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Borgani OBT 'Vintage' tenor saxophone

Borgani OBT 'Vintage' tenor sax reviewOrigin: Italy
Guide price: £5000
Weight: 3.24kg
Date of manufacture: 2022
Date reviewed: July 2022

Nope

Brand new horns; dontcha love 'em? All shiny (unless you went for an unlacquered model) and new, and ready for gigging straight out of the box.
Yeah, right. It's what we all hope for. Indeed, it's what we expect once we get much above a budget price-point - but the harsh truth of the matter is that hardly any brand new horns are as good as they could be. Or as good as they ought to be. Some retailers will go the extra mile and set the horns up prior to sale. This is an excellent practice - in theory. Sad to say, some of the 'set ups' I've seen have been bloody appalling - the last one came in with an action so optimistically lightly sprung that the low D key wouldn't open when the horn was laid flat. Complete waste of time.
Most players trust that the manufacturers have got everything bang to rights, and happily go about their business...blaming any difficulties on 'getting used to the new horn'.
But the canny ones whip their new baby straight round to a proper repairer and have them give it the old 'once over'. It's worth it. Even if you've bought a horn from a manufacturer that pays more attention to the details (typically Yamaha, Yanagisawa and TJ these days), there are always tweaks to be made that can lift the playability that little bit more.

And thus it was that this Borgani turned up on my workbench a little while ago. Fresh out of the box, mail-ordered straight from Italy.
I raised an eyebrow at the client. I've written many times about the (shall we say) tendency of the Italian manufacturers to big up the 'sound' and wander off down the pub when it comes to the nitty-gritty of engineering - and while I might have sighed at the client's impetuousness, I certainly couldn't fault him for bringing it straight round for a 'scrute'.
Very sensible.

So how did it work out? Well, let's have a look at what we have...

It's a Borgani OBT 'Vintage' tenor. I had a peek at the manufacturer's site to see exactly what constituted the vintage epithet, but as as far as I can tell it really only relates to the finish....assuming you don't pay much heed to the marketing-speak. Anyway, the upshot is that this is an OBT model with a scratched bare brass finish. Fair enough.

The horn features a single pillar construction throughout - not one single rib, strap, plate or saddle. It's single pillars...all the way down. The pillar bases vary in style - some are simple discs, others are thick and sculpted to match the curvature of the body. Makes no odds as long as they're of sufficient size, but the variation seems to be something of a Borgani quirk.
There's a triple-point detachable bell stay but the bell is soldered on. This might seem like an anomaly but there is some logic to it because if the horn gets damaged and the bell has to come off, the job is a lot easier if you don't have to faff around with soldered-on bell brace. Of course, it's easier still if you don't have to faff around with a soldered-on bell...
The toneholes are all plain drawn - and you get the usual bunch of fittings, such as a set of bumper felt adjusters on the bell key guards, an adjustable metal thumb hook, a curiously-dimpled plastic thumb rest (more on that later) and a 15/9mm sling ring.

Borgani Vintage tenor solderwotkThe construction was a little less than neat in places, with some evidence of sloppy solderwork here and there.
In mechanical terms it's unimportant; as long as the part is properly fixed to the body then that's all that really matters. Aesthetically, though, it does matter - and especially so at this price-point. It wouldn't have taken more than five minutes to have properly cleaned up the overspill around this joint - and about thirty seconds to sort out that little blob on the lower left. It's not impressive.

Borgani Vintage tenor toneholesWhat's also not impressive is the flatness of the toneholes - or rather the lack of it.
It's true to say that very few manufacturers turn out horns with truly flat toneholes - but most of the big manufacturers manage to get reasonably close to it. What you see here is the sort of unevenness that I'd expect to find on an Ultra-Cheap Chinese horn. I've only shown two of them, but I was spoilt for choice - there wasn't a single tonehole on the entire horn that made it to the "OK, well, that'll do" standard.
Of these two toneholes the upper one (Auxiliary F) is the nastiest. An awful lot of the playability of a horn depends on this key being set up spot on. Every tiny error here knocks a percentage point off the performance of the horn all the way down to the low Bb. It's perhaps a moot point on this horn because it had leaks right from the top down.

