The Yamaha U1 & Kawai K3 Review:
The 48-Inch Japanese piano domination continues – is it the right choice for you?
Rise of Japanese Industry in the 1970’s
Many things in the North American manufacturing sector began to change in the 1970’s, and the traditionally accepted peak of domestic production across many industries was 1973. At this time, the North American piano industry was going through a significant contraction and consolidation, and most companies were scrambling to produce smaller, cheaper pianos to compete with the ‘imports’. Namely, pianos from Japan which were seen in a very similar light to that of China today. There was a large leap forward in quality control and design by the Japanese makers, namely Kawai and Yamaha, fueled by a massive domestic piano boom back home in Japan. These pianos began exporting to North America and Europe, and quickly became known as the ultimate high-quality, inexpensive pianos. As it happened, Yamaha’s #1 seller was the Yamaha U1, which happened to be 48 inches. Partly because 48 happens to be a nice medium size for a piano, but much more so because of the prominence of this particular model, 48 inches became seen as the ‘standard’ size. This, despite the fact that very few pianos made in Europe or North America were 48″ in height.
The reasons for success
Yamaha was really the first mass-producer of pianos to bring true quality control to a high level, more inline with the aerospace or defense industries vs. what the world was used to from mass-produced pianos. The pianos were incredibly consistent, maintained their tuning, were mechanically stable and very durable, and had a tone which was far more rich than people expected from Asian pianos.
The used market
The used piano industry has a wide range of businesses – from single owner/operators to massive warehouse-type operations. The inherent problem with used pianos is that even though pianos are one of the most expensive household items a family will invest in, most people have a very small amount of knowledge about how to choose. And when you remove the protection of dealing with large manufacturers who have an interest in your experience as a customer, its very easy to be sold a defective, poor-quality, or over-priced piano without really knowing what’s happening.
One strategy that I’d recommend is shop retailers that have both new and used pianos to sell…and plenty of them. By eliminating a bias to sell you one or the other, you’re more likely to get honest (or at least unbiased) feedback on your options. Also, a dealer that has prominent brands is less likely to engage in deceptive practices because of the risks to their own brand.
One approaches a Yamaha U1 a little differently than any other piano in the market, simply because it has such a long history, and there are SO many of them. In other words, you’ve already played so many by the time you try and take a fresh look, it’s nearly impossible to separate your prior conclusions from what’s actually in front of you. The latest version of the U1 continues with high quality cabinetry, a solid, crisp action, and bright, very dynamic tone. Although the U1 is no longer the only one in the field that delivers a good experience at it’s price point (~$8000), it will continue to be a leader for years to come by the looks of it.
Yamaha’s tonal consistency still leaves something to be desired – of the three I had a chance to play, none had the same voicing applied to it; two quite bright, one very dull. This can always be rectified with a good technician, but when dealing with pianos under $10,000, having to spend an extra $300 – 500 right out of the gate is still a bit annoying. Make sure the dealer is ready to help with that in some way.
Yamaha’s action is often favored by younger and/or aggressive players because the geometry produces a fast attack speed compared to the force needed. A friend of mine had a young daughter that was looking at pianos as an upgrade to an inexpensive digital he’d bought her to get started – she instantly liked the Yamaha because she didn’t have to work very hard to get a big sound…that in and of itself isn’t a bad thing, but acoustics are SUPPOSED to feel heavier than digitals. This isn’t a knock against Yamaha, but any acoustic which doesn’t demand a stronger muscle tone little isn’t doing you any favors. Although the action may be a bit light for some players or teachers, the speed is still very good, and it continues to be one of the more consistent and responsive actions in the industry.
Yamaha’s tone is very identifiable – it has a pronounced attack, a bright sustain, and a very good balance of blended harmonics and a reasonable clarity. I’ve had the opportunity to play dozens of Yamaha’s in a performance situation, and there’s something to be said for a tone which can cut through the white-noise of a band, or a crowd. When you’re playing for yourself, this becomes less of an objective benefit, and much more a personal, subjective preference.
There have been various reports, most of which I suspect are nothing more than industry banter, regarding a drop in the constructional quality of U1’s. A few institutional buyers have switched away from Yamaha due to maintenance issues, but it’s very difficult to substantiate this information, and institutions have notoriously bad climate controls anyways (a major negative contributor to piano health). Overall I can’t see any noticeable degree of corner-cutting with this model, and Yamaha isn’t likely to start shipping anything that resembles a lemon anytime soon. They are still amongst the industry leaders in construction quality, although fewer and fewer of their pianos are coming from their Japanese facility.
