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.