MI Spy is back in the stores! The stealthy shopper returns to Chicago in part one of a two-part feature.

I’ve been hunkered down for more than three months in the MI Spy Cave because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Three months of eating far too much, trying to jog it off on steep and solitary mountain-path runs, and binge-watching espionage thrillers on Netflix. So when the Chief finally called with this month’s mission, I was thoroughly bored, and quite pleased at the prospect of a fresh assignment.

“We need you back in the field, Spy. Things are starting to open back up again,” the Chief started. “Pack for Chicago. You were there recently, but we need you to go back and check out the west suburban market.”

“Sounds great, Chief,” I replied too quickly. “What’s the mission?”

“Specifically, we’re looking for intel on entry- and intermediate-level keyboards for serious students, from stores along the western corridor reaching out of the city,” he ordered. “And, generally, we need to know how retailers are bouncing back from this pandemic shutdown. What’s the new normal? How are they protecting their customers and staff? What’s the instore vibe now, and how do they feel about it?”

“Got it. Keyboards for serious students, huh? That’ll mean a full 88 keys, weighted and with a pedal. Hmmm.” I thought it over for a moment. “I know. I’ll pose as a local music schoolteacher being asked by students and parents for my shopping suggestions on first or upgrade instruments. I’m just doing the retailer rounds to update my product and pricing recommendations list. That should be the perfect cover.”

“That’ll work. We’ll send a car in the morning to pick you up from your flight. Pack a mask,” the Chief said.
I signed off with an enthusiastic

“Will do, Chief!” This was great news! I was finally going to jump back into action again after doing virtual visits for months!

As I journeyed to Chicago, I noticed that the airport crowd and the number of people on my plane were understandably sparse. The flight attendants seemed delighted to see me, eyes crinkling in smiles above their masks. The ride was smooth, and the window-seat view was beautiful. At least that much hadn’t changed.

With the thin crowd, I breezed through arrival and my rental car checkout. Then I made my way through the unusually light Chicago traffic to the safehouse and hunkered down to make my final preparations for the following day’s store visits.

Guitar Center – Naperville
996 N. Route 59
Aurora, IL 60504-7923

While technically located in Aurora, Ill., this Guitar Center bills itself with the name of the city whose limits begin literally across the street to the store’s east. Naperville is an especially affluent Chicagoland suburb and a ripe market for the music retailers I was visiting for this mission. It is home to North Central College, renowned for its performing arts programs; supports a sprawling publicschool system with its own band-andorchestra programs; and offers many opportunities for private musical instruction. The city even boasts its own Municipal Band, founded in 1859(!), which still performs every Thursday summer night at the Central Park Bandshell … during non-pandemic times, of course.

The approach to the front doors of this Guitar Center location was quite impressive. There were large placards standing on the sidewalk clearly marking where to queue and pull up for “contactless” curbside pick-up, and even several newly signed and numbered parking spots close to the doors where customers could park to have their purchases walked right to their vehicle. The window and door signage repeated the state-mandated mask requirement, and further nicely asked that customers keep a considerate six-foot distance from others wherever possible.

When I went in, I was quickly greeted by a masked staffer stationed at the now Plexiglas-protected checkout counter. I explained my research mission to him, and he escorted me right away to the keyboard gallery. I’ve been in many Guitar Centers over the years, and this is one of the larger layouts that I’ve seen. The store had an impressive number of instruments on display up and down the walls around the perimeter of the room, and several island stacks of stock staged to grab and go.

I asked my helper if it was still OK to play the keyboards, and he said sure, but let’s use some hand sanitizer first. He spun about looking around the gallery, and seeing none, we walked out to a counter in an adjacent department to find some. To GC’s credit, there were plenty of hand-sanitizer dispensers distributed around the store, and in its defense, there was no counter space or other suitable surface on which to just set one in the keyboard gallery. Perhaps a small table to serve as a standalone hand sanitizer station or one of those nifty dispensers with the builtin stands may be a good addition for this hands-on display area.

GC’s instrument offering was expansive and impressive. It offered the popular Yamaha P45 and P125 models, comparably priced to the other stores I would visit during this mission, at $499.99 and $649.99 respectively. These prices were without pedal or stand, but the staffer told me that from time to time, the store featured bundled packages at discounted prices. Since I didn’t have any more immediate questions and still had several other keyboards to check out, my helper, who had given me a good deal of time and attention already, excused himself to return to his front-entrance station.

I moved on to the store’s Casio brand line offering next, first sampling the CDP-S100 priced at $449.99. This starter instrument has 10 tones onboard and was my introduction to Casio’s ebony and ivory textured keys, which have kind of a wood-grain look and feel. The keyboard felt lightly weighted, and the tones seemed a bit thin from this modest chassis.

The next Casio offering was the PX-S1000 at $649.99, with 18 tones and Bluetooth connectivity for easy amp and speaker expansion. The instrument is sleekly styled for looks and felt a bit better than the other model, with really nice key-touch dynamics across the keyboard.

I then checked out the Casio CDP-S350 at $799.99. The S350 packs more than 700 tones and an onboard six track MIDI recorder with SD drive storage. The feel and sound are consistently Casio, and this could be a good choice for those students heading toward composing and playing in a band.

Finally, I spent a few moments with the Roland FP-30, a solid board sporting 35 sounds and Bluetooth connectivity priced at $899.99. This keyboard is already on my imaginary recommendations shortlist because Roland nailed the weighted keyboard feel many years ago and its tones are legendary. Sadly, this store’s setup lacked any pedal connection, and the sound was muffled in some way by the display.

