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Beaumont Alina flute

Beaumont Alina fluteOrigin: China (www.beaumontmusic.co.uk)
Guide price: £499
Weight: 0.418kg
Date of manufacture: January 2013
Date reviewed: March 2013

A remarkable step-up flute with more than a few surprises up its sleeve

The budget flute market is a difficult one. While there are some good cheap flutes around these days there can be no doubt that the definition of good is a relative one. If a flute is well-built and properly set up, and plays with ease, that's about as much as you can hope for - but there's a vast chasm of difference between the way a really good flute plays and the sound you'll get out of a cheap one. That's why you'll pay many thousands of pounds for a really good flute. It's a complex, finicky instrument that's quick to show any shortcoming in either the instrument or the player.
In the real world, however, a parent is unlikely to splash out those kind of sums on what may well turn out to be a child's whim - and quite a few grown-up beginners would baulk at paying four-figure sums for a flute. So there's a healthy market for cheap flutes, and as with most things in life the less you pay the more likely you are to have problems. With a bit of careful research, though, you can weed out the real nasties - and end up with a flute that will stand the pace...at least mechanically.
If you throw a bit more money at the project you'll find that things start to get rather better, and as well as a higher mechanical standard you'll find a flute in this price range is rather more capable in musical terms.
To put that in simple terms; £100 or so will get you a workable instrument if you choose carefully; £300 will buy a more robust instrument that will be good enough for you to at least begin to work on teasing out the finer point of tone; and at the £500 mark you've effectively got what many experienced players would consider to be a good first flute, at least in terms of tone production.

There's fierce competition between manufacturers at all price points, but the £500 mark is something of feather in the cap if a company can produce an instrument that proves as popular with the teachers as is does with the buyers - if only because your flute teacher has to work with you and your chosen instrument, and doesn't want to be held responsible if you buy a pig in a poke. This is why major brands such as Yamaha and Buffet have held sway for so long - tried and trusted products.
They haven't had it all their own way though, what with some very credible brands coming out of Taiwan in the 1980s - and now they face perhaps an even greater threat from the Chinese manufacturers.
This really shouldn't come as any surprise - though I did raise an eyebrow when a client once said "Chinese flutes? What do the Chinese know about making flutes??"

The first generation of Chinese flutes were, well, cheap. Some of them were very cheap indeed...I saw one that sold for less than £80 new. It wasn't very good...but then it wasn't completely awful either, and certainly played a lot better than many of the flutes I had to endure in my schooldays.
Thereafter they got a bit better, and bit more expensive - and before long they were sufficiently good enough to be considered as viable instruments by various education authorities.
Skip forward a couple of years and what you see here represents the very latest challenge to the status quo - the Beaumont Alina.

At this stage of the review I should point out that this is rather more than a "Knock 'em off the production line and bung 'em in a box" flute. A cornerstone of Beaumont's business model is the instruments are built in China to their specifications and then tweaked by a technician in the UK before being sold. It's a model that a number of the better dealers have adopted and it adds an extra layer of confidence for the buyer. What this means is that any flaws in manufacturing are weeded out in the inspection stage (and there are still a few across the industry, regrettably) and each instrument receives an individual set up.
This is a notable bonus - while the average flute from one of the major manufacturers is likely to work straight out of the box, nothing really beats a pre-sale set up by an experienced technician. It's the difference between a flute that works and a flute that plays.

Alina flute barrelThe construction of the body is standard, with the pillars affixed to ribs which are then fitted to the body. Everything is very neat and tidy, and finished in an even coat of silver plate.
Likewise, the tone holes are of the standard rolled variety - and all nice and level.
There's really not a great deal you can do to make the body of a flute 'individual', but I rather liked the design of the rounded body rings.
They put me in mind of the tenon rings found on the old Boosey & Hawkes 926 Imperial clarinet - very plain, very unfussy and very neat - a welcome change from the usual 'baroque' affairs.

The tenon joints were well-finished too, with both the head and foot being a snug, smooth fit. This is an area in which a lot of flutes lose points, with joints that are functional but gritty or with a bit of wobble on the foot. Sure, you can have the joints reworked if they're less than brilliant, but it's nice to have them 100% straight out of the box.

Alina flute key cupsThe keywork is well-made too, with the same attention to detail that's been given to the body.
Again, there's not a great deal of scope for being individual, but Beaumont have put some thought into the design of the key cups - which shows in the concave dual-ring design. I liked this feature on their budget Piper flute - it lends the action a very positive feel, and helps aid finger position as well as offering a bit of grip when things get a bit hot and sweaty.
And everything is nice and tight and well-adjusted - I couldn't find any free play at all, not even a hint of it.
I even had an extra-close look to see if the action had been tweaked, but no - it looks like it comes like this straight out of the factory. That's very impressive - if only the other Chinese manufacturers could pull off the same trick with saxophones.
The point screws are of the parallel type. These have been standard on flutes for many years now, and while the design tends to cause problems on saxes and clarinets, it's more viable on flutes because the keys that are mounted on point screws have internal steel shafts. As such you end up with a steel rod pivoting on a steel screw - and provided both are accurately made there should be no cause for any excessive free play...and if they're kept lubricated there should be little wear too.

The one area where there might still be cause for concern is the right hand stack upper pillar, which is drilled to accept the stubs of both the right and the left hand key stacks. Even a tiny bit of free play here can cause problems with the regulation, but there was none to be found. It's attention to details like this that justify the asking price, and inspire confidence in the brand.

Alina flute adjustersAs expected, the Alina features a set of regulation adjusters on both main key stacks. It also has a split E mechanism, which has its own adjuster.
As can just about been seen, each adjusting screw has a nylon collar which stiffens the action of the screw and prevents it from working loose (and thus throwing the regulation out). Such screws are of more use to repairers than players (though plenty of tech-savvy players are able to make their own small adjustments), but will certainly help to keep maintenance costs down. Having to regulate an action without the aid of such screws is a very fiddly and time-consuming job...for which you'll be properly charged.

