The Kawai GL Grand Piano series has emerged as one of the most prominent and high-value grand piano lines in the entire industry. They range in price from $15,000 – 30,000, sitting just under Kawai’s GX Grand Piano line, and straddling Yamaha’s CG and CX lines in terms of pricing. The GL20 is the second smallest, but even though it occupies a minimum footprint for a grand (or very close to it) it’s an incredibly potent performer which generates clear, colourful tone – and one which defies expectations given that it measures out at 5’2″.
We hope you enjoy Stu’s review of this enjoyable, affordable, and globally-available baby grand piano from Kawai.
Kawai GL-20 Baby Grand Piano Review Video Transcription
Hi, everybody. My name is Stu Harrison and welcome to another piano review here at Merriam Pianos. We’re in the Oakville showroom just outside of Toronto, Canada, and we’re going to be talking about Kawai’s GL-20 grand piano. This is the 5’2″ baby grand piano that has really become an incredibly popular model here at the store. And I know throughout North America and other areas where the GL Series sells. When the GL Series Grand Pianos came out in 2016, we were quite impressed with the entire line, right from the GL-10 all they way up to the Kawai GL-50. We weren’t really sure which model was going to find the biggest audience; we thought the Kawai GL10 would be a huge hit, which it has in fact been. But the GL20 baby grand piano has emerged as a bit of a dark horse in that it’s so close in size to the GL-10, but yet seems to bring something quite substantially unique to the marketplace for a slightly higher price point. We’re going to be covering exactly why we think this has become such a hit with the piano-buying audience. We’re going to be talking about the tapered soundboard, covering the action, the sound and the tone this instrument generates, and at the end of the day, hopefully, giving you some good and helpful tips at home to assist with your shopping. So thanks again for joining us for another review. We’re going to get started right away.
So let’s get right into what makes the GL20 such an interesting choice for its price range. And when we talk about price range, of course, we’re in the under $20,000 category, which makes it a rather coveted price range for a lot of families. I think many of us start out on our piano shopping journey fearing that we might have to go over the $20,000 range to get something that might be satisfying and, of course, we all know what the $10,000 range typically has to offer. There’s some some credible choices from China and Indonesia, but little else. Some of the larger brands do have offerings in the 5-foot range, but there’s sort of a bit of a void in the marketplace in that high teens range where it’s hit and miss. And oftentimes, you find something that on paper should be a pretty good instrument, but once you get in front of it, something feels a little bit lacking and ultimately you wind up, you know, upping the budget to 24, 25. Well, I think that’s exactly why the GL20 has turned out to be a bit of a star for us because it does exactly that. It actually delivers a musical instrument which has the potential to satisfy professional ears really advanced students, but stay under that $20,000 mark, which is critical for a lot of families who are doing the shopping, want to make the right investment for their kids, but we all have budgets to worry about.
So why do we think it delivers that value? Well, let’s start with something that’s common throughout the whole GL Series to begin with. This piano has a solid spruce precision-cut tapered soundboard.. It doesn’t sound like it’s a big deal for those of you who are just starting out with the piano shopping. But let me tell you, this is actually quite unique for the price range and for the size. Tapered sound boards is something that high-end instruments, if you’re talking about lines like Bechstein or Fazioli, is a common technique where the closer to the edge of the soundboard it gets, they actually thin it out. This ensures that there’s an optimum energy transfer right to the very edge of the soundboard area and really activates the whole resonating surface. Essentially, a tapered soundboard equals a more active soundboard versus something uniformly plained. So for the size of the instrument, you just get more vibrating space that creates more tone, and as long as the rest of the piano is designed well, is generally going to give you a bigger dynamic range and possibly a bigger tonal range. Super unusual to find it in this price range. So like I said, this is something you find on the entire GL Series, but it’s worth mentioning, you know, because we are talking about the GL20. So tapered soundboard, actually a big deal. Do some reading on it just don’t Google “Kawai” or any other brand, just “tapered soundboard.” You know, you’ll sort of figure out exactly why that might be a benefit to you.
Let’s continue on to the action. Now the GL Series did something that I really liked when it came out. Essentially, continued many of the things that the RX line had. And one of those was the full Millennium III Action from Kawai, featuring abs-carbon technology. Now because it’s so easy to actually open this up, we’re going to do this right here so I can visually show you what some of those differences are and why it might actually create a really great playing experience for you at home.
