What do you think: In times of unemployment, rampant foreclosures and imminent recession, would it be tasteless for me to review a home entertainment component that costs $42,000?
Good. I didn’t think so, either.
It’s a piano, actually. A Yamaha grand, 5 feet, 3 inches long. (It comes in longer versions, actually, costing up to $150,000. But one step at a time.)
This instrument, the Disklavier Mark IV, is the first piano in the world with an Internet connection. And since it’s also a digital player piano, all kinds of eyebrow-raising possibilities open up.
Like previous generations of Yamaha’s self-playing pianos, the Mark IV looks like any other grand: a gleaming, polished, stately presence in the living room. The only indications you have that something unusual is going on are the power and Ethernet cords sneaking out from underneath and a two-inch-tall control panel peeking out from beneath the lower-left skirt of the instrument.
Maybe you’ve seen digital player pianos in a hotel lobby or shopping mall, playing holiday tunes all by themselves, keys and pedals madly going up and down. This is not an audio recording, mind you; the hammers strike real strings, making live acoustic music. It’s a re-creation of a real pianist’s performance, faithful to the tiniest grace note.
It’s also very freaky to watch.
In the past, the well-heeled owners of these Disklavier pianos bought floppy disks or CDs containing recorded performances by famous pianists. At $30 to $35 an album, they’re not cheap; then again, who’s going to complain after buying a piano that costs as much as a Lexus?
The Internet connection adds a twist, however: it lets you subscribe to live-piano “radio stations.” For $20 a month (or $200 a year), you can tune into channels like Classical, Broadway or Rock. Your grand piano can now play itself all day in that musical style. It seems like a natural fit for what must be the Disklavier’s core market: hotels, malls and McMansions.
You can also buy songs à la carte. The Yamaha store is something like the iTunes store, complete with a 30-second preview of each song. The difference is that in this case, the previews (and the songs) are played live by a friendly ghost on the piano right next to you.
Songs are pricey, still $30 to $35 an album. They’re tiny files; most download to the piano’s 80-gigabyte hard drive in about two seconds. (The piano can also play standard, free MIDI files, which are available by the thousands online.)
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “$42K? C’mon — even with all those features, this thing can’t be worth more than, like, 35 grand.”
But wait, there’s more. When a piano comes with a hard drive, Ethernet jack, video output, stereo speakers, audio/microphone input, CD and floppy drives, U.S.B. jacks and an open-source Linux operating system, all kinds of new tricks are possible:
Alarm clock. You can schedule particular songs to play automatically at up to 99 different times and dates.
Piano teacher. Some of Yamaha’s song files come with sheet music that appears on a computer screen or TV, if you connect one. At this point, the Disklavier helps you find the next note by physically half-pressing the key a couple of times. It’s not for the easily startled, but it works.
Accompanist. Some of those teaching songs come with a built-in orchestral accompaniment that follows you as you speed up or slow down. (The Disklavier has a built-in library of sampled instrument sounds.)
Karaoke. Lyrics appear on the screen as the piano (and its synthesized orchestra) accompanies you, and you can add plenty of reverb.
Commercial audio CD piano highlights. This one is almost impossible to describe, and almost as difficult to justify, but here goes: You can buy live piano parts that are designed to play along with existing CD albums. For example, as your own Elton John CD plays through the Disklavier’s speakers (or your stereo system), the keys come to life, playing the piano part along with the recording.
Quiet mode. At any point, you can turn the piano into a completely digital piano. (Inside, a bar actually blocks the hammers so that they don’t strike the strings.) At this point, you can put on headphones and practice in silence. Or you can make the piano sound like a trumpet, bass, drum kit, or whatever. Of course, any cheapo kiddie keyboard can do that trick — but on this piano, you get the satisfaction of playing actual, wooden, weighted keys.
Sing backup with yourself. The piano can multiply your voice as you sing into a microphone, creating virtual backup singers. How does the piano know what notes they should “sing”? It analyzes what keys you’re playing at the moment. Clever.
Record music. You can easily record your own piano performance — and then, on playback, speed it up, slow it down or change the key. A metronome is available, and you can re-record only the parts that you muffed.
I tested the free 3.0 software update, now in beta testing (and due in July), which lets you record live audio along with your piano performance. That is, you can record yourself singing as you play, or record a friend playing flute or violin while you tickle the ivories. You can then transfer the resulting mix to a PC, using a flash drive or network connection, for burning to a CD or sending by e-mail.
You manage all these stunts using a Wi-Fi wireless color touch screen remote that looks like a particularly beefy PalmPilot. The software isn’t always a masterpiece of polished perfection, but navigation isn’t difficult, thanks to the prominent Back button. The halves of the remote slide apart to reveal a thumb keyboard that you can use for naming your recordings and searching the store. (The 3.0 software will also include software that duplicates the remote’s functions on a Mac or PC.)
There is a two-second lag when you press the physical playback buttons on the remote (like Play or Stop), and Internet operations sometimes present the Wait screen for several seconds at a time. It would be nice if the remote’s battery lasted longer than an hour or so once it’s out of the charging dock. And the Wi-Fi should have been built into the remote; right now, it’s an ugly, protruding card in a slot.
For such a niche product, though, the Mark IV over all is surprisingly polished. Its biggest potential drawbacks have nothing to do with the technology, but with the concept itself.
First of all, the various playback features described above require a dizzying array of song file formats, and they go by a dizzying array of names. The karaoke, music CD playalong, piano-teaching and other files have names like PianoSoft Plus, PianoSoft Plus Audio, Smart PianoSoft and so on.
Worse, there are precious few songs available in each format. Yamaha offers only 167 albums of songs that the piano can play by itself, piano-part playalong files for only 575 songs on music CDs, and so on.
You’d have to be concerned that the novelty will wear off, too. Suppose you actually have the $42,000 to spend. After six months, are you still going to be loading up those Chopin files to show your friends when they come for dinner?
If the answer is yes, then you, the affluent owner of this amazing machine, have a lot to look forward to. Grafting the very new (Linux, Wi-Fi, Internet connection) onto the very old (classic grand, hammers hitting strings) might seem like a recipe for a Frankenstein monstrosity — but they mesh surprisingly well. The result is one of the most imaginative, unusual and expensive home-entertainment modules to come along in years.
David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: email@example.com.