Borgani OBS soprano
Guide price: £2500 (used)
Date of manufacture: 2015
Date reviewed: April 2023
A good horn ruined
Now here's a treat for soprano fans. As much as
I'm quick to admit that they're not really my sort of thing, I really
can't deny that this is a very elegant - and dare I say pretty -
little horn. Indeed, my first impression upon opening the case was
"Oh wow!" That says a lot. What also says a lot was that
I was later to say "Oh wow!" again, but in a very, very
different context. So let's cut to the chase and get right down
to taking this horn apart and seeing what it's made of...
As far as I can tell the single-piece body is
made from nickel silver, finished in a matt silverplate finish.
The keywork is brass, and just like the Joe Lovano tenor it's finished
in a coat of nickel silver which has then been gold plated and lacquered.
As mentioned in the Lovano
review, putting lacquer over plating is seldom a recipe for
a lasting finish - but, for whatever reason, it seems to have fared
better on this horn than on the Lovano. OK, so there's around 5
years difference between them - and there's a very good chance that
the tenor has seen more use than this soprano. But the caveat still
stands; sooner rather than later, this horn isn't going to look
quite so pretty.
construction is the usual fare for a Borgani, namely single pillars
throughout with various styles and sizes of pillar bases - all quite
neatly fitted. You get an adjustable metal thumb hook and a flat
plastic thumb rest...and that's really about all you ever get on
a one-piece soprano in terms of fixtures and fittings. However,
the Borgani has a little trick up its sleeve by way of having a
detachable bell. Yep, it unscrews from the body tube.
Why? I don't really know - but from perusing the blurb it seems
that you can buy different bells for this horn, and given that one
of the options is called a 'Powerbell' I'm kinda thinking that it's
a way of getting sopranoists to dig deep into their wallets. It
also occurs to me that if you have access to a lathe and plenty
of spare time on your hands, you could knock up an extension that
would give you a low A when the Bb is pressed down. A soprano with
a low A. Who wouldn't want that?
I suppose you could say that there's a practical
benefit to having a detachable bell, given that it's extremely common
to see sopranos with flattened bells. This tends to happen when
people put the horn straight down on a hard floor with rather a
heavy hand - so it's kind of nice to know that if you crush the
bell, you can simply call Borgani and buy a replacement. Not sure
what the cost is but it's likely to be a great deal more than paying
a repairer to knock a bell back into shape. Features like this add
weight, which is why the Borgani comes in at a fairly hefty 1.46kg
- making it easily one of the heaviest sopranos on the market.
Something to bear in mind though is that there's a dirty great threaded
ring right at the point when a soprano is quite likely to cop a
whack - and if that ring gets damaged there'll be all kinds of hell
to pay in trying to fix it so that the bell can be removed and refitted
at will. And if, by some freak chance, you manage to damage the
ring while the bell is off - well, let's just say that you're not
going to be a very happy bunny at all.
The toneholes are of the plain drawn variety -
at least up to top B. Thereafter they're silver soldered on - which
is pretty much standard practice on sopranos these days.
I'm delighted to report that all the (small) soldered on toneholes
were moderately level - but none of the drawn ones were. In fact
some of them were very poor indeed - especially the low C and F.
OK, so this isn't a new horn - and so may well have seen a knock
or two in its lifetime already, and as such I'm prepared to give
it a little benefit of the doubt. But only a little, based on what
I've seen of other Borgani horns.
particular feature that caught my eye was the brace for the compound
bell key pillar that attaches to the lower G key pillar. Sure, it's
just a rod of metal, but it still looks very elegant - and it adds
a bit of stiffness to what's otherwise quite a vulnerable part of
So far, so reasonably good - but now it's time
to have a close look at the action.
It's at this point I'm often moved to say things like "And
then it all goes terribly wrong" or "But now for the bad
news". I thought long and hard about a suitable intro to this
section of the review but, y'know, the only thing that really seemed
wholly appropriate was this:
And now I've got that off my chest, let's continue...
