MBL 101e are amazing reproducing piano. Von Schweikert does piano very well like the Vandys.
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I agree that piano music is an important litmus test, and I would go so far as to say an essential litmus test.
I have been especially pleased with how well piano music is reproduced by my Daedalus Ulysses speakers, driven by my VAC Renaissance 70/70 MKIII amplifier. Fast transients are handled cleanly, but at the same time there is never any undue brightness (on well engineered recordings), and at the same time timbre and tonal balance seem just about right.
If it helps to put that into context, I'll mention that my listening is 90% classical, 5% rock, 5% miscellaneous.
I find that my Ohm 1000's are by far the most satisfying speaker I've heard in terms of their reproduction of piano. Other speakers that I've owned made all piano sound about the same. The Ohms bring out textures, timbres, harmonics, and details that let me hear clear differences between pianos. It's much like being able to hear the difference between a Stratocaster and a Les Paul. These speakers have actually caused me to buy more piano based music. The Ohms are excellent all around speakers, but my 1000's absolutely shine when it comes to piano. Joe
YES, I listen to a lot of classical music with piano and I also find piano to be an excellent test of a speaker's coherence, tonal balance, and midrange accuracy. I find many highly touted speakers tend to sound thin and tinny on piano. I'm curious which Verity model you liked. I have the SF Cremona M and it does piano really well--in fact, midrange reproduction in general is its strong suit.
I was very surprised to find my tekton lore s speakers reproduce solo piano and jazz combos very well. I heard they were a live rock speaker, with a forward sound, but I find the balance, tone and timbers actually favor jazz trios and solo classical piano. I wouldn't have guessed this but it was a pleasant surprise. I grew up with a Steinway 7 grand in the living room, and these get pretty close.
I have owned Frieds, Spendor 2/3Es, and 1/2Es (still own), and they all do piano very, very well, especially the 1/2Es. The key, IMO, is to get a speaker that has superb driver integration, proper weight in the midbass, is not too hot on top, and then pair that with amplification that allows for all of those harmonics to reach your speakers. I think tubes help, too. I recently went from all SS to all tube, and MAN, piano sounds so much more real.
One reason the results can vary greatly is that it takes the whole system to get the job done; not just the speakers. I have other speakers, but I prefer Vandersteen's myself. For example, I can get great piano out of a pair of Model 2's. But 2 Ayre V-5's, an Aesthetix Calypso and a Wadia 861SE really help out. Anyway, its just something to think about.
Were the "half a dozen pretty well-regarded speakers" you tried back-to-back in your system, a dealer system or a mix of systems?
I've found that Piano is a great work out for any speaker, though we must remember we are listening to a system rather than just a speaker as Zd542 points out.
Over the years I've made three observations about piano reproduction. First, we tend to underestimate the amount of bass needed to cleanly reproduce low left keys. Recordings with low C can be revealing. Second, since a hammer is hitting a string and that string oscillates it is always revealing to listen to note decay. If your overall system and room has a low noise floor then the overtones seem to sustain for a considerable period. Third, piano and valve amplifiers seem to be a match made in heaven!
Piano is a great litmus test of speakers. Done right, you should feel the power and weight of the bass registers, but with clarity and detail. I suggest the Santiago Rodriguez performances of Rachmaninov (try Elan #CD42412). Check out track #2. On the sustained bass notes, you can hear the sympathetic waves of string vibrations roll up and down. This is a great test of bass realism for the whole system. The first time I heard this cut, I found myself holding my breath at the end. Speakrs were/are Von Schweikert VR6, VR5-Anniversary, and VR100XS.
I agree that reproduction of the piano is essential for any competent loudspeaker. It is a very good test of a wide variety of sonic attributes, particularly coherence. I have heard several speakers which sound very good on a wide variety of music fall down when reproducing a piano due to crossover issues. I agree that Vandersteen's do a good job in this regard--I've heard the 5A create a pretty lifelike piano sound. I also think the Harbeth C7's and Spendor S100's which I have owned at various points were good at capturing the tonal qualities of the piano, if not the subtle dynamic shadings and macrodynamic swings. The best I have heard anywhere near my price range however are my current speakers--the Daedalus DA-1.1's. Great tone, attack, decay and coherence--sounds like a piano in your living room.
The biggest issue that I have in using piano to judge a loudspeaker is the enormous variety in tonality between different pianos. It's not just grand vs upright, but various sizes, manufacturer tonality variations, and even the age of the hammer pads. I'm never sure what the particular piano on a particular recording is supposed to sound like. Okay, really bad is really bad, but maybe that clangy sound isn't the speaker, it's just a small upright with worn hammer pads.
Even if I really know a recording and am doing a controlled A/B, it's hard for me to really feel comfortable making a judgement on a speaker's ability to "do" piano properly. Shy of that type of comparison, I find voice much more useful than piano for judging a speaker's tonal neutrality. But, that's just me and YMMV.
