🎹Upright Piano Buyer's Guide for 2021 | How to Choose an Upright Piano🎹

When it comes to acoustic pianos, there are a lot of ‘best of’ lists and new piano buying guides out there with a ton of different information on different models. What these lists tend to neglect is a systematic way that you, the buyer, can sort through this information and zero in on the most important considerations affecting your decision.

In today’s article and video, we’re going to list the things you should be considering when looking for an upright piano and placing them in a very specific order of importance. We’ve already done the same thing for digital pianos, and we received positive feedback that people really found that helpful.

We’re confident that if you apply our formula to your shopping process, you’re not only ensured to be thrilled with the piano you end up with, but you’ll also do so in much less time.

Piano Dimensions

Kawai Upright Piano Dimensions
Kawai Upright Piano Dimensions

The very first thing that we’re going to suggest you start with is size. Not budget, not country of origin, but size. Here’s why. The size of an upright piano directly determines its volume and the fullness and clarity of the bass register. It doesn’t matter how well a piano is made – If it’s not loud enough or it doesn’t have a clear enough bass, there are no other factors that can ever make up for that.

There are upright pianos that can be as small as about 42″ in height, and they generally get to be as tall as about 53″ with sostenuto pedals. Although that only sounds like about a 20% difference, the proportional difference in string length is actually much larger. This is why that height difference can have such a big impact on how full the tone is and how much sound you need the piano to produce.

Be careful if you’re looking at a small used piano as you’ll want to ensure it isn’t a Baldwin Spinet model – these instruments feature highly antiquated action designs and should be avoided.

There are several factors which might influence your needs in this area. One could be the size and acoustic makeup of the room where you’ll be placing your piano. If you’re planning on putting your upright piano into a very large space with high ceilings, you might have the need for a larger piano. If you’re going to be recording with this instrument, you’ll probably desire strong bass clarity, so you’re not going to want to go lower than about 47″ in height for example.

What are the risks here if you pick the wrong size piano? If you pick a piano that’s too small for your needs, you are going to be training yourself to operate an instrument that behaves very differently than other pianos that you might experience out there. This is more of a consideration for students and professionals who might be doing recitals or performances on a concert grand piano, which offers an experience that is very different than that of a small upright.

If your needs really are a 48″ upright, then don’t go looking for a 42″ by trying to exchange size for a more high-quality instrument – if you need a taller instrument, don’t compromise here.

Sound Quality and Tonal Profile

After you’ve established the size that’s appropriate for you, the next thing you’ll want to focus on is picking a tone that satisfies your ear and excites your musical soul. Sometimes we can’t explain why we like the tones that we like, but the point is, you want to pick something that is going to truly excite you and make you want to play.

Several things go into what gives a piano its tone. Country of origin can have an indirect influence because certain countries’ piano industries are known for construction practices, designs, and overall quality control. If you buy a piano from Germany, you know that you’re going to get a piano with great tonal clarity due to the quality of craftsmanship that’s consistent across German piano manufacturing. If you have the ear for it, you’ll be able to hear the difference between a very clear tone and a tone that’s a little dirtier, and this is a compromise you may be unwilling to make.

The style of the piano may also come into play as there are certain instruments which are designed to create a maximum level of color and dynamic response. Bechstein upright pianos come to mind for example when you hear this type of description. Other instruments known for extreme clarity and beautiful shimmering sustain would be Schimmel uprights.

Things like hammer selection, soundboard material, and scale design also go a long way in determining sound quality and tonal profile.

Soundboard
Soundboard

In a mid-range price category, Kawai uprights are one example with a very colorful sound profile. Yamaha won the other hand would be a little clearer with less color.

So, it’s important to understand what you want out of the tone of your piano as finding the sound you connect with will really inspires you to play. You may find that there’s consistency either in a country of origin or possibly in a specific piano brand that does this for you. Check out the video to hear some playing examples of different uprights with very different sounds.

Piano Action (Touch and Response)

Once we know how big the piano needs to be and we’re centered in on a style of tone that we really resonate with, our next focus should be on how we physically interface with the piano – in other words, the piano action.

Some people might suggest that touch is the most important consideration, especially for piano technicians, but we’ve put it third for a reason – great touch is never going to make up for bad tone. It’s also never going to be able to compensate for missing volume or bass presence that only a certain type of piano can provide.

Touch can be described in a variety of ways. People will say use terms like light touch or heavy touch, but this is often actually referring to the dynamic response of a given instrument. A piano could actually have a fairly heavy touch, but if it has an immediate and big dynamic response, your mind might still perceive that as a light touch.

So, this is more of a perception thing as opposed to something totally objective. A medium sensation is usually the balance people look for between a sense of control and a sense of ease with the dynamic range. The heavier you perceive a piano’s touch to be, the harder you’ll have to play to get access to the full dynamic range. When an action feels too light, it will typically have a huge dynamic range, and this is quite difficult to control in the lower dynamic ranges.

Figuring out how heavy or how light you want the sense of touch to be is quite important and has less to do with quality and more to do with stylistic subjective differences from builder to builder. Even two German-made upright pianos of the same general quality level can have radically different feeling actions.

We would definitely suggest that if you’re in the market for a premium upright of any kind, spend an extended period of time in the showroom or music store to make sure that that sense of weight and resistance is going to be comfortable for you over long periods of time.

