Introduction

Reviewing the great musical instruments of history is one of the most special and unique aspects of what we do here at Merriam Pianos, and few comparisons have the same gravitas and lineage as the Steinway Model B (known unofficially as “the perfect piano”) vs. the C. Bechstein B212 (known unofficially as “the king of pianos”). Concert pianists on both sides of the Atlantic have debated and favoured both for various reasons for over 100 years, and piano technicians have long referred to these as the pinnacle of piano building and design. Stu Harrison, professional pianist and veteran piano industry expert, takes us through the similarities and differences between these wonderful instruments. Thanks for joining us for this video review and accompanying

Steinway Model B vs C. Bechstein B 212 Video Transcription

Hi, everybody. I’m Stu Harrison. I’m here at Merriam Pianos and we’re at the main Oakville showroom just outside of Toronto, Canada. Thank you so much for joining us for yet another piano review. Today is going to be a shootout that people have been asking about for months. On my right, we are fortunate to have with us a Steinway B seven-footer. On my left, a C. Bechstein B 212. These are two of the most dominant seven-foot pianos in the market, and for people, whether you’re in the United States, in Canada, countries throughout Europe, countries throughout Asia. For people coming into the market who have approximately $150,000 U.S. to spend on a piano, you’re thinking seven-foot, there is no way that you can avoid one or both of these instruments in your searches. And people have known that we’ve had these two instruments side by side, they’ve been asking us for a while. So we’re finally getting around to doing it. I’m really, really excited to share these two musical beauties with you.

Not only are we going to be playing the instruments side-by-side so you can hear them. And by the way, I want to talk about how we’ve got them mic’d up. There is no effects that have been used and the mics that we’ve been using is Sennheiser shotguns off the camera for vocal, and just some room noise. Then we’ve got an AKG 414 that’s picking up sort of a mid distance right above the bell of the piano. And then right at the rear of the piano, we’ve got a capsule condenser microphone. So, identical mic setups and placement on each, identical levels, and absolutely no effecting done to either sound. So we’re going to try and give you as true a tone as we possibly can on both. Thank you so much for being here.

The Steinway & Sons Model B

Steinway Model B
Steinway Model B

We’re going to be focusing first on the Steinway & Sons Model B. That’s what I’m in front of right now. Now, the example that we’re in front of right now is a used example, but it’s one that’s in incredibly good shape and fairly recent. So this is from the 560,000 / 570,000 serial number range. So we’re well into the early 2000s with this piano, certainly a really good example of what the Steinway Factory is currently putting out. And besides a few very small differences is going to resemble a brand new Steinway sold in 2017, 2018 quite well, and I really enjoy playing on this piano. The Steinway Model B Grand Piano has, for probably more than a century, been the benchmark by which most seven-foot concert grade instruments are measured. And there’s a good reason for that.

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, there were some with 85 keys, some with 88 keys. You had instruments coming out with two pedals, three pedals, four pedals. You had some instruments where even the way in which the action was being built was really completely different. This was an industry still very much in, if not its infancy, still in a growth stage. Lots of consolidation, lots of design work going on. And in amongst all of that growth and innovation, Steinway set up shop in New York and started, one-by-one, chipping away at the technical challenges that were still plaguing piano design right from the about the…well, started in 1853 but going right through the 1860, ’70s, ’80s, as Steinway will usually quite enthusiastically remind us of, there were hundreds of patents that were filed for this piano. And they were solving a lot of the problems of the day, not just for concert hall instruments, but everyday home ownership as well, and improving pianos design to a point where they really did give us the basis for what pianos looked like throughout the 20th century.

And so, of course, they deserve a ton of credit for that. And 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. So, the Steinway B is just under seven-feet long. I think they call it a six-foot 11 or six-foot 10.5. The scale design has been around for quite a while. And this instrument, like several of the other models, has some really interesting design features, construction features to it. Like all the Steinway brands, their inner and outer rim is constructed in a single laminating process of hard rock maple. Now, 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 that piano presents.

Primarily of course, the sound comes from the soundboard, which in both the Bechstein and Steinway is solid spruce. Steinway innovated what they referred to as the diaphragmatic soundboard design, which has now become common place throughout the industry, and has been advanced even more greatly by Bechstein’s tapering techniques.

