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Sakkusu baritone saxophone

Sakkusu baritone sax reviewOrigin: China
Guide price: £1300
Weight: 6.21kg
Date of manufacture: 2017
Date reviewed: July 2019

It's heavy, man

I've said many, many times that the best approach to buying an Ultra-Cheap horn is to consider the purchase price as being merely a starting point, and to whizz the thing straight round to your repairer and spend a few more quid on having it properly set up. It makes the purchase that bit more expensive, but you end up with a better and more reliable horn.
In the case of the smaller horns (sopranos and altos), such tweaks may be necessary just to get the thing working properly - but on the larger horns (tenor and baritone), which are rather more forgiving of leaks, the tweaks are about improving upon what's already there. With Ultra-Cheap baris having been around for quite a few years now I'm noticing that quite a few clients are opting to buy them secondhand and then shell out for a full strip-down service. This probably won't win them any prizes in a 'biggest bargain' competition, but it does mean they end up with a much better horn at a price that still compares very favourably to the cost of a new-but-leaky one. And it makes sense on a horn that would otherwise cost £1000+ simply because of the scale of economics. The cost of the work is pretty much the same across the board, no matter what size the horn - you just have more headroom on a baritone.

This example came to me straight from the seller. The first time the buyer laid his hands on it was after I'd serviced it. He simply wasn't interested in trying it un-tweaked because he figured it would likely have all sorts of problems. And how right he was.
It's the cheaper of the two Sakkusu baritones marketed by sax.co.uk, and at a retail price of £1300 it's one of the cheapest baritones available new these days. It may well seem like a lot of dosh for a cheap horn, but you've only got to spend a couple of minutes looking at the prices of (shall we say) rather more respectable horns to realise that it's at least half the price of a 'name' brand...and a hell of a lot less than a bari from one of the more renowned makers.

In theory this horn ought to be quite a good bet. My standing advice to would-be purchasers of cheap horns is to default to buying from a reputable dealer if you can't get a recommendation on a particular brand. I give this advice on the basis that such sellers are likely to take more care over checking the horns before sale, which means you're less likely to end up with a lemon. If the shop has on-site repair facilities it may even mean that the horn has been thoroughly inspected and perhaps even tweaked - as is claimed to be the case with sax.co.
This isn't a new horn though, it's had a couple of years of what looked to be light use in the wild - but it won't be at all hard to distinguish between wear and tear or damage and those issues that came built into the horn from new. So let's pop it up on the bench and see whether it delights or disappoints.

The construction is single pillar (post to body), with a handful of small plates that house a couple of pillars each. The pillar bases vary in size, and for the most part are adequate or even generous in proportion - but there are a couple of curious anomalies.
This pair of pillars for the octave key mech and the top E are fitted to a particularly vulnerable spot on the top bow tube with some of the smallest pillar bases on the entire horn.
Sakkusu baritone pillarsIt makes no sense at all - and even less so when you consider that there's yet another pillar (for the top F# key) fitted a little way around the bow that's shorter than either of these two pillars and yet has a larger base.

You could, I suppose, make the argument that having these pillars only weakly attached is a sort of a safety feature. If they cop a sideways knock there's a fair chance that they'll pop right off the top bow without distorting the tube much. It's a valid argument - but one that's rather scuppered by the fact that if the pillars cop a whack from above, the smaller pillar bases will be less able to spread the load and are more likely to stove in the top bow. Having seen the results of such impacts many, many times I'd always opt for larger pillar bases.
By-the-by, that's not a lacquer dribble running down from the taller pillar's base - it's the distorted reflection of the pillar. I'll admit it caught me out when it came to editing the shots, and I briefly wondered how on earth I could have missed a dirty great dribble in the lacquer. I was all poised to type "...and another thing..." when I realised what was going on.

Continuing with pillar bases, this pair of pillars for the bell keys have to carry quite a lot of weight and stress - but the bases aren't especially large and they've sliced a lump off the lower pillar's base in order to get it into position.
Sakkusu baritone bell key pillarsIt would have been so much more sensible to have put these pillars on a single plate, but that would mean more expense. In fact if you look very closely you can see that the lower pillar started off identical to the upper one...and subsequently had one of the heads lopped off (note the flat spot on the side of the head) and the base sliced. This is actually quite a good way of cutting down on production costs, and is sometimes used on horns that cost considerably more.
While we're here I guess now's as good a time as any to mention that the point screws are of the parallel type, with a point on the tip. They differ from the pseudo type inasmuch as the point is distinct rather than gently curving into the shaft of the tip. These are only accurate if the key barrels have been drilled to a snug fit, or the holes are shallow enough to allow the pointed tip of the screw to make contact with the bottom of the hole. Unfortunately neither of these requirements had been met, which meant that almost all the point screw mounted keys were wobbling about on their pivots. This is not good.
On a more positive note the rod screw action was, by and large, reasonably good. A few wobbles on some of the smaller keys, but nothing major on each of the stacks.

