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Yanagisawa A-WO33 Elite alto saxophone

Yanagisawa AWO33 alto sax reviewOrigin: Japan
Guide price: £4,700
Weight: 2.64
Date of manufacture: 2015 (serial range: 00343XXX)
Date reviewed: May 2017

A reference-standard alto, but I'm still not a happy bunny

When a client contacted me to arrange a service on this horn there was never any doubt about whether I'd review it or not.
It's not just because it's an expensive horn, it's also because I was rather impressed with how the AWO2 had improved upon the earlier model and I was understandably keen to see what changes they'd made to what was previously the 9933 - which was in Yanagisawa's top-end, no compromises range. These were already good horns, and if what they'd done with the AWO2 was any indicator, this horn ought to have gone from good to truly incredible.

I was also keen to see if would live up to my expectations - and those of the client who'd bought it.
I don't think he'd mind me telling you that he's not a very experienced player - but having caught the bug a little while back he decided, quite reasonably, that he'd like to upgrade his starter horn and go for something rather more special.
It just so happened that he attended a class where the tutor was playing on one of these things - and being so impressed by how the horn sounded and looked, he decided on the spot that this was the horn he wanted.
He could have bought a much cheaper horn - a substantially cheaper horn - and would probably have been just as happy. But when you reach a certain age, and you have a few bob saved up for life's essential treats, it's nice to know that you have the option of going for the best there is. You might never realise its full potential - but you can at least bask in the knowledge that if anything's going to get in the way of your progress, it ain't gonna be the horn.
And such people form a substantial slice of a manufacturer's customer base. They perhaps don't have the playing experience to detect the finer points between one horn or another, nor the technical knowledge to asses the pros and cons of the design features. They simply buy a horn on the well-understood principle that the more you pay, the more you get.

So lets open up a fresh tin of Mr Picky, pop this very expensive horn on the bench and see if that principle holds any water...

The first thing you're going to notice is the silver bell and crook. I'm not generally a fan of silver on saxes, though I've come across one or two that seem to have managed to pull the look off - and I'm even less of a fan of the combination of silver and brass. It probably sounds a bit odd, but it's a look that often seems a bit 'spivvy' to me. That said, I quite liked the Bauhaus M2 - but that's maybe because it was so outrageously spivvy that it actually look kinda cool.
Proponents of the 'materials make a difference' theory will be pleased with the Yani's combination (though perhaps less keen to state what tonal benefits it will bring given that even the manufacturers can't agree) and, one assumes, happy to pay through the nose for the privilege. For the rest of us, the WO33 carries off the look quite nicely...and, dare I say it, looks quite distinguished. As far as physical changes go there have been some tweaks to the dimensions of the bore and the toneholes as well as some changes to the keywork. In terms of tone the bore/tonehole changes are where the meat and potatoes are...any other changes can essentially be regarded as cosmetic (in spite of some of the blurb).

Yanagisawa WO33 bell braceThe construction is ribbed, with what few standalone pillars there are being mounted on generously-proportioned bases.
There's the usual party-bag of features, such as a detachable bell, a sturdy semicircular compound bell key pillar, an adjustable metal thumb hook, a metal thumb rest, a triple-point bell brace and the standard 15/8 sling ring.

Yanagisawa's blurb says that the bell brace "ensures structural stability and rigidity and enhances resonance even at fortissimo levels." I'll give them structural stability and rigidity - but enhanced resonance? Even at fortissimo levels?
Presumably there's a bell brace out there somewhere that only enhances the resonance when you're playing quietly. Quite how a lump of brass and three screws performs this astonishing trick is way beyond my understanding.
Back in the real world the brace is at least sturdy, with a generously-sized base on the body. The offset positioning should go a long way to helping prevent the body from bending if the horn takes a tumble.