Repertoire I thought it worked well for:
- Most if not all contemporary pop music
- Contemporary jazz
- Early classical (Bach, Mozart, Haydn etc)
Repertoire I felt a little lacking:
- Romantic Classical (Brahams, Chopin, Liszt, even Beethoven)
- 20th Century classical (Debussy, for example)
- Blue-note era Jazz
The U1 is certainly a reminder of why the US piano industry got trampled…it’s relatively affordable, structurally very solid, mechanically simple and easy to fix and maintain, and high resale potential. It’s action and tone don’t make it the most versatile instrument in its class, but it’s reputation and relative ease of ownership was trendsetting in the 1970’s, and still deserves a look in 2014.
I reviewed the K3 when it first came out, and was impressed but cautious. Kawai was making a very big deal about the new carbon fibre action. Yamaha’s consistency had been better for three decades, and with the exception of a couple of BL and US series, I generally had had very mixed experiences with Kawai uprights. That was 8 years ago.
The second time around I’m equally impressed with the K3, and after watching quietly as the K3 scooped up most of the industry awards available to it over the last 5 or so years, it’s easy to understand why. My instant impressions this time are: I’m playing a bigger piano than appears before me; the action is almost as responsive as a really good baby-grand; the tone is complex with a great sustain. In short, this is an extremely versatile piano.
Although the Yamaha U1 feels more familiar to me immediately, as soon as I get down into the softer dynamic ranges, the K3 action comes to life…the control is really something to behold for an upright of this price point. Kawai’s literature is, as you would expect, highly complimentary of the Millennium 3 action, but there really is something to it – the K3 really does feel every bit as good as a Grotrian Concertino, Bechstein Concert 8, or Mason’s orphan upright, the ‘50’.
In case anyone missed the uproar Kawai caused generally with their actions, here’s the 30 second version. They replaced their actions with plastic in the 1970’s. They didn’t really consider the public perception of the move, and for a long time Kawai’s got saddled with labels like ‘cheap’ and ‘disposable’. They fought back with lots of evidence on the benefits of getting rid of the wooden actions, but the damage was done and they were constantly on their back foot from then onwards. For the next 30 years any dealer up against a Kawai sale would just have to whisper the word plastic and they had the advantage. It really was two things that finally turned it around for Kawai: the internet, and the slow but widening adoption of the same technologies by other builders. As of 2014, no one really gets into the wood vs. plastic debate, and at this point I’m not even sure it’s plastic, since they added carbon-fibre to it in 2006.
The Millennium 3 action is fast. The increase in control and response is definitely noticeable, and I give it full kudos on that front. And the climate benefits do make sense. I certainly have been through the annoyance of stuck keys and double-striking hammers every winter with previous pianos I’ve owned and played.
Kawai’s tone has at times seemed like a reaction against Yamaha’s tone, with some of the pianos I’ve previously played. I get something very different from the K series – there is definitely an identity here which is interesting and delightful to explore. Between the U1’s I played and the K3 I played, the K3 has an undeniably wider palette; I can’t say whether this is an action difference or something else, but there are more dark hues and round mid-tones that just feel completely absent on the Yamaha.
This K3 gives me a warm bass (though not as powerful as the U1), a mid range which has ‘all the colors of the rainbow’ and a top end which has almost an American Steinway type of tone…
The K3 uses a similar style of construction to most professional Japanese pianos, and I didn’t see anything particularly unusual or exceptional here. The backpost construction is tight, the soundboard grain is nice and consistent, and Kawai is still sourcing very high quality spruce evidently. The polyester looks evenly applied, and thick.
Repertoire I thought it worked well for:
- All but the most percussive classical repertoire
- Most contemporary music of any style
Repertoire I felt a little lacking:
- 80’s pop, Scarlatti, some Mozart, some Bach
For the price (~$7500) it’s hard to think of a piano that delivers this blend of versatility and reliability. And after 8 years on the market, I think its more than time to stop thinking of the K3 as the ‘new kid on the block’, it’s certainly earned its place next to the U1. I’m going to stop short of giving a final verdict as compared to the U1, but will say this: most people were ready to give the Kawai a chance simply because it was cheaper than the Yamaha. While Kawai has still managed to maintain a slight pricing advantage, this is no longer the reason to try it. The reason to try it is that Kawai might just be making a better musical instrument.