Make us your home page

A grand piano, with no strings

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.

A grand piano, with no strings 09/17/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 24, 2013 4:08pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

Copyright: For copyright information, please check with the distributor of this item, New York Times.

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Last steel beam marks construction milestone for Tom and Mary James' museum


    ST. PETERSBURG — Tom and Mary James on Wednesday signed their names to the last steel beam framing the 105-ton stone mesa that will be built at the entrance of the museum that bears their name: the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art.

    The topping-out ceremony of the James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art was held Wednesday morning in downtown St. Petersburg. Mary James (from left), husband Tom and Mayor Rick Kriseman signed the final beam before it was put into place. When finished, the $55 million museum at 100 Central Ave. will hold up to 500 pieces of the couple's 3,000-piece art collection. [Courtesy of James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art]
  2. Heights Public Market to host two Tampa Bay food trucks


    TAMPA — The Heights Public Market announced the first two food trucks for its "rotating stall," which will feature new restaurants every four months. Surf and Turf and Empamamas will be rolled out first.

    Heights Public Market is opening this summer inside the Tampa Armature Works building.
[SKIP O'ROURKE   |   Times file photo]

  3. Author Randy Wayne White could open St. Pete's biggest restaurant on the pier

    Food & Dining

    ST. PETERSBURG — The story begins with Yucatan shrimp.

    St. Petersburg Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin, pilot Mark Futch, Boca Grande, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, and author and businessman Randy Wayne White,  Sanibel, exit a Maule Super Rocket seaplane after taking a fight around Tampa Bay off the St. Petersburg waterfront, 6/28/17.  White and his business partners are in negotiations with the City of St. Petersburg to build a fourth Doc Ford's Rum Bar & Grille on the approach to the St. Petersburg Pier with a second event space on the pier according to White. The group met near Spa Beach after a ground breaking ceremony for the new pier. "We want to have our business open by the time the pier opens," said White. Other Dr. Ford restaurants are located on Sanibel, Captiva and Ft. Myers Beach. SCOTT KEELER   |   Times
  4. Guilty plea for WellCare Health Plans former counsel Thaddeus Bereday


    Former WellCare Health Plans general counsel Thaddeus M.S. Bereday pleaded guilty to one count of making a false statement to the Florida Medicaid program, and faces a maximum penalty of five years in federal prison. A sentencing date has not yet been set, acting U.S. Attorney W. Stephen Muldrow of the Middle District …

    WellCare Health Plans former general counsel Thaddeus M.S. Bereday, pleaded guilty to one count of making a false statement to the Florida Medicaid program, and faces a maximum penalty of five years in federal prison. A sentencing date has not yet been set, acting U.S. Attorney W. Stephen Muldrow of the Middle District of Florida stated Wednesday. [LinkedIn handout]
  5. DOT shows alternatives to former Tampa Bay Express toll lanes


    TAMPA — State transportation officials are evaluating at least a half-dozen alternatives to the controversial Tampa Bay interstate plan that they will workshop with the community over the next 18 months.

    Florida Department of Transportation consultant Brad Flom explains potential alternatives to adding toll lanes to Interstate 275 during a meeting Wednesday at the DOT’s Tampa office. Flom presented seven diagrams, all of which swapped toll lanes for transit, such as light rail or express bus, in the I-275 corridor from downtown Tampa to Bearss Avenue.