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Hamburg Steinway vs New York Steinway

Sometimes customers inquire about the differences between Steinways made in Hamburg, Germany and those made in New York, USA.

One Website visitor pointed out a difference in finish:

“… the New York finish is a nitrocellulose lacquer finish and the Hamburg finish is an MEKP initiated/cobalt promoted Polyester.”

On an Internet piano forum I ran across this post by someone who goes by the name “Pianobroker” on February 20th:

Upon receiving my brand spanking new Hamburg Steinway B & A. I gotta say these make new N.Y. Steinways look and sound quite inferior.The attention to detail is night and day between the two. The obvious cosmetic differences that I see that aren’t acknowledged on the technical data Steinway website are;

  • Intense prep as for prepping the harp prior to guilding.
  • Industrial chrome plated duplex scale bars,plate bolts and nose bolt caps
  • Meticulous prep as for the polyester finish(extra thick)Meticulous fit as for case parts
  • Aluminum trap work levels
  • Aluminum pedal lyre plate
  • Sostenuto installed on the belly rail
  • Perfect string coils
  • #1 tuning pins (European standard)
  • Complete Renner action stack including back checks,let off buttons etc.
  • Recessed cheek block screws
  • Under carriage of piano painted in black satin polyester
  • Precision soundboard fit. No need for quarteround on the straight side.
  • Allenhead screw security leg locks
  • Robust brass casters
  • Triple lid prop in black satin polyester
  • Mahogany veneered inner rim
  • Adjustable music desk /leather trim
  • Superior German plastic keytops

Attention to detail is overwhelming. The soundboard,beams,keybed from underneath manufacture are performed with meticulous precision. Maybe later with more time and assistance.I can assess the structural and scale differences between the two.

As for sound I gotta say the Hamburg Steinways are well worth the extra premium if $ is no object and the sound floats your boat No lack of power,sustain or dynamic response in either Hamburg mdl.In some respects the Hamburg Steinway is moving toward a higher automotive standard.

From the New York Times:

Steinways With German Accents; Pianos Made in Queens Have Cousins in Hamburg

Published: August 27, 2003

In 1850, when Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg left for New York and changed his name to Henry E. Steinway, four of his five sons immigrated with him.

The fifth, C. F. Theodor Steinway, stayed behind. He hated America — ”that land of iniquity” with its unbearable weather and uncouth concertgoers. So when his father and brothers started a piano company in New York, Theodor, the technical genius of the family, sent his ideas for improving the instruments via trans-Atlantic mail.

He moved to New York in 1865, but went back to Germany regularly until 1880, when he went back for good. He opened the company’s second plant here.

It was part laboratory, part factory. While he tinkered with new sounding boards and rims, workers manufactured pianos according to the same designs used at the factory in Astoria, Queens — instruments that, because of his innovations, gave Steinways the big, bright sound that defined the modern piano.

Steinway & Sons still makes pianos here. But they are a bit different from their American cousins. Many pianists maintain that Hamburg Steinways tend to sound lusher, warmer and somehow smaller than Steinways from New York.

So there is not one Steinway sound, but two.

When concert grand No. K0862 was being trimmed in the casemaking department of the factory in Queens in June, it took on characteristics that marked it as a New Yorker forever. What would be different if it were being made in Germany? What does the Hamburg factory do differently?

The factory looks like the one in Queens — a cluster of red-brick buildings. But the Hamburg factory — whose windows were blown out in an Allied bombing raid during World War II — today is smaller, brighter and cleaner. It also continues C. F. Theodor’s laboratory tradition. Much of the precision cutting and drilling machinery installed in the Astoria plant was tried in Hamburg first.

For years, especially when Steinway was owned by CBS in the 1970’s and 1980’s, the company resisted acknowledging that New York Steinways and Hamburg Steinways were different. ”Under the reign of CBS,” said Werner Husmann, a vice president who has worked for Steinway in Hamburg for 35 years, ”we had to say we’re the same.” Now, seven years after new owners took the company public, ”at least it’s allowed that we sound different,” Mr. Husmann said.

