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Bauhaus Walstein versus Yanagisawa 991

When Ultra-Cheap Chinese horns appeared on the market a few years ago now, I predicted that two things would happen. Firstly, that they would come to dominate the student market - pushing out established brands, or at least forcing the manufacturers to move upmarket - and secondly, that the quality would improve to the point where they began to challenge substantially more expensive instruments.

With the arrival of the second generation of Ultra-Cheap horns both of these predictions have come to pass.
The first generation of horns were, at their best, quite adequate for the needs of the beginner or the experienced player looking for either a backup horn or one of the less common types, such as the soprano, on the cheap. In that sense all that was needed was a recommendation for a horn that had a build quality of a known good standard.
Things have moved on, however, and whilst extremely cheap but usable horns are still widely available there now exists a new range of Chinese horns that are, on average, around twice the price of the basic first generation models.

On the whole these horns are still loosely based around copies of established pro-quality horns.
I say 'loosely' because it isn't always that easy to tell whether or not a horn has been copied accurately - and in some cases I've been reliably informed (by the manufacturers, no less) that all that's necessary to change a Yamaha copy into a Selmer copy is to change the keywork - and this is what some of them do.
That said, I doubt it really matters what these horns are based on - it's going to be one of the big three marques, and it's unlikely that any of the copies will quite match the response of the original horn. That's not to say, though, that the action won't feel remarkably close to the original...

I made another prediction a few years ago too - that the best way for the Chinese to establish credibility in the marketplace was to start manufacturing under their own brand names.
I wasn't quite on target with this prediction - as yet the Chinese haven't taken that path, but a number of distributors have (in particular Conn-Selmer, with their Prelude range).
You could be forgiven for supposing that all that means is that a buyer rings up a manufacturer, orders a crate of horns and specifies their own brand name on the bell. In fact the dealers have taken a more pro-active role and have taken to specifying their own design criteria. This involves building a relationship with the manufacturers, including visits to the factories to discuss product design with the builders themselves.
In this way the level of quality is raised, and dealers can seek out the advice of technicians and players alike and take their ideas back to the builders. It also makes the manufacturers accountable - they're required to meet certain standards or they stand to lose lucrative contracts. It also makes it feasible for the manufacturers to invest in better production techniques on the basis of predictable sales.

One such example of this new breed of horn is the Walstein.
Although originally a standard production horn its design has been tweaked and certain standards have been set with regard to build quality. Naturally that makes the horn a more expensive proposition but brings with it an assurance that the instrument will be of a certain standard - and still at a remarkably low price compared with the benchmark Taiwanese student horns.

The Walstein tenor claims the Yanagisawa 992 as its design basis - and as I had a 991 (same as the 992, but with a plain brass body) in for repair at the same time I was reviewing the Walstein, I thought it might be fun to put the two tenors up against each other and see precisely what the difference a couple of thousand pounds made.
Your best bet before reading any further here would be to check out the two reviews of these horns...

The most obvious place to start the comparison is with the build quality.
There's absolutely no doubt that the Yanagisawa is superb in this respect, as it ought to be. You can look quite closely at the build and not see any notable flaws. The pillars are neat and smooth, the bases gleam, the soldering is tidy and the whole setup oozes precision.
The Walstein doesn't do too badly either - if you're expecting wobbly pillars, rippled brasswork and rivers of excess solder you're simply not going to find them. You might well notice that the keys have a few more machining marks on them than can be seen on the Yani and that some of the pillar bases are ever so lightly out of line with the body taper, but that's about it.
These are issues that you'll find on most horns below the £700 mark...and some above.

Quite a few people place some store by the overall weight of a horn. In truth this shouldn't matter - my Yamaha YTS23 is one of the lightest horns on the market...it's also one of the best built. For those that do feel more comfortable with the weight theory, the Walstein is at least as heavy as the 991...and Yanagisawa don't make light horns.

A common criticism of cheap horns is the flimsiness of the keywork.
It is indeed true that some cheap horns have soft keys, but not all - in fact quite few - and it's also true that some expensive horns have rather soft keys too. This means that keys can bend in use, and this can throw out the regulation of the action and thus create leaks. That said, there are often mechanical reasons why some horns seem to suffer more than others - and having badly set pads exacerbates the problem by forcing the player to use a harder finger pressure than normal.
During the course of reviewing the Yanagisawa I noted that the keys were rather soft. This surprised me, but didn't unduly worry me - I see very few Yanis in the workshop for regulation tweaks, which either means that most Yani players aren't good enough to tell when their horn is out of whack, or the horns simply don't suffer from bending keys. I rather think the latter is the most likely.

