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Buffet 400 alto saxophone

Buffet 400 alto saxOrigin: China (www.buffet-crampon.com)
Guide price: £880
Weight: 2.65kg
Date of manufacture: 2012
Date reviewed: April 2014

A budget alto with a lot to live up to

When the Buffet 400 arrived on the scene back in 2008 it caused quite a stir. In itself the practice of a major manufacturer having instruments built 'in other places' is not at all unusual and has been going on for many years - but the 400 was one of the first instruments to come out of China bearing a 'big' name. Up until quite recently Taiwan was the place to go if you wanted to build an instrument to a price - but since the advent of Ultra Cheap horns the Taiwanese have, very sensibly, upped their game considerably. So it was only a matter of time before corporate eyes turned to China.
Given the reputation of Chinese-built instruments at the time, this was bound to be a risky proposition - and would only have been possible with a great deal of technical support and communication between the brand company and the factory.
This is, essentially, how the Taiwanese market was kick-started back in the 1980s - with the result that a couple of decades later there were very credible pro-spec horns coming out of that region under 'home-brand' names.
I've seen some of the very worst of the Chinese output - and I've seen some of the very best - so the question is, where does the Buffet 400 sit?

Well, if I were judging on looks alone I'd say the Buffet was a clear winner.
I can't say that it's a particularly unusual or distinctive horn, but the combination of a deep gold lacquer and the extensive engraving (which runs up the body tube and onto the crook - and each key cup is similarly finished) lend this horn a very 'tailored' air. It's perhaps not quite my style but I can at least appreciate how much effort has gone into the window dressing.

A closer look reveals a fairly typical fully-ribbed construction, with barely a handful of standalone pillars.
There's a detachable bell, held in place by a comfortingly sturdy two-piece clamp; a solid triple-point bell stay; adjustable bell key guard bumpers; a brass adjustable thumb hook and a generously-proportioned octave key thumb rest - though this is flat-topped and made from plastic.
The way in which all these bits and pieces are fixed to the body is worthy of comment, because it's exceptional. It's the very epitome of neat and tidy - and given the price of this horn it puts examples like the Yamaha YAS62 III I recently reviewed to shame. Absolutely top marks there.

But now I have to take a few away, because there were a few issues with the body - the most notable being a few warped toneholes.
Bufet 400 alto sax toneholeOn the whole the 400 did OK - I found a couple of toneholes that had very slight warps, but nothing that would have caused any problems while the pads were in good shape. But I also found one (the low C) that was iffy enough to cause a slight leak. Again, not too serious but certainly enough to knock a bit of the stuffing out of the bell notes.
The real big-hitter though was on the Aux.B key, which had a very visible warp centred around the 4 o'clock position. It's clearly visible in the photo, and a leak of this size in this location will have had a knock-on effect all the way down the rest of the horn.

I also have to take away a few points for the condition of the lacquer.
Now, this horn is around 18 months old and there are already quite a few blemishes here and there. Some of them, such as the peppering of spots on the low B/Bb guard may well be down to small knocks and dings in use - though the position of the blemishes doesn't really fit.
Buffet 400 alto sax blemishOthers though are a dead cert for flux bleed, which is the leaching out of soldering residues from joints. This residues seeps out underneath the lacquer and attacks the brass, leading to characteristic black and red spots. Some were found on the body, some on the keys (particularly the key cups) but the worst was beneath the compound bell key pillar (which, incidentally, could have done with a rather larger pillar base).

Now, I'm perhaps being a tad unfair here because it's well known that Chinese saxes don't tend to hold onto their lacquer all that well - and some allowance has to be made for how the horn has been used and stored - but I noted no degradation of the finish around the extensive engraving, which has been cut through the lacquer ('browning' around the engraving is very often a symptom of a horn being stored in damp conditions). At this price point, and given the name the horn bears, it's at least worthy of comment for a horn of this relatively tender age.

On now to the action, and on the whole I was pretty impressed with it.
Buffet 400 alto sax helper barThe build quality matches that of the body (disregarding the few faults) and there are a few nice features, such as the simple but practical F# helper bar, as seen on the left. It's just a plain flat bar with an adjuster on it - its purpose being to allow some fine adjustment to the closing force on the Aux.F key cup. Plenty of modern horns have this feature, but many of them use a long bar that extends out from the F key barrel - which is about as flexible as the key it's trying to support. This is about as much use as one drunk leaning on another for support.
There are also double key arms for the low C/B/Bb key cups - though not for the low C#, which is the one key cup which would really benefit from them. Still, they add little weight and provide an additional bit of stiffness to the key arms.

The front top F touchpiece is teardrop shaped, which makes it easier if you like to roll your forefinger up for the F rather than have to lift it, and there's also a domed Bis Bb key pearl...and a large one at that. I noted that the key pearls were plastic rather than mother-of-pearl...which runs contrary to quite a few of the retailer descriptions I've seen. I'm assuming that earlier models had MOP and that the switch to plastic pearls was made a few years into production.
There are no adjusters (regulation or height) on the main stacks, which is a bit disappointing.

I noted the point screws were of the pseudo type, though I should say that the corresponding holes in the key barrels were very well drilled - with the result that there was very little free play to be found on the keys.
Similarly, the rod screw action was pretty good - one or two slightly wobbly keys (palm keys, top B, side Bb) but nothing excessive.
However, some of the rod screws were a bit too short, with the result that the screw heads sat well down inside the pillars.