Yanagisawa AWO33  bell key pillarThe toneholes are all drawn, and those I checked were reassuringly level. They were reasonably well finished, but while most the rims were what I'd call 'crisp' (flat with definite angled edges rather than rounded off) a few exhibited very slight burrs. Only very slight, mind, but still detectable when you slid your fingernail up the tonehole wall to the rim - and while I might overlook it on a cheaper horn (if you're lucky) I think it has to go down on the scorecard as minus point on such a pricey one.

The semicircular compound bell key pillar is firmly affixed to the lugs on the body with a pair of screws. It's a sturdy setup which should prevent the pillar being jolted out of alignment due to the inevitable knocks a horn receives during its working life. The bell key table is of the tilting type, and features Yanagisawas nifty swivelling 'roller' between the low C# and low B touchpieces, so that your finger doesn't so much roll between the two keys as slide.
Wrapping up the body features you get a full set of adjustable bell key bumpers - and a nice detail is a disc of blue felt that shows through the hole in the top of the adjuster. It's a simple thing, but it adds a touch of class.
The overall finish is good - everything's been neatly put together with no signs of sloppy solderwork.

Yanagisawa WO33 top stackThe keywork has the usual raft of features, along with Yanagisawa's distinctive front top F touchpiece.
Looks a bit weird, doesn't it - but in use it's really quite comfy. The stepped profile acts like a gentle stop when you slide or roll your finger up for the F, and gives the finger a very definite stopping point. It's a small detail, but a nice one.

As you can see, proper mother-of-pearl touches are fitted - they're slightly concave (bar the flat oval on the G# and side F#) and well fitted. It would have been nice to have seen a domed pearl on the Bis Bb though.
As usual (for Yanagisawa) there are still no adjusters on the main stacks, though at least much use has been made of hardwearing composite corks for the regulation buffers. I really don't know why they don't fit them - it's can't be down to the effect they might have on the feel of the action because the old Yamaha 62 was bristling with the things, and still managed to sport one of the finest actions you'll ever find under your fingers.
You do, however, get adjusters for the Bis Bb/G# and the low B to C# link - and there's another one on the end of the helper bar that extends off the F key...which, according to Yanagisawa's Japanese website, is supposed to dampen vibration on the Auxiliary F key cup. Which it would, were it not for the fact that it's too thin to do very much dampening at all. But given the lack of regulation screws it at least provides a means for making some adjustment in the lower stack. In fact on the UK site it says the arm is intended to ensure proper sealing of the Aux.F - which is much more sensible.

The octave key touchpiece is shaped and sculpted, and in combination with the large, slightly domed metal thumb rest feels as comfortable as your favourite armchair. The ends of the swivel bar are, apparently, fitted with Fluororesin coated tubes. Very posh. If you don't know what that means, just think of them as Teflon tubes...and if that's still a bit of a puzzle you can settle for non-stick plastic.
Yanagisawa WO33 octave mechFor the player it means that the ends of the swivel bar won't rattle around in the sockets, which is a very common cause of noise and free play on horns that feature this type of octave mech.

Note the plate on which the palm keys are mounted. This, apart from adding some strength to the body and (cough) being cheaper to make and fit than individual pillars, adds "mid-range resonance, acoustic depth and projection across all registers, and exceptional tonal stability".
I might see if I can order a few of these in and slap them all over my TJ RAW tenor. I mean, if one brass plate can make that much of a difference, imagine what half a dozen of them can do....

Double key arms are fitted to the low C and low B. I'd have liked to have seen them on the low C#, as this is a particularly vulnerable key cup - and I'm a bit puzzled as to why the low Bb doesn't have them. It's my understanding that the arms are supposed to help prevent the key cup from twisting - but from the arrangement on the WO33 it looks like the intention is to add stiffness to the key barrel to prevent torsion. But if that's the case, why add one to the relatively short low C key? We many never know, but given they don't do any harm (and may well do some good) I wouldn't worry about it unduly.
And you needn't worry about the side Bb/C linkages - plain old fork and pin connectors. Simple, reliable and slick. Just the business.