Though no contenders from this line were present on the sales floor, I do want to mention Guitar Center’s
private-label Williams keyboards. (GC had some Williams models on display and in stock when I visited, but not the 88-weighted-key instruments I was shopping for.) The GC website does offer a Rhapsody 2 Console model,
complete with stand and pedals, for $569.99. I’ll look forward to checking that one out, should I find it in a store.

I made a point of strolling around the store on my way out to note its new pandemic styling. It had extensive tape markings on the floor throughout, indicating “traffic lanes” with flow direction, display-browsing boxed areas with an X indicating single occupancy, and X marks showing six-foot separation for queues. There were hand-sanitizer dispensers located throughout the store, and I especially enjoyed the politely apologetic sign on the washroom door stating “ONLY ONE PERSON AT A TIME (This isn’t backstage.)” Way to go, Guitar Center, for keeping a cool sense of humor about our collective inconvenience!

Sam Ash Music
1139 S. Main St.
Lombard, IL 60148-3948

Next, I headed a bit north and east to the Sam Ash Music that serves Chicagoland’s western corridor. This store is centrally located in a (usually) high-traffic and vibrant commercial strip. It has been doing business here for a couple of decades and is a well-established destination for musicians and students along with pro-audio practitioners. It’s a large store, offering the full range of instruments, audio gear, accessories, sheet music, rental, repair and lessons that you would expect from this national retailer.

The store entrance is clearly signed with a face-mask requirement and a light-hearted graphic requesting that customers practice safe distancing and stay “two Stratocasters away while waiting in line.” Again, cool touch!

Directly inside the entrance, a table had been set up with placards and handouts repeating the messaging on the door and outlining the store’s COVID-19 policies, plus more specific guidelines for customers while in the store. The literature was offered in both English and Spanish, all surrounding a large bottle of hand sanitizer. I should also note that the store’s website homepage is bannered right at the top noting limited store hours, enhanced cleaning practices, and the offer of curbside delivery.

Upon entering, I was quickly greeted by a staffer. I explained the reason for my visit, and he first responded, “This will be a short discussion,” as he turned to lead me to their keyboard area. Though a little puzzled by his comment, I quickly realized what he meant when we stepped into the keyboard section. The display looked a little like an old comb missing a few teeth.

He explained how the pandemic had disrupted manufacturing and the supply chain in ways that made it difficult to maintain the store’s inventory right now. He did point out that, as part of a national chain, this Sam Ash location could fall back on sourcing instruments from other stores throughout their system based on customer needs. When I asked about store traffic since re-opening, he said that it had been about the same.

We talked for a few minutes longer as he pointed out the 88-weighted-key models the store had on display, and the staffer gave me his card while welcoming any more questions. He then excused himself to return to the
front of the store.

Though a bit picked over, the store still had options on hand, if even only display-floor models. Both of the entry-level Yamaha models (P45 and P125) that I had seen at Guitar Center were sold out and not on display here. My helper told me that the P45 was priced around $550 for just the keyboard, and the P125 for around $650. He said that the store recommends the more tactile, piano-type pedals for these boards at around a $30 added cost. Other recommended add-ons included an X-stand ($55), padded case ($100) and dust cover ($20). The staffer said lead times right now for getting these boards in stock was 30 to 60 days.

The store did, however, have other entry- and intermediate-level options on hand. I started with the Benjamin Adams-brand DA631, priced at $359.99 for the keyboard only. As is Sam Ash’s practice, the price was shown as discounted from an original MSRP shown as $499.99. At this price point, the board felt packed with onboard goodies compared to other brand offerings, with 300 sounds, built-in recording and 127 percussion rhythm accompaniments. The feel was understandably light for this modest chassis, and it had a thinner tone than more substantial platforms. All in all, though, this would be a good value for an entry-level keyboard.

Next was the Casio Privia PX-160, priced today at this store for $499.99 for the keyboard alone. MSRP on this model is advertised at $899.99. This model sports 18 instrument sounds (five pianos), metronome, and MIDI recorder, along with the brand’s signature ebony and ivory textured keys. The feel and dynamic touch response was good, and the tones, again, classic Casio. This is another solid entrylevel option for students, and a super value at this price.

There was also a Roland FP-10 on display, but with no price sign. When I asked, I was told it was “around $600.” On its website, Sam Ash offers this model for $499.99 including a pedal switch, marked down from $649.99 MSRP. (Maybe the in-store verbal ballpark included the stand and upgraded pedal?) The FP-10 is worth a mention here, though. Promoted as an ideal second piano for the more experienced player, the Roland touch and tones, along with Bluetooth connectivity in this model, make it a great starter or upgrade for the serious student and a great value at this price point.

Then I checked out the house-brand Medeli model on display: the DP-260, priced at $699.99, marked down from $899.99 MSRP, and labeled as a stage piano. This full-console instrument with pedals, music stand, and keyboard cover features 16 voices and onboard recording. It has a nice feel and dynamic touch, and the tone is full. More mid- than entry-level at the price point, this model could be an especially appealing investment for customers valuing the instrument’s aesthetic styling in their home.

Finally, the Roland RP-102, offered at $899.99. Though toward the top of our price range, it was discounted from a $1,199.99 MSRP and thus becomes a solid contender. This full and stylish console complete with music stand, pedals and key cover is a great choice for serious students who can afford this price point. With Roland’s signature weighted keyboard touch and tones, it would delight beginner and advanced students alike for years to come.

Satisfied that I’d seen all the store offered within my mission parameters, I made my way back to my rental car and headed toward my next objective, the Fox Valley Mall.

Sorry, MI Spy fans! It looks like I got a little carried away with my investigation, and this mission report is running a bit long. Chalk it up to my excitement over being back in the field! I’ll wrap up this report in next month’s issue with my findings from Chicagoland-area indie retailers PM Music Center and Hix Brothers Music. Until then, stay safe, healthy and stealthy!

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