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TJ The Horn '88 alto saxophone

TJ 'The Horn' 88 alto saxophone reviewOrigin: Taiwan
Guide price: £799
Weight: 2.56kg
Date of manufacture: 2014 (serial range: 10xxx)
Date reviewed: March 2016

The TJ RAW's little brother

It's been a couple of years since I last reviewed any of TJ's offerings, so when this natty little alto came in for a simple repair I cleared the bench, turned the phone off and fired up the old camera.
I'll admit I was more than a little excited because it's quite a natty-looking alto, but also because I was very keen to see how it compared with the RAW XS I reviewed a couple of years ago (and almost to the day, give or take a week or so). To be sure, I wasn't planning to do a side-by-side 'which one plays best' smackdown, because that would be rather unfair and, realistically, of little point - but I was rather keen to see whether this budget horn shared any of the build-quality features of the more professional models.
I'd imagine it's pretty obvious that there'll be differences - the cash you shell out for a pro horn doesn't all get spent on creating the tone - but it ought to follow that at least some of the design and manufacturing processes get passed down the line to the cheaper models. It happens with other brands - so why not with TJ?

Another reason for my excitement is that this is a horn in the wild. It's not new, it hasn't been supplied by the manufacturer for review and it's seen a bit of wear and tear.
Not that such things make any difference to my review process, or the things I praise or criticise - but I just feel more at home reviewing a horn that's, shall we say, got a bit of gob on it. It's a quaint expression, I grant you, but one carries weight nonetheless.

It's also exciting because its price-point puts it in one of the most hotly-contested sectors of the market. It not only has to compete with a whole bunch of cheap and cheerful horns underneath it, it's also got to take on every other manufacturer who wants a slice of the cake. From a purely financial perspective there's a clear advantage to winning sales over your competitors, but there's also the benefit of 'hooking' the buyer into your design philosophy. In other words, if you start off your playing career on a particular brand of horn, there's a better chance you'll be more likely to stay with that brand when the time comes to upgrade. You get used to the feel of the horn, the in-house tonal philosophy and, if your experience has been a generally positive one, you might also develop a touch of brand loyalty. These may well not be things a manufacturer can bank on, but any tilting of the deck on their favour, no matter how small, increases the chance of one more sale for them. And don't forget that one more sale for them means one less sale for everyone else. That counts too.

But none of this matters if the product doesn't meet or exceed the customer's expectations - so now it's time to see whether TJ have come up trumps...or are left holding the joker...

The construction is ribbed - multiple pillars fitted to straps which are then fitted to the body. First-time buyers might wonder whether there are any advantages to this (over fitting each pillar individually to the body), to which the answer is yes...and no. In other words it's not terribly important. The few standalone pillars there are have nice, wide bases - so they won't be in any hurry to fall off in the event of the horn taking a tumble - and there's a detachable semicircular compound bell key pillar, which again adds to the robustness. The bell key guard stays almost follow the same theme, with the centre stays of the Bb and Eb being nice and large - but the remaining stays are quite small in comparison...and I'd like to have seen them be a little larger. I've mentioned this in the other TJ reviews, but in this case - given that students are more likely to play these horns rather than the more expensive RAW and SR - I feel slightly more justified in pointing it up.
You get the usual raft of features; there's a detachable bell, an adjustable metal thumb rest, a lyre holder, adjustable bumper felts on the bell key guards and a sensibly-sized sling ring - but only a flat plastic thumb rest (more of which later).

At this point I'd usually turn my attention to the bell brace, note whether it was dual or triple point mounted and perhaps have a moan if I felt it looked a bit on the weedy side.
But not this time.

TJ Horn88 bell braceAs you can see, it's a four-point mount with the bulk of the brace forming the model name.
From a purely mechanical perspective I can see some pros and cons with this design. The upper body stay is rather lower than the upper bell stay, which is a weaker arrangement than the standard (where the body and bell stays are more or less in line with each other) - and if the brace gets damaged it's going to be a fair bit of work getting all to line up again. But then again there are four mount points rather than the standard three that's the norm these days, so there'll be some added stiffness - and the brace itself is a fairly hefty chunk of metal, with lots of complex angles. These angles will work like crumple zones, thus (hopefully) reducing the amount of damage to the body if the bell takes a whack. And the placement of the body stays means that even if the body absorbs some of the force of a bell impact, there's less chance of any toneholes being affected.
But, all things considered, I quite like it. Given its sheer bulk and the four-point mounting I'd say it'll be at least as good as any three-point bell brace that you'd find fitted to any other horn at around this price...and it has the added bonus of looking rather cool. And it also doubles up as a guard for the rear of the lower stack.
So it's perhaps a bit of a shame that TJ have reverted to a more conservative bell brace on the latest models, as shown on the right. Granted, it's less fussy and there's a fair chance it's a more efficient design - and while it's not as drab as a plain old ring-shaped brace it's nowhere near as 'in yer face' as the old one. Maybe it's one of those things you either love or you hate - but if you love the older brace you probably ought to think about buying a Horn88 before stocks run out in the shops.

