Mostly Piano, Not Pretender: Yamaha’s AvantGrand N2 a Year Later

Musicians and music teachers over the past year have asked what I think of the AvantGrand as time's gone by. Is it reliable? Has it broken down? Have I spent any money repairing it? Do I still like the sounds?

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Matt Peckham

A little over a year ago, I wrote about a piece of high-end musical gear made by Yamaha called an AvantGrand. It’s what Yamaha refers to as a hybrid piano, which just means that the intricate key mechanism that triggers the AG’s piano sounds is identical to that of an actual grand piano.

In any other non-acoustic piano, the action requires significant compromises to get everything to fit properly in something you can schlep around. In Kawai’s MP10, for instance — arguably the most piano-like stage instrument available today with an actual wooden-key action (RM3) that models escapement (“let off”) and has ivory-feel key surfaces — you’re still in a kind of mechanical uncanny valley. It’s the best digital piano action I’ve personally played (trumping, for me, even Roland’s V-Piano with PHA III), but even if you pair the MP10 with something like Synthogy’s dynamically more authentic Ivory II sample library, it’s still worlds away from what it feels like to physically play a full-blown acoustic.

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Not so the AvantGrand, where the mechanism replicates the experience of playing an acoustic action. In the mid-range, upright-like model I’ve been playing, the N2, it’s essentially the same action as the one Yamaha uses in its C1 Conservatory Classic Collection piano, a 5-foot, 3-inch grand that can go for upwards of $20,000. The N2’s two piano samples — one softer, one brighter — are incredibly piano-like, taken from Yamaha’s own premium CFIIIS grand, a very pricey piano often compared to Steinway’s Model D. The AvantGrand’s piano samples play back through a unique four-channel speaker system positioned to resonate through the body of the instrument. Speaking of, since pianists expect to feel vibration through the keys of an actual acoustic, Yamaha employs a haptic vibration-feedback system calibrated to note frequencies (that is, lower notes vibrate more because the wavelengths are longer, higher notes less so), making it all but indiscernible from the feel of playing an actual acoustic.

It’s true, if you start plugging in the highest-end piano sample libraries for direct recording or running the AvantGrand through external speakers, you may prefer the fidelity of high-end piano sample libraries (no one knows how large the sample libraries are in the AvantGrand, for the record, though any looping seems to be masked when played through the internal speakers). This quickly becomes a question of aesthetic taste. Some people swear by certain piano sample libraries, others less so. Much of it depends on what you’re trying to accomplish, e.g. practicing, performing, recording, etc. Some of it’s just aesthetic preference: Even professional concert pianists rarely agree on which acoustic pianos produce the most desirable sounds.

Bear in mind that when I say the AvantGrand sounds “incredibly piano-like,” I just mean that in an acoustic space, listening, say, to Ivory II samples of a Yamaha C7 piano through studio monitors and contrasting that with the AvantGrand outputting through its own sophisticated multi-speaker system, I prefer the sound of the AvantGrand. It’s a question of sonic holism for me. The experience of listening to the AvantGrand or a high-end piano sample library through headphones is a different matter, though an important one if you’re thinking of using the AvantGrand as a stage piano.

Then again, unless you’re Chick Corea with a moving crew, you’re probably not bouncing out the door to a gig with a 300-pound monster-slab of wood and metal. There’s your downside. But the upsides are many, including: it’s always in tune, never has to be voiced (no hammers — it uses metal tips where the felt ones would be to trigger sensors), doesn’t require a humidistat because it doesn’t have a soundboard, has MIDI and USB connections and includes a headphones jack so you can play in the dead of night without disturbing a soul. Like any acoustic grand action, it does need to be regulated (to even things out — in a well-played piano, the action in the center, where your fingers spend most of their time, tends to loosen after years of play), but that’s it. In theory, it’s the perfect practice piano.

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I’ve been approached by musicians and music teachers over the past year who’ve wanted to know what I think of the AvantGrand as time’s gone by. Is it reliable? Has it broken down? Have I spent any money repairing it? Do I still like the sounds?

Before I answer, here’s the sort of play schedule I keep: I spend anywhere from a few hours a day (more on weekends) playing, often running through scales and arpeggios or doing Dohnányi exercises, working through battleship-gray stacks of Henle books and gradually expanding my jazz vocabulary. To keep my head in the acoustic game, I make a point of going out to play real acoustic grands and uprights at music stores (my favorite of late’s been an Estonian concert grand), the local university’s practice rooms and the homes of friends and relatives who have real pianos in various states of repair.

I’m not a concert pianist, so I tend to play a lot of mediocre grands and uprights. The world is full of mediocre pianos, of course, largely because people (or institutions like universities without climate-controlled practice rooms) don’t practice good maintenance. It can get expensive keeping a decent upright or grand in tip-top shape, tuning, regulating, voicing and humidifying things. It’s worth bearing that in mind when talking about something like the AvantGrand. What are we comparing it to? A perfectly maintained $50,000 to $100,000 piano or more of an entry-level acoustic grand?

The AvantGrand N2 sells anywhere from $8,000 to $10,000 depending on dealer discounts. While I’d argue it offers a reasonable approximation of what various higher-end pianos can do sound-wise, we shouldn’t get so tangled in the academic debate over sample fidelity that we forget where it slots price-wise. In the $8,000 to $10,000 range, what you’re getting is the best acoustic piano action money can buy (found in acoustics priced twice as much, and superior to any upright if you’re looking for a grand feel) with a piano sound reproduction system that rivals the best piano sample libraries if you’re thinking about it in holistic “just sitting in a room playing” terms.

As for reliability, I’ve had only one problem worth mentioning: Last winter, a few months after I bought the N2, I noticed the B-flat above middle-C making a kind of rasping sound (the action itself, not the sound system) after hammering on it for several minutes. It didn’t impact the dynamic nuance of that particular key (or the surrounding ones), it just sounded odd, mechanically. I made a few calls and had a tech ready to come over and investigate, but then it went away, inexplicably, and hasn’t resurfaced. My guess is it was just a “breaking in the key-bed” thing. Other than that, the N2’s been rock solid.

For what it’s worth, the AvantGrand sits in my office, just behind the table I work at each day, and when I move to a bigger house, the AvantGrand will join me in an upstairs office, sequestered from the world, where it’ll be my practice piano. I’d still like to own something like that acoustic Estonian grand someday, once I’ve saved enough (you know, by the time I’m on my second post-human life in 2074 or something). In the meantime, for those of us without tens of thousands of dollars to blow on a sublime, fully acoustic instrument, the AvantGrand is the next best thing, and a remarkable achievement for the money.

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