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Conn Selmer Avant 200 tenor saxophone

Conn Selmer Avant 200 tenor saxOrigin: China
Guide price: £1500
Weight: 3.4Kg
Date of manufacture: 2012 (108xxxx)
Date reviewed: March 2017

A brazenly bronze contender for the midrange crown

In my review of the TJ SR tenor I spoke about the difficulty of pitching a horn at the midrange price-point, and of the fierce competition that exists in this area of the market - and what better way to illustrate it than to review another contender for the midrange crown.
And as contenders, Conn-Selmer ought to be highly placed in the betting - they're a huge company with vast resources and a strong global presence. But as many a review has proved, it ain't so much about what ya got, it's what ya do with it that counts.

It's also likely to be quite a tough review - not because of any predisposition to other brands but rather because the bar has been set quite high by the build and performance of the TJ SR...and because Yamaha's formidable 280 still manages to hold its hard-won ground like the all-powerful 'boss' at the end of a computer game.
And as with any game there will be points to be made, battles to be fought, medals to win....and, of course, winners and losers.
Of course, you can't have a battle royale without an arena - and it's often the case that there are various traps and pitfalls placed in it in order to liven up the proceedings. In this case the arena is the no-mans' land between a bog-standard starter horn and an entry-level pro horn (known as the 'Intermediate Wastelands).
And by far the biggest obstacle to overcome is buyer disinterest - because it's so often the case that players will schlepp around on a cheap horn for a couple of years and then make the leap straight to a pro horn (everyone wants to go pro, even if they never have the chops for it), thus completely bypassing a whole sector of the marketplace.

The Avant 200 certainly looks like it's ready for a fight - if you believe that 50% of a victory is looking like you mean to win, the Avant has something of a head start. Resplendent in its shiny bronze body with brass keys and fittings, it enters the fray looking like it's wearing a suit of golden armour.
But as any true warrior knows, it's not the armour that counts...it's what's underneath it. So let's pop it on the bench, pull its metaphorical trousers down and see how many medals it'll win...

First up - that finish.
I like it. I think it's borderline gaudy, but it just manages to pull it off by virtue of the fact that saxes tend to be quite aesthetically pleasing anyway - but the bronze body with brass accents lends it the air of an antique chest. It's the sort of thing you might see on Antiques Roadshow, perhaps housing an exquisite travelling clock or an historically important piece of scientific equipment.
It also something of a chameleon in that its hue changes dramatically depending on the light. Such horns are a proper pain to photograph - and I dare say any number of owners reading this review will be thinking "But mine looks nothing like that!". I've gone for the middling look - but there are times when this horn looks practically pink and times when it looks almost brown.

Avant 200 top F# pillarThe body sports all the usual features you'd expect from a modern horn; drawn toneholes, detachable bell, triple-point bell brace, adjustable metal thumb hook, slightly domed metal thumb rest, adjustable bumper felts on the bell key guards, detachable side F# key guard and ribbed construction. What few individual pillars there are have reasonably-sized bases - bar the top F# upper pillar. Its position close to the tonehole means there's no room to fit a standard sized pillar base in. It's a common problem, and one I often point up because it's one of the tallest pillars on a horn and also one of the most exposed.
Ideally you'd look at the available space and design a specially shaped pillar base that has at least as much surface area as the other pillars. If you really cared you'd make the base even larger than normal, to compensate for the inevitable knocks this pillar is likely to receive. Conn-Selmer simply decided to hack a slice off the standard base and leave it at that. No medals here.

I felt the sling ring looked a bit on the small side - so I measured it. The hole clocked in at 9mm in diameter.
I'd have liked to have seen it larger, but at least it's bigger than the ring on a Yanagisawa, which only manages a measly 8mm in diameter. It's probably not going to be an issue for most people, but there are still a fair number of player out there using slings (or straps) fitted with chunky hooks like the one on my old BG sling.

And while we're on the subject of being mean, I was a bit suspicious of the bell brace.
Sure, it looks very nice - with its Gothic S centrepiece, the three hefty brass screws and the substantial base on the body - but the brace itself is a tad on the thin side.
Avant 200 bell braceIt measures just 3mm thick. To put that into perspective, the bell brace on an SMS Academy tenor is 3.5mm thick. The Academy cost a tad less than £300...the Avant is five times more expensive.
For the extra premium I don't think it's too much to ask for an extra millimetre's worth of brass on that brace. Go on...you know you want to.
It'll add just a little more stiffness to the brace and help to prevent the everyday minor dings and bashes from knocking the bell out of line - especially as horns at this price-point are likely to be used by younger players.