The toneholes are of the plain drawn type, bar those on the top bow - which have been silver (or hard) soldered on. This is unusual, and is a manufacturing technique usually confined to sopranos where the diminutive size of the palm key toneholes means it's easier and and safer to solder the toneholes on rather than trying to draw such a small hole out of the body tube and risk having to scrap a body because one of the toneholes split during the process.
But you'd hardly call the top bow tube on a bari 'small', and I'm really not sure I've ever seen soldered toneholes here - apart from on horns where all the toneholes are soldered on, obviously. It's clear from the anomalies with the pillar bases that production costs have been pared to the bone - so I'm really not sure why they didn't just draw these toneholes out like everyone else does.
I'm even more surprised that no-one's made a 'feature' out of it; "Hand-soldered top bow toneholes...for uninterrupted bore profile, enhanced resonance and purity of tone"...

Sakkusu baritone soldered toneholesAnyway, because they're silver-soldered there'll be no issues with selective galvanic corrosion (whereby soft solder rots away over a long period of time and causes the joint to fail) - so on a 1 to 10 scale of things to worry about it ranks about -5. However, what ranks about 7 or 8 on the worry scale is the flatness of the toneholes - or rather the lack of it.
Hardly any of the toneholes approached even a broad sense of level and a generous handful had very severe warps which were plainly visible to the naked eye. The low C pulled a double whammy by virtue of having a notch slap-bang in the centre of a warp.
As with most warp shots the photo only tells half the story - because as large as the visible portion of the warp is (and it is large), there's just as big a warp on the other side of the tonehole.

Sakkusu baritone low C toneholeThe notch, in particular, is concerning because while a slight tonehole warp can defeat the eye, a notch tends to stick out like ukulele player at a hard bop gig.
OK, granted - if you spend all your time checking over expensive horns you very quickly fall into a pattern of assuming (quite reasonably) that the manufacturers have got the basics sorted. When you're checking Ultra-Cheap Chinese horns the mantra is "Expect Aarvarks'. You simply can't take it for granted that no-one's filled the horn up with pasta sauce, or even that it has the right number of keys.
If you're marketing a line of Chinese horns you really ought to be up on this sort of stuff - otherwise people might begin to assume that you've seen the issues...but can't be arsed to sort them out.
All of which is extremely disappointing for me because it renders my advice of "buy from a reputable dealer - preferably one with an in-house repair facility" a complete waste of time. I am not, as the saying goes, a happy bunny. I suppose you could argue that since the horn's been in use for a couple of years it may well have suffered some trauma that resulted in skewed toneholes, but such damage is usually easy to spot (the dents and bent tubing tend to give it away) and it still doesn't account for the notches.

But let's cheer things up by having a a look at the bracing on this horn.
There's a very substantial Yamaha style triple-point bell brace which provides good support against frontal impact and, by virtue of the secondary arm that stretches across the body, additional support against side impacts. I rather like this design as there's a degree of collapsibility built in - which is to say that in the event of a severe impact the brace will distort somewhat and help to dissipate the energy, thus reducing the damage to the main body tube. Granted, it can be a sod to realign a bent bell brace - but it's a lot cheaper than having to deal with a bent body.
Sakkusu baritone bell braceI'll knock a point or two off because the fit and alignment of the brace is a bit shoddy (look at the twist on the secondary arm where it sits on the lug). It's quite common to see that this lug screw has been broken off because someone's noticed the arm is a bit off kilter and has attempted to correct it by tightening the screw down. Don't do this - it simply isn't strong enough to do the job. By all means, check that the screw is tight and the arm is locked in place - and then leave it well alone. Or take the whole brace off and realign it off the horn.

The top bow brace is an interesting variation on a theme.
The central boss is pretty much standard, but the brace itself is usually a semicircular plate of brass that's attached to the bow at three points (at the edges and again at the bottom of the bow). It's a reasonable design, but it tends to be slightly less effective on Ultra-Cheap horns because they skimp out on the thickness of the brass.
Sakkusu baritone top bow braceThey've done away with the plate here and gone for a simple crossbar, and quite a substantial one at that. I've no complaints at all about this, save for some scruffy soldering where the bar is fitted to the bow tube - and the rigidity is further bolstered by the additional crossbar that runs from the crook socket to the body (seen at the rear of the shot). The whole lot adds up to a good amount of support for the bow, which'll go a long way to preventing the tube from being distorted when fitting the crook and mouthpiece.
And, of course, all these detachable braces means that the bell is detachable - as is the top bow. On this horn the top bow comes off where it meets the main body tube, which is advantageous if you need access to the body to straighten it out or remove any dents.

