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Mauriat PMSS-601DK tipped bell soprano saxophone

Mauriat PMSS-601DK tipped bell soprano saxOrigin: Taiwan (www.pmauriatmusic.com)
Guide price: £1500
Weight: 1.36kg
Date of manufacture: 2007 (approx.)
Date reviewed: May 2015

A cooler soprano...that might leave you cold...

Of all the saxes the soprano seems to be the most variable when it comes to body shape/configuration. If you buy an alto or tenor you usually have to make do with a standard body shape with a detachable crook - unless you happen to come across the odd rare straight alto, or the even rarer straight tenor. If you look even harder you might even find an alto with a low A, and maybe even the odd tenor every once in a blue moon. It's a similar story with the baritone, though low A models are pretty much standard these days and it's the Bb variant that's now relatively rare from new (coincidentally, Mauriat make one).
When it comes to the soprano you're almost spoilt for choice. You can have a straight one - either with a single-piece body or a detachable straight crook - or there's the option of a straight body with a detachable curved crook. And then there's the curved soprano (sometimes referred to as a curvie), which looks very much like a small alto. And, unlike the alto/tenor variants, none of these are particularly rare or unusual.

But there's a variant that's rather less common than the others, and that's the 'tipped bell' soprano.
As the name suggests, the bell is tilted at an upwards angle to the body - and this, combined with a curved crook, allows the sax to be played in the typical body tube down orientation while still having some forward sound projection via the bell.
Or so the theory goes. Whether it actually makes any real difference to a listener is debatable, but there's some mileage in the idea that the curved bell allows the player to hear more of what's being played. I'm inclined to suspect that the real reason people buy these sopranos is because they look a bit different, and thus a little bit cool...or at least as cool as a soprano can be.

You might also hear them referred to as saxellos. Strictly speaking, they're not. The original saxello was made by H. N. White under the King brand back in the mid 1920s, and was distinctive by virtue of its bell, which was set at a 90 degree angle to the body. It's an odd-looking horn, and one that always puts me in mind of those ventilation funnels you sometimes see on ships. It was also not a terribly nice horn - but remained sought after because of its shape...and because of its undeniably groovy name. And because the name really was the best thing about the horn, it was adopted by players of any kind of soprano that had the merest whiff of an angle on the bell.
As far as I know, no-one's subsequently made a soprano with such an extreme bell angle, but there's still a fair bit of variation in the angle of bells on the 'saxello-a-likes' that have been made down the years. Some makers have opted for a very shallow angle - barely more than a hint - while others have gone for a more pronounced curve. I'd say the Mauriat sits in the middle.
Anyway, whatever your reasons for wanting one of these horns it's worth bearing in mind that you might need to think about buying a suitable stand for it. They won't fit on standard soprano stands, nor will they stand up on the bell.

Mauriat PMSS-601DK soprano thumbhookThis, then, is Mauriat's stab at a saxello - and you have to admit, it looks rather distinctive.
The 'vintage' finish is just a combination of a scratched brass body combined with a two-tone lacquer (known as an electro-phoretic finish). As it happens, it doesn't look too bad - I don't mind it at all, but if you do there's a gold lacquered version available that'll save you around £100 on the price of the 'vintage' model.

Before we get down to the nitty-gritty, a few words about the construction of the body...
It says 'Special Hand-Made' underneath the logo on the bell. Hmmm. I'm not entirely sure what their definition of hand-made is. Let's face it, pretty much all saxes are hand made to some degree. Sure, the body tubes are going to be formed by machine, but you still need someone to fit all the parts to it, and to fit the sections together.
Granted, this is a 'special' - so it's quite likely to be a standard soprano body tube that's been sliced just below the low C# tonehole, whereupon the curved bell section is fitted and soldered to the body. There'll also be a couple of non-standard keys to be fitted (low B and Bb)...but that's about it. I guess it's also feasible to suppose that the bell section itself is handmade; if you're not making very many of these models it's probably cheaper to do it this way than to 'tool up' for a very limited production run. In any event, 'Special Hand-Made' is only stamped on the bell...which kinda covers the claim...

