Yamaha’s Grand Illusion

The world's first digital grand piano plays like the real thing, at a fraction of the cost—and size

Yamaha AvantGrand
N3 list price: US $19 999;
N2 list price:$14 999

This is part of IEEE Spectrum’s Special Report on IEEE SPECTRUM’S 2009 Holiday Gift Guide. To see the AvantGrand in action, watch the video, “A Digital Piano with Good Vibrations.

There are home pianos and there are concert grand pianos, and unless you’ve resided in Graceland or Neverland, the two have always been quite different things. First, there’s the size—a concert grand piano is at least 2.5 meters (8 feet) long. Then there’s the cost—US $120 000 and up. But surely in today’s digital world, we should be able to simulate the concert experience in our own living rooms, right?

That task has turned out to be surprisingly hard. But Yamaha, the world’s largest manufacturer of musical instruments, may have finally done it with its AvantGrand digital piano. Using its 2.7-meter (9-foot) CFIIIS concert grand piano as its inspiration, Yamaha has spent the past 15 years developing a digital piano for the rest of us.

I found the response and the feel quite expressive. The piano mimics an acoustic instrument, with transducers inside reverberating at the touch of your hands and feet, and superb keyboard action remarkably similar to that of Yamaha’s large grand pianos. Yamaha has also sampled all 88 notes from four locations within the CFIIIS; the AvantGrand replays them through four speakers located in corresponding positions to emulate the sound of notes bouncing off a grand piano’s lid.

Does it sound like a hundred grand? No. The technology needed to replicate an exquisite, handcrafted instrument like the CFIIIS doesn’t exist and possibly never will. However, the AvantGrand sounds and plays better than many acoustic pianos in the $15 000 to $20 000 range while requiring little space and no tuning. Its sound tends to be a bit bright, producing unflattering overtones during complex musical passages. Customizable equalization controls would remedy this.

Photo: Erico Guizzo
Grand Illusion: Yamaha's AvantGrand re-creates a concert grand piano’s sound digitally.

Like most keyboards, the AvantGrand can produce other instrument sounds, but the acoustic piano is clearly its forte. It offers many of the other benefits of a digital keyboard, including a headphone port for late-night recording sessions. Speaking of which, there’s a built-in recorder that produces files that can be downloaded to a USB drive.

The AvantGrand comes in two models. The “upright” N2 lists at $14 999. The flagship N3 model lists at $19 999 but seems to offer little more than a “grand piano” body design—in my brief showroom session, the two sounded and felt quite similar. I’d be happy to make space for either in my home.

This article originally appeared in print as “The Hundred-Grand Grand.”