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Jupiter JPS-547GL soprano saxophone

Jupiter JPS-547 soprano sax reviewOrigin: Taiwan
Guide price: £999
Weight: 1.27kg
Date of manufacture: 2015
Date reviewed: December 2015

The latest budget soprano, from the company that all but invented the genre

You'd have thought that after a decade of Chinese Ultra-Cheap horns saturating the market, there'd be no chance of selling a student horn that's built anywhere else in the world.
Sure, some of the Chinese stuff is dreadful - some of it's not too bad...and some of it's even really quite good. But in every case it's way cheaper than the competition, even if you have to factor in the cost of post-purchase setup or some remedial work.
But not everyone wants to go to those sort of lengths, and plenty of people don't mind paying a bit extra for the assurance that what they've bought isn't going to require any additional work before it can be played. It might not necessarily play any better than a cheap horn, but at least it's more likely to keep working for longer.

And when it comes to student quality instruments of reasonable quality at affordable prices, Jupiter have pretty much got it all sewn up. They've got a history (going back at least to the 1980s), they've got a reputation, a global presence and a catalogue that used to range from the budget end of the market right through to the pro sector - though it seems they've pulled back from making pro-spec horns. There's a lot to like - on paper - so let's put one of their horns on the bench and see if it all adds up.

Cheap soprano saxes have always occupied a rather special niche in the marketplace; on the one hand they function as student instruments...built for and bought buy beginners who have a hankering to play this particular member of the family. On the other hand they also cater for more experienced players who sometimes need to double up on one or other of the less common saxes, but not to the extent that it's worth their while spending a great deal of money on a horn. Baritones share this market too - as do, to a far lesser extent, sopraninos.
All good and well, but there's a fly in the ointment - because the smaller an instrument is, the greater the need for accuracy...and the sooner you'll notice where the money runs out.
A dodgy note on a bari is a mere foible - but a bad note on a soprano can make grown men burst into tears.

The first thing that caught my eye is that this is a single-piece soprano.
For many years, this style of body was all that was available (curved models notwithstanding) - and then someone (Yanagisawa, apparently, with the S880) hit upon the idea of fitting a detachable crook or neck. But I've always preferred the single-piece body. I'm not sure why; it's perhaps because I feel they look a little more elegant...or at least as elegant as a soprano sax can be - and because I always seem to prefer the way they play. They just seem more solid in tone...more connected. It's also one less thing to go wrong. Crook sockets can be tetchy things at the best of times, and unless they're a perfect fit they can knock a few percent off the tonal quality. Once they get this small there's less surface area to play around with and the chances of a leak developing rise dramatically...as does the effect when it has one.
And it costs money to make a good crook socket...and on a cheap horn I'd rather the pounds/dollars were spent elsewhere.

The construction is single pillar, with a couple of plates for the palm and side keys. All very neatly fitted, with good, clean solder joints.
Most of the toneholes are drawn, with those above top B being silver soldered. This is fairly common practice these days - most likely due to the technical difficulties in pulling such a small tone hole out of relatively thick metal. Being silver soldered there won't be any issues with selective galvanic corrosion, which affects soft-soldered toneholes.
And they were all level too, though I did note some slight rounding on a couple of the rims - most likely due to excessive buffing. This isn't ideal, it means that the rim will be thinner in some areas than others - but as long as the rim itself is level there won't be any real-world problems.

Jupiter JSP-547 thumb restBeing a straight horn there are fewer body features than you'll find on a curved one, but you do get an adjustable (plastic) thumb hook and large domed brass thumb rest.
This is removable (held in place with a small grub screw). I'm not really sure why it's removable - offhand I can't remember whether or not it prevents access to the octave key's lower pivot screw, but that would be about the only reason for this feature. Still, it's always nice to have features...and it means it's a breeze to fit a custom thumb rest, should you be so inclined to want one.
Finishing up the body you get a decently sized sling ring, which is bigger and chunkier than I've seen on many larger horns. Go figure.

All things considered I was quite impressed with the design and build quality of the body for the price, but that's only half the story. Now it's time to turn to the keywork.
Things weren't quite so rosy here. My standard 'wiggle test' (grip a key cup and give it a shake from side-to-side) showed some free play on the main stack keys.
In an ideal world there'd be none at all, but that kind of accuracy tends to cost money - so with budget horns it's not so much a case of whether there's any play or not, but how much there is. Fortunately it wasn't much, and while I'll knock a few points off for it, I'm not going to cry in my beer.