The rest of the construction is the usual fare; single pillars are used throughout, with box cradles used for the palm and side keys. These often look a bit crude, but at this price-point they're par for the course. No complaints about how the pillars are fitted though - the solderwork is all nice and neat.
Obviously, the bell isn't detachable but the crook is - and you get both a straight and a curved one in the box. There's a reassuringly hefty thumb hook - in brass - and a similarly chunky sling ring. I particularly like the sling ring; I know it's overkill for a horn of this size, but it isn't likely to wear out in a hurry, and you won't have to worry about whether the hook on your favourite sling will go through the hole. I'm less keen on the plastic thumb rest, but at least it's reasonably large and has a slightly domed profile.
The toneholes are all drawn, even on the palm key notes which are often silver-soldered on sopranos...presumably because it's rather tricky to draw such a small hole reliably - though it could also be to minimise the relatively large distortion (in relation to the tonehole's diameter) in the bore.
They all look to be level - though it can be a little tricky to tell by sight on horns with this kind of two-tone finish, because the transition from a dark-lacquered section to a lighter one around a tone hole rim can create a kind of optical illusion that suggests a warped tonehole. A quick check with a level standard will soon sort things out. I checked, and didn't find any that were warped. I should also point out that the rims were nicely finished, with no burrs or rough edges.

Mauriat PMSS-601DK octave mechAll-in-all, things are looking pretty good for the Mauriat so far - the body's nicely built with a few useful features - and now it's time to take a close look at the keywork.
It quickly becomes clear that the keywork's been built down to a price, though in itself that's not necessarily a problem. Sure, some of the keys look a bit 'blocky' and industrial in places - but as long as they're functional and reliable, that's really all that matters. If you want elegant keywork, you'll have to dig a bit deeper into your wallet.
But it's when too many corners have been cut that the problems start to appear - and I found the first one when I cut my finger on it...
The edge of that swivel pin hole is razor sharp and jagged. It wouldn't be so bad if the key was tucked away out of reach (though still not ideal) - but this one's perfectly placed to slice your finger when you lift the horn out of the case. Nasty.

There's a tilting bell key table, which is mounted on an arched compound pillar that hasn't been assembled with the greatest of care. You can see that the arched pillar doesn't quite sit flush on the base, and that it hasn't been quite fully silver-soldered to the base.
Mauriat PMSS-601DK bell key pillarIt might not look like much of an issue, but in the event of a knock it's quite common for this pillar to be shocked backwards (by the 'hammer action' of the keys suspended on it). It effectively reduces the width of the pillar - and had it been properly soldered in place I'd have said it was sturdy enough to withstand the usual knocks and dings a horn is subject to during its working life...but now it's rather more borderline.
On the plus side, there's a second arched pillar off the same base which connects to the lower end of the G# lever key - so this will add a bit of strength to the pillar group.
Note the rather scruffy cork fitted to the G# key foot. Because its quite exposed there's a good chance that it's been knocked about a bit - but it's pretty much indicative of the quality of the corkwork on the rest of the instrument.

Speaking of which, although the lower stack features regulation adjusters, they're rather let down by the design of the lower stack key feet - or, to be more precise, the geometry of the keys. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with the design, it's just been badly implemented - because the angles of the key feet/arms and that of the regulator bar don't match up.
Mauriat PMSS-601DK adjusterWhat that means is that were the key feet to be buffered with a nice, thin bit of cork or felt (instead of that awful squashed 'sandwich' of felt and cork you can see here), the lower stack action would be way too high. And were the regulation buffers nice and thin (unlike the hulking great lumps seen here), the adjuster screws would never be long enough to take up the distance. It's all a bit pants really, and there's no way you could consider this to be a reliable setup.
I ended up having to bend the key feet down and adjust the angle of the adjuster bar relative to the key cup (the Auxiliary F), and even then it wasn't quite enough - so I settled for making the adjuster buffers as thin as possible and building up the key feet with compressed cork, topped off with a thin disc of felt. This will be much more reliable than the stock setup.
You also get a set of regulation adjusters on the top stack. Thankfully these were better built, though the quality of the adjuster screws wasn't that great - and there are the usual adjusters for the Bis Bb, G# and low C# keys.

