Quality is a term that is passed about with great ease in the piano industry. The term itself has a rather benign meaning; “high grade, superiority, excellence”. But what does that mean in the piano world and is there any reason the term high quality should be limited to certain makers?
If you’ve been exposed to marketing in the piano industry you realize that just about any construction trait can be justified and explained, even if it seems in direct opposition to other makers. For example, the proponents of the new Phoenix bridge system say that it eliminates the need for down bearing in a piano. However in traditional design down bearing is, next to tuning pin torque, a fundamental requirement. More important, frankly, than 88 keys!
Quality is not necessarily the most important trait of a piano. Calling a piano high quality may mean next to nothing especially if the characteristic of a particular maker falls short in a more critical area: consistency.
To be consistent means that you can build something the same way more than once, and in the piano world this is important since most pianos are lifetime purchases. In fact with most pianos, their true tonal nature is not necessarily obvious when they are brand new. Consistency means that the high quality a particular company’s marketing material refers to is more than just random chance. If you can do something consistently, it means you really understand what you are doing and mean for it to turn out that way. Consistency implies quality, because it is intentional.
There is a prominent piano maker who is known for “quality”, but they are also known for being maddeningly inconsistent. In fact they have turned this, remarkably, into an attribute, stressing that no two of their pianos are alike and one should try a number of their pianos to find one that one likes. It is true that when one is of these brand of pianos is properly made they can be, to those that like their individual sound, wonderful instruments. However the degree of variability goes from sublime to unplayable. In fact, it is a certain badge of honor among accomplished piano technicians that they can make these actions “work”, regardless of the regulation specification. These technicians take great pride in the fact that they use regulation specifications as “guidelines” since regulating an action perfectly to specs does not guarantee that that action will play; that is how great the manufacturing variability is.
Now it is true that pianos by their very nature vary to some degree. They are very complex items made out of materials that are not known for great consistency, such as wood and felt. And yet, there are makers at most price points that turn out remarkably consistent products. There may be one brand that appeals to an individual more than another, but they all play fine, tune and regulate fine, and sound comfortably within the norms of that particular maker.
Consistency does not necessarily mean that you will like the end result. Many makers from Asia are known for remarkable consistency. However you may not be a fan of the sound, even while honoring their consistency of construction. However, I believe that this consistency is a higher measure of quality. This trumps the quality of the one example of a makers output that is beautiful, while 4 are unplayable and 5 are varying degrees of so-so.
After all, it’s your money and maybe you are not the best positioned to judge the ultimate quality of a piano. Shouldn’t you be able to count on something from a maker than just hollow marketing claims and the luck of the draw?