Academy Phoenix PCL-12 clarinet
Guide price: £140
Date of manufacture: September 2012
Date reviewed: January 2013
A surprisingly good student-quality
clarinet at an equally surprising price
Having 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
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
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
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.
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.
a more technical note I was pleased to see locking pillars fitted to the
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
big plus-point from my personal point of view is the use of stepped lever
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
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
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
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.