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Academy Phoenix clarinet review header
 

Academy Phoenix PCL-12 clarinet
Origin: China
Guide price : £159
Weight: 0.73kgs
Date of manufacture: Sept. 2012
Date reviewed : Jan. 2013

Description : A surprisingly good student-quality clarinet at an equally surprising price.

Academy Phoenix PCL-12 clarinetHaving spent the last few years working on the Haynes Clarinet Manual, I've had to opportunity to examine a rather large number of clarinets. Naturally I took a long, hard look at the offerings from various Chinese manufacturers.
Up until quite recently it's been clear that while the Chinese have made some great strides forward in certain areas of musical instrument manufacture, they've been a bit slow to bring those improvements to the clarinet. I think it's fair to say that as of last year (2012) they're beginning to get their act together.
Many of the problems related to the quality of the body - specifically the integrity of the resins and plastics used - and, to a lesser but by no means less important degree, the keywork.
As early as 2010 there were some glimmers of hope on the horizon, with a couple of manufacturers who appeared to have addressed the problems - and it now appears that these improvements are starting to become the norm across the board.
This is very encouraging news. The budget-price clarinet has been the mainstay of musical education for generations - but has also been the area in which some of the nastiest instruments ever produced have been seen.
It's a traditionally difficult market. Few parents want to splash the cash on a child's whim, particularly when the children are often so very young - and so instruments that were built to a price (rather than any notion of quality) were able to survive in the marketplace in spite of their obvious drawbacks.

But that's all changed.
Credit where credit's due - the Taiwanese kicked it off back in the 1980s, with instruments of respectable quality that significantly undercut the market leaders (Boosey/Buffet and Yamaha), and it was inevitable that the Chinese would follow suit. They took their time, but I think they've finally done it.

What we have here is the Phoenix PCL-12 clarinet, from Academy. Coming in, brand spanking new, at just over the £150 mark it's an affordable first-time buyer's instrument that punches well above its price-point.
Before I get onto the business of examining it in detail, a quick note about the name. It came out of a sequence of disasters that befell Academy last year - suffering two major fires in quick succession. Such setbacks would have driven many people to conclude that they'd be better off in a different business, but the company didn't give up and took the opportunity to refresh their entire range. And that's why this clarinet is called the Phoenix.

It's a plastic-bodied instrument - which is my catch-all description for all of the many synthetic-bodied clarinets on the market today. I'm not entirely sure what the material is and to be frank it really doesn't matter that much. It's tough enough to do the job and it won't break into a hundred pieces if you drop it - and being synthetic it will require less care and maintenance than a wooden clarinet needs.
The build quality of the body is quite good. To be sure, it's not as neatly finished as a Buffet or a Yamaha, but then it's less than half the price. What's rather more important is that the tone holes are well-finished and level and there aren't any lumps, bumps or holes (at least none that shouldn't be there) in bore.
The finger holes are cleanly cut, with crisp but not sharp edges - and the tenon sleeves are similarly neatly turned - and the exterior of the body has a nice brushed matt finish. It's a practical finish, it tends not to show greasy fingermarks quite so much as a shiny body and the surface provides a touch of extra grip when handling the joints. It'll also help to disguise any odd marks and scratches the clarinet will inevitably pick up over time.

Phoenix thumb restThe pillars and fittings are suitably neat and tidy, the rings are nicely finished with no rough edges and there's a nice concession to player comfort in the guise of an adjustable thumb rest. I'd have liked to have seen a slightly beefier head on the adjusting screw, but then again I suppose there's an argument for not making it too easy for young players to fiddle with. It at least offers the opportunity for a teacher to assess the best position for the student and make the necessary adjustments.
It would have been nice, too, to see a bit of cork buffering on the thumb rest plate - but then again it's not uncommon for players to fit a rubber cushion over the rest.
The plating (nickel) is good, with no apparent marks or blemishes that I could see.

Phoenix pillarOn a more technical note I was pleased to see locking pillars fitted to the lower joint.
In actual fact they're probably unnecessary - the body material is quite 'grippy' and I very much doubt that any of the pillars will work their way out without considerable force being applied to them - but it's nice to see such features anyway, especially at the price.

The keywork is a big improvement over the offerings of recent years.
The keys are quite tough - none of them wanted to bend even with some considerable force being applied to them - so they should stand up quite well the rigours of student use.
The relative simplicity of a clarinet's keywork means there tends not to be many 'shout about' features beyond it being well made and thoughtfully laid out, but I guess it's worth mentioning that there's an adjuster on the throat A key, which can be seen in the bottom right photo.

