Stephen Howard Woodwind - Repairs, reviews, advice, tips and tales...
Haynes woodwind maintenance manuals
Reviews from the repairer's workbench
Haynes woodwind maintenance manuals
 

TJ SR alto saxophone

TJ SR alto saxophoneOrigin: Taiwan
Guide price: £1200
Weight: 2.55kg
Date of manufacture: 2016
Date reviewed: May 2016

A chip off the ol' block

Following on from my recent review of the TJ Horn 88, we now have a TJ SR in for a bit of a prod and a poke.
I should make it clear from the start that this is a 'request review' - but rather than being a request from the manufacturer for me to review the horn, I asked them for an example.
It's not something I do very often, but along with huge numbers of emails asking me for details about the RAW series I also get a fair few enquiries from players on a budget who want to know if the more affordable SR alto is a chip off the RAW's block. It's a perfectly reasonable request, and one that I usually answer by pointing them towards the SR tenor review, which I published back in 2012.
However, as we all know, what goes for a tenor doesn't necessarily go for the alto (and vice versa) - so I decided to bite the bullet and get one in for the old treatment.
I actually made the request quite some time back (in the middle of last year, if I remember rightly), and it's taken this long for TJ to find any stock that they can spare...which is a nice place to be if you're in the business of selling.

From a personal perspective I was also keen to see how things are going in the 'intermediate' price bracket, because it's a notoriously difficult and competitive part of the market - and one that, some years ago, I wondered whether or not would still exist thanks to the influx of cheap but generally serviceable horns from China.
Well, what with one thing and another (rising prices, the inability of Chinese manufacturers to latch onto the importance of consistency coupled with a more competitive approach from the Taiwanese builders), this sector of the market appears to be more buoyant than ever.
In fact you could argue that this is almost entirely due to the influx of Ultra-Cheap horns - creating a wider user base and, at the same time, giving the 'establishment' something to think about. Always a silver lining...

And thinking is what TJ seems to have been doing these last few years. Their portfolio is enviable; at one end of the market they've got very young players covered with the Alphasax, they've got a substantial foothold in the educational sector with the Horn series...and the very professional RAW series seems to be well on its way to becoming a modern-day classic. So it'll be interesting to see if their midrange/step-up/ intermediate/semi-pro/call-it-what-you-will SR series alto performs as well in its price bracket as all their other horns have done.

TJ SR alto bell braceThe body is of ribbed construction - whereby the pillars are fitted to strips (or ribs) of brass which are then fixed to the body. Various claims are made as to the effect this method of construction has on the tone or the robustness of the body, but the one thing you can be sure of is that it's very cost-effective way of mounting the pillars onto the body.
The few standalone pillars that remain have decent-sized bases, so won't be prone to falling off in any great hurry - though I'd have liked to have seen slightly larger stays on the bell key guards

You also get a detachable bell, an adjustable metal thumb hook, a generously-proportioned sling ring, adjustable bell key bumper felts, a detachable low F# key guard (which makes it easier to get tooling under the pad when setting it) - but only a plastic octave key thumb rest.
There's a triple-point bell brace, complete with a snazzy TJ logo - which I rather liked.

The overall construction is what I'd call very neat and tidy. All of the fittings have crisp edges and there's no sloppy soldering to be seen - which is something you can't always be assured of these days, even at this price point.
The tone holes (all drawn) were nice and level, as well as being very well finished. Nice and smooth, with well-defined edges to the rims.

TJ SR alto bell keysThere's a detachable semicircular compound bell key pillar, and although I'd have liked to have seen a slightly more generous base on the outer leg, it's perhaps a moot point given that there's another mount point just below the A key cup (and I still reckon the G# touchpiece looks a tad on the small side).
As you can see, you get a tilting bell key table - and a rather nice set of pearls. These aren't real mother-of-pearl, but they're also not just some cheap old plastic. They're quite hard, and have a rather convincing 'faux iridescence' to them. Most of them are ever so slightly concave, bar the Bis Bb and the oval pearl on the lower F#, which are slightly domed. Some players might find them a little bit slippery when the going gets sweaty, in which case a quick wipe over with some 600 grit emery will add a bit of 'key' to them (don't wipe the Bis Bb pearl, though).

