Friday, July 1, 2016

REVIEW - Williams Symphony Grand Digital Piano - Not Recommended - Poor key action & piano response

UPDATED REVIEW - March 12, 2017 - Williams Symphony Grand Piano - Not Recommended - The Williams company is a division and part of the Guitar Center company family of brands and stores which includes Guitar Center, Musicians Friend, Woodwind & Brasswind, Music & Arts, and others. It's even listed for sale on the Walmart web site so that ought to tell you something right away:). The Williams company does not manufacture its own pianos and the Williams brands is not made in the US. They are made in China by another company and Williams has used their own "Symphony" model name for many years that has represented a different model in the past. This new 2016 Symphony micro digital grand ($1499US internet selling price) is the latest incarnation of digital piano under the Symphony name and although it has an attractive "micro grand" cabinet with built-in color LCD screen that has many functions, as a piano, in my opinion, it is not even close to the quality and realism of a new $500 Casio or Yamaha digital piano in terms of its piano playing authenticity. In other words, what looks like a fabulous product on the outside does not mean it's good on the inside. I call this kind of piano product a "PSO" otherwise known as a piano shaped object. It's unfortunate because the factory specs and all the selling Guitar Center and affiliate web sites would lead you to believe it's an amazing product and something that blows away all of its competition for an incredibly low price....but it simply does not do that in my opinion. Please click on pics for larger views.

OK...when you look at the Symphony piano specs and what it can do "on paper," it looks pretty compelling with well over 100 instrument sounds, rhythms, and accompaniments, along with nice audio & USB/MIDI connectivity features including Bluetooth, 128-note piano polyphony, multi-track MIDI recording, and a fairly large internal speaker system. But just for a minute let's put aside these "bells & whistles" and concentrate on the fundamentals of any piano and that is...key action, piano sound authenticity, dynamics, & response, and pedaling. Without having good, solid, realistic piano fundamentals, the rest of what the piano can do and how it looks is, in my opinion, meaningless and a waste of time & money. Unfortunately that is the case with the new Williams Grand micro digital piano. The key action is quite light and not like real piano weighted keys at all. Yes, the key weight of this action is better than a spring triggered keyboard action, but as compared to a real upright or grand acoustic piano key action, it comes nowhere close to them nor does it come close to any new 88-key digital piano by Roland, Casio, Kawai, or Yamaha at any price range, even down to $300. Unfortunately the Williams key action is especially clunky/noisy when the white keys are moving down especially when playing harder with a bit more force. The black keys are very noisy/plasticky sounding nearly all the time when moving up & down. In other words, this is another one of those "cheap" key actions in my opinion, and I have played a few different Williams Symphony Grand's and they are all the same so it's an inherent issue within the key action. If you are playing the piano at full volume it is unlikely you'll hear the key noise, but if you are playing it at 50% volume or less, or wearing headphones, then the key action clunkiness and noise will become apparent. This is a tell-tale sign of the key action being designed and built in China and not something of quality. However, just because products are built in China does not mean they are bad and some are actually very good. But you generally don't get something for nothing and this model is a lot of "flash" but in the end it's a big letdown in terms of a real piano playing experience. So when it comes to the poor build/component quality of this key action, for this reason alone I would not own or recommend this model...regardless of all the other "cool" things it can do. By the way, if you happen to see any demo videos on-line of a good piano player playing this model and the piano sounds good to you, it's important to understand that a great piano player can make almost any piano sound good, regardless of how poorly it actually plays. As a pro player I have done this myself as have my pro player friends over the years. So don't believe everything you see and hear because sometimes it's just "smoke & mirrors." When it's your money that's buying it then just be extra careful.

