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Altone alto saxophone

Altone alto saxOrigin: China (www.umbrellamusic.co.uk)
Weight: 2.6kg
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 thing).

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 the fingers.
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 very high.

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?".

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015