There are pianists who prefer a Hamburg Steinway. The workmanship is better, they maintain. ”It’s like an upgraded American Steinway, and there’s nothing to sneeze at in the American Steinway,” said the pianist and arranger Wally Harper. Hamburg Steinways, he said, ”seem to be more sensitive and have a wider range of dynamics.”

But the pianist Jeffrey Siegel said the difference was more in the touch than in the sound. ”I’m not so sure anymore that one can generalize about the tonal quality,” he said.

Emanuel Ax said that Hamburg Steinways were once ”more consistent” than New York Steinways. Now, like Mr. Siegel, he said the differences have more to do with individual instruments than with where they were made.

”My impression is the whole operation has become more connected in the last few years,” Mr. Ax said. ”I really like it, because from my point of view, I think we’re starting to get the best of both worlds.”

Alfred Brendel performs on a Hamburg Steinway in Europe and a New York Steinway in America — and sends Steinway executives handwritten critiques of both, they say. So, some Steinways are delightful and some can be disappointing, no matter which factory they come from.

An Ocean Apart, Yet Close

They may still sound different, but Steinway officials say New York Steinways and Hamburg Steinways are more similar than they have ever been. High-level managers from the Queens factory say they confer with their Hamburg counterparts more often than ever. That closeness is recent, though. The chief technician at the Hamburg factory, Gerde Fründ, has worked there since 1958. But not until four years ago did the company pay his way to Queens so he could meet his American counterparts.

Bruce A. Stevens, the president of Steinway & Sons, says he is not worried that some customers may find Hamburg Steinways superior to New York Steinways. ”When people ask which is the better piano, I say, ‘We have the No. 1 and the No. 2,’ ” he said, without specifying which he considers first and which second.

Mr. Husmann added, ”We are in a position to provide people with the piano they like.”

Hamburg Steinways cost more in the United States than New York Steinways. A Hamburg concert grand sells for about $97,800, roughly $5,000 more than a comparable New York Steinway like No. K0862. ”What we try to do is keep it on parity,” said Frank M. Mazurco, Steinway’s executive vice president, ”because the exchange rate plays games with products like this.”

Sharp Corners, or Rounded?

One difference between a New York Steinway and a Hamburg Steinway is recognizable from the outside: the shape of the arms, the part of the case at either end of the keyboard.

On a New York Steinway, the curve of the arm ends in a sharp corner — a Sheraton arm, named for Thomas Sheraton, the 18th-century furniture designer. On a Hamburg Steinway, the edge is rounded.

Once, New York Steinways had rounded arms, too. Mr. Mazurco says the New York factory switched to the Sheraton arm around 1910. ”Obviously, somebody said, ‘Guys, furniture styles have changed, we need to adapt,’ ” he said. ”New York adapted. In Hamburg, they said, ‘That’s not happening in Europe.’ They kept the design the way it was. And later, when the Japanese entered the market, they started with rounded arms, like Europe. It’s New York that’s standing unique in the architecture.”

Cutting the arms gives a piano an unmistakable identity. The laminated rim of No. K0862 got its New York look on a sunny morning in June, a couple of weeks after it was wheeled out of the hot, dry room where it had spent 69 days aging so it would never pop out of shape.

The cutting was done with a machine operated by Louis Auguste, who was born near Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic and arrived in this country in 1970. He was hired at Steinway five years later.

”My father was a cabinetmaker,” he said after guiding the noisy, fast-moving blade around the edge of the rim. ”My grandfather was a cabinetmaker. My girlfriend is a cabinetmaker. I’ve been doing this since I was 7.”

Since late last year, his counterpart in Hamburg has been a machine. The rounded arms of Hamburg Steinways are now shaped by a robotic device that does its work alone: once the workers have moved the rim into place on a cutting table, they step outside and shut the door.

On a Tuesday morning a couple of weeks after Mr. Auguste cut the arms on No. K0862, two of his bosses stood in the Hamburg plant, watching through a plastic window and marveling at the speed and precision of the machine. ”This is a more refined process,” said Andrew Horbachevsky, the manufacturing director of the Queens plant. ”We’re pretty primitive.”

Will a similar machine be coming soon to Mr. Auguste’s corner of the factory? ”Whether we go in with this is a question,” Mr. Horbachevsky said. ”But you’ve got to be impressed.”