Pseudo point screws are fitted. These type of screws aren't great unless you're really precise when it comes to drilling out the corresponding holes in the key barrels. Unfortunately Mauriat have never been much cop at this, which leads to a bit of free play at the barrel ends - which is why I call them Mauriattles.
The 601 didn't seem too bad on first examination - to the point where I was about to rush over to the computer and type "Hey, Mauriat have finally sussed the whole action thing!'. Fortunately I decided to have a closer look, and here's what I found...
You can get away with using pseudo point screws, provided the very tip of the screw (which acts like a proper point screw) actually contacts the bottom of the hole in the end of the key barrel. If it doesn't the screw reverts to acting like a parallel point screw, at which point the relationship between the diameter of the hole and that of the maximum diameter of the point screw tip becomes paramount. Mauriat PMSS-601DK point screwGet it right and there's no problem...at least until the barrel wears...but get it wrong and the key is free to wobble on its pivots.
I found a couple of slightly wobbly keys, but also found that I could turn the point screws in a half turn or so and make the wobble disappear. But then the action seemed to stiffen up. No big deal, that's pretty common - all it means is that the screw is biting home on the bottom of the hole in the barrel and needs backing out a tad (and sometimes a drop of threadlock is required to hold the screw in this optimum position). But when I backed the screws out I found the action went straight from being sluggish to being wobbly again. Hmmm.
An even closer inspection revealed why - someone's stuffed a piece of cork into each of the holes in the key barrels. I say 'someone' because I can't know for sure who did this. Either it was done at the factory, or it was done at a later date - but it makes no odds because without these bodgy bits of cork, the keys go back to being loose and rattley. Even the bodge is a bodge...if you're going to stuff the barrels you'd be better off using offcuts of pad leather (or even a Delrin insert)...it'll at least last a bit longer than cork, and it won't slow the action down quite so much when you do the point screw up.
Of course, the best bet would be to either drill or ream out the holes accurately in the first place, or just use proper point screws.

Mauriat PMSS-601DK soprano pearlsBy this time I was beginning to get the distinct impression that, at least where the keywork was concerned, this horn was a bit 'slung together'.
There's 'building to a price' and then there simply not giving a damn - and these Abalone key pearls are a classic example of the latter.
A few of them are a good fit (though the low D pearl had already dropped out), but the Bis Bb pearl isn't even close to being a fit. How does this happen?
Ancillary parts, such as pearl holders, bell key and trouser guards, thumb hooks, sling rings etc. are 'stock items'; that's to say it makes no sense to spec different dimensions or designs for parts that can be used across an entire range. This keeps production costs down, makes for a more efficient manufacturing and stocking process and gives the entire range a signature look. Sure, if you really wanted to jazz things up a bit you might spec different ancillary parts for a particular series...so that, say, your altos look a bit different to your tenors. It's a slightly more expensive way of doing things, but it still relies on there being some standards.
It's fair to assume that Mauriat use this method of manufacturing, which is why it's hard to work out how they ended up with such ill-fitting key pearls.
Did they spec the pearl holders oversize, or did they order in the wrong size of pearls? I doubt it's the former, as they'll most likely be made in-house - so it's likely to be the latter...in which case it's an unfortunate mistake, and someone will have to suck it up. Guess who that is...
Maybe these aren't the original pearls - but I checked with the owner and as far as he's aware, no-one's changed them. And in browsing the 601's page on the Mauriat site I noticed that even on some of the product shots the pearls look a little undersized in places...
Cock-ups aside, the pearls are slightly concave, with the Bis Bb being slightly domed - and both the G# and side F# keys have Abalone touches. They'd feel nice, but where they're a bit small you sometimes find your finger catches the edge of the pearl holder...which isn't great.