By now I'd imagine you've noticed the rather distinctive finish. The Horn88 is coated in what's described as a "Champagne gold frost finish". It's a water-based coating, apparently. Not sure how it's applied, but I'm thinking it's either a dipping process or an electroplating one - because the entire bore of the horn is also coated in the finish...and you wouldn't get that with a spray-based finish. Is that a good thing? I dunno, but I doubt it's a particularly bad thing.
TJ Horn 88 blemishI'm not that much of a fan of frosted finishes, but I don't mind admitting this one looks pretty good. Rather snazzy, in fact. I've no idea what the horn will look like once it's had a few scrapes, and a couple of soldering jobs - but hey, it might look even more snazzy. Something I rather liked was the way in which the finish changed according to the ambient light. Sure, if you shine a red or a blue spotlight at it, it's gonna look red or blue - but under a white light, which might be anything from warm at 3000k to cool at 6000k, it seems to run the whole gamut of colours from bright silver through to a bronze gold. It made taking shots particularly difficult, I can tell you. Normally I'd adjust the white balance of each shot to at least try to maintain some sort of colour consistency - but this time I've just let the horn take on the ambient colour cast so that you can see just how much it changes.

The overall construction is very neat and tidy, though it's impossible to see any fine details beneath the opaque finish - but I did find one small blemish. That's it - right there...a little bobble at the base of a pillar. Can you see it? You might have to squint a bit. It's probably a slightly messy silver-solder joint where the pillar was fitted to the rib.
Well big, fat, hairy deal, you say...and you'd be absolutely right.

The toneholes are all drawn, and were all nice and level. For the most part they were also quite well finished, with just a couple or so showing evidence of a small burr. Mind you I had to go looking for it, so I wouldn't mark it down as a deal breaker.

The build quality of the keywork is good, as is the fit of the keys - with no appreciable wobble on the rod screw mounted keys. Pseudo point screws have been used, but the holes in the key barrels have been drilled too deep for these screws to function like proper points...which means their accuracy lies solely in the diameter of the holes matching the diameter of the screw tips. And for the most part they do - with just a couple of keys showing a hint of a wobble. It's better than what you normally get at this price, and I've seen a lot worse on rather more expensive horns. I tried bending a couple of the keys and noted a good amount of resistance.

TJ Horn88 side Bb keyThere are no adjusters fitted to the main stacks, either for regulation or key height. I like to see regulation adjusters, at least - especially on a horn that's likely to take a fair bit of punishment - but at this price point I guess you have to expect a few economies. There are, however, the usual adjusters for the G# and Bis Bb, as well as one for the link between the low B and the low C#.
Simple fork and pin links have been used on the side Bb/C keys - and these are usually pretty tough and reliable in use. They're also reasonably quiet, provided they're kept lubricated (an occasional spot of silicone grease on the pin will really help).
Note the piece of cork on the bottom of the fork. In general the corkwork's not too bad; it's a bit 'blocky' in places but seems to be fixed quite firmly to the keys - and in certain places they've thrown caution to the wind and fitted the odd bit of felt here and there. In particular, the lower stack buffers are felt, and this will make a big difference to the amount of noise, vibration and key bounce that often comes from these keys.

TJ Horn88 bell key tableThere's a tilting bell key table, and a nice touch is the fitment of a slightly domed oval key pearl in the G# touchpiece. These aren't real mother-of-pearl (they're hard plastic), but I'm rather impressed with the iridescent coloration. It's a nice step up from the usual streaky white plastic pearls that seem to be the standard on budget horns these days.
That said, if you look closely you can see that the pearl is just a tad undersized - and there's a similarly undersized pearl on the side F# key. On the plus side there's a slightly domed pearl on the Bis Bb key, which makes it easier and more comfortable to roll the forefinger down from the B key. It would have been nice to have seen a more pronounced dome on the pearl, but even a little is better than none at all. All the remaining pearls are concave.

On the whole, though, I was rather impressed with the keywork - and even more so with the setup. It was spot on.
Budget horns often suffer from leaving the factory with an action that's set too high, and springs that feel like they've been tensioned by an Olympic weightlifter.
Not so on the Horn88. The key height was set to slightly high of medium (which is a good place to start on a student horn) and the blued steel springs were a gnat's cough over what I'd call a medium tension. There wasn't a hint of double-action or misregulation anywhere - and I know this horn hasn't been tweaked post purchase. A big thumbs up there.
Better yet, a reasonable quality set of pads has been fitted...and they've been rather well set. I really can't over-emphasise the importance of a decent set up; it's simply no good having a superbly-built horn with all the bells and whistles if the action feels kludgy and the whole thing leaks like a sieve. An experienced player will nearly always be able to blow through a few anomalies, but your average beginner needs all the help they can get - and having a horn that works right out of the box is a killer feature.

