Selmer 130th Anniversary Edition alto
Guide price: £4500+
Date of manufacture: 2018(?)
Date reviewed: November 2020
Not that special
When this horn turned up on the workbench I wasn't
really sure what to do with it, exactly. OK, yeah - service it,
obviously...but the client was rather keen for me to review it,
what with it being a rather distinctive horn and all that.
And sure, it is distinctive....but how distinctive is it
really? This is the trouble with 'special edition' horns - it costs
an awful lot of money to set up a production line for a series of
horns, and the very nature of a 'special' edition is that it's,
er, well, special. But it simply isn't going to be economically
viable to make radical changes to a production line simply to accommodate
a limited run of horns - and so this leads to a few questions -
such as just how special is it? What has been changed that
sets a particular model apart from its standard brethren? What is
it about it that's different enough to warrant a premium on the
price tag. And, of course, is it worth paying that extra over and
above the cost of a bog-standard model?
I suppose some of it depends on your perspective.
My own perspective is that a special edition anything should have
something unique about its functionality that sets it aside from
the norm. It perhaps goes back to the days when I'd just passed
my driving test and began to take an interest in cars. I recall
being terribly impressed (AKA green with envy) when one of my mates
turned up in 'super special' something-or-other. Much gloating and
bragging was had on his part...until someone pointed out that the
only difference between his car and the ordinary model was a stripe
down the side of the car and an extra pair of spotlamps...and some
rather lurid seat covers. And a badge on the boot (trunk). That
was it. That was the difference. Didn't seem like an awful lot to
us, and we took quite some pleasure in taking the piss.
Which is why, ooh, about fifteen years later I smiled wryly to myself
when I inherited a special edition VW Beetle...and noted that what
was special about it was...a stripe down the middle of the car,
some fancy seatcovers and a pair of spotlamps.
Anyway, I decided to do not so much a review of
this horn as an overview. Y'see, underneath all that bling there
lies what appears to be a plain old Selmer SA80 II. I've covered
(Series III) in another review - so from a mechanical point of view
there's not much else that needs saying. However, this horn is touted
as the Selmer 130th Anniversary Edition. I've no beef with that,
but somehow they shoehorned in a reference to this horn being a
tribute to Adolphe Sax (200th birthday). Again, I have no particular
problem with it - it's just that even while the horn was sitting
on the workbench I spotted a couple of things that weren't up to
scratch...and if you're going to invoke the name of the great man
himself, you better be damned sure that what you have to offer is
up to the mark.
So let's give things a bit of a stir and see what
floats to the surface...
The construction is ribbed - with a detachable
bell, a semicircular compound bell key pillar, adjustable metal
thumb hook, a small pearled thumb rest, a 14.5/8.5 sling ring and
detachable wire-type bell key guards with built-in bumper felt adjusters.
The body is neatly put together and finished in a lacquered matte
silver finish and offset with bright silverplated keys. And not
a little custom engraving on the bell. I think we can all agree
that on looks alone, this is certainly a very unique horn from the
If you look a little bit closer you see further differences, such
as the bell brace and the trouser guard.
I rather like the trouser guard - it's both entirely functional
and visually striking. Nothing wrong with that at all.
The bell brace, on the other hand, leaves a fair bit to be desired.
Sure, in terms of holding the bell out in front of the body it does
a good enough job - but it has rather less resistance to side impacts
than I like to see on a pro spec horn. Yes, I can understand why
they went for this design (a modern take on those bloody useless
wire-type braces from the olden days) - but with a bit more thought
I'm sure they could have come up with triple-point brace that looked
And while we're (vaguely) on the subject of detachable bells I note
that the bottom bow clamp has but a single screw to tighten it up.
Not really sure why they did that. Actually, I am...and we'll come
back to that a little later.
I also rather like the wire bell key guards. They
look quite elegant and seem to give the horn a sense of 'being able
to breathe' down the lower end. It's a nice touch that they're detachable,
and that they incorporate a bumper felt adjuster. However, if there's
a drawback to wire guards it's that they can get knocked out of
shape rather quickly and end up looking a bit scruffy. Perhaps not
so much of a big deal on this horn given that they can be taken
off and beaten back into shape (just about).
the other end of the horn we have a custom octave mech. Well, half
a custom mech at any rate. It's a standard swivelling mech, but
Selmer have chosen to make a bit of a statement by getting rid of
the usual profiled thumb key and fitting one that first appeared
on the Modele 26 way back in 1926. What they haven't done is use
quite as much metal. You can see that the touchpiece stands a little
high in this shot, and when I set to adjusting it I found that all
I needed to do was poke a finger under the upper end of the touchpiece
and press down on the lower end. It was that easy to bend. I did
some work on an SBA alto recently, and noted that the same job required
the aid of a pair of smooth-jawed pliers.
