Japanese piano shopping in Portland (Yamaha baby grand G2 vs. upright U1)

By | November 7, 2018

In recent years I have been spending a good portion of my hobby time on Japanese-related stuff (studying, reading, translating), but before I got into Japanese I spent a lot of time playing a few musical instruments, particularly piano. While this post will be a little off-topic compared to my usual focus, I thought my experiences would be useful for those interested in Japanese pianos and piano shopping in Portland. In any case, I’ll be returning to the regularly-scheduled program next time (:

Until this week, the only piano I had ever owned in my life was a Yamaha Arius, a digital piano. I’ve gotten a lot of use out of it over the years, and was glad I chose it since it had one of the best acoustic-like feels of any piano when I bought it (at least for my price range). There are many pros and cons of digital vs. acoustic pianos, but I think besides price, the main one for me was that digital pianos can be played at any volume level, or even with headphones. This is especially convenient so you don’t bother your neighbors. However, over the years the number of times I have used headphones has been small, and I had various bad experiences when playing with them (buzzing, delay, etc.), although more expensive headphones could have helped some of those things. (Note: it looks like they now have Hybrid pianos that give both the advantages of acoustic pianos yet allow total control over the volume)

For a variety of reasons, my family and I realized that we really wanted to finally get an acoustic piano. The reasons are pretty straightforward: more natural sound and natural feel. While I had been used to the Arius, when I played a medium-end acoustic piano I remembered how different they really are, and in only a few weeks we found the right one for us.

As you might guess, I am somewhat preferential to Japanese-made products, and it just turns out that Yamaha not only makes acoustic pianos in addition to digital ones, they also are one of the most popular companies (at least for the lower-middle rage, whereas if I was a professional pianist I’d likely get a Steinway). It helped that my Yamaha Arius really stood up well and there were no serious issues during its entire use.

The other Japanese brand that is somewhat popular in the US is Kawai, and I have experience a long time ago using one of their digital pianos as well. While I did find one really nice Kawai piano, after talking to several dealers it seems clear Yamaha has a better name, and excels especially in resale value (this was agreed even by a dealer who said he preferred Kawai). While I am not planning on buying a piano and selling it right away, it’s good to have this option. Another argument I heard is that Yamaha makes almost everything under the sun––I accidentally stumbled upon a “G2″ golf cart of theirs when searching for pianos––whereas Kawai focuses on just pianos. While there may be some merit to this, I think it’s telling that Classic Pianos, which I’ll talk about below, only had a single Kawai in stock (to be fair, it was quite a nice piano, but way out of our price range). A counter-argument to this point could be that Yamaha has all the extra money from their other departments to redirect to their piano research and manufacturing if desired. Also, good quality control, work ethic,  and management practices probably carry over from one product to another.

Fortunately, Portland is a wonderful place to buy a piano, with several big stores, all offering reasonably good service and selection. We stopped by several of the bigger ones and tried a lunch number of pianos, since the two most important things (sound and feel) can really only be determined from actually playing a piano yourself.

I should mention that while originally I was really hoping to get a new piano, it turns out that used pianos better matched our budget, and buying a used piano would allow us to get a higher quality (or larger) piano than we would otherwise get new.

The final question for us was choosing upright vs. baby-grand. It is hard to make too many generalizations about this matter, but uprights are generally smaller, tend to have slower action and more shallow sound than baby grands. I’ve been told that the slower action comes from the fact that uprights use strings to return the key to its original position, whereas baby grands use gravity. Having said that, it’s easy to find many cases where uprights can both feel and sound better than baby grands, it just depends on the companies and models you are comparing.

In one of the shops we found a Yamaha G2, a baby-grand acoustic piano that is 5’8” long. However the price seemed a little high (especially given the piano was over 30 years old) and I realized I had more research to do, so we didn’t buy that piano at that store.

Based on the research I did (for example), the Yamaha G2 seems to be known as a very well-made piano that has stood the test of time. There are other models, like the smaller GH1, but after playing a few of those I didn’t nearly like them as much. They had a thinner, cheaper sound (though I think some of that was because those I played were not that in tune).