Jupiter JPS 547 soprano sax octave keySimilarly I noticed some free place in the octave mechanism.
It's of the ubiquitous swivelling type, which is a nice mechanism - but one that doesn't tolerate too much free play in the build. And there was a fair bit of it in the Jupiter's mech. Luckily most of it was confined to the tips of the swivel bar, and you can see in the photo that there's a visible gap between the split ball head of the swivel bar and its accompanying socket.
I say luckily because it's pretty easy to deal with inaccuracies here. The 'old trick' is to stick a screwdriver blade into the slot on the ball and splay it open - but it tends to chew the end of the ball up and you run the risk of snapping half of it off. It also still leaves you with metal-to-metal contact, which tends to wear and get rattly no matter how fastidious you are with lubricating it. Better by far to pop a Teflon sleeve over the ball...though it may be necessary to ream out the socket hole a tad. It's not an expensive job.

Jupiter JPS-547 soprano sax top stackThe key pearls are plastic, slightly concave, and there's no domed Bis Bb pearl. However, you get a teardrop-shaped front top F key (the Jupiter goes up to top F#), but the placement's a little bit odd.
It's set way back over the Aux.B key, and because of the design of the key it's not really possible to move the touchpiece any closer to the B key. This means there'll always be a significant gap between the B and F keys, which makes it rather more difficult if you want to roll your forefinger up for the F. It's fine if you lift your finger and move it up...but rolling, I'm afraid, is verboten.

Note the adjusting screws for the regulation. These are very handy but they do rather rely on there being no play in the keywork. That said, if you do have play in the keywork then they come in handy for evening out the inevitable compromises made necessary by having to take up the slack. It's a great deal easier (and quicker) to turn a screw than it is to faff about sanding bits of cork - especially when setting up an action that's more 'suck it and see' rather than 'by the book'.
The lower stack also has a full set of regulation adjusters, but I wasn't very happy about the state of the corkwork beneath them.
Jupiter JPS-547 soprano sax adjustersThey've used some sort of synthetic cork (which is fine), but it's rather thick and squishy (which isn't fine). They've also used a very poor glue, and every single one of them was loose. This is also not fine.

Regulation buffers, be they cork, felt or synthetic, need to fulfil several functions. They sit between two connected keys and have to transmit motion from one key to another - and must do so with repeatable accuracy, with as little friction as possible and with the least amount of noise. So they need to be thin, tough, secure and quiet. Repairers are always arguing about which material is best; some favour cork, some prefer felt or synthetic material and still other opt for Teflon - but the one thing they all agree on is that they should be as thin as possible and very firmly attached to the key. If they're also quiet, so much the better.
These corks, though, fail on just about every point - though they're undoubtedly quiet. I'll give them that.
The slight free play in the action makes things worse. By the time you've pressed a key down, taken up the slack in the action, passed on the motion to a piece of squishy cork that might not be in the same place it was when you last pressed the keys down, it's anybody's guess what will happen...though my money's on a dirty great leak at the other end of the key stack. And they've missed a trick here - because if you've got a bit of slop in the action then the one thing you really, really need is really thin, solid adjuster buffers. It won't be perfect, but your odds of being able to find a working regulation compromise will have increased exponentially. It's a shame, because that's a nice set of adjusters there. Oh, and you also have adjusters on the Bis Bb/G# bridge and the low C#.
I should point out that none of the other corks on the horn were loose, if a bit scruffy in places - though one was missing from the top Eb key (and this was a brand new horn).

