Steinway piano details. (Scott Suchman/For The Washington Post)
Classical music critic/The Classical Beat

A piano, it’s said, can emulate an entire orchestra: Its range extends from thunderous fortes to streams of liquid notes.

Yet the majority of people who talk about piano sound today are talking about the sound of a single manufacturer: Steinway.

For several generations of musicians and music lovers, Steinway has come to represent the acme of piano sound. Like Kleenex or Xerox, the name stands for a whole class of object. More than 98 percent of concert pianists choose to perform on Steinways, according to figures collected by, not surprisingly, Steinway itself.

In a field so reliant on nuance and subtlety as classical music, it’s striking that a single manufacturer should hold such sway. Especially since the brand may not actually be better than its competitors.

“The problem is that each Steinway is so different,” says Joey Calderazzo, an acclaimed jazz pianist who recently became a Blüthner artist. “I have no idea what I’m getting.” He adds, “If you find a Steinway that’s a good one, it’s as good as any other piano out there. [But] one in 30 Steinways are good. And you have other piano brands that are actually kind of changing the game.”

Pianos at Downtown Piano Works. (Dan Shykind/Downtown Piano Works)

There’s the exclusive Fazioli, a still-new piano (established in 1981) emerging as a favorite of some world-famous artists. There’s the CFX, with which Yamaha has cemented its ascendancy from mere workhorse status to one of Steinway’s major competitors. And there are other brands with history as long as Steinway’s: Bösendorfer, Steingraeber and Blüthner.

“If I could have any piano I wanted,” Calderazzo says, “Steinway would probably be six or seven on the list.”

He’s not alone.

“When I play on Steinways, especially the American ones, I see what an unsubtle instrument it is,” the pianist Angela Hewitt told Canada’s Globe and Mail in 2008. “So it makes me a little sad that so many pianists work on these instruments and think that it is the best, because there is so much more you can do with a piano.”

A detail shot of a Steinway piano. (Scott Suchman/For The Washington Post)

The supremacy of Steinway is no accident. It’s the result of focused hard work: on the pianos and on the brand. The company aggressively woos artists and institutions with the strategy and tenacity, some say, of a car salesman. Appearing on the Steinway Web site as a Steinway artist is a valued imprimatur; straying from the fold can earn censure. (The pianist Garrick Ohlsson was banned from using Steinway instruments for a period in the 1970s after he praised Bösendorfer in public.) Being a Steinway school, the company argues, attracts donors and students.

This year, Wolf Trap became a Steinway institution after decades of association with Yamaha. “I’ve played Yamahas I love and hate, and Steinways I love and hate, and everyone else has, too,” says Kim Witman, the head of the Wolf Trap Opera. “I think from a branding perspective, a lot of folks on our board and folks here always would have loved to see us aligned with Steinway.”

Institutions that want to remain independent, such as Florida State University’s College of Music, have to work hard to resist. The school believes that its students are best served by being exposed to a variety of instruments. Yet when Anne Garee, the director of the piano technology program, is trying out new pianos for possible purchase, she often sees evidence of Steinway’s power. She covers up the manufacturer’s names when musicians are testing out the instruments; when she uncovers the names after they’ve played, some change their minds.

“If you walk on stage,” Garee says, “and see a Brand Something and a Steinway, no matter what, [most performers] will forgive the Steinway. People are not listening as freely and honestly as they could.”

The classical music field, with its devotion to maintaining traditions, has been fertile ground for the development of what Ohlsson has referred to as Steinway’s “monoculture.” Like most of the instruments of the modern orchestra, the piano hasn’t fundamentally changed since the late 19th century. Steinway’s ascendancy dates from the same period, and every time the company changes hands — most recently in 2013, when it was purchased by the hedge fund Paulson & Co. for $512 million — there are ripples of anxiety in the classical music world.

Yet historically, Western piano technology has thrived on competition and innovation — witness the Classical period, when Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and their contemporaries were constantly trying out different instruments, and manufacturers were constantly adapting them. There were distinct schools of sound, the Viennese more subtle, the English more focused on power and force. Steinway, despite its German origins, represents the dominance of the English school: louder, more strings, a massive iron frame, hammers mounted not on the keys but on the body of the piano. England won: In the 20th century even the quintessentially Viennese Bösendorfer switched to the English action.

