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Cannonball 'Vintage Reborn' TVR-SD/BR tenor - Vintage AV/PC-L alto - Stone Series GA5-B alto
Origin: Taiwan
Guide price : TVR Tenor £2190 - AV/PC alto £2055 - GA5 alto £2380
Weight: TVR tenor 3.42Kg - AV/PC alto 2.52Kg - GA5 alto 2.72Kg
Date of manufacture: 2011
Date reviewed : July 2011

Description : Three distinctive saxes from a company whose horns you might not have considered before.

Cannonball Vintage Reborn tenorI don't often get asked by manufacturers to review their products - and this is probably for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it takes a brave manufacturer to hand me a horn and tell me to take it apart, and secondly I tend to avoid review samples on the basis that I like to be impartial...which is good for you, the reader, because it means I don't have to worry about upsetting anyone.
In this instance though I have accepted three Cannonballs via their UK distributor Windcraft.co.uk for review. I did so for a number of reasons; I don't see many Cannonballs come through the workshop - this is either because they're not as common as other brands or because they're generally quite reliable (we'll find out shortly); I also felt that it was high time I had a good, close look at these horns...some good things have been written about them and I like to know what's what out there.
So it was rather fortuitous that Cannonball got in touch with me recently to say "Hey, c'mon - what about our horns!?"
Fair enough, if they've got the balls (nice pun there) to let me crawl all over their horns, I've got the screwdriver and the pair of pliers.
So I accepted the samples - but strictly on the basis that if I found anything I didn't think was up to scratch, it gets published.

Let's have a look, then, at what we have.
There are three models on review; a Vintage Reborn tenor, a Pete Christlieb alto and a Gerald Albright alto. I've decided to put them all in the same review as they share many identical build features.
The horns are of Taiwanese origin, and what sets them apart from the ever-increasing range of Taiwanese horns under multiple brand names is that they're extensively customised and tweaked. Cannonball make some quite grandiose claims about the effects of such customisation - to the point where there has been much heated debate about it on the various saxophone forums on the web. They're certainly not the first company to claim an 'edge' by such means, and they probably won't be the last - but for me the proof of the pudding is in the eating...and the workbench is an uncompromising leveller.

It has to be said from the off that the setup on these horns is very good indeed. The action height is bang on the middle ground, the springs are very well balanced and everything is neat and tidy. I'm always going on about having to spend another forty or fifty quid to have a setup done on a brand new horn that's just cost you a couple of grand, but with the Cannonballs it comes as part of the package. I spoke to Windcraft about this and was told that each horn is checked when it arrives for any settling-in due to shipping, but other than that they're exactly as they left the factory.
My standard advice on buying any new horn is to whip it straight round to a repairer to have it properly set up - it can make a world of difference - but if Cannonballs are coming out of the factory like this then they deserve to be wholeheartedly praised. The action height was bang on, the springs were well-balanced and the pads were well-seated. It's a sad fact that I have to say that such a setup is rare on a horn fresh from the factory.
That's a good start, and it shows that someone can be bothered.
It many ways it sets the theme of this review, which is attention to detail - and as we go through the horns you'll see little touches that just seem to say "We thought about this".

The build quality on all three horns is rather good. The bodies themselves are neat and tidy and there's little else that need be said about them (other than the tenor has an annealed body and neck and the altos a 'triple-annealed' bell - what difference that makes depends on whether you believe it makes one or not), but it's the quality of the fittings that catches the eye. The main stack pillars are fitted to ribs, but where they're free-standing they have substantial bases. This bodes well for strength and reliability - more surface area means a stronger bond and less chance of a pillar being knocked off if you're a bit clumsy with the horn.
If there's a drawback to this beefiness it's that it adds to the weight of the horn, but only by a little.

There're all the usual convenience and comfort options; they all have detachable bells, adjustable thumb hooks, removable side F# key guards, a generously-sized and comfortable thumb rest and a sling ring that's big enough to accommodate a chunky locking hook - and everything's well fitted and tidy, with no gaps where solder hasn't run or any excess oozing out from the bases.
The tone holes, of the standard drawn type, are nice and level and reasonably well-finished on the rims - though it has to be said that I spotted one or two where running a fingernail up the wall would show up a very slight burr on the rim. I wouldn't say it was excessive, but it's still there nonetheless.

