When The Chief called to send me to Seattle, I packed heavy, bought my plane ticket online and got ready for a wet weekend. At the airport, I went straight to the Enterprise counter to pick up the car I had reserved. It was an American model—a fuel-efficient Ford—and it was clean as a whistle, except for two slightly creepy jack-o-lantern stickers someone had affixed to the dash that would mock me for the entire trip. Also, I would soon find, the USB cord adapter for my phone was glitchy. Additionally, something about Seattle, I was soon to learn, would cause the robotic navigation voice on my spy phone to make up directions on its own. I was in for a tedious series of dead ends and wrong turns!

For now, though, all I cared about was the bill the rental car associate was showing me. I’d checked in at the counter, where a blonde gal with a Midwestern accent had quickly found my information and then sent me downstairs. Something I couldn’t put my finger on had seemed odd about the encounter, but, pinning it on her accent alone, I brushed it off. The first guy I met at the bottom of the stairs almost checked me out under someone else’s name, after asking me a series of quite personal questions about my travels. When I verified my “actual” name, he looked up my info and then, if I hadn’t double-checked, would have charged me a whopping $300 for a two-day rental: a number The Chief would never approve of on my expense report. I got the problem cleared up with management and, with that, I was on my way.

Making sure all my needs were covered before leaving town, I had booked myself at the Hyatt, smack in the heart of downtown Seattle. It wasn’t too far from Pike’s Place, and the infamous Market Theater Gum Wall. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

My mission was quite specific, and it wasn’t to walk Pike’s Place or to sightsee. My goal was to suss out the best digital keyboards and report back to The Chief before the weekend was over. It was a mission that would prove difficult as my Seattle adventure unfolded.

Kennelly Keys w 121 106th Ave. NE. w Bellevue WA 98004 w 425.455.8282

My first stop was Kennelly Keys in Bellevue, one of several locations for this local indie chain, which has been independently operated since 1960. The drive from the airport was speedy, with grey clouds surrounding me on all sides and green trees poking through the bleak sky. I’d expected as much, so I wasn’t intimidated by the spitting of wet, dew-like droplets on my windshield en route; instead, I focused on the stern female voice of my iPhone GPS. In Bellevue, I found parking directly in front of the store. It took me a while to find the actual entrance. The decals on the strip mall building covered in paned glass windows distracted me from it. Finally, I walked into the store. I noted a couple of synthesizers to my left, a clerk’s desk directly in front of me and another to my right beyond the digital pianos, of which there were plenty.

A polite brunette salesman—in his mid-20s perhaps—asked if I needed any help. I explained my mission to him. He nodded solemnly, and then went around the display area to make sure all the digital keyboards were turned on for me. “This one is heavily discounted right now,” he said, pointing to a Casio Privia PX-850 ($697.77). “It used to be over $1,000, but we got some new models in, so we’re getting rid of the last of these.”

It took me a while to assess all the piano models available. The brands most heavily represented were Yamaha and Casio, with quite a few models of each available. Many of them had weighted keys. Many were upright, furniture-style pianos, not built for transport. Then, there were the Casio Privia models, which were very light, making them easy choices for gigging. I played with the Privias, including a PX-350 ($699.99) and a PX-780 ($999.99). A Casio stage piano ($999.99)—likely the PX-5S, but it wasn’t clearly marked—was the lightest keyboard I’d ever picked up. As I investigated the Yamaha ARIUS YDP-181 ($1,699) and YDP-142 ($1,099.99), I noticed that the plastic on many of these keys had been tweaked to replicate vintage ivory key detail, and that they also replicated the key weight of a grand piano.

As I left, I thanked the second staff dude, who was hanging around at the counter near the digital keyboard display. He was focused on his computer screen, seeming to be mesmerized by the sound of modern grunge coming in over the speakers. He gave a slight head nod and his coworker—the one who had greeted me upon arrival—joined him.

