Secondhand Piano Shop

Japanese Pianos


Released: 11/10/2009 12:32:11 PM    Source: Singapore Piano Shop

From relatively humble beginnings as makers of the first pianos in a country unfamiliar with the instrument, the Japanese piano manufacturers have come a long way. Today they produce an incredibly wide and diverse spectrum of instruments, anywhere from basic budget pianos for beginners and growing families, to some of the world's most expensive and superb concert instruments. The growth of the Japanese piano industry is not unlike that of their car industry: Through persistence, diligence, and painstaking attention to detail, they have achieved a reputation as master piano builders, as well as master-builders of automobiles. Yesteryear's Japanese pianos were the Toyotas and Datsuns of the piano world; today they also have Infinitis, Lexuses and Acuras.
For the record, the big name Japanese piano is, of course, Yamaha. They also happen to make more pianos than anyone else in the world, currently over 200,000 a year. Kawai is the other big Japanese piano company. Although Kawai doesn't make quite as many pianos as Yamaha, you will still find their products, like those of Yamaha, nearly everywhere: in universities, schools, homes, churches, on stage, in the recording studio, and the like. As far as quality is concerned I feel that the two brands are about on a par, depending on which sound you prefer, as each brand seems to have its own distinctive tonal characteristics. It is generally because of those tonal differences, or because of a perceived price break, that people choose a Kawai over a Yamaha, or vice-versa. It would be very difficult to say that one brand was "better" than the other, and, in most cases, would probably not be true.
The prices for comparable new (and also used) Kawai/Yamaha models are usually very close. It often seems that Yamaha has a bit more name recognition and can thus command slightly higher prices; on the other hand, because of this, the Kawai is frequently a better value - it gives you a little more for the money. Is Yamaha comparable to Steinway and Kawai to Baldwin? Although this analogy is sometimes presented, I don't think it is an accurate one, because the two Japanese brands actually seem to have far more in common than Baldwin and Steinway pianos do; and, as far as numbers go, unlike Kawai with respect to Yamaha, Baldwin sells many more pianos than Steinway. (Really, if you're looking for an analogy, Hertz and Avis might be more apt, because Kawai often seems to "try harder".) Actually, many people who like the Steinway sound also like the Kawai, often finding it a shade mellower and richer than the Yamaha. Indeed, (perhaps for this very reason, among others) Kawai now makes Steinway's Boston line of pianos for them. Yamaha, also, on the basis of certain components of its sound, has been compared with Steinway, but also, for various reasons, with Baldwin, because, like Baldwin, it makes for a good (recording) studio piano, with a sharp, crisp, percussive attack and a shorter decay time, and a sort of splashy, instantly attractive, or attention-getting, sound. But Kawai also has some of those qualities. Really, the two brands can probably be considered to be more alike than different, especially when you are comparing them to U.S.-made pianos like Steinway, Baldwin or Mason & Hamlin. It is true that Yamaha is usually perceived the "leader," if simply by weight of numbers, name recognition, and available advertising budget. But if Kawai is behind at all, it's not by much.
On a couple of Kawai's more popular grands, for instance, for a satin ebony finish, you get a couple more inches of piano for a slightly lower price than the comparable Yamaha model, at least so far as the manufacturers' suggested retail is concerned (for instance the Kawai model RX-2 5'10" grand vs. Yamaha's 5' 8" C2). But it may all even out, depending on whether and how much a dealer is willing to discount a piano, whether the Kawai dealer is engaged in a price war with the Yamaha dealer up the street, whether you are related to, or a good friend of, the dealer, whether you are paying cash or financing, whether you are buying a satin ebony or a high gloss finish, or a number of other little incidentals. Since these two piano giants seem to be watching each other closely, after a while it gets sort of like the two competing grocery stores on opposite sides of the street.
