In the world of high-end pianos, only one brand is a household name the world over. Steinway is to pianos what the Kleenex brand is to tissues. They are almost interchangeable.
There is good reason for this – according to figures collected by Steinway, over 98 percent of concert pianists choose to perform on their pianos. But why? Are pianists choosing Steinway because they are the better instrument, or because they know the brand name.
There are other brands out there – Fazioli, Yamaha, and Bosendorfer among them. Some prominent pianists strongly prefer Bosendorfers to Steinways, so why are Steinways so popular?
Steinway isn’t just good at making pianos, they are also experts and building and maintaining their brand. The pianist Garrick Ohlsson was banned from using Steinway in the 1970s for praising Bosendorfers in public – that’s brand protection!
In this guide, we’ll compare Steinway and their prominent high value competitor Bosendorfer.
Comparing the Sound
Let’s start with the most important feature of any piano – the sound.
During the Classical period, when the piano was having a renaissance, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and their peers were trying out all sorts of different brands and manufacturers were experimenting with their design.
Viennese pianos were subtle and dynamic, English pianos were focused on power and force.
Over time, the English school won this battle. By the 20th Century, most piano manufacturers were building in the English style.
Today, the difference in sound between the two brands stems from this difference. Steinways are made in the English tradition and Bosendorfers are made in an Austrian tradition. This results in a different build and a different sound.
But the truth is, both Steinway and Bosendorfer are high end pianos and the differences between them are subtle. Piano connoisseurs are like sommeliers – they may overstate the differences between pianos.
The other problem is that each piano produced is different. They not all made in the same place by the same people. People say that the Steinways produced in Hamburg are much better than the ones produced in New York.
All that said, let’s take a look at some of the audible characteristics of both.
The Steinway Sound
Steinway is known for a warm, singing tone. Steinway pianos employ a lower string tension that other pianos. This results in a lighter attack, a mellower sound, and a large dynamic range.
They are known for having bell-like tones in the top register that do not get brittle or tinny. The decay is a gradual and even.
This is all the result of the low string tension. Of course, in addition to string tension, Steinway uses top quality wood and their signature resonant soundboards.
Due to their ‘warmer’ quality, the Steinway also has more audible overtones and harmonics. This creates a beautiful lush sound.
That said, one of the main critiques of the Steinway sound, is that if you are playing busy music in the lower register, the sound can lose definition and become muddled.
The action is also a little slower on the Steinway, which classic players enjoy, but jazz players do not. Jazz players in general often find Steinways not clear and precise enough.
The other problem with Steinways is that they vary. From piano to piano, you will hear different sounds. It completely depends on how they’ve been taken care of.
Some Steinways have been rebuilt and do not have Steinway soundboards in them. Other have been altered to suit the style of whoever owned them last.
The Steinway sound is undeniably good. It is a warm, lush, and powerful sound that can be heard in concert halls around the world.
Some players may prefer a cleaner, bright sound and some Steinways may not have been taken care of properly.
The Bosendorfer Sound
Bosendorfers are clean and bright. That’s not to say they aren’t warm – they are – they have a higher string tension that allows them to be warm and clear.
They are also known for having incredible definitely below middle C. This is an area that often gets muddy. On a Bosendorfer, this area of the piano is clear and powerful.
These pianos are favourites of jazz player, blues players, and rock players, because you can get those lower tones without sacrificing clarity.
Bosendorfers sometimes have 91 notes instead of 88 notes. These extra notes can be used, but beyond their actual sound, just having the extra strings and space resonating makes the whole piano louder and more powerful.
To accompany their signature clarity, Bosendorfers often have a very fast action. This means they are slightly harder to control on fast passages, but they are fast and incredibly dynamic.
The top end of the Bosendorfer was a clear, pure tone, instead of a warmer bell tone. Some players prefer this, but others find it tinny.
Having read reviews of a classical piano album recorded on a Bosendorfer, one of the comments was that the piano got too harsh in the top end.
Comparing the Price
Neither Steinway nor Bosendorfer publish their prices online… which means they are very expensive. After some research, these prices are as up to date as possible
Both of these brands are about as high-end as you can go, so prepare for some sticker shock.