I decided to do a simple test.
I took three tenors; the Walstein, the Yanagisawa 991 and, for a mid-range quality comparison, a Keilwerth ST90 (Taiwanese). I removed the G key from each.
The G key's pearl touch is mounted on a key arm that's generally 40 or so millimetres long - plenty enough to provide leverage. The width of the key arm was measured at 3.5mm in each case.
In each case the key was mounted in wooden blocks positioned 18mm from the key arm, and the whole thing mounted in a bench vice.
A cord was then fitted at 41mm from the key barrel, to which I attached a spring scale...so that the amount of pull could be measured. A simple gauge was placed behind the key arm to show the deflection in millimetres.
Each key was tested in two stages. I gave a pull of 10lbs (10 pounds) initially and noted the deflection under strain, and any permanent deflection once the strain was released. After each test the key was reset to zero if necessary.
I then tested the key at 16lbs.

Walstein G key test

Here are the results for the Walstein.
No.1 shows the key at rest prior to the test.
No.2 shows the key at 10lbs strain showing a deflection of 1mm. When released the key returned to zero with no adjustment required.
No.3 shows the key at 16lbs showing a deflection of around 2.5mm.
No.4 shows the key after the strain was released, with a permanent deflection of 1mm.

In other words, to bend the G key arm permanently you'd have to apply upwards of 16lbs pressure.
These results show a stiff key with a good degree of spring in it.

 

Keilwerth ST90 G key test

Here are the results for the Keilwerth ST90.
No.1 shows the key after the strain of 10lbs that resulted in a deflection of 1mm was released, showing a permanent deflection of just under 1mm
No.3 and 4 show the same at 16lbs, but the deflection is larger at just under 2mm.

Note in this case that the permanent deflection was about the same as that under strain, and this indicates a fairly stiff key with less spring in it than that on the Walstein.

Yanagisawa 991 G key test

And finally, here are the results for the Yanagisawa...
No.1 shows the key at 10lbs of strain displaying almost 2mm of deflection. It stayed there when the strain was released.
No.2 shows the deflection at just 12lbs. I couldn't run to 16lbs...I felt the key give at just over 12. The deflection is an incredible 5mm.
No.3 shows the key after the test, with a permanent deflection of over 3mm.

This indicates a soft key with very little spring in it at all.

Although it's a fairly crude test it's clear from the results that the Walstein has significantly stronger keywork than that found on the 991 - and it also beats the Keilwerth. If that surprises you, it does me too - I would have expected the 991 to have had much stiffer keys, and the Walstein to come in at the bottom of the list.
I'm not overly concerned about the 991's apparently poor results - as I said earlier, if there was an issue with the softness of its keys then it would show up by virtue of clients bringing them in with regulation problems. This hasn't happened, so it's clear that the keywork is adequately strong for the task.

In terms of feel there's not a great deal to choose between the two horns.
Both suffer from a slightly heavy factory setup (as do pretty much all horns), and both improve significantly when the action has been tweaked. Both horns have pretty much the same key geometry, and because the build quality of the Chinese horn is good there's absolutely no reason why it can't be set up to feel exactly like the 991.
It has to be said that the Yani is slightly slicker in feel - but I wouldn't discount the fact that the Yani is an older horn, and a new action is always inclined to be a little tight.

Tonewise the Chinese horn stands on its own merits - it has a respectably rounded tone throughout.
In comparison with the 991 its slightly thinner at the top end, and this shows up particularly when using a bright mouthpiece...but rather surprisingly it overtakes the 991 when it gets down to the bell notes. It's much fuller and more rounded - and very, very evidently so.
When comparing the tone of the two horns the Walstein's thinner top end was something that I had to repeatedly swap between the two horns to fully get the feel of; when comparing the bottom end it was more a case of 'Blimey!'. It really is that apparent.

Traditionally, budget horns have suffered when it comes to response; playing at speed often shows up a cheap horn's lack of definition, with a certain muddying of the sound. The Walstein doesn't suffer from this, and if it doesn't quite equal the Yani it's close enough to be embarrassing.
Strangely enough though the 991 better shows its professional credentials at ballad speed. It has an authority and grace that tips the scales in its favour, along with an easier sense of stability and evenness.
I suppose if you think about it this is only natural - play almost any instrument fast and loud and you're bound to gloss over the subtleties. The money shows when the going gets slow.

All in all it's a remarkably close-run thing.
Without your having the benefit of trying these two horns side-by-side it's rather difficult to get across how close they are, but to put it in some kind of perspective I have played identical pairs of horns (same make, same model) and found the kind of variations in tone and response that I'm referring to here.
That bears some thinking about.
On the one hand we have £2000's worth of pro Japanese horn, and on the other £350's worth of a Chinese copy. In theory there ought to be no comparison at all - chalk and cheese. In fact the difference is something in the order of 10%.

Let's be in no doubt though - were I in the market for a horn I could play, love and cherish every day for the rest of my playing career I'd go for the Yanagisawa. That much can't be in dispute.
But, were I looking for a useful backup or doubling horn - or perhaps a less valuable instrument to take on informal (AKA rough) gigs - the Walstein would do very nicely indeed. As a horn for the starter it's excellent. It's tough enough to withstand clumsy fingers, it plays in tune, it sounds good - and it benefits from having an action that's as ergonomic as a top-flight pro horn.
In that respect it compares with midrange horns from the likes of Jupiter and Trevor James, which come in at at least twice the price.
For £350 you really can't complain.

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015