The arms are not the only clue that a Steinway was made in New York or Hamburg. Just inside the lid is another marker.

The Hamburg factory still uses reddish African mahogany for one layer of the rim, the layer that ends up next to the piano’s sounding board and the cast iron plate that holds the strings. In New York Steinways, that last layer has long been made of maple and spray-painted black with the rest of the case. The mahogany is ”a marketing question,” Mr. Husmann said.

Other differences between the way No. K0862 is being made and the way Hamburg Steinways are made became clear during two days at the Hamburg plant.

The first big step in the making of a piano — bending the rim — took the same amount of time here as in Astoria: 14 minutes. But in Hamburg the job was done by three workers, plus a foreman. In Astoria, it takes six or seven, plus a foreman.

The managers of the Hamburg factory said they did not need as large a crew because, after gluing the strips of wood together, their workers load the slabs onto carts and roll them to the rim-bending machine. In Queens, the workers carry the 340-pound slabs from the gluing machine to the rim-bending device.

”You don’t need those big guys carrying it around,” Mr. Husmann said.

And where the Queens rim-benders use long-handled levers to shove the rim wood into place, members of the Hamburg team wheel in a machine with a hydraulic arm that did some of the work without grunting, groaning or sweating.

Are human hands better than hydraulic arms when it comes to driving wood into place? ”We hear people talking,” Mr. Husmann said. ” ‘Steinway hates machines.’ ‘Steinway loves machines.’ ‘What is your relationship to machines?’ It’s simple. A machine has to provide an increase in quality. We are not the people who believe we can do everything with machines. We do 85 percent by hand.”

Questions of Supply

Like the Queens factory, Hamburg has a lumberyard where wood sits, aging.

The Hamburg factory uses much of the same wood as the Queens factory — maple from the Pacific Northwest for the rims, spruce from Alaska for the sounding boards. The strips that will be glued together in Hamburg are cut, packed and shipped in Queens.

Until the 1990’s, Hamburg used European beech in the rims and Bavarian spruce in the sounding boards. Both became scarce, and Steinway officials say they decided that a reliable supply mattered more than the price. The maple costs a third more than the beech did, Mr. Husmann said.

The cast-iron plates now come from the same Ohio foundry as the plates that go into New York Steinways. The German platemaker that the Hamburg factory once relied on — which also made plumbing pipes — went bankrupt, Mr. Husmann said.

Hammers and Felt

One arm is pointed, the other is curved. One inner rim is brown, the other black. Two more major differences between a New York Steinway like No. K0862 and a Hamburg Steinway are deeper inside.

One is the action — the sensitive, see-saw mechanism inside the piano that drives a hammer toward its string when a pianist hits a key. The action is as complicated as a Rube Goldberg machine, and exists to do one crucial job: translate the touch of the pianist into motion. It converts the delicateness of Debussy or the explosiveness of Shostakovich into what the audience hears.

The other difference, Steinway says, is the hammers themselves.

On a New York Steinway, the action and the hammers are made at the factory by Steinway workers. On a Hamburg Steinway, both parts are bought from subcontractors who follow Steinway’s specifications. (Mr. Mazurco, the executive vice president, says the union contract that covers the New York plant does not dictate staffing levels.)

Pianists who prefer Hamburg Steinways, like Wally Harper, maintain that their action is more responsive than the action in New York Steinways. Steinway says the difference in the hammers matters more.

In Hamburg, Steinway uses hammers with hard felt, and the workers make them softer with needles and sandpaper. In New York, Steinway uses hammers with softer felt, and the workers make them harder by painting a gooey solution onto the head of each hammer. The solution, lacquer and lacquer thinners, adds strength, and that increases the volume and brightness of the sound.

”This is a process that takes longer,” Mr. Husmann said. ”We shape it to the right shape, voice it, listen to it.”

In a soundproof room here at the Hamburg factory, Erich Lagemann spends seven hours a day sanding the tops of hammers to just the right shape. Then he slides the action into the piano, playing a few chords and then sliding it out for more work. It is more or less what Mr. Fründ, the chief technician, does if he does not like the sound or the touch after each piano has gone through seven tunings.