And when I say right from the top down, I mean from the crook downwards.
Borgani horns display their handmade credentials by dint of each key being marked with the horn's serial number - and the crook follows suit.
Or at least it's supposed to. This horn came with a crook that had a different serial number stamped on it.

Borgani Vintage tenor crook wobble I mentioned it to the client, who told me he raised it with Borgani when the horn arrived and was informed that it's because they 'match the crook' to the horn based on how well it performs. I find this a bit odd. I mean, it's a laudable approach - don't get me wrong - but if it was standard practice you'd surely leave the stamping of the serial number until you've selected a crook....because now you have two horns with serial numbers on their crooks that don't match that on the body.
I'm also somewhat sceptical because of the extremely poor fit of the crook. It has to be said, it's about the worst I've seen on a new horn - and surely, if someone's going to all the trouble to play through a bunch of crooks to find the best sound, they absolutely cannot have failed to notice that the damn thing doesn't bloody well fit properly.

And here's the thing. The nearer to the top of a horn a leak is, the more of an effect it's going to have. You'll surely have heard of the saying "Rubbish in - rubbish out" and it's fundamental to the integrity of a horn's airtightness. If you have a horn that's perfectly airtight save for, say, the low D key then most of the horn is going to perform perfectly well. The low and middle D will be a touch stuffier than normal - and the bell notes will have just that little less punch to them.
But put that leak right at the top of the horn and it'll make its presence felt over the entire range - and if there are any other leaks further down the horn it will just add to the accumulation of leaks.
Any decent repairer will tell you how important it is to have a well-fitting crook joint, and how much it boosts the tone and response of a horn.

Borgani Vintage tenor crook tenon sleeveHere's a shot of the crook tenon sleeve. A standard diagnostic test for a loose crook joint is to draw four lines down the sleeve with a marker pen. The crook is inserted into the receiver in the normal playing position and then rotated back and forth a few degrees before being withdrawn. This gives you a 'snapshot' of what's going on in the joint and can show you just what it is you're up against.
In this case you can see that there's some contact with the receiver at the top of the joint and the bottom. But it's not even. The upper line has more contact at the top of the sleeve and virtually none down the bottom. The lower line has less contact at the top and a little bit at the bottom. This is bad news. On a joint that's worn you'd see a similar pattern...but it would be even - so each line would typically show some scuffing at the top end and nothing at the bottom. That indicates that the tenon sleeve merely needs expanding (though it could also indicate wear in the receiver). What the pattern of wear here shows is that either the tenon sleeve or the receiver is out of round. And possibly both.

Borgani Vintage tenor receiver slotIncidentally, you'd do this test without the crook clamp screw being tightened up because it's not the job of this screw to form a seal in the joint - merely to lock the crook in place. And also incidentally, the animation above was made with the crook clamp screw tightened up. That's how bad the joint was. In fact it nearly made it into the Black Museum. It's no simple job to correct this - you could easily find yourself looking at a bill of £100+ by the time the joint has been rounded out, tightened up and lapped in.

Finally, a quick word about the slot in the receiver.
Just look at the size of it! The slot is necessary to allow the clamp ring to deform slightly and grip the tenon sleeve, but in most cases it's about 1mm wide and is barely longer than the depth of the ring. You could almost get a reed through that bloody gap, and what's with it being cut so far down the receiver? I mean, that's just asking for trouble down the line.
If you look closely you can also see that there's something going on at the lower right edge of the slot. See that little step up? No, I don't know why it's there either - but perhaps whoever cut it did so after they'd come back from the pub...

Borgani Vintage tenor engravingFinishing up the body is some rather nice engraving. I'd call it tasteful; it's not too florid nor too understated and sits well with the general look of the horn.
However, this too falls down on the finishing because someone forgot to go over the chasing and take down the burrs. It's by no means sharp enough to cut you, but if you're in the practice of resting your horn's bell over your legs on a seated gig you might find your best keks are going to end up looking a bit shabby.

OK folks, on to the keywork...