As I exited, I heard them discussing the synths that I couldn’t help but poke at on the way out, chuckling among themselves. “Yeah, that’s a synth,” I thought I heard one say. I couldn’t be sure, though.

Guitar Center – Kirkland w 12608 120th Ave. NE. w Kirkland WA 98034 w 425.814.9640

I don’t know if the cloud cover above was affecting her navigation or if, perhaps, Seattle was somehow exempt from functional GPS, but, for the next two days, the stern voice spouting misguided navigational directives would be the bane of my spy existence. This time, the voice was certain I should take a dead end to reach my next destination, and she seemed to become increasingly frustrated with my attempts to thwart her directional sabotage. I am not a paranoid person, but I did wonder if, perhaps, someone had tinkered with her to keep me from achieving my mission. Maybe some spy in a parallel universe didn’t want me to succeed. Or was this something The Chief had cooked up to test my resilience? Somehow, after much consternation, I ended up taking a narrow, two-lane street past a very decrepit-looking strip mall with the ugliest Trader Joe’s building I had ever seen, a large gluten-free food store and, finally, a large white building housing Guitar Center.

As I walked into the warehouse, I was left alone by the hip salespeople. No one looked older than 20-something, although 30 was a slight possibility. Seeing sheet music to my left, I circumnavigated the store to the right. Going relatively unnoticed, I found the entrance to the keyboard area. A tall guy with a beard smiled when I walked into a large space that housed a few additional rooms. The kind guide to this secret keyboard catacomb asked immediately if he could help. When I told him I was interested in touching all their keyboards, he smiled big.

He walked me into the keyboard room to the left, taking the time to turn everything on for me. He notified me that there were a few additional models with the synths across the way, but most were in this room. Then, he asked what specifically I needed, to which I responded, “I’m not sure. Probably something a bit nicer than your entry-level models.” As he went around the room, he gave me a rundown of the products on display, explaining which models had USB plugins and which gave you more bang for your buck. He seemed to have a preference for a Yamaha with no model information ($449). As I glanced around, I saw a number of brands represented: Williams, Casio, Korg and others.

The Williams products were entry level ($299 for the Allegro; $499 for the Rhapsody). I noticed a lovely Yamaha (no price listed) in rosewood, along with a 76-key portable Yamaha NP-31 ($271). It seemed as though entry-level models were more plentifully represented here than were other models. The best of the bunch were a Yamaha DGX-650 ($799) and an amazing-sounding Korg SP-280 ($699.99).

Before I left, I checked out the synthesizer room and noted a Williams Legato and an Allegro (both $199). As I left, the tall, bearded man asked, “Which did you like best?” I replied, “I’d have to say the Korg. It just feels so nice.” He smiled at me as I headed out of the store and toward my next destination.

Prosser Piano & Organ – Seattle w N. 185th St. and Aurora Ave. N. w Seattle WA 98133 w 206.546.8959

Yet again, I encountered a glitch in the GPS matrix as I searched for the next store: Prosser Piano & Organ. For some reason, my GPS’ insistent voice wanted to shuttle me through the entire stretch of waterfront leading to downtown Seattle before telling me I was almost at my destination. After an hour of journeying—lost in daydreams as I took in the carousel and other attractions near the ocean—I started to wonder. As if she had noticed, she barked at me, re-routing your faithful correspondent back the way I had come, after reaching a dead end. I wondered again if, perhaps, the ever-present cloud cover served to create a Gotham of sorts, obscuring Seattle from satellite navigation. Giving up for the moment, I rerouted toward my hotel downtown, past high-rises and plenty of people on foot. I arrived, but not before driving around the block three or four times. Even spies have their days, I suppose….

