TJ SR alto saxophone
Guide price: £1200
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.
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
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).
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
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
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
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.
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).
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
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
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.
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
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
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.