One of the things I really like about Kawai is that right through their entire price point, you’re getting really their top-action design even when you’re spending $10, 000, $15,000. I think that’s great. You know, you have other companies that take that approach. You have other companies that sort of hold the best back unless you’re, you know, ready to spend a ton of money. But in this case, a GL20 action is exactly the same as if you purchased a Shigeru Kawai. No mater the Kawai Grand, you’re always going to get it with Kawai’s exclusive Millennium III Action. So the Kawai has always sort of been a nice value-focused company. They seem to be continuing that with the GL Series.
So what do we have with the GL20? Well, first of all, it’s easy to see we’ve got double-felted hammers. Now that’s something that you’re going to find probably on somewhere around a third to a half the pianos in this price range. So it’s not incredibly unique, but it is important. Now what does the double-felting do? Well, it allows the hammer to sort of change the density of that felt. As it hits the the string, it kind of produces a wider range of harmonics depending on whether you’re playing it really softly or really loudly without the felt getting so hard that it actually starts to distort the string. Pianos are really fascinating when you can look at them through high-speed cameras. And one of the things that’s the most fascinating of all of them is to see what happens to a hammer when it’s hitting the string at high velocity. The hammer actually does compress. And so by putting that extra little layer in there, it’s like having a leaf spring, you know, on a vehicle. In addition to the shock it’s just when it really starts to impact it’s this extra little layer of cushioning that allows it to still stay somewhat elastic even though it’s really pushing up against that string and stops it from distorting.
Next, as a part of the action, Kawai installs a steel-reinforced keyslip which ensures that it will never warp or cause keys to become stuck – a common problem amongst pianos in North America that use hardwood keyslips…the warpage is virtually guaranteed.
Right behind the keyslip is of course the keys. And the GL20 features concert-length key buttons as well as extended length keysticks, which improves the maximum dynamic output (longer lever = stronger torque), but also reduces the difference in feel between the front of the key and the back of the key.
Another thing you’re going to notice is all of this black material in the repetitions. That’s, of course, the carbon-reinforced ABS action that Kawai has been working on for decades. Does it change the sound for the better? No. Does it change it for the worse? No. In fact, most people would argue this is likely to not have any impact on the sound whatsoever. In fact, all of the material has no contact with any of the natural wood and wool parts whatsoever. So this is strictly mechanic. So why do they do this? Why do they put this on the GL20 or any of the other series? Well, really if you’re in a climate like ours, which is in Canada, or even in many parts of the United States, we have humidity that within 24-hour period could go from 70% to 20%. I mean, it really can be that dramatic even just within a single day. That does not do great things for anything made of wood, whether it’s a door, or floorboard, or a piece of furniture, or action parts in a piano. That creates a lot of swelling, a lot of shrinking, and over time, it just kind of creates a maintenance nightmare, something you constantly have to tend to. It’s not going to 100% eliminate the need to regulate this action, but it dramatically reduces it. And the biggest immediate difference that I noticed is pianos that have this action in this climate or, you know, Northeast US, or even European climates, the piano plays the same on a wet day as it does on a dry day. It doesn’t feel any heavier, it doesn’t feel any lighter, feels just as tight. So although the long-term benefit is lower maintenance, the immediate musical benefit to me is consistency. This piano just feels the same regardless of what’s happening outside, which it’s nice because you can’t always control… Well, let’s be honest. You can never control what’s going on with the weather, but this at least allows you to control what’s going on with your piano.
Holding all of this modern carbon-fiber piano action up is the keybed. The GL20 uses a multi-laminated keybed, that like their keyslip is steel reinforced. Even more interesting is that Kawai has used hardwood dowels to directly connect the steel reinforcement to the brass casters on the bottom of the action assembly, ensuring that there is minimal energy lost due to any give or absorption of energy by the keybed.
In addition to all of the features surrounding the Kawai Action, there are several other tonal and structural features worth noting here. Firstly, the keys are protected on the GL20 by a Soft-Fall fallboard, something that’s become increasingly standard in the industry, but nonetheless a welcome feature for a baby grand under $20,000.
