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The Ivory Trade
Oliver Moor

Piano makers are not exactly thick on the ground these days. Today there are perhaps forty makers who supply the world with pianos (gone are the days when London alone boasted forty different makers). Of those few only a handful command general respect: Steinway, Bosendorfer, Baldwin and Yamaha pianos (and a couple of others) grace concert halls around the world, and are the instrument of choice of the vast majority of pianists.

But how would their websites compare? Would the legend of Steinway allow it to rule the web as well as the concert platform? Is Bosendorfer’s name about to become better known because of a spectacular web page? How would the volume manufacturers’ sites of Yamaha and Baldwin compare to those of their their smaller rivals? And just how important is the web when it comes to buying pianos?

Steinway is probably the most famous name in the piano world. They have always made pianos of great quality, and the “Steinway sound” is to be heard on the vast majority of recordings of classical piano playing. So would this feel of quality come over on the Steinway website?

Initially, the answer has to be a definite yes. The site displays the famous Steinway logo; the font used throughout the site is Times New Roman, giving a feel of class and solidity (if not being exactly novel). Content, too, was fairly impressive, with a vast archive of information available (on a different page). I felt that some of the content was, however, a little out of date (why weren’t the Winners of the 2000 Van Cliburn competition listed instead of the 1997?). Although I couldn’t find any “broken”, there weren’t many links, and those that were there were a little random. It was rather as if the developer of the site had simply entered the word “Piano” in a search engine and then linked to the first five sites that appeared.

The graphical content of the site was high; the picture quality excellent, although I felt it would have been appropriate to have a few more close-ups, rather than just pictures of the individual models (after all, it’s difficult to tell, from a one-inch GIF image, the difference between a 6’6 piano and a 7’6 piano.) Perhaps even a Flash / Shockwave animations of the key action, or something – or how about some sounds?

A fun feature the Steinway page had was the ability to send “virtual postcards” – a feature not apparent on any of the other sites reviewed here – and there were some other nice touches, such as a Quicktime Video of the latest “Tricentennial Art Case” piano (so you could see it from any angle), but why not extend this to others in the range? I did feel that this was something that could be applied to the whole site: good design ideas had been initiated, but the site had got a little “out of hand” and the developer had not been able to apply those ideas to the vast amount of information the site contained. The only information it didn’t seem to contain was anything on prices, but an online piano dealer was quoting about £12,000 for a small Steinway, and a little under £70K for the all-singing, all-dancing 9’ concert model.

Bosendorfer’s site told much the same story. Again, the site used a “piano black poly” background with white lettering, which initially looked impressive, but was let down by a rather tacky “NEW!” spinning graphic which made the main page look cluttered and slightly cheap – unfortunate for a manufacturer of such wonderful instruments. The content was divided into a rather excessive number of sections (eight in total -- the Steinway site made use of five, which were easily enough). I understand there is a difference between “Product” and “Production” but surely, for clarity’s sake, they could be combined? The site also seemed to have been done in something of a hurry: “Follow These Fine Links” was the heading, but no links were even listed! Most of the other content was at least up to date, however, with “Bosendorfer News” keeping one abreast of the latest factory developments and the availability of new models.

Being an Austrian site, you would expect both English and German pages to be available, and this was, of course, the case; I cannot vouch for the German content, but it was certainly there. Separate pages worked more successful than the “Bosendorfer SE” page (dedicated to a new digital interface which Bosendorfer are developing). This contained both English and German side by side; I was still not quite clear, even after getting to the end of the page, how the SE worked, and the page looked a complete mess. I can understand sacrificing design for the sake of content, but there doesn’t seem to be an excuse for having poor content and poor design.

By contrast, Baldwin (whose pianos are used extensively by jazz pianists) had an extremely well-presented site which they appeared to have achieved by limiting the amount of information they’d included. This sounds like a bad idea, but in practice it worked very well as the designer was able to apply concepts throughout the site and had not been overwhelmed by a jungle of data. The site looked clean, well thought out, and was also pretty fast to load; the graphics were interesting and nicely presented. Baldwin also avoided using black, which was probably a good idea. The site had a much lighter feel to it than either of the previous two.

Having less to work with also enabled the site to be that bit more up-to-date than the others, and a particularly welcome feature of the Baldwin page was an artist interview (this month was Ben Folds from the group “Ben Folds Five”). There was also an archive facility which contained previous issues of this magazine-style page, and of the sites reviewed, Baldwin’s was the best so far.
Ben Folds

This was, however, before looking at Yamaha’s. Although initially slow to load, the site looked fantastic, and of all the sites was the only one to actually contain sound. An additional plug-in was needed, but once installed it allows the reader the choice of 10 “background tracks” --I particularly enjoyed Track 7 -- featuring a Yamaha piano. Not strictly necessary, but a very attractive “fun” feature which you’d expect more of the others to have used as well (they do make instruments, after all!) In addition to the sound feature, the site also contained an enormous amount of information about all Yamaha’s pianos – and other instruments. The content was up to date and well written.

The Yamaha range varies from country to country, and so the site is broken down by country. The Yamaha UK site was the only one of the four sites compared here to contain prices (a new Yamaha baby grand starts at just over £6500 -- £55,000 will buy you the top-of-the-range concert grand). The site gave the impression of great quality, and, if I was buying a piano off the Internet, and only had the websites to go by, I’d go for a Yamaha every time, followed by a Baldwin, a Steinway, and bringing up the rear, a Bosendorfer.

However, there are two reasons why I wouldn’t, in real life, buy a Yamaha. Firstly, I’ve already got one. It’s a fine piano: I love playing it, and it’s very well made. The main reason, though, is that… well, a Steinway’s a Steinway, isn’t it? And let’s face it, the web isn’t the place to buy a piano anyway. You can’t replicate that perfectly-weighted keyboard action on a computer console – no matter how many Netscape add-ons you download.

Now what did I do with that spare £70,000? 






Yamaha background music
(This needs a plug-in)

© Oliver Moor 2001

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