Speaking of which, another notable feature is that the 88 comes supplied with a Bari Esprit mouthpiece. I'm always banging on about how important it is to have a good quality mouthpiece, and how so many budget horns come with mouthpieces that only work due to luck rather than judgement - so the provision of a decent piece gets a huge pile of brownie points.
And while I'm in a good mood, the shaped semi-soft case isn't too bad at all. OK, so it had a zippered fastener - which I'm non too keen on - but it's got a tough shell beneath the 'canvas' cover...and while there's not much room inside for any bits and bobs (there are dedicated compartments for the crook and the mouthpiece), you at least get a couple of zippered bags attached to the sides...one of which looks like it's exactly the right size to take a flute case. You also get a set of straps, so that you can tote the case backpack-stylee.

TJ Horn88 rifled boreSo far we've seen a couple of interesting features (the bell brace and the finish) and now it's time to show you yet another.
From the outside the crook looks just like any other, but if you take a peek inside you'll see that there are spiral grooves cut into the bore at each end. I've heard this referred to as 'rifling' - a term which comes from the practice of cutting such grooves into the bore of a rifle's barrel to impart a bit of spin to the bullet...which helps to keep it flying straight and true when it's fired. Indeed, the advertising blurb says "The inside of the crook tenon has gun rifling to enhance the air flow and tonal dynamics".
However, the grooves on a gun's barrel are very different to those on this crook...which look more like a coarse screw thread.

There's also the issue that there simply isn't that great an airflow through a horn. If you fill your bath up and pull the plug out, you'll get a nice little whirlpool as the water drains down the plug hole...but if you've only got half an inch of water in the bath, what do you get? Not a lot...just a bit of gurgling as the water drains away in a very unspectacular fashion. You need a certain 'critical mass' before anything unusual happens, and it's something you simply don't get when you play a horn. If you took the mouthpiece off and blew directly into the crook then yeah, something might happen...but it'd be rather academic, and not many people would want to book you for gigs...

There is some mileage, though, in 'perturbations' (ripples, simply put) in a bore having an effect - but this is a very exacting science (with mixed conclusions) and it's extremely unlikely that any effective tweaks will just so happen to look exactly like a screw thread.

So it is any good? Does it work? Well, we see later whether or not it had any noticeable effect - but in the meantime I'd say that ideas that work tend to get quickly taken up by all the manufacturers...which is why most cars are fitted with radial tyres, most toasters pop your bread up and turn themselves off when the toast is ready and a couple of aspirins will see a headache off a great deal sooner than a brew containing various bits of newts, frogs and toenails. 'Rifled' bores have been taken up by at least one major manufacturer (Selmer) and a few smaller ones, but on the whole it remains a niche modification...and you can make of that what you will.

TJ Horn88 octave mechAnyway, while we're up at the top end of the horn I've just got time for one last little whinge, and it's to do with the size of the crook screw.
The head's a bit on the small side - in fact it's not much bigger than the average ligature screw. The fit of the crook into the socket (or receiver) wasn't brilliant either. It's adequate, to be sure, but it's not as snug as it could be... though this might only apply to this particular example. But even I struggled to do up the lock screw enough to secure the crook. With a slightly larger screw head this wouldn't have been so much of a problem, and I can see that young players may well find this to be a bit of an issue.

In the hands the 88 feels reassuringly hefty. Not that it's a heavy horn (it's slightly lighter than average), rather it just feels nice and solid. Under the fingers, however, the action feels quite smooth and responsive. The key layout seems fine. I certainly didn't trip up over the placement of the palm keys or the bell key table, and the addition of the domed Bis Bb pearl, a teardrop-shaped front top F key and the profiled octave key touchpiece made for a very comfortable playing experience.
I'd have liked to have seen a nicer thumb rest though. The flat plastic job is OK, it's not noticeably uncomfortable, but it does rather look a bit out of place on such a distinctive horn. And it seems that someone at TJ agrees with me, because while the latest models have lost the fancy bell brace, they've gained a metal thumb rest...complete with the 88 logo engraved in it.

As previously mentioned, the set up was spot on for the horn's intended target market - but as the player becomes more experienced there's scope to tweak the action still further. You could shave a millimetre or two off the action height, and back the spring off around 10%, and this horn would really fly. It's not something I'd perhaps recommend a complete beginner to have done immediately, but it's at least nice to know that the option of 'race tuning' the horn is there.