Now we move on to the piano sound. This is a fairly complex area of reproducing (in a digital piano) what normally occurs in a real piano. It is done with piano sampling put into computer chips along with key sensors underneath each key to sense the key moment so a sound can be reproduced depending on where the key is located as it is going up & down. In real acoustic pianos there are tonal and volume dynamics and how the sound moves from mellow to bright and soft to loud as the key is being struck and played fast to slow. The piano sound is supposed to have "expression": and the ability to change tonal color when playing the keys at different velocities or finger pressure. The piano sound should also be relatively the same tone in brightness or mellowness when moving from one key to the next along with natural and even volume changes. The Symphony grand fails in these areas of sound and this is true for all of the Symphony pianos I have recently played. It's true that there are a number of different piano sounds available in the Symphony, but each of those sounds should fall under the same standards of consistency, which they don't. The piano sound is highly inconsistent when playing from one key to the next with one key being quieter and the next key being noticeably louder when playing with the exact same finger pressure. This is NOT what anyone wants and is especially bad for piano students who are trying to learn proper dynamics and finger pressure on the keys. Also when moving from one key to the next, occasionally one note might be quite mellow and the next note quite bright and noticeably different than the notes around it. This is NOT what a real piano does nor is it anything you would ever want any piano to do...and yet it happens frequently on a number of keys/notes of the Williams Grand. So don't be fooled by the pretty grand piano picture in the color display screen...the Williams digital grand does not act like a real grand piano at all...at least none that I have ever played.

The dynamic tonal range of real pianos allows each key/note to be mellower (softer in tone) when you are gently playing the key and then that note (string inside a real piano) starts to brighten up as you play the key a bit harder with more finger strength and the tone continues to be more expressive and gets brighter & brighter as you play the key harder and harder. You are NOT supposed to hear big, noticeable jumps in piano tonal dynamics but instead you are supposed to hear subtle and smooth changes in the piano tone when playing a key at different velocities and finger pressure. This is yet another area where the Williams piano sound/key action is of poor quality and realism. First of all, the dynamic tonal range in the Williams Grand is quite compressed and small without a lot of change from mellow to bright piano sound when playing a key, and this causes unnatural musical  expression. Without the ability of the piano to allow for good expression, your music will not sound the way it was intended to be. To make matters worse, when the tone does change while playing a key at different velocities (speeds), the tonal changes you hear are noticeably abrupt and not even or smooth and that issue also makes it more difficult to be naturally expressive in your music. There are also some strange anomalies in the key action/sound when you are playing the keys with more force or aggressiveness when the song calls for that kind of playing. Finally, as I played more advanced music on the Williams Grand, when playing with faster key repetition occasionally some of the notes did not trigger (being heard) the piano sound and this is likely due to poor quality key contacts under the keys based on my previous experience with these things.

Basically there are soooo many negative issues with the piano key action and piano sound that anything else the piano does well is of little value to me including the physical beauty of the piano itself. For people who are beginners, are not taking lessons, or who are not experienced with how real pianos actually play and behave, then maybe you won't notice these issues and will be happy with this model...and that's entirely possible....sometimes ignorance is bliss:). But, in my opinion, there really is little excuse for ignorance when spending this much money for a digital piano instrument and thinking you are getting something for nothing as I mentioned earlier. The pedaling on this piano is also basic but there are 3 pedals and they do work OK. However, there is no half-damper sustain control (or re-pedaling), and the sustain decay is relatively short as compared to other digital pianos in this price range. Piano pedaling features and abilities are a more difficult area of piano fundamentals to understand, although they are important especially as you progress in your piano playing skills. All of the top name brand digital pianos have much more authentic and improved pedal functions and abilities in this price range. However, those models are all vertical upright style and not in a mini grand cabinet. It's almost always a choice between beauty of the cabinet vs actual function when it comes to this price range and certainly the Williams Symphony has the beauty but it definitely does not have the "function" for what really counts.

OK, OK...I know many of you will say "Tim is being overly negative about this piano and it cannot be that bad? Well...you would be wrong if you said that. I have nothing against the Williams brand or their pianos, but when it comes to the musical satisfaction of piano students and players to properly (at minimum) play a song and have it come out right and actually sound and respond like a piano, I am quite concerned about that and not concerned about how "pretty" the cabinet is (yes it is), or what a low price the piano has, or all of the "fun features" you can get on the piano. You absolutely have to start off with a new digital piano that will be a "good piano" in terms of playing any kind of piano music in a way that sounds great (to you) and allows for realistic expression from one key to the next and within each note, good dynamic tone & volume change, and overall playability. This is what is important to me and if it's is important to you then in my opinion you should pass on this model and either spend the same or less money on a vertical/upright style digital piano from the major brands, or spend more money on a better digital grand piano.