Finally (yeah, I know, it never ends), the whole action is powered by black steel springs. They're usually blue, but these are black. Go figure.
They're OK though, they seem snappy enough, but as per what appears to be the slightly shonky theme to the action, they're not terribly neat and tidy.
Mauriat PMSS-601DK soprano springThe Bis Bb key spring is particularly iffy. As a rule, you want the springs to sit perpendicular to the pillars - you also want the spring cradle (the thing the tip of the spring sits in) to be more or less in line with the spring. This allows the spring to work efficiently and reliably. Sure, there's room for a bit of leeway - and sometimes the lack of space requires that some springs have to be 'profiled' (AKA bent). A typical example can often be seen on the top stack of sopranos - the spring that powers the lower 'donut' Auxiliary B key usually has a kink at the end because there's nowhere else for it to go other than directly below the spring that powers the key that sits on top of the donut.
But this spring is just plain bent. They could have made the spring cradle longer - or they could have fitted a little block to the rear of the head of the pillar in which the spring is mounted, and fixed the spring there. There are at least a couple more options available, but they chose to leave it like this.
Oh, it works - but a spring like this in more inclined to pop off the cradle if the horn gets a bit of a jolt, and it's also more likely to break rather sooner than the others.

What makes it worse is that while I've been writing this review I had a client drop by with an alto that needed repairing. It's nothing special, just an old 700 series Jupiter - your bog-standard Taiwanese-built student horn. You can pick these thing up new for just under a grand, and while it's obviously built to a price it nevertheless has none of the keywork issues I've seen on this Mauriat. The action's pretty tight - it's even got elliptical point screws - the key pearls are all nice and snug, the keywork is plain but neat and tidy...and even the corkwork is pretty smart.
Mauriat PMSS-601DK bell pillarNow, I know sopranos tend to be pricier than altos, and that you'll be paying a premium for a saxello-style body - but is this horn really worth the £500 or so over the price of the Jupiter? Normally I'd say yes, given an equal build quality - but the Jupiter's keywork build kicks the Mauriat's into a corner.

Some of the flaws are merely disappointing - such as the undersized pearls and the odd rough edge - but the others will have an impact on how well the horn performs over time, such as the bodged point screws, the kludgy key feet on the lower stack...and this out-of-line pillar on the bell section (the point screw is angled downwards).

All that said, it has to be borne in mind that this horn is a good seven or so years old, and in that time it's been used, serviced and used some more. Allowances have to be made for that, but the build quality won't change over time - and if particular issues have been addressed in the meantime, it's nearly always possible to see the evidence of the work carried out.

The whole outfit comes in a semi-soft zippered case, which is well-padded and has plenty of internal storage space for your bits and bobs, including dedicated slots for the two crooks and a mouthpiece. There's also a couple of pouches attached to the exterior of the case - a small one for miscellaneous accessories and a large one for documents. There are a couple of D rings fitted to the case to allow for a shoulder strap...though I noted one of them had fallen off...

And then there's the French motif; there's a little tricolore sewn onto the case, and the logo on the horn says 'P Mauriat - Paris'.
It also says 'London, New York, Paris and Tokyo'. No mention of Taiwan though...

In the hands the horn feels well-balanced. It's not a particularly heavy horn, but if you prefer to use it without a strap you'll soon appreciate the support the large thumbhook gives you.
I can't comment on the setup given the age of the horn - there's no telling what's original and what's been tweaked - but all the keys felt like they were where they ought to be - and once the spring tension had been adjusted, and the lower stack buffers sorted, the action felt quite good...though I wouldn't bank on it staying that way for very long (those naughty point screws).