The same neatness with which the body is made is evident on the keywork too - and, as you should expect on a horn of this price, the keywork is nice and tight...with no signs of built-in free play.
Even the keys that are mounted on point screws were nice and snug, which is no mean feat considering the screws are of the pseudo point variety. This means that some care has gone into drilling and reaming out the key barrels - which is something that's not always a given at this price point (and often, sad to say, well above it).

TJ SR alto top stackThere's a teardrop-shaped front top F key - and out of the box I felt this had been positioned a little too far back.
It worked well enough if you lifted your forefinger off the B key and brought it back down over the F - but the big advantage of the teardrop-shaped touchpiece is that it makes it easy to simply roll your finger up.
No big deal though, a very quick tweak on the key brought it down to the position you see now. It's just about doable with your fingers by gripping the touchpiece and easing it down...though a safer bet would be to use a proper pair of pliers (with suitably protected jaws). I don't recall noticing such a thing on any of the other TJs I've seen, so perhaps this one caught a bit of a knock in the packing/transit stage.
And while we're on about bending keys, I found those on the SR to be of medium stiffness - which is all they really need to be.

A particularly useful feature is that both of the main stacks feature regulation adjusters. These are a boon for repairers and competent DIY tweakers alike, and make adjusting the regulation a breeze. I especially liked that the regulation bars have flats milled into them where the holes for the adjuster screws go through the bar (you can't quite see them in the photo on the right though). That they're there makes no difference to the efficacy of the adjusters - it's just a nice touch that shows some attention to detail.
TJ SR alto adjustersAnother small feature of note is the use of composite/synthetic cork buffers beneath the adjusters. It's both thin and hard-wearing, and certainly a big improvement on the bits of squishy cork that many other manufacturers use.
Speaking of which, the corkwork in general is really rather good - as is the use of felt in areas where cork would lead to excess key noise and bouncing. It's really quite a small thing, but it makes quite a difference to the way the horn feels under the fingers as well as making the action considerably quieter in operation.

As far as keywork gadgets go, you get the aforementioned adjusters on the mains stacks along with the usual adjusters for the G#/Bis Bb and low C#.
The side keys feature simple (and effective) fork and pin connectors and the octave key mechanism is of the standard swivelling type - and, I might add, quite nicely made too. This type of mech will still work even if there's quite a lot of free play in it (whether through fair wear and tear or simply due to poor manufacture) - and it's sometimes the case that a brand new horn will have a nice, tight action...save for the octave mech, which practically flaps around in the breeze. Not so on the SR. Top marks there.

Topping off the action is a set of blued steel springs and a nice set of well-set pads.
This example's finished in a traditional gold lacquer, and very well finished at that - but if you prefer something a little more adventurous it also comes a few other finishes, such as a very sleek black lacquer or a phosphor bronze body with gold lacquered keys. There's also a silver plated version for those of you who like that sort of thing. There used to be an unlacquered version too (for those of you who like the other sort of thing), but I'm told this is no longer available...so if you want one of these you'll have to buy used, unless you fancy taking a tin of paint stripper to a lacquered one (not a good bet).

The setup was textbook middle-of-the-road - with a medium height action coupled with a medium tension on the springs. This kind of setup will suit the vast majority of players (if they even notice it), but for the picky, demanding or just plain decadent there's a bit of leeway for bringing the action down a touch and backing off the spring tension just a little.
It'll be worth doing - on a horn with a slick, tight action it can make a significant difference to the feel.