Cannonball bell brace All the horns feature a triple-point bell stay, but the tenor goes one better with an additional arm to take account of the extra weight on the brace and the leverage provided by the longer bell.
I've heard it said that modern horns only require these extra braces because they're not as well-built as vintage horns. Such a statement could only have been made by someone with little of no experience of fixing horns - a moderate knock to the bell of any horn of any vintage can be enough to displace the bell a tad, which leads to leaking bell key pads. It might not be by much, but it's often enough to take the sparkle out of the bell notes - and because many players only really notice it after a repairer finds the fault and fixes it, it's rather more common a problem than might be imagined.
An extra brace, which adds but a few grammes of weight, effectively protects the bell from these casual knocks and ensures the bell keys remain true.
It's perhaps worth pointing out that a lot of these knocks occur while a horn is in its case, and that this kind of 'shock' damage can happen with even quite expensive cases under certain circumstances.

Cannonball bell pillar braceWhich is why I was pleased to see an auxiliary brace for the semicircular compound bell key pillar.
This type of pillar seems to have become the norm these days and provides a less complicated and cluttered means of supporting the bell keys than that found on horns from yesteryear.
The extra brace will prevent the pillar being knocked back in the event of your dropping the horn while in its case. This happens because the shock from the drop travels along the key barrels, and as there are four of them fixed to this pillar it means there's quite a lot of force that gets focussed in one place...and so the pillar bends.
The brace is removable, which will prove useful when a repairer requires access to the A key cup. I suppose if you wanted to lighten the horn by a few grammes you could take it off yourself, but I really wouldn't recommend it.

The finish on the bodies is nothing short of immaculate. Even the Vintage tenor looks good, with it's faux-aged sheen. This is a finish that so easily tips over into gaudy if you're not careful, but this example looked to be suitably understated - though I can't quite get away from the fact that is, in fact, a brown sax. Sure, if you get close enough you'll see swirls of yellow and greeny reds - but if you stand back and look at it as perhaps an audience would do, it's undeniably and quite definitely brown.
The Pete Christlieb alto is finished in a, frankly, stunning deep gold lacquer. This is about as tasteful as finishes get, and even when the finish wears (as they inevitably do) it will simply make the horn look distinguished.
The Gerald Albright, in contrast, in an exercise in black. The black lacquered finish is complemented by black leather pads - and even the case is black. Readers familiar with The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy might suppose that this would be an ideal horn for Hotblack Desiato...

Cannonball end plugBut it's the detailing that really sets off the look of these horns.
For example, take a look at the crook socket screws. Isn't that neat? Sure, it's no big deal - a pair of standard screws with a triangle punched out of the head - but how often do you see little touches like this? There's an additional Cannonball logo on the front of the socket itself - yet another small but neat and discreet touch.
And check out the matched metal end cap. This is a very nice feature indeed. How many of us have bought horns costing several thousand pounds and have had to make do with cheap plastic end cap? It's costs but a few quid more to make one in metal, and it all adds to to the sense that someone cares.

Cannonball guardNow look at the bell key guards. Again, someone has sat down at a drawing board and given them some thought. Not only are they functional, they look good too - quite distinctive, I thought. Better still, the guards are fitted to feet that have substantial bases. This is a common weak point, and I'm often having to re-solder guard feet that have come away from the body after a knock - but I can't see these feet going anywhere in a hurry.
I suppose if you were picky you might argue that the guards won't be as tough as they could be, and under certain circumstances you may well be right - but I feel it's a very small price to pay for a touch of distinctiveness.

The attention to detail continues with the keywork, which isn't always the case. I've seen many a good-looking horn that's been let down by iffy keywork, but Cannonball have fitted their horns with keys that are both strong and elegantly fashioned.
From a distance the keys look much the same as those found on any other horn, but get a little closer and you'll see several subtle features that are aimed squarely at the player.

