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Gear4Music Vintage alto header
 

Gear4Music 'Vintage' alto saxophone
Origin: China
Guide price : £250
Weight: 2.55Kg
Date of manufacture: 2011
Date reviewed : August 2011

Description : An Ultra-Cheap horn with a cheeky name.

Gear4Music Vintage altoIt's not often you hear the words saxophone, Chinese and vintage in the same sentence - and when you do it's likely to be followed by howls of derision and indignation from fans of truly vintage horns...but you've gotta call a horn something, and I guess if you finish it in a vaguely green and brown muddy lacquer then it's as good a name as any.
I can understand the sentiment though, the word 'vintage' as applied to saxophones carries with it a great many desirable things; a certain build quality, a certain tonal approach, a sense of integrity and longevity - so bunging the word on a mass-produced cheap horn is a bit of a cheek...but that's marketing for you.

I'll admit there's a slight temptation to take the marketeers at their word and judge the product to the standards the name implies, but I like to be fair - and at the end of the day this is a £200 horn, and I'd be very surprised if there's anything even slightly vintage about it.
Those in the know will have already spotted that it's a Yanagisawa 'knock-off', at least in terms of the key design and layout. What the body is copied on is anybody's guess, but it's at least surprisingly well-built.
I had a good look at the tone holes and found nothing much worthy of comment - perhaps or or two that might bear closer examination...but then at this price if you have to look that hard to spot any faults, you're doing very well indeed.

All the usual features are present; detachable bell, adjustable thumb hook, removable side F# key guard, decently-sized thumb rest and a triple-point bell stay.
The pillars and fittings are neatly attached (all bar one, as we'll see later) and the finish is actually quite good...if not perhaps my personal choice. There's even some decent engraving on the bell, as well as some on the bell rim itself. Not a bad touch for a cheap horn.

The keywork is up to the same standard as the bodywork - it's a lot more accurately made than was common a few years ago on such horns and includes some notable features, such as double cup arms on the low C and B keys, a helper arm over the Auxiliary F key cup and a well-designed and placed front top F key.
Gear4Music Vintage alto top stackOther nice features include a simple fork and pin link for the side Bb and C keys, a tilting table for the bell key spatulas and key height adjusters on both stacks - although there are no regulation adjusters.
Note too the enclosed top E/F# barrel brace, which both prevents these long keys from flexing in use and keeps them quiet.

A closer look at the action shows that slightly better felts have been used than those found on older models. Yep, you still have the corks - and potentially the issue with some of them coming adrift due to the shonky glue that the Chinese use (what IS that stuff??) - but the better felts are a welcome step-up nonetheless. They're firmer, and appear to be fitted with more care.

Powering the action is a set of blued steel springs which were really rather well set, it has to be said. This isn't that uncommon these days - the very first Ultra-Cheap horns often had a terribly heavy action, mostly due to the need for the springs to take up the excess play in the keywork. Over the years the Chinese have got better at making keys, and on some examples I've found that the springs required hardly any tweaking at all, if any.

Gear4Music Vintage alto spatsThere's the usual let-down associated with the use of pseudo point screws, though at the time of review I didn't find any excessively loose keys. At a later date it might be prudent to replace these screws with proper points - but by then you will probably have moved on to a better horn.
As far as I'm aware there's only one Chinese horn that features proper point screws, and that's the Bauhaus-Walstein AI series. It's a feature worth paying the extra for, but I suspect it won't be long before it's found on other Ultra-Cheap brands.

As with the action, another area that's improved over the years is the quality of the pads fitted to these instruments.
Sure, they're still cheap pads, but they're stiffer and flatter these days - and on this horn they were quite well set.
I had to adjust a couple for optimum performance, but that's no more than I'd have to do to any new horn. I daresay a decent set of pads would make a difference to the horn's performance, but it wouldn't be by much and the cost would far outweigh the gains.

The horn comes in a hard-shell case, fitted with proper catches instead of the usual crappy zip - it'll protect the horn from most knocks, but one thing to be aware of is the risk of shock damage to the arched bell key pillar (shown here on the right). A hard knock to either end of the case cam make the bell keys act like slide-hammers, and push the pillar back. It's a bit disconcerting when your bell keys fall off as you lift the horn out of its case, but fortunately it's not too difficult to fix.
Inside the case is a shove-it type swab - you'd be well-advised to to exactly that...in the bin...and get a decent one (HW Padsaver).

The horn feels well-balanced in the hands. Out of the box the action was pretty good, but with a few small tweaks it felt even better. As is common with most Ultra-Cheap horns, the fact that the key design is 'heavily influenced' by that found on very much more expensive saxes means that you're unlikely to have any real problems with the ergonomics. So - everything feels like it's where it ought to be. Having key height adjusters fitted means you can tweak the height of the main stacks with gay abandon. It's not something I'd recommend you try without knowing a little more about the whys and wherefores though - but you could do a lot worse than invest in a copy of the Haynes Saxophone Manual if you're interested in a spot of tweaking...