Eventually, I braved the freeway again…this time in the wrong direction. Somehow, I lost an hour in the process. Frustrated, I rushed to find the right directions, shuttling through suburban streets and very long traffic lights, fighting constant traffic and more spitting rain. Finally, I came to a strange intersection with a sharp left and a gentle left light. I somehow missed the light that would shuttle me directly to Prosser, which rested in a tiny building jutting out on the corner of the one-way street the light turned onto. After another block, a U-turn got me back to my destination and the mission back on track

It was now 5pm—the time Prosser closed for the day. In a panic, I rushed to the door, expecting the worst. Alas, it was still unlocked. A tall, older gentleman greeted me when I walked in. He was helping a young family, complete with an apparent child piano prodigy, find a digital keyboard.

“I was worried I wouldn’t make it in time,” I told him.

“What time would that be?” the salesperson asked.

“Don’t you close at 5pm?” I asked.

“Oh!” he exclaimed. “Is it 5pm already? I didn’t even notice. Don’t worry…just take your time.” Then he went back to helping the family.
I quickly took advantage of this opportunity to jot down the pianos I noticed. As I took in a Kawai CS7 ($4,695), a Roland DP90e ($2,599), a Roland HP508 CB ($4,299) and a Kawai CP3 ($6,499), I noticed two big posters for Roland and Kawai on the wall.

“Do you only carry these two models here?” I asked the salesman.

“Yes,” he affirmed. “We carried Casio briefly and found that our clientele didn’t even touch that keyboard. So, we stick to the tried and true.”
As I turned toward the door to leave, I paused to admire dozens of beautiful, used Steinway and Baldwin grand pianos to my right. Prosser was an old-school piano establishment, priding itself on its high-end offerings.

Kennelly Keys – Lynnwood w 4918 196th St. SW. w Lynnwood WA 98036 w 425.771.7020

With all my travels going the way they had been, I couldn’t reach my final destination quickly enough. I barely noticed where I was, or what I was doing, as I navigated toward the second Kennelly Keys destination on my list. (Frankly, I was grateful not to have been directed to Mexico.) Tucked away off a wide, busy street in suburban Lynnwood, I found the warehouse building, covered in name-brand instrument decals. Inside, I quickly found the digital pianos near the entrance. A few people at a counter to my front left lifted their heads and nodded as I entered. As I jotted down notes, a young man with brown hair (did every store near Seattle have a different permutation of the same young salesman in their store?) approached me and asked if I needed any help.

A wall-end display of Casio models stood slightly away from a cluster of both Yamaha and Casio offerings. As I surveyed the greater warehouse, I saw a row of guitars and basses on the back wall to my deep far left. I heard the salesman say something about sheet music, but, at that point, I just wanted to suss out the keyboards. So, I nodded and thanked him. He disappeared to whatever faraway rogue planet these savvy, young, brunette sales guys in Seattle call their home.

I noted two Yamaha ARIUS YDP models ($1,699 and $1,099, respectively), as well as a contemporary P-255B ($1,299.99), an NP-30 portable grand ($269.95), an NP-11 ($159.99) and a beautiful graded hammer action P-105 ($599.99). On the floor, the nicer Casio models included a Privia PX-780 BK ($999.98) and a Celviano AP-650BK ($1,600). There were a few more Casio models on the display, as well, but my time to depart had arrived.

The Sale
It was a toss-up as to which store among the four I visited was the best. Each provided customer service within a reasonable amount of time and each had at least two viable models, with a wide selection of options to choose from within those model selections. I put Prosser near the bottom because of the lack of entry-level options and the high prices. Both Kennelly Keys locations, as well as Guitar Center, provided me with an ample selection of low-end to high-end models, along with good customer service. Plus, there was easy parking in the front.

If I had to choose, Guitar Center would come in slightly ahead of the Kennelly Keys locations, due to the excellent customer service and follow-up as I left. However, the hands-off approach of Kennelly Keys after initially assessing a customer’s needs was just as pleasant. The salesmen did disappear after realizing I didn’t need their immediate help—and this would have made me have to hunt them down to answer any additional questions—but that’s really a quibble.

Guitar Center…you get the gold this month!

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