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Earlham Professional Series II alto saxophone

Earlham Pro II alto saxophoneOrigin: China
Guide price: £400 +
Weight: -
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.

Earlham Pro II alto low BThe 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 used.
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.

Earlham key barrelBy 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 process.
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 were dire.
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 available.

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015