And Steinway making the decision to use solid hard rock maple is also crucial for its stability, longevity and tone. 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 hard rock maple gives the piano an incredible projection. Other instruments made of this type of wood. A lot of drum makers use hard rock maple, will talk about the projection and talk about the clarity that maple brings because it just, it doesn’t really distort even when you’re putting a lot of energy through those fibers. And so, for 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 piano, a Steinway piano, than as being the pure, powerful sound of maple. 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, all of a sudden you start to realize why some of those differences in sound exist – that blend of multiple hardwoods vs something more pure and coloured like the Steinway.

So the bottom line is here’s a piano that has literally changed history, that we owe a lot to, and has a really distinctive tonal sound and projection. It brought a new level of craftsmanship to the industry in the late 1800’s, reinvented the pinblock (with their hexagrip design), and

A great sounding Model B and certainly always a solid choice for somebody looking for an instrument capable of a lot of range, a lot of dynamics. And that applies to somebody thinking about a recording studio, a finer instrument for your home, a church, and for 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. And that’s where it’s going to be really exciting to actually take a look at the next instrument, which is, of course, the Bechstein 212. Now, the Bechstein 212 is interesting because it draws not only on a lot of the innovations that the Steinway has given, but it also draws in some of the innovations that some of the other well-known piano brands from the early 20th century through the rest of the 20th century has also given us, from brands like Bosendorfer, Bluthner and Fazioli. So, we’re going to take a look at that next. And thanks so much for sticking around. We’re going to switch pianos and we’ll be right back.

The C. Bechstein Model B212

C Bechstein B 212
C Bechstein B 212

This is not the Bechstein of the 1920s, this not the Bechstein of the 1980’s. The sound has changed. The direction of the company has changed. And what we’re looking at is now, rather than a company entirely focused on preserving tradition and entirely focused on creating instruments to sound like they used to. This is a company, over the last 20 years, that has completely turned itself on its head to create a lean, profitable, stable, growing company, super focused on just making unbelievably killer instruments. So, in a way it reminds me of the way that Steinway was in the later 1800s in New York, kind of constantly evolving, constantly pushing themselves, obviously one of the instruments that was ascending the most rapidly in the high-end market. I think Bechstein very much is enjoying a similar moment in their history but rather than 120, 130 years ago, it’s happening right now, which is pretty cool for those who are shopping for pianos.

We’re going to be contrasting that with the Steinway Model B that we were just in front of and just pulling in a few other comparisons as well. Let’s start with the construction of this piano and the most obvious difference between then: the Model B ships in a standard satin ebony finish, whereas the C. Bechstein B212 comes in a polish ebony – both are available in the reverse, but less commonly so.

You’ll also recall that we were talking about the extensive use of maple in the Steinway pianos. What you notice on the C. Bechstein instruments, rather than the piano being built of one or two types of wood, Bechstein is using a wider variety of hardwoods in its rim construction than any other piano currently being offered that I’m aware of.

So, instead of just being hard rock maple in the rim, you actually have a really wide variety of woods and fiber lengths being built into the inner and outer rim of the piano. We’re talking about birch, beech, mahogany, and maples, all in there in different lamination thicknesses and pressures. Why use all this different wood? I mean, if Steinway was using all maple and it seemed to work just fine, what’s the advantage of using all of this other wood? Well, first of all, some of these other woods, even though they’re still hardwoods, are actually quite a bit lighter, which means it requires less energy to get these woods vibrating. That’s a really important thing. The second thing is, with any type of wood, different hardwoods, because of the pore size and the length of the fiber in those woods, will be better suited for the transmission of vibration of certain frequencies.

And so, by combining a wide variety of hardwoods in a precision format like this, you actually get a rim which can speak in a wider Hertz range than something that’s exclusively maple. So, whereas the Steinway sound has a lot of clarity in the mid-range, a lot of beautiful sustain in the mid-range. And you can also get a lot of growl because then you get this mid-range punch in the base. What Bechstein has done is really built on, I think, what Fazioli started experimenting with in the 1980s, which is the use of these multiple types of hardwood laminations to get an even wider frequency range. And now they have just taken it to a whole new level. So, what you have with the 212, but you also get this with the 192 in their concert grant, is, you get this complete membrane all round the outside of where the soundboard would sit, not just around the rim but across this front cross member or cross support that is all rim material, it’s all vertically laminated like this. And the entire thing is capable of vibrating almost like its own drum if you want to think of it like this, in addition to the soundboard.

