John Packer JP044 MkII baritone saxophone
Guide price: £1549
Date of manufacture: 2017
Date reviewed: March 2018
The tri-tone baritone
It's been ten years since I last reviewed a Chinese
baritone (the Gear4Music) and two things surprise me about this.
The first is that ten years seems to have gone by in the blink of
an eye - and the second is that I've seen far fewer cheapo baritones
in the workshop than I would have expected.
This may be due to their lack of popularity. I doubt it somehow,
because I see plenty of posh baritones - so I rather suspect that
there's some sort of relationship between the price someone is prepared
to pay for a bari, and the amount of money they're willing to spend
to keep it in tip-top shape.
They're cheaparses, in other words. Not that you can blame them,
because the baritone is such a trouper it'll keep chugging on even
if a couple of keys are about to fall off - and as every true baritone
aficionado knows, the less money you spend on fiddling with your
horn, the more you'll have to spend on beer, fags, chips and shove
And reeds. Did you know...a typical bari sax reed (Rico) cost as
much as a nine foot length of 4 by 2 from the timber yard? Brings
me out in a cold sweat just thinking about it.
In the last ten years the Ultra-Cheap horn market
has changed dramatically, with many respectable brands having fallen
prey to rising costs and inconsistent quality control.
That said, there were never that many people selling baritones,
and to some extent this section of the market has remained more
or less static.
Gear4Music and John Packer were there at the start, and are still
there today - and have recently been joined by sax.co.uk's Sakkusu
brand. And there's still the Bauhaus Walstein at the upper end of
And since ten years is plenty of time to iron out any niggling production
problems, it's high time to take a look at what John Packer has
to offer in the shape of their basic bari, the JP044 (Mark II).
First up - the finish.
It's advertised as being built from brass with a rose brass finish
- and while I've seen plenty of horns that have a two-tone finish
(a brass body and bronze bell, for example), I've never before seen
one that feature three body finishes. It seems to have a light gold
lacquered main body, a clear lacquered bottom bow and a rose brass/bronze
bell. A tri-tone, in other words.
Not that it makes a jot of difference - it just looks a bit...well...odd.
construction is single pillar (post to body) - all of which have
reassuringly large bases. Rather confusingly the website blurb describes
this horn as being of ribbed construction...in spite of the product
shots (and this example) suggesting otherwise. Maybe it's a typo,
or a leftover spec from the Mk1.
The toneholes are all plain drawn, the bell is detachable - as is
the top bow (at the top of main body tube), and there's a four-point
bell brace. You also get an adjustable metal thumb hook, a flat
plastic thumb rest, adjustable bell key bumpers and a very generously-proportioned
20.5/13.5 sling ring.
The placement of the top bow clamp is sensible,
given that it allows tooling access to the main body tube without
having to pull the bell off. However, the braces on the top bow
are a bit on the flimsy side. This isn't unique to this model -
all the cheap baritones have overly-thin braces here - which is
why you should exercise some caution when fitting the crook and
The standard advice for any horn is to fit the mouthpiece to the
crook and then fit the crook to the horn. This helps prevent stressing
the crook and the receiver during assembly. However, I know that
many of you (myself included) bung the crook on and then fit the
mouthpiece - which is a bit naughty, but slightly less naughty if
you at least ensure the mouthpiece cork is nicely greased first.
On these cheap baris it's dead risky to cheat on the assembly because
the braces are so thin - and if you attempt to wrestle the mouthpiece
on to the crook while it's fitted to the horn, the top bow will
flex. This will eventually weaken and break the seal at the top
bow joint, and at some point one or other of the braces will pop
off. And if any of the brace screws have worked their way loose
(as they do), the whole process will happen that much sooner.
such concerns with the bell brace, which is a very substantial affair.
It's your standard three-point job with an extra leg that extends
across the top of the body tube and is mounted between the A and
G toneholes. I've tinted it to make it a little easier to see what's
This extra leg is a very nice feature, because while the three-point
brace is good at preventing the bell section from being driven backwards
into the body, it's not much cop at stopping it from being knocked
sideways. The extra leg takes care of any impacts in that plane...and
in the event of a knock it proves a wider area over which the shock
It still won't stop the body from bending as a result of a hefty
whack, but there's a world of difference between having a gentle
bend in the body and a dirty great crease, complete with a couple
of misshapen toneholes.