Might as well mention the octave mech while we're looking at it - and it's the standard swivelling type. As the horn is loosely based on a Yamaha design, you get two body octave key pips, which help to enhance the clarity and tuning of the mid range (D to G).
It's a good mech, though on cheaper horns it tends to suffer somewhat with flexing and sloppy key fit - so can feel a little approximate sometimes. You might be tempted to have the mech tightened up, but this often means the whole thing locks up. If it's working, leave it well alone and just keep it lubed.

As for the rest of the body features you get an adjustable metal thumb hook, a large flat metal thumb rest, a reasonably-sized 16/10mm sling ring, bumper felt adjusters on the bell key guards and provision for fitting a spike to the bell - which provides support when playing in the sitting position.
If you can find a long enough piece of metal you could, in theory, use a spike when standing - though you'd have to be rather careful when swinging the bari around on stage in case you take out the guitarist's amp - or, if you're very unlucky, the bass player's pint.

As for the keywork, there's really not a lot to say about it that hasn't already been covered.
It's a Yamaha(ish) copy, so the layout and ergonomics are plenty good enough - and you get the standout feature of all Yamaha baris in the shape of the excellent low A mech. I've said it before and I'll say it again - it's such a good design that it really ought to be the de-facto standard for all low A mechs - and even though it's not as well-built as the genuine article it's still streets ahead of the competition in terms of its ability to close the bell keys with a degree of accuracy and its switchlike feel.
Sakkusu baritone  low A keyOn a minor point - the thumb key on this horn was set way too low, such that you had to roll your thumb right back and almost off the thumb rest in order to actuate the key. It really needs to be much higher (in the position shown), so that you can simply lean the thumb back to hit a low A and roll straight forward again to go into the octaves. It's an easy enough fix...just bend the touchpiece up. However, it's a hefty bit of metal - and if you tried to lift it up while it was attached to the horn it would merely drive the key arms on the opposite end of the key into the body tube. You have to remove the key and clamp the base of the touchpiece before bending it. And contrary to what you might think, Chinese keywork is really rather stiff and won't bend easily.

Another nice feature is double cup arms on the low C, B, Bb and A keys - though I really don't know why they don't go the whole hog and double up on the low C# cup arm.
The key pearls are all plastic, and concave. They're not great but they do OK. A worthwhile upgrade would be to dig these out (they come out easy enough - though you could always just wait until they fall out of their own accord) and pop a set of proper pearls in - and while your at it, a more domed Bis Bb pearl wouldn't go amiss. You also get a standard tilting bell key table and simple fork and pin connectors for the side Bb/C keys.

The pads are of the usual Chinese fare - they're not brilliant but they're OK, if inclined to be rather sticky sometimes. They'd do even better if the toneholes were level, and this would also avoid the need to attempt to reseat them - which is usually a waste of time because, as was apparent on this horn, there's simply not an even spread of glue on the back of pads. If you're lucky you get a miserly dob of hot melt glue in the middle of the pad and a cursory smear somewhere towards the periphery. If you have to adjust a pad seat you have to pull the pad out and coat the entire rear face with glue before refitting and setting it.

Sakkusu baritone key guidesOne of the big problems with large horns is the tendency for the long key barrels to flex - and to help mitigate some of this there's a generous sprinkling of key guides dotted around the horn. They're all of the cup type - as opposed to the clamp type seen on many other horns (Yanagisawa in particular) - and none of them were buffered. Whether they were like this from the off I can't say - but it has to be said that the Chinese are particularly lousy when it comes to gluing cork on...the strange glue they use seems to dissolve into a gooey mess over time. The guides will still work without the buffering, but it adds significantly to the noise the keywork makes in use - so it's well worth making sure that there's something in the guides to prevent metal-to-metal contact. Cork or felt is just fine - leather works well too, and at a pinch you can even use thick paper.

I think that just about covers the keywork other than to say that they action is powered by a set of blued steel springs.

You get a standard semi-soft box-style case with the horn, complete with a crappy zip fastener that will break or fail at some point. There's plenty of room inside for all your bits and bobs. There's also a pair of wheels on the bottom end of the case to assist with dragging the whole lot from the car to the gig venue - but if you use this feature on anything but the smoothest surface you're likely to find that the wheels will be torn right off the case...taking a large chuck of chipboard with them.

