Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Confession of a Piano Shopper

I have been piano shopping in the last few weeks. During this time I have innundated myself with all sorts of information from all sources that I could find - dealers, community forums, pianists and educators. I have been working in the telco industry for many years and some of which were in the sales process. I found striking similarities between my piano shopping experience and the telco sales process (or perhaps sales in any industry). Many of the behaviour and psychology that I have been critical of also manifested in me and I have no intention of correcting them.

Wants vs. Needs

The purpose of buying a piano is two-fold: entertainment for me and education for my 7yo son. I am a self-taught beginner and have no plan of achieving any certification/qualification in music whatsoever. I just enjoy playing. Chances are that I will remain a beginner forever. My son is also a beginner but taught 'properly' in a piano school. He likes playing and needs a proper piano to practise on.

So for beginners like us, a new entry-level(110cm - 118cm) acoustic or a digital piano would be sufficient. However, I don't feel content to have the basic model. I want to have a 'professional' (>120cm) one to start with. Well, my excuse for having a professional model is that there are two players at home and I don't want to upgrade anytime soon. So I might as well have the room for potential growth. But does this justify doubling the price?

Bag a Bargain

So I need to squeeze the vendors to drop the price as much as I can. Normally (in Australia), the RRP of any new piano is inflated by at least 20%. So without any effort, I can get the price down by 20%. Anything below that I will have to work on it. The easiest way is to have 2 vendors out-bid each other.

But what about the value of the piano - the materials, the labor, the quality, the beauty and the enjoyment we can get out of it? Are they worth a few thousand dollors? My opion is a resounding 'yes'. A piece of furniture or even a mobile phone can cost thousands of dollors these days. However, being a buyer, I cannot help exercising my power and try to squeeze that last few dollors, an adjustable stool or an extra tuning from the vendor. Of course, to negotiate effectively, I need to equip myself with knowledge about pianos and the piano market.

Knowledge is Power?

Knowing your products definitly helps in negotiation. I have learnt so much about pianos from all sort of sources in the last few days - information as well as misinformation. I had narrowed down my choices to Yamaha T121 and Kawai K3. A Yamaha dealer told me that the new T121 are fully made in Japan, if anyone tells you it's made in Taiwan don't believe them because the Taiwanese factory had been closed down a few years ago. When I checked online I did find some comments about the T121 being partially made in Taiwan, but all those comments are in or before year 2006. Also, you have to take any online information with a grain of salt (the best online info about piano I found so far is Piano World Forum) When I visited a Kawai dealer, he told me again that the T121 was made in Taiwan and that is why its price is lower. He also sited the The Piano Book (which is an authoritative book on buying pianos) and true enough, the book said so too! When I checked the date of the book, it was last edited in year 2000. So I know in this case, who was giving me the true information.

Conversely, I quite like the Millennium III Action (by using carbon-fibre for certain parts of the action) invented by Kawai, which can increase play speed by up to 16% compared to traditional wood action. But when coming from a Yamaha dealer's mouth, it totally changed taste. He argued that 'the instrument needs to breath just like leather shoes vs. synthetic leather shoes... have you ever seen any musical instrument made from plastic?... carbon-fibre may be good for making spaceships or boats, but that does not mean it's appropriate for piano... if plastic is so good, why doesn't Steinway use it...' Looking at input from both sides it is very clear to me that the MIII does have its advantages and the Yamaha dealer's argument does not hold water. Both Yamaha and Kawai are reputable big piano makers. However, Yamaha is no.1 player in the market - 80% of pianos used in musical institutions in Japan are Yamaha. So naturally, as a no. 2 player, Kawai has to work harder by employing new technologies to achieve better results and lower cost. Having said all that, does the 16% faster response mean anything to me? I would say 80% chance 'no' since I will never reach the skills level required to enjoy the benefit; maybe better odds for my son.

Does all these product knowledge help when choosing a piano? A real player will tell you 'no'. Piano appreciation is very personal. The only ways to pick one are to listen, look and play. All the new technologies, great designs, country of origin and fine-grained spruce from Alaska will not help if you don't like the sound or touch of the overall product.

Apples and Oranges

Having considered the old and new; the Japanese brands, Korean brands and some German brands I have narrowed down to Kawai K3 and Yamaha T121. The short listing process is extremely painful because many of the pianos that I excluded were very good ones but out of my budget. It is also unfair to directly compare most of the models side by side because they were not made to be at the same level. For example, although all models have the same height, the T121, K3 and U1 are very different products targetting different market segments. The specifications for T121 and U1 on Yamaha's web site show almost identical data, yet U1 is almost double the price of T121 and many players swear that it has better sound. It just does not make sense to claim which one is 'better' especially when it's all about personal experience.


With K3 on top of my list and T121 as a backup, I am going to drive a hard bargain after my holiday. Hopefully, I will have a brand new K3 in my living room in a few weeks time.