Today I'm all about digital pianos. Dare you to guess why.
While I was never very good at the piano, I took it fairly seriously through junior high and high school. I made a hobby out of visiting piano stores and pretending to be seriously interested in buying one, wasting countless hours of piano salesman hours. I was particularly obsessed with the potential of digital pianos, which offered the keyboard action and sampled sound of a grand piano with the privacy of headphones and multi-instrument capabilities of other musical keyboards (much like the tiny little toy Casio keyboards most of us had at one point-- rhumba beat!-- but on a much grander scale). Eventually, high-end digital pianos were elaborate enough to create reasonable simulations of large orchestrations in a wide variety of genres and styles, for the novice with auto-accompaniment, or for advanced recording musicians and composers with computer sequencing equipment and software. Modern day digital pianos are so sophisticated that the technology on which they're based threatens the use of genuine instruments in areas with tight production budgets, such as television incidental music. (I was worried for TV for a while, but nowadays it seems the better producers still see the value in hiring an ensemble of musicians over hiring just the one with the fancy equipment, at least for the title themes.)
I repeatedly considered getting a digital piano through college, acoustic pianos being essentially not an option for dorm or apartment use. Of course, I couldn't afford even the cheaper models while I was a student. Having managed some success as a software engineer in the last few years, however, I decided to reinitiate my quest, this time with an intent to buy. The digital piano world has advanced greatly since I was in high school. Even the less expensive models are considered by many to have action as good or better than an acoustic upright piano, especially with regard to speed, the ability to play an already-played note without bringing the key all the way up to its original position. The sampled sounds are fantastic; digital pianos have had great piano sounds for a while, but in many cases other instruments have caught up; even difficult-to-reproduce instruments now have satisfying equivalents.
After several trips to piano stores over the course of the last year, I concurred with general consensus on the Internet that pretty much the best all-in-one non-stage-style pianos are the Yamaha Clavinova series, specifically the CVP line. The latest series (the 201, 203, 205, 207 and 209) came out just last year, leaving the previous series (101, 103, 105, 107 and 109) on the clearance market. They're cleverly priced such that the 207 is the most cost-effective, feature-wise, and anyone who has played a 207 swears the feature differences between it and lower models make a huge difference. I know I do.
While considering the CVP's, I was pleased to discover the CVP User's Group, a club of over 800 people worldwide that trade purchasing advice and operating tips on Clavinovas. Especially nice is the CVP FAQ, which is far more up to date than the somewhat stale rec.music.makers.piano FAQs. Wally does an excellent job of keeping the group active and interesting. (See also the rec.music.makers.piano group, which still has a few signs of life.)
Half the conversation on the CVPUG mailing list is about pricing. Dealers in the United States have a reputation for being the most expensive way to acquire Clavinovas thanks in part to exclusive dealership contracts with Yamaha that restrict dealers to sell only in their service area in exchange for a monopoly (for Yamaha pianos) in that area. Even after negotiated discounts (talked down from sticker price like you would a car), US prices are very high compared to prices in Canada or overseas. A CVP-207's sticker price in a US store is around $7500. Given the newness of the 200's, a typical dealer might not be willing to go any lower than $6000, though CVPUG reports a Philadelphia dealer that goes as low as $4600. A Calgary (Canada) dealer is reported to be selling for $4600 US as well, but buying outside the States means no warranty. Some don't consider the warranty a big issue; as long as you get the piano home in one piece, they rarely break, and do-it-yourselfers can buy a service manual for $40. Particularly disappointing right now is the price of the older 100 series; only floor models are available, but they're still priced to push the new ones. When the 100's clear out, the post-negotiation price of the 200's will probably drop, probably about a year from now.
The cheapest option is to buy from overseas. Piano Depot in Belgium sells CVP-207's for under $3000, plus $700 shipping and import fees. (The thing is 200 lbs, I'd expect it to be difficult to get across the pond.) Given the incredible hassle of returning a piano if it arrives busted, breaching a communication barrier, and other risks associated with sending thousands of dollars over a web site, dealer communication is a big deal, and I wouldn't have even considered this option if Piano Depot didn't try so hard to have a good, active relationship with the CVPUG. Musician's Gear, in Germany, is another favorite (though you may have to pick up your piano at the airport). CVPUG'ers report success with buying from overseas, though you also have to worry about power converters (usually included with the piano by these dealers) and minor differences between US and non-US models. Subscribers to the group can access a small database of purchase experience stories.
My local dealer, of course, had a few "horror stories" in his back pocket about buying from overseas. Such a transaction is certainly not for the faint of heart or for anyone who might need assistance using their piano. Despite all the discussed advantages and disadvantages of buying from a local dealer, the biggest advantage for the local dealer for me is the ability to trade up to newer models practically at my first purchase price. While acoustic pianos can be usable and servicable for over a century, digital pianos are far more computer than they are piano and as such could become unservicable in 15-20 years. While I'm sure I could get something for a trade-in of an overseas model, buying from and trading in to the same dealer earns a much better price.
So, did I buy one or didn't I? Would I spend seven paragraphs on the subject if I didn't? (Well, probably... :) My locally purchased CVP-207 arrives tomorrow. I spent hours at the dealership playing with the thing yesterday, it's an amazing machine. No doubt I'll be mentioning it repeatedly at least for the next few months.