Yamaha U-1 vs. Essex EUP-123E: Which is the better upright?

by Stephen N. Reed


Essex EUP-123E upright piano
The Essex EUP-123E upright, developed for the entry market piano buyer by Steinway & Sons, includes the Steinway sound, which Steinway’s engineers brought to the Essex’s manufacturing process.

Yamaha makes a wide variety of piano models, of a wide range of quality.  For example, some Yamahas are made with better woods than other of their models.

As a result, the smart piano buyer will want to do one’s research to determine whether the Yamaha models in their price range have the quality they desire.  Understanding the different Yamaha model series is therefore very important.

The Essex line, developed for the entry market piano buyer by Steinway & Sons, has the same essential quality throughout their models.  That includes the Steinway sound, which Steinway’s engineers brought to the Essex’s manufacturing process.

For comparative piano models, one may wonder which is the better piano, the Essex or the Yamaha.  For the purposes of this comparison, we will compare the Essex EUP-123E vs. the Yamaha U-1 for upright pianos.  Both brands have created quality products in these models, and one’s preference may come down to the two pianos’ tones.

By the time you’ve finished this article, you will be better informed as to the differences in these two piano brands and models.  You’ll want to know these differences as the two models are essentially equivalent in price, between $9,000–$10,000 new.

Yamaha’s U-1: Overview

Yamaha piano keyboard
Yamaha’s U series pianos have gone through a redesign. These uprights feature major changes like refined scale designs, along with smaller touches like wider music desks.

Yamaha’s U series of upright pianos has gone through a redesign that has created some significant changes.    For example, these pianos have major changes like refined scale designs, along with smaller touches like wider music desks.

Steve Hauk, Sales Manager for M. Steinert & Sons has seen U series models like the U-1  increase in popularity over time, noting that it has a bright sound that beginning students often enjoy.

“In a way, this bright quality to the U-1 goes well with early pieces a student learns, like those of Bach and Handel,” says Hauk.  “But more tonal complexity is desirable as students continue in their piano lessons.”

This Yamaha brightness quality to their pianos’ tones is a frequent topic among piano users and online reviewers.  Some have a concern that, however bright a U-1 piano is at the time of purchase, it will just get brighter as the hammer felts compact with use over time.

Others have noted that even a brand new U-1 can sound so bright as to be a piercing or punchy sound.  Still others note that the touch seems too light and therefore is difficult to adjust well between dynamics.  Still, many are pleased with this Yamaha model overall.

Specific features of the Yamaha U-1

Refinements in all elements of sound production have given today’s U-1 a more resonant, if bright, voice with evenly balanced timbre across the entire keyboard.

The U-1 has rib configurations that add strength to the soundboard, while other advances further enhance rigidity, resonance, and structural stability.

U-1 hammers use materials selected for each model to provide optimum tone production, response, and long-term durability.  U-1 is known for its light action.

A damping mechanism, formerly used only in grand pianos, prevents the fallboard from dropping abruptly onto the keyboard, guarding against accidental injury or damage.

The U-1 comes in the following colors: Polished Ebony, Polished White, Satin American Walnut, Polished Mahogany, and Satin Ebony.

Essex EUP-123E: Overview

Essex EUP-123E upright piano
In contrast to the Yamaha brightness, Essex models, including the EUP-123E, are characterized by a more warm tone, one with tonal complexity, and a reverberating bass.

In contrast to the Yamaha brightness, Essex models, including the EUP-123E, are characterized by a more warm tone, one with tonal complexity, and a reverberating bass.

The EUP-123E is also noted for a controllable action that can easily handle changes in dynamics.

Of all the aforementioned differences with the Yamaha U-1, the tone of the Essex EUP-123E is perhaps the most notable.  When Steinway & Sons’ engineers created the Essex, they imported as much of the Steinway sound as possible to the Essex manufacturing process.

The result is a close approximation of a mellow tone known the world over from the public hearing it every time they listen to a Steinway & Sons piano on stage.

Specific features of the Essex EUP-123E

The EUP-123E is the tallest of the Essex uprights at 48.5, a half-inch taller than the Yamaha U-1.

Essex piano pedals
Made by Steinway & Sons in collaboration with furniture designer William Faber, the EUP-123E features several unique touches.

Made by Steinway & Sons in collaboration with furniture designer William Faber, the EUP-123E has a grand-style leg top, a fold-back Top lid, brass hardware, and classic-style legs with a choice of Ebony Polish and Sapele Mahogany Satin finishes.

The EUP-123E uses high-grade, straight-grained, quarter-sawn spruce is selected for its resonant qualities and high strength-to-mass ratio. The soundboard is solid and not laminated, which creates the best resonance and projection of sound.

Like all Essex uprights, the EUP-123E has large backposts, giving a solid foundation for the resonating soundboard and tensioned vibrating strings.  EUP-123A backpost locations are staggered, placed where the string tension is greatest.

A low tension string scale, designed by Steinway & Sons, gives a fuller, richer tone by allowing more of the lower partials to sing. It also has more sustain and has a more dynamic range than Yamaha’s U-1.

Materials play a role with the EUP-123E’s action touch, as well.  The EUP-123E has all-wood action parts and solid spruce keys.

Tone and Touch as the determining factors

Like its sister brand, Boston, Essex grands and uprights have the distinction of having the benefit of Steinway & Sons’ nearly 170 years of innovation in creating their pianos.

With Essex, Steinway engineers had as their goal both an affordable line for the entry-level market yet also one that incorporated as much of the Steinway engineering as possible in a manufactured piano process.

As a result, for its price, Essex models, including the EUP-123E, surprise piano buyers by having a touch and a warm, mellow tone that is known around the world as “the Steinway sound.”

The result is a U-1 piano with a bright tone and a light action that may be decent for beginning piano students. However, its tone is limited for the more intermediate and advanced piano student.  Such a student will need a piano with a more complex and subtle tonal range like the Essex EUP-123E provides.

Essex EUP-123E: A worthy alternative to the Yamaha U-1

To be clear, despite the fact that it gets brighter in tone with age, Yamaha’s U-1 is a good piano in several respects.  It has become a popular model, such that Essex’s EUP-123E doesn’t always get the attention it deserves as the new kid on the block.  Once you try the Essex EUP-123E, you may find that it is a worthy alternative to the Yamaha U-1.

The best way to determine which of these affordable, new uprights is for you is to play them for yourself.  At M. Steinert & Sons, we encourage prospective customers to try other brands first at other piano companies and then compare ours to them with a visit to our showroom.

That is always the best way to find the piano that is best for you.

Meantime, read more about the Yamaha and Essex models in the articles linked below:

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