I also wasn't that impressed by the comfort of
the touchpiece; not so much due to its size and shape (though that
in itself isn't great) but more that someone's made a boo-boo with
the either the depth of the pearl holder or the thickness of the
As you can see, the circumference of the pearl sits below the rim
of the holder - so your thumb sits right over that relatively sharp
edge. It's not nice, and it's definitely not up the standard I'd
expect to see at this price point.
also wonder what Adolphe himself would have made of it. I'm pretty
sure he'd be thrilled to bits at seeing something as accomplished
as an automatic swivelling octave mech - but perhaps rather a lot
less impressed to discover that the ergonomically-profiled touchpiece
along with its large thumb rest had been ditched in favour of a
design which only serves to detract from the players' comfort and
speed. And that the thumb rest had sharp edges.
A quick note about the crook. The usual hefty
crook key has been replaced by a much simpler (and thus weaker)
affair, and if you look carefully at the opening shot of this review
you might see that there's no bracing beneath the crook tube. Now,
I definitely don't like that.
I'm forever dealing with crooks that have suffered pulldown - and
as far as I'm concerned if you're going to muck about with crook
braces, it should only go one way. They should be bigger and stronger.
Removing the thing altogether is a very risky proposition - and
some care should be taken when fitting and removing this crook.
And definitely avoid the habit of putting the mouthpiece on after
the crook's been fitted to the horn. It's just asking for trouble.
a curious feature on the top B tonehole - it has an insert fitted.
At first glance it looks like a bodge - a cock-up in the design/manufacturing
stage that needed to be corrected without having to re-jig the entire
manufacturing process. It wouldn't be the first time I've seen such
post-production fixes on a horn.
However, this is not so much a bodge as a modifier. Horns can often
be a bit unstable around the mid/top C/C#, and there exist a number
of fixes for this traditional problem - such as lining the bore
of the top B tonehole with sandpaper. What we have here is a rather
more advanced version - and as such it appears to work because I
didn't notice anything untoward with these tricky notes.
I suppose you could argue that better design would be a more effective
solution - and that if it was that much of a problem, why don't
other brands have this feature? Who can say (not me, mate) - but
I have no problem with modifiers and tweaks if they're well-fitted...which
this one most assuredly is.
the white pads. These are fitted as standard, and look very swish
against the frosted silver of the body. How long they'll stay looking
swish is anyone's guess. Most of the horns I've seen with white
pads end up looking a bit unfortunate once the pads get grimy. And
they do get grimy.
But these are no ordinary pads, oh no. None of them are fitted with
reflectors/resonators. This, apparently is an 'homage' to the original
Adolphe saxes, which were fitted with white leather pads that had
but a simple stitch in the centre to keep the leather from flapping
about in the breeze.
All good and well, but plain pads have a tendency to knock off some
of the punch and response of a horn. This isn't always a bad thing
on a very vintage horn - where a more modern reflectored pad might
'overcook' the tone (a bit like putting a high baffle piece on a
Conn Chu Berry). But this is a modern horn - and it's supposed to
be lithe and punchy.
Selmer say they've overcome this dilemma by specifying especially
hard pads. I'm unconvinced, personally; leather is leather...and
what goes behind it isn't going to make that much of a difference
to the acoustic 'reflectivity'. Besides, I had a good poke around
with the pads and didn't think they were all that hard really.
The thing about hard pads, though, is that they require a lot of
precision, both in terms of the mechanics (level tonehole and keycups,
tight action) and the seating. Selmer tend to do quite well when
it comes to tonehole flatness - and I'm pleased to report that this
horn was up to their usual standard. Not perfect (by my standards)
but acceptable for a factory-spec horn. Likewise, the tightness
of the action was mostly up to par - notwithstanding the issue of
using sprung point screws.
it all went a bit to pot on the seating. Quite a few of the pads
were a tad undersized - as you can see (above, left) in this shot
of the low Bb pad. Not by very much, granted, but I wouldn't let
it pass on a standard Selmer model let alone a special edition.
The few pads that I pulled weren't very well glued in. Here's the
Bis Bb - and you can see that someone's made an attempt to correct
an irregularity in the seat with a shim. But look at how much -
or rather how little - glue there is on the pad. If they'd been
a bit more generous with the shellac they wouldn't needed to have
fiddled about with shims.
very distinctive feature is the use of metal finger pearls.
I had a bit of a chuckle about this, given that players often complain
that the plastic pearls you find on cheaper horns can be a bit slippery
when things get a bit sweaty - but there you go.
What's particularly interesting about them is that unlike metal
touches of old - which were soldered directly to the key cups -
Selmer have simply made metal inserts that fit into the existing
pearl holders. I suppose it makes sense from a production point
of view, but somehow it seems a bit of a cop-out. And you can see
that they've done exactly the same thing on the oval touch on the
side/chromatic F#. The main stack touches are concave, the F# and
G# touches are flat and the Bis Bb is slightly domed.
