Musical Odyssey

This is not a blog about the stereo in our minivan; rather, this entry is about our recent piano purchase.

We had thought for awhile that it was time to get a better piano for the kids, but we had not taken the plunge. Our daughter is a gifted sight-reader who has played piano for two years. In that time, her teacher says Ally (13) has progressed extremely quickly. She has dedicated herself to becoming a skilled pianist and has a goal of playing 10,000 hours. Eric (12) has played for a year and a half. He has a great ear for music and can frequently play music by just hearing it. He has also progressed very well.

For the first two years of piano lessons, we used a digital keyboard. However, Ally had really been past the limits of the keyboard since much earlier this year. After a lot of thought and wrestling with finances, we finally decided to buy a “real” piano.

Since I am a research geek, I read lots of material online (special thanks to the folks at the Piano World Forums).  I also studied the Larry Fine Piano Buyer book. Armed with knowledge gleaned, we set out on our quest several months ago.

The first question we had to decide was whether we were interested in a used or new piano. After searching craiglist and looking at a few used pianos, we decided we would prefer to buy from a dealer and that we preferred new to used.

Then, we had to figure out whether we wanted to buy a digital or whether we wanted to go acoustic. There were some interesting “hybrids” out there, too. After visiting several piano dealers in the Raleigh-Durham area of NC (where we live), we felt pretty firmly we wanted an instrument that had its own voice; so we decided to buy a traditional acoustic piano.

Once we had figured out we wanted a new acoustic, we needed to decide how much we were willing to spend. Our goal was to maximize quality at the lowest price point possible; in other words, get the best bang for the buck. We settled in on a specific spending goal, but we were willing to consider paying more if that’s what it took to get an actual quality instrument.

The next issue was whether we wanted an upright or a grand. Maggie had a strong preference for a grand. Of course, we all like the sound of most grands more, anyway, so the goal was to see if we could find one we felt offered the kind of quality we wanted at a price we were willing to pay. Once we decided on a grand, we also had to decide on the size. I did not want to consider a 5’3″ or smaller, and the room would get pretty tight after about 6’2″ so we focused our search between five and half to a shade over six feet in length.

And, of course, we had to decide the type of voice we wanted. In something that surprised me, our entire family was on the same page here; we all wanted a clear, warm sound.

While European and American companies are generally viewed as producing the top professional concert pianos, Japanese pianos have long been the standard for consumer grade instruments, although the globalization of piano companies seems to be moving quickly and other countries also produce high-quality instruments.  We quickly ruled out the several Yahamas we tried; they were just too bright. We liked some of the Kawai’s (RX series, in particular), but not all, and the Kawai’s we liked were a decent amount above the budget we were trying to stay within.

At one point, I became convinced the best match (in terms of bang for the buck) was going to be a Korean piano. However, we did not like the Knabe or the Samick, but we liked some Kohler & Campbells (which are also made by Samick). I wasn’t especially fond of the Story & Clark, although they are decent pianos.

I almost categorically ruled out Chinese pianos, but we decided to try everything. We played a few by Hailun and were not especially fond of their sound, although many people swear by them. The Pearl River sounded ok, but I just didn’t like the components.

A local dealer had a couple of Petrofs (a good European piano) at a pretty steep discount, and we liked them at first. In the end, we didn’t like or trust them enough to go to above our budget. Just for kicks, we played a couple of Bechsteins (high-end European pianos) at another dealer. Those were really good, although on sale for about 5 times our budget.

Despite our desire to buy a grand, late in the process we were strongly considering a Kawai upright. We actually all liked the K3 a lot more than I would have expected, and Maus Piano (who also carried the Bechstein) had it on sale well within our price range and said they would reduce it even more. At that point, I’m thinking we have a winner. But one of the guys at Maus had another idea if we’d be willing to consider a different Chinese piano made by Pearl River: the Ritmuller.

Ritmuller was an old German brand that has been acquired by Pearl River.  The company hired Lothar Thomma, a renowned piano designer who has designed some of the very expensive high-end European pianos, to revamp the line for 2009.  Their stated goal was to create a piano to compete in the “high-end American market.”  To do so, they used upscale design elements and nicer components than in their standard pianos. But it was still priced lower than comparable pianos.