The only drawback with these braces is that they're not always terribly
well fitted - and even though the screws are done up tight, the
brace is still a little bit loose.
If in doubt, give the brace a bit of a wiggle - but don't be too
quick to take a screwdriver to the screws as you might end up stripping
out the threads.
Being such a (relatively) cheap horn I was expecting
to find the usual collection of iffy toneholes - but in fact they
weren't too bad at all. Not perfect, by any means, but well within
the "It'll do at this price" range. The only ones that
were outside that range were from the low C down to the low A -
and as if to make up for this encouraging display, the low A exhibited
a classic Chinese aardvark.
You can see a fairly substantial warp at the front of the tonehole
- but what's going on at the right hand side, just behind the apex?
a notch, and a pretty deep one at that. It's gracefully curved and
completely smooth - so I'm not so sure that it got there due to
an error in the drawing process (quite common on Chinese horns),
and I rather suspect that it's down to a spot of careless buffing.
This is why many players tend to avoid relacquered
horns. Buffing is just a cosy-sounding word that means 'very fine
grinding', and in careless hands a buffing wheel can remove surprisingly
large amounts of metal in a very short space of time. It's unlikely
that anyone intentionally buffed the tonehole - rather they were
probably working on an adjacent spot (perhaps where the guard stay
is) and failed to notice that part of the wheel was touching the
top of the tonehole. Half a minute later and there's your notch...all
smooth and curved.
Fortunately, in this case, the notch sat beside the raised portion
of the tonehole - which would need to be taken down in order to
level the hole...so with a bit of careful filing and some gentle
bore manipulation, it was possible to eliminate the notch without
any adverse effects.
Had it been anywhere else it might have been much more of a problem.
And I should say at this point that the client bought this bari
at an 'ex demo' discount. More often than not this is a euphemism
for 2nd quality or B stock goods (retailers are often reluctant
to admit there's such a thing as 2nd quality) - though it's generally
standard practice to point out what anomalies are responsible for
the discount. No such information was given at the time of purchase.
The action turned out to be quite good. Baritones
can be tricky beasts when it comes to the keywork because the sheer
size of the keys makes it more likely that flex will be an issue.
The JP044 does pretty well, and this is predominantly due to the
keys being rather stiff. It also helps if the keys are nice and
snug on their pivots - and I'm pleased to report that they were.
few of the side keys were a little wobbly, as were a few of the
keys that were mounted on (pseudo) point screws - but the main stack
action was actually pretty good, all things considered. Definitely
better than expected and certainly comfortably above average for
The worst aspect was the corkwork, which was the usual fare - indifferently
fitted squishy corks, held on with poor-quality glue. That said,
it was tidier than many I've seen and seemed to be holding up well
enough after a good few months' use.
There are no adjusters on the main stacks, though
you get the usual adjusters on the Bis Bb, G# and low C#.
Technically-speaking, the low A thumb key is adjustable - but you'd
be extremely well-advised not to attempt it. It's a copy of the
superb Yamaha mech - which means it's practically switchlike in
operation. However, the adjustable part of the mechanism is seldom
that well built on Chinese baritones, and fiddling with it is often
far more trouble than it's worth.
speaking of Yamaha, the octave mech features twin body octave key
Like the double-armed low A mech, these are a worthwhile feature
and really help to even out the tone and the tuning over the notoriously
tricky G/A break on baritones.
If there's a drawback to this mech it's that it's rather more complex
than usual - and the more complex a thing is, the more things there
are to go wrong.
Thankfully it's fairly fault-tolerant - which is just as well because
it turned out to be bent. I only noticed it because I wanted to
check how much 'meat' was in the pillar at the head end of the screw
(centre, left), because they seem to have cut the screw a little
too short. As I turned the screw, the whole mech rose and fell...which
is the classic sign of a bent rod/key.
This turned out to be the most significant problem with the action...but
I can't in all honesty say that it couldn't have happened some time
While I was fixing it I took the time to add some Teflon buffers
to the swivel arm tips...which helps to tighten up the feel of the
mech and keep it quiet.
