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SMS Academy Jericho J6 alto header
 

SMS Academy Jericho J6 alto saxophone
Origin: China
Guide price : £299
Weight: 2.45kg
Date of manufacture: June 2012
Date reviewed : July 2012

Description : An Ultra-Cheap alto with a lot to shout about.

SMS Academy Jericho alto saxIt's been a tough time lately for the Academy brand. For a few years now it's been a source of decent budget-priced student instruments that have been quietly selling without making too much of a fuss. But last year the company suffered a fire at its warehouse (the place next door caught fire) and business took a bit of a nose-dive as the company rushed around trying to find a new place to relocate to. They did this...and guess what...another fire.
At this point most people would have taken it as a divine message and given up, but like the Phoenix from the ashes (well, two of them I suppose) they rose up and carried on.
I asked them why - given that things are pretty tough in retail at the moment, particularly in the music business - and the answer that came back was "Because we love doing this!" Can't say fairer than that.

It also gave them the chance to check out the manufacturers to see what was new on the market. Unlike some retailers of ultra-cheap instruments, Academy has always picked a manufacturer and stuck with them - developing a relationship, feeding back comments and working to improve the standard of the product. The best retailers all share this methodology, and while it doesn't make for the quickest 'buck' it nevertheless builds a loyal customer-base. However, it's equally wise to keep an eye on what's new - and to recognise when it's time to move on.
Their last premium horn, the Scholarship Series, was pretty good - a no-nonsense sax that easily held it own against the competition, so I was keen to see how the new '2012' series would compare.

The most notable change is the design of the horn. Most, if not all, of the ultra-cheap horns are 'based' on one of the main brands - such as Selmer or Yamaha. I say 'based' because simply having a few obvious similarities (such as the design and layout of the keys) is no guarantee that the body is anywhere near a copy. In fact it's not uncommon to find that a factory will make several models, each of which is claimed to be 'a close representation' of a well-known brand, but when pressed they grudgingly admit that the body tubes are identical throughout the range.
Clearly this horn takes a lot of inspiration from a Yamaha, a YAS62 no less - at least if you look at it from a distance.

The construction of the body is semi-ribbed; there's a rib that runs down the length of the entire upper stack, which keeps on going down to the side F# and continues all the way to the low C upper pillar. The bottom stack, in contrast, uses individual pillars.
It comes with all mod cons - a detachable bell, adjustable thumb hook (plastic), removable side F# key guard, top F# key a decently-sized cling ring and a large, very slightly domed plastic thumb rest.
The tone holes were nice and level, though one or two of them could have been slightly better finished off - I noted a touch of roughness to the rims in places.
The finish was very good though, a nice, neat coat of lacquer on the body over a set of neatly fitted pillars. This example was laser engraved with a logo, but I'm told that this is being changed to a stamped logo. It makes no difference to the horn other than it looks a bit neater - and as laser engraving is often cut through the lacquer it will mean that there's less chance of oxidisation forming around the cuts over time.
While I'm on the subject, the bell key compound pillar is mounted on a single pillar with quite a small base. I was about to cry 'Aha! This is a weakness!" and then realised that it's exactly the same as the one on my Yamaha 62 - and that hasn't been fallen off in over 25 years...so I suppose I can't complain.
Holding it all together is an oval two-point bell stay. A three-point stay would have been my favourite, but altos are quite small and light and don't suffer from as many hard knocks as the larger saxes.

Jericho alto bell stayThe keywork was particularly good. Not only was it quite neatly made, it was well finished with a coat of nickel plate and, more importantly, quite snug on the pivots. This is where a lot of cheap instruments fall down - the looks are good, the keys are tidy, but everything wobbles about.
Not so on this horn - I had to look quite hard before I found a slight wobble (on the top B key), but it really was quite slight and presented no problems with regard to playability.
I felt the octave key mechanism had a touch of free play on the swivel pin, but it was borderline - and more than accommodated for by the slickness of the rest of the mechanism.
There's a teardrop shaped front top F touchpiece that's nicely placed, simple but effective fork and pin connectors for the side Bb and C keys, regulation adjusters on both main stacks and a quick check with the screwdriver showed that all the screwed-on key arm pins were nice and tight (often a failure point on ultra-cheap horns).
Of special note, to me anyway, was that the corkwork was quite neat - and thin felts had been using to buffer the regulation screws. That's a nice touch, as is the use of felt for the bell key bumpers rather than a lump of hard rubber or squishy foam.