I was highly skeptical at first, but the salesman, who had already gained my trust, sang its praises. We would not commit on the spot because I was still very worried about its association with Pearl River and we wanted to know more about the line; so I decided to do some research.

I read the comments in the Piano Book that the Ritmullers were the writer’s “hands down favorites” of the Chinese pianos the reviewer was able to test. I looked at all the information and realized their components were pretty much as good as it gets for consumer grade pianos (aged, solid spruce soundboard; vertically molded maple bridges; real ebony wood sharps; Renner premium hammers; all wood action; German Roslau strings; butcher-block spruce keybed; specially-designed wider rim to allow better bass; sand-cast plate; maple pin block; copper-wound bass strings; etc). I read about the manufacturing facility they have and the attention to detail on this particular line (not necessarily all Pearl River brands, although they do seem pretty decent overall).

I read a lot about Lothar Thomma and what appeared to essentially be his complete control with the redesign that came out last year (and his willingness to continue to be associated with the new line after it came out – in terms of promotional appearances and such). This wasn’t the normal “pay to rent a name” relationship; he was integrally involved with every aspect the piano. I read about the rave reviews of the Ritmuller at Freight and Salvage, a world-renowned piano venue on the West Coast. I read comments by a few dealers in other parts of the country and Canada who had very positive things to say about the new Rits.

After the research, we wanted to play one.  Wow. The piano actually outplayed the Bechstein in the upper octaves and the bass was as rich and clear as we had heard on any piano. We honed in on the GH170R, a 5’7″ parlor grand. After some negotiation, we ended up buying it and were able to negotiate a phenomenal deal. The Rit was already a value at full price, according to the reviews, but seems like an unbeatable value at the price we paid.

The sound of piano is warm, yet the notes are incredibly clear. Most warm pianos we played seemed a bit muddy, particularly in the mid-ranges. Not the Rit. The action is also very nice. It’s a little lighter than most, but not as light as the Bechstein.

In addition to the sound, the Rit has as good or better components than everything else even close to our price range. In fact, I really don’t think the components get any better for anything less than professional level instruments (although some other lines have better trim and decorative touches). Our goal was to find the best value for a quality instrument with sound and touch we all enjoyed. Having done a lot of research and looking, I don’t think there is a better match out there in anything close to our price range for those competing desires than the Ritmuller. My best analogy is that the Rit is like when Toyota decided to build Lexus. Their motto was “Beat Benz.” I think Pearl River decided to beat the Germans, too, and I feel they’ve hit as good a shot as Toyota did when they decided to create a luxury car brand. It seems like the “little brother” to Estonia pianos, which have developed quite a cult following for extraordinary quality at relatively affordable prices (again, compared to their competition, which is professional performance pianos). Like the Estonia has done for many, the Rit inspires our passion.

The kids are very passionate about this piano. They race each other to see who can play it first in the mornings. They try to squeeze in a bit more play in the evenings before going to bed. Eric has designated himself as being in charge of keeping it clean, and he wipes it down on a daily basis. The child has become obsessed. It’s pretty nice to see both of them getting so much enjoyment out of it. And, of course, we get to hear it being played quite frequently; which is nice, too. Also, whereas other than very rare occasions I wouldn’t touch the keyboard we previously used, I find myself playing (or, at least, trying to play) regularly now.

I did not think we’d buy a Chinese piano. But, here we are. We now have a Ritmuller (an old German name) made in China by Pearl River. Those words would have made me shudder even just a month ago. Now, I feel like we struck gold.

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6 thoughts on “Musical Odyssey

  1. Thanks for sharing your buying experience, Mike! I hope you posted this on Piano World too…they also appreciate how a piano “came to be.”

    I wish you and your family many years of enjoyment with your new Ritmuller! Congratulations!

  2. Meretta, your favorable real-world blog about buying your Rit helped us make the decision to buy ours. Yes, I did post our experience on Piano World. The folks there are very helpful and knowledgeable.

  3. A new edition of Piano Buyer just came out, and PB moved the Ritmuller up to the top-ranked category of “consumer” grade pianos. In the last edition, Ritmuller had been in the mid-range, so I felt very good about seeing Ritmuller rated at the top this time. It’s nice to see professional reviewers coming to the same conclusions we did in our piano shopping experience.