If you've been following this site for a few years you might have noticed that I've had something of an on/off relationship with Gear4Music horns.
They started off well, and featured in the review of a generic Chinese-built alto - at which point they got a firm thumbs-up. Since then I've had a number of reports from buyers that pointed to a drop in quality control, so much so that I felt obliged to remove my recommendation.
This horn goes a very long way towards correcting that, and would have done so without hesitation were it not for one small issue.

Gear4Music Vintage alto guardI mentioned earlier that all the pillars and fittings were neatly attached, bar one - and here it is.

Here's a shot of the bell key guard - this was how the horn arrived in the box. As you can see, one of the guard feet has popped off.
Now let's be completely fair here - these things happen, and not just to cheap horns. Granted, it's far more unusual to take delivery of an expensive horn and find that something's come adrift in transit, and yes, the old saying 'You get what you pay for" still carries weight...but there's always room for some perspective.
Because this horn was needed for a deadline it was decided to simply have it repaired rather than contact the retailer - who would have replaced the horn without any fuss, so I have no beef with that.
However, it does mean that either these horns aren't properly checked before they're shipped out, or that they're not as well-packaged as they ought to be, or that they don't take knocks quite as well as more expensive horns. I feel these issues are fairly reflected in the price. Quality control, packaging and build quality all cost money - which is why you can now pay anything up to £700 for a Chinese-built alto. Yes, you'll get a better horn and it will stand more of a chance of arriving in one piece...but you'll pay for the privilege.
Gear4Music Vintage alto guard - fixedOn the plus side - the G4M alto blew straight out of the box right down to a subtone low Bb, even with the detached guard foot - and have a look at the photo of the repair...a properly soldered joint with no lacquer damage. I'm not going to say there wasn't a degree of skill involved (and, fellow repairers, let's be honest - a bit of luck too) but the fact that the finish withstood the heat is commendable. That's a big thumbs-up.
A job like this costs around £10-20 depending on how smoothly it all goes, so some might consider it worth having done rather than shipping it back to the supplies. You might even find they'd prefer to refund the cost of the job rather than deal with the hassle of arranging to have a replacement horn shipped to you. Never hurts to ask!

Tonewise? Well, what exactly are you expecting? If you think that merely making one horn look like another means that the tone will be the same, you'd be wrong. And if you thought that making a horn cheaply means it won't sound any good, you'd be wrong again.
Simply put, it's got a nice medium-bright tone - not too harsh, certainly not muddy and indistinct. It's a flexible tone too, the choice of mouthpiece will make a big difference (the one supplied with the horn is useless) - so fans of the modern, contemporary sound can pop their baffled pieces on and make those top notes scream. More laid-back players can stick with large-chambered pieces and bring out the midrange and lower end. This horn will do it.
I said I'd be surprised is this horn had anything vintage about it - and I am. Compared to a great many modern horns, this one has at least a passing nod to the warmth of horns of old. It's just there, in the background. Credit where credit is due, it's an unexpected and welcome feature and it raises this horn above the run-of-the-mill.
It has none of the unevenness that used to plague cheap horns from a couple of decades ago, and none of the tuning problems either.
Sure, it's not as cultured a tone as that from the horn on which this is based - in a side-by-side comparison with a Yanagisawa 992 it's instantly obvious that the Yani is more refined (as it ought to be), but you might be very surprised at how little difference there is considering the vast difference in price - the Yani is around ten times the price.

What's interesting to note is that this horn was bought by the player who owns the 992. Both horns were brought in for a service - the Yani because it's been a year since it was last tweaked, and the G4M because it had just been bought. Why would someone who owns a 992 want to buy a cheap copy? He's off on a trip around Europe and wanted to take a horn with him. What could be better than one that feels much the same as the 992 (in terms of ergonomics), that gives a credible performance and that costs less than the price of a decent phone or a respectable pocket camera?
Travelling can be a risky business - things get damaged in transit, people have a few too many Margaritas and fall over, and sometimes you stray into areas which the locals tend to steer clear of. It makes perfect sense to travel light and cheap - and if the worst happens you're an anecdote up and only a couple of hundred quid down.

But to label this horn as just a cheap travelling toy is to seriously underestimate it. Put side-by-side with a student horn from years gone by, such as the ubiquitous Corton or Lafluer, and the G4M will kick them firmly into a corner...and then stamp on them. Players of my generation who started out on such monsters as the Guban Luxorsolo (Romanian), the B&M Champion (East German) and the aforementioned Corton (Czech) would have broken down in tears of joy at the chance to have played a horn like this. Even later arrivals like the Jupiter, which was considerably better than any other student horn in the same price range, can't quite match the performance - let alone the feel of the action.

Taking into account the problem with the bell key guard, and offsetting that against the quality of the action, the finish and the horn's performance - and finally the price - I feel more than comfortable about putting the G4M back on the recommended list.

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