Differences Between Cheap and Expensive Pianos

September 18, 2020 Chuck Johnson


Warren Buffet said that “Price is what you pay. Value is what you get.”

One goal of M. Steinert & Sons is to educate our customers about the relationship between a piano’s price and its value as they prepare to purchase their instruments. Ultimately, the difference between buying an inexpensive starter piano and a permanent lifetime piano is the difference between making a purchase and making an investment.

In this article, I'll walk you through four critical factors you need to consider when trying to decide if an expensive piano is worth the investment:

  1. Sound
  2. Touch
  3. Materials & Craftsmanship
  4. Longevity

Sound: Sustained and Malleable vs. Harsh and MonotoneYuja Wang Playing Piano

In a fine piano, the sound quality is typically defined by the ability to extract a wide range of tonal ‘colors’ over the volume range.  Soft passages are not just softer - they can have different tonal characteristics, while a loud passage can extract something totally different, both in tone and volume.

The Steinway hammer (the part of the action actually striking the string) is a legendary combination of the finest felts, enhanced and formed in a way that offers great control over tonality.

This expressive capacity is at the heart of the piano experience - and one that artists count on for the expression of their craft.

Human hearing is remarkably sensitive.  Consider this:

Over a range of frequencies (approximately 500 to 4000 Hz) and levels (approximately 35 to 80 dB SPL) in which humans are most sensitive, listeners can discriminate a change of about one decibel in sound level and about a half of a percent change in tonal frequency.
(source:  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207834/)

This means that even those who describe themselves as having a “tin ear” - have the innate ability to recognize small variations in volume and pitch.

Fine pianos also feature a longer sustain.  The duration of a held note on a Steinway is also longer thanks to the careful balancing of rim strength, soundboard shape and bridge/string interface.

In a cheap piano, you may find that sound has a thin, brittle, overly bright sound with an inability to extract nuance over the dynamic range. The higher tension designs used in many cheap pianos result in a brash tone with shorter sustain due to the very nature of this design.  For some music, this sound has become popularized - since it can ‘cut-through’ the band etc.  However, for a solo pianist, this will rarely be a sought-after quality.

Touch:  Consistent and Fluid vs. Loose and ErraticPiano Factory Image

The touch of a quality piano is generally marked by a consistent, low friction feel that gives the player a sense of power and immediate control since every finger motion is captured by the action.

Touch is intimately tied to the sound - since the two work together to create the vehicle for expression.  Assuring long-term quality of feel involves eliminating looseness from the action.  Recent advances in touch come from improved tolerance control in action part manufacturing and materials that balance a traditional feel with increased durability.

Many lower quality pianos start off feeling “OK”, but can quickly become inconsistent and erratic.  Lower-end manufacturers know that a sticking key is worse than a loose key (sticking keys will yield a service/warranty call) so they will leave things a little loose to begin with.  In low-quality pianos this will amplify over time and the net effect of looseness can result in the feel of a cheap portable keyboard.

Materials: Consistent Quality Standards vs. Cheap SupplySound Board Making

The high-quality materials of your permanent lifetime piano substantially contribute to its cost. They also distinguish your piano from its less expensive mimickers. The type and quality of the wood, particularly in the soundboard, determine the quality of your piano’s timbre.

Given that the function of the soundboard is to transmit the vibrations made by touching the keys, it makes sense that the close grain of Alaskan Sitka spruce used in Steinway soundboards provides a fuller and richer tone than that of inferior brands, some of which use laminates for the construction of their soundboards. Steinway buys the top 1% of flawless Sitka spruce for use in their soundboards.

The cost of Sitka spruce, as well as the cost of other high-quality materials used in your piano’s construction, contribute to the price of the instrument at the time of purchase. However, Sitka spruce endures; it withstands the many hours of practice and performance required by the dedicated musicians who play your family’s piano without compromising the instrument itself. It is the foundation of both the sound and the longevity of your piano.

Craftsmanship and Artistry: Care vs. SpeedFactory Craftsman

Steinway pianos have long been regarded as the best pianos in the world. Each one is handcrafted by highly-skilled artisans who carefully match the grain of the wood in each adjacent part during construction. Additionally, the patented “diaphragmatic” design of the Steinway soundboard allows the notes to resonate fully from the instrument.

The skill, quality, and care that is the foundation of Steinway construction contributes to the cost of the piano at the time of purchase. A Steinway piano takes a full year to construct from start to finish. By contrast, brands that are not designed by Steinway are mass-produced in factories which lowers both the cost and the value of these instruments.

Longevity: Heirloom vs. LandfillPiano Closeup

While perhaps a bit harsh to suggest, it is a fact that many cheap pianos rolling off assembly lines today will be candidates for the landfill in as little as 10-30 years. By contrast, many Steinway pianos are often rebuilt and have 2nd, or even 3rd lives as musical instruments (although many rebuilds do not adhere to the quality standards set by Steinway and become what is known in the piano industry as a "Stein-was").

As New England’s premier, and only factory-authorized Steinway dealer, M. Steinert and Sons fulfills Henry E. Steinway’s vision to “build the best piano possible” and to “sell it at the lowest price consistent with quality.”

To that end, we offer you and your family the broad options of the entire Steinway Family of Pianos--Steinway & Sons, Boston, and Essex in all upright and grand models, sizes, and finishes.

Both Boston and Essex are designed by Steinway to have what has become known as "Steinway DNA".  It's a term that captures Steinway's design philosophy of touch and tone that is adhered to across the Steinway-designed brands of Steinway, Boston, and Essex.

Experience: Inspiration vs. Almost

As you anticipate purchasing your new piano, please remember that music is an experience, not an object. When you invest in a Steinway or a Steinway-designed piano such as Boston or Essex, you are ensuring the quality of the musical experience - for both the musician and the audience.

Lifetime pianos, particularly Steinways and Steinway-designed pianos, guarantee the highest quality materials, craftsmanship and longevity for both amateur and professional musicians, and the quality of the resulting sound is evident to both the trained and untrained ear immediately.

To invest in a more expensive piano is to ensure quality of musical tone, regardless of who plays it, and to guarantee the longevity of the instrument. While the initial cost of a lifetime piano is higher, the satisfaction of owning the best is rarely a disappointment.

By contrast, inexpensive pianos will often meet the needs of the budget-conscious shopper who is limited in their purchase options but may want to upgrade in the future.  Many future Steinway buyers start with the more economical Boston/Essex pianos and upgrade to Steinway at a later date.


At M. Steinert & Sons, our new Lifetime Trade-Up to Steinway program allows the purchaser at ANY TIME IN THEIR LIFETIME to receive 100% of their purchase price towards a new Steinway.

To learn more about the unique characteristics and see videos of each new Steinway, Boston and Essex piano, please check out the full range of our pianos.

Or,  try our piano recommendation form that lets us understand your situation as we recommend 3 pianos that fit your needs and budget.  

We invite you to visit one of our locations to experience the Steinway family of pianos and our Roland Digitals, and above all, to try an instrument before you consider purchasing one!

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