Avant 200 low C pillarBy now I was beginning to get the distinct impression that Conn Selmer were trying to save a few bob by cutting back on the amount of brass they got through - a suspicion that was bolstered when I took a look at the low C key.
This is what I call a double-headed pillar - that's two pillar heads on a single post. Ordinarily this isn't a problem - and in fact it's common practice. Look on any horn and you'll find a handful of these...perhaps even some 'triple headers'. However, they're usually in the 'over and under' format - with one head atop the other - and they're usually tucked safely away within a group of other pillars.
This pillar is in the side-by-side format - and while that in itself isn't an issue, the use of such a pillar in such a vulnerable spot is. The outward facing side of the bottom bow is a bit like the front bumper (fender) on your car - if you make a mistake, this is the bit that's often first to cop a whack. That's why there's a bumper fitted...as opposed to, say, a row of crystal decanters or a small cage for transporting fluffy pets.
I want to see beef in this area - stuff that looks like it can shrug off a knock or two. A single pillar with a head that's slightly wider than its base is just asking for trouble.
Not so much belt-and-braces as a shoestring...

In terms of assembly I'd say I was reasonably happy with how the body was put together. Quite tidy, on the whole, with perhaps one or two small cosmetic hiccups.
I spotted one or two lacquer blemishes around the ring at the base of the bell - and while it's always disappointing to see such things it has to be taken in the context of the price of the horn and the years of use its had. I know I'm getting to the age where I tend to forget things, but I'm pretty sure these blemishes never used to be a problem on the horns I played and worked on back in the day.
And that's a comment directed at the industry in general rather than just Conn Selmer.

Wrapping up the body there's a nicely engraved bell, with additional engraving running up the main body tube. I'm not generally overly keen on lots of engraving, but I have to admit it looks quite tasteful on the Avant. They can have a medal for that.

Avant 200 adjustersOn to the keywork now and, as expected, it's brimming with all the mod cons. Or some of them, anyway.
In fact in some places it's a rather curious mix of generosity and meanness. For example, I was very impressed to see adjusters for both height and regulation on the lower stack. This wins the Avant a gold medal in the Features category - which is immediately rescinded and replaced with a plain ol' silver one...because there are no adjusters on the top stack. C'mon guys, you've gone to all the trouble to fit threaded sockets to the lower stack key feet, and thread three holes through the Aux.F bar...could the Conn Selmer budget not spring for just two more holes on the Aux.B bar?

I note the use of double key arms on the bell keys - specifically the low Bb, B and C keys...but not on the low C#.
I kind of understand the reasoning, given that the intention of these arms is to help resist flex at the key cups when the keys are pressed down. Whether or not it actually works I have yet to make my mind up on (maybe some tests are in order) - but the additional strength provided by an extra arm would surely be of some benefit on the low C# key cup. This poor old fella is sat out there all on his tod, with not even a simple guard for company - and he's in the perfect place to cop a whack every time you put the horn down on a stand. It's a pretty important key cup too, given that a leak from the low C# will really scupper the performance of the low B and Bb. Again, that's a comment directed at manufacturers in general.

Avant 200 side BbNice to see plain ol' fork and pin connectors on the side Bb and C keys. No fuss, no nonsense - slick, quiet and reliable. Job done.
And there's the dinky(ish) sling ring.
You get a full set of plastic key pearls with a slightly domed Bis Bb pearl. This seems to be pretty much standard these days, and adds considerably to the speed and comfort when reaching for this particular note. There's also a domed oval pearl on the side F# and a flat oval one on the G#.
Another nice feature is the slight sculpting on the octave key touchpiece which, again, adds to the speed and comfort.
Avant 200 bell key tableThere's a fully tilting table for the bell keys (as you'd expect) - and all mounted on a semicircular compound pillar. At this point I'd award a medal for such a robust design, but there doesn't seem to be much point going to all the trouble of beefing up the bell key pillar when the bell brace is so thin. You could rest easy in the comfort of knowing your bell keys are nice and secure, but they'd be a fat lot of use if your bell is flapping about in the breeze.