Under the fingers the baritone feels as good as you'd expect given that it's essentially a copy of an expensive horn. Once the wobbly keys had been dealt with the action became far less vague and substantially quieter, and with a few judicious tweaks of the springs here and there it almost bordered on nimble. This is perhaps the killer feature of an Ultra-Cheap horn - the key layout hasn't been designed to be cheap and merely good enough for students, it's been lifted straight off a horn that would suit a professional.
The aforementioned low A mech is a delight, the octave mech is quite responsive and I doubt many people will have any problems with the layout of the tilting bell key table.

While the action may be reasonably light, the horn itself isn't. It's really rather heavy. In fact it's one of the heaviest baritones I've ever seen. I usually point out when a horn is particularly light or heavy, and it's usually in the order of a few tens of grammes (a few ounces, in old money) - but this thing tips the scales at a whopping half a kilo heavier than the heaviest baritone I've reviewed to date (the Rosedale). That's just over a pound. I even checked to make sure there was nothing stuffed down the bell like a stand, or some cloths...or a pound of self raising flour. But no, it really does weigh that much.

Sakkusu baritone spike lugsI can't see much in terms of build quality/robustness that would explain the extra weight - but I guess the the pair of clamps that are fitted to the bell to hold a spike look like they'd account for a fair chunk of it. If you weren't using the spike you could lighten the weight of the horn by a couple of ounces (I weighed 'em) by removing the clamp nuts and chucking them in the case.

Tonewise the Sakkusu does OK. It's quite even across the range (the double body octave vents help) and has good stability. It's not a particularly stiff blow, neither is it especially free-blowing - it's just nicely in the middle. It's what I'd call a competent performer...but it's a bit boring. It doesn't quite have the richness of, say, the Bauhaus and nor does it have the slap and punch of the old Gear4Music. I wouldn't even call it introspective - by which I mean a horn that seems more comfortable at low volumes - because it doesn't back off particularly well; there's a sort of general dryness to the tone that seems to come to the fore when playing quietly.
If you've never played a bari before you'd probably be quite happy with it - and I guess that's reasonable compliment. But should you find yourself presented with the opportunity to play a different bari you might end up noticing just how much is missing from your own horn. Of course you can modify the tone by sticking a different mouthpiece on it, but I don't think the horn will ever shake off its underlying dryness.

What about the competition?

On the face of it it's realistically two-horse race, with the the basic Sakkusu (there's a deluxe model available for an extra £400) up against the Gear4Music Rosedale at the same price - but the Sakkusu is supplied with a Yamaha 5C mouthpiece, which is a nice bit of kit that'd normally set you back £50 or so. That's a win for the Sakkusu.
Both horns suffer from build quality issues, for which the only leveller (quite literally) is going to be throwing a couple of hundred quid at your repairer to sort them out. That's a draw.
The Rosedale is a rather more ebullient blow and benefits from having a bit of fizz and crackle even when you back off the volume. That's a win for the Rosedale.
You get a free service after a year with the Sakkusu. I'm somewhat sceptical about the worth of this given what slipped past the pre-sale checkover, but it's still a win. You could lever this advantage a little bit more by giving the horn a thorough inspection before taking it in for its service. A quick read of any of the reviews of Ultra-Cheap horns will give you some idea of what to look out for. If you're on good terms with your repairer (and you really ought to be) and have a bottle of wine to spare, you might just be able to persuade them to spend five minutes writing down a list of things that need sorting.

On points alone, then, the Sakkusu takes the gold - but that assumes you assign equal weight to the playability as to any of the other features...and out in the real world I tend to find it's something of a trump card.
And speaking of of weight, the extra pound or so this horn weighs over just about anything else I've seen should be something to consider quite carefully. The sax forums are awash with bari players complaining of neck and back problems, seeking advice on which straps or harnesses will ease the load. It's a common and very real issue. If you're unconvinced, just pop a small bag of flour (unopened, for preference, yeah?) down the bell of your horn and sling it around your neck for half an hour.

Summing up, then - some pros and cons (as usual). The Sakkusu is no worse in terms of build quality than anything else on the market at the same price. It's also no better - and while it's a competent performer my personal feeling is that it lacks a bit of sparkle. You could spend a bit more and go for the deluxe version - but it looks remarkably similar to the Rosedale. Now, that's not to say they're the same horns - but they're certainly (more or less) the same design. Single cup arms on the bell keys, screw-in peg on the bottom bow, oval pearls on G# and side F#, crook clamp screw on the right hand side of the receiver...
I've been fiddling with Chinese horns for long enough to know that horns that look alike may well be very different from each other in the way they play - but given the playability of the Rosedale versus the basic Sakkusu and the price-competitiveness of Gear4Music, I have a sneaking suspicion that it might be the better deal in more ways than one. I won't know for sure until I've seen a deluxe Sakkusu on the workbench...

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Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2019