After hitting a few piano stores, we finally came to Classic Pianos of Portland. This place is, by far, the most amazing piano store I have been to. Not do they have a large floor space––covering two buildings, two floors, and several hundred used and new pianos––but they generally have a very professional atmosphere. I remember the first time I visited a few years ago I was asked “do you have an appointment?”, and while they did let me try the pianos, just the concept of having to make an appointment to visit a piano store blew my mind. While it seems they generally have someone on hand, since the main building containing most pianos is generally locked, it may be better to call ahead just in case. Also make sure you go to the building that is closer to the main street first, which is the office where you should begin (and if you are lucky, end).

I don’t remember the sales guy I spoke with the first time we visited, but the guy this time was extremely nice, very knowledgeable (he happened to be a piano tech), and not very pushy. Whereas one of the agents in the other stories literally asked me “So, are you a doctor?” (to which I responded, “No, I’m not rich”), the guy at Classic Pianos was more down-to-earth, just doing whatever he could to give me enough information to make the right decision.

When we asked him about a Yamaha G2, they just happened to get in a used one a few weeks back which was on their underground floor where they keep a majority of their used (and perhaps lower-end) pianos.

At first, we were a little shocked to see the year this piano was built––1972! But the sales agent assured us that it was in great condition, to the point that it had a single owner who he knew personally, and had actually tuned the piano himself on several occasions. He offered to show us the inside of the piano, and proceeded to adeptly open it and show us how the hammer action works. It was amazing to see how clean all the parts were, I might have believed if somebody told me it was new, and would have never guessed it was over 40 years old!

One thing I liked about this particular used piano was that its tone color (also called voicing) was consistent across the entire range of keys. Having played mostly a digital piano for many years I was used to things being perfectly consistent, but several of the used pianos at another store had ranges of notes which had a noticeably different timbre, or sustained unnaturally long. This Yamaha G2 had no such problems, and also was pretty well in tune (oddly, it seemed to be one of the most in-tune pianos in the entire underground used floor). The sales agent at Classic Piano said that some of those things can be adjusted, and he said they typically spend a lot of time on incoming used pianos to adjust and tune them properly. On the other hand, when I commented about the inconsistent voicing at a different piano store, the agent there said that they could adjust it after we bought it. The problem with that is there might be issues which cannot be adjusted easily to yield an acceptable result.

While trying out pianos, we also experimented playing the Yamaha uprights. They had a new Yamaha upright which was around the same price range, and part of me started to think (again) that maybe a new piano is better after all. The action was pretty quick, and the sound was very distinctly “sharper”, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I felt that certain songs, like quick jazzy tunes or ragtime songs, would fit this piano perfectly.

Things got complicated when the sales agent told us this piano, technically “new”, was a “program” piano, which means it was actually used an a college (in a relatively isolated environment) for a year. So, in a sense, this was quasi-new. The other thing is he said the “sharp” sound was actually partially because of its use over this period, and that a completely new one wouldn’t sound the same. He had a similar piano (I think a U1SH) which had extra bells and whistles, but was essentially the same action, hence would give us an idea what a new U1 would sound like out of the box. He also mentioned he could sell us a completely new one for roughly the same price.

We played the new U1SH and, just as he said, the feel was very different from the “program” U1––almost like a totally different piano! It was much milder and in some ways similar to the G2 baby-grand, but not nearly as deep.

I ended up going back and forth between these three pianos (mostly the U1 and G2) and playing different songs to listen for differences. This in itself was an ear-opening experience because during this time my opinion gradually changed. At the beginning I thought the U1’s sharp sound was nice, but after some time going back and forth the G2 started to feel better and better.

This reminded me of the writing/translation process when I go through various editing runs, how my state of mind is different each time, and I notice different nuances. No matter how much I like to think of myself as a logical thinker and unbiased observer, I think it is really difficult to evaluate pianos (or writing) in an objective way, especially without a lot of time invested. I think things like the physical appearance of the piano (which technically shouldn’t affect the sound) also swayed my sense of how it sound and felt.

