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Thomann Low Jazz L baritone saxophone

Thomann Low Jazz baritone sax reviewOrigin: Taiwan
Guide price: £2400
Weight: 5.48kg
Date of manufacture: 2020 (serial range: B16xxx)
Date reviewed: September 2020

Blimey!

I get an awful lot of enquiries relating to the prospective purchase of a saxophone. I'm sure that most of them come from word of mouth or recommendations from one or other of the forums, but a good percentage come from people who've read my site from start to finish and yet still need that extra something to convince them they're making the right choice. I completely understand that - its something I've done myself...drop a review site owner a little email to ask if they have any specific recommendations. And I know where the motivation comes from - it's that fear that you might end up buying a lemon just because your needs don't fit the run-of-the-mill requirements.
So when a prospective buyer emailed me to ask for a recommendation for a modern low Bb baritone my first thought was "What d'you want one of those for??". Let's face it, most players who hanker after a baritone want to be able to pump out fat low As - and those who really want a low Bb tend to do so because they're after a particular tone (typically vintage), or because their style of playing simply doesn't require that extra semitone...and the extra weight around the neck that comes with it.
It was into the latter camp that this buyer fell, and I had but two options to throw his way; get a Mauriat...or take a chance on the Thomann low Bb baritone. I'd heard good things about the low A version, so I figured the low Bb couldn't be all that bad...? Besides, they have a very good returns policy - and maybe the smart thing to do would be to buy one, whizz it down to the workshop and let me take a gander at it...and send it back if it fails to impress. And this is exactly what he did.

I'm kinda used to clients standing in the workshop with an anxious look on their face, but this is usually because they can feel their wallet lightening by the second while I groan with barely-concealed despair at what's been put on the bench. But this poor chap was anxious for an entirely different reason. He'd bought a horn 'on spec' that could potentially be the answer to all his needs - and it all hinged on whether I gave it a yay or a nay. So let's see what he got...

This example is the L model - which, presumably, stands for lacquered. And a nice job they've made of it too. There's another model - the PB (Pure Brass) - which is unlacquered but factory tarnished...if you like that sort of thing.
The horn is of single pillar construction with suitably large pillar bases, and plates for the palm and side cup keys - all of which look to be very neatly fitted indeed. The toneholes are plain drawn, and all have nicely-finished rims with no signs of burrs or roughness. Being a modern horn it has a detachable bell, and being a modern baritone it has a detachable lower top bow (pigtail). Personally I prefer to see the top bow itself being the point of detachment as it allows a repairer to get tooling down the bore without having to take the bell off - and given that baritones are prone to getting knocks and dents in the body tube, it's a useful feature to have.
But I suppose a detachable pigtail makes it a lots easier to clean the tubing out (which can get pretty grimy after a while). I'll be advising the client to get a Hodge swab and start using it immediately - if you can keep this part of the bore clean it'll mean far fewer problems down the years.

Thomann Low Jazz bari pigtail braceYou get all the usual fixtures: there's an adjustable metal thumb hook (replaced with a plastic one by the client), a large flat plastic thumb rest, a nice big sling ring (18/11mm), a detachable semicircular compound bell key pillar, a full set of adjustable bumper felts and additional removable guards for the chromatic/side F# and the side C. The latter is a nice feature as it's quite an exposed key on a baritone.
The body tube clamps are worth an extra mention, being two-part rings. It means they can be built more sturdily and aren't such a faff should they ever need to be removed.

Similarly the pigtail brace is reassuringly substantial, as is the cross-brace that secures the pigtail to the body. These braces are particularly important as they provide strength and stiffness to the top bow assembly when assembling the horn...especially if you're given to fitting the mouthpiece after you've fitted the crook. This always a risky proposition on a baritone, it really can put a great deal of stress on the tubing - so a much better bet is to fit the mouthpiece to the crook, then fit the crook to the body.

Thomann Low Jazz bari bell braceAnother nice feature that's worth a mention is the bell brace.
At first glance it look like your bog-standard triple-point brace, but if you look carefully (the pointy arrow is a bit of a giveaway) you can see that there's an additional arm that extends to the apex of the body tube. So, a four-point bell brace. We've seen these before - and they're a very welcome addition, but it's nice to see one at this price point. It makes the bell that much stiffer and helps to prevent it being knocked out of line from a sideways swipe. Gets the old thumbs up. I'm also happy with the size of the mounting plates.