”The fit and finish, I think, is a little better here,” he said.

He paused. He did not want that to sound like a put-down of New York Steinways or the workers who make them. The only thing that matters, he said, is the final result, the sound.

”New York is O.K.,” he said, ”and this is O.K.”

Invention for 900 Hands

It is something of a mystery. The same 450 workers bend and shape the wood the same way. The sounding boards are made to the same specifications. The strings and pins, hammers and keys — there should be no variation.

Yet every piano that Steinway & Sons produces has a unique sound. Some are modest, some monumental. And no one knows exactly why.

12 Responses to Hamburg Steinway vs New York Steinway

  • To Whom It May Concern,
    I had heard that Hamburg Steinways were no longer being sold in this country because when heard, the two pianos side by side, they would always pick the Hamburg Steinway.
    I could not understand why. So, for the longest time, I wanted to hear a Hamburg Steinway piano. But I have to digress for just a moment.
    I later heard that a Bosendorfer piano sang and that it was the only piano that did that. What did that mean?
    Then one day I went to a concert in Boston, Ma at the New England conservatory hall. There they had a concert with two pianos for a four handed piano piece to be played. One was an American Concert D Steinway and the other was a Hamburg Concert D Steinway piano. Immediately I could see the difference as the shiny lacquer stood out on the Hamburg Steinway. Now I was going to listen to the difference.
    When the pianists started to play, I could immediately tell the difference as to which piano was being played. I also understood what was meant by the expression that a Bosendorfer piano sings because that’s exactly what the Hamburg Concert D Steinway was doing. IT HAD REVERB TO THE SOUND!!!!!!
    Having played in a rock’nroll band, the guys use reverb in their guitar amps and that reverb sound was exactly what I was hearing in the Hamburg Steinway.
    It added a fluid-like ringing sound to the music which made it more enjoyable to listen to. I theorized that it had to be in the design of the Hamburg piano rim.
    Not that there was anything wrong with the sound from the American Steinway, as it was in perfect tune, but the sound from the American Steinway sounded “flat” with no moisture to it in comparison to the Hamburg Steinway, which WAS much more enjoyable to listen to. The ringing sound of the Hamburg Steinway permeated through the hall unlike the sound of the American Steinway. It just seemed to stay there on the stage.
    Having said all that, the four-handed piano concert was fabulous and the crowd gave a standing ovation for both girl’s performance and both Steinways, when all was said and done, did a great job performing themselves.

    • My guess is that it was a difference in the way the two pianos were voiced, particularly good string voicing rather than just hammer voicing will affect the resonance of the piano. If I had the two pianos side by side, more than likely I could make them both sound the same – just my opinion. Very few piano technicians string voice pianos, but it is something they do in the factory.

  • There is a lot of confusion about pianos. Perhaps this will help.

    Firstly, when a piano is made it is like an adolescent. It has its own character, and much potential. But, it is still a work in progress. Just like adolescents need the care and love of adults to ensure development to maturity, so does a piano need a good technician, and time and money must be spent so the piano can gradually be brought to its ideal state. Careful tuning, voicing and regulation are needed, again and again until the piano’s potential is fully realized.

    Sadly, most owners have neither the understanding, funds, or patience to bring their pianos to this point.

    The main difference between the Hamburg and New York Steinways are the hammers. The former start harder and must be needled to get the tone, while the New York starts with soft hammers and is then doped with lacquer to give hardness, and then needled. Neither system is superior, but simply two different ways to approach tone.

    The technician is far more important than the manufacturing approach. For that very reason, Franz Mohr had to be travelled everywhere with Horowitz to maintain his beloved Steinway,
    Horowitz needed Mohr as much as the piano.

    Finally, many say the Hamburg Steinway is superior.

    I generally prefer the New York version which seems to have more depth and colour of tone. But again, the technician is the key, as a good one can change the tone of any instrument. And each piano is slightly different, and every top maker produces good ones.

