models.  The new pianos were designed to appeal to a far more traditional aesthetic, with French cherry designs, contemporary models, and both English and Italian influenced models.  These new pianos would also come with Steinway’s 10-year full trade guarantee… the so-called “Steinway Promise.”

To celebrate Essex’s reintroduction, Steinway created a new logo touting their newly completed “Family of Steinway-Designed Pianos.”  The flagship Steinway brand would be mostly handcrafted in New York City; the mass-produced Boston piano brand would feature costly upgrades that appealed to universities and higher-end players; and the new Essex line would offer lower-priced pianos to folks who wanted to be associated with the Steinway company, but couldn’t afford a Boston or Steinway piano.  For some unknown reason, Steinway has abandoned this marketing strategy – presumably because they were losing too much Steinway business to Boston and Essex and few people were taking advantage of their full-trade option.  Today, both Boston and Essex have been all but removed from Steinway’s website and made to sit at a “children’s table” of sorts.  Boston now shares a separate website with Essex – further distancing the brands from Steinway and delivering a unique – if confusing – message to potential shoppers.  Is Steinway proud of these pianos?  Do they truly believe Boston and Essex represent “Steinway” quality and performance in lower price points?  If so, why make these pianos so hard to find on your own website?

Essex Pianos distinctive features by Steinway

Most of the features listed here are common on similarly-priced pianos, including Pear River – the company that builds Essex for Steinway. Once again, we are left to wonder who really designed Essex pianos?

Though Pearl River is no longer thriving in the US – in fact, they no longer have a dedicated sales office here – I have had the chance to visit the Pearl River factories, and see both Pearl River and Essex pianos progressing through the same assembly lines.  Despite Steinway’s “Distinctive Features” marketing narrative, there appears to be very little design difference between Pearl River pianos and Essex with the exception of the soundboard. Pearl River uses a laminated board, and Essex pianos have solid spruce boards.  Interestingly enough, aside from the more-or-less “standard” features you see on most pianos in their price ranges, Boston and Essex seem to have very little in common.  They use different woods and materials, different strings and different scale designs.  Steinway even admits that some components (like their strings and Essex grand hammers) are outsourced to other companies altogether!  It’s certainly not a clearly-defined design philosophy or aesthetic.  From my standpoint, “Designed by Steinway” appears to be little more than a marketing slogan with very little basis in fact.  Sure, there are a few features on each brand that harken back to Steinway, but one could easily make the case that any Baldwin or Yamaha piano has just as much in common with Steinway.  One would think that – if Steinway really designed these pianos “from the ground up,” they would share a more cohesive design philosophy.


The All-Steinway School

Shortly after Essex’s reintroduction, word began to spread that Steinway was laying the groundwork for exclusive, “Steinway Product Only” stores.  There were unsubstantiated rumors of both threats and incentives delivered to Steinway dealers who allowed other brands (like Yamaha, Kawai or Baldwin) to share floor space with Steinway products.  Whether or not these rumors were true is difficult to say, but – today – only a very few American piano stores offer Steinway pianos in the same building as Baldwin, Kawai or (especially) Yamaha.  This strategy made its way into the music education community with Steinway’s “All Steinway School” project.  Unfortunate acronyms aside, the goal of this program was to offer music schools exclusive status if they agreed to abandon relationships with other piano brands and commit to Steinway & Sons.  Schools who used Steinway, Boston and Essex pianos in all their major practice and performance areas were given the moniker “All Steinway Schools” and encouraged to celebrate this “achievement.”  Many schools were told that this designation would aid them in recruiting both students and faculty who would naturally want to be associated with the Steinway brand.  When I asked for data to support this claim, Steinway was unable to provide me with anything qualitative.  They were able to share a few anecdotes where a professor or music school director “saw” changes to his or her program after getting the new pianos, but I have to wonder if that is because they got Steinways or because they replaced their aging piano inventory with new instruments.  Would they have seen those results with any high-quality brand of piano?  It’s possible.

Carl Sandburg College (an 1800 student community college in Galesburg, Illinois) became an All-Steinway School in the early 2000s by rejecting other brands and using only Steinway, Boston or Essex pianos in their schools. Other schools like Juilliard and Berklee have decided not to pursue this initiative.

Unfortunately for Steinway, some of the biggest music schools in the world (like Juilliard, Berklee and Oxford to name a few) have yet to embrace the “All Steinway School” initiative.  Some piano professors decry the idea of limiting a student’s experience to a single brand of piano since (s)he is likely to play a variety of brands after graduation.  Some have chosen to embrace modern technology – like Yamaha Hybrid Pianos or Disklaviers.  Others may be skeptical of Steinway’s recruitment claims.  Still others may simply prefer other piano brands like Bosendorfer or Yamaha.  Whatever the case may be, the “All-Steinway” initiative seems limited to schools with big donors who fully believe the Steinway story.


Steinway Piano Galleries

steinway piano gallery arizona

This is the former Steinway Piano Gallery of Tucson, Arizona. Some Steinway Piano Galleries are independently owned, but most are owned by Steinway and staffed with corporate employees.  Sadly, this Steinway store is out of business now.

Whatever you may think of Boston and Essex pianos and their seemingly limited similarity to actual Steinways, there is no question that Steinway has used the two brands to grow their business’s appeal among potential piano buyers.  In fact, this is probably the biggest puzzle of them all.  On one hand, Steinway appears to be so confident in the strength of their “Family of Steinway-Designed Pianos” that they are now opening corporate-owned “Steinway Piano Galleries” in major markets around the US.  On the other hand, they have all but removed Boston and Essex from the Steinway website.  It’s a confusing message – especially for mid-price piano shoppers who have never heard of either brand.  Should they go to a Steinway Piano Gallery and buy a Boston or Essex piano?  …or should they go to a piano store with more variety and select an instrument that most appeals to them?  Even more concerning is the fact that many other brands have opened corporate-owned piano stores before and they’re all gone now.  How long will Steinway operate these stores and how would one get after-the-sale support if they close?  I would certainly prefer to do business with a family owned and operated company with over 50 years of retail experience myself.  It’s too easy for corporations to open and close stores without considering the people they leave behind.


Only time will tell whether the All-Steinway School initiative or the “Steinway Piano Galleries” strategy will work out for Steinway & Sons.  In the end, Boston and Essex may have little impact on the piano business.  Many other brands have come and gone over the years.  Who knows?  What’s important here is that piano shoppers understand what these pianos really are:    lower-priced instruments with little real similarity to Steinway & Sons pianos – built in modern plants by manufacturers who were already building similar instruments.  They aren’t made by Steinway and I’m not even sure how involved Steinway really was in their design process.  I am sure that – for whatever reason – Steinway salespeople tend to exaggerate or even misrepresent Boston and Essex’s connection to Steinway & Sons and that’s a real shame.  Today’s piano shoppers deserve the truth.