Thomann Low Jazz bari toneholeComing back to the toneholes, I have to say how pleased I was to see that they were all reasonably level. Now, that doesn't mean perfect - but very few new horns can meet that challenge, so it's always good to see someone make a half-decent stab at it, especially on a budget horn.
Here's the low C - and you can see it's not too bad at all. Certainly a great deal better than some of the toneholes I've seen on horns costing quite a bit more. And this wasn't the only example on the horn - but neither was it the worst. I checked a number and found that at worst they matched what most other quality manufacturers are putting out, and at best they rather exceeded the mark.
All things considered (especially the price) I'm more or less happy about that.

And I've just realised I'm a good few paragraphs in and I haven't have a moan yet. So here's one.
Look at that mouthpiece cork - is that not possibly the cruddiest cork you've ever seen? It's got more holes than a piece of Swiss cheese. The problem with using cork like this is that it tends not to last very long, and the more holes you have in it, the more chance there is that they will form an air path underneath the mouthpiece. A leak, in other words.
OK, good quality cork isn't cheap - but there's probably only a quid or so per mouthpiece cork in it...and with an asking price of over two grand you'd think they could up the cork budget a tad.
Thomann Low Jazz bari mouthpiece corkWhat's really interesting, though, is that some of the larger holes appear to be filled with some sort of silicone filler. I thought it might just be the glue seeping through, but when I removed the cork (to put a decent one on) I found that it wasn't the same stuff. So does that mean they're using 'C grade' cork and then paying someone to rub silicone sealant into it? Seems like a lot of fuss and bother when you might as well fire the employee who rubs silicone into the corks and just buy decent cork with the money you'd have saved...
And I'm not done yet...

Thomann Low Jazz bari crook tenonTake a close peek at the tenon sleeve. Notice the slightly ragged appearance? That's lacquer.
This is, unfortunately, very common on budget horns - they fail to mask off the crook tenon sleeve when spraying the crook with lacquer. It's not that big of a deal...it'll wear off in a very short time - but while it does it'll make the crook joint feel quite stiff and sticky...and the lacquer could be thick enough to disguise an otherwise loose joint.
It didn't in this case, fortunately. I removed the lacquer and the joint still sealed well enough.

I think that wraps it up for the bodywork, so let's have a look at the action.
The very first thing I noticed was that that adjustable key guides have been fitted. This is a very posh feature. If you think having cupholders in a car is pretty swish, then these things would equate to having muffin holders. C'mon, admit it, you'd buy a car that had muffin holders fitted as standard.
Thomann Low Jazz bari key guideOK, they're admittedly of little use to the player - they're more of a convenience for the repairer, but it's still nice to see them fitted. But hang on a mo - what's that stuff they've used for buffering? Could it be...? Can it be...? No, surely not! It's not....Elastoplast, is it?? Bloody well looks like it to me. It looks exactly like a fabric plaster.
So I'm going to give a point for fitting adjustable key guides - and then I'm going to take it straight back...not so much for using something that looks like a plaster (if it does the job and holds up, who cares?) but because they made such a messy job of it.
And then I'm going to give the point back - because there's another adjustable key guide fitted to the low C/Eb key. I'm nothing if not fair, you know...
I should add that you shouldn't fiddle about with these guides unless you really know what you're doing. If you decide you want to raise them up a little you could end up putting extra stress on the key barrels. It won't do much harm...but it may throw out the seat of any pad connected to the barrel. As with most things about a horn's action, it's all about balance.

Thomman Low Jazz bari adjustersThere are no stack adjusters fitted, which is a bit of a shame, but you do get the usual pair on the G#/Bis Bb as well as one for the low B to C# link and the front top F key. You also get an extra adjuster between the low B and Bb down by the key cups. This is a very handy feature to have, given the amount of flex present in such long key barrels. It allows you to adjust the regulation 'on the fly'...which simply means playing the horn and making incremental adjustments until the notes pop out cleanly.
There's another adjuster up at the touchpiece end, and I'm a bit less keen about this.

