Pros: impeccably made; exceptional tone; superb touch; proven dependability; ability to withstand heavy use
Cons: less name recognition; perceived incorrectly as being inferior to the other Japanese-made piano (Yamaha)
I began taking piano lessons at the age of 5 and have spent many hours over the years banging away at the ivories. I never really took special note of the various pianos we owned through the years. My mom made the buying decisions and while weve only ever had space for an upright while we lived in Hong Kong, the most desirable piano in that part of the world was, and still is, a Yamaha. Now that my husband and I have moved into a new condo where I finally have space for a piano, I decided to buy one. I had a budget, one that would not stretch to a brand-new piano, but I knew that a well-restored used piano is just as good as (and in some cases considerably better than) a new one. I fully intended getting a Yamaha, perhaps a 45 P22, something that will give me the sound I want without breaking the bank. However, the only Yamaha uprights left at the used-piano sale I went to were the bigger 48 and 52, and they were all over my budget.
Not too far away from the Yamaha uprights were a few Kawai uprights, among them an unassuming-looking UST-7 that looked small for its 46 and while not appearing battered, did exude a sense of age. Further inquiry revealed this particular specimen to be exactly 20 years old. For quality pianos built to last decades, this is not such a great age. And considering its the famed UST-7, designed to withstand heavy long-term use, the age only really shows as that of a fine winemellow rather than decrepit. The sound, as demonstrated by a professional player on the spot, was warm and equally mellow, less bright and brittle than that of a comparable Yamaha, say. The master technician gave me a look at the inner workings, which appeared almost brand-new. Apparently, he did not have to restore this particular piano; everything was original. This piano just does not seem to have been used much in its 20 years, has been lovingly and regularly tuned (at A440 concert pitch) and kept in almost-mint condition. Brand-new Kawai uprights are now assembled in Indonesia or made in the US, while this particular one I stumbled on was made in Japan, and as such, is considered highly desirable.
The Japanese have been building quality pianos for over a hundred years (1887 in the case of Yamaha; Kawai started in 1927). Both Yamaha and Kawai have several lines of both upright and grand pianos marketed for different users (from the beginner to the casual player all the way to concert pianists) and priced accordingly.
The Kawai UST-7 is the gem in their institution line, easily exceeding the standards of school boards and other institutions like churches and recording studios throughout North America. Regarded by many professionals (both piano technicians and players) to be the finest and most dependable in its class, the UST-7s warm mellow Kawai tone (as opposed to the brighter tone of Yamaha) is marked and makes it a firm favourite of many players. Built like a tank (but not looking like one), it is designed to withstand heavy use. Double-wheel castors make it easy to move around and means this is one piano that will not mark your floor.
At 46 high, the UST-7 may not have the soundboard size of the 48 and 52, but the older versions (the ones made in Japan, not the more recent ones assembled in Indonesia) used hard maple for pin block and the soundblock is in solid spruce. Even the larger Yamaha uprights (48) have switched to plastic. True, the new plastic is supposed to wear better with age and harsh weather conditions, and perhaps this is purely psychological, but the tone seems to differ when comparing plastic vs wood. It should be said, however, that Kawais plastic is of the highest grade, the plastic compoments are beautifully-made and proven to be durable.
The appearance has been deemed institutional, for obvious reasons, but personally, having been more exposed to the high gloss ebony finish of Yamaha uprights for so many years, I find the satiny finish (the UST-7 is available in Oak Satin, Walnut Satin and Ebony Satin) less glaring, more subtle, and rather pleasing to the eye. The shape of the cabinetry is also less angular and gives a rather nice homely feel to the UST-7.
To further set your mind at rest, Kawai offers a transferable Ten Year Full Warranty on all its new pianos, the only major piano manufacturer in the world to do so.
YAMAHA vs KAWAI
One of the main attractions of Japanese pianos (both Yamaha and Kawai) is the responsiveness and evenness of their piano actions. Obviously, Yamaha trumps Kawai where name recognition is concerned. But this is where the consumer wins, for you basically get more piano for the buck if you go for the Kawai, the latter having to work harder to get the sales that Yamaha takes for granted.
Incidentally, the analogy of Steinway vs Baldwin is over-wrought and undeserved. Piano technicians will tell you that Kawai is in no way of a lesser quality relative to Yamaha. In fact, while Kawai is still second to Yamaha in size, it has a well-deserved reputation among piano professionals for quality and innovation. Ever heard of the hybrid piano? A regular acoustic piano turns to a digital one at the turn of a lever, a Kawai invention.
What differs is the tonea brighter sound for Yamaha and a more mellow and richer tone for the Kawai. This has been true until recently when Kawai came out with a choice of bright (E suffix in model no.) vs mellow (S suffix in model no.). If anything, people who like the Steinway sound often tend to like Kawais mellow tone. Perhaps this is why Steinways Boston line is now made by Kawai. In any case, a piano technician can alter your piano's sound to make it brighter or mellower by adjusting the hammers (the felt assemblies that strike the strings). Since the sound of many Japanese pianos tends to get very bright and metallic after a few years, and since it can be hard for a technician to voice it back down and get it to stay there, you might be better off starter off with a more mellow tone.
NEW vs USED
The hey-day of Japanese pianos appears to be after the early 1960s (before that, they were thought to have an undesirable tone and lacked depth and richness) and while the majority of them were still being made (and assembled) in Japan. Tone quality and touch improved considerably, so much so that both Kawai and Yamaha were able to increase their prices and their share in the U.S. market. Both Yamaha and Kawais studio pianos are now built in the US, including the Yamaha P22 and the Kawai UST-7 and UST-8, 45-46 uprights priced competitively and built to withstand heavy use.
In recent years, with the economic recession in Japan, many uprights made in Japan in the 90s, 80s and earlier have found their way to North America. There is big business in rounding up these gently-used and lovingly-maintained uprights and selling them over here. There has been much controversy over Yamahas official position on the sale of their used pianos. Claims have been made by Yamaha regarding the dubiousness of pianos made in one climate being able to wear well in another. Many professionals have debunked this claim as false and misleading, claiming in their turn that Yamaha merely wishes to sell more new instruments by dissuading people from buying used ones.
The fact remains that a quality piano is made to last decades of reasonable use, and a well-restored instrument given a second lease of life by a good piano technician will often give you many, many years of trouble-free playing. Obviously, it is to your advantage to only buy one that comes with a warranty (parts and labour) of at least five years (ten years is not unheard of)this is something that a reputable dealer should offer with confidence. Often, as in my case, they will throw in a free tuning as well.
Im very happy with my gently-used 20-year-old Kawai UST-7. Its walnut finish blends perfectly with our mostly wood furniture. The matching bench is not padded but is hinged for storage of my piano books and sheet music. Im waiting a little longer before getting my free tuning, as the weathers rather changeable here this time of the year. Needless to say, Ive not been able to keep my hands off it until the tuning, and while the sound is not perfect yet and will not be until that tuning, it seems to sound better each day. As with all musical instruments, a piano should be played every day to sound its best. Regular tuning is all-important, though many disagree on the frequencyusually once or twice a year is recommended.