There’s no question that the new, 48”, ebony polish upright piano market is dominated by the Yamaha U1 and Kawai K-300 due to the combination of price, quality and musical potential these two pianos offer.
Of course, there are a variety of more expensive, high-end options available in this classic studio size, particularly from Europe, but there hasn’t always been a less expensive, new piano alternative. That’s where the Essex UP-123 and Kawai ND-21 come in.
Both of these are 48”, polished black upright pianos that be purchased new in 2022 for quite a bit less than a new U1 or K-300. In fact, both can be had for about the same price as a fine digital piano.
In this article and accompanying video, we’re going to compare a couple of 3-year-old examples of these two instruments and see how they stack up to one another.
Essex EUP-123 vs Kawai ND21 – Background Information
Why is this an Important Comparison?
When our video team was deciding what type of video to shoot one particular week, it occurred to us that we had a unique opportunity in front of us as we had a pair of 48” upright acoustic pianos – an Essex EUP-123e and a Kawai ND21 on the floor of one of our showrooms, both quite new having only been built in 2017.
Both pianos were in exceptional condition and had recently been tuned, regulated and voiced. They both happen to cost almost exactly the same new and are targeted at folks looking for a new 48”, institutional studio upright piano in polished ebony that doesn’t completely break the bank.
Country of Origin
The ND21 is not available in the United States, unfortunately, but it is available in Canada, Europe and Australia. What it is essentially is an Indonesian assembled reproduction of a Kawai K-25, which was an earlier precursor of the current Kawai K-300.
The EUP-123 while boasting a Steinway design is made by Pearl River in China for distribution through the Steinway & Sons dealer network as a way for Steinway to offer a much more affordable product.
Interestingly, right away it was obvious that despite the similar price points, these are actually very different instruments with divergent playing experiences. Let’s start by comparing the tone of each piano.
Comparing Upright Piano Sound
A Perfect Example of a Kawai Upright Piano
Characteristically, the ND21 has a fairly round tone across the entire sound spectrum, which is pretty much in line with the vast majority of Kawai acoustic pianos. Yamaha pianos are generally considered ‘bright’, while Kawai’s tend to be thought of as ’warm’, and while Yamaha has done a lot of work in recent years to darken their sound, these general tonal guidelines still tend to be the case.
The differences between the Essex EUP-123 vs Kawai ND-21 aren’t completely dissimilar to another comparison we recently did where we tested the Boston 178 against the Kawai GX-2. This could be because they’re using similar hammers on the Boston’s as they are on the Essex pianos.
Snapshot of the Essex EUP-123
The EUP-123 has a nice, loud and open tone with lots of resonance, especially in the mid-range and when the top lid is open. At the same time, it also happens to have much less variety of tone, meaning there’s always a punch regardless of dynamic level.
The ND21 on the other hand is capable of a more intimate sound when you want to go there, but when you push it, you can still draw out the same level of brightness as the EUP-123. Typically, when you have differences like this, a large contributing factor is the hammers – both regarding the material selection, geometry and design.
So, that’s a major difference we’re perceiving here – the ND21 has a wider tonal palette available to the player, whereas the EUP123 is providing full-spectrum tone no matter what.
Stylistic Considerations, Design Differences & Bass Register
For players that don’t have or aren’t working towards advanced technique, this aspect of the Essex EUP-123 could be a good thing as the player does not have to work as hard to get a clear treble tone, which can be helpful for jazz or pop playing.
Another difference is the fact that the EUP-123 is designed to have a more reverberant cabinet than the ND21, as evidenced by the huge spruce back posts. The ND21 has back posts too, but they’re entirely structural and don’t really contribute to the tone.
They’ve also gone with a shorter, tubbier bass string on the EUP-123 than on the ND21 meaning the EUP-123 is going to have a ‘woofier’ and more colorful bass tone, while the ND21 produces a more clear bass tone.
There’s no right or wrong here as it really comes down to personal preference.
In terms of the soundboards, both of these instruments have solid spruce soundboards, and neither one uses a laminated soundboard, so that’s a big positive.
Laminated soundboards will be less resonant and thus provide less musical potential. Virtually any acoustic piano with outstanding sound will almost certainly have a solid spruce soundboard.
What Makes the Essex EUP-123 a Steinway Product?
Now, before we move on to action, let’s cover a question many of you might be asking. What is Pearl River getting from Steinway that allows them to market the Essex line as a Steinway product?