    • Hi Ken, From S. Africa, I want to agree that the NY model D (a good one) allows more colour than the Hamburg one. For the past 20 years or so, to my ear, the Hamburgs have sounded very raucous and ugly, especially in the range about an octave down from middle C. They’re nice when playing softly but this ringing sound is more pronounced and with an ugly colour. I actually dislike the sound intensely. Older Hamburg Ds are lovely but have no bass. The American bass has an incomparable growl or snarl to it. I feel that the NY D sound comes from the stomach, whereas the Hamburg is like a voice coming from higher up and reinforced with clangorous hammers. Maybe Hamburg is more consistent, but a good NY D is fabulous – especially older ones if they haven’t lost their sustain. I thought the hammers on both on the video were noisy in the accompaniment passages of the Schubert G flat impromptu; the Hamburg did sustain more, but maybe the pianist made it sustain more. Try Sciabin D sharp minor etude from Op 8 and the NY piano will knock the hell out of the Hamburg – yet it’s still good for Schubert.

  • I just read and re-read this information on the differences between a Hamburg and New York built Steinway. I just purchased a Model M from a store in Portand and didn’t know enough to ask about why it said Steinway Hamburg on it. I am having troubles with it that I hope it can be resolved with tuning and looked at by the Steinway technician soon. The keys are not responding well and the touch too hard. Also the movers screwed up the pedal. They told the store they probably knocked the pedal part loose. Hope these things are fixable. Should I be happy about the piano?? Would I be happier with one made in New York like I THOUGHT I was getting? What should I do?. I paid a lot for it.


    • I am so sorry, but I can’t be of much help without seeing the piano in person and discussing the issues. Hopefully your technician can help. It might just need some regulation and some tender loving care by your local piano technician.

  • After more than forty years as a recording engineer, I have worked with New-York and Hamburg Steinways, Baldwyns,Yamahas, Fazioli’s, Bosendorfer’s, Kawai’s, all of them concert grands, and I have seen ferocious debates as to which is best. Personnaly I think each pianist likes one instrument in particular for each specific type of music. In recording studios for example, popular music pianists prefer the Yamaha for it’s clarity, but all classic pianists have personal preferences.

    Michel Ethier

  • Interesting points about New York v Hamburg Steinway.
    Without doubt the New York Steinway produces a greater colour variation in tone. The Hamburg always is brighter and really is compromised by it’s significantly brighter hammers. The great artists always use the Una-Corda pedal to assist in producing tonal colour variations. Interesting to remember, Horowitz only played Steinway, a New York Steinway, and he especially in his later years made fabulously colorful recordings of the most delcicous sounds; full of cantabile tone.

  • While one can always claim personal preference as a justification for either the Hamburg or New York Steinway D as the better piano, having just played a superb Hamburg instrument at our flagship Public Radio station here in Boston, that piano was simply beyond compare, in terms of its senstivity to touch, tonal balance, and superlative bass register. I have owned a New York D, and at least on this limited basis of comparison, it’s “no contest” for me. A truly remarkable musical experience, which one day, I hope to own myself.

    • As a follow up to my original post, I just returned from Europe, having had the chance to play two new Hamburg D’s, one in Vienna and the second in London. My original impressions have simply been further reinforced. These are instruments that respond to and support even the amateur musician. The incredibly sensitive action allows the widest range of dynamics. I never heard a harsh sound or “clangorous” tone. Moreover, the bass was solid and free of annoying overtones. Overall, if one could afford one of these instruments, there’s simply no comparison, in my opinion.

  • Thank God for both Steinways. I cannot imagine music without them, although I doubt if I could distinguish the sound of one from the other. The differences, if any, probably matter more to those people who play them than to those who only listen to them.

    I really wish that Steinway would see fit to produce a Hamburg version of “Note by Note.”

    • I agree. I just received the new edition of “Note by Note” with the musician interviews. It was worth the purchase. I traded in my 1999 Steinway B last year for a rebuilt 1922 Steinway M. The rebuilt piano, although much smaller, is simply a more beautifully sounding instrument with full rounded tones and a sweet touch. It has a new Steinway action but the original soundboard. The original soundboard is the only thing I can point to for its superior sound quality. At 74 I can truly say that I have never played a more perfect piano and thank God every day for leading me to it.

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