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"Unnamed" Chinese alto saxophone

Chinese alto saxophoneOrigin: China
Guide price: £220 + (new!)
Weight: -
Date of manufacture: 2006
Date reviewed: March 2006

The ubiquitous new generation cheap Chinese saxophone

I had to think carefully about reviewing this instrument. The problem, for me at least, is one of independence*. In general, all the other instruments I review (at least those still in production) are global brands. That's to say that you can walk into almost any music shop anywhere in the world and see, try and buy these instruments. No single person has the sole retailing rights (though I do make an exception for hand-crafted or unique instruments).
The new generation of Ultra-Cheap Chinese instruments are produced by a number of manufacturers, but are branded and sold by individuals. In effect that means that anyone, including you, can set up shop to import and sell your own brand of musical instruments. It follows then that if I review a particular model you will only be able to buy that model from one person - and if it happens to be a good review then you can imagine what that might be worth in terms of the business it could generate for that person.
However, I don't think I can ignore the phenomenon - so I've decided to review a Chinese horn without specifically identifying the brand.
What good is that? Well, it's to show you what can be achieved and at what price, and perhaps provide you with enough information to be able to make an informed choice should you be tempted by one of these cheap horns.

And here it is. If you're not that much of a saxophone buff then it probably looks just like any other saxophone, but if you know a thing or two about the various makes and models that are on the market these days you might be wondering why it looks quite familiar.
The most obvious pointer is the crook, with its 'underslung' octave key. There aren't many horns that have this feature, but the Yanagisawa 992 series does. In fact the 992 has quite a few of the features found on this horn (including the distinctive dimpling on the thumb hook base)...or should that be the other way round? I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions.
What's quite surprising about this horn is the weight. You might expect such a cheap instrument to be very flimsy, but if you pick the thing up you'll notice that it feels as heavy as any decent horn.
It's easy enough to see why, it has all the modern accoutrements: Pillar straps; detachable bell joint; removable bell key pillar; three point bell brace; removable side F# key guard; adjustable brass thumb hook etc. Better yet, it's all assembled quite neatly, with nothing that would point to a particularly cheap build quality.
Even the tone holes are level, and that's something you don't always find on some considerably more expensive horns.
Being really picky I can see slight discrepancies around the base of some of the larger fittings, and these will be down to cleaning off solder residues after fitting, prior to polishing.

Chinese alto side trill keyThe keywork is rather less beefy than the body, probably because the keys account for the bulk of the cost of producing a saxophone. It's rather a strange mix really; On the one hand you have some really useful features - the photo on the left shows three of them: Adjusters on the stack key feet, adjustable fork and pin on the side trill keys and a clamp for the top F/F# key barrels.
Add onto that the double arms on the low C and B cups, the auxiliary F brace...and yet on the other hand there are places where the keys look rather flimsy, such as the main stack cup arms and the front top F touchpiece. Mind you, that's not to say the keywork is soft - it's actually quite stiff, which is just as well.
The big bugbear of cheap horns has always been the accuracy of the action. I've seen brand new horns that have had the sort of play in the keywork that you'd only find on a horn that had seen a decade's worth of heavy use and no oil. This horn fared very much better, with the only potential problem being a slight bit of play in the top B key barrel.

I was disappointed to find parallel point screws had been used, but then I guess you can't have everything! Then again, my dislike of them is based upon their inability to be tightened up to take up wear in the keys after a few years of playing...and I'm not sure that's applicable to a horn like this.
The whole action is topped off with blued steel springs and what looks to be a set of reasonable quality pads with domed metal reflectors.

The setup straight out of the box is quite stiff. It's actually not the worst I've felt - indeed, as I write this I have a Yamaha Custom EX alto in for a setup...and the action on that is set even harder.
The improvement from backing off the springs, particularly the palm keys, is considerable - and well worth the time spent on it.
As far as the padding goes it's not bad at all. I couldn't find any pads that would have benefited from being reset, and any adjustments that had to be made were made with regard to the regulation of the action. This is par for the course on any new horn though.

There aren't many problems with the feel of the keys under the fingers. If you consider that the 'inspiration' for this horn comes from a very expensive and highly developed pro model you'll understand why all the keys are exactly where they ought to be.
The lack of weight in the keywork shows up in the feel, you just don't get that same slickness and precision that you'd get from an expensive horn - but it really isn't that far off the mark. I noticed it more on the side Bb/C/F key cluster, but the main stack action feels quite good, and the bell key action is really quite exceptional.

So far so good...and now for the real test, the blowing.
This is what it's all about. You can have the best bodywork, the slickest and fastest action, but it won't count for anything if the horn doesn't play.
And it plays. It plays just fine.
There's no need to make any excuses for the tone or the tuning, it's really pretty good. It leans towards medium bright...bog standard for a student horn. It's also quite even across the range, and that's something you might not expect...in terms of tone you tend to find that cheap saxes run out of grunt from about low E down, and can get quite shrill from about top B up...but this horn seemed to coast along quite nicely. Even the harmonics are there.
Tonewise I'm not going to pretend it has the complexity of a Selmer, the focus of a Yamaha or the punch of a Yanagisawa - but it's got everything you'd get from a standard Taiwanese student horn, and that's really quite a lot.
It's a comfortable blow too...with the layout of the keys, the feel of the action and the clean tone it's actually a very playable piece of kit.

