Buffet 400 alto saxophone
Guide price: £880
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.