As for the rollers on the bell keys they've gone for proper mother-of-pearl.
very nice extra which caught my eye was this very elegant blackwood
Sure, it's just a simple thing - but it's nicely made and finished...even
if its sole purpose (beyond what any top cap does) is to provide
a bit of bling for your money.
And although you can't see it, it's hollow - which means it allows
air to circulate around the top section of the horn. That's a nice
The horn came in a standard box-style zippered
case, nothing special...though I believe this too is supposed to
be a limited edition design.
Given that the design brief for this horn appears to have been to
take a standard horn and 'value-add' vintage bling to it, I would
have thought that a bespoke vintage-style case (perhaps based around
the old Selmer 'crocodile skin' design) would have been an easy
choice...but there you go.
terms of the feel - well, it's pretty much as you'd expect from
a modern Selmer.
Aside from the retro thumb key the rest of the action is standard
fare, right down to the tilting bell key table and the rather short
blued steel spring which power the action. I had no issues with
the metal key pearls, but then I didn't play the horn long enough
to work up a proper sweat.
I don't mind admitting that when the horn came
in for repair I could hardly wait to play it; I was that curious
to see how it sounded and whether it was radically different from
all the other Selmers I've played over the years. I should have
waited though - because it was entirely disappointing. If there's
one word to describe it, it would be 'flaccid'.
But let's be fair here, the thing was leaking like a sieve. With
all the leaks sorted and the action suitably tweaked, I set about
giving it a fair crack of the whip - and I'm pleased (and not a
bit relieved) to say that it made a big difference. Well, OK, at
least the thing worked now.
Tonewise I feel it plays exactly like an SA80 II - it's got that
same midrange presence, the expanded lower end and that touch of
creaminess up at the top end. It's got the same tonal balance across
the range, and the same presentation. If there's a difference at
all it's pretty slight - and I'd really need to compare it side-by-side
with an SA80 to be able to nail it properly - but from experience
I felt that it was just a bit more laid back. A bit softer, a bit
more reserved. In a funny kind of way I almost preferred it when
it was leaking, because it had a more 'velvetty' tone...a touch
more Paul Desmond, if you will.
Now, I don't know whether Selmer did anything to the bore of this
horn (I suspect not, given how much that would cost) - and there's
the issue of that insert in the top B tonehole - but I'm going to
put my head on the block and say I reckon the tonal difference is
entirely down to the pads having no reflectors/resonators. It just
seems to fit the bill, and is exactly the kind of change in response
I've noticed when I've been asked to swap out a set of reflectored
pads for a set of plain riveted ones on a vintage horn overhaul.
I guess the acid test would be to compare it with an SA80 that's
been kitted out with riveted pads - but finding one might be a bit
difficult as I really don't know anyone who'd want such a thing
And there you have it - the Selmer 130th Anniversary
In reading some of the blurb from retailers it seems that there's
a recognition that previous Selmer special editions amounted to
very little more than a few cosmetic changes and some fancy engraving
(colour me surprised). This horn, however, was touted as being rather
different...but I'm not convinced.
Yes, there are some very obvious differences (as highlighted) -
but there's a great deal more that's just standard. It's essentially
an SA80 - and what Selmer seems to have done is changed whatever
can be changed with the least possible cost...which amounts to the
least possible change to the standard production line. It's quite
a clever exercise in marketing really, because they haven't really
added anything to this horn...they've simply taken things away.
You don't get a different body tube or bell, and I doubt you even
get a different crook. In short you don't get anything different
that really matters...that really makes a difference. Well, apart
from a custom mouthpiece that's specific to this horn alone...but
that's only any good if you actually like it. If you don't, it's
just so much dead weight.
As someone who's spent almost every day for the last 45+ years taking
horns apart and putting them back together, I have a pretty good
idea of what you can change on a horn and not make the slightest
bit of difference to its performance. I also have a pretty good
idea of what's cheap to change and what's not.
In short it all smacks of a marketing exercise designed to relieve
a number of people of a not insignificant amount of money. I mean,
let's be honest - who on earth celebrates a 130th anniversary?
100? Of course! 150? Well, sure. 200? Without a doubt. But 130?
That's like hiring a marquee, booking a reasonably well-known band
and inviting everyone you've ever known...to your 47th birthday
party. OK, sure, there's the 200th birthday of Adolphe Sax - but
it rather comes across as an afterthought...a convenient coincidence.
As far as I'm concerned it all boils down to the
kudos of owning a largely cosmetic variant of a stock horn that
few other people own. Only 400 of them were made, so I suppose there's
some value in it being a 'collectable' horn - but given the prices
used models seem to be selling for, it doesn't strike me as being
a particularly lucrative investment. Looks nice, though - and I
have to say that the owner loves it. And maybe that's all that really