The whole thing comes in a smart but basic case. The strap as supplied isn't always up to much and you'd do well to replace it immediately. This horn had a strap with a metal hook, which looks more solid than those I've seen with plastic hooks...but it's better to be safe than sorry. As for the mouthpiece...well, I was going to say that the cheap plastic mouthpieces that come with cheap horns are always awful, but as it happens the one with this horn wasn't too bad at all - very reminiscent of my Dukoff, I thought! Of course you can't rely on every cheap mouthpiece being that good, and being cheap plastic they won't last long anyway. Get a Yamaha 3C or 4C and you'll never have to worry about the mouthpiece until you get good enough to buy a pro model.
You should consider these items as being part of the overall cost of the horn - and I would strongly advise getting a setup done too.

You get a couple of extras with the horn, namely a pad saver and a rather quaint pair of white gloves. The pad saver isn't a particularly well made one, but then if the horn's being used by a child they're more likely to use the pad saver than they are to use a pullthrough to clean the horn out after playing.
It's rather fluffy, so it might be worth giving it a bit of wash to remove the loose fibres.

This would normally be the end of a standard review, but for this horn I think it's worth a bit of a summing up.

What you're looking at here is a horn with a build quality that's approaching, if not equal to, that of established student horns out of Taiwan...at practically twice the price of this Chinese horn. I could quibble about a few of the less than satisfactory points, such as the keywork and the slight ripples around some of the bases of the fittings - but I'd have to take into account the asking price and the target clientele, and with that in mind the quibbles become quite academic.
I mentioned the use of parallel point screws, and noted my reservations about not being able to adjust them to take up any wear in the action. The thing is, this horn will be long gone before you'd have time to wear it out. Although I dare say it's feasible, this horn isn't meant to be a 'keeper' - it's a starter horn, pure and simple.
It does what it's supposed to do - and unlike previous generations of extremely cheap horns it actually has the wherewithal to do it.
I often tell clients I'd be able to play their student horns on a gig - the big difference with this horn is that I actually wouldn't mind, it really is that capable. And it doesn't really matter if it only lasts five years or so...at the going price you'd be nuts to spend any money on any significant repairs to it, just throw it away and get another one, or upgrade.

What's rather amusing is that I'm seeing experienced players who are buying these things. Many players like to double (play more than one kind of horn), but the cost tends to be a bit off-putting. These people are able to kit themselves out with an adequate horn for not much more than the price of a couple of nights out on the town. I'm also seeing pros buying them for 'risky' gigs...especially teachers, who get a bit anxious about taking their expensive horns into schools and colleges. In essence it's a real, working musical instrument for the price of a games console - and that's its target market. You now have the choice, either for yourself or your children...an electronic gadget to while away the hours, or something that can be built upon down the years.

If you've read this review and are chomping at the bit to buy one of these horns, please don't email me and ask me what make it is. This review is intended to highlight the increasing quality of these Ultra-Cheap horns, and to demonstrate just what you can get for around a couple of hundred quid these days.
Chinese bronze altoThere's a very good chance that this horn is available from a number of sources under different names - it's just down to observation and doing your homework. You do have to be careful though, as there are still some less than wonderful examples out there - but if you use your common sense and stick to retailers who at least have a strong presence in the marketplace (online or otherwise), you shouldn't go far wrong. You do not need to go through Ebay to buy such horns.
For a more in-depth look at the Ultra-Cheap horn phenomenon, have a look at this article.

As for those white gloves - I'd be inclined to slip them on, open the lid of the sax case, lift the sax out and go "Ta-Dah" in my best amateur magician style voice...

*Subsequent to my decision to start naming the brands of these horns, I can reveal that this horn was sold by Gear4Music.com

Postscript - Dec. 2006:

It's been some eight months or so since the article above was published, and in that time things have moved on somewhat. I mentioned in the accompanying article on Ultra-Cheap horns that the Chinese manufacturers were likely to continue tweaking and improving their products, and just recently I had the opportunity of examining a small batch of horns fresh off the production line.
The quality was frankly astounding.
Look at the horn on the right, the slight reddish tinge is down to the body being made of bronze.
This is quite an unusual material, generally only seen on quite expensive horns - to find it on a horn that comes in at around the £400 mark (as this one does) is completely amazing.
But that's not the best of it.

The quality of this horn was so good, and the price so cheap, that it was possible to dismiss some of the other horns I examined as being poorer value for money due to really quite inconsequential issues - such as machining marks on the keys and the odd bit of sloppy action.
These were faults that, if minor enough, were previously considered to be acceptable given the extremely low cost of the horns - but a horn like this raises the bar to an entirely new level.
It's not just the body that's improved - the keywork is more substantial than before, and that moves this horn out of the 'starter' bracket into something rather more long-lasting.

This isn't about comparing a £700 or £900 horn with a £400 horn...it's comparing different sub £400 horns - and being able to use the same criteria as you would with a £700 plus horn.

To date this is the best example of the genre that I've seen, and is sold under the Walstein brand.

And it gets even better.
It's now possible to take the build quality as a given and make a selection based on tone and performance.
That's positively unheard of at this price point, and is a sign of quality that goes beyond the previous benchmark of Taiwanese student horns and snaps at the ankles of the big boys.
There have also been developments in terms of finishes, with the first examples I've seen that have used an Electro-Phoretic lacquering process. This process makes for a very even and reliable finish, and allows for some interesting coloured and toned finishes previously only available on very much more expensive horns.
If you're still sceptical about the ability of the Chinese to innovate, check out the updated article on Ultra-Cheap horns - which features a brief review of a £350 sopranino sax.

 

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015