I've worked at a retail piano store for a little over a year, so I've been fortunate enough to be present while families and musicians go through the process of buying a new piano.
First of all, pianos are very personal. There are wood colored pianos, ebony, high polish, matte, grand pianos, verticals (also called upright pianos) hybrid pianos and digital pianos. There are very bright sounding pianos, and very mellow pianos, hand crafted instruments from Europe, and mass-production pianos from the booming economies of Asia. There are as many varieties of pianos as there are unique personalities that need one.
So where do you start? First, consider why you are getting a piano, and be ready to answer this question if you are planning to visit a retail store. Are you a performer, piano teacher, or a venue? You will likely be concerned most with the quality of the sound or reliability of the instrument. If the piano is for a beginner, you may look at discount upright pianos or digitals that can peak the interest of a young child. And to those buyers, don't look for discount grand pianos. To me, it seems that there is no such thing as a discount grand. There are certain expectations from a baby grand piano, and in order to get anything of quality, you will likely spend as much or more on a discounted baby grand than a brand new upright piano from a reputable company.
Next, consider space. Do you have a parlor or music room that can fit a grand piano? Well, how big is a piano? Most pianos, grand or upright, are roughly five feet wide. Modern baby grands are also about five feet long from the front of the keyboard to the back of the tail. A parlor grand is about six feet long and this is the size where a significant increase in sound quality occurs. The longer the strings, the richer the sound.. A semi concert grand is around seven feet long and usually found in clubs, recording studios and universities. A concert grand piano is nine feet long and found in grand halls and concert stages. They all stand on three legs along the sides or middle of a room or stage, preferably away from heat or cool air vents.
If you don't have room for a grand piano, consider an upright piano. As a guideline, the taller the piano is, the better the sound will be. Very short pianos have tubby sounding notes in the bass and octaves that may sound off. This can not be designed out of a piano, it's just a fact that technicians and musicians have to live with. If you want a better sounding instrument, you'll have to spend a little more and get one that's taller. If you are a budget shopper or a first time buyer, a short piano may be best for you, but know that if your child really loves playing the piano, you may upgrade within 5-10 years. With this in mind, ask your dealer about trade-ins or trade-ups. Most dealers will offer something like a 10 year trade-up, which you're receive a full credit in the amount you paid for your first piano to use toward your next piano. Usually the second has to be twice the value of the first.
Quality digital pianos start at around $2000, have weighted keys and a variety of sounds to choose from. The Yamaha Clavinova is a standard in high quality digital pianos. As you move up the model chain, they will feature different designs like using wooden keys instead of plastic, and an increase in speaker quality. Also, the most basic Clavinova doesn't have a display to show you what voice you're on, but as soon as you move up to the next model, it will feature that convenience.
A hybrid piano has the key mechanism of a wooden acoustic action, but without strings and hammers. This means that you have the real touch of a true acoustic piano, and it will never go out of tune. The sound is modeled after grand pianos and amplified through speakers or headphones! This type of piano is perfect for those who like to practice in privacy and those with close neighbors.
Piano performance is a lifelong investment. If you choose a digital, most likely you will purchase an acoustic piano in the future. If you buy an acoustic piano, it will need regular tuning and upkeep. And if you're ever not sure if you're getting the right instrument, just ask for the help of piano teachers or a technician.