Another thing that almost never gets talked about is the surface of the piano keys and how rounded the edges of the keys are. You might not think this is a big deal, but if you don’t like how the keys feel, this is something that will pop up very soon after you have the instrument at home. You’re going to want to make sure that you like the actual tactile feel of the keys on your fingers, along with the rest of how the action feels.

Piano Action
Piano Action

Your Budget

The fourth consideration to look at is budget. The reason budget is fourth and not first is that if you follow our first three considerations in order, you’re going to come into a subset of instruments that still has a fairly wide range of prices.

When our salespeople consult with customers on their piano buying musical journey, whether it’s their first time and first piano or fifth piano, we go through the above-noted considerations and sometimes wind up at a range as wide as $8,000 up to $40,000 of pianos that will fit the needs of the customer based on the above criteria.

Once you’ve got that subset of instruments down, this is where budget should come into play. You now know the flavor you want, and from here it’s just a matter of how refined you want that flavor to be, and potentially how long you’d like your piano to last.

The quality of a piano definitely does have an impact on its longevity. Budget usually reflects this because as you move up in price, the piano is generally made with better materials and a good quality piano design that will maintain its integrity over a longer period of time.

Whether the budget is strict or flexible, at this point in the process you’ll be able to refine things down to the best piano for your budget.

Resale Value (Used Market & Brand Considerations)

The fifth and final consideration you’ll want to make is resale value. This has less of an impact when shopping for a baby grand piano, but it has a very large impact when you’re shopping for an upright piano.

Upright pianos, in terms of brands and in terms of models, have a much higher rate of turnover in the piano industry than grand pianos do. Because upright pianos are not often thought of as aesthetic complements to a home in the way grand pianos are, people will only pay top dollar for an upright used piano that has brand recognition or model acclaim.

You’re simply not going to get good resale value if you go with a brand which is either quite new to the market, unknown to the market, or is from a company known for churning brands put pretty consistently like some of the stencil brands that come from China.

Now, we’re not saying pianos that fit this above description can’t offer really great value. What we are saying is that if you think there’s a high likelihood that you will be selling or upgrading your instrument within 5 to 10 years of purchase, this is where brand and model selection can have a major impact on resale.

Here’s an example. If you were to buy an upright from an unknown brand for about $7,000 or $8,000 and you cared for that instrument really well to the point that it was in perfect condition for 10 years and you decide to sell, there’s a good chance that you will have to sell that piano for $3,000 to $4,000, or possibly even less.

We’re talking about a 50% hit to your original investment. If you’d spent the same amount of money on a known model or something with brand recognition, there’s a good chance that you’d be able to sell that piano for within 20% to 30% less than what you bought it for, meaning you’ve preserved 70% to 80% of your original investment.

Follow these 5 considerations, in this specific order, and we’re confident you’ll end up with the right piano for you. Now, here’s a list of some of our favorite upright pianos from every price range.

Merriam Music’s List of Notable Upright Pianos

This is hardly an exhaustive list, but these are some models we think would be deserving of a closer look. We carry over 50 upright pianos here at Merriam Pianos and there are close to 100 out there in the wider piano universe.

Here are some favorites that we’re sure you’ll come across in your research.

Starting at the entry level, we’ve had positive experiences with the Pearl River 118 and 121 sizes as well as their premium Ritmuller UP and UH models. Kawai has the ND21 model, which is a 48-inch Indonesian-built instrument which has been highly popular in Europe, Australia, and here in Canada. It’s generally not available in the United States, but if you can find one, it’s pretty much impossible to beat for the price when you consider what it offers musically, plus Kawai’s excellent warranty coverage.

Moving up to the mid-range and we’ve got the Kawai K300 and the Yamaha U1 – probably the most fierce upright piano matchup in the industry. There’s also the taller Kawai K500 and the Yamaha U3, which is another great rivalry. These four instruments simply dominate the mid-range piano market due to the fact that they’re all very well built, professional quality instruments with highly musical playing experiences, yet cost a fraction of a German instrument. Piano tuners love servicing these pianos too.

Moving up into the European range, the W. Hoffmann T122 along with the Wilhelm Schimmel W118 are two instruments that have been immensely popular. The W. Hoffmann is made in the Czech Republic, while the Wilhelm Schimmel is made in Poland meaning the manufacturers here are able to take advantage of slightly more affordable Eastern European labor, but still deliver fantastic material and quality control from their German parent companies, Schimmel and Bechstein.

Once we move into the premium range, the Bechstein A124 has been a huge hit all around the world. Bechstein reps have told us that they simply cannot build enough of these particular instruments to meet global demand.

Right at the very top of the industry we’ve got the C. Bechstein Concert 8, Bosendorfer 130, Steinway & Sons K52, and the Schimmel Konzert Series – these are simply some of the best instruments money can buy.

Of course, there are many other great upright pianos out there, these are just some we have had excellent personal experiences with.

Final Thoughts

Thanks very much for reading. We hope that you’ll check out the video as well for an even more in-depth explanation of the top considerations you should make when choosing an upright piano, as well as some playing examples of fine musical instruments.

We truly believe that if you follow the guidelines above, you’ll have a wonderfully productive experience next time you visit a piano retailer.