How Steinway’s Spirio self-playing piano engineered a symphonic turnaround

Steinway recently introduced this high-tech self-playing concert grand piano called the Spirio.  Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY

Steinway is striking a chord with a new segment of buyers. And some don’t even know how to play the piano.

The key to its newfound success? A technologically sophisticated self-playing grand piano that retains the 165-year-old brand’s rich musicality.

Made in concert with piano engineer Wayne Stahnke, the Spirio uses a mobile app and an iPad included with the purchase to activate the performances of masterful artists such as David Benoit and Bill Charlap.

“It’s a player piano, but we call it a re-performance piano,” CEO Ron Losby said in an interview. “It is a seamless melding of 21st-century technology and Old World craftsmanship.”

 

The path to a self-playing piano came about after hedge fund manager John Paulson’s Paulson & Co. acquired Steinway in 2013. Paulson was riding high at the time after famously reaping billions from his bet against the housing market.

Yet just a few years ago, the piano maker’s sales weren’t so melodic as young Americans turned away from music for other pursuits. Also crippling: The Great Recession ushered in tighter spending among concert halls and other institutional buyers. From 2007 to 2012, Steinway sales had slumped 13%.

Paulson’s personal love of the piano traces back to his formative years as a kid, when his piano-playing sisters begged his father for a Steinway. His family couldn’t afford it at the time, but Paulson’s father scraped together enough money to instead purchase a baby grand piano.

“But it wasn’t a Steinway, and I remember my sister crying at that time — and I realized how powerful the draw was for musicians to play on Steinway,” Paulson, who could not be reached for comment for this story, said in a video interview posted by the company. “My viewpoint is you can’t have too many Steinways.”

Steinway began spending heavily to develop the Spirio self-playing piano, which made its debut in 2016, and expand sales in foreign markets.

Steinway has hundreds of hours of performances available on the Spirio, which uses a complex system of optical sensors and proprietary software to translate hammer velocity and ensure proper pedaling. Owners get free access to the growing catalog.