You may have caught a previous article I wrote comparing pianos of note, and in this informative post, I hope to extend this a little further. If you are in the privileged position of being able to consider buying either a Steinway or a Kawai piano, the excellent news is that you are unlikely to be disappointed by either the build quality or the historical pedigree. Both manufacturers are at the top of their game and have a formidable heritage. They are also supported by a raft of famously named pianists.
The important side of this delicious dilemma is not so much the finer details of manufacturing techniques, but the characteristics of each instrument that can only be judged on their own merits. What I am alluding to is the fact that when you are looking at buying a high-quality piano like a Kawai or a Steinway, unless you simply want it to look good in your lounge, or office lobby, then you are probably interested in how it plays and how it sounds. This is inevitably going to be different for every piano by either Steinway of Kawai.
Shigeru Kawai Vs Steinway Piano
What I should point out is that whilst Kawai is a name well-known in the world of the piano, the Shigeru Kawai Grand Piano is a piano considered to be at the absolute top of the range of pianos produced by the company. The extent of the catalog of grand pianos goes from the SK-2 at a humble 5’11” right up to the Concert Grand at an impressive SK-EX at 9’. By way of a little illustration of the exact and unique way that the Shigeru Kawai is made consider that when they shape the ‘rim’ it is not done traditionally by using a ‘rim press’ but steam to create every curve individually. This is with the idea that the fibers in the wood remain in as natural a state as possible.
Kawai has also been the pioneer of the use of carbon fiber technology in the manufacture of their pianos. This began in the grand pianos but has gradually been employed in the whole range of instruments. The advantage of using a material such as carbon fiber is that it is extremely durable and not a victim to humidity as other materials traditionally have been. It also ‘transmits’ kinetic energy efficiently making the action on Kawai pianos quite untouched by other manufacturers.
If this is not enough evidence of the astonishing time and effort that Kawai put into their instruments, the soundboard holds another fascinating truth. Unlike some manufacturers, Kawai does not use drying kilns but treats their Ezo Spruce to an open-air drying method that can take over five years. If you like the idea of the personal touch then the Shigeru Kawai Grand is for you. When you decide to purchase one of these beautiful instruments, you will be assigned an individual Master Piano Artisan who oversees the building of the piano from beginning to end.
From them, you will receive a certificate with the Master’s name on it and a short biography. These Piano Artisans will also guarantee you a visit within one year of purchase to your home at no additional cost. They will devote their entire day to servicing the piano and ensure that you are fully happy with it. As far as I am aware no other piano manufacturer offers such a bespoke service.
Steinway pianos offer a standard of manufacturing that is certainly in the same league as Shigeru Kawai pianos. Some would argue that Steinway is really in its own division and incomparable to other pianos but today’s market is full of viable alternatives that have made Steinway’s once unreachable top spot venerable.
What Steinway used to deliver as an incentive to buy one of their pianos was the unique methods of construction but also the equality of tone and response. No other piano sounds or plays like a Steinway but this may not be what you are looking for in an instrument.
Like Shigeru Kawai, Steinway offers an impressive array of Grand Pianos. The smallest is the Model S that is a baby grand coming in at 5’1″. In the middle of the range comes the Steinway Model C at 7’4″ followed by the ultimate grand piano, the Model D with an impressive length of 8’11 and 3/4″. This stunning instrument has ‘braces’ of spruce, ‘ribs’ of sugar pine, a ‘rim’ moulded from one continuous strip (comprised of 17 layers), of hard rock maple, and ‘soundboard’ close-grained, quarter-sawn Sitka spruce.
There is little room for doubt about just how much skill and passion goes into making the Steinway pianos but a criticism I am picking up on more recently is that the techniques Steinway use are now perhaps outdated. Instead of drawing on new manufacturing innovations as Shigeru Kawai has, Steinway has rested on its historic reputation for making the greatest pianos. Another voice of dissent highlights the fact that there is no longer a living member of the Steinway family involved in the company. In fact, what is alleged is that the successive buyers of the firm have had to pay off significant debts resulting in the possible compromise in the manufacturing of the instruments. Unfounded these rumors may be but this is sometimes all that is required to topple a king.
What we can be certain of is that the cost of buying a new Steinway Grand piano is increasing seemingly by the year. They always were expensive pianos, but in today’s economic climate the Steinway has almost become an icon for the extremely wealthy rather than an instrument for everyone to aspire to own. Is it true then that if you do buy a new Steinway you are only buying the name? I doubt it. I find it almost impossible to believe that a piano maker with a reputation to uphold like Steinway would ever compromise with any aspect of his piano manufacturing and that the instruments they make today are still extraordinary.
One final point to consider is one of age. For many commentators, the new option belongs to the Shigeru Grand range whereas if you elect to purchase a Steinway from the early 1900s then you are likely to possess and play on a Steinway that comes from the golden age of the company and is supposedly unparalleled in every way.