Borgani Vintage tenor compound pillarThe first problem I encountered was that quite a few of the pillars were too far apart. In most cases it was only by a millimetre or so (still not good) and easily rectified with a bit of judicious tapping with the trusty pillar mallet.
The anomalies on the compound bell key pillar were quite interesting. I've seen people ranting on the forums about having mail-ordered a horn and found that, on arrival, the bell keys are practically falling off. They're often quick to blame the manufacturers - but excess play here is very often the result of a knock to the horn. This can happen even when the horn's in its case (it's called shock damage) - whereby the force of the impact turns each of the keys into miniature slide hammers. With four keys hanging of the one pillar, something's gonna give - and it's usually the compound pillar that gets knocked backwards.
Is that what's happened here though?

It's unlikely, because while the G# (top key) and low B (third one down) show a large gap, the low Bb (second key down) is fine and the low C# (bottom key) isn't too bad. Shock damage wouldn't be selective - all the keys would show an equal gap here with the other end of the keys flush against their pillars.
I'll have to give this one the benefit of the doubt, but let's have a look at the rest of the keywork...

Now this isn't shock damage.
Borgani Vintage tenor side C leverMake no mistake, this is a huge gap. You won't see a gap between a pillar and a key barrel this large unless something has gone terribly wrong. Not even fifty years of wear and tear would account for it. No, a gap this large means that someone's been hacking at the key (often when a key has had to be cut off the horn due to rust) or the body has suffered some sort of trauma. Clearly neither of those two options would apply to a brand new horn - which leaves only one possibility; that the pillar has been fitted incorrectly.
Of course, there's another pillar at the lower end of this key that might be out of position - but it has two other heads on it; one each for the top E and F# keys. As both of these keys were a reasonably snug fit it meant that the side C upper pillar was the one that was out of place.

Borgani Vintage tenor C lever pillar fixedJust as with the wobbly crook, I'm struggling to see how this was allowed out of the factory. It's clearly not right, and equally clearly visible. Someone, at some point, had to say "Meh, that'll do". Well it won't do - so I put it right.
All neat and tidy, right? Yep - but what if this had been a lacquered or a plated horn? No matter how skilled (and lucky) you were, there would have been a witness mark that showed where a pillar had been moved.

But did I need to move the pillar?
The Borgani features sprung inserts on all the keys that are mounted on point screws. We've seen these before on other horns (Selmer uses them on some of their horns) - the idea being that they're supposed to provide a self-adjusting action. Borgani Vintage tenor key barrel insertI've never been a fan of them. In fact the worst example of them I've seen was on another Borgani - the OBA alto - in which I noted how many of the inserts were jammed in the key barrels.

With this in mind I checked each and every insert to ensure they were able to move back and forth within the barrel. I'm not going to say I'm happy to report that I found only one that was jammed - because even one is too many, but it's at least an improvement.

There's not a great deal you can do about this. If you start poking around down the barrel there's a chance that you'll drive the insert in even further - and if the key was reasonably snug beforehand, it certainly won't be now.
If the key isn't snug and the insert is jammed you're either going to need to drill the damned thing out and make a new one...or you're going to have to put some kind of 'filler' into the key barrel to take up the gap.

So with this ability for the action to self adjust, could I have left that pillar be? Yes, I could. The inserts would have taken up the free play - and in fact in order for the system to work you actually do need a little bit of a gap between the pillar and the end of the key barrel. But not as much as that.
It's bodgey and sloppy - and it's not what you'd expect to see on such an expensive horn.
Borgani Vintage tenor stuck key insterAnd while we're here, take a look and the end of the key barrel on the left. See how rough it is? See how rounded it is too? Almost all the barrels were like this. Squaring up the key barrels is an important part of key fitting. It ensures a good contact between adjacent keys or pillars which helps reduce wear, it helps to keep dirt from finding its way into the action - and it looks neat and tidy. This is particularly important on a high-end horn - after all, would you be happy buying an expensive car on which none of the doors lined up with each other? Of course not; above a certain price you expect such things to be 'just so' - and if they're not, well, there are other brands that do manage to get such niceties right.

So much for the point screws, what about the rods?
Oh my, where to begin...
There were two major problems here; the first was that the rod screws were undersized (or the key barrels oversized - take your pick), and the second was that the the pillars were similarly affected. What that leads to looks like this.

