The Steinway Model B grand piano, sometimes referred to as “the perfect piano” is Steinway & Son’s 7′ class grand piano that has influenced piano design for more than a century, and been a musical favorite of concert pianists for nearly as long. It is considered one of the top 10 7′ grand pianos in the world, and for most of the 20th century, was the undisputed leader of the industry. It is also a prime example of musical instruments and consumer goods taking a dramatic leap forward in design and complexity as a result of the industrial revolution, and the new economic era that it brought to most of the world. Merriam Pianos recently acquired a relatively new Steinway & Sons Model B grand piano, and Stu Harrison, Sales Director and Professional Pianist, will take you through the model’s history, its sound, and what makes it one of the Top 10 most sought-after instruments in the world.
The Steinway Model B Grand Piano Review – Video Transcription
For more than 100 years the Steinway Model B has been the benchmark by which most 7-foot concert hall grade pianos are measured, and certainly the ‘B’ can be found in teaching studios, recital halls, fine homes, and recording studios the world over.
And there’s a good reason for that level of reverence. If we go back to piano design in the late 1800s, where piano-making was still very much in an experimental phase, you had instruments coming out with different sets of keys, pedals, and a great variety in overall design. There were some with 85 keys, some with 88 keys, or some with two pedals, three pedals, four pedals. And lots of variation in the total number of strings, bridge configuration, and scale design. Generally, the piano industry was showing lots of experimentation and innovation from most of its major manufacturers. Even best practices in terms of design and manufacture of action parts were not uniformly agreed upon.
This was an industry still very much in its infancy, with lots of drive to continue improving and innovating the product category. And in amongst that climate of growth and innovation, as well as American ascent within the world community, Steinway set up shop in New York and started, one by one, chipping away at the technical challenges that were still plaguing piano design in 1853.
From the 1860s, ’70s, and ’80s, (as Steinway dealers will usually quite enthusiastically remind us of), there were hundreds of patents that were filed for this piano. And Steinway was solving a lot of the problems of the day and improving piano design, to point where they really did give us the basis for what pianos looked like throughout the 20th century.
And so, of course, Steinway deserves a ton of credit for that. Not just for the advances in design, but for setting a new standard for piano craftsmanship as well. Their use of – and pioneering of – the diaphragmatic soundboard using quarter-sawn solid spruce with a very high degree of selection added to the industry dominance as well. A lot of those innovations that are now more than 100 years old still have application in today’s piano market and today’s piano design paradigm.
Each Steinway & Sons piano is composed of over 12,000 parts, and “the perfect piano” takes over a year to create. In the New York and Hamburg Steinway factory, everything is governed by the philosophy of company founder Henry E. Steinway “to build the best piano possible” – back then, and today.
The scale design has been around for quite a while. And this instrument, like several of the other models, have some really interesting design features, construction features to it. Like all the Steinway grands, their inner and outer rim is constructed in a single laminating process of hardrock maple.
Design Features & Innovations
Any musician who works with instruments where wood is part of the primary resonating surface, like a drum or, of course, string instruments that also applies to, will tell you that the type of wood, the thickness of the wood, how the wood is dried, has a really big impact on the tone that the instrument (or in this case the piano) presents. And Steinway making the decision to use solid hardrock maple ,and also the decision to fuse both the inner and outer rim together really in one construction process, has given Steinway one of the hallmark tonal traits, which is this almost impossible to distort mid-range clarity that a lot of other instruments even when they have tried for that tone have been unsuccessful in attaining.
And so, the fact that they’re using the hardrock maple gives the piano and incredible projection. Other instruments made of this type of wood, a lot of drum makers use hardrock maple, will talk about the projection and talk about the clarity that maple brings because it doesn’t really distort even when you’re putting a lot of energy through those fibers.
For a piano initially built for power, and clarity, and dynamic range, which the Steinway definitely was, maple was an ideal choice. And so, they’re using maple in the bridges, vertically laminated maple and maple cap. You’re using maple through the rims. There is without a doubt, no other way to describe a Steinway piano other than this piano is…if you wanted to know what maple sounded like, you just need to listen to a Steinway grand piano.
It really has a massive influence over what’s going on in the tone. And a lot of people don’t necessarily think about that. And the reason I’m making a big deal of this is when we then listened to the Bechstein or when you’re comparing Steinways to other pianos, if you look at it through a constructional lens, the difference in the woods that are used, all of a sudden you start to realize why there’s such a big difference in sound, and why there’s such a big difference in projection or dynamic range for instruments using maple versus non-maple.