As you'd expect at this price point, the point screws are of the pseudo type (as fitted to rather more expensive horns these days), but because the key barrels haven't been drilled too deeply they're able to function as proper point screws. This means that at a later date it will be possible to take up a little wear and tear by reaming the pillars.
Topping off the action is a reasonable set of pads - which were quite well set - and a set of blued steel springs to power the action.
Finally, it comes in a standard semi-soft zip-fastened case - which is light and functional.

Jericho alto adjustersIn the hands the horn felt very comfortable. Of particular note was the placement of the bell key spatulas and the low C/Eb touchpieces - all within easy reach. This bodes well for players with smaller hands and should make this an easy horn for youngsters to handle. Another consideration is the weight. At 2.45kg this is one of the lighter horns on the market. Some people associate a lack of weight with a lack of build quality - which leaves them a bit of explaining to do when told that the Yamaha YAS275 alto tips the scales at just 2.3kg...and if their reply is "Well that just proves my point!" you can tell them that the Selmer MKVI weighed the same. And you can add "So there!", just for good measure.
On average it makes this sax about 150 grammes lighter than most of the competition in the same price range, which might not sound like a great deal but is actually quite significant if you're a young player with a big lump of brass hanging from your neck.

Academy Jericho copper altoThe set up was quite good too, with the main stack keys being evenly sprung with a medium-firm tension. Being picky I would say that I would liked to have seen the palm keys sprung just a tad lighter, but then there's some merit in having these set a little firmer for beginners...they often rest their hand on these keys, which opens them unexpectedly and leads to a lot of very strange noises. Best of all, I didn't have to make any adjustments to the regulation - the horn played right out of the box.

As soon as I blew this horn I recognised it. It had that same punch, clarity and response you get from a Yamaha. This surprised me, given what I'd said earlier about copies not quite being copies - but there's no denying that there's definitely a 'chip off the old block' thing going on. It's like a breath a fresh air, and in quite a literal sense. When compared side-by-side with a couple of other ultra-cheap horns, the Academy was by far and away the easiest to play and the most 'alive'. However, it doesn't resort to a tendency to be over-bright to achieve this - tonewise it still retains plenty of depth, it just strips away the muddiness that a lot of cheaper horns can suffer from.
It's a fresh, invigorating tone - it's like a playful puppy, it has that sense of gentle urgency...you can almost hear it saying "Play another note! Play another note!"
I really liked this. There are a lot of decent horns out there that can be bought for just a few hundred pounds, and I'd be more than happy to use on of them on a gig - they'd do the job, no problem at all - but I'd enjoy playing one of these.
The tone was nice and even across the range too, and there were no issues with regard to tuning...even on the altissimo notes.
I tried the mouthpiece that came with the sax. It was passable, but this horn really does deserve something rather better. A Yamaha 3C or 4C would make a lot of difference for a very small additional outlay.

A couple of weeks after I posted this review I had a client bring in a copper plated version (with clear lacquer over the top), bearing the new stamped logo. I was very keen to see this as I've often seen major differences in the build quality between sample and production runs. I had a good look over the horn but couldn't find any notable differences, which bodes well for consistency.

When all is said and done I was very pleased with this horn. Yes, I found a few niggles to complain about - but nothing very serious, and certainly nothing I'd quibble about at the price. Better still though, I found rather a lot more to like. In every respect it's a good cut above the ultra-cheap horns around the £200 mark, and perfectly fills the gap before you get into the Bauhaus Walstein price range.
Of particular note is Academy's returns policy; where most retailers in the business give you 14 days to make up your mind as to whether you want to keep the instrument or return it for a refund, Academy give you 30 days. It just makes things a bit more relaxed for the buyer, and that's always a good thing.
Given the design of this saxophone, the build quality, its response and playability, the price and that very generous returns policy, I'd say it all adds up to the best value-for-money package in this category.

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