Proper points screws have been used - which allows for constant adjustment of the relevant keys as wear and tear takes it toll - and these were all threadlocked in place. Not that they needed to be. I removed, cleaned and replaced a number of screws and found them all to be a nice snug fit. Still, I'm all for the belt and braces approach - so top marks all round.
And finally (for now), the action is powered by a set of blue steel springs.

Up until this point the WO33 was doing pretty well. Many good points, a few grumbles, but pretty much hitting the mark for a horn of this calibre. And then I found a couple of things I really didn't like.
Whenever I examine a horn one of the first things I do is give the keys a bit of a wiggle. I do this because the sound you get out of a horn is dependent on a chain of integrity that begins with the physical construction of the body and ends with the precision with which the pads have been set. A problem anywhere along the chain is going to have a knock-on effect on how the horn plays - if not immediately then certainly over a period of time. In an ideal world every horn would be built to exacting standards, but in real life there are nearly always some compromises to be found - and, ultimately, you have to accept that even the best horn is too crude a design to really be considered a precision bit of kit.
But there are standards that can be achieved - and on a horn of this calibre I would expect them all to be met...and then some.

Yanagisawa AWO33 alto key playSo I was very disappointed to find some free play in the top stack.
There were two points of play; between the first and second pillars and on the B key. I measured the play between the pillars at 0.1mm (4 thou) and the play in the B key at 0.15mm (just under 6 thou). This was solely end-to-end movement - if it had been down to wear or incorrectly drilled key barrels you'd have seen some wobble on the key as well.

I know it doesn't sound like a lot of free play, but it's actually quite significant. When fitting keys we repairers aim for a sliding fit, which means that when a key is presented at the correct angle the barrel should juuuuust slide between the pillars. You should be able to flip the instrument over and have the key hold itself in place...not by friction but more because it needs to be perfectly aligned between the barrels in order to be able to move.
It's also significant when you consider that a typical feeler used for testing the seat of a pad is around 0.02mm thick (just under a thou). If a pad is able to move five times that distance off axis, it's going to affect the integrity of the seal. In fact the total potential for movement on the B key is at least double that, because it's nested within the Auxiliary B key. This key can move 0.1mm...and then the B key itself can move a further 0.15mm.

But let's have some perspective. In practice such sloppiness won't have such a drastic effect. The springs will tend to hold the keys in a certain position, as will the weight of the keys in the playing position. And the pad itself has a degree of tolerance built in (being relatively soft).
It becomes far more serious when lateral play (wobble) is present because this will have an effect on the regulation between linked keys. The cogent point here, though, is that such free play shouldn't be there - and it very definitely shouldn't be there on a horn that's only 18 months old... and it really, absolutely, 100% shouldn't be there on a horn that costs the best part of five grand.
For some more perspective I measured the play on a fine old Yamaha purple logo 62 alto that had come in for a service, and measuring in the same places I got 0.05 (2 thou) and 0.1 (4 thou) respectively. This is a horn that's substantially cheaper, and knocking on 40+ years old. It's also minty fresh with no signs of work having been done to the action - so it's fair to assume that the play was either built in at the factory or it's down to fair wear and tear...or a bit of both.

So how did the play on the AWO33 get there?
The play between the pillars could be down to a knock. If the body of a horn gets even slightly bent it'll throw the pillars out of line...and this often shows up as play in the keywork. I checked for this and couldn't find anything out of line - but let's be generous and give the benefit of the doubt.
But what about the B key? To get that kind of play in a key that's nested within another one means you'd have to bend the outer key so much, the whole stack would be jammed solid. So no, it's not down to a bend. You can bet your dinner money on someone at the factory being a little overzealous when it came to adjusting the keys to fit. And on someone in quality control having an off day.