For the playtest I selected the curved crook. As a rule I prefer my sopranos to be straight - but when in Rome, as they say...and with the horn having a tipped bell I plumped for the 'curvy' setup.
If I were being generous I'd say that, tonewise, it was very warm - but tonal warmth isn't just the absence of upper harmonics, it's more an emphasis of the mids and lows. It should still have some fizz and crackle around the edges. The Mauriat had very little...to the point where I'd say it was simply stuffy. It was enough to have me reaching for my leaklight, wondering whether I'd missed a small leak somewhere. It wasn't that the horn didn't work all the way down to the bottom, it just didn't seem to have any 'oomph'.

I couldn't find any leaks, so I swapped over to the straight crook - and this proved to be a big improvement.
Let me just say, though, that before any of the tinfoil hat brigade jump on this as positive proof that curved soprano crooks are warmer in presentation - they're not. It's just a different crook. It's just as likely that somewhere out there is another 601 with a stuffy straight crook and a brighter curved one.
This crook lifted the upper harmonics out. To be sure, it's still a horn with a warmish approach - it certainly doesn't have the clarity and cut of, say, the Yamaha 475...but then again neither does it have a tendency to get a bit shrill at the top end. There's some cost to this warmth - I noticed some pinching of the tone around the top B/C. Not so much on the straight crook, but quite evident on the curved.
Aside from that it's what I call a pleasant blow. The warmth lends itself to a relaxed style of playing, cool even - and it does a fair job of retaining that warmth when you push it. That could be a plus or a minus depending on whether you like your sopranos to scream a bit when the going gets loud.

I think it's fair to say that the price-point shows through. There are two ways of getting warmth out of a horn; the first is to design the horn to accentuate the mid/lower frequencies while still retaining enough of the upper ones to 'season' the tone, and to provide a bit of kick when needed. The second way is to simply reduce to upper ones. It's a bit like turning down the treble on an amplifier....it knocks the top end out, but it doesn't always result in a pleasing tone.
The first option tends to be expensive, the second is a great deal cheaper - and what must be borne in mind is that this horn is very competitively priced (at around the same cost of the Yamaha 475), and that if you want a soprano with a warm presentation that still retains a nice buzz around the edges of the notes, you'll need to find at least twice as much cash. That said, you can do a lot with the right choice of mouthpiece - and it may well be that you'd get better results with a brighter piece than the one I used (a rubber Link 5).
I spent some time blowing the horn and switching between the two crooks, and yeah, I managed to coax a bit more chutzpah out of the curved crook setup - but it still wasn't as good as with the straight crook. That's just my personal observation, though, and you might well like the difference, If not, however, you'd be sensible to try a few of these horns out with both crooks until you find one with a more evenly-matched pair.
On the plus side the tone is even across the range (bar the pinching around the top C) and the tuning is good.

However, there's much more to a horn than what it sounds like - and on the build quality side the Mauriat has (ahem) a few issues.
The blurb on the website says 'Finely crafted keys'. Frankly, that's rubbish. There's nothing fine about needing bits of cork shoved into the key barrels to take up free play, whether it was done in the factory or afterwards, nor is there anything crafted about it. Crafty, yes - crafted, no.
The site also says 'Professional class' - but neither the overall build quality or the playability meet what I'd consider to be that standard.
It looks the part - I'll give it that - what with the curved bell, the snazzy finish and the extensive engraving - but that's only at a distance. Once you get a bit closer things look rather less appealing.
I'd like to believe that this is a very early example, and that in the intervening years the build quality has improved and the design issues have been sorted. It would make sense, because the 601 occupies a niche position in the marketplace and has the potential to be quite a decent horn.

If you really, really want a saxello-type horn on a budget, you're going to be rather short on choice. If you can up the budget somewhat it'd be worth searching for a used Rampone R1, but failing that I'd suggest having a look at what the other Taiwanese manufacturers have to offer (usually under a variety of store-brand names)...but if your heart's set on the PMSS-601 I'd advise taking note of all the points raised in the review, and giving your prospective purchase a long, hard look.

 

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