Both of these Japanese manufacturers use many "high tech" procedures in the making of their pianos, such as "vacuum" or "dry sand" casting for the plates (which many musicians and piano technicians believe produces a very different tone quality than the more traditional "wet sand" cast plates used in vintage U.S.-built pianos). Kawai, however, in recent years has pioneered the use of plastic (ABS styran) parts in their piano actions, which is most likely a step in the right direction, since wooden action parts are susceptible to humidity variation, where the plastic parts are not. Although there has been a great deal of controversy over the years about the use of plastic parts in pianos, the truth is that most piano manufacturers now use plastic in several places in their pianos (most notably the keytops, which is one of the most significant places, where the performer actually "interfaces" with the piano.) While certain dealers and salespeople often use the "you don't want plastic in your piano" argument to dissuade people from buying competing brands such as Kawai, in truth there is little validity anymore to this position, and salespeople and others who advance such arguments are generally revealing their ignorance more than anything else. While there was some truth to the contention that plastic was inferior to wood many years ago (around the time of World War II), today plastic can be, and usually is, far superior to wood in many applications, both in longevity and dimensional stability. Its reliability for use in piano actions has now been proven over many years. Whether due to the precision with which they build their instruments, or the new ABS parts pioneered by Kawai, both Kawai and Yamaha have become renowned for the responsiveness and evenness of their piano actions. As a matter of fact, this is really one of the main attractions of Japanese pianos.
In the past, as before stated, Kawai pianos were said to have a little more mellow sound and the Yamahas a little brighter, but recently Kawai started giving buyers a choice of either a mellow or bright sound. (Kawai's that are mellower have an S suffix: e.g. KG2S or RX2S; the brighter ones have an E on the end: KG2E) Making a piano's sound brighter or mellower, incidentally, is something that generally can be done on any piano by your piano technician, by making the hammers (the felt assemblies that strike the strings) harder or softer. The sound of most Japanese pianos has a tendency to get very bright and metallic after a few years of playing, and it can be a real challenge for the technician to voice it back down and get to stay there.
Japanese pianos may seem like a fairly recent development to us living in the United States, (as well as to those living in some other countries) but Yamaha has actually been around since 1887 (they started out building reed organs, with the first pianos appearing around 1900) and Kawai since 1927. Torakusu Yamaha, the founder of Yamaha, and Koichi Kawai, founder of Kawai, actually worked together to build Japan's first pianos. The story goes that Yamaha, a watchmaker and mechanical engineer, was impressed when he saw a 12-year-old boy riding a wooden bicycle he had built himself, and hired him to help build Japan's first upright pianos. That 12-year-old happened to be Koichi Kawai. Kawai remained with Yamaha until 1927 and then left to start his own company. The histories of these two individuals and their companies, and the hardships and trials they suffered in order to bring pianos to Japan, including fires, earthquakes, the requisitioning of their factories during WWII for arms and aircraft parts, and the subsequent destruction of their facilities by Allied bombings, make fascinating, if heart-rending, reading, and also make all the more miraculous the quality of product they have achieved today.
Before about 1960 we saw very few Japanese pianos here in the States, but they made inroads into our markets when people discovered they could get a grand piano, or a good tall upright, for a fraction of the price of the U.S.-made models. Japanese pianos of yesteryear (circa early 1960's and before) were often criticized for having kind of a nasal tone, being short on sustain, and lacking in depth and richness. They were often purchased by people who wanted a bigger piano but didn't have a bigger piano budget. As Kawai and Yamaha increased their U.S. market share over the past 30 years or so, their prices, as well as their quality, and the number of models they offer, went up also. With newer, improved, and especially, more expensive models, the tone quality and also the touch of the instruments has improved gradually but significantly over time.
It's important to recognize that the Japanese are capable of building pianos of the highest quality, and have been doing so for many years. Because they are also very savvy when it comes to marketing, however, they build pianos in a wide range of different qualities. Over the years they have created an extremely broad spectrum of different piano models at different price points for buyers of all needs and budgets. When they find a piano that is very successful at a certain market strata, they tend to stick with it for a long time and often make only minor, if any, modifications or improvements (although the dealers usually make a big deal of them to try and distinguish the new from the used). The Japanese piano makers tend to be very conservative, and have realized that "new" does not always mean better, and if they have something good that works they are not always anxious to change it, because they recognize that it is possible to change it in a way that causes problems or reduces its popularity or appeal. Because of this, they still produce, in one form or another, many of the models that have been available for the past 20 or 30 years (although possibly relabeled, see below) and there is thus an increased likelihood of finding what you want on the used market. A case in point is Kawai's very successful KG2 model grand (5' 10"), one of their best-selling models, which came out many years ago as the model 500 and is now still being marketed, with some changes, as the RX-2 (See link to chart at their site, below.) As we've stated before in this article, because there are significant differences among individual pianos of even identical make and model, due to store prep, tuning or lack thereof, care, climate, variations in construction materials and/or personnel, and a number of other factors, you may often find an older or used model Japanese piano that sounds or feels better to you than a new one, or vice-versa. For this reason. it's wise to try out a number of different pianos if possible.
