Rediscovered Bliss 

Day 146 Week 21 Q2 Saturday, May 25, 2024

Thirty-six and a half years ago, in late 1987, I purchased a 1926 Mason Hamlin model A grand piano. I had recently shipped the Ensoniq-Bose acoustic wave piano and was concerned the digital pianos would take over the market and shift the public’s perception away from the value of traditional acoustic pianos. 

I knew digital pianos did not sound as good as real pianos with strings and hammers instead of memory chips, but I also knew that low-cost traditional pianos would soon be supplanted by digital competitors.

I also knew that truly excellent acoustical pianos were vastly superior to their digital counterparts, although I could see no reason why a digital piano integrated with a good sound system dedicated to reproducing the sound of a piano in terms of the radiation pattern, the frequency response, and the dynamic range could be as good or better.

But these pianos would cost a significant amount of money, compared to the availability of used traditional pianos. They would not be worth it.

These thoughts propelled me to acquire an excellent-quality traditional piano so that I could keep myself calibrated to that level of quality so that I, too, would not be overtaken by digital approximations.

Just let me on a multiyear search for just such an instrument and took me to Steinway Hall in Manhattan, even though at the time I lived closer to Boston, Massachusetts. Over the years, I searched for a suitable instrument to sample for the digital piano. I played hundreds of instruments and came to some solid conclusions.

The first conclusion I reached was that none of the top Asian pianos sounded as good to me as the top Western instruments. Specifically, Yamaha, Kawai, and Young Chang (purchased by Hyundai in 2006) did not compare at all to Steinway, Mason Hamlin, and Bosendorfer (purchased by Yamaha in 2008).

From my perspective, none of the Asian loudspeaker manufacturers compare to the Western loudspeaker manufacturers for the same reason: there is not enough accurate, tasteful bass. Perhaps higher population densities have led to greater politeness which would demand less bass?

In any case, as mentioned, in late 1987, I ended up owning a 1926 Mason and Hamlin, which has been with me ever since, although I moved it from Boston to Silicon Valley and then back to New York over twenty years later. During these decades, digital pianos have become pervasive, and conventional grand pianos often end up being purchased to make social statements in terms of decor. After all, what adds more class to a room than a grand piano?

Due to significant changes in weather, temperature, and humidity, my old piano deteriorated greatly, and I no longer played it very much. That is until yesterday, when it was brought back to life by a brilliant piano technician and tuner.

I had literally forgotten just how great a wonderful instrument could sound and how it could make me feel. I had thought it might cost tens of thousands of dollars to restore an instrument I paid only $4,000 for so long ago, which is why I avoided biting the bullet and diving into the process, as, after all, I am not a professional pianist. I have, though, spent many hours scheming and planning what might be needed and how to justify it.

Miraculously, the first step in the process, a simple tuning request, ended up restoring probably temporarily the bliss I had discovered more than half my life ago. And there is now a plan in place to make this improvement more permanent in the not-too-distant future for a small faction of the dreaded $40,000 of repairs I had been told were needed to my $4000 piano.

The rediscovered bliss I feel from this instrument is truly life-changing, as it was when I first acquired it more than half a lifetime ago. Oh, and by the way, I did some research to see what a brand-new instrument would cost, and the answer blew my mind: $85,000.

And here is the major caveat. The one I acquired was from the golden years of piano-making, when Boston’s Mason and Hamlin were competing with Steinway to make the best pianos in the world (except for Bosendorfer). In fact, Mason and Hamlin went bankrupt as a result of making pianos that were so good that they had to charge more than people would pay! I have one of those! And even the new $85,000 does not sound nearly as good as mine. There are many reasons that I may go into at a different time. It is, and was, widely considered the best-sounding six-foot grand piano made in the world. For a guy who is an MIT-trained acoustician and a Juilliard-trained composer, it is a musician’s nirvana, inspiring beyond belief.

The Botton Line is there is no digital instrument in the world that is in the ballpark spatially, dynamically, spectrally, and tactilely. In fact, as I rediscovered yesterday, there are very few traditional instruments in the world that can compete, and most of them are not only too large to fit in my house but also well over $100,000! I guess this is the single most unique and valuable thing I own. The fact that it is bliss-inducing, life-changing, and life-affirming should not be so surprising to me because I spent two and a half years tracking down and acquiring this instrument more than half a lifetime ago.