Cannonball octave keyFor example, the scalloping on the octave key touchpiece makes the key feel incredibly comfortable. Granted, it's not often I find myself with a sore thumb at the end of a gig (except when I've been using a vintage horn - some of those early thumb keys can be vicious), but little details like this help to make the keywork 'transparent'...as in it disappears under your fingers. That's a feature worth having on any horn.
The domed Bis Bb key pearl is just as welcome - this a feature that ought to be fitted as standard to every horn as it makes such a difference to the feel and response of the mechanism.
I was also impressed by the fit of the rollers on the spatula keys. This isn't something I usually comment about, simply because it seems to be a given that the standard is that they rotate freely and tend to hand a bit of end-to-end play in them. Not so on the Cannonballs. Not only do they go round smoothly, they don't have any appreciable end-to-end play. It's a very small point, but it means that they're less likely to become rattly in the near future...and again it shows that some care has been taken in construction.
But best of all, the keywork was strong.
There seems little point in going to all the trouble of making a horn look and feel great and then making the keys out of butter - but this can be a surprisingly common problem with horns from this part of the world. I carried out my usual thoroughly scientific tests - I gave the keys what we in the trade call 'some welly'. Yep, they will bend, but only if you really want them to.

Cannonball side BbGiven the extravagance of the horns I half expected to see quite a few unnecessary features. Such features are disappointingly common on modern horns - little bits and bobs that don't really do anything other than add to the complexity of the mechanism. There weren't any on the Cannonball - even the side trill keys, a common target for over-complication, were just simple pin and fork affairs.
No fancy connectors, no swivelling trinkets or superfluous adjusting screws - just a plain connection that will do the job nicely, quietly and reliably. What more could you possibly need?

One particularly nice feature is the addition of a 'helper spring' on the G# lever arm.
Sticky G# pads are the bane of a saxophonist's life and over the years many tricks have been tried to help alleviate this problem. The helper spring method is simple, effective and elegant and is a mod that's been popular since way back - so it's always nice to see it implemented at the point of manufacture.

Topping off the action is a full set of blued steel springs, and the keys are fitted with good-quality leather pads.

Under the fingers the Cannonballs feel like most contemporary horns. The ergonomics are good, there aren't any keys that require any stretching to reach them and everything is pretty much where you'd expect it to be. For sure, you can't please everyone - there will always be players who dislike the placement of, say, the palm key or side trill touches - but nothing on these horns struck me as being out of place, aside from a couple of small issues that cropped up during play-testing.
I had some reservations about the key pearls though - purely from an aesthetic point of view. They not mother-of-pearl (or even plastic), they're stones.
Now, one of the problems with plastic key pearls is that when you fingers get a bit wet they can be a bit slippery. MOP does rather better as it tends to retain a bit of grip even when you've worked up a bit of a sweat - so how would non-porous stones work out.
Surprisingly well, as it happens.
Cannonball Gerald Albright palm keysI suspect this is more to do with the contouring of the 'pearls' rather than the material itself, but it works nonetheless. In fact I have to say I found them very comfortable indeed - though I can't say I was all that taken by the look of them. I should also say that they were very well fitted - even the oval pearls.
I baulked a bit at the extra pearls fitted to the palm and side trill keys on the Gerald Albright alto. To be fair I didn't really notice them that much during playing, but every time I stopped and looked at the horn I felt myself shudder a little bit. Personal preference, and all that, of course.

Finishing off the cosmetics is some excellent engraving. I'm usually not that fussed about such things, I quite like the clean lines of an unengraved bell, but even I have to admit that I was impressed. Yes, it's perhaps a bit flowery, but it somehow seems to fit in with the slightly gothic look these horns have.

Before we get on to the play-testing part, a quick note about the accessory bundle that comes with these horns. The cases are of the traditional type - and reassuringly heavy. The standard finish is a mock brown leather, but as mentioned earlier the Gerald Albright alto case is finished in black - mock-croc, no less.
And not only do you get a polishing cloth, a sling (quite a nice one), a crook bag and some cork grease - you also get a mouthpiece with a cap and a ligature that matches the finish of the horn. Now that's a very nice touch. Even if you never use the mouthpiece, it's still a very nice touch.