Jupiter JPS-547 bell keysThere's a tilting bell key table, and this is mounted on a single compound pillar. This design is a bit precarious - there's not much meat at the base, and in the event of a knock while the horn's in its case it's quite common to find this pillar gets pushed backwards (due to hammer action). On the plus side,the G# lever arm's lower pillar (just out of shot) adds a bit of rigidity to the structure.
Further down the horn there's a key guide for the bell key barrels, which lends them a bit of support...or at least it would do if it weren't for the fact that one of the barrels wasn't so much sitting in the guide as hovering above it. It's a minor point, as the guide is really there to help prevent the barrels from being bent while handling the horn (or in the case of a bit of a knock), but there you go.
Note the point screws. These are proper shoulderless points. Jupiter have been using this pillar/screw combo for years, and it allows you to take up any wear in the key barrels as and when it becomes noticeable. However, the rest of the point screws on the horn are of the usual cheapo pseudo point type - but I'm at least very pleased to note that the key barrels have been accurately drilled, so there's no free play from the off. Very impressive, for a budget horn - and a very great deal better than Mauriat's previous efforts with these type of pivot screws. Given that both companies are in the same area (more or less), maybe the boffins from Mauriat should pop round to the Jupiter factory to see how its done...

Finishing up the action you get a set of reasonable quality pads that seem to have been quite well set, though I noted some stickiness on the smaller ones - and the action is powered by blued steel springs. And it's here where things fall down somewhat.
I had two of these sopranos come in for a setup within a month of each other, and both for the same reason; the action felt awful. And it was.
It's not uncommon to find that new horns have been set with quite a heavy action - even the best makes are guilty of this - which is why it always pays to shell out for a proper tweak. Makes a big difference, and can sometimes completely transform the way an instrument feels. But there wasn't much helping the Jupiter.
It wasn't that bad below G, but the top stack was dreadful, and no matter what I did to the springs I just couldn't get any real zip and zing out of them. It's a combination of the key geometry and the length of the springs...there's something not quite right. And it's not so much that the action feels heavy, it's more that the springs seem to have a 'progressive' feel to them. That's to say that when you press a key down, you'll feel a certain amount of resistance before the key suddenly gives way and closes. It's almost switchlike in feel. But on the Jupiter it felt like the springs were constantly pushing back at you...and the further you pressed the key down, the more they pushed back. Very odd.
I dare say this can be corrected, but I rather suspect it would require replacing some of the springs - perhaps with stainless or even phosphor bronze ones. And of all the quibbles I had with this horn, this was by far the most irritating. Aside from that issue the keywork fits nicely under the fingers, with the only bone of contention being the excessive reach required to hit the front top F key.

Jupiter JPS-547 caseTonewise I'd say it's a slightly stiff blow. That's different from 'resistant' insomuch as a resistant horn can still still be punchy and bright...and the Jupiter isn't. My very first impression was that of having a 'frog in the throat' - that slight gritty huskiness in the voice that often heralds the onset of a sore throat or a cold. That's not to say it's unpleasant (the tone, not a sore throat), and it has the advantage of reining in the soprano's natural brightness...which is a tonal quality that can very easily run into shrillness in the hands of a beginner. It's also quite even-toned across the range, though for once I found myself wishing it could perhaps get a bit shouty...at least at the top end. I had no problems with the tuning.

When all is said and done I feel the JPS-547 is a bit of a mixed bag.
I'd say the build quality is just about bordering on under par for the price, but only just (and taking the competition into account). There are some good features, and one or two things that could be improved with a few simple and inexpensive tweaks.
Some aspects of the action are quite good, and I was rather impressed with the quality of finishing (build, lacquer etc.). I'm also very, very impressed by the case. It's absolutely brilliant. Just look at it - it's a real, proper, no-nonsense, down-to-earth, traditional box-style case...complete with proper catches. You even get metal feet and corner trims, and fully-enclosing plastic bumpers on the ends of the case.
It's not a small case (for a soprano), but you at least get plenty of storage space for your bits and bobs. The case alone gets an 11..and that's out of 10. Fantastic.

But the wheat must be weighed with the chaff, and the amply-proportioned chanteuse must vocalise...and you've got to look at what else is available for the price.
The first thing to consider is that this horn costs nigh on a grand - so it's not so cheap. Then again there's not much else available cheaper that isn't built in China...and we're all well aware of what a minefield that can be.
But then again there's a world of difference between a no-name ebay special and an Ultra Cheap horn presented via a reputable dealer - and while these are likely to have a few build quality issues it's not as though I can say the Jupiter has none. You might, arguably, do just as well opting for a cheaper Chinese horn of reasonable quality and spending the difference having it properly tweaked and set up. Sure, you probably won't get the quality of finish, or the outstanding case - but you might well find (and in fact you probably will) that it's a better blow - because when all is said and done, the 547 isn't a particularly joyful horn to play.

 

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015