Yamaha NU1 Upright Hybrid piano

June 5, 2013
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“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.


 

Keyboard Feel

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.


Internal Speakers

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).


Piano Sound

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.


Conclusions

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.

Snap Judgment

PROS

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 finish.

CONS

Optical key sensors can be affected by a light source too close to the keys. No duet mode. Limited non-piano sounds.

Bottom Line

The new gold standard in a self-contained but compact acoustic piano replacement.

$5,995 list | $4,995 and under street | yamaha.com

 

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