Thomann Low Jazz bari B/Bb linkAs you can see, it's a standard tilting bell key table, and centre shot is the adjuster for setting the regulation between the B and Bb. It seems like a handy feature but in practice it's impossibly fiddly to get it just right using the adjuster alone - and you're better off with just a simple tab that can be bent to suit. Best practice for setting this adjuster up is to set it just a touch too high, then sand the cork down to suit. When setting it up in combination with the other adjuster down by the key cups, you back the lower adjuster off, set the touchpiece adjuster up as best as possible and then dial in the lower adjuster.
I don't generally recommend that players fiddle with adjusters unless they know what they're doing, but in the case of this lower adjuster there's really not a lot to go wrong. You give it a tweak, play the horn, tweak it again...and so on. If if starts to get worse, back the adjuster off and start again. It's worth making a small mark on the adjuster before you start, so that if all gets a bit too much you can simply put it back to where it started from.
There are often similar adjusters on some low A baritones, but I wouldn't advise you fiddle with these. Regulating between two keys is simple enough, but between three is rather more tricky. You have been warned.

Incidentally, the setup of the table isn't the best I've seen - the C# connector sits at a very odd angle at rest. It looks wrong - however, the mech works absolutely fine. In fact it's really quite good.
I'm also none too impressed with the length of that buffer cork on the G#. That's just asking to be knocked off. Better to go with a shorter cork and stick a thick felt disc to the body.

Speaking of which, aside from the mouthpiece cork and the weird Elastoplast stuff, the cork and felt work was reasonably neat and tidy - and definitely a step up for the usual fare I see on cheaper horns.
Thomann Low Jazz bari palm keysI also like the use of sockets for the corks on the palm keys (same as are fitted to the lower stack - but not the top stack, which just has plain key feet). It's not what I'd call a 'necessary' feature, but it's a nice touch - makes you feel that someone's put a bit of thought and flair into the design of the horn.

As for those key pearls, they're proper mother of pearl. The main stack pearls are slightly concave - bar the Bis Bb, which is slightly domed - and there are flat oval pearls fitted to the G# and side/chromatic F# touchpieces.

Thomann Low Jazz bari octave mechThere's a standard swivelling octave key mech fitted. Nothing much to say about this other than it's exceptionally well-built. Not a hint of free play, in either the key barrels or the swivel arm. That's very encouraging.
Note the cross-brace, and in particular the large mounts at each end. Very nice indeed.
I suppose I should also mention that although it's not shown, the octave key touchpiece is the usual sculpted affair that follows the shape of the thumb rest - and while I'm clearing up details I ought to point out that the action is powered by a set of blued steel springs.

And now it's time for my traditional whinge about point screws - and the Thomann has set itself up for a proper tongue-lashing. They've fitted spear-headed point screws.
Thomann Low Jazz bari point screwOf all the designs of point screws, this has to be the most...well, pointless (yeah, I know, I know). I really can't see the benefit of the damned things - but that's what's fitted, so you'll just have to get on with it. And I've seen these screws before, on the Mauriat System 76 alto (we'll come back to that later...).
As soon as I saw them I figured there'd be a bodge somewhere, so I pulled a key off and dug around inside the key barrel. Yup, sure enough, out pops a piece of cork. It's the old story...fit a shonky point screw then stuff a lump of cork or leather into the key barrel to hide the fact that the screw's incapable of doing its job.

But wait a mo...(and here's the knockout punch for this horn) the action on this horn is tighter than a bandleader. There's barely a wobble to be found anywhere. Not on the rod screw nor the point screw action. In fact it's at least as good, if not better, than the action on a Yanagisawa - and that's saying something.
Thomann Low Jazz bari key barrelSo what's with the pieces of cork? I guess they popped them in there by force of habit - but the fact of the matter is that the key barrels have been drilled/reamed accurately enough to allow the point screws to work like parallel points. Yes, they have certain disadvantages - but for the time being they're as snug as they need to be.
While we're on the subject of screws, take a look at this rod screw (on the side C cup key). See that little indentation just below the screw slot? That's another bodge, that is - and it's a very common one on cheap horns - it splays out the head of the screw and makes for a tighter fit in the pillar.
Thomann Low Jazz bari rod screwBut here's the curious thing. The screws fit fine, they don't need to be splayed out. The pillars have been drilled accurately, there's no need for any bodges. I wonder if perhaps it's a way of locking the rod screws in place - but, again, provided they're done up nice and snug it shouldn't be needed. All it really means is someone in the factory has completely wasted their time. Very strange.
And as we're talking about the side keys I was very pleased to see that they feature plain fork and pin connectors from the lever keys to the cup keys. Very nice, very simple, very slick and reliable.