Borgani Vintage tenor topstack wearThis is the top stack, and there are two things going on here. The inaccuracy in the rod screws is allowing the keywork to move back and forth - and the same inaccuracy in the pillar is allowing the rod screw itself to move. That's a double whammy. In terms of how this affects the action it means that it's virtually impossible to regulate the action properly. If you press any key in the upper stack down it also brings down the Auxiliary B (shown in the gif). Ideally you'd want this key to come down the same amount and at the exact moment as the key you pressed. But when there's this amount of play in the action, the Aux.B key is going to push back against it and take it up...which means the key will open slightly. And that's a leak. And never mind that it makes the action feel bloody awful.

Borgani Vintage tenor low C keyTo really experience the full horror of it you can do no better than take a peek at the low C/Eb keys.
Granted, the play here is a great deal less critical than that on the main stacks but it'll still have an effect on the accuracy of the low C pad seat, and it isn't going to do the feel of the action any favours. And yes, although I'm rather stressing the keywork (as can be seen by the slight movement of the lower pillar), this amount of play can only get worse over time. Almost all the larger rod screws were affected in this way along with a few of the smaller ones - and those keys that weren't still exhibited axial play. Much, much more to the point - none of it should be there, not on a brand new horn in this price bracket.

For the geeks amongst you I can report that the original (large) rod screws came in at 2.98mm diameter and that the smallest size rod that fitted snugly through the most overdrilled pillar was 3.18mm. On paper that's just a 0.2mm difference - but you can clearly see what that means for an action. In order to fix the action I had to ream out all the larger keys and associated pillars to 3.18mm.
The smaller keys (palm and side keys etc.) weren't so badly affected, but still required work to snug them up and to ensure a proper fit between the pillars.

Borgani Vintage tenor thumb restI mentioned the curiously-dimpled thumb rest earlier, and here it is. Anyone know why they did that?
It's not a solid lump - if you press a fingernail into to, it deforms...which means it's quite thin. Not sure how that's going to stand up to wear over the years. I also found it slightly annoying under the thumb, but that might just be me.
Of more note is the distance from the thumb rest to the octave key touchpiece. That's quite the gap there. One of the reasons you fork out piles of cash for an expensive horn is that (you hope) more thought has gone into making everything as slick and precise as possible. That gap is not slick or precise and is about twice as large as it ought to be.

....Whereas the pillars on the thumb key are rather smaller than they ought to be.
See how the key barrel projects out past the face of the pillar? What's happened here is that Borgani have used the smaller sized pillars (as found on the palm and side keys) but with a full size key barrel (as found on the main stacks). Granted, it's a very minor point - but it bugs me something rotten.

Borgani Vintage tenor padsThe pads are unbranded, but they look to be of at least decent quality - and they're glued in place with a reasonable amount of hot melt glue. However, they seem to be quite soft and have been set with very deep impressions. It's debatable whether or not that matters, but most repairers these days tend to use at least medium-firm pads set with a light impression - and most manufacturers fit medium-firm pads to their horns.

It's a curious choice, unless you consider that trying to seat a firm pad with a light impression on a wonky tonehole is a truly Sisyphean task. Much easier to whack in a soft pad and clamp it down hard until it takes a seat. It works...for a while at least.

And speaking of soft and squishy, the corkwork on the Borgani is not much to write home about. Indifferent sums it up nicely. It's not terribly neat in places, and there's limited use of more modern materials. Some plastic/silicone tuning has been used where a lever arms connects to another key, but it's quite squishy. It's a minor point, but it slightly affects the feel and response of the action. Other manufacturers of horns at this price-point (and well below it) are using buffering material more intelligently - and with more neatness. And given that there are no stack regulation adjusters on this horn, a bit of composite cork or synthetic felt here and there really wouldn't have gone amiss.

Well, I don't know about you but I'm rapidly running out of the will to live - so let's wrap up the tech specs with a few good points and get to the crux of the matter.
Proper mother of pearl key touches, nicely domed metal Bis Bb touchpiece, fork and pin connectors on side keys, F# helper arm, blued steel springs, elegantly-rounded key cups...and comes in a Bam Softpack case.