The keys that are mounted on point screws use
a system of sprung inserts to take up wear and tear in the action.
I've written at length about
this system before, so here's just a very quick overview in case
you're new to it.
point screw key barrel is fitted with a brass insert backed up by
a spring. The spring forces the insert against the point screw so
that as the insert wears, the spring pushes it further against the
point screw...thus eliminating wear. However, the system relies
on moving parts - which adds a degree of imprecision to the mechanism.
What you end up with is a mechanism that should never really get
badly worn...but it also never really feels as tight as a point
screw that's been properly fitted to a solid key barrel. And when
it does get worn, the fun starts.
For it to stand even half a chance of being a
reasonably worthwhile exercise it has to be built with a high degree
of accuracy...and this is clearly not Borgani's forté.
have you ever seen anything like this before? I certainly haven't.
What's happened here is that the insert inside
the low Bb key barrel has broken through the wall of the barrel.
Now, I'm not (quite) going to pin the blame on Borgani for this
failure because I'd like to think that even they would have spotted
something this bad - and examining the damage with a magnifying
glass shows some evidence of tool marks. What I think has happened
here is that the key took a knock at some point, and the damage
either occurred at that point or while someone was trying to straighten
the key out.
I said I wasn't quite going to pin the blame on Borgani for this,
but they do have to take the rap for the design of the key. Y'see,
the sprung insert that fits inside the end of the key barrel has
a diameter of 3mm - and the key barrel itself has a diameter of
4.5mm. Drill a 3mm hole in a 4.5mm rod and you're left with a wall
thickness of 0.75mm. That's not a lot to play with.
You could say that the insert provides some strength - but it's
only 6mm long, with a 10mm spring attached to it. And the hole it
goes into is around 18mm deep. So that leaves around 12mm of unsupported
tubing with a wall thickness of 0.75mm. On a sax. It's a classic
example of an accident waiting to happen.
But these are just the bell keys. The rest of
the point screw mounted keys have barrels of 4mm in diameter - using
the same 3mm insert - which leaves a wall thickness of a mere 0.5mm.
The only other time I can recall seeing a key barrel with such a
thin wall was on a vintage clarinet...and that was on a rod screw
mounted key, which would have provided adequate support for the
barrel. I don't recall this measurement being so critical on the
altos and tenors because they likely have thicker barrels - but
next time one comes in I'll be sure to check.
And all this assumes that the hole in the barrel
end has been accurately drilled on centre. Well, it's a Borgani,
so whaddya think?
a shot of the low C# lever key, and it's plain to see that the insert
hole has been drilled off centre. This is quite bad in itself, but
it's not the end of the story because where that spring broke through
on the low Bb key you can clearly see that the wall is so thin that
it has disintegrated. So not only might you have to contend with
barrels that have been drilled off centre, there may also be some
that have been drilled at an angle - and the only way to tell for
sure is to remove each insert and poke a snug-fitting rod down the
hole to check the alignment. That's not generally something you
want to be bothering with when you're buying an expensive new horn.
What's puzzling me is how all of this came about. There are various
ways of ensuring that holes are accurately drilled into key barrels,
the easiest of which is drilling out the barrels in a lathe before
the key is assembled. Even if you only drilled a pilot hole and
then re-sized it manually after the key had been assembled, you'd
still be sure of reasonable accuracy. Another method is to use a
set of jigs. The assembled key is placed in the jig, which positions
it in alignment with a drill or a suitable drill guide. Thereafter
it's a simple (and repeatable) matter to drill the hole accurately.
Neither method is particularly complicated or expensive.
It must surely have been clear to whoever was assembling these horns
that the accuracy of the insert holes had to be a critical factor.
Upon encountering a key with an offset hole the correct procedure
should have been to scrap the part.