No other keys on the horn exhibited such a problem - they were all snuggity-snug. So they can get it right...they just didn't this time.
I sincerely hope this is just a one-off - one that slipped through the quality control net - but my advice if you're trying one of these horns out is to give the stack keys a bit of a wiggle. If anything moves side-to-side, chuck it back at the retailer and ask to see another one.
I decided not to address the wear during the course of the service. Because this is such a new horn I consulted with the client and suggested we leave the play there for the time being and we'll see whether Yanagisawa agree that this is below their usual standards and offer to sort it out. Should that happen I'll be sure to let you know, otherwise it'll get sorted when the horn next comes in for a service.

Yanagisawa AWO33 alto F key padThe pads are of good quality - Pisoni Pro - but I was rather surprised at how much pad work this horn required given its tender age. There were small leaks all the way down from the Bis Bb. Nothing very serious, and certainly nothing that would stop the horn in its tracks - but from G downwards I had to consciously up the finger pressure to get the horn to speak with its full clarity. This isn't good enough - not on a horn of this standard. And the reason for the problem became clear when I set to sorting the leaks out.
Here's the low F key with its pad removed, and here's why there were so many small leaks. This is a pad that's merely been stuck in the key cup rather than fitted. You get a dollop of shellac dead centre (and not enough at that) and sod all around the edges. It'll certainly hold the pad in the key cup but it quite plainly won't hold a seat.
Pads are going to move - they're going to swell and shrink, it's what they do when they get wet and subsequently dry out. They're also subject to varying degree of compression while in use. In order to minimise the effect of these small but critical shifts in the dimensions of the pad, it needs to be fully secured in the key cup. There's also the chance that water might find its way into the air gap behind the pad, which'll lead to yet more unexpected problems. The worst of it is that when a repairer attempts to reseat the pad (by heating the key cup to melt the glue and then shift all or part of the pad) it'll be a complete waste of time - with so little glue behind the pad the adjustments simply aren't going to hold.

I found similar issues in varying degrees on the Auxiliary F, the low E, the G, the A and the low Eb. In each case the position of the leak corresponded to a lack of shellac in that area. I dare say other keys may have been similarly affected, but at the time of the service they weren't presenting any leaks

Yanagisawa AWO33 alto low Eb key cupI also noticed that some pads exhibited a visible mix of shellac and hot melt glue (HMG). While it's possible to do this (with the right combination of glues) it's not standard practice - and besides, the glues weren't mixed. It was almost as though someone had started off by using HMG and very quickly changed their mind, and switched to shellac. This would make sense on a single key, maybe two at most...but after that you'd have to start wondering why they kept forgetting that they wanted to use shellac.
The mystery was solved when I removed the low Eb pad and spotted a very definite blob of HMG, right in the dead centre of the pad and the key cup. It's to seal the reflector rivet.
Now that's what I call attention to detail. Yes, there's a very slightly chance that air might seep through behind the reflector, track beneath the pad and come out at the side of the key cup - in which case it's effectively a leak. A very small leak. There's, admittedly, a very slight chance that this might happen - but it's good to see that someone has acknowledged the risk and taken steps to mitigate it. And it's at about this point that repairers all over the world are shouting "If they think it's that much of a risk, why the hell don't they just use more bloody shellac in the first place!!?" And they'd have a very good point.
It's a fix that only makes sense if you know there's not enough shellac in the key cup to fully coat the base of the pad. In other words it's a bodge.

Issues like this are nasty. It's very easy to point at misaligned pillars and shonky solderwork - and such things are quite visible to the eye of the prospective buyer. But something like this is impossible to see unless you strip the horn (not something that tends to go down well when you're shopping for a horn) and yet it has a direct effect on the playability and reliability of the instrument.
I saw a very similar problem on the Conn Selmer Avant 200 tenor I reviewed recently. Same brand of pad, same lack of glue. I had a bit of a pop about it - and that was on a £1500 horn. This one's more than three times the price. Am I having another pop? You betcha arse I am. And let's be clear about this - no-one else apart from the manufacturer has worked on this horn.