At the highest end of the piano spectrum, the differences between instruments are subtle: a $100,000 piano tends to make a pretty great sound, regardless of who built it. Indeed, connoisseurs may overstate the differences: A recent set of studies demonstrated that even soloists couldn’t always distinguish between a Stradivarius and a new violin.

“Some people might argue that there are categories of tone that are particular to brands,” says FSU’s Garee, “but it’s been my experience that the stereotypical sounds have not always been there. I’ve played Yamahas that sounded like Schimmels, Schimmels that sounded like Hamburg Steinways; I’ve heard so many that defy the rules. Unless you’re playing dozens and dozens of pianos, most of us don’t have the perspective” to identify which manufacturer is “best.”

And few pianists actually test out a wide range of concert-quality instruments. Soheil Nasseri, a 37-year-old concert pianist originally from Rockville, Md., who had to contend with a terrible Yamaha at a recent recital at Strathmore’s new hall, AMP, is deeply committed to Steinways. “Generally speaking,” he says “the Steinway is the only piano that has the kind of color possibilities, consistently, that allow an artist to make music on the very highest level.” But, “Having just said that,” he adds, “I have to say I played on a Bösendorfer in Germany that was as good as the best Steinways I’ve ever played on.” He admits he hasn’t tried out many other brands.

Whatever the brand, selling pianos hasn’t gotten any easier. The recession in 2008 sparked a downturn in piano sales, and thus in production in Steinway’s U.S. factory, and the company left its historic flagship building in Manhattan at the end of last year and moved to new headquarters. Yet it has prevailed: Its New York branch is the only major American piano manufacturer left.

But other high-end manufacturers are working to make themselves more appealing. Several leading brands have top-of-the-line instruments that represent decades of work at developing prototypes, whether animating an existing line, such as the Yamaha CFX or the Shigeru Kawai, or creating a new one, such as Fazioli.

There have certainly been a number of innovations in recent years. Some Faziolis have four pedals rather than the usual three; the Australian firm Stuart & Sons makes instruments with up to 102 keys, 14 more than the 88-key norm. Some Steinway artists have been trying to push the envelope, under Steinway’s aegis: the pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard helped spark the development of a louvered, transparent lid, known as “Sound Mirrors,” while earlier this year Daniel Barenboim unveiled a new piano, designed with the builder Chris Maene, which is supposed to meld the power of a modern concert grand with some of the sound qualities of a fortepiano, largely thanks to the arrangement the strings in parallel rather than in diagonal criss-cross. Also this year, the Hungarian pianist Gergely Boganyi unveiled a futuristic-looking instrument made partly of carbon fiber.

The real game-changers in the piano market, though, are innovations in electronic and digital sound — and here Steinway has been playing catch-up. Yamaha’s Disklavier is a concert instrument that doubles as a contemporary player piano, able to reproduce a live performance without an actual player touching the keys. The same manufacturer’s Clavinova is a high-end electronic upright with concert-piano action and sampled sound that seamlessly blends with acoustic instruments — but can be set to be heard over headphones.

“Steinway no longer has technical innovations; it has no patents,” says Dan Shykind, the admittedly biased co-owner of a Yamaha dealership, Downtown Piano Works in Frederick, Md., which regularly presents world-class artists in its tiny concert hall. “Yamaha has the market cornered on technology.”

Even a passionate Steinway adherent like Nasseri agrees.

“More important than our whole conversation about the Steinways being great in the concert hall and doing magical music-making,” says Nasseri, “is that Yamaha has invented the silent system.” He adds, “Now you can turn off the sound altogether and play the piano in the middle of the night and the neighbors won’t hear it, but it sounds like you’re in a concert hall. That is just a revolution. If anybody is making strides in pianos, it’s Yamaha.”

Whether they’re fans or detractors of Steinway — and there are many of both — top artists are looking not for bells and whistles but the inspiration that comes from playing on a superb instrument, superbly prepared by a knowledgable technician. And inspiration, of course, is as individual as a player — and as a top-of-the-line piano.

“When the piano responds on all dynamic levels, from pianissimo to sforzando and fortissimo, and gives the pianist tonal palette, you never want to leave that piano bench,” says Garee. “It’s when that particular instrument went together, when all the stars went together, material science, geometry, engineering, and the resilience of the piano hammer to respond to its soundboard. When all that comes together, it doesn’t matter what brand it is. It’s magic.”