I said I'd never seen such a thing before, so
I'm more than prepared to accept that the cracked key could be a
one-off - but I can clearly see the potential for it happening.
For example, a fairly common job on a sax is to realign the key
cup to centre it over the tonehole. This may need doing because
it was made off centre or because it's had a knock. Standard practice
is to put a pair of parallel-jawed pliers (with suitably protected
jaws) over the cup arm and give it a little twist to bring the cup
into centre. On some keys on the Borgani it's going to be the case
that all that force is going through a hollow tube with a 0.5mm
wall...and that's an enormous ask.
The way around this curious problem is to remove the insert, stick
a solid 3mm bar down the hole (with a small hole cut into it to
accommodate the point screw) and then bend the now-supported key.
That should do the trick - though there are two problems. Firstly,
you can't always get the insert out - even if you know a couple
of tricks. There were eight on this horn that were firmly wedged
in place - and if you try fiddling with the ones that look like
they might be moving you're likely to drive them deeper into the
barrel...where they'll stick. And the second problem is that you'll
have to be sure you can get the supporting insert out after you've
realigned the key. Might be worth drilling a hole right through
it and cutting a thread in it to allow for a removal tool to get
a good grip.
I'm sure there are any number of these sopranos
out there, quite happily going about their business with no similar
issues - but the cogent point here is that given Borgani's crappy
quality control you're simply not going to know if your horn is
going to fail in this way. It might be fine - but it might equally
be just as bad...or even worse.
I suppose you could argue that it all depends on how much wear and
tear the horn is subjected to - but I think it's pretty obvious,
given the pristine condition of this horn, that it hasn't had a
hard life. But even if it had, would you be happy investing several
thousands of pounds on a pro-spec horn that starts to break up after
less than a decade? Whichever way you look at it, it's inexcusable.
If you already own one of these horns I'd say that there are two
things you can do to mitigate this potential issue: Don't drop the
horn - and make sure you tell your repairer not to bend any point
screw mounted keys unless a solid supporting insert is first installed,
or grip the base of the key arm and make the bend further up the
Incidentally, the fix for this disaster was to
make up a solid insert (with a pilot hole drilled in it) and soft
solder it in place, thereafter facing it to length and reaming out
a hole for the point screw. I opted for this method rather than
silver soldering on the basis that I didn't want to do too much
damage to the finish - and that given the internal surface area
of the insert hole there should be enough mechanical support in
sorted out the horn and the client collected it - and set about
writing the above for the review - but barely a day later he dropped
me an email to say that another barrel had broken through - the
top F# lever key.
It's easy to see what's happened - the barrel wall is paper-thin
and the spring has simply pushed its way through. In doing so it's
weakened the barrel still further and propagate a crack...which
you can see running along the side of the barrel before making its
way up over the top.
to why it chose that moment to break through, I would guess that
the process of tightening up the action and making the inserts actually
work has pushed the stress on the key barrel to, literally, breaking
point. The implications of this are very worrying indeed, especially
Thing is, I'd inspected each key to see if
there were any other cracks but was entirely satisfied that the
low Bb key was the only one affected. It's all rather unfortunate
but it does rather highlight the comment I made about the issue
being an accident waiting to happen. I've sorted the key out as
per the low Bb, and here you can see the solid insert just prior
to fitting and soldering in place.
Removing the sprung insert can be tricky if it's stuck on the barrel.
Given that's it's not going to be used again the best method is
to very carefully drill it out - starting with a 1.6 mm drill on
low speed and working your way up the sizes incrementally. If you're
lucky one of the drills is going to bind in the insert and spin
it out. If you're unlucky you'll have to keep going all the way
up to around 3mm. And if you're having an exceptionally bad day
the drill may bind in the insert and tear the barrel apart. So go
very, very carefully and ensure that you support the key at the
and of the barrel rather than further down the key.
Sadly, there doesn't appear to be any way I
can guarantee that another key won't go pop - apart from removing
all the sprung inserts and soldering solid ones in place. Not cheap.
