BösendorferLike all of the four titans I will discuss, Bösendorfer begins with very high-quality, premium-grade materials. There really is no other way to produce great instruments.
The design is very unique, probably the most unique of any piano in this quality range. Unlike other pianos, Bösendorfer uses soft soundboard material (spruce) on the outer rim, where other manufacturers use a harder wood for stability and projection. The Bösendorfer was designed this way to produce a very different tone. Also, because they use softer sound producing material in the rim, Bösendorfers are more susceptible to finish problems after 15 or so years. Spruce tends to have knots which can puncture the finish after a period of time and produce surface fissures and damage. This is very common, but does not affect the tone of the piano, only the aesthetics.
Those who like the original Bösendorfer sound might describe it as warmer or darker, somewhat subdued, and in the smaller sizes demure. In the factory, we would affectionately refer to this tone as Viennese "schmaltz". Very romantic, very warm, very mellow. Pianists who understand the "raison d'etre" of the original sound found it very romantic and warm – "schmaltzy" yes, but in an uncommonly beautiful way. Those however who either don't understand the concept, or do not connect with this sound might describe it as muddy, muffled, or too subdued. Critics would often say that it has a real problem projecting into larger concert halls, especially when trying to compete with an orchestra and lacks the sustain of some other instruments; a criticism that I think is warranted. Also, some feel that on the larger sizes there is an imbalance of tone between the bass and treble. This I personally do not agree with, but I understand the rationale behind the criticism. There were also many pianists who were more used to the Steinway tone and touch that had a problem getting what they wanted to out of the instrument. I have heard several pianists express concerns over the slowness or sluggishness of the action (mainly repetition) compared to some other instruments in this class. These comments I believe are warranted. I would say that if Bösendorfer has an Achilles heel, the action and sustain would be the two biggest vulnerabilities.
One strong criticism I have is the tone of the more recent Bösendorfers that I have worked on. It seems that there is now a shift at the factory to create a brighter more percussive tone compared to the original. Personally, I don't think it suits the design of the instrument, and deviates from the very qualities that differentiated this piano from others and that it has been historically famous for. Although the original tone may not have appealed to the majority of artists and high-end buyers, there was no question it was a Bösendorfer. As the saying goes, "Those who like it like it a lot". Maybe I'm too emotionally connected to the original or too much of a traditionalist. However, my opinion is that if you want a piano that projects and/or has a clearer, more singing tone (long sustain), there are others that do a better job in that department.
The last area is stability in a harsh climate. I find Bösendorfers a bit more finicky to maintain and keep stable. I recommend that with this piano (as well as any other fine instrument) in order to reach the instrument's full potential, you'll need to find and build a relationship with an individual technician, not just a store, who has had ample experience with and completely understands the nature of the specific brand that you are purchasing. He or she should be totally experienced and qualified with the specifications and idiosyncrasies of that particular line. I can't stress this enough. By the way, this is not a subtle solicitation for work. I am presently not accepting new clients, as I have more than I can actually handle. I also strongly recommend that along with finding the "right" technician, putting aside a reasonable budget to keep it tuned, maintained and pampered to extend the life and enjoyment of the instrument is an extremely good insurance policy to protect the investment.