Now...on to the digital features. The Williams Symphony Grand micro digital piano has an impressive color LCD screen with lots of information on it. It is not a "touch screen" but operates by pressing buttons below and to the side of it. The control panel itself has a blue back-lit dial controller on it which allows for easier control of the sounds, rhythms, and other digital features and it works quite well in accessing the features. In terms of instrument sounds, the Williams Grand has 174 of them including pianos, electric pianos, organs, strings, brass, woodwinds, guitars, special sound effects, and a variety of other instrument tones. Some of the instrument sounds are realistic and others are not. The piano sampled sounds overall are good although they are a little thin sounding, but they suffer from the many inconsistencies and issues I have previously mentioned. The control panel buttons and LCD screen displays actual pictures of instrument categories so that you can see the type of instrument you are selecting within that category. The screen is actually pretty cool to look at and a better digital display screen than many other digital pianos in this price range. So when it comes to using the functions and accessing instrument sounds, it's pretty easy to do and everything is right in front of you...although some people prefer their digital grands to be a bit more understated and minimalistic with the buttons, knobs, wheels, and sliders on the control panel. It just depends on what is important to you.

As for auto accompaniment features, this piano has a lot of them. There are 120 different rhythm accompaniment patterns which allows you to play along with different drum rhythms including rock, jazz, Latin, country, swing, waltz, country and many other music styles. Auto-accompaniments add the music backgrounds to these rhythm patterns that allow you to play a left-hand chord and have a one man band playing along while you just play chord progressions or arrangements. So whether yo are a beginner or a pro, playing along with ensemble auto-accompaniments is fun and it makes you sound better than you are. The downside of this feature on the Williams Grand is that many of the rhythm arrangements are pretty bad. Yes, there are some auto-accompaniments that sound musically correct and are fun to play along with. But there are many others including the drum fill-ins and variations that have noticeable hesitations when they play and are out of sync with the musical arrangements and they just sound like a kid's toy. I have heard much better rhythms and musical arrangements in cheap priced new keyboards under $200 by Yamaha & Casio. In other words, even though this Williams piano has these features, overall they just aren't very good ad at the very least they are nothing special. The result is that on some of these styles they just don't play evenly, are noticeably clunky and out of step with the tempo, and there are things that just shouldn't be happening when the arrangements styles are playing. I would call it poor electronics or poor software and I would hope that Williams would try to get this upgraded and fixed because it shows just how little quality control went into this part of the piano.

Other features on this piano include the ability to layer two sounds together at one time such as piano & strings, organ & harpsichord, etc, splitting two instrument sounds with one on the left hand and one on the right hand, a digital metronome WITH tempo speed control for use when learning a new song and needing help with keeping the proper rhythm and timing, a 4-track digital MIDI recorder to record what you are playing and then play it back later, and a transpose feature so that you can play in any key when you digital change that key with by modulating or transposing it electronically. So the Williams Symphony is certainly not lacking in digital features and they are fairly easy to access.

The Symphony grand can also play back General MIDI song files off a USB flash drive which is nice to have and can make it fun to learn songs but there are limitations to this feature that other General MIDI systems don't have. The piano has an audio input jack so that you can run an external audio device through the piano speaker system to hear songs and play along with them. There are also audio output jacks so that you can connect this piano to an external audio speaker system which is nice. A Bluetooth MIDI feature is built in to allow for connecting external USB/MIDI devices such as iPad to the piano with the need for cable connections. Bluetooth is definitely the way to go but connectivity isn't always guaranteed because of the wireless component of the connectivity which can drop out from time to time based on my experience with Bluetooth on some digital pianos. Regardless, you can always connect a USB cable if you need to do that and then it connects well. The more cool features there are on a digital piano, the compelling that piano can be to own. But I believe a person must ask themselves "what am I willing to sacrifice to get the extra features?" That always needs to be the question, especially if you are interesting in getting the best possible and most realistic piano playing experience in your price range.

The piano cabinet comes in a shiny polished ebony and measures about 30" from front to back and is considered a "micro" digital grand piano in size and form. The inside of the cabinet under the lid is wood tone so it contrasts nicely with the polished ebony finish. The cabinet also has a nice music rack to support the music and a sliding key cover that closes over the keys. It has a lid that props up into place which looks good, 3 piano legs with brass trim at the bottom of the legs, a full 3-pedal lyre, and the piano comes with a matching bench. There are 6 speakers built into the piano and the overall piano volume is sufficient and loud enough for most applications. So when it comes to cabinet design, cabinet function, color, and internal sound system, Williams has done a good job but unfortunately this model only has a 1 year parts and labor warranty for repair or replacement. Although no one anticipates problems with digital pianos, 1 year is certainly not very long and I would have much preferred to see at least 3 years or more for a factory warranty, especially given the poorly designed key action and the possibility of it having problems down the road based on my prior experience with poorly built & noisy key actions designed and made in China.

