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Yanagisawa S-902 soprano sax header
 

Yanagisawa 902 straight soprano
Origin: Japan
Guide price : £2,500
Weight:
Date of manufacture: 2007
Date reviewed : Feb 2011

Description : A single-piece professional quality straight soprano saxophone.

Yanagisawa 902 soprano I don't know what it is about soprano saxes, but whenever I consider the market for them I'm always put in mind of a horse race.
I suppose you could say the same for alto and tenors etc. - but whereas that would present an image of a large group of horses all battling it out for the lead, the soprano field would be very much sparser.
Back in the '70s it was pretty much a one-horse race. The Selmer MkVI was still around, but a fine young stallion in the shape of the new Yamaha 61 was hurtling down the field and was a good couple of lengths ahead before anyone really noticed what was happening. This was followed swiftly by the Yamaha 62, which was an even better runner than the 61...and just setting off from the line was a young filly out of another Japanese stable - Yanagisawa.
A few years later and it's too close to call between the two Japanese stables, and Selmer hasn't been idle either.
Where Yanagisawa have succeeded has been in offering more variety - their current range comprises at least nine distinct models...and that doesn't include the variations in body material and finish. Yamaha offer three and Selmer just two.
It wouldn't be much of a race if the competitors were unevenly matched, but all these pro-quality sopranos are good...it's just that the more horses you can field, the better your chances of being first past the post.

So is the 902 straight soprano a safe bet when the going's good to firm or is it an outsider who'll fall when the going gets rough?
First impressions are good, and Yanagisawa's build quality is a hard act to follow. What we have here is a very neatly made body in bronze. It's a single piece design, eschewing the trend for a separate crook. Some players prefer to have the option of a separate crook, it often means having a choice between a straight one and a curved one, which some players find makes the horn easier to handle. It also means a small reduction in case size.
Those players who prefer the single piece design often claim that its uninterrupted bore makes for a more responsive horn. I rather feel I'm inclined to agree.

The bronze body looks very attractive against the brass keywork. As far as body materials go that's about the only difference it makes for me - but some players still feel it makes a tonal difference. If that's you, you might like to read this.
With no detachable bell needed (I was going to say 'obviously' at this point, but did you know that Borgani make a soprano saxophone with a detachable bell?) and no separate crook, the body is very elegant and unfussy - sleek, almost. The pillars and fittings are just as neat and tidy and use a combination of straps (or ribs) and individual pillars, with the straps adding a little reassuring stiffness to the upper body.
There are also the other usual Yanagisawa touches; the 'beefy but a bit small' sling ring - not really an issue on a soprano sax - the substantial thumb rest and the adjustable thumb hook with the dimpled base, details of which can be found in the review of the Yanagisawa baritones.

Yanagisawa 902 soprano tone holeThe palm key tone holes were some cause for concern.
Note how roughly finished they are, with visible grooves on the rims. There's also a bit of burring at the edges too.
I was very surprised to find this sort of thing on an instrument of this quality, especially as Yanagisawa have something of a good reputation for quality control. As no-one has worked on these tone holes since the horn was bought it's quite clear that this is how it left the factory - but in fairness I should say that I don't recall coming across this problem before...so this might be a one off. I shall certainly make a point of checking the palm key tone holes on other examples as and when they come in to the workshop.

As an experiment I left the correction of this oversight until the very last, when I'd serviced the rest of the horn and eliminated all the small leaks. I refitted the palm keys, tested the pads to see if there were any detectable leaks and then play-tested the sax. It sounded fine - as good as you'd expect.
I then removed the palm keys again and smoothed off the tone holes, first by levelling the ridges with a fine tone hole file and then smoothing the rims with fine-grade carborundum paper before finally polishing them - as you can see in the photo below.

Yanagisawa 902 soprano polished tone holesI refitted the keys, checked again for leaks and play-tested the sax. There was a very noticeable improvement in the overall response and stability of the instrument - a greater sense of presence and solidity. For this alone it's a worthwhile modification, but it also means that the palm key pads will last rather longer.
If you have a Yanagisawa soprano and you're wondering whether your horn might be suffering from the same problem, it'll be worth your while having a look. It's not a particularly difficult job - it's easy enough to remove the palm keys and at least have a look at the state of the tone hole rims. I've used a variety of tools (files, abrasive papers, polishing arbors) to bring these tone holes up to spec, but if you were to spend 5 minutes very carefully treating the rims with a piece of 800 grit carborundum paper, you'd be able to do about 70% of the job I did...which will be plenty, and a very considerable improvement on what you had before. Just be sure to throughly clean off any debris before you replace the keys - a bit of carborundum grit in the action would be very bad news indeed.

