Altone alto saxophone
Guide price: £230
Date of manufacture: March 2010
Date reviewed: April 2010
Just another Ultra-Cheap student
saxophone from China? Maybe not...
It's been a while since I formally reviewed an Ultra-Cheap horn, so the
chance to examine this particular instrument gave me the opportunity to
see just how far the Chinese have come since I first saw one of their
saxes some six or so years ago.
It's no secret that the build quality of Chinese horns has risen substantially
in that time. Student Taiwanese horns had always been my benchmark of
minimum build standards, and when the first Chinese horns appeared on
the market there was still some justification for recommending that buyers
spend a bit more just to ensure they got an instrument that was physically
capable of working. Times have changed though, and the Taiwanese themselves
have recognised that they can no longer rest on the laurels of build quality
- and have done the only thing they could in order to protect their student
brands from such fierce competition...have them made in China.
Some sellers are taking advantage of this rise in quality and are retailing
Chinese instruments at the sort of prices once commanded by intermediate
quality Taiwanese horns - but there's still a huge market for a sub £250
saxophone, and this is where the Altone sits.
What you get for the money is quite impressive. The body is well constructed
and finished and features all mod cons such as a detachable bell, adjustable
thumb rest, adjustable bell key bumpers, sturdy three-point bell brace
and reassuringly level tone holes.
On the keywork side there are key height adjusters on both stacks (though
no regulation screws, which is more of an issue for repairers), a top
F# key, reliable fork and pin connectors for the side Bb and C trills
and a tilting table mechanism for the bell key spatulas. The action is
powered by blued steel springs.
Pseudo point screws are fitted and so there's limited scope for taking
up any wear and tear in the action, though given the expected 'use life'
(about three or four years - not that the horn will fall apart after that
point, just that the player will have outgrown the instrument and will
want to upgrade) it won't be an issue.
I terms of what you get for your money it looks rather good, but it gets
a bit better.
It's one thing to make a decent body and good keys, what's more important
is how it all fits together - and on the Altone it fits together very
well. Very well indeed, in fact.
The first thing I do when I pick up a Chinese horn is to give the keys
a bit of a wiggle. The saxophone is by no means a precision instrument
and can still function reasonably well with the sort of mechanical faults
that would render any other kind of machine inoperable. Of course, that's
no excuse - and the tighter and more precise the build quality is, the
better the instrument is going to feel, play and last.
So I wiggled...and wiggled...and wiggled.
The bottom line is that I found a little bit of excess play in the octave
key mechanism and a tiny bit on the top Eb key. To put that into perspective
I've seen as much or more play on the keywork of many a much more expensive
brand new instrument. When you take into account the asking price for
this horn, the build quality of the action is, frankly, astonishing.
I was even hard put to fault the set up. I noticed a little bit of double
action on the top B key and I felt the bell keys were just a touch too
highly sprung - but again I've seen much worse on more expensive horns,
and neither of these slight issues would be a problem (just a comfort/feel
The action is nicely laid out. It seems to be a bit of a mix between
a Selmer and Yanagisawa style layout, so it's quite comfortable under
I felt that there was perhaps a slight reach to get to the low Bb key,
but after a few days of testing this horn I found my fingers adapted to
it without any problems.
The front top F key has a teardrop style touchpiece, which usually gives
very good results but was slightly out of line. A quick tweak soon put
that right. It's a small point, admittedly, but if the instrument is capable
of feeling like a pro horn under the fingers then it's worth the odd small
tweak to make it so.
It's worth bearing in mind that my standard advice regarding such horns
is that you should budget for another £20-40 to have them properly
set up. A set up by a repairer can improve the playability and feel of
a horn no end - but aside from the tweak to the top F key and a few minor
spring and action tweaks, there wasn't really much that needed to be done
on this instrument. That's impressive. Very impressive.
Playing the Altone gave the expected results, tonewise it's neutral to
slightly bright - which is a good thing for a student horn as it makes
for a less demanding blow - and it's quite even throughout the range,
as is the tuning.
I enjoyed playing it, it had a good balance between clarity and attack
but never seem to get too out of hand. In some ways that points up its
student credentials - if you're looking for a horn you can push until
it screams, this isn't it...but then it isn't meant to be (for less than
£250? Are you kidding??). It's a stable horn that's not too lively
and will prove to be quite forgiving for the new player.
The outfit is rounded out with a decent case (bearing a rather snazzy
logo) that's a step up from the standard offering and the usual complement
of a strap and a basic mouthpiece - both of which would benefit from being
upgraded immediately (particularly the mouthpiece).
In short the Altone sets a new standard for Ultra-Cheap horns. The build
quality is fantastic, it plays well and feels comfortable - and as it
stands it represents a thoroughly decent student saxophone. Add in the
purchase price of a tad under £250 and there's no way I'd hesitate
to recommend this horn to a beginner.
At present the Altone range includes alto and soprano saxes (straight
and curved) - but no tenor. I'm told it's on the way, and if it's as well
built as the alto it should be very interesting indeed.
I'm going to keep my eye on this range of horns. It's one thing to set
a standard but quite another to maintain it, and Altone have set the bar
I have viewed the Ultra-Cheap Chinese horn phenomenon in terms of 'generations'.
The first generation blew apart the price barrier and made saxophones
very affordable, although you had to choose wisely. The second generation
added a layer of quality and made it possible for brand names to appear,
as well as allowing established brands to source their products from China
(Conn-Selmer, Jupiter etc.). We're now in the third generation, where
the best of what the Chinese can produce is competing for the market that
was once dominated by the Taiwanese - and doing rather better at it.
The Altone doesn't need to be ashamed of its credentials, it's a third
generation Ultra-Cheap horn. Build quality is sufficiently good that you
needn't worry about it, it's more than capable of meeting the requirements
of its target market at an extremely attractive price - and the only question
you have to ask is "Do I want a saxophone?".