The Avant's point screws are very interesting (well, to me, at any rate). At first sight they appear to be bog standard pseudo types - a tapered head that expands out to a cylindrical shaft. These are generally no bloody good for maintaining a tight, constantly adjustable action - but the Avant has another trick up its sleeve. The screws are shoulderless (or headless, if you like).
Screws with heads can only be driven so far into the pillar before the head prevents them going any further in. You can get around this limitation by reaming the pillar deeper - but you can only do this so many times before there's no thread left...and it's a bit of a hassle.
No such problems with a shoulderless screw...you simply keep on turning it - and if you turn it far enough it'll come right out the other side of the pillar. Simple. About the only degree of hassle is the need to secure the screw in place - and all that takes is a drop of threadlock solution...which is what that blob of blue-green stuff is.

Conn Selmer Avant 200 point screwA pseudo point on a shoulderless screw stands a good chance of actually working properly (like a proper point screw), because it ought to be possible to drive the screw far enough into the key that the tapered tip contacts the corresponding taper inside the key barrel - assuming there is one...more often than not you simply have to settle for the tip hitting the bottom of the hole in the key barrel.
So it looked like the Avant was about to score another gold medal - until I discovered that the holes in the barrells were far too deep for the screws to ever stand a chance of hitting home. In other words, you're back to a pseudo point screw.
You could, of course, simply drive the point screw into the pillar until 'something' contacts the key barrel - at which point your key would be nice and snug on its point screw(s)...but there's a very good chance that what you'll be nice and snug on is actually the end of the thread on the screw. And as screw threads are, by their very nature, quite rough and angular, the key will only remain snug for as long as it takes for the thread to chew through the key barrel. Which won't take long.
So we'll have that gold medal back then.

But wait! The Avant has another trick up its sleeve...there's another taper. That's right, reader - it's a whole 'nother type of point screw...the, er, double tapered non-pseudo pseudo shoulderless point screw...or perhaps the neo pseudo headless point. I dunno, I'll come up with something - but the meat of the matter is that it's this secondary taper that contacts the end of the key barrel...and functions just like a proper point.
Smiles all round, then.
Well, perhaps an appreciative nod - I'm still having the gold medal back, because it would have been simpler and cheaper to just bung a plain tapered head on the screw in the first place, and not bothered with the useless pseudo bit...and the money this would have saved could have been spent on fitting adjusters to the top stack. They'd get another silver (because the screw works) but because the design is a bit of an arse I'm downgrading it to a bronze. I've seen this sort of thing on Selmer (Paris) horns - they take a relatively simple mechanical problem and design a complicated, ineffectual solution for it.

Conn Selmer Avant 200 padThe Avant comes with a decent set of pads - which turned out to be Pisoni Pros. Very nice...my pad of choice. Another gold medal.
However, there's little point in specifying a top-line pad and then completely failing to fit it properly. Whatever advantages you might have gleaned from using such a pad (medium-firm felt core, level surface, quality leather) are completely negated if the pad isn't firmly held in the key cup.
There are a number of ways to fit pads, and each repairer has their own preference.
Some will use traditional shellac, some will use various hot-melt adhesives (as has been used here) and some will use either depending on the job in hand. When it comes to fitting the pad, some prefer to 'float' the pad on a relatively thick bed of glue, some prefer just a thin layer - and, again, some will vary the method depending on the requirements of the job. But the one thing that's common to all methods is that the base of the pad should be completely coated in glue. This provided the firmest, most stable support for the pad and means it will stay locked in place after any small adjustments to the seat have been made.

All this pad's had is a cursory swirl of the hot glue gun before being shoved in its key cup. I could forgive the lack of coverage in the centre of the pad if the edge had been fully coated - but as you can see, there's hardly a lick of glue on it...and what little there is probably got there when the pad was being removed.
Without any glue on the edge the seat will never be reliable. It might seat initially, but over time the pad will compress with use and swell/shrink as it gets wet and dries out. It's also possible for moisture to get underneath this pad. It's the difference between properly fitting a pad...and simply gluing it in place.
Horns with pads like these will be plagued with recurring small leaks, and any attempt to reseat the pads will be a complete waste of time.
So I'll have that gold medal back.