The pads seem reasonable enough. They're a little
bit on the soft side, and on the few that I removed I noted they
were held in place with just a lick or two of hot melt glue. The
slight softness of the pads I can forgive - and it's probably quite
a practical choice for such a large (and thus approximate) horn...but
the lack of glue gets a big frown. If you want to reset any of the
pads you'll have to remove them and add more glue/shellac...otherwise
you'll just be wasting your time.
And that about wraps it up for the keywork save
to point out that the side key connectors are simple fork and pin
jobs, the low C key has double cup arms, there's a tilting bell
key table, the key pearls are all concave plastic - and the whole
action is powered by stainless steel springs. At least I think that's
what they are. They're not blued - and yet they're tapered...which
is unusual for stainless steel springs (certainly on a horn of this
quality). They don't appear to show any signs of corrosion, and
they seem to be doing a fine job...so that's about all that needs
to be said.
The horn comes in a massive box-style case. It
looks pretty chunky but it's actually not as sturdy as you'd think.
The zippered fastener tends not to last very long, and I'd strongly
advise you avoid trundling the case along on its wheels on anything
other than the smoothest surface - because they'll break right out
of the case. Other than that it offers a reasonable amount of protection
for the horn, and there's oodles of space inside for all your accessories.
In the hands the horn feels quite comfortable
in spite of its size and weight.
It's very much a contemporary baritone in this respect, and feels
more like a large tenor when compared to the feel of a vintage model.
Everything's reasonably compact and accessible, there's no frantic
stretching required or wrist-breaking gymnastics. It's all there,
right under your fingers.
The action feels pretty nimble too, and while it doesn't quite have
the buttery slickness of, say, a Yamaha, it nonetheless comes remarkably
close. The low A mech in particular is a dream. I've said it before
and I'll say it again - I don't know why all baritones aren't fitted
with this mech. It's that good.
it's as contemporary as the action, and errs just on the bright
side of middling I'd say. It's surprisingly easy to blow, quite
responsive with very crisp low notes. It's also got a fair bit of
grunt - which is typical of a modern baritone - and while it lacks
the kind of precise punch you get from from a top-end horn it more
than makes up for it in its enthusiastic approach...and the price
It's quite even-toned across the scale for a baritone and seems
to maintain it even at low volumes. I think it's fair to say that
it lacks the character and sonority of a vintage bari, but you might
be surprised at what you can coax out of it with the right mouthpiece.
Thankfully it seems to be pretty accommodating in this respect -
and worked just as well with my ebonite Link as it did with a cheapo
high-baffle piece. And the tuning's fine too.
So, thumbs up or thumbs down?
To be honest, a baritone that comes in at around £1500 that
plays in tune and doesn't fall apart after six months is always
going to get a thumbs up.
It's half the price of a basic Jupiter, and a third of the price
of an entry-level Yanagisawa. On a cash basis alone it's way ahead
of the field.
My personal perspective on these things is that if you want a bari
on a budget it's either something like this, or a secondhand banger.
Old 'n cheap alto and tenors (and perhaps certain sopranos) you
can get away with - but a clunky old baritone is whole 'nother world
of pain. And, ultimately, expense.
And it seems to me there are two approaches to these Ultra-Cheap
baritones. The first is simply to buy one and just get on with playing
it. The second is to view the purchase as just the first step, and
throw another hundred quid at it to have it properly set up - by
which I mean have the toneholes sorted, the action tweaked, the
shonky corks replaced and various pads reset.
It made a significant difference to this horn, and even just sorting
out the toneholes on the bell section really paid off. I blew the
horn beforehand, and it wasn't too bad - but once those toneholes
had been levelled and the pads reset, it was like a window had been
opened on the bottom end of the horn. Bags more crispness and a
much more solid feel to the notes.
In terms of the competition there really isn't
very much out there these days. There's the Gear4Music, which comes
in at £1300 - and there's the sax.co.uk Sakkusu, which costs
around £1300 for the basic model and £1700 for the posh
I see quite a few Gear4Music baritones, and I'd say they compare
very well with the John Packer. I feel the Packer is slightly better
built...but only slightly - and I wouldn't like to bet a bottle
of beer on it being £200's worth better. As to the Sakkusu,
I've yet to see one - though I wasn't so terribly impressed with
one of their tenors
I recently reviewed.