In recent years, Japanese pianos have been offered in a rather confusing assortment of different grades (or qualities) and price points: Both Yamaha and Kawai have had approximately four different classes of pianos, most noticeably in the grands (but also true of their verticals). Although recently the names of the lines have been changed/ and or consolidated, these basic guidelines still apply, especially in the used market, where you will still find the older models. In the grands, there are the "price leader" or "economy" models (Yamaha GH series and Kawai GE), built to compete with the recent (last 15 years or so) Korean competition, the "good" models or standard line for home or general use (Yamaha G series and Kawai KG series- these are the lines they have been selling forever, just recently relabeled and consolidated), their "better" models for conservatory or serious musician (Yamaha C series and Kawai GS series, and then their "best" line (Yamaha S and CF series, and Kawai R, RX-3 and up, and EX series) for concert artists or people who can afford really expensive instruments. Both Yamaha and Kawai have special divisions, set apart from the rest of the factory, where their best and most expensive models are made (the Yamaha S-series instruments, and the CFIII 9 foot; and the Kawai RX-A and EX models), with additional hand craftsmanship and special attention to detail.
In Japan, where space is often at a premium, there is great emphasis on the building of quality vertical pianos. The Yamaha U-1 (48") and U-3 and U-5 (52") "professional" verticals have become favorites of pianists and piano technicians everywhere, and have come to be considered some of the best verticals on the market today. Kawai, also, with their NS-20 (49")and US-6 and -8 (52") verticals, has been turning out some of the best in this class as well. Both Yamaha and Kawai's "school" type studio pianos are built in the United States, in Yamaha's Thomaston, Georgia, and Kawai's Lincolnton, North Carolina plants. Unofficially, these "school" pianos are sort of considered the Japanese "Baldwin Hamiltons" (another extremely popular U.S. school piano). This includes the Yamaha P22 and P2E (or P2F, currently) and the Kawai UST-7 and UST-8. These 45-46" verticals, like their competition built by U.S. piano companies, are usually a good deal because they are priced competitively to meet school and institutional bidding, and are built more or less like Sherman tanks, so they should hold up like the Rock of Gibralter. Prices on all these verticals are "up there": around $5,000.-6,000. list for the shorter school-type, and $8,000. to 12,000. list for the taller (48-52") uprights; although as always, you should be able to find substantial discounts simply by shopping around. As is the case elsewhere, Kawai's popular school models have an extra competitive inch over the Yamahas.
As we said before, both Kawai and Yamaha have produced many different models of both verticals and grands over the years, and while many of their models have had a long production life, others models have been tried for a while and then either discontinued, or evolved with new features and renamed, so customers often get disoriented. One case in point: There was some confusing overlap among the different models of pianos produced by these manufacturers, at least as far as size: until just recently; for example, the Yamaha "economy" and "good" grands were approximately the same size (5' 3"); as was true of the "economy"(5' 7") and "good"(5' 7"); and "good"(6'), and "conservatory-grade"(6' 1") models. This was not so much a problem if you had on hand all the different models of pianos to compare with each other, as at a well-stocked dealer's. It could complicate matters, however, if you were out in someone's home looking at a single used piano and couldn't remember which model was which.
In a recent move which may either help alleviate this situation, or perhaps (at least for the short term), cause even more confusion, both Yamaha and Kawai have changed the names of several of their models. So if you knew which models were economy, good, better and best before, you can lose your bearings in the current market, when confronted with the new names.
