Our “Grey Market” Piano Purchase Experience
A brief background explanation comes first. My wife has a degree in Piano Performance and Piano Teaching and has been an instructor for 22 years. Neither of us are versed in the skills of a professional piano technician nor do we have the knowledge and background of manufacturing and selling pianos. The following is our experience of piano shopping and some insight as to the education we received during our quest.
We needed an upright piano. The teaching studio had two already and one of the two needed to be replaced, a Weiler upright studio piano. The companion, a 1982 Sohmer upright, was a quality instrument and would remain, we decided that we should search for something of equal quality or better, most likely new, though a good used piano would not be ruled out. The “new” piano would be used by students, little hands and big hands, novice to advanced students. Playability, touch, tonality, all would be factors in the decision making. Price would ultimately be determined by quality or perhaps our “perceived” view or understanding of quality. We decided to visit every dealer within a reasonable traveling distance as to have as many choices as possible.
The first stop was Kawai. My wife took her time to play several different uprights, the K-2’s and K-3’s. The touch was “ok”, the sound also. She felt that the pianos were fine but didn’t really stand out. Pricing seemed reasonable $4500 to $5800 including delivery and trade in.
Next stop was Steinway, yes Steinway. Any piano is an option. The first piano to be played was the Model 1098 Professional 46”. My wife was impressed. MSRP was around $23,000 (choke), however, possible selling price would be around $16,000. There were affiliated brands as well. Steinway now carries the Japanese manufactured Boston Piano and the Chinese manufactured Essex Piano, neither of which stood out in my wife’s eyes….and ears.
And then on to some lesser known brands, we stopped at a dealer that sold Hobart M. Cable, Brodmann, and other names unfamiliar to us. It was interesting that these pianos were priced very low in comparison to others that we had seen up till now, it made me really wonder about the quality. The only one that my wife had any interest in was the Hobart M. Cable. It was a 46” upright and had a nice touch and tone. Price was around $3200.
We then went to a showroom that carried the Petrof and Schimmel name. At the time, the only new upright on the floor was a Story & Clark. It comes with the PNOscan which didn’t fit our needs.
One more stop we made, which was recommended by our piano technician and a colleague, was a dealer of used pianos. Most of the upright pianos were Yamaha. My wife already had a dislike for the “brightness” of the Yamaha sound. She played a number of the pianos and then finally played a 52” W102B Yamaha upright. It was mellow and warm with a powerful bass. The touch was very good, the tone was incredible. Price was around $4500. This piano was the “frontrunner” for the moment. We wrote down the serial number so that we could identify it if/when we came back. The rest of the showroom was impressive, there were Steinway, Yamaha and Bluthner grands, used of course. A side note about this dealer is that we met him 17 years ago when we were piano hunting. He had a much smaller showroom that had mostly grands. We were in the market for an upright at that time, too.
The last dealer was Yamaha. As we walked in, a sales rep inquired about our needs and mentioned that a Pearl River piano was a superb deal and directed us to the one on the floor. My wife played it, and liked it. There were numerous Yamaha uprights and some Young Changs. As each piano was tested, the rep talked about the quality of Yamaha versus other brands and then the numerous “gray market” pianos on the market to be wary of. It was explained that there were many Yamaha pianos imported that were built for the Japanese market, “seasoned for destination”. The wood in the pianos destined for the Japanese market are dried to a higher moisture content because of the higher humidity in Japan and the “open air” type of living in regards to peoples’ homes. Pianos to be shipped to the U.S. were dried to a lesser moisture content due to the “heating” and “air conditioning” usage in American homes. I looked at the warranty tag on the Yamaha, and it indeed said “seasoned for destination”. The other reason to stay away from the “grey market” pianos is that they are past their useful life, and quite possibly may have endured heavy institutional use. So, my wife continued to play the various Yamaha models but was uncomfortable with the sound and the touch of them. The Pearl River was starting to look pretty good, it was offered at $3500.
At this point, we had exhausted all of our local options as far as shopping and we had to make a decision, but something was still troubling me. With all the education acquired during our shopping experience, I really began to wonder how an old Yamaha piano could possibly sound and feel so good in comparison to the new pianos. I decided to do research on the “grey market” Yamaha piano. Using the internet as a starting place, the first place that I checked was a random search which landed me on the Bluebook of Pianos page: http://www.bluebookofpianos.com/grey.htm . There is plenty of information on that page which includes the official Yamaha statement on “grey market” pianos. What stood out to me from the bluebook site was this quote in particular:
"The simple fact is that each and every Yamaha and Kawai piano that comes off the assembly line in Hamamatsu, Japan is built to the same and exacting specifications. They are shipped in sequential serial number order to the company headquarters in the country from whence came the order. Let it be perfectly clear, all of these pianos are created equal! That holds true whether the piano is new or used. Why the truth is distorted by so many is a total mystery. It only confuses the buying public and casts doubt on the veracity of these two fine manufacturers of world class pianos."