Note that the palm key tone holes are silver-soldered on, rather than being drawn out of the body like all the other tone holes. This is standard practice with such small tone holes, and because they're silver-soldered on you won't need to worry about the issue of selective galvanic corrosion that can affect soft-soldered tone holes.

Moving on to the keywork now, and I'm happy to report there were no problems.
The keys are neatly built and well-finished as well as being well-positioned - the ergonomics on a soprano can be tricky due to the variety of possible playing positions (some players hold the horn straight out, others point it down...and some prefer to use a sling), but it seems to me that this is a soprano that's comfortable to use in whichever position suits your playing style.
I'm pleased to see that proper point screws have been used, which means that wear can be easily adjusted out, and that the action is powered by blued steel springs.

Yanagisawa 902 soprano top stack The action sports a number of useful features - though one feature that's missing is adjusters on the lower key stack. These, admittedly, aren't terribly useful for players unless they're confident about making their own adjustments - but they're very handy indeed for repairers. It makes setting-up a great deal easier, which saves time and, ultimately, money (yours).
As you can see on the left, they're fitted to the top stack - which can be very fiddly to regulate otherwise - but would it really have been too much to ask for three more such screws for the lower stack? I suppose the argument might be that there's very limited access to the mechanism of the top stack, making the adjusting screws something of a necessity - whereas there's room on the lower stack to use sandpaper to adjust the regulation corks. They seem to be a standard fitment on larger horns and yet the soprano is far more susceptible to small regulation leaks having an impact on the playability of the instrument.

On the plus side, note the front top F touchpiece. This teardrop design is incredibly comfortable and precise in use, and in this instance is perfectly positioned and aligned.
anagisawa 902 soprano spatulasAnother notable feature is the bridged roller on the low C# touchpiece. As you can see, this consists of an extended 'roller' with an arm that connects to a pin off the low B roller.
In practice this means that there's always a slope present between the low C# and the B touchpiece - no matter which key is in use. This makes it a great deal easier to slip between the two notes. It's a feature that really comes into play on the larger horns but it's just as welcome on the soprano.

Rounding off the whole package is a very decent case - and this has a feature which puzzled me a little.
The interior has four holes set into it, which seem to be mouthpiece compartments. Fair enough - but who uses four mouthpieces on their soprano?? I would have said they were spaces for spare crooks...but this model doesn't have a detachable crook, and the case design is different to that of those models that do. Very mysterious...

* Subsequent to my pondering this mystery I had a reader write in with the answer:
"I just read your review of the Yani S 902. So I thought I'd drop you a line to unveil the hidden secrets of the case (the four holes). Have you noticed that both ends of the sax come pretty close to the walls of the case, even the upper end with the mouthpiece cork? Well, the secret is that they make just one case for all the sopranos. If you have one with a detachable neck (like my S 981), then you find a foam wedge in the place of the case where otherwise the neck of a one-piece soprano would be. So the holes are for the detachable necks. When you buy one with a detachable neck, you already need two of these holes plus one for the mouthpiece. I guess they gave you spare hole for an extra neck because Yanagisawa is also a big maker of custom sax necks." Frank (via cafesaxophone)

As alluded to earlier, the horn feels very comfortable under the fingers. The factory action tends to be a bit on the high and heavy side, but once tweaked it takes on an almost silky feel.
At speed, features like the teardrop top front F touchpiece and the bridged C# roller really come into play (s'cuse pun) but there's always a sense of the action being a 'cohesive whole'. It makes for a very transparent feel in your hands.
Tonewise it's very crisp, but with a definite touch of warmth. It has a nice sense of delicacy, and yet when you blow harder it doesn't degrade into brashness - rather it takes on a sense of authority. This makes it feel like a very capable, versatile horn.
It's also very free-blowing, which is a characteristic more commonly found in brighter horns. I've said before that Yanagisawa have made a very fine job of balancing their sopranos tonally, and this model is no exception. It's even throughout the range and the tuning is spot on.

I suppose the inevitable comparison would be between this model and its curved counterpart. I don't think there's much in it - there's perhaps a touch more darkness to the curvy, but this is probably down to the bell being that much closer to the player's ear. For me there's certainly not enough in it to make me choose one type over the other in terms of tone.
Another comparison would be between the 902 and the Yamaha 675 (formerly the YSS62) - both at around the same price. The build quality is much the same, but the Yanagisawa has the added attraction of the bronze body. In terms of tone the Yamaha is, I feel, a brighter and perhaps slightly more responsive horn. Some players, such as myself, find that makes for a more exciting horn...others may feel it makes a horn a bit wild.
In terms of quality there's very little to choose between them, and if you walk away with a 902 soprano I very much doubt you'll be disappointed.

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