I said earlier that I wasn't going to entirely blame Borgani for
what happened to the low Bb key. I take that back, unreservedly.
is all such a monumental fault that I could really end the review
right here and now, but I suppose we should carry on and look at
the other issues I found.
As per the other Borganis I've reviewed recently the OBS exhibited
an extraordinary amount of play in the action, which was down to
a combination of ill-fitting rod screws and lacklustre key fit.
Take the top B key, for example; there's a half a millimetre gap
between its key barrel and the adjacent key. That's one hell of
a gap - excessive even by Ultra-Cheap horn standards, never mind
one that costs many thousands of pounds. And it's not down to wear
and tear either...unless someone decided to lubricate the action
with grinding paste.
inaccuracies are going to have an effect on the playability of the
horn, particularly on something as small as a soprano sax - but
it probably makes little to no odds because there was so much free
play within the top stack itself that it's all rather a moot point.
Here's the stack being given a bit of a wiggle - and you can clearly
see just how much slop there is in the keywork (and the pillar).
Any amount of lateral (side-to-side) play in a
key stack is going to play havoc with the regulation - but this
much on a small horn is a recipe for complete and utter disaster.
To be sure, there are always some compromises you have to take into
account (such as the flex in the keywork) but there's a limit to
what you can get away with. Play like this means that while you
might be able to, say, set the B key to bring down the Aux.B key
at the same time, you simply won't be able to repeat the exercise
with the A key. With the B key regulation working properly, the
A will not close - and if you set the A key to work properly, the
B won't close. In each case the regulation will hold one or other
of the keys off. At least unless you resort to the old gorilla grip
method of playing.
The Borgani has a set of regulation adjusters on the top stack (for
all the good they'll do) but none on the lower stack save for the
usual trio for the G#, Bis Bb and low C#.
The palm keys were especially bad. Borgani have
opted to put the top Eb and F keys on the same rod screw. This is
seldom a good idea because it means the respective key barrels have
to be very short indeed. And the shorter the key barrel the sooner
it will wear...and the less likely you'll be able to swedge the
wear out. So if you're going to use a single rod screw you'd better
make damn sure it's a very snug fit. Which it wasn't. At all.
the rod screw action was like this, which meant having to ream out
each and every key and its associated pillars and fit oversized
rod screws - and thereafter deal with the poor key fit.
Another aspect of key fit that was rather sketchy was the alignment
of some of the key cups. Here's the B and Auxiliary B keys, and
if you look at the pad impression rings you'll see that they're
very much off centre. Now, while it's nice to have toneholes that
sit in the dead centre of the pads it's not actually that important...as
long as they're not too far out of whack. Put simply, the more centred
a pad is, the more reliable the pad seat will be over a long period
of time - because as the pad expands and contracts during the wetting/drying
cycle, it will tend to do so more evenly if everything's on centre.
And the smaller the pad the more critical this becomes.
can see that the B key's tonehole impression sits quite far back
to the rear of the key, which leaves precious little 'meat' to sustain
a reliable seat over time - and the impression on the Aux.B sits
right at the front on the pad. There's absolutely no margin for
error, and precious little room for pad shrinkage down the years.
Granted, you can make the pads work in this position (for a while,
at least) but it's not what you should have to deal with on a high-end
And here's something else I definitely don't expect
to see on a high-end horn.