So, that’s the first thing that you really hear out of this piano is, when you compare it next to the Steinway, as I said, we have this lovely mid-range tone. When you have the advantage of playing them side by side, there’s just a lot more frequency that you’re hearing. There’s a lot more color and harmonics happening in the high end. There’s a lot more color and harmonics happening in the low end. Now, this takes a little bit of adjusting to when you’re playing because of course we’re not used to instruments producing this much tone. But, once you get used to working with all the different colors, you wind up with very much an orchestral palette that lets you do things that your ear’s telling you you want to experiment with, and after a few minutes, I mean, you just settle into it like crazy. It’s a wonderful instrument to play.

You’ll also notice, if you can see this on the camera, that the Bechstein – just like the Steinway – also uses a treble bell. So, on top of all of the different hardwoods in the rim now starting to resonate a little bit better than just an exclusively maple rim. You also have this innovation that Steinway & Sons produced quite a while ago now being introduced on Bechstein as well, just even further strengthen the treble. A lot of technicians and performers will tell you, brand aside, that one of the hardest things to get happening really, really nicely is good treble sustain and good treble clarity and projection on a piano. It’s a sign of great design.

A third feature would be the bridge. Now, the bridge, like the rim, is vertically laminated and capped just like the Steinway. And what’s interesting is, the bridge on the Bechstein looks an awful like the Steinway. So rather than go way off in the deep end and try something completely new, in that particular case, Bechstein is actually sticking with primarily a maple bridge, maple cap and vertically laminated. But the lamination style that they’re using is quite interesting. You really have to just take a look at it when you’re in front of one of these designs so that you can look at how perfectly matched the grains are in the bridge. Another thing I’m going to point out with the Bechstein soundboard, which is quite unique, and nobody even pointed this out, we noticed this when we were really doing a deep dive on some of the training on these instruments a few weeks ago, is that the planks between all of the…or the joints between all the planks on the soundboard are actually serrated.

The entire point of what we’re talking about is a piano that is supposed to be capable of responding to very low levels of energy. And so, the hallmark to all of this, because, as I said, I know this is very technical, but the hallmark to all of this is, when you sit down at a B 212 and you play a single note, the most uncanny thing happens. And it’s the first piano I’ve ever had this happen to and it was shocking the first time I heard it. As you play the note, there’s actually a bloom to the note for about a quarter to a half-second. The sound actually grows a little bit as that sound and that energy dissipates throughout the whole structure of the instrument. It’s like the instrument is just sitting there primed, waiting for the tiniest little bit of energy to be sent through the strings, and then the whole thing just comes alive. And you’re getting more back from the instrument than you’re putting in, which is such a satisfying, exciting thing as a musician.

Very few instruments will give that to you regardless of whether you’re talking about piano, or drums, or violin. But I do think that some string players can relate to this, a really great violin or a really great cello has this amazing bloom to the tone as well. So, that’s all we’re going to talk about in terms of the C. Bechstein concert grand piano for now. Technically, we are going to get to the playing and we’re going to see how all this technical stuff actually manifests itself in here. And again, we’ll just talk a little bit about how that compares to the Steinway & Sons. One other point I will bring up before I forget, because there’s some other brands that have made a big deal of this.

Bechstein actually doesn’t make a big deal of it, but, it is verified that this is where they get it from. The soundboard material on these concert series of Bechsteins comes from the Val di Fiemme. So, this is exactly the same wood source that Stradivarius got for his violins. It’s a very exclusive woodlot. Very few trees come out of this place. Every tree is accounted for and there are not very many a wood suppliers that have access to that area of the world. And so there’s only a handful of instruments, piano or otherwise, that have the privilege of using that wood in their instrument, very pleased to announce, of course, the Bechstein is one of them. And you certainly hear it in the responsiveness and just how lovely sustaining tone you can get out of the piano.

Conclusions

Whether it’s the Steinway B or C. Bechstein B212, pianists will have a capable, responsive instrument that’s a delight to play. While there are many similarities between the two, the notable differences come down to touch (the Steinway is heavier with a slightly shallower key depth), tone (the Bechstein is more colourful throughout the range, whereas the Steinway is uniformly mid-tone biased from bottom to top) and a pretty major character difference between their treble ranges and the lower bass tones. Both have proven themselves as versatile instruments that have stood the test of time. We hope you’ve enjoyed the article and video!