Next, the GL20 has a double-width stretcher bar to ensure that there’s maximum energy transfer throughout the entire rim assembly. This increases the resonance and projection of the piano, and you notice it. The GL20 outputs more tone in its size and price category than any other baby grand I’ve ever played – and I say that with as much objectivity as possible. In many instruments, particularly in instruments at a lower price point or an entry-level price point, this largely is an aesthetic piece that simply covers up the frame and covers up the pin block. It doesn’t really do much musically. This is possibly one of the biggest innovations that they’ve brought to this line, the GL line, because this stretcher bar is actually full frame material which means that the inner rim of this piano isn’t just going around the back of the instrument, the curved part. The inner rim material actually is connected right around. It’s a full perimeter. And so what does this do? It turns the entire instrument into a far more efficient, sympathetic resonator. So that means that now instead of only hearing the soundboard creating the tone, the entire piano is now able to resonate at a far more efficient level and the whole cabinet is creating tone. And so what does this give us? Out of a 5’2″ piano, to me this gives us a dynamic range which is a lot closer to what I normally would expect out of a larger grand – say, a 5’8″, 5’9″, or a 5’10” piano. It’s absolutely incredible the kind of tone you can get out of this instrument.
Beyond the power though is a clarity which is helped by solid brass agraffes to ensure perfect string spacing, as well as exact termination of the resonating length of the strings. Kawai also dubs what they call “dual duplex scaling”, something that refers to lengths of string on either side of the primary string length – one of the front and one on the back – which is left free to resonate and is more or less tuned to a specific pitch which compliments the string’s fundamental pitch. The purpose of these extra string lengths is to add to the overall tonal richness by contributing additional harmonics and tonalities which mix into the main fundamental pitch.
Kawai also makes use of ‘gray iron’ for their plates, an acoustically neutral concoction which ensures that unwanted harmonics are not emanating from the plate. The so-called ‘V-Pro plate’ (named after it’s vaccuum technique of casting) is something Kawai offers across every grand piano it sells, and is similar to techniques used by Yamaha.
For classical players, the inclusion of a sostenuto pedal is a welcome addition, since it notably gets ‘nixed’ on models such as the GB1K from Yamaha or other Samick-built models. The sostenuto comes well-regulated from factory, and the tabs on the back of the keys are high-quality and unlikely to give owners any trouble over many decades of use.
Huge range of dynamics. And I think what’s more surprising for this size and price range, huge range of tonal palette. You’re really getting a ton of color out of this piano. Now helping that is the duplex scaling, again, something that’s a little unusual in this size and price range, but you can find it on other instruments.
But as a whole package because this is really where it comes together. Every place you look in terms of the design, in terms of the manufacturing, in terms of the workmanship quality control, material selection, it’s difficult to find a weak spot. It’s petite profile belies its musical potential, and for the budget and size, the Kawai GL20 will deliver absolutely the maximum performance for the dollar. It’s not just one feature that’s working well, it’s everything that’s working together in concert to really make this a super-efficient tone producer and a very satisfying instrument to play. The action speaks for itself and that’s something that you’re going to find across the Kawai line. Just a nice highly controllable action with a really great repetition speed, easy to regulate. It has a very distinctive feel, anyone who’s ever played will know that. But in combination with the scale design, the tapered soundboard, the stretcher bar, the hardwood frame, we’re using mahogany with some maple in there, all of it together it creates a huge…just an enormous value to anyone who’s looking for a smaller instrument that’s just got a tall and doesn’t want to put out the budget to start to get into like ultra-premium materials.
So from a design standpoint, it’s about as best as you can get from material standpoint. You’re sort of aiming right down the middle but that middle you’d usually have to be paying mid 20s to 30 to get. So overall, my suggestion is, if you’re looking for a piano, I would say anything 5’8″ and under and you’re a family with a student or sorry a family with a son or a daughter who’s kind of graduating up from a small upright or even a digital and showing some promise and you’ve got, you know, a smaller space, put this on your list. You know, I can’t promise that you’re going to love it, but I can promise that you’re going to find that it’s a great use of time to investigate it at the very least. Get it on your list. It should be available in most markets around the world and certainly right here in Toronto. You can find it on both our showrooms in Oakville and Vaughan. So thank you again so much for watching. I hope that these thoughts have been helpful to you at home as piano researchers.
Good luck with the search. We’ll see you back for more videos later and have a great day.