(This recent pruning of their model lines may be an attempt to consolidate their multitudinous offerings into a trimmer, more manageable, less bewildering (for the consumer) and more efficient product line. In the past customers generally would make a choice between several different Yamaha GH (economy) "G" (good) or "C" (better) series grands, or Kawai GE (economy) "KG" (good) or "GS" (better) series grands. Now however, the Yamaha G and C series has been consolidated into a single "C" series, and the Kawai KG and GS lines have been replaced by the "RX" series, (derived from the model name of one of Kawai's most elite pianos.) The Yamaha G series and Kawai KG series have both been phased out; or, some feel, simply renamed: with both Kawai and Yamaha the smaller grands (Yamaha C1and C2, Kawai RX-1and RX-2) of the new series seem very similar to the corresponding older G and KG series models. It's still only in the larger (6 foot and over, RX-3 or C3 and up) grands that you start getting into the higher quality pianos. (Kawai's RX-3,4, and 5 models are actually the same stringing scales and basic dimensions as their former (now discontinued) "R" or artisan series.) What is really the difference between a Yamaha "G" series and a "C" series piano, or a "C" series and an "S" series? Basically, better materials and construction in the more expensive lines, better string scales, and additional hand craftsmanship, which usually (but not always) results in a better tone and touch.
As you go through the "step-up" features of either the Yamaha or Kawai lines (this is marketing jargon for the strategy of adding perks or desirable features to the more expensive pianos in an effort to sway you towards a more expensive instrument) it can get even more confusing. Do you want the middle pedal to be a bass sustain, or a full sostenuto, like on the more expensive grands? Do you want the bridges to be solid maple (like on the older models) or vertically laminated maple (like on the newer models). Do you want the piano to have a duplex scale, like on the more expensive models? Do you want a spring-assisted fallboard that closes gently, rather than one that simply "drops" on whatever hands or fingers happen to be there if it gets accidentally bumped? Do you want plastic keytops, or "real" imitation ivory? And the list goes on and on, until the customer gets completely disoriented. You thought you knew what you wanted, but now...
I noticed Yamaha now (2004) has 2 new grands for their "price leader" line, formerly represented by the GH series (which appears to be gradually being phased out). The new "economy grands" are the GA1 and GC1. The GA1 is Yamaha's least expensive grand, a basic no-frills model designed to get people into grand ownership at a list price of under $10,000. The GC1 is advertised as having a duplex scale, just like the more expensive C1, it's big brother. The GC1 is listed at just under $15,000. for the basic satin or high gloss ebony models, right about where the GH1 used to be positioned. (The C1 is now priced at just under $20,000. list for the basic ebony finishes.) Note that the GA1 is 4'11", but the GC1 and the C1 are both 5'3". So what, exactly, is the new GC1 model? I can see they are trying to associate it with the more upscale C1. But why the "G" in both "GC" and "GA"? Are they trying to make an association with the old Yamaha "G" series grands that sold so well in years past? Are they finding they really still need something priced/positioned where the (now discontinued) "G" series used to be? Now perhaps you can see why trying to track these pianos by model numbers can be so confusing.
The Yamaha S4 (old S400), the S6, and the Kawai RX-A are pianos in a class by themselves. There is a big quality (and also price) leap up to these instruments, which are currently in the $50,000. price category. This is also the point where artists usually cease to find anything to complain about "Asian" pianos. These pianos are often compared with other pricey pianos such as the Hamburg Steinway, or some of the other exotic German grands. (The new Kawai RX-5 (old R-1) is sometimes considered an economy version of the RX-A, although according to Kawai it has a different scale.)
Incidentally, Kawai provides a very helpful chart that can help you see the relationships between their grand models over the years and which ones have similar stringing scales. It can be found at :
Piano customers who previously had some idea of what they were getting now have to learn a whole new system and set of comparisons. From what I can see, Kawai has actually made some changes for the better (upgrades) for its new consolidated "RX" line, with structural revisions like vertically laminated bridges and denser rims that make their grand construction more similar to that of certain higher quality U.S.  made instruments. Over the years, both Kawai and Yamaha have seemed to be going in that general direction, with the addition of features like duplex scales, sostenuto (middle or 3rd) pedals, and other refinements that were usually only found on the more expensive American instruments. With these enhancements, the Japanese appear to be consistently trying to bridge the gap between themselves and the manufacturers of high quality U.S. or German instruments. Still, it's important to remember that the Japanese makers produce many sizes and qualities of pianos, and the more you pay the better the quality; unlike Steinway or certain smaller European manufacturers they have not yet opted to have a "single quality" line of grands in all the different sizes, although their recent renaming/upgrading of models seems to be a step in that direction.
One objective of this "upgrading" move may have been to counter the recent influx, into the U.S., of containerloads of used Yamaha and Kawai pianos from Japan, which have been selling here at very competitive prices, enough so that it was eating into the profits of dealers who sold new Asian pianos.