Wrapping up the keywork you get a set of blued steel springs to power it, and much use has been made of felt and composite cork. This latter is worth a few bonus points. Felt is always nice, and composite corks are tough and reliable. I'd have to knock a few brownie point off for the implementation though, as it was a little scruffy in places.

The horn comes in a semi-semi soft (yep, you read that right) box style zipper case. By semi soft I generally mean a soft internal structure that's surrounded on all sides with (at least) thin hardboard. This differs from a hard case, where a stout shell is first constructed and then lined. A wholly soft case would have no board at all. The Avant case has board around the sides, but none on the back or lid of the case. So if you put the case down on its base and sat on it, you'd probably get away with it. If you laid the case down flat and then sat on it, you'd crush the horn. Not that you're likely to do such a thing, but it's surprisingly common for people to trip over cases placed on the floor...and then tread on them.
I dislike this feature rather more than I do the zipped fastener. Other than that there's plenty of padding inside the case, and some space for the crook and your accessories. There's also a zippered music pouch attached to the lid and a set of backpack-style straps.

In the hands the Avant feels as comfortable as you'd expect.
No surprises there, it's really quite rare to come across a horn with notably awkward ergonomics these days. About the only players who might have problems are those with either really rather small hands or large ones...and they'll face much the same problems whichever horn they pick up.
Avant 200 octave keyI liked the domed Bis Bb pearl, the octave key and its corresponding thumb rest were very nice, the teardrop front top F touchpiece was exactly where it needed to be and I had no problem getting my fingers around the lower spatula keys. All par for the course.

The action was quite nicely set up. Perhaps a touch heavy on the springs, but not excessively so - at least not enough for me to recommend having them tweaked as soon as possible. The action can go lighter, but you might as well wait until you put the horn in for a regular service.
The use of composite corks added a little zip to the action. It's only a small thing, but having that little extra firmness under the fingers peps up the responsiveness of the action a treat.
I didn't find the horn's weight to be excessive. You might expect a bronze horn to be heavier, but there's really not much difference in weight between bronze and brass - and at 3.4Kg it's pretty much bog standard for a modern tenor. It also still leaves the basic Yamaha holding the crown for the lightest tenor in this class.

Tonewise it hits the middle ground just nicely.
I'd imagine that some people would be hoping that the bronze body would lend the horn a very rich and deep tone - especially if they've been reading some of the sellers' blurb - but I'm afraid that's all a load of old cobblers. What the Avant gives you is a medium tone with just a hint of brightness - which is pretty much what you want from a horn in this category. It makes it a good, versatile all-rounder. It has a fair bit of punch to it too - which is nice - so it's a good horn if you like to 'put it out there' a bit. However, it gets a bit sulky when you back off - the tone thins out a bit, and that's essentially the difference between a midrange horn and a pro one.
Not that it isn't a nice blow though - it's quite freeblowing, and is nicely balanced over its entire range. I got the feeling, too, that while this horn has a very immediate presence, it also has a fair bit held in store for a rainy day. If you're prepared to put the time and effort into it, I think you'll be able to extend the tonal capabilities quite nicely.
As for the tuning - no problems at all.

And now it's time to weigh up the pros and cons and see whether the Avant deserves a place on the podium, or has to settle for going home on the bus.
My overall impression is that it was very nearly a very good horn. It's a bit frustrating, really, because the Avant has some good features that would normally push it right up the rankings...but they've been half-heartedly implemented. The pads, for example, are great...but they haven't been properly installed. The point screws showed promise, but the design is flawed...and then there's the sense that they've tried to shave off bits of metal here and there.
I like to take the whole package into account, and as such I have to give as much weight to the boring fundamentals of build quality and reliability as I do to the the more exciting aspect of a horn's playability.
On that basis alone it doesn't make the top spot. It also competes head-to-head with the TJ SR, with the bronze version being exactly the same price (at least when I last checked).
Both horns have their pros and cons when it comes to construction, so in that sense they're a pretty even match - but when it comes to the playability I feel it's the SR that really pulls into the lead. It's got more to offer and has the advantage of some of its qualities being fed down from its bigger brother, the TJ RAW - and that gives it a more mature and refined response.
So the SR retains my midrange recommendation, but if in choosing between the two you walked away with the Avant 200, I really don't think you'd be disappointed.

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2017