After two visits and roughly two hours of playing with pianos at Classic Pianos (not including when we had visited a few years ago), we finally settled on the Yamaha G2 baby grand.

One of the reasons was the uncertainty of the U1’s sound, especially considering it could change that drastically in only a year. The used G2, after having over (presumably) a few decades of good use, wasn’t likely to change its tune. Furthermore, if this specific G2 was picked up by somebody else there was no telling when we would find one with a similar condition (though I imagine it should be possible with enough time). A new U1 would be available anytime (although the extra sharp U1 might be harder to find).

Our decision was made even easier by the fact that Classic Pianos (as well as at least one of the other piano stores we visited) offers 100% trade in on acoustic pianos when upgrading to something more expensive. This means that if we get tired of the G2 someday we can always upgrade to something better and not have to throw away the money spent on the G2. I am not expecting to do that any time soon, however. The piano, even though used, also has a 5-year warranty on anything that is “the piano’s fault”, which is nice to know. (New pianos have a 10-year warranty)

I was a little concerned about how the negotiation would go, since one of the sales agents at another story told me “make an offer”, and I didn’t really feel informed enough to make the right offer. However, our agent at Classic Pianos gave a significant discount on the listed price and said that was it, and said there was no more room for negotiation. While some people might be frustrated by this situation (and perhaps if I was really aggressive I could have still negotiated), it made for a comfortable purchase––especially since we felt we were getting a great deal.

I actually wrote this article before the piano even arrived at our house, wanting to get down as much detail as I remembered about the experience. Rather than writing about my feelings on the piano once it arrives, I think I will save another article for that. I am also considering recording my special renditions of some anime theme songs on YouTube, but we will see how that goes. Finally, while I am not officially putting my Arius out for sale yet, if anyone is looking for a great used digital piano, let me know. One reason I might still keep it is that it has the ability to play high-quality recordings of all the pieces included in a book of classical songs that came with the piano.

I want to close this article by saying that while I did have a good experience at Classic Pianos, where I believe I found a great piano, if you are shopping for a piano I highly recommend you try as many stores as you can, and actually play as many pianos as you can. While some sales agents may be more knowledgeable (or more amicable), ultimately I think it will be hard to find one without any bias towards their products. So take what is said with a grain of salt and combine that with research from multiple sources and your personal impression of the piano’s touch and sound. Whereas one of the agents told me “I think this is the piano for you”, the agent I eventually bought from told me “I want you to try as many pianos as you want until you find the right one,” which is, without a doubt, sound advice. Just be aware that if you are a beginner you may not be as sensitive to the feel and sound, so consider bringing along a more experienced friend or teacher to give you a second opinion.

Also, if you happen to own, or have owned, a Yamaha acoustic piano I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on it (if you leave a comment, let me know the model).

Note: for those concerned about where certain pianos are manufactured, Yamaha provides very detailed information on this on their website here. While I didn’t check my piano’s serial number yet (I don’t have it on hand), just judging from the years listed it seems my piano was definitely made in Hamamatsu, Japan, which is nice to know. It seems that some of Kawai’s lower-end acoustic pianos are made in Indonesia, whereas the rest are made in Japan. Having said that, regardless where a piano is made, I think if the company has proper quality controls in place, it shouldn’t matter that much. If I did find out my piano was not made in Japan, while it would be a bit of a shock I wouldn’t try to return it or anything, especially after having fallen in love with its sound.

Note 2: The company Yamaha is often written in Japanese in katakana as ヤマハ. Kawai is written in kanji as 河合 (be careful to drop pitch on the “wa” part, otherwise it can sound like “kawaii” [cute], which has a rising intonation).

Note 3: It’s interesting that Classic Piano’s trade-up policy only covers digital pianos for two years, and acoustic pianos with digital player systems have a 70% lifetime trade-up value. I have seen serious problems with good quality digital pianos occur after 20-30 years, so this is not a big surprise to me. Despite all the promises of digital technology, it seems long-term reliability is one thing that still needs a lot of work. After all, when there is always a new model coming out in a few years, what incentive do device makers have to design something that lasts several decades? 

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