That is a pretty bold statement. I checked the Yamaha website to verify their official stance on the “grey market” pianos: http://www.yamaha.com/yamahavgn/CDA/ContentDetail/Text_WithCatMenu_XC.html?CNTID=12175&CNTYP=GENERAL
“Consequently, some of the Yamaha pianos sold in North America during the 1960s developed dryness-related problems. Upon researching these problems, our engineers found that in general, the indoor environments of homes in North America are considerably drier than in Japan. Some of this is related to the outdoor climate and some of it is related to the indoor environment, which is affected by such conditions as air conditioning and heating systems.”
From what I’ve found in my research, the 1960’s moisture related problems that Yamaha had experienced are true. I have not been able to verify exactly how the problem was rectified, other than the statement from Yamaha that the wood used in future pianos was cured to a different moisture content for the market destination. More research ensued. The next site I found was very informative:
With more info at: http://www.pianofinders.com/techtalk/graymarket.htm
And the “seasoning” of pianos at: http://www.pianofinders.com/techtalk/seasoning.htm
So, then, I really needed to explore what we should buy and if it would survive in my environment. Do other Japanese piano manufacturers, namely Kawai, take such care in “seasoning” their pianos? Do any manufacturers dry their wood to different moisture content when destined for foreign climates? As of yet, I can’t find any evidence that any piano manufacturer other than Yamaha claims to do so, not even Kawai. And Kawai makes no “grey market” claims as to a piano’s inability to survive in a different climate.
But wait, something that I overlooked is the fact that I live in South Florida, a very humid region to say the least. It’s true that my home air conditioner is on approximately 7-8 months out of the year. And although an air conditioning system does remove moisture, it cannot remove so much that we lose the humidity in our home. It also must be noted that I don’t have heat. Windows are open for several months of the year and the outdoor humidity still remains quite high compared to other cities in America. A temperature and relative humidity comparison between Japan and South Florida was the next logical step in my research, which led me to the following site: http://www.climate-charts.com/world-index.html. For starters, Japan has varying climates throughout the country so I had to review several cities statistics and then compare the data to my climate. Having done the comparison, I realized that the relative humidity in numerous cities in Japan were extremely similar to my own region. At this point, I wondered why I should even be looking at a new Yamaha piano. That is to say, a new Yamaha piano that is to be sold in America should not be destined for a climate and relative humidity of the likes of Japan. Yet my living environment is very much like Japan. So, why should there even be Yamaha dealership in South Florida? What if I purchase a new Yamaha in sub-tropical Florida and then move to arid Arizona? If the soundboard cracks after drying out, will Yamaha honor its warranty?
After much thought, the only course of action was to take another look at the piano that stood out to us as having the best quality, tone, action, and touch for our money, the used “grey market” Yamaha W120B. We already had the serial number, so we looked it up and found that it was a 1984 model that was built/seasoned for the Japanese market. My wife went back to the dealer to play it again, and to try out the other pianos. Sure enough, that same piano really stood out. We just needed to have some questions answered before the signing of the deal. First, and most importantly, the dealer offered a 5 year warranty. He only imports Grade A pianos. What about parts, if needed? Parts would come direct from the Yamaha factory in Japan, yes, Yamaha would supply parts for a Japan destined piano that is in America. This dealer also offered a “buyback/tradeup” option on the piano. Sold, final price was $4500 and delivery within 2 days.
Some final thoughts on our purchase…
First of all, we put a lot of thought into what we wanted but had no idea the education that we would acquire in our journey. In purchasing a used piano, one has to really take the time inspect and play the instrument. If possible, have a technician look at the piano before your final decision. If the purchase is from a dealer, search out any reviews and recommendations online. The dealer that we purchased from had a “seller” account online that showed positive reviews. Would I purchase a piano online? No, but some people apparently do! Find out how long the dealer has been in business. Research as much as you can online. One of the best sites that I found is http://www.pianoworld.com/forum/ . The members of this forum are diverse. There are professional and not so professional musicians, novices, piano dealers, and piano technicians. There is a lot of valuable information, recommendations and opinions expressed.My last thought is this. Obviously, Yamaha makes a quality product. I don’t fault a dealer for making any claims against the “grey market” products. That is what they are instructed to do by the Yamaha Corporation: http://www.yamaha.com/yca/pages/pianos/SerialNumberlookup.aspx. There definitely are some poor pianos being sold that would fall into that category, but not all “grey market” pianos are bad. Some are quite good. And only diligent research will allow you to determine a good piano from a poor one. I believe that we ended up with a very good piano. Of course, only time will tell. I’ve come to really like our Yamaha. Funny, of all the pianos being built by so many manufacturers, isn’t it ironic that one of Yamaha’s biggest competitors is Yamaha?