Piano or Pretender? First Impressions of Yamaha’s AvantGrand N2

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Matt Peckham / Techland

I just picked up a Yamaha AvantGrand N2, which if you pay any attention to the electronic music biz, you might recognize as the upright piano version of Yamaha’s newest hybrid piano series. They’re not cheap, but I needed something not just pianistic, but piano-identical in terms of the action, meaning the complex system of levers and weights undergirding the piano’s black and white keys. I would’ve gone with a real piano, but the N2 has a volume knob–I’m in a condo with faux-wood floors, and neighbors below with whom I hope to stay on good terms.

Why Yamaha? In part because I grew up playing one. In part because I’ve come to prefer the piano sound associated with players like Chick Corea and Glenn Gould (his second pass through the Goldberg Variations, anyway). And Yamaha’s been at the forefront of hybrid and digital piano technology for years. Chances are you’ve come across one or another, whether you’ve fiddled with their Clavinova series spinet-style digitals at someone’s home, or happened past a player-piano-style Disklavier while out shopping somewhere as it ran through some holiday tune, ghost-like, the keys depressed by invisible hands.

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The AvantGrand represents Yamaha’s boldest stab at replicating the experience of playing and listening to a concert grand piano. Digital piano manufacturers have attempted to do as much for years, but always made compromises, whether it’s the questionable response of a simplified, scaled down hammer weighted action, or the not-quite-there-yet sound of a sampled or physically modeled piano run through stereo speakers instead of resonating through a genuine spruce soundboard.

Yamaha’s angle with the AvantGrand was to put an actual grand piano action inside a piano box—not synthetic, not scaled down, not 70 or 80 or 98.5%, but an honest-to-goodness grand piano action. In this case, it’s modeled after the action in the company’s C1 Conservatory Classic Collection piano, a 5-foot, 3-inch grand that can go for upwards of $20,000.

The high-end AvantGrand N3 actually resembles a baby grand, so putting a grand action in it’s no big thing, but the N2 I just picked up is essentially an upright, meaning it lacks the curvy extended section most people think of when they visualize a grand piano. Acoustic uprights use entirely different actions to strike the vertically-oriented strings (as opposed to the horizontal ones in a grand), strung as such to accommodate the upright’s vertical construction. Consequently uprights feel different to play.

Not so the compact, upright-like N2, which—since its hammers don’t strike actual strings—is able to employ the same grand action as the N3 (and C1), no ifs, ands, or buts. Instead of striking strings, the AvantGrand’s hammers use sensors that, based on your key-strike velocity, conjure high-end piano samples of an actual CFIIIS grand. The samples were obtained using four microphones, placed left, right, rear and center of the CFIIIS, which on the AvantGrand are played back through a four-channel multiple speaker system (each has its own amplifier), positioned to emulate the grand’s spatial tone generation qualities. And since real acoustic pianos resonate in ways you can feel through your fingers, Yamaha’s added what it calls a Tactile Response System to the equation—basically a vibration-feedback system that, to my fingers, feels almost indiscernible from the feel of an actual grand.

I’ve only had a few hours with the N2, playing through a few Bach and Liszt pieces and noodling some improv stuff, but I’m startled by how honest both the sound and feel are (it’s really hard to gauge this stuff on a showroom floor–however sure you are of your purchase, it’s always a unique experience playing a piano for the first time in your own home). I’ve owned dozens of digital pianos over the years, including serious boards from Yamaha, Roland, Korg, Nord and Kawai (Kawai’s MP10 was my prior favorite), but with any of those, there’s never been any doubt I was playing a digital and not an actual piano.

With the N2, that distinction’s suddenly in danger of disappearing. The action’s indistinguishable from that of an acoustic piano’s (the subtle differences between acoustics notwithstanding). The N2’s piano sounds are simply outstanding, often tricking my ear during this or that passage in ways even the highest-end piano sample libraries from companies like Synthogy haven’t managed to. And it never goes out of tune.

I’ll have more to say about the N2 in the weeks and months ahead. This isn’t a review: I’ve just unwrapped the thing, and I want to put some miles on these black and whites before I tackle more controversial questions, like whether what Yamaha’s wrought is good enough–if you’re a serious, nitpicky musician–to supplant the “real thing.”

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Matt Peckham is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @mattpeckham or on Facebook. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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