I think a fair question would be 'Why have they done this?", to which the answer would be "I don't know". It can't be a process thing because a little more shellac in the cups isn't going to make setting the pads any more difficult (in fact it will make it easier...provided you don't overdo it) - and it most definitely can't (or shouldn't) be a cost-saving thing because you'd only need half a stick of shellac to make things right, and that'll set you back about about £2.50. I've half a mind to send then a handful of sticks...with a little note that says "Here ya go - knock yerself out".

Yanagisawa AWO33  caseThe horn comes in a snazzy case with proper latches (none of that zippered rubbish).
The flap over the middle catch is a bit of a faff, but then I guess it's better than catching your fingernail on an exposed latch. It's a hard shell case with a 'canvas style' covering, which should be reasonably hardwearing.
You get loops for a shoulder/back strap, which is contained in an integral pouch on the bottom of the case (a nice touch), and an external zippered storage pouch on the top. Inside the case there's a separate compartment for the crook and mouthpiece and a storage area for all your accessories.

In the hands the horn feels quite weighty. At 2.64kg it's not the heaviest alto I've seen, but it isn't far short. It only weighs three or four ounces more than the average at 2.5kg, but those few ounces might make a difference once you've been standing on stage for an hour or two.
The action, however, is quite light and nimble. Disregarding the issues I found, the setup was reasonable - a medium/light action with a medium key height. Should be good enough for most people, and there's plenty of latitude for tweakery.
I didn't stumble over any awkward key placements - and to be honest I'm struggling to find anything to say about it. This is how it should be - a good action is practically transparent. It just does the job and doesn't get in the way.

A quintet of altosWhen it came to playtesting the horn, the Yani drew something of a short straw...or a long one, depending on your point of view. I was knee-deep in quality altos, so I picked out four others to take part in the grand play-off. Well, you would, wouldn't you.

Tonewise the Yanagisawa oozes supreme confidence from the off. I'm not kidding - you blow it, and it just shouts "Hello, hello! Here I am! Everyone look at me now!"
It's not that it's loud or brash, it's rather that it's authoritative - and extremely solid. If you're looking for an alto that's stable, the Yanagisawa is practically hewn from granite. That might sound a bit daft but that's really the impression it gives off. Its definitely a contemporary alto, with plenty of cut up at the top end yet balanced with a robust and powerful low end.
The free-blowing response is impressive - it'll go from a scream to a whisper in an instant, and it does so with very little change in the tone. This is quite a feat to pull off and marks it out as a very consistent horn. That said, when you back off it seems to dial in what I can only describe as a bit of tenderness...like it just smooths off the edges a tad. But don't mistake consistency for tameness - this is a horn that has an remarkable ability to keep pace with you, no matter where you choose to go.
If I had to choose one word that describes this horn it'd be clarity. It has a purity of tone that's quite refreshing and an easy-blowing approach that makes it almost effortless to play.

As you expect, or at least hope for at this price, it's a very even-toned horn. It doesn't really matter where you are on the scale, the tone remains consistent. I noticed an initial drop-off on the middle D, but this soon blended in nicely after I'd warmed up a bit - which is pretty much par for the course on any first-time blowing of an unfamiliar horn.

I pulled out the TJ RAW XS and straightaway noticed the difference in approach. Both horns have a serious amount of clout, but RAW tips a nod to the altos of yesteryear and tempers the clarity with a bit of grit and roundness. It struck me that perhaps a pertinent analogy would be that the Yanagisawa is David Suchet's Poirot while the RAW is Bogart's Sam Spade. They're both in the same business, but they go about it in different ways. And Bogart fits the RAW to a T...it's more relaxed, arguably more exciting and definitely packs a better right hook.

