“People come in here looking for an acoustic upright they
can afford, but often leave with this thing.” So said more than one
piano dealer we spoke to when doing research for the affordable acoustic piano roundup in this issue. “This
thing” is the NU1, the latest Yamaha piano to take the hybrid concept
introduced in the AvantGrand and aim it squarely at your living room.
“Hybrid” refers mainly to two ideas: a real piano action married to a
sophisticated sample playback engine, and designing the speakers and
cabinetry as a whole in order to project sound more like a real piano
would. Having reviewed the five-figure AvantGrand N3 in August 2010, I
was curious to see how a piano as compact and relatively affordable as
the NU1 stacked up. To make a long story short, it exceeded my
expectations on nearly every level.
The finger-to-music connection of the action is superb,
responding quickly and accurately to all levels of dynamics,
barely-there grace notes, soft legato playing, machine-gun note
repetition, you name it. The sense that key strikes are causing real
hammers to hit real strings is uncanny. There are three velocity curves
(plus fixed velocity), and I got a lot of mileage out of practicing on
the heaviest curve but switching to medium when playing for people.
Also, anyone with kids or cats will appreciate the anti-slam fallboard,
which glides to a soft landing even if dropped.
The stereo sound system (40 watts per side) places the
woofers firing at your knees while the tweeters fire forward just under
the piano top. I played a number of acoustic uprights while editing the May 2013
issue’s roundup, and can attest that on the NU1 there’s
almost no sense that you’re hearing speakers at all—the sound seems to issue from an organic acoustic space that, like Doctor Who’s police box, is bigger inside than out.
The sound doesn’t become brittle at maximum volume and
velocity, and gets more than loud enough to be heard above a houseful of
party guests on their third tiki drink—and I make strong ones. Bass
response was on par with what I’d expect from a full-height acoustic
upright like a Yamaha U3 or even a baby grand. Still, there’s a lot
more concert grand thunder sampled in than what the internal speakers
reveal, as I learned from running the piano’s 1/4" line outs into a P.A.
system that included subwoofers (see Figure 1).
The NU1 is the first Yamaha product to use samples of
their new flagship concert grand, the CFX. (AvantGrand models sampled
the CFX’s recent forbear, the CFIIIS.) Playing the NU1 and AvantGrand N3
side by side, the N3 did sound bigger owing to its having more
speakers, channels, and power, but somehow the NU1 sounded sweeter,
with a clear, singing sustain in the two acoustic piano variants. The
second of these was subtly brighter and more pop-oriented, while the
first was superior for legato playing. I could hear no velocity layer
breaks, sample loops, bad interaction between samples, or other digital
telltales. I also had two opportunities to do direct comparison with a
nine-foot CFX, and the samples are very true to the original.
Soundlessly holding some keys while striking staccato
chords on others revealed accurate sympathetic resonance; damper
resonance, sustain samples, and release samples are on hand as well.
Again, the illusion that there’s an acoustic environment inside the
piano and that frequencies are blending “in the air” as opposed to “in
the wires” is very convincing. In fact, musicians who tried the NU1 at
my home over the past few months usually had to be shown the stealthy
little control panel to realize it was electronic.
The polyphony spec is 256 voices, and my best efforts at hitting this ceiling and hearing notes cut off went unrewarded.
Other Sounds and Features
Two electric pianos cover a DX7 homage and a chorused
Rhodes. The Rhodes is authentic and fun to play, but it’s a bit
“safe”—I’d like to hear a little more attitude when I dig in. There’s a
lovely harpsichord with pronounced key-off sounds, but that’s it—no
organ, strings, vibraphone, XG bank, or other sounds that often flesh
out home digital pianos. Frankly, the CFX piano sound is so good that I
didn’t miss them.
Ancillary features are likewise piano-centric. The
metronome can accent the downbeat every two to six beats for different
time signatures. Seven temperaments (equal, mean, Pythagorean, etc.) let
you play historical tunings. Adjustable “Intelligent Acoustic” loudness
compensation boosts the bass at low volumes. An onboard song recorder
can play and record single-track MIDI or stereo audio files—the latter
if you plug in a USB memory stick. Preloaded MIDI songs include 50
classical essentials with an included songbook, and being able to slow
these down and play along removes a major intimidation factor for
beginners. You access all such functions, as well as transposition, by
holding down one of the buttons on the left end block and striking a key
(see Figure 2); a handy cheat sheet is on page 35 of the manual.
Given the dual headphone jacks, I was surprised not to
find a “duet mode” that lets a learner and teacher sit side by side and
play notes in the same range. Many less expensive digital pianos have
this. Also, a light source placed too close to the keys can interfere
with some of the NU1’s optical sensors, making the odd key
intermittently fail to sound. Slightly adjusting the angle of my lamp
was all it ever took to correct this, and I’d recommend not placing the
NU1 in direct sunlight.
The two biggest benefits of a digital alternative to the
acoustic piano are well known: It never needs tuning and you can turn
the volume way down. Yamaha’s AvantGrand line sounded so good and
removed the associated compromises to such an extent that we called it
the virtual piano for people who can’t stand virtual pianos. The NU1
brings the same cost-benefit balance to a far lower price, amounting to a
new benchmark for families, educators, and musicians in search of a
pure piano substitute.
As a tech enthusiast who gravitates towards knobs, LEDs, and menus, I also found that a freestanding piano can
be a family and social hub in a way that a button-covered slab on an
X-stand doesn’t duplicate. When I needed to work, I headed for the
stacks of synths in my studio. When I wanted to play, I sat at
the NU1, and when friends came over, the NU1 was what we gathered
around. It can really become the hearth of a house, and that is my strongest recommendation.
Gorgeous acoustic piano sounds sampled from Yamaha CFX
concert grand. Sense of acoustic realism, as opposed to sound coming
through speakers, is simply striking. Solid construction and beautiful
Optical key sensors can be affected by a light source too close to the keys. No duet mode. Limited non-piano sounds.
The new gold standard in a self-contained but compact acoustic piano replacement.
$5,995 list | $4,995 and under street | yamaha.com