Soundboard and Treble Bell
Another interesting aspect to the B (or the D for that matter), is the application of the Treble Bell, an invention which helps to preserve crown in a very difficult spot on the soundboard to achieve it in the first place. The Treble Bell actually helps to “bend” the rim ever so slightly to pinch the soundboard inwards, giving it an extra millimeter or so of curvature (crown) – helping projection and tuning stability in that area of the piano. You’ll see this treble bell present even on special models like their crown jewel collection, Spirio collection, or the Louis XV models. However, their shorter models like the Model S or Model M do not make use of it.
Sometimes when people are looking at Model B’s and Model D concert grand’s, and the piano is sounding a little bit dead or the trebles don’t feel like they’re really projecting that well, often the thing that really, really expert technicians will then go in and start to adjust, please do not do this at home. But the expert technicians will start to adjust is actually that bell. That’s one of the biggest influences over how to get the top-end of a Steinway speaking really well.
Of course, Steinway became really famous as well for the control and the dynamic range that their action produced and the accelerated action was one of the big innovations in this area. So you get an instrument that is very responsive, has a really fast repetition speed on the action, and a piano that rather famously almost doesn’t seem to have a top-end in terms of its dynamic range.
Common across the entire line is also the Hexagrip pinblock, which sets the tuning pins into 7 laminations of hard-rock maple and helps to preserve pin torque at very close to the factory original even decades after use. Amongst the various innovations that Steinway promotes as ‘critical’, the Hexagrip pinblock is something that most piano technicians generally agree set a high bar that the rest of the industry then followed.
The Steinway Sound
A great sounding Model B and certainly always a solid choice for somebody looking for an instrument capable of a lot of tonal range, a lot of dynamics.
And that applies to somebody thinking about a recording studio, a finer instrument for your home, a church or, of course, an institution. That said, just because Steinway was able to correct a lot of the failings of older piano design and give us an instrument that was capable of a ton of dynamic range, and accelerated action, and a lot of clarity in the mid-range, where other instruments had previously failed to deliver that, certainly does not mean that there is no room for further evolution in the design of pianos.
You can keep pushing a really great Steinway more and more and more and more and you never really hear it hit the ceiling. And so that’s a combination of a lot of the things I’ve just talked about along with a lot of other minute design details that for those who are really keen, you can go in and you can do a little bit more research. So the bottom line is here’s a perfect piano that has literally changed history, that we owe a lot to, and has a really distinctive tonal sound and projection.
And a lot of that is not coming from the fact that it says “Steinway.” What I mean by that is that the ‘Steinway sound’ came from very specific designs, not just great branding or a better level of craftsmanship than was common in the industry. And a lot of that has to do with the fact that they were using maple, that it has this treble resonating bridge, and that it’s using a high-tension scale design. And the whole thing is designed to just produce this incredibly clear, projecting, sustaining mid-range focused tone.
The top 7′ grand piano models that most shoppers will compare to a Model B include the C. Bechstein B212, the Bosendorfer 214, the Fazioli F212, and to a lesser extent, the Shigeru Kawai SK6 or the Yamaha CF6. Of these, the C. Bechstein B212 is the closest in design philosophy to the Steinway, though it has pushed forward in terms of technology and precision in both design and manufacture. Fazioli as well is known for extremely precise cabinetry and use of technology in its building processes.
There is also some debate amongst piano aficionados over whether the New York Steinway factory is the better piano vs the Hamburg Steinway factory – both of which produce a Model B with some subtle differences. For most industry watchers, the differences in the factories are best seen in their quality control, vs major differences in parts or material, and historically speaking the Hamburg has been favoured as the better instrument. However restrictions by Steinway on how North American customers can access Hamburg product has made it more difficult to access – and it certainly should be mentioned that NY Steinway Model B’s come voiced very very differently than then Hamburg B’s, which are typically brighter.
So in conclusion, the Steinway Model B continues to be a relevant, respected grand piano even a 100 years after its initial primacy in the market. The clear, projecting sound is due to a combination of design, the extensive use of maple in the frame and bridge, and overall a use of high quality materials, and of course overall build quality means that a Steinway grand sticks with us for a century or more.
One of the great ironies of Steinway & Sons in 2019 is that they generally rely on a narrative of tradition, heritage, hand-crafted manufacturing, and a brand and company not swayed by the latest trends and fads. However, the only reason we even know the name Steinway all around the world was that they were the trailblazers, the rule breakers, and the ones innovating at the head of the curve almost 150 years ago. They have now ceded that role to companies like Ravenscroft, C. Bechstein, Stuart & Sons, and Fazioli, who have objectively moved the bar for what a piano is capable of surely past what Steinway produces. But for people still enchanted with the brand, actual musical performance is only part of the appeal.