Yanagisawa WO33 crookThe Yamaha 875EX was next, and I figured this would be an interesting comparison as I've always felt the 875 had oodles of clarity.
And it does, but up against the Yanagisawa it quickly became clear that there's clarity...and there's clarity.
Imagine, if you will, that someone has given you a rectangular steel paperweight - a solid lump of precision-built steel, perfect in every dimension.
On the Yamaha version the edges of the block would be precise and almost sharp - but on the Yanagisawa version someone has taken the time and trouble to just ever so slightly smooth those edges off. As a result, the Yanagisawa block feels better in the hand - and so does the horn. It's more refined, more considered - and despite the tonal spread of both horns being remarkably similar, the WO33 has more weight and presence.

And then I pulled out a lovely old purple logo Yamaha 62.
I've always been a big fan of this horn, but I was expecting it to get severely drubbed in this play off. It had already been given a bit of a licking by the TJ RAW, and the 875 had shown it a thing or two...so how the hell was it going to square up to the W033.
Well, call me surprised, but it did rather well. I think what swung it was its undeniable 'cheeky-chappy' approach. It's free-blowing, lively, very responsive - and while it doesn't have the all-round gravitas and weight of tone that the Yanagisawa has, it nonetheless matches it in its playability. It put up a good fight and put on a damn good show.

And finally, just for fun, I dug out an old Martin Committee III. This was a totally unfair comparison - and not because the Martin's a bad horn (it's not) but more because it's in for a major job and is currently leaking like a sieve from the pads and at least a couple of toneholes.
But I really only wanted to get a sense of how far the contemporary alto has come - and I have to say it's actually not so very far.
That said, I've always considered the Martin to be the most modern of the vintage horns - and very nearly swapped my venerable old Yamaha 23 tenor for a Handcraft.
It gave of its best, and while it couldn't match the clarity of the modern horns it nonetheless showed that it's come at something of a price for the sheer depth of tone. You can pick your teeth clean with the contemporary tone...but you can take a dirty great bite out of the vintage one. Only the RAW showed some empathy, with its respectful nod to the Martin's chutzpah.

Yanagisawa AWO33  bellSo which one won the playoff?
That's a tricky one. These are all great horns. If you'd never played a sax in your life and you walked out of the shop with any of these (the rather poorly Martin aside) you'd be as happy as a pig in...well, whatever pigs are happiest in. And that's essentially the nub of the matter. Once you get past a certain price point, everything's good - but what's best will depend entirely on what each of those horns does for you. Not me, not a random name on the internet or that bloke on the cover of that Blue Note album....but you, and you alone.

From a personal perspective even if I could have a free choice of any of these horns I'd still pick the RAW. It's a more interesting horn, it's more fun - and it's a damned sight cheaper than the WO33.
But with my reviewer's hat on I'd say that the Yanagisawa's formidable clarity wins the day and I can see that many players will love the sheer stability it has. I think, too, that if I was at all inclined towards a classical bent it'd definitely be the WO33 I'd go for. I can see how it would truly excel in that genre. I especially liked the response, it's so fast that it almost feels like the horn knows where you want to go before you do. That's very moreish.
Then comes the RAW, which once again kicks arse in the bang for bucks department.
Next on the list would be the 62 - you just gotta love this horn. It's light, it's nimble and it's versatile. It's still a tough act to beat even after all these years.
And last on the list would be the 875. Technically it's a better horn than the 62...but it's not so much better than its price suggests.
And I think the Martin gets an honourable mention for being a good sport in spite of its dire state of repair...and I'll revisit it once it's all fixed up (see here).

When all is said and done it's clear that Yanagisawa have improved on what was already a superb alto. The improvements have retained the essential tonal quality that all their horns have, and added a bit of sparkle. It makes a difference, and it makes for a very fine horn indeed.
In terms of clarity and stability the WO33 sets a new reference (and yeah, I chose that word deliberately), which marks it out as a very serious horn indeed. Which it ought to be, for the price.
However, I'm less than happy about the issues I found. For the asking price I don't think it's at all unreasonable to expect uncompromising build quality and superb set up (they call it the Elite, after all). It can be found on far cheaper horns, and I think it behoves Yanagisawa to pull their finger out and up their game.
Picky I may be, but at five grand so should you be too.

 

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2017