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Yanagisawa A-WO2 alto saxophone

Origin: JapanYanagisawa AWO2 alto saxophone
Guide price: £2500
Weight: 2.5Kg (approx.)
Date of manufacture: 2015
Date reviewed: 30/05/2015

The Yanagisawa 902, reborn

In my recent review of the 902 alto I mentioned that Yanagisawa had a good track record of consistency and production longevity - which was rather undermined by their bringing out a whole bunch of updated models.
I suppose I ought to be thinking "Bloody typical", but as it happens I rather think it was high time they came up with something new. But not that new.
Y'see, I'm all for lengthy production runs - it gives you the sense that the manufacturer got it right from the off, and that they've been able to stand by their product down the years. That's confidence for you, and it comes as an extra at no added cost when you buy one of their products. I'm also somewhat cautious of 'new, improved' versions of old classics - if only because it's so often the case that what made the old product a classic is precisely what's missing from the new one (cough, YAS62, cough).

I've always liked Yanagisawa horns...or rather I've always like working on them. The build quality is usually very good, as is the setup out of the box - and rather than have to muck around with ill-fitting keys and sloppy corks, you can pull one of these horns out of the box and get right on with tweaking it to the client's needs. However, I've been less keen about them in terms of playability. It's a personal thing, of course, but they've rarely 'floated my boat', so to speak.
So when the WO2 arrived on my bench I was keen to see if the manufacturing standards had been maintained, and whether the playability had changed...

From a distance there doesn't appear to be much difference between the WO2 and the 902. The name has changed, obviously, and the horns are now divided up into two groups - the Professional range (AWO1 and O2) and the Elite (AWO10, O20 and O30) but for the most part there aren't any significant visible differences. Indeed, for the most part much of what I've written about the 902, at least in terms of the build quality, will apply to the AWO2, and so rather than run through it all again in this review I'm going to focus more on the tweaks and changes.
I find the range names rather amusing - Professional and Elite. It used to be that Student and Professional was good enough to mark out the intended customer base - everyone knew where they stood. Then along came Intermediate, which muddied the waters a little. And now we have an Elite. In itself it's not a problem, but it causes me to wonder what the next step might be. What if you wanted to sell a range of horns that were better than the Elite models? Are we talking Grand Vizier? Archduke du Bebop? Supreme Ruler of the Multiverse? I'm half tempted to make a range of super-expensive horns just so's I can stamp 'Wannabe' on them...

So let's take a closer look and see what's been tweaked.

The most important changes are the least visible - namely the bore and the toneholes. It's these features that really define a horn, that give it its characteristic tone and response - and even a small change can have a significant effect on the playability of a horn. That's not to say, though, that there's no room for manoeuvre - the old Selmer MkVI alto went though a number of such changes in its lifetime, and yet still retained the essence of what made it a MkVI.
I can't tell you precisely what's been changed - I'd have to sit down with a stripped 902 and AWO2 and a handful of measuring tools before I could come up with an answer...and, frankly, life's too short.

Aside from that the exterior of the body appears to be largely unchanged from the 902 - you've got the adjustable thumb rest (complete with dimples), the triple-point bell brace, the detachable bell, the adjustable bumper guards (with the nice coloured inserts) and a sling ring that's still a bit on a small side for my liking. And as per the 902, the body is made in bronze. Business as usual, in other words.

The more visible changes are to the keywork - its design and layout. On the whole these are small changes with perhaps the most significant being a redesign of the front top F touchpiece. It was already pretty good, and had been putting other designs to shame for many years now - but this new touchpiece is just marvellous. Yanagisawa AWO2 alto top stackIf there's a note of disappointment it's that they haven't taken the opportunity to swap out the concave (real) Mother of Pearl touch on the Bis Bb for a domed one.
The low C/Eb spatulas have been tweaked too, and they've added some feet to the side key touchpieces. This is a nice mod - it gives the keys a more definite stopping point when you press them, which helps to improve the speed at which your fingers return to the main stack position. I should point out, though, that side key touchpiece buffers have a tendency to fall off - and when they do you'll lose any advantage they might have given you...so it's worth checking them from time to time.