TJ Horn88 bellOn playing the horn the first thing I noticed was how easy a blow it is. Now, that's not quite the same as free-blowing. A free-blowing horn almost seems to start playing before you've barely got your lips around the mouthpiece. It has a certain eagerness...like a Formula One car sitting on the grid, waiting for the green light. The 88 is rather more relaxed, and while it offers some resistance it's just enough and no more. This makes it a good all-rounder. Complete beginners will find it helps prevent the tone from going too far out of control, and more experienced players will be able to push against it and really fatten out the tone.
For its intended market it's bang on the money.
Tonewise it's also a nice blow, with a generally medium tone that has a little lift on the warm side and just enough brightness to put a hint of a shine on the notes, and to give the top notes a bit of cut. Well balanced is what I'd call it - and this is something that TJ horns seem to do rather well. And I suppose it's inevitable that people will ask how it compares to the RAW. It might seem a bit odd, wondering whether an £800 horn can square up to one that tips the scales at over two grand - but then the Yamaha 23 certainly shows that it's cut from the same cloth as the 62...so perhaps it's not so unreasonable a question.
I think the similarities lie in the tonal balance. The 88 doesn't go for the all-out bright approach, and neither does it try too hard to be warm - but it definitely has that TJ 'thing' of always promising more. Naturally, how much it can deliver is going to be determined by the price point and I wouldn't even begin to claim that it's got the hefty presence of the RAW...but there's enough there to show that some of what TJ discovered with the RAW series has been put to good use further down the range.

I decided to test what effect, if any, the rifling in the crook has on the tone - and I did this by the highly technical method of putting sellotape over the rifled sections. If the idea behind the rifling is to channel the airstream into a vortex, then a piece of tape will completely knacker the effect - and if the idea is to introduce texture into the bore, the tape will scupper that too. And did it make a difference? Well, yes...it did...and didn't.
I noticed that the horn blew ever so slightly warmer tonally with the tape in place. Not by much, but just enough to take a touch of glitter off the top of the notes. I was impressed.
So then I repeated the test with a Yamaha 23, and stuck bits of tape in the same position...and got exactly the same results. No surprises there - it explains perfectly why washing out your crook from time to time will restore a bit of zing to the notes. I also had some fun with swapping out the TJ crook with various others that I had lying around - and, as expected, they all made a difference. The most notable was the crook from a Yanagisawa 992 (the bronze 'underslung' model), which really boosted the warmth and depth of the 88. A bit too much, in my view - but then I tend to prefer my altos to have a nice cut to the tone.

So what does this prove? Sod all, really - other than different crooks give different sounds, and that if you change a particular aspect of a crook it will have an effect on the sound. The question is, though - is that change for the better or the worse...or it is just merely different? The big problem with these highfalutin' acoustical tweaks is that the changes are so small that they're overwhelmed by the simple differences in manufacturing tolerances you'll find between any pile of apparently identical crooks.
In other words, it's just a bit of a gimmick - and as it makes near as no difference to the response of the horn, and it doesn't seem to have added any noticeable cost to the horn, you might as well just enjoy it as a funky feature to show off to your mates.

I certainly don't blame TJ for trying to up the ante given the heavy competition in this sector of the market. The sub £1000 price bracket is awash with horns from a variety of manufacturers, and the stakes are high. Not so very many years ago I'd have said that Yamaha ruled the roost - but with a combination of their taking their eyes off the quality-control ball and the determination of other manufacturers to go the extra mile, the demographic has shifted somewhat. I still like the way Yamahas play, but on these pages build quality is king...and a bit of bling never goes amiss.
The Horn88 comes in at just under the £800 mark - which makes it around £50 dearer than the Yamaha 280...and I think the extra £50 is well worth it. There's also the Selmer Liberty at around £799 and the similarly-priced Mauriat PMSA180 - neither of which I've (yet) reviewed. Selmer usually does a reasonable job at the budget end of the scale, but I've had my reservations about Mauriats in the past. And then there's the Bauhaus Walstein AS-PD at around £750. It's not quite as polished in terms of build quality, but it does have the advantage of constantly adjustable point screws and a bronze body. It also plays like a horn that costs considerably more.
The newer version of the 88 is the same as this model in every respect bar the bell brace and the thumb rest - but the price is expected to rise, which will push it nearer the £870 mark (another good reason to get in now if you want one). It doesn't change its value-for-money profile that much, but it does push it closer to the price of the Buffet 400 - but, frankly, I feel the Horn88 is a much more versatile instrument. It makes it rather more expensive than the Yamaha (for now), but it still compares very well.

All things considered, I was very pleasantly surprised by the Horn88. The build quality was good for a horn of this budget, the set up was excellent, it has a good range of features and a very respectable accessory pack - and it looks amazing. Those features alone should sell it, but it's also a nice player. Thoroughly recommended.

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2016