Unlike the Boston line of pianos which does feature some genuine Steinway components, there are no Steinway parts making their way into the Essex line. It’s a Pearl River product through and through based on designs from Steinway, though it’s definitely one of the nicer lineups Pearl River produces.
Examining Piano Action – Construction and Feel
All Wood Essex Action with Steinway Designed Geometry
The first thing that this Essex piano is reminiscent of in terms of the action is the old Baldwin 247s. These were instruments that had somewhat short actions, but their blow distance was larger, so the strike speed was higher and the result was a very specific sense of motion on the key. This type of action is great for medium and higher volume playing but can be quite challenging when you’re trying to coax a mellow, more gentle tone out of the instrument at lower volumes.
Essex uses an all-wood action with solid spruce keys with Steinway specified geometry and hammer materials. The keytops are acrylic which feels nice on the fingers.
Kawai’s Ultra-Responsive Action
The Kawai action on the ND21 is not the Millennium III action that’s featured in the K series uprights, but rather an older ABS version referred to as the Kawai Ultra-Responsive Action. Kawai always talks about prioritizing control in the lower dynamic ranges, and while this isn’t the case with their newest action design, this sometimes comes with a sacrifice in power.
In this case, the ND21’s max volume is about 5% softer than the Essex upright. Depending on your style of playing, you’ll either appreciate this or not care for it. Unfortunately, at this price point, there’s some compromise that needs to happen between extra volume on the EUP123 versus greater control on the ND21.
The key surfaces are acrylic and phenol, which like the Essex, feels very nice. The composite nature of the action means excellent durability over the long term which is why the industry is seeing more and more companies shift away from wood-based actions and move to composites as has happened with other musical instruments and in other manufacturing industries entirely.
Both pianos use hardwood hammer shanks with maple hammerheads – in fact, the Yamaha U1 also uses Maple hammerheads. This is a big plus for both pianos.
What’s Better for Piano Students?
Younger students could definitely have trouble preparing for any kind of recital on a grand piano with a lighter action because it’s going to require a lot more force to get the type of volume you need versus the low effort required on the Essex upright piano for max volume.
This is typically why piano teachers will recommend an upright piano with a medium to heavier action.
Cabinet & Aesthetic Considerations
The ND21 is only available in a black high polish monochrome design with nickel hardware, while the EUP123 is available in a variety of veneers such as Polished Sapele Mahogany and Satin Sapele Mahogany, ensuring there’s a finish to meet even the most eclectic of homes.
Essex pianos are also available with some special furniture designs courtesy of William Faber for a premium.
The ND21 features silver-colored pedals and accents, while the EUP123 features brass pedals and accents. Both pianos feature rugged double rubber casters making them easy to move, and both include adjustable benches with purchase.
Summary of the Kawai ND21 and Warranty Information
With the Kawai ND21, we have an instrument that is capable of a tremendous amount of control and finesse for the price. It boasts a dark and rich tonal profile that really, it has no business possessing considering what else is available in this price range.
It’s slightly quieter than the EUP123, which for some people will be a positive thing, whereas others will prefer a more powerful sound. It also offers more control from an action standpoint, which is probably also going to be a positive thing long term, especially for a younger beginner.
The Kawa 10-year warranty also happens to be one of the few that is fully transferable within the warranty period, so this can be quite appealing from a resale perspective. Really, there’s not much to quarrel with about this piano.
Summary of the Essex EUP123 and Warranty Information
Over on the Essex EUP123, we’ve got an instrument with a really nicely resonant cabinet, due to its robust wood back construction and a large, open sound, especially for the price.
The action is reminiscent of an ’80s, ’90s American-style action which means you’re getting a very strong attack. The trade-off is that it’s more difficult to control in the bottom half of the dynamic range.
Steinway also makes a big deal about the 100% trade-up guarantee to a new Steinway to original purchasers of Essex pianos, but keep in mind that the 100% trade-in value is against full MSRP, which pianos don’t actually sell for. The warranty is also 10 years parts and labour, but this is applicable to the original purchaser only.
At the end of the day, as we typically say, it’s ideal if you can get out and try both instruments to see which one you really connect with since they really are offering widely divergent musical experiences.
In that sense, it’s a good time to be buying a brand new piano – never before have there been multiple new options with virtually incomparable value overall.