The palm keys have also had a bit of an upgrade. Previously they were mounted on box channel pillars - which although quite functional were nonetheless rather industrial in appearance. These have gone, and have been replaced by proper pillars mounted on a single plate...which is pretty much what every other manufacturer does.
It looks much neater, and far more elegant.
Yanagisawa AWO2 alto palm keysNot that this will prevent the more cynical among you from pointing out that the 992 (and above) series of horns have always had this feature, and that using it across the board for the entire range undoubtedly makes economic sense.

And that appears to be about it - everything else seems to be much the same as the old 902.
There are still no adjusters on the main stack keys, though there are the usual ones for the Bis Bb/G# and the low C#...plus the F# helper arm. There's an anti-whip clamp on the side top E/F# keys, proper (elliptical) point screws are used and the whole action is powered by blued steel springs. And there's a decent set of pads fitted.

The crook (neck) has been jazzed up a bit with the addition of a shield plate at the front.
I rather like this - it's a little like the badge you might have on the bonnet/hood of your car...it's just a nice cosmetic feature that adds a touch of bling. That said, I see claims are being made to the effect that this plate will strengthen the crook, but to be frank if it has any strengthening effect at all it will likely be so small as to be negligible. Likewise, claims about it having an effect on the tone will just be nonsense.
I also especially like the name stamped on the tenon sleeve ring. See it? On the left hand side, just below the bottom of the octave key? It says 'YANY'.
I don't recall ever having seen this feature before, and I'm not entirely sure what it means...but I have a theory.
It's quite common to hear players say "Oh, I've got a Yani alto" - as much as you'll hear players refer to a Yammy tenor. Yanagisawa AWO2 alto crookIt's a term of endearment, but I've often wondered if the manufacturers were a bit bothered by it (some cultures are rather more, shall we say, respectful of names than others).
The appearance of the name suggests two things; that Yanagisawa either don't mind that players shorten the name, or that they've come to accept the popular nickname - and that whereas we've all been saying 'Yani', it should in fact be 'Yany'. Of course, it could be neither of those things and simply a model name for that particular crook. I'm sure we'll find out in due course.
But if it's an acceptance of the affectionate nickname, and I hope it is, I rather feel it adds a nice homely touch to the brand. I like it...I like it a lot.

The build quality of Yanagisawa horns has always been good, even excellent, and the WO2 continues this fine tradition. I'm half tempted to say it's even a little bit better - though I'm going to reserve judgement on that 'til I've seen a few more examples. It's looking good though.

The case has also had an upgrade, and on the whole it's jolly nice. I much prefer a box-style case with proper catches over a shaped one with zips (though a shaped one with catches trumps the lot), and the old case was always pretty decent. The new one is much the same, with the addition of an exterior pouch for music and sundries and another which houses the built-in shoulder straps. A nice touch. The old vinyl style exterior has gone - and about time too...it was always vulnerable to knocks and scuffs, and would often tear. There is, however, a bit of whinge due to the placement of a catch right under the handle...which is always a bit of a faff. It's made all the worse by a velcro'd tab that goes over the catch...presumably to stop you from snagging your fingers on it when you pick the case up. It's a (very) minor point, and from an engineering perspective I can see the value of an additional case catch in the centre - but would it have been so very bad to have shifted it to one side of the handle? Might look odd, but then you could tout it as a feature. It'd certainly have more credibility than some of the claims being made for the new features on this horn.

The setup out of the box was pretty good. This example had come by way of a large retailer and I assume it had been given a pre-sale tweak. I still found some minor leaks at the rear of a couple of the pads - nothing that would stop the horn dead in its tracks, but enough to knock the edge off the overall response - and the regulation buffers over the G#/Bis Bb keys needed rounding off (they creaked in use). The spring tension, on the whole, was set quite well, as was the height of the action. As far as a factory/retailer setup goes, not too bad at all - and certainly rather better than many others I've seen of late.
The keywork tweaks have paid dividends. I can't say that I ever tripped over the low C/Eb keys on the old model, but the new layout feels more agile and immediate. Likewise the new front top F touchpiece is just a joy...and the side key tweaks, while small, add a touch of solidity to the action. I'd still prefer to have a domed pearl on the Bis Bb key though.