Buffet 400 alto sax spring cradleI also noticed a rather curious anomaly on the palm key plate, and here you can see the top Eb key held in position over its pillars. Note the spring channel between the pillars. It's intended for the Eb spring, but look at where the tip of the spring actually sits. It goes right past (normally under) the top F key barrel. It doesn't make much difference, to be sure - the tip of the spring will be prevented from slipping sideways by the D key pillar and the F key spring - but someone's clearly gone to all the trouble to cut that channel in entirely the wrong place.

The setup was generally quite good. I've no idea if this horn has been tweaked in the past, but the springs were more or less OK - perhaps a little strong in places - and the height of the action was mid-to-high, which is about right for this sort of horn. The corkwork was quite neat, and showed no signs of coming adrift - which is a common problem on many Chinese horns.
The pads are of good quality (Pisoni 'Mypads') and were quite well set over most of the instrument, though they're held in place with hot melt glue rather than shellac.
Finally, the whole action is powered by blued steel springs.

Buffet 400 alto caseThe case looks to be sturdy enough. It's of the semi-soft type but it's a cut above the typical generic Chinese examples. It has the usual zip fastener, though this too looks to be of better quality than usual. However, as with all zips it's all about 'when' the zip will fail rather than 'if'. Perhaps someone shares my concern, because the case is fitted with a pair of short straps that span the zip and are locked with plastic clips. They really don't appear to have any function other than to suggest that the zip might not be man enough to hold the case together (unlikely) or to provide a backup for when the zip fails (more likely).
There's a decent handle, at least, and some solid-looking scuff bumpers here and there - and ample storage space both inside and out for all your bits and bobs. Finishing up the package is a pair of shoulder straps which allow for the case to be carried backpack-style.

Under the fingers the horn feels really rather nice, very solid in fact. This will be down to the accuracy of the action but a good set of non-squishy pads certainly helps. The large Bis Bb pearl really makes a difference - its size making it a cinch to roll the forefinger on and off it. The simple fork and pin connectors on the side Bb/C keys work well (as you'd expect) and all the ancillary keys (palms, low C/Eb etc.) are nicely placed.
The octave key mechanism deserves special mention - it's of the standard swivel-arm design but it's quite well built. It has a good range of travel (which means it can be tweaked if you prefer less) and a switch-like response. It's one of the better mech I've seen from that part of the world.

I blew the 400 when it came in for a service and my immediate impression was that it was quite a dull horn...not very exciting. Granted, it had a few leaks - and I was curious to see just how much zing would come about once they were fixed.
The short answer is 'not very much'.
First up, it's quite a stiff blow. I wouldn't mark this down as a negative as there are plenty of great horns out there that are quite resistant blowers, but it does tend to mean that it takes a bit of work to really coax some fireworks out of it.
On the plus side it's quite a 'safe' horn - beginners will appreciate its stability, though they might need some careful reed/mouthpiece matching to avoid running out of puff. On the down side more experienced players might find it frustrating if they want a bit more of the brilliance that altos are typically known for.

Buffet 400 alto sax bell braceTonewise I'd say the 400 has its feet firmly in the dark camp. It's got that classic 'gentle ballad' thing going on, which makes it well-suited to chamber-jazz ensembles. That said, you might think that means it excels when the going gets quiet - but it doesn't. In fact it struggles a bit. I've noticed this with certain other horns, it's as though they seem to have a definite cut-off point. A good horn will, say, chuck out a rich tone at any volume along a scale of 1 to 5, but the 400 seems to drop out around the 1 mark. Keep it at 2 and above and it's fine. However, there's a bit of trouble at the other end too, because once you get to 4 it starts to push back real hard...and the top C starts to growl a little.
All of this can, of course, be tweaked by mouthpiece selection - but it's always worth bearing in mind that it's easier to tame a bright horn than it is to pep up a dark one.
I often tend to think you can tell a lot about a horn by what happens when you let your mind wander while you're playing it. Some horns will lead you into a more bluesy, R&B feel; others will nudge you towards bop or funk. The 400 kind of had me meandering...noodling. It wasn't unpleasant, but I'd want to take something a bit scarier to a gig.

All of this needs to be put into some kind of perspective though.
The bottom line is that it's (give or take a few quid) a £900 Chinese horn, and for that price I think you'd be hard put to find this kind of tonal approach elsewhere.
Assuming, naturally, that that's your bag. I don't mind admitting that I like my altos to be rather more adventurous, and at £300 less even the entry-level Bauhaus Walstein packs a lot more tonal punch and presentation - but then again it's fair to say that the 400 has the edge in terms of build quality on the whole, though perhaps not quite so much when compared with the BW A.I model, which is still cheaper.
And at its asking price the 400 is up against the formidable Yamaha YAS275, and as if that wasn't competition enough there's another very promising contender in the shape of the new TJ Horn 88...and as they've been turning out some crackingly good horns of late I'm willing to bet this new one won't be a pushover.

My overall impression is that the 400 is a bit of mixed bag for Buffet.
It's very clear that they've put a lot of time and effort into ensuring the horn comes out at a certain standard. This alone is quite an achievement, and the odd slip-ups I found are perhaps testimony to the difficulties the Chinese manufacturers have when it comes to consistency.
I would assume that there are enhanced quality-control procedures in place at this price-point, but this example was perhaps one that just slipped under the net - but I'm prepared to give the benefit of the doubt and put it down to bad luck.
I think, too, that this horn will have an appeal for first-time buyers. It might be a bit of a resistant horn, but that can make the difference between the first note being a proper note or a squeak...and that's an important consideration if you're a new player. It will also have an appeal to more experienced players who're looking for a darker, thicker tone from an alto. Where it all gets a bit tricky is in the comparison with other similarly-priced (and cheaper) horns that, tonally, have a lot more to offer.

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015