    Since the updated PB came out, I thought now would be a good time to update our experience after a few months of ownership. I know that’s not long-term, but it’s enough time to get a sense for what we really have. About 5 months in, we’re still very happy with the purchase decision. Here is our experience thus far:

    1. Within about 6 weeks, many (about a dozen) of the keys needed tuning. It was a fortunate thing for us we waited on the initial tuning. At about 4 weeks, only three keys seemed off. So, that 4-6 week window was pretty significant in terms of key break-in. I mention the timing because I’ve seen folks debate whether to tune at 3 weeks or 2 months. I’d suggest waiting a little longer may be better with a new piano. Anyway, a very reputable tech came out to work on it for us at about 8 weeks. He was able to tune the piano fairly easily and had some pretty positive comments about the piano itself; but he was in and out fairly quickly.
    2. The day after the tech left, we realized the “soft-fall” hydraulic was no longer working. Nothing had changed with it other than the tech had removed the fallboard to tune the piano.
    3. The piano also seemed to sound noticeably brighter over the next week or two after tuning.
    4. Also, about 2 weeks after tuning, my daughter and I noticed that a few of the sharps would play slightly differently depending on where you pressed on the key.
    5. We had the tech come back out after another week or so (I wanted to give it a month or more between visits to see if we had anything else going on).
    6. He couldn’t explain why the fallboard no longer worked properly. He called the dealer, who called the regional rep. The rep agreed to send a new set of hydraulics out for the tech to install at no cost to us.
    7. As to the different response with the keys, the tech was able to show us that that the key depth was not quite even for all the keys. He said this is a very easy thing to work with and that it resulted largely from break-in as we played. After looking at it a bit more, he suggested he simply go key-by-key, measure the depth, and change out the washer beneath the felt under the keys. He did that, and it worked. He also asked Pearl River to pay him for that work, and they did. He said we could have also done a full regulation, but he thought that was unnecessary when a minor tweak would solve the problem.
    8. After he went through this process, the keys played very evenly and the sound was, interestingly, much warmer again. He suggested the prior harshness we had experienced may have come from the fact the last bit of key travel had to be too firm in order to achieve a solid strike.

    I also had an extensive conversation with him about the piano itself in terms of construction, engineering, and quality. He poked around it a lot more this time to check it out thoroughly. I’ll summarize his feedback:

    1. We could have paid 3 times as much and still not found a better instrument. He plays a lot and he really liked the piano after finishing his setup. He thought it had a pretty impressive sound for its size. He very specifically said it was built as well as many Steinways and was easier to work on.
    2. He pointed out a number of design and material touches that were nicer than he sees in many pianos, especially some of the Yamahas (he was not necessarily talking about the high-end Yamahas, but even the lower-end Yamahas cost a good bit more than I paid for the Rit).
    3. He said the only problems he would foresee are the short-term problems such as we had experienced, and he thinks those are over. His explanation is that the Rit is a good instrument but that Pearl River doesn’t do as long of a break-in period at the factory as some of the more high-end manufactures do; rather, they do a good job of maintaining quality and building a very good instrument, but then ship them out quickly, too. B/c there is no extensive break-in at the factory, the break-in occurs in the store or home, which can lead to either a few more tune ups early on or the need to adjust regulation.

    All-in-all, our experience has been about as good as I had hoped through five months. The tech has been extremely helpful with his information and feedback. The dealer remains helpful and supportive. And now, the Rit rep has been very helpful, too, when the opportunity presented itself.

    We went into the purchase knowing we may need more upfront setup on it, although, frankly, we had hoped to avoid it. At this point, I think there’s a good chance the tech is right and we’re good until our next scheduled tune-up. Plus, the tuning and extra setup has cost us exactly zero thus far. I still love the tone and touch, especially now that the keys have been re-adjusted.

    So, in the ongoing debate about Chinese pianos, our experience would be that you can buy a good, quality instrument from a volume manufacturer (even one based in China), but you may need to be prepared for a slightly longer break-in period than you might with some more expensive instruments. In my mind, the significant savings we had with the Rit over similar pianos is worth the mildly longer break-in period. One month of additional break-in saved me 2 or 3 times the price of what I paid. I will happily live with that trade-off.

    In fairness to our dealer and to Ritmuller, I should also note our piano had only been on the floor a few days when we purchased it. So it also had not had much break-in time there, either. If it had, we may not have even needed the additional month or so of break-in.

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