Interesting point Martykl makes...all piano recordings sound a little different (some a LOT different) and that is where the mojo lives...i.e. being able to clearly and instantly hear those differences. I think a good sub really makes pianos come alive as an entire piano is making sound beyond and in addition to the notes being played...a piano is a large living thing with sympathetic vibration going on all over it and, if you're hifi's working properly, all over you.
Marty you touched on an interesting point, more than you might realize. There is a world of "pianophiles" that debate the merit of the tonal characteristics of different pianos as we do speakers whether or not you are aware of this. Check out the forum "Piano World" to see, passion abounds not unlike this forum. Steinway, Bluthner, Chickering, Fazoli, Steingraeber, Baldwin, Boesendorfer Yamaha and many others. They all have a different presentation so in that context, an audio system that might have the ability to differentiate the differences in tonality and harmonics, beyond generic realistic piano tone would indeed be extra special. One can always dig a little deeper to realize that it is seldom deep enough!
I do have a question though, can anyone differentiate the differences between piano manufacturers through an audio system? I generally get the Steinway because it has been widely used in classical recordings throughout the 20th Century and the harmonics of the instrument is unique not to say the best!
I think my soundlab m2's resolve piano extremely well;maybe soundlab speakers could be a consideration if the size and your electronics can handle the impedances these speakers present.
Before I had my M2's I owned Dunlavy SC III's and these were almost as resolving as the soundlab's are;I would highly recommend them especially the bigger sc 4,5 or 6 if you have the room.
I use the disc "Red Descending" by Seth Kaufman. I was fortunate enough to hear Seth live on many occasions back when we both lived in New Orleans, to the point where, when that disc first came out, I asked him it if was the same piano because it sounded to me like it was (I was using SoundLabs at the time). He said yes, that he'd had his piano transported to the studio in Los Angeles where the recording was made. So now when I'm working on a speaker design, I always pull out Red Descending as one of my critical evaluaton discs.
Imo the combination of rich harmonic structure and percussive dynamics make a good piano recording quite challenging and revealing, but I'm not sure I would be able to judge with confidence using a recording of a piano that I'm not familiar with.
Christy Baron's stuff on Chesky is really good. Although it's been quite a while, I've seen her perform without amplification in NYC jazz clubs and her voice is really distinctive. It's stuck with me all these years. Her earliest material is very simply arranged and beautifully recorded. Her rendition of "Ain't No Sunshine" on her debut is a great example. The SQ, coupled with the familiarity of her voice, makes it easier for me to feel comfortable judging a given speaker's tonal quality.
For instrumental records, I'll always bring along a copy of Richard Todd's (French Horn) "With A Twist", since I was present for much of the recording sessions. Ironically, getting the piano right was always the biggest pain in the ass.
Tube - as far as piano tone fetishes, I've been there! Five years ago, I bought a piano. I'm a hack, my wife plays passably, and my daughter is learning. The shopping experience was scary - I didn't need another SQ issue to obsess over (in addition to guitars/guitar amps and hifi equipment) - so I punted. In the end, I really liked the action on Kawai pianos (as did my wife), so we ended up with one of their small, relatively inexpensive uprights (solid sounding, though not remarkable) and called it a day. Until it's time for the next one....
I didn't know that you lived in New Orleans. Richard Todd (see my post above) used to live/perform there in the late 1980's and I was curious whether you've ever seen him play. BTW, if you tell me you've seen James Booker (IMHO, one of the GREAT piano players) play, I'll really be jealous!
To Marty's point--I have a ton of recorded piano music both jazz and classical and each recording sounds totally different. I have not felt it possible to come up with a standard reference recording.
BTW my wife and I were listening to the 1981 Glenn Gould recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations and we both feel that it was not recorded on a Steinway which would be interesting if not, since so many musicians prefer Steinway and almost all major concert halls use Steinway.
"Anyone have experience with Salon 2's and piano?"
I do. If you feed them properly with fast, high current amplification and good sources, you will hear piano that has a sharp clean attack when the hammer strikes the string, pleasing sustain and accurate decay of notes.
They also do extremely well with drums, which have become my litmus test for dynamics.
One of the concert series I often work as a soundman has a gigantic Steinway that is tuned for every show...it's an amazing piano, but remember...microphones all sound different, and the recorded (or live miked) sound has a LOT to do with the mic used, the placement of the mic, and how much sleep I had the night before.
The best that I have heard the piano was with song Strange Meadowlark on the Dave Brubeck Time Out CD. I heard it in an over damped room with an AR player, a Dodd preamp, Macintosh MC275 amp and Salk open baffle Archos speakers. The Archos had a PHL midrange. The piano was utterly believable. I felt like I could even see the finish on the piano and touch the wood with my teeth. I am still haunted by the sound. I used to be a piano tuner so I know what a piano sounds like. Strange the Sax, bass and drum kit didnt have that believability.