Rounding off the outfit is shaped semi-soft case, complete with ubiquitous zip fasteners. There's not much storage space inside the case, save for a fitted compartment for the crook and another for the mouthpiece - but there are a couple of zippered bags attached to the side...one of which will take a flute in its case. You also get a set of straps, which allow you to either tote the case over your shoulder (très cool) or carry it backpack style (à la geek).
It's a decent case (the same as supplied with the RAW), and should provide an adequate degree of protection for day-to-day use - and it's even got some rubber 'bumpers' fitted to the bottom and rear of the case, which'll help prevent scuffing.
About my only real criticism of it is that it has a zip fastener. I hate zipped fasteners on cases.

TJ SR alto mouthpieceThe mouthpiece, although unbranded, is a Bari piece - and it's not bad at all. It also comes bundled with a BG flexible ligature and a suitable matching mouthpiece cap.
There's also a very excellent BG sling (my personal sling of choice, before I switched over to the even more excellent Cebulla).

TJ SR alto octave mechUnder the fingers the horn felt as good as I'd expected it to be. It's a decent, modern action coupled with a selective and sensible use of felt and synthetic buffers - and unless you've got particularly unusual hands you're unlikely to find it anything other than comfortable.
I had some reservations about the slightly concave plastic thumb rest, but once I'd slung the horn around my neck and fitted a mouthpiece, I completely forgot what they were - aside from a feeling that the horn really deserved something a little classier. I mentioned as much to the bods at TJ, and as they're particularly good at listening to feedback there's half a chance they might change this at some point.
As per the reviews of the other TJ horns, despite my feeling that the G# touchpiece looks a bit too small I nonetheless didn't have any problems hitting it...so you can safely ignore this criticism (though that won't stop me banging on about it until they make it bigger).

And tonewise? Well, I always maintain that this is the least important part of my reviews, other than to provide a very general sense of a horn's characteristics (i.e. bright or dark, free-blowing or resistant etc.). As any experienced player will tell you, it's all down to the individual and their personal setup. If a horn's well built and properly set up, all that's left is purely personal preference (and budget, of course).
However, as I said right at the start, people keep asking me about this horn - and how it squares up to the RAW...and so this is my own take on it.

Every horn manufacturer has their own approach when it comes to defining the characteristic tonal presentation of their horns - call it a tonal philosophy, if you will. Exactly what that means is sometimes quite hard to put into words, but once you've played a fair few horns you sort of get a feel for it - to the point where you can play an unknown horn and say, for example "That's a Yamaha" or "That's got Yanagisawa written all over it".
I'll admit it's not an especially useful 'talent', though it comes in quite handy when you're trying to work out which the latest Ultra-Cheap arrival has been (loosely) based on - and it also serves as a reasonable starting point when testing a horn that's just one of a series from a single manufacturer.
And for TJ I'd say that what defines their horns is 'balance'.

Balanced is distinct from 'middling' - which is something you tend to find on a lot of student horns. A middling horn is generally quite a good thing at this end of the market...you don't really want a student horn that's overly bright or far too warm, because such characteristics require a degree of expertise if you wish to control and direct them. Balance is something else - it's the way in which a horn's tonal properties are brought together to a single point, and by tweaking your embouchure you're able to accentuate or diminish the various facets as you so desire. Middling is placing a plate down in the centre of a table; balance is placing it, spinning, atop a slender pole.

