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Published: Saturday, 9/7/2013 - Updated: 10 months ago

Digital piano fulfills key needs

Yamaha’s AvantGrand model looks, feels like baby grand

BY DAVID POGUE
NEW YORK TIMES

BLADE ILLUSTRATION/ WES BOOHER Enlarge

There are some things you just don’t expect to read about in a column about electronics. Gluten-free waffles, for example. Ferrets.

And you’d probably expect that list to include pianos.

No, not digital pianos. Not those plastic, flat appliances with 983 instrument sounds and realism that would fool nobody. I mean real pianos, the kind in concert halls, clad in glistening black lacquer, with three pedals and wooden keys that make felt-covered hammers strike taut metal strings. Those instruments always have been analog. And very expensive.

A few years ago, Yamaha tried a crazy experiment. What if it made a grand piano traditional in almost every respect — except it replaced strings with sensors? What if the sound came from painstakingly recorded audio snippets, or samples, of each string from a $120,000 top-of-the-line grand piano, reproduced through high-end speakers?

The result was the AvantGrand N3, a gorgeous baby grand hybrid piano one can buy for about $15,000. (Yamaha won’t reveal its pianos’ street prices, only ludicrously high suggested retail prices. The prices printed here come from Chicago’s Grand Piano Haus, but the three other dealers I called across the country were in the same ballpark.)

The feel of the N3’s wooden keys and hammers is identical to those on Yamaha’s real pianos; you even feel the keys subtly vibrate when you strike them hard, exactly as on a real piano. The samples and speakers are so good, most players would not realize it’s not a real grand piano.

Then came the N2, a space-saving “upright grand” version with the same features ($11,000). And the N1, a less expensive upright ($8,000).

All these pianos offer a few towering advantages over stringed pianos. First, they never need tuning. That’s a very big deal; real pianos have to be professionally tuned, string by string (there are about 230 of them on a grand piano), especially if they’re in rooms that aren’t humidity-controlled and temperature-controlled. That’s pricey and time-consuming.

Second, hybrids let you turn the volume up or down, or listen through headphones. That makes them sensational for apartments, dorm rooms, or anywhere else that your practicing might disturb others. Turning the speakers down is also useful when you’re accompanying a singer or soloist whose volume is no match for your impassioned playing.

Finally, hybrid pianos are much smaller and lighter than real ones. The N3, for example, sounds like a 9-foot grand, but it’s only 4 feet long.

The only thing Yamaha never managed to do is fix the price. Real upright pianos usually cost $5,000 to $15,000; the world’s best-selling piano, for example, is Yamaha’s U1 upright, which costs $7,500. And real grand pianos cost $10,000 to $50,000. So Yamaha’s hybrids may save space, weight, and tuning, but they don’t save you much money.

That, no doubt, is why Yamaha has now introduced a fourth AvantGrand model, the NU1 upright hybrid — with a street price of about $4,500. Finally, there’s a hybrid that costs less than its analog counterpart. The question is, how much of the AvantGrand amazingness did Yamaha have to leave out to reach that price?

First, the good news: the NU1 is still a beautiful, shiny black upright piano, a magnificent-looking piece of furniture — but it’s even more compact. It’s about 18 inches deep and 40 inches tall, making it fantastic for small spaces. (This means you, inhabitants of practice rooms and small apartments.)

It still has the real wooden keys and hammer mechanism — or “action,” as pianists call it — that makes all these hybrids feel the same as a real piano, giving you all the same expressive capability. The action on the NU1 mimics the one on a real upright, meaning that it’s not quite as great as the ones on the N1, N2, and N3, which all feel like grand pianos. But it responds to heavy playing, light playing, fast playing, grace notes, and clomping chords exactly the way an upright piano would.

And the NU1 produces sound recorded from the strings of one of the world’s finest pianos.

Buying this budget model does, however, entail giving up some goodies. Most are minor. For example, this piano has white plastic on the tops of its wooden keys, rather than the synthetic ivory on the N2 and N3.

The NU1 also lacks the two features that the more expensive AG pianos use to create subtle, realistic resonance and vibration: what Yamaha calls the Tactile Response System (the keys vibrate slightly) and the Soundboard Resonator (a flat-panel oscillating unit, on the N3 grand, that replicates the vibration of the strings themselves “singing”). Only a hard-core pianist would notice these features are gone.

Even a novice, however, will immediately miss the realism of the NU1’s sound. It’s just not as convincing as the other hybrids.

Part of the problem is the way the sounds were recorded. On the fancier pianos, Yamaha placed four microphones at carefully selected spots inside the piano; they’re reproduced in speaker configurations placed at the same positions. From where you sit as you play, the sound seems incredibly resonant and realistic.

But not on this piano. The samples were recorded in stereo, and the speakers aren’t as sophisticated or as plentiful (four instead of 12). As a result, the sound seems somehow flat, somehow slightly canned. It’s light-years better than what you’d hear on a typical synthesizer or digital piano; from the next room, you’d swear you were listening to a real piano. But the NU1’s sound simply isn’t as rich as the other N-series pianos.

All of that changes when you listen through headphones or connect the piano’s output jack to a better sound system. Suddenly you’re hearing the fullness and depth of the original samples — and they’re spectacular.

Of course, the NU1 is digital. And so, as on its predecessors, it offers a few buttons that expand its flexibility. For example, you get a choice of keyboard sounds: two grand piano sounds, two electric pianos, and an incredibly authentic-sounding harpsichord.

Buttons on the left-side control panel also let you transpose the entire instrument to a different key or fraction of a key, or even choose a different temperament.

You can connect a computer for recording and playback using MIDI software, through either the USB or the MIDI jacks on the back.

You can also plug in a USB flash drive to save audio or MIDI recordings of your performances. And you get a built-in metronome, control over the amount of reverb (echo) you hear, and a choice of key sensitivity levels.

The piano comes with 50 built-in classical-piano recordings and a printed book of the corresponding sheet music. Because you can slow down the playback, you wind up with a great way to learn these pieces.

With the N1, N2, and N3, Yamaha added phenomenal digital flexibility to its pianos without affecting their touch, their sound — or their price. The NU1 maintains the real touch of a piano and undercuts the price — with some sacrifice in sound quality.

If you intend to perform on a hybrid piano, therefore, it’s probably worth the money to get Yamaha’s AvantGrand N2. It’s the upright with both the realistic action and the realistic sound of a real grand piano.

But many people would happily sacrifice a little acoustical realism to save several thousand dollars. The compact, inexpensive NU1 makes a fantastic practice piano, apartment piano, or starter piano — better, for most, than an equivalently priced real piano.



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