Thomann Low Jazz bari padsAnd finally, there's a set of good quality pads fitted - Pisoni Mypads, no less - and they all seemed to be well set. Better still, when I removed one to see how well it had been glued in I was greeted with a sight that fair brought a small tear to my eye. This is what I like to see - I want none of that "li'll dab'll do ya" malarkey when it comes to the pad glue...I want to see it positively lathered on. OK, so it's hot-melt glue rather than shellac - but that's just fine, all that really matters is that there's enough of it to fully cover and support the base of the pad in the key cup. I'm very pleased indeed. And so should you be if you buy one of these horns, because it means the pads will maintain their seat over a prolonged period of time - and if any need adjusting, your repairer won't end up cursing.

Rounding off the package is the case. And what a case. It has a plastic shell - it's not especially rigid like a Hiscox or a Walt Johnson, but it's streets ahead of usual bit of hardboard covered in some sort of nylon fabric.
Thomann Low Jazz bari caseThe interior is either expanded foam or polystyrene covered with the usually furry black fabric, into which the baritone fits like a glove. There's a decent-sized accessory compartment and some individual slots for the crook and a mouthpiece. And it has proper catches. Not two, not three but four of them that fit flush into the aluminium trim when closed. And there's a pair of wheels built in to the case - and pretty robust they look too.
It's a fantastic case - and here's the thing...as it's made to take a low Bb baritone there's a reasonable chance that it might fit some vintage baritones that have keys on the right of the bell. OK. so you may have to do a bit of modding here and there...but where else can you buy a decent low Bb bari case these days that doesn't cost an arm and a leg?
It doesn't look like Thomann sell the case on its own - but I've made enquiries...

Under the fingers the Thomann feels as nimble as any modern bari, and rather slicker than the price suggests.
The spring tension out of the box was pretty good, but a couple of keys had been set a little on the light side. Bari keys are big - there's a fair bit of weight to them - so you can't set them up like an alto or a tenor an expect to get away with...especially on the tricky balanced keys like the G# and the low C#. A few adjustments here and there sorted it all out.
And...there's really nothing else to report. The ergonomics are fine (for most people, I'm sure) and it's really quite a responsive action. No complaints at all.
The weight is worth a mention. It's significantly lighter than a low A baritone, but a fair bit heavier than vintage Bb one. That's only to be expected, what with the extra keywork and the beefy fittings. But it does rather catch you by surprise. There's a sort of sense that because it's a low Bb bari it's going to be 'vintage light'. Call it an optical illusion.

Tonewise it's quite a bright baritone. At least that was my first impression.
I'll admit I was a bit surprised - low Bb baritones are supposed to be all about the warmth and depth of tone, aren't they? Well yeah, but since when you have you seen a low Bb bari that wasn't built before the late 1970's? Things have moved on since the days of the old Conns, Martins and Bueschers (at al) - and there's really no reason at all why a modern low Bb baritone should sound laid-back as its forebears. But then again it's common knowledge that a low Bb bari has more 'roundness' than its low A counterpart.
And then I worked out what was going on. Yes, it's a touch on the bright side but almost all of this is down to how the upper end plays. You know how it is, an older bari generally does very well in the lower octave - gets a bit pinched from mid D to F and then gets quite nasal from octave G upwards. Modern low A baritones are far more even-toned - though admittedly it comes at the expense of some richness. I just wasn't expecting to hear the same evenness on a low Bb bari.
Took me a few minutes to get my head around that, after which I found that it warmed up nicely. Don't get me wrong though, it's not going to give you what, say, a Martin will - but it's going to give you a bit more than a typical low A job. Think of it as a bridge between the vintage and the modern.
Any niggles? Well, I found there a bit of a 'croak' on the top G (in a kinda soulful way) and the middle D seemed a little dull - but after another half an hour or so of playing it both of these niggles faded into the background.
And then it got warmer still. At this point I can't be sure whether nostalgia had kicked in (memories of my old Buescher and Martin baritones) or that my embouchure had simply wrapped itself around the horn's core tone - but it really started to mellow out. And what a joy the low B and Bb notes were. Without that extra length of bell they sounded so punchy and vibrant....like 'proper' notes rather than just stopping points on the way to the low A. In short, it's immensely playable. No problems with tuning either.