Thanks for all the interesting responses. To answer an earlier question, I was at a dealer, but I also took my own amplifier with me, so I had at least some sense of how the speakers would work in my system. The Vandersteens were the Treos, which I was very impressed with for the price. The Verity's were a used pair of Fidelio Encores. Both were excellent, but the Fidelios had the edge in overall refinement, especially in the treble. I could have been happy either way.
I also had an opportunity to hear the Vandersteen 7s. WAY out of my price range, but holy cow, what a speaker. That piano was extraordinary by any measure.
There are so many variables that can affect how a piano sounds. Besides the obvious ones of maker and scale, there are different varieties of spruce used in soundboards, some have lively light rims (e.g., Bosendorfer) and others thick and rigid ones (e.g., Steinway). Hammer felt can be hardened with shellac or softened by pricking it (but never directly on the striking surface). The action can be set to be fast with a short throw or lengthened for more maximum volume. Then there are miking techniques--single or multiple, inside the piano, above it, below it, or a combination, miking close or with some distance to pick up more hall/stage ambience, etc. However, certain constants will identify a piano, most notably scale design and materials.
Your post intrigued me so I did some Googling on the subject. For the better part of his career, Gould used Steinway CD 318, which he discovered in June 1960 at Eaton Auditorium in Toronto (story here). He is one of the few piano artists who traveled with a single piano. Others include(d) Vladimar Horowitz and Radu Lupu. However, Gould did switch to a Yamaha CFII late in life and used it in his last four recordings, which are:
o J. S. Bach / Goldberg Variations (1981/1982)
o Brahms / Ballades, Op. 10; Rhapsodies, Op. 79 (1982/1983)
o Beethoven / Sonatas, Op. 26 and 27, No. 1 (1979, 1981/1983)
o Strauss / Sonata in B minor, Op. 5; Five Piano Pieces, Op. 3 (1979, 1982/1984)
So you are right. He recorded the 1981 Goldberg Variations on the Yamaha CFII.
As far as Steinway being the overwhelming choice of touring professionals, it's a combination of a very good-to-great piano combined with a worldwide network of support. I used to moonlight at the Steinway dealer in the Cincinnati area. The owners were the piano technicians for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and part of the Steinway artists network. They had two or three Steinway "D" 9' concert pianos which they kept in excellent tune and shape. When a Steinway artist came to play in the area, they stopped at their shop and played the artists' stock Steinways and picked the one they wanted for the concert. Then the owner tuned and prepped the piano to the artist's specifications, such as weight of the action, harder or softer hammers, etc. The technician delivered the piano to the venue, tuned it for the concert, and stayed in the stage wings to attend to any needs. When Vladimir Feltsman played there he'd have to retune the piano at intermission because Mr. Feltsman had played so hard it went flat.
Steinway artists cut a wide swath. In addition to the classical players, Ray Charles was an endorser and so are Elton John and Diana Krall.
There are a number of world class pianos out there besides Steinway, but few have the resources to provide that much artist stock and service traveling pianists in every major city worldwide as Steinway does. Baldwin has the resources, and has had many endorsers as well, but few classical performers of the caliber of the Steinway lot. However, at one time Baldwin was also the U.S. distributor of German-made Bechstein. Both Leonard Bernstein and Andre Previn endorsed Baldwin but performed on Bechsteins when in Europe. Bosendorfer has an artist program; Oscar Peterson is a Bosendorfer artist as was Victor Borge. One time when I stopped by that piano shop there was a 9' Bosendorfer ($100,000 in 1992) that they were prepping for a Victor Borge concert at Music Hall.
Yamaha can also provide this service. The Labeque sisters used to endorse Yamaha, but are now Steinway artists.
my view here is that when I have experienced poor reproduction of piano (on my system or on a friends) the main contributor, of course, is the source material (CD or vinyl). But from a system perspective, the CD player (and potentially, the preamp) are often the culprits. I know the post is about playing piano well... but when piano is bright, thin, or otherwise harsh... the and you are doing digital... the CD player is often the issue. So even with those speakers addressed above that can play piano very well if fed the proper signal... if digital is used... these speakers will pass on the trash if the CD player is the weak link
I am sure you were comparing apples to apples and I was not implying anything.
I was after a general point that I thought some might appreciate --- that being that piano reproduction is demanding upon the whole system and that often the culprit (in bad sounding piano reproduction) is the CD player and/or pre-amp --- that some of us likely have speakers that, if fed the right signal, would reproduce a fairly convincing piano --- and, as well, that great speakers fed bad signal sound bad.