A few years ago, Yamaha tried a crazy experiment. What if it produced a grand piano that replaced strings with sensors? What if the sound came from painstakingly recorded audio samples of each string from a $120,000 top-of-the-line model, reproduced through a set of high-end speakers?
The result was the AvantGrand N3, a gorgeous baby grand hybrid piano that you can buy today for about $15,000. The feel of the N3's wooden keys and hammers is identical to those on Yamaha's real pianos; you even feel the keys subtly vibrate when you strike them hard, exactly as on a real piano. The samples and speakers are so good, most players would not even realize it's not a real grand piano.
Then came the N2, a space-saving "upright grand" version with the same features ($11,000). And the N1, a less expensive upright ($8,000).
All these pianos — not those plastic, flat appliances with 983 instrument sounds and realism that would fool nobody — offer a few towering advantages over stringed pianos. First, they never need tuning. That's a very big deal; real pianos have to be professionally tuned. Second, you can turn the volume up or down, or listen through headphones. That makes hybrids sensational for apartments and dorm rooms or anywhere else that your practicing might disturb others.
Finally, hybrid pianos are much smaller and lighter than real ones. The N3, for example, sounds like a 9-foot grand, but it's only 4 feet long.
The only thing Yamaha never managed to do is fix the price. That, no doubt, is why Yamaha has now introduced a fourth AvantGrand model, the NU1 upright hybrid — with a retail price of about $4,500. What did Yamaha have to leave out to reach that price?
First, the good news: the NU1 is still a beautiful, shiny black upright piano, but it's even more compact, making it fantastic for small spaces. It still has the real wooden keys and hammer mechanism — or "action," as pianists call it — that makes all of these hybrids feel the same as a real piano, giving you all of the same expressive capability.
Buying this budget model does, however, entail giving up some goodies. Most of them are minor. For example, this piano has white plastic on the tops of its wooden keys, rather than the synthetic ivory on the N2 and N3.
The NU1 also lacks the features that the more expensive AvantGrand pianos use to create subtle, realistic resonance and vibration. Only a hard-core pianist would notice that these features are gone.
Even a novice, however, will immediately miss the realism of the NU1's sound. It's just not as convincing as the other hybrids. The speakers aren't as sophisticated or as plentiful. As a result, the sound seems somehow flat, somehow slightly canned.
That changes when you listen through headphones or connect the piano's output jack to a better sound system.
Suddenly you're hearing the fullness and depth of the original samples — and they're spectacular.
Of course, the NU1 is digital. So, as with its predecessors, it offers a few buttons that expand its flexibility. For example, you get a choice of keyboard sounds: two grand piano sounds, two electric pianos and an authentic-sounding harpsichord.
Buttons on the left control panel also let you transpose the entire instrument to a different key or fraction of a key, or even choose a different temperament, that is, a historical tuning; history buffs and music students know what that means.
You can connect a computer for recording and playback using MIDI software, through either the USB or the MIDI jacks on the back. You can also plug in a USB flash drive to save audio or MIDI recordings of your performances. And you get a built-in metronome, control over the amount of reverb (echo) you hear, and a choice of key sensitivity levels.