Thomann Low Jazz baritone sax bellSo - after all that - the moment of truth. What do I think of the Thomann Low Jazz baritone?
I really struggled to find anything to moan about. I mean...I really struggled. Sure, I took a pop at the mouthpiece cork, the lacquer on the crook tenon and what looks like bits of sticking plaster in the key guides - but c'mon, even for someone as picky as me, that's really scraping the bottom of the critique barrel.
Yeah, OK, so the point screws aren't the best in the world - but (for the time being) they're doing OK.
The playability is fine, the ergonomics are no problem, the tuning's good...and the tone, while being a little on the bright side, is eminently workable. But the build quality just shines and shines.
I'm truly, honestly impressed - and given that this appears to be a Taiwanese-built horn there's a very good chance that the build quality will be consistent between examples.

The client that bought this horn said that there was some gossip on 'the forums' that perhaps these horns aren't made in Taiwan...rather they're made in China. Well, you know what? Who gives a damn when it's this good? It's up there with some horns that cost two or three times as much money. In fact it shames some of them. It warms my old heart to see this sort of build quality at this kind of price point - and let me tell you this; it very seriously raises the bar by which other budget horns must be judged. I know £2400 isn't a small sum of money, but it's not a lot of a dosh for a baritone - and in terms of what else is on the market it's very clearly at the cheaper end of the scale. If whoever makes this horn can ship out this sort of quality at this kind of price I think it's only fair to ask other manufacturers to meet this standard.

How about the competition? That's an easy one - there is no competition.
No-one else, aside from Mauriat (at least as far as I'm aware), makes a mainstream low Bb baritone sax...and they're asking five grand for it. And if you've read any of my Mauriat reviews you'll know that I'm very less than impressed with the action on their horns.
However, the elephant in the room is that this bari only goes down to low Bb - and while there's a small market for such horns the vast majority of players want a bari that goes to low A.
So you have to ask yourself - if the low Bb version is this well built...what's the low A (the BariPro) version like? It very likely comes out of the same factory (the fixtures and fittings look identical), and if it's built anything like the Bb version it'll be bloody good. And it's a mere £2500. I've asked Thomann to confirm whether the low A version is made by the same people who make the Bb bari but, as with my enquiry about the availability of the case on its own, they haven't got back to me.

* Had a reply to my query - well half a reply anyway. I'm told that the Low A model is made in the same Taiwanese factory as the Bb model - so that's excellent news. However, they didn't mention the case at all.

In terms of the competition for a low A model there's the sax.co.uk Sakkusu at £1300 - but this is unashamedly Chinese...with all the issues that that entails. Then there's the Sakkusu Deluxe at £1700. I haven't seen one yet, so you're on your own - and then there's a big jump to the Elkhart SXB at £2700. But why bother? If the Thomann BariPro is only nearly as good as the Bb version, it'll be a complete steal at the price.
As it happens, I have a client who own a BariPro. He's a professional player, and he's delighted with it - and thus far (and it's been about five years now) he hasn't needed to bring it in for servicing.

Finally, is it a Mauriat? I doubt it. OK, yes, the spear-headed point screws have been seen on a Mauriat System 76 alto - so I suppose it's possible that there's some connection with the people that made this bari, but it could be something as tenuous as simply having bought a load of point screws from them. But what swings it for me, funnily enough, is that this horn is too well-made and too cheap to be a Mauriat.
With that said, there can't be very many manufacturers turning out modern low Bb baritones - the market simply isn't big enough....but if there is a connection it still doesn't explain (to me, at least) why the Mauriat costs twice as much. That's about as much thought as I've given the matter, and I'm happy with that.

You're also likely to find this horn (and its low A counterpart) available from a variety of sellers under different names - and at different prices. It's essentially a 'boutique' horn - one that can be bought by anyone and rebadged as required. You'd have to do your homework though, but given some of the very distinctive features on this horn it shouldn't be too hard to spot a match.

So there you have it, the Thomann Low Jazz baritone. One of the best bargains I've ever seen. If I needed a low Bb baritone, I'd buy this one.

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