Earlham Professional Series II alto saxophone
Guide price: £400 +
Date of manufacture: 2003
Date reviewed: December 2004
A basic model student instrument, with some improvements
over the earlier models
When a client rings to enquire about the servicing of a sax I tend to
disregard their own analysis of what's wrong with the horn and ask them
straightaway what the make of it is and how old it is.
This often gives me a far better idea of what's likely to be wrong with
it, based on experience gleaned through servicing similar examples. I
know, for example, that an average Yamaha of some five years in age will
simply need an uncomplicated service.
But there are some makes that bring a sinking feeling - and Earlham is
one of them.
As far as the brand goes, it's been around since the influx of mass-produced
Taiwanese/Chinese horns in the mid 1980's - and my earliest impressions
of it were none too impressive.
In recent years however there has been a marked improvement in the range
- and I hoped it extended to more than just slapping the word 'professional'
on the bell...
I was pleasantly surprised by the build quality of the latest model,
it's much improved over the earlier versions - as is the quality of the
finish. The whole instrument has a more homogenised look as opposed to
the earlier models which tended to look at bit too 'thrown together'.
One area in which the build quality really shows is in the tone holes.
Earlier versions (see below) suffered terribly from dodgy tone holes -
but the most this particular example needed was a little light dressing
of a couple of holes.
The keywork has been improved too, though I was disappointed to
see that the oval pearls on the side F# and the G# keys are still
a poor fit. It's too early to say whether the pearls will suffer
from the problem on the early models, where they often came unstuck
and fell out...
Another disappointment was the continued use of pseudo
point screws. These have absolutely no mechanical advantages
whatsoever over proper points, and I can only assume their use is
to keep production costs down. Earlham owners will pay for this
economy in later years when the action starts to wear.
Strange as it may sound, the option of action wear is a vast improvement
- the early models suffered terribly from appallingly sloppy tolerances
on the key barrels. This is precisely why I groan inwardly when
someone calls up with an Earlham that needs a service - I've seen
examples that have had the sort of wobbly keywork you'd only expect
to find on a horn that had been played every day for at least a
decade...and without so much as a drop of oil in sight. You can
get away with a great many compromises on a saxophone, but a wobbly
action will stop a horn in its tracks.
Blued steel springs are used throughout, and this is another improvement
over the previous stainless springs - resulting in a far perkier action.
Much of this will be due to the tighter tolerances, no doubt, but unless
a horn is designed (and designed well) for stainless springs there's a
tendency for the action to feel sluggish and vague. Corks have been used
throughout on the keywork, which results in quite a 'knocky' action. This
could be much improved by having felts fitted in critical areas, such
as on the key stacks.
On the whole, the action is laid out much better than earlier models
- particularly the placement of the Bis Bb pearl, which has been moved
a little over to the left. Likewise the bell key cluster is better laid
out, but because of the lack of precision in the design it tends to feel
a little squishy in use.
overall set up was pretty much as expected of a budget horn - most
things benefited from a spot of tweaking though there were a couple
of anomalies that required a bit more work to correct, such as badly
centred key cups.
Seen here is one of the bell key cups - note how off centre the pad seat
mark is. A pad seated like this will work for a while (if seated well
enough in the first place), but sooner or later will fail when the pad
has gone through a few cycles of getting wet and drying out.
It wasn't that difficult to correct - a new pad was all that was required
- and spot of bending of the key...which was rather too easy, the keywork
is very soft indeed.
This will mean that the main key stacks will be inclined to lose their
regulation if the player is at all heavy-handed...and that's precisely
what beginners tend to be (and beginners are this horn's target market).
The playability has been much improved too. Tonewise, very early
models were really rather bland - later models were significantly
better, and the MK2 range follows on from that steady progress by
exhibiting a nice all-round tone.
More experienced players will notice some unevenness in the tone
- the top G seems brash in comparison to the rest of the scale,
and the top C still suffers from slight muting - along with a hint
of a growl in the background.
Tuning is good, with only the lower notes needing a bit of embouchure
tweaking to raise them up to pitch initially.
The whole outfit is nicely finished off with a very smart case - quite
light, but suitably strong.
The mouthpiece as supplied (in this case a garish, gold finished plastic
job) leaves a great deal to be desired - so you'd be wise to budget another
£20 or so for a decent student piece.
Altogether a presentable student horn. The improvements in the design
have brought Earlham firmly into the marketplace, and this is perhaps
something they themselves have recognised - with the advent of a range
of models available in different coloured finishes, and even different
body materials. I was quite prepared to be very disappointed with this
horn, but ended up being rather surprised.
However, there's some stiff competition at this price bracket - most notably
from the Jupiter range and less so from the Arbiters. The coloured finishes
are bound to win a few hearts over, but students looking for bang for
bucks would be well advised to make careful comparisons with the other
student brands before shelling out their cash - and with the arrival of
reasonable horns from China at ludicrously cheap prices, it could well
be a case of too little too late for the Earlham.
A few notes, then, on the earlier versions - for those looking to buy
I would like to say "don't bother" (read the article on Ultra-Cheap
horns) but in all fairness I ought to explain some of the pitfalls associated
with the earlier models.
far and away the biggest problem was that of the shoddy keywork.
This shot is from an early Earlham tenor, and shows one of its keys
and the rod screw on which it pivots. Note the gap where the rod
screw leaves the key barrel. It might not look like much but in
sax terms it's pretty severe. This isn't due to wear - this is due
to incorrect tolerance when making up the key barrels. A key with
this much free play in its barrel will wobble on its pivot, and
it's the very devil of a job to seat a pad on such a key. Getting
it to work in tandem with other keys (which may also exhibit free
play) is impossible.
Now, as remarked earlier, Earlham have been steadily improving down
the years - but the earlier models had no markings on them other
than the brand name, so it will be difficult for the inexperienced
eye to spot the later models. If you find yourself being tempted
by one of these horns, take great care to check
for excessive free play in the action.
Another significant problem was uneven tone holes. This is a very serious
problem, and although it's fixable it isn't by any means a cheap job.
Most examples simply had warped holes - but some were so badly finished
that had actual steps in the tone hole rims, left over from the machining
Tone holes such as these will always leak.
Some models were fitted with metal rollers on the bell keys. This is
a lousy idea - they rattle like hell unless kept well lubricated.
The cases were of the standard cheap black box variety, and the mouthpieces
The very last models (before the advent of the MK2) were much better built,
the playability and tone being far superior to very early examples.
Because of the variability in the earlier models I would advise great
caution before buying one. If you're in the market for a cheap, modern
student horn you'd be much better off sticking with brands such as Jupiter
or Trevor James - both of which have a far better track record with their
early models, or one of the new Ultra-Cheap horns that are now widely