So let’s look at some typical Steinway piano prices. Steinway has several models available and they have pianos built in New York as well as piano built in Hamburg available. The Hamburg models tend to be about $10,000 more expensive than the New York models.
Let’s start with New York models:
- Model S: The smallest Steinway grand is 5’ 1” and costs between $65,000 and $72,000.
- Model M: This is one of Steinway’s most popular pianos and it measures 5’ 7”. These pianos cost between $63,000 and $70,000.
- Model O: Measuring 5’ 10”, the Model O costs between $71,000 and $78,000.
- Model A: This piano measures 6’ 2” and costs between $81,000 and $90,000.
- Model B: The Model B is a popular choice for serious pianists, recording studios, and smaller halls. They measure 6’ 10” and cost between $92,400 and $101,700.
- Model D: The Model D is Steinway’s flagship concert grand piano. It measures 8’ 11 3/4” and costs $148,700 to $170,000.
The models constructed in Hamburg are all around the same size, but generally cost 5-10k more than their American counterparts.
Bosendorfer offers several models that are the same size but have different finishes. Getting a piano in Cherry, Walnut, Maple, will cost more than regular Satin and black.
For the purposes of this guide, I’ve chosen the basic models. They’re still very expensive though, don’t get your hopes up!
- Model 155: These are 5’ 1” and cost around $137,000
- Model 170VC: These are around 5’ 7” and cost around $127,000
- Model 185VC: These are 6’ 1” and cost around $134,000.
- Model 200: This model is 6’ 7” and costs around $144,000
- Model 214VC: This model is 7 feet long and costs $159,000
- Model 225: This model is 7’ 4” and costs $179,000
- Model 280VC: This is their flagship Concert Grand that measures 9’ 2” and costs $229,999.
- Model 290: These are even larger, measuring 9’ 6” and costs $263,000.
All of these are customizable with different woods and finishes. The most expensive Model 290 I found was in Polished Artisan Satin and was priced at around $500,000.
Comparing the Brands
Steinways have a brand recognition that is unrivalled in the piano world. Steinway established itself as a leading piano manufacturer and worked very hard to keep their name untarnished.
Artists who have Steinway endorsements are given their best instruments and they are required to play Steinways wherever they play. As mentioned in the introduction, Garrik Ohlsson was banned from playing on Steinways in the 1970s when he publicly praised Bosendorfer.
Steinways are definitely beautiful instruments and they have their name for a reason, but there are a couple things to look out for.
Be wary of rebuilt Steinways. Some of these rebuilds are not ‘Steinway approved’ and have third party soundboards. Without the Steinway soundboard, the piano is simply not a Steinway.
Be aware that even Steinway enthusiasts will admit that the instrument vary widely. Some of them will be buttery, bell-like, and everything a Steinway should be, and others won’t. Trust your ears.
Schools, opera companies, and symphonies often end up being ‘Steinway’ endorsed companies, because it can draw more Steinway endorsed artists. Some schools try to maintain diversity in their practice rooms and recital halls by giving students Bosendorfers, Yamahas, and other brands to play.
Bosendorfer does not have the name recognition that Steinway has, but it they are still highly regarded pianos.
Their brand is known for coming into a piano shop sounding perfect, with little need to adjust action or anything. They are more consistent than Steinways, and they command a price tag that matches that commitment to high-end sound.
All that said, you should still trust your ears. Some Bosendorfers will naturally be better than others. Buy the piano you fall in love with.
Conclusion: Which Is Better, Steinway Or Bosendorfer?
It is hard to come down definitely on either side.
Based on all of the demos I have heard and my experience playing a Steinway in school, I prefer the Bosendorfer. I love the clear, direct sound. I’m also a roots/blues/jazz player, so that affects my choice.
Others may prefer the Steinway because that is what they’ve heard on countless classical records and in countless concert halls. They also may prefer Steinway for the warmth and touch.
If there is one takeaway from this guide, it should be that you shouldn’t buy a piano based on the brand. You should play it, spend time with it, and listen to other people play it.
When you’re spending this much money, you should make sure that it is an instrument you are prepared to have for a long time.