The bottom line is...you normally get what you pay for and this is definitely true with the Williams Symphony Grand digital piano. For a selling price of $1499, it seems like a great deal for what it appears you will be getting, but is it really? What you actually have here is an attractive fun music toy and not much more than that. For the uninitiated and easy-to-please crowd, the Symphony may be the perfect piano for you if this is what you are looking for and are not a discriminating person when wanting an instrument which plays like a real piano, because this model just doesn't cut it in that way. If I could, I would rather pull the electronics and key action out of the Symphony cabinet and replace it with a new 88-key top name portable digital piano for about $800 like a Casio CGP700, and then stick that keyboard into the Williams Symphony...then you would be getting a very realistic piano playing experience that you would expect to have along with even better digital features. But unfortunately, this is not something which can be done. The Williams Symphony is what it is...a PSO...Piano Shaped Object that has bells & whistles" all over it but the piano playing experience is poorly executed in my opinion and some the other digital instrument and rhythm features are quite archaic at best and not even up to what you can get in some new $200-$300 keyboards. That's why I do not recommend it.

If you like the new Williams Symphony, regardless of what I have said, then buy it...it's your money and it may indeed make you happy particularly if you are a beginner and don't don't what a piano is supposed to play or sound like. One of the big things I have noticed when it comes to deciding on which piano to buy is that sometimes there will be some great piano player doing a video/YouTube of these pianos and those piano players make these pianos sound really good. That's actually pretty easy to do because a person who plays really well can make ANY piano sound good, no matter how bad that acoustic or digital piano may be otherwise. I can do it too and know what it's like. So if you see any video demos of this piano or similar digital pianos where there is someone playing really well on these instruments and making them sound good...don't get sucked into believing that what you hear is "reality" because in some cases it is not. When a good piano is played, anyone who has real piano playing experience can tell right away if the digital piano plays good (properly with good expression, dynamics, etc) or not. The only reason a skilled pianist would own this piano in my opinion is because of other reasons and not because they are getting a good piano playing experience.

There is a reason why other high quality smaller digital mini grand pianos cost approx $2500US and up at discount price. Even the lowest price Yamaha digital 3'9" digital mini-grand costs approx $5000US discount price and that's the least expensive one they have. The 2'11" Samick digital mini grand SG110 costs about $3000US at discount price. They both use much higher quality key actions that actually work well, have much better, even dynamic range of tone and everything just sounds much more realistic as compared to what you get in a digital grand for under $2000. When it comes to getting a good playing piano, the Williams Symphony micro grand is not $1499US for no reason. When you sacrifice piano playing quality and realism to get a low price, then the buyer needs to beware what they are losing for spending a lot less money. In my opinion, on the Symphony Grand, you would be losing way too much in a quest of having an attractive ebony gloss micro-grand cabinet, some fun features, and built-in color display screen. If you are buying an instrument for a piano student, then in my opinion you are sacrificing their ability to play the piano correctly and learn proper technique and expression (important stuff) just to get a low priced good looking cabinet that fits in a nice corner of the home and does some cool things. Can a person "learn to play" on this piano or have a good time? Yes...they definitely can. But it's never going to be anywhere close to how a real piano sounds or plays and if that's important to you, then I recommend you focus on the "engine & transmission" of this vehicle and not the attractive exterior and cool interior colors and digital dashboard...if you get my meaning:). It's up to you as to what's most important in making the right buying decision that will accommodate your musical needs and desires. Do your homework & research and then contact me for more info or questions.

If you want more info on new digital pianos and LOWER PRICES than internet discounts, please email me at tim@azpianowholesale.com or call direct at 602-571-1864.

* I recommend eMedia educational software. If you decide to make a purchase after clicking on link below, I have arranged a big discount for you direct with eMedia for their educational software and that discount price is displayed through this link only! I want to see everyone learn to play and enjoy piano!

2 comments:

  1. What about Artesia AG-28 Micro Grand Digital Piano

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    1. I have done a review of that model. Go to the following link: https://azpianonews.blogspot.com/2014/10/Artesia-AG28-Artesia-AG40-REVIEW-Digital-Grand-Pianos-Costco.html

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