So as we come to the end of the 'techy' bit - do I have any bad things to say about these horns?
Well, I do - but I don't mind admitting that I'm really scraping the barrel.
Having been impressed by the build quality of the body and the keys, I took a screwdriver to the action to see what sort of point screws they were using.
"Aha!" I thought, "Pseudo point screws. Gotcha!".
Pseudo point screws are flawed in design because they eventually end up acting like parallel points - and there's no neat and effective way to take up the free play when the keys wear...but there is one way in which they can work quite well, and that's when the key barrel has been properly drilled so that the point of the screw is in contact with the barrel (see here for more details about such screws).
This is precisely how the keys were drilled on all these horns and it means that when the keys wear, the pillars can be reamed to allow the screws to drive deeper into the pillar and thus take up any play.
Now that really surprised me - and completely scuppered my chance of pointing to these horns and saying "Yeah, nice-looking horns, but shame about the action eh?"

Cannonball adjustersSo what was I left with?
Not much, as it happens - in fact I found just two issues that could do with improving.
The first is the positioning of the stack adjusters. In some instances these weren't positioned dead-centre above the key feet. What this means is that an off-centre adjuster is a lot more likely to rip up the shim cork, so it doesn't bode well for reliability.
It's not a huge problem - I would simply back the adjuster out until it was flush with the key bar and just use a sanded shim, as used on any horn without adjusters. But, if you're going to fit adjusters you might as well get them in the right place - and when you're charging a premium price for a horn it's little details like this that really ought to be bang on.

My other criticism is that the catches on the cases were a bit poor. On the one hand I'm delighted to see proper catches fitted (as opposed to crappy zips), but they didn't close with quite the 'snap' that says 'Your case is shut and secured'. I found that a casual knock could half-unlatch the catch - not so much that it would open, but enough to leave the catch tab sticking up...thus making it rather more likely that another knock would open it completely.

I warned Cannonball that I would be brutal in my assessment of their horns - that no discrepancy would go unreported, that their reputation was firmly on the line...and the best that I could come up with was iffy case catches and a couple of off-centre adjusters...and perhaps a couple of burrs on the odd tone hole or two.
I think that's pretty remarkable - but does it hold up when it comes to playing the horns?

The Vintage Reborn (VR) tenor's name gives the game away - tonewise it's sultry, warm and smoky. I'm inclined to feel that this is perhaps a bit of poetic license given that I've played a fair few vintage horns that have been as bright as any contemporary horn, but I can understand where they're coming from.
If there was an area in which this horn excelled it was in its tonal stability. I quite like a horn that's a little on the edge - not too much though, just enough to allow you to control the way the notes break up if you push the horn really hard. Not really an option on the VR, no matter how hard you push it it remains as solid as a rock.
You can take that two ways, some players will jump at such a feature, others will think it somewhat restrictive - but it's in no way a bad feature.
I was very impressed by the evenness of the tone - from top to bottom, and at all volumes, each note blended seamlessly into the next, even into the altissimo register. That's not to say that it doesn't have clarity though - there's none of the stodginess that's often associated with a warm tone, and if you bung a bright mouthpiece on this horn you might be surprised at how funky this horn can sound.
I put the VR up against my trusty Yamaha 23, and just as quickly put the 23 away again. They're so completely different as to make a comparison useless - and this seems to be a common theme with this horn...it's a modern horn that isn't. A better comparison might have been an old Buescher, or maybe an early Martin - it's got that same creamy roundness.