So if TJ's tonal philosophy is balance, then are some of its horns more or less balanced than others?
Well, the answer lies in the pole. The more you pay for a horn, the thinner the pole gets. And the thinner the pole, the more precise the balance must be (or your horn hits the floor, the audience boos...and you go home without your gig money).
It's very clear that the SR has that TJ balance, and I suspect a great deal of this will be down to the crook. It seems to me that TJ spent quite a lot of time working up to the RAW, and, having found what they were looking for, proceeded to feed what they'd learned back down the line. Which makes perfect sense.
The first thing I noticed about the SR was its evenness across the range. This is something I really value on the RAW, on the basis that it allows me to emphasise a particular range of notes rather than have the horn automatically 'rubber stamp' them. And then I noticed its flexibility. This is another killer feature, the fact that you don't have to settle for just a warm or a bright tone, you can pick and choose...and, most importantly, you can do so without too much effort.
At its 'default setting' - blowing with a dead neutral embouchure - I'd say that the SR leans ever so slightly towards a warmer presentation. And by slightly I really do mean slightly. If we're talking about a scale of brightness going from very bright at 1 to very warm at 10, the SR sits at 5.5. Here's the thing, though - you can push it whichever way you want, and at any volume. You don't have to blow harder if you want it brighter, and you don't have to back off when you want it warmer.
The stability is impressive. This isn't a horn you have to wrestle with - you pick it up, you blow it, and it just works. It doesn't need to be warmed up, it doesn't need to be reined in or pushed to perform...it just simply gets on with the job in hand. And you can feel that it's almost eager to please. You blow a note and the horn seems to say 'Hey, that's great...let's do more of that'. It's as if it's got built-in encouragement. The low notes have have a nice sparkle around the edges and the top notes have oodles of clarity without becoming too shouty and brittle - and everything inbetween just blends seamlessly as you go up and down the scale. It's a playful horn, in every sense of the word.

TJ SR alto bellThat's how the SR alto stands on its own. And on its own it's more than good enough to justify the asking price - but now it's time to put it up against the RAW.
Playing the two horns side-by-side, it's completely evident that they're hewn from the same block. To be honest, I was expecting to hear and feel a rather larger difference - given that smaller horns tend to accentuate differences rather more clearly than larger ones. They both have that classic TJ balance and evenness, the flexibility is there, as is the versatility - and the icing on the cake is that it all comes without a cost of stability.
So where's the difference?
Well, I guess I'd talk in terms of veils. Starting with the Horn 88, going through to the SR and then the RAW, it's like peeling off a veil each time. With each progressive model the underlying tonal approach becomes clearer and more to the fore. I suppose it's analogous to a range of cars, all identical save for the size of the engine. The least-powerful one is just as good as the most powerful one...bar the sheer grunt of the extra power. But the RAW doesn't just give you the extra grunt, it also gives you a more intimate feel. That's not to say the SR doesn't have it - it's just that you notice it more with the RAW. The sound seems to wrap around you more. It's more immediate, more responsive. It's more...simple as that.

I reckoned the difference between the SR and RAW tenors was around the 8-10% mark, and for the altos I'd say it's about the same....say 10-12%. But that's using the same mouthpiece with each horn. If I was using a RAW alto for posh gigs and wanted something cheaper for pub 'n club jobs, I'd pair the SR up with a slightly edgier mouthpiece.
And that's pretty much what I'd expect the level of difference to be when taking the asking price into account. There's a law of diminishing returns once you get to the £1000 mark, and twice the price doesn't get you twice the horn. Once you hit the £2000 mark you've almost got nowhere else to go - and an extra £1000 or so might only give you a 2-3% improvement. Or it might only just give you a different horn.

Of course, the inevitable question is "What's it up against?"
Undoubtedly the Yamaha 480 is the act to beat - and for many years the only act to beat. But times have changed. I no longer feel I can say "Get a Yamaha, you can't go wrong" - and the saddest part of that isn't that the competition has got better (though it has), it's more that Yamaha seem to have let things slide in terms of build quality.
That aside, the Yamaha still packs a punch if you want a crisp, clean presentation...and as much as I'm a fan of that tonal approach, I don't mind admitting that the market seems to be moving more towards a more 'comfortable' soundstage.
And then there's Mauriat, who seem to have an almost bewildering array of models - but I'd say the Le Bravo is the contender at the just-over-a-grand mark. It's a good-looking horn, to be sure, and a competent one at that...but it's not what I'd call thrilling.
By far the most credible alternative would, I feel, be the Antigua Pro-One - but it's at least a couple of hundred quid more than the SR.

Any of these alternatives would do you proud. They all have their pros and cons (like any horn), and, ultimately, what feels good to you should always be the deciding factor...but none of them have the SR's chip-off-the-RAW's-block feel and tone. Put it on your shortlist - it's worth it.

 

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2016