The point screws are of the parallel type, but they're also shoulderless. In brief, this means that the screws are constantly adjustable (yay!), but because the stubs are cylindrical they won't take up any free play in the action (boo!). It's a case of giving with one hand and taking with the other.
However, it's not all bad news because the action is actually quite tight - with just a bit of excess play spotted on the throat A key barrel.
Regular readers will be all too aware of my thoughts about point screws that aren't proper points, but given the decent build quality of the action and the price of the instrument I think it would be churlish to complain too much.

Phoenix lever keysA big plus-point from my personal point of view is the use of stepped lever keys.
This is a tough, reliable no-nonsense design - as opposed to the pinned keys seen on some clarinets. You'd really have to go some to break these keys, and if you were able to I suspect it would be the least of your worries.

In terms of 'big features' then, the Phoenix does pretty well - but it has a few smaller features that help to add a little icing on the cake. The first of these is the corkwork.
Chinese corkwork is notoriously iffy - a combination of cheap cork and strangely ineffective glue is commonplace, and really lets down many an otherwise good instrument. So I'm delighted to report that the corkwork on the Phoenix seems to be a cut above the norm. Not only is it nice and neat, they've also taken the trouble to choose their materials with some care - so you'll see felt used where extra cushioning and key noise reduction is important.

Phoenix top ring padAnother nifty feature is the use of a cork pad on the top ring key. Cork pads are a popular upgrade for certain keys. It's tougher and more water-resistant than skin or leather pads, and less inclined to become sticky over time - but it does require more careful seating, and can lend the action a slightly percussive feel if an entire joint is padded with cork. Some players feel this is an acceptable payoff considering the benefits, but most are happy to use it on the pads that bear the brunt of wear and tear. The top ring key is one of them - but it would have been nice to have seen this feature extended to the C#/G# key as well.
I can't really complain though, because there's also a cork pad fitted to the speaker key - and someone's even gone to the trouble of putting a domed profile on it (this can help to reduce any whistling noise from the speaker tube).

Finally, the action is powered by a set of blued steel springs.

The whole outfit comes in the usual zippered case, though it's of the backpack design - which makes it a lot more convenient to lug around.
On the minus side I note the lack of enough separate compartments within the case, which means that bell, mouthpiece and barrels (it comes with a pair - a long and a short) can knock against each other. I've mentioned this to Academy with the recommendation that they arrange to have proper compartments built into the case. In the meantime though you'd be well advised to use a cleaning cloth or two to keep the parts from colliding in transit.

I was very impressed with the out-of-the-case setup.
My usual caveat when buying ultra-cheap instruments is that they very often need a bit of post-factory tweaking, but the Phoenix was good from the off (and I know it hadn't been tweaked). The springs were well set, the action height was sensible and best of all the pads were all seating properly. I've noticed this more and more often recently, that out-of-the-box setups from China are getting better. Granted, it's still not a done deal (which can be said of almost any manufacturer), but it bodes well.
Under the fingers the action felt comfortable, and the layout should suit a wide variety of hand sizes. I rather liked the feel of the ring keys. These vary from brand to brand, and although they all do much the same job it just seems to me that some rings feel more responsive under the fingers than others. It's perhaps a personal preference though.
The left hand lever key action was notably slick. This is where many a budget clarinet falls over - with poor design and sloppy action working in disharmony to produce a very spongy feel, often accompanied by a few clanks and rattles. No such problems here.

Tonewise it leans a little to the bright - which is no bad thing for a student clarinet. This tends to mean that the instrument will be free-blowing, which I feel is an important consideration for beginners. As with any musical instrument there are compromises to be made depending on what you want from it - and for a clarinet this often means that a rich, full timbre means a stiffer blow...which makes it harder work.
Naturally there's a tipping-point, beyond which brightness turns into a tendency to become shrill - but the Phoenix, thankfully, doesn't suffer from this malady.
I found it to be quite a lively and refreshing instrument. The tone is nice and even between the registers and even the difficult throat notes came through quite clearly and cleanly. I think it's fair to say that it gets a bit wild once you get much above top C, but then if you're hitting notes in this range it will be well past the time when you should have upgraded to a better quality instrument.
The supplied mouthpiece is adequate, which is to say that it will do for starters. However, the instrument (and the player) will benefit considerable from an upgrade. Doesn't have to cost the earth - just a basic Yamaha 4C will be a big improvement - and it'll be worth it.

I suppose the big question is "Is it worth the money, or should you pay a bit more?"
For sure, you'll get more depth out of a Buffet or a Yamaha, or even the recently reviewed Windcraft WCL100 - but you'll pay for the privilege. It nearly always pays to get the best that you can afford, but there's a strong case for getting something that's adequate while you see how things pan out. This is the Phoenix's strong point; it has the build quality to cope, the playability to impress and a price to love.

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