You can also just about see the top of a pin protruding out of the trill key touchpiece arm. These pins are used to lock the key barrels where ore than one key uses the same rod to pivot on (what's known as a compound key). A very common complaint with flutes is that the tops of these pins can be quite sharp - which is something you usually become aware of when you scratch your hand on them.
No such problem here though, the tops of the pins were all neatly rounded off.

There's a decent set of Pisoni pads fitted - which were well set too. One of the problems of reviewing dealer-supplied instruments is that of the sample having been tweaked beforehand. However, as that's very much the entire point of Beaumont's marketing pitch I'm pleased to report that they appear to be living up to the standard. I gave the pads the full treatment, with feelers and leak lights, and they passed with flying colours.
I was also pleased to see neat and tidy cork/felt work.
Completing the action is a set of tapered stainless springs, and the whole instrument is housed in a rather nice black suede-finished clutch case which is in turn enclosed in a zippered bag with carrying handles and a shoulder strap. You also get a rather posh-looking wooden cleaning rod and a couple of cloths

In the hands the Alina feels very well balanced - both in terms of how the action is set up and how the whole instrument 'hangs'.
It's slightly lighter than many other flutes in the same price bracket; it's not by much, but it's enough to make a difference. I dare say most adults won't notice the difference, but many a youngster will appreciate having a bit less strain on their arms.
The setup was faultless. I've mentioned this before, in the Piper review - it's a real joy to see a brand-new instrument being put out with this level of care. To be fair, most other flutes of this price are generally quite well set up, but it's the little tweaks that make all the difference. A slightly weaker spring here, a slightly stronger one there and you have an action that just seems to fit the fingers that much better.

Alina silver headAnd now it's time for the Alina's 'killer' feature; a solid silver head joint.
I'm not going to suggest that simply because the head is made of silver it'll play and sound better - but I am more than happy to suggest that when a manufacturer chooses to use relatively expensive materials, they'll make rather more effort to ensure that whatever is made of them is made very well indeed. That's a far better reason for investing in a solid silver head joint, as opposed to any mystical notion that silver has any particularly special tonal qualities.
I also know that quite a lot of development went into this head joint, and that the final design evolved from a series of prototypes.
This is what really counts. A manufacturer will build you a head joint out of any material you like, provided you're will to pay for it - but there's a huge difference between a head joint that's been chosen out of a product catalogue and one that's been tried, tested, tweaked and tweaked again. Not only that but the lip plate is hand-finished.

And it shows in the playing.
The first thing that struck me was how responsive this flute was - it's very 'alive'.
That's something that's not all that difficult to achieve in a flute, but the big trick is to have that liveliness without relying on excessive brightness to provide it. No problems for the Alina - it backs it up with a remarkable sense of depth and clarity.
I very much liked the precision of the head joint and the way it handled the transition from a smooth playing style to a more percussive one with ease. Many a head will slip up on that - or rather more precisely, many a player will...and if the head is able to give them a bit of a nudge, so much the better.
Perhaps the most notable feature is how versatile this flute is tonewise. That's kind of the holy grail for a flute pitched at this level, it needs to be all things to all players - which is a very hard act to pull off. It seems to do this simply by not getting in the way. If you want to make it brighter and edgier, it's there; if you want to darken and smooth the tone, it's there too.
It's capable too, with a credible amount of power at the lower end and a nice fluidity at the top - and inbetween there's a lovely, rich midrange to play around with.

I suppose the obvious competitor is the ubiquitous Yamaha 211 flute. Available at a tad under £500 it's pricier than the Alina and doesn't have the caché of having a solid silver head. However, it has a build quality that's been tried and tested over decades - and just as people in business IT used to say "No-one got fired for buying an IBM" you could just as easily say "You'll not go far wrong with a Yamaha".
Let's face it, it's the industry-standard benchmark.
So how does the Alina square up? Very well indeed. The Yamaha is a beefier bit of kit - and while that's a plus point in terms of reliability it's also a minus point in terms of weight. The Alina is well-built, but manages to tip the scale a few grammes lighter - and when you're a young player holding a couple of feet of metal at arms length, those few grammes can make a significant difference.
The set-up on a Yamaha is typically pretty good out of the box - and with a tweak or two it can be very good indeed - but the Alina comes pre-tweaked. That's about £40's worth of work, generally.
And then there's the playability - and it's here where the Alina really outdistances the Yamaha.

That's not to say the Yamaha is an easy flute to beat - on the contrary, I've worked on Yamaha 211 flutes that have outplayed instruments that cost considerably more - but the Alina just seems to have more of everything. Well, almost. I'd say that the Yamaha just about sneaks ahead on the lower notes - but that's on the basis of having played a great many Yamahas over a great many years...and the Alina for a relatively short time. Suffice to say that the difference is not so much that some solid practice on the Alina wouldn't close the gap or even overtake the Yamaha. The potential is there, and that's what counts.
It's in the midrange where the biggest differences are found, the Alina has more clarity and punch...and more musicality too. It sings more - and this lyrical quality continues into to the upper register, where it begins to make the Yamaha sound a little (dare I say it)...dull.

I should add though that none of this was immediate. This is something at which the Yamaha excels - you take it out of the case, it works, and it stays working...but it's perhaps a 'what you see is what you get' experience. The Alina has hidden depths, which mean you have to put a bit more time and effort in to eke them out. When you do, though, the rewards are self-evident. It's a very fine flute and a realistic competitor. If you're looking for something individual with half an eye on the price, the Alina should tick all the boxes.

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015