In some ways, this comparison is a little similar to choosing between a Rolls Royce and a Bentley, or even a Lamborghini and a Ferrari. Whatever car you might have the possibility to choose, when you are considering vehicles at this level, then you are going to own a stunning car.
Likewise, choose either a Bösendorfer or a Steinway piano and you are, by and large, guaranteed to acquire a prestigious piano that is made to incredibly high standards and sounds sublime.
Steinway Vs Bösendorfer Piano
If you are in the privileged position of having to select from either a Steinway or Bösendorfer piano, then in all probability you will have a clear idea of how you want your instrument to sound. You are also highly likely to know how you want the ‘action’ of the piano to be, and these two factors alone will be enough to enable a firm decision to be made.
It is worth keeping in mind that the manufacturing of both Steinway and Bösendorfer is exceptional meaning that each piano produced will have unique tonal qualities that will require a discerning ear to distinguish.
What is often credited with creating the unique timbre of a Steinway piano is the ‘sound board’. This component of the piano is a vitally important one. Steinway uses only the premium selection of woods for the manufacturing of their soundboards that brings richness and warmth to the Steinway throughout the range of the instrument. This in itself has great appeal to many pianists and is enough to choose between the brands.
Steinway also strings their pianos in a particular way. The tension in the strings in the Steinway is lower than in other manufacturers. What this results in is that familiar mellow sound and resonance but also a ‘slower’ or lighter attack. This can, as previously mentioned, vary significantly from one model to another, especially if you are looking for used Steinways. (In fact, should you be buying a used Steinway, ensure that you buy from a reputable dealer and that it comes with a suitable warranty and has a Steinway soundboard).
With the distinct colors and what is often described as the bell-like quality to the clear upper registers of the Steinway, the characteristics are there to hear and like or dislike. For some musicians working in the Jazz or Popular Music worlds, the Steinway sound and action is not suitable for those genres of music. One familiar criticism is that the clarity of sound in the mid to lower octaves of Steinways can become cloudy when faster passages are played, but this is perhaps a compromise you have to make when the other qualities are so outstanding.
The Bösendorfer piano range is extensive and equally exclusive. Manufacturing quality and reputation is nothing short of exceptional supported by a formidable history of research, design quality, and sales. What separates the Bösendorfer from the Steinway still surrounds the individual nature of the tone.
Bösendorfer pianos have a somewhat brighter timbre compared to the Steinway and clarity across the full compass of the instrument. On a Bösendorfer there is no ‘muddiness’ in the mid to lower octaves, just a pinpoint brilliance that appeals to jazz performers and classical musicians alike. When thinking about the feel of a Bösendorfer, you will, if you’ve played a Steinway before, find the response lively. This can make playing a Bösendorfer more challenging but maybe the right type of action for you as a performer and for the type of music, you aspire to play.
An additional factor is that some Bösendorfer Grands are not limited to the standard 88 notes, but have a range that boasts up to 91 notes. This extends the piano downwards to a low C and according to the Bösendorfer promotional literature, greatly increases the resonance of the instruments.
If you are interested in the voices of the critics, the Bösendorfer often is accused of having an overly brittle top end that sounds thin and tinny when compared to the fuller tone of the Steinway. This can and does vary between Bösendorfers as you would expect, and may also be a quality in the instrument that you find acceptable or even appealing.
It may be slightly vulgar to mention money but if we are to measure as many aspects of these instruments as we can then price does come into the equation. Steinway is a little cagey about their prices, perhaps with the old belief that if you have to ask the price, the instrument is too expensive for you. It may also bring a certain mystique to the brand that attracts people.
At the top end of the Steinway, the list is the Model D, which brand new will set you back around $180,000 – 200,000. If you have landed squarely on the Bösendorfer side of the fence, then the Model 290 comes in at a mere $275,000 and measures an impressive nine feet, six inches in length.
In the final analysis, and if budget is of minimal consideration in the decision, then it boils down to the type of piano you want to play and the timbre of instrument you wish to hear. Both Steinway and Bösendorfer have much to offer a pianist of any ability and like racehorses, every instrument is made with the ultimate attention to high-quality engineering and detail. Some feel strongly that Steinway is the only piano worthy of consideration, others who would not be swayed away from the Bösendorfer brand.
On some piano forums, there is a distinct impression that Bösendorfer has a rightful hold on the second-hand market as their instruments are consistent in their qualities whereas Steinway contrast noticeably between models and ages.
I have often felt that the Bechstein piano offered a convincing alternative to Bösendorfer and Steinway, with a more ‘all round’ instrument adaptable to all genres of music, but that is a personal point of view. If you are buying an instrument, decide on your budget, second-hand or new, and then go and play as many from each manufacturer as you can, and have fun exploring these wonderful pianos.