I guess it's all been quite upbeat thus far, so now it's time to redress the balance a little...
Much has been made of the effects of all these tweaks to the tone of the horn - and to be frank most of it is just plain marketing spiel...or, as it's known in the trade, complete bollocks.
The 'killer tweak' is the redesign of the bore and bottom bow and the tonehole size/placement. You can think of these things as the engine - any changes made here will have a noticeable impact on the way a horn blows and plays. Everything else is just cupholders and go-faster stripes - the choice of metal, the fittings, the guards and braces etc. Not that it stops the spread of BS...with claims that the increase in the size of the palm key plate adds resonance and projection due to 'increased core weight'. Increased core weight? What does that even mean?? If all it takes is adding a bit of mass then all you need to do to improve the tone and response of your horn is to slap a lump of Blu-Tack on it.
Stuff like that really bugs me. I appreciate that manufacturers need to create a buzz about their new products, and retailers need to excite potential customers - but it's high time the industry stopped treating the punters like marks at a hustler's convention. Let's have some respect.

Yanagisawa AWO2 alto labelBefore we get to the playtest, there's just time for a little chuckle. Have you noticed that the model designation is AWO2 (with an 'O') and not AW02 (with a zero)? I didn't either, until a reader dropped me a line to point out the error...which I subsequently corrected. I'll admit I was slightly horrified at having made such a terrible faux pas - until I checked the model name at the UK Yanagisawa website and saw it listed as both the AWO2 and the AW02 ("AW02 - Professional Model. The upgraded replacement for the legendary A902 series, this AWO2 bronze model..."). However, if you check the Japanese site there's not a misplaced zero to be seen...which is what you'd expect.
So how d'you explain this? The image on the right was sent in by the reader who pointed out my error - it's the label on the box in which his new horn came in - and there's the W0 again. If you listen very carefully you might just hear a very faint "Doh!" (in Japanese, of course) coming from Yanagisawa's factory...
Worse still, this error appears to have made its way into Yanagisawa's dealer blurb...so it now pops up all over the place. It's probably a typo - but to be frank, sticking an 'O' in front of a number is just asking for trouble...unless you happen to be a very large mobile phone company....

As far as playability goes I've always been a bit blasé about Yanagisawas. Don't get me wrong, it's not that they're bad horns or that they lack anything - it's just that they've never given me the feeling that I just want to keep on blowing them. That said, the solid silver baritone I tried at Frankfurt a few years ago was magnificent in every respect (including the price). For me they've always stood between the punch and clarity of Yamahas and the full midrange of the Selmers...yet without quite hitting that sweet spot in the middle. But the AWO2 moves the goalposts. Tonewise it seems to me to have retained that characteristic Yanagisawa 'middle ground' versatility, but now there's a bit of extra sparkle in the mix. It's got more definition, more clarity...and it feels like a more precise blow.
As an upgrade/improvement/call-it-what-you-will it's a fine piece of work - the world of saxophones is littered with 'new, improved' models that seem to have thrown the baby out with the bathwater...but not the AWO2. The changes are subtle enough to keep the die-hard Yani fans happy, and significant enough to make previously disinterested players sit up and take notice. It's a commendable achievement.

And it's just as well, because the competition is pretty stiff. At this price it's up against the Yamaha 82Z, the Keilwerth MKX and the Rampone R1 - not to mention the fearsome TJ RAW.
Not having anything else handy, I tested it against a TJ RAW XS. I didn't do this with the 902 because - to be very frank - I didn't think it was fair on the Yani...so I put it up against a purple logo 62, and it did OK.
But the AWO2 is a tougher challenge, so out came the RAW.
Let's be very clear - at this level there's no rubbish, and assuming everything's equal on the build quality side it all boils down to feel and personal tonal preference. From my perspective the new Yanagisawa is more capable, more versatile than the old one...and more interesting, but the RAW's still got the edge all round. It feels more nimble, more expressive, and seems to paint its tone with broader brush strokes.
But it's a close-run thing, and certainly a lot closer than the 902 could have come - and on that basis I give it a big, fat thumbs up.

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015