See that little spike sticking up from the Bis Bb adjuster? That's
a burr. It's created when the adjuster bar is drilled and then tapped
to accept the grub screw. During the process of tapping the mouth
of the hole tends to break up as the thread is cut - which is why
it's good engineering practice to cut a chamfer on the hole to either
prevent such burrs occurring or to remove them after the threading
it look innocuous enough but believe me - it's razor sharp. Catch
your finger on that and you'll really know about it...for a good
few days. Worse still, they have a tendency to break off once you're
impaled on them - and that's a whole 'nother level of fun. When
you pay serious money for a horn you should have an expectation
that you won't find nasties like this on your posh new horn. It's
Something I noticed about the keywork was that
it was incredibly tough - and this got me thinking. About the only
other place I've seen keywork that tough is on an Ultra-Cheap Chinese
horn. During the course of a setup it's common to have to bend keys
slightly - perhaps to adjust a cup angle or to centre a pad over
a tonehole. On most horns it usually requires no more than a quick
twist with a pair of pliers - but on many Chinese horns you really
do feel how much the keys resist the tool. Now, I wouldn't go so
far as to say that this was a smoking gun for Chinese keywork -
but when you factor in the appalling lack of precision in the keywork...well,
it all starts to look a bit suspect.
You tell me. If I lifted the details about this action on this horn
and pasted them into a review of a cheap Chinese soprano, would
you be surprised at what you read? Just a thought, though.
Finishing up the keywork you get a full set of
proper mother-of-pearl key touches - but not Borgani's ergonomic
domed metal touchpiece on the Bis Bb. And you get a set of blued
steel spring to power the action.
So with all this imprecision in the action, how
on earth did the horn even work? Simple really - Borgani fit the
squishiest pads they can find. The advantage of a very soft pad
is that it will accommodate very large errors in both the integrity
of the action and the flatness of the toneholes, as well as less-than-stellar
pad seating. The price you pay for that is a very indistinct feel
under the fingers. Nothing feels really positive. With the keywork
all sorted out the action felt much slicker and more nimble under
the fingers. Everything's where it ought to be, which, on a soprano,
isn't that hard.
The bell key table is well-placed, though the geometry of the low
C# mechanism isn't perhaps the most responsive I've come across.
Might just be a case of getting used to it.
Well, I've often commented on altos that are 'tenor-like' - and
this is a soprano that's alto-like. It's not that it's super-dark
or excessively mellow - neither of those descriptions really fit
- it's more that its tonal soundscape seems to be bigger than it
ought to be from such a small horn. If you're not sure what that
means (and I don't blame you) all I can say is that if you play
pretty much any other soprano first and this play this one, it feels
as though the bore of the horn has increased by 20%. It's really
quite...strange, but also quite moreish. It's sort of a soprano
for people who don't like playing sopranos.
Thing is, as much as I liked it I tend to prefer my sopranos to
be more oboe-like in presentation - with bags of clarity and an
almost sine wave kind of tonal approach - so this wouldn't be a
horn for me. But I can easily see how many players would find it
thoroughly intriguing....and undeniably unique. The client certainly
liked it very much indeed, and commented that the sound (when I
played it) was dark but with a bit of brilliance to it. Pair it
with the right mouthpiece and you can bring out that alto-like quality
even more - but by the same token a high-baffled piece will rein
it in somewhat.
Final thoughts then? It's sadly yet another 'typically
Italian' horn. Terrible build issues/quality control - and in this
instance something of a truly spectacular Achilles heel - but once
put right it can stand alongside the very best of them. You'll be
looking at £300-£500 to bring a horn like this into
shape - and that's without resolving the insert problem - so bear
that in mind when negotiating a price.
That said, given the nature of the problem with
the inserts there's just no way I could recommend this horn. The
issue with the low Bb was bad enough - but I felt there were enough
extenuating circumstances to afford it the benefit of the doubt
on this occasion, in spite of my reservations. But having another
insert pop after the client picked the horn up pretty much dooms
this horn. I just can't see how you could possibly rely on this
horn knowing that it could throw a wobbly at any random moment.
The truly sad thing, though, is that were there no or at least very
few build quality issues, I'd be raving about this horn. And I really
do mean that; it really does make me sad to see such a potentially
fine instrument hobbled by such shoddy workmanship. But once again
I find myself marvelling with horror at Borgani's unfathomably unerring
ability to make a sow's ear out of a silk purse.