Under the fingers the horn feels...no, wait...what's the point?
The difference between how this horn came into the workshop and how it left it is chalk and cheese. If the build quality seen here is indicative of what Borgani are chucking out at the moment then you're not going to be able to buy a Borgani that feels like it did after I'd tweaked it unless you chuck another £500 or so at it. And if you chuck that much at the action of just about any half-decent horn, it's going to feel just fine.

Borgani Vintage tenor Tonewise? When it came in it was weak, stuffy, indistinct, tiresome and uninspiring. By the time I'd finished with it, it had a solid, presentable, middle-of-the-road slightly warmish sound - though perhaps a little understated when compared to my TJ RAW. In fact I'd go so far as to say that the tone is almost identical to that of the RAW, except that the Borgani has a softer response and doesn't have that nice glittery shimmer around each of the notes.
But none of that really matters, because the bigger picture here is about expectations. That's your expectations when you fork out five grand for a horn, and my expectations when someone brings me in a high-end horn for a service. I mean, what do you expect for that much money? A horn that works straight out of the case? An action that's slick, responsive and reliable? Some integrity of build, some artistry perhaps? It's clearly not too much to ask because Yamaha can do you an 82Z at around four and half grand, or an 875EX. Yanagisawa will see you right with a TW20 for much the same price - and if you push the boat out just a little you can bag a Selmer SA80II for just over five grand. Fancy something a little different? Rampone and Cazzani's R1 is about four and a half - and bang on five grand is the very lovely Andy Sheppard.

All of these horns have one thing in common; they're well-built. You get what you pay for. Sure, they all have niggles - but nothing showstopping. Calling what I found on this horn niggles is like having your leg slowly chewed off by a carnivorous sloth and saying "It's only a flesh wound".

I mentioned earlier that I'd been to the manufacturer's site - and had been regaled by lots of effusive marketing-speak about the ethos behind the 'vintage' brand.
I have to say I'm impressed. Not only have Borgani striven to provide you with a horn that attempts to match the look and sound of yesteryear's horns - they've pulled out all the stops and provided you with an action to match. Yep, when you buy a Borgani vintage you get a vintage sound, a vintage look...and an action that feels like it's seen 70 year's worth of wear. Now that's what I call attention to detail.

I thought long and hard about how to approach my review summary. Should I be diplomatic? Should I be cryptic? Should I just present the evidence and let you make up your own mind? Or should I say what I really feel?
What I feel is angry. Sure, I get annoyed when I see silly errors and slip-ups that should have been caught during quality control - and I get frustrated when I see the same mistakes being turned out time and again. But there was almost nothing on this horn that passed muster and I simply couldn't work out why anyone would think this kind of build quality was acceptable on such an expensive horn.

It's deeply, deeply disappointing to see stuff like this on my workbench. I cannot recommend it.

Postscript:

Borgabi Vintage tenor with Yamaha thumb hookHaving played it for a couple of weeks the client asked me to make a couple of modifications.
The first was to replace the thumb hook. I didn't personally find it too uncomfortable, but he did - and we both agreed that the slotted nut (used to tighten the hook down) was fussy and not terribly reliable. So he purchased a Yamaha thumb hook assembly, which I duly fitted. It's a much nicer arrangement - plus it allows for a degree of height adjustment.

Borgani Vintage tenor thumb rest modThe second mod was to replace the dimpled thumb rest. It didn't take him very long to find that the dimple was distracting and uncomfortable - so I made a replacement rest in cocobolo. It also allowed me to make the rest slightly larger in diameter, thus dealing with the overly large gap between the rest and the thumb key.

With these modifications in place, and the remedial work carried out to bring the horn up to the proper spec, I'm delighted to report that he's very happy with it.

 


If you've recently bought a Borgani and are concerned or curious as to whether your horn suffers from similar issues, you are invited to bring it along to the workshop for a free inspection. In the course of the inspection I shall examine and test the instrument and take photographs as necessary, whereafter they will be added to the this review (good or bad). In return for your time I will carry out a basic setup and lubrication job on your sax free of charge.

 

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