Cannonball key pearlsThe key layout felt very comfortable under the fingers, though I would have liked a slightly larger G# touchpiece as I kept missing it until I'd got the measure of it (as I did on the altos). I really liked the feel of the domed BisBb touchpiece, and while it wasn't as rounded as, say, those found on Borgani horns it still felt a great deal better than the standard dished pearls that are usually fitted.
As noted earlier, the setup was particularly good, and this showed up in the way the horn felt. Not only did it feel balanced tonally but also mechanically. You could undoubtedly improve upon the setup if you wanted it tailored to your specific needs, but I reckon most players would be happy with the action as it is - straight out of the box.
That's worth a few quid in my books, given that a tweaking session on a new horn can easily set you back £40.
I'd go so far as to say this horn felt familiar. There aren't many tenors on the market these days that lean towards the warm...in fact I can think of just one other from the same region, and that's the Bauhaus M2 Studio. In a side-by-side play-off I found it remarkably difficult to distinguish between the two horns, as did a couple of listeners.
With a bit more playing and a lot more listening I'd say that the VR had a tad more edge than the Bauhaus, but to put that into perspective I'd say it was about as much as the difference I'd expect to find on any two seemingly identical horns.

Cannonball Pete Christlieb altoWhen it came to play-testing the altos I lined up a spot of competition for them in the shape of a Yamaha 62 and a Yanagisawa 992 - the 62 comes in at slightly less that either of the Cannonballs, the 992 slightly more...so in theory I would expect them to slot nicely inbetween.

First up was the Pete Christlieb (PC) alto.
Tonewise this horn seems cleaner and clearer than the Yamaha, although with a similar tonal spread. It's a touch warmer, and maybe even a little more introverted (not difficult, as the Yamaha can be quite 'in-your-face). Definitely not as raunchy, I found, but the payoff was a noticeable sense of stability - just like that found on the tenor. Like the Yamaha it gives you a sense of 'automatically' placing the notes, only more so...on some horns it can feel like you have to work to get each note in tune and in balance tonally.

Compared to the Yanagisawa the tone was, again, very much similar but with a touch more brilliance.
This was quite a neat trick to pull off - to be able to capture the essence of both horns and yet come up with something different and distinctive - and it seemed to me that the PC alto took the punch and clarity of the Yamaha and coupled it with the depth and darkness of the Yanagisawa, the result being a very nice mix that simply oozes versatility.

Better still, it bridged the gap nicely between the free-blowing Yamaha and the slightly more resistant Yanagisawa, providing a sense of having something to get your teeth into without feeling like it would become a chore on an extended blow.
I can see how a horn like this might divide opinion - players who prefer a bright horn will want a bit more and players who favour warm horns might feel there's too much edge. You certainly can't please everybody, but this alto has a jolly good go at it - and with the right choice of mouthpiece you should be able to tip the balance either way according to your preference.

My overall impression is that this is quite a playful horn, it's eager, precise, sure-footed but lively - very boppy.
No real issues with the key layout, save for finding the G# touchpiece a little on the short side. I could hit it, no problem, but my fingertip was right on the end of the touchpiece - both the Yamaha and the Yanagisawa give you a bit more to play with.
I also stumbled a bit on the placement of the side F# touchpiece - it was just a bit too far back for my liking...but I could get used to it.
Other than that I was very impressed with how comfortable it felt in my hands.

Cannonball Gerald Albright altoOn to the Gerald Albright (GA) alto now, and the first thing I noticed when I blew this horn was how much more '3D' it sounded compared to the PC alto.
Now you might think that's a good thing, what with just about everything being 3D these days, but what you gain in the tone spread you lose in the focus. Tonewise this is more extroverted horn - where the PC was boppy, the GA feels funky.
It's a harder tone, more glassy - play the PC and GA side-by-side and it seems like the GA has a touch of glitter about it.

It felt like a more responsive horn to me - and although that's often a trademark of bright horns, in this case it ran a bit deeper.
It seemed quicker to form the notes, and to jump from quiet to loud and back again. I guess a reasonable analogy would be that the PC responds like a car that's set up for a degree of comfort and the GA is tweaked more towards sport.
Both setups have their pros and cons, and just as with the cars the GA gives you the response at a cost of some of the smoothness.

This was more noticeable at the top end. It had more power and cut, to be sure, I could really belt out the notes without any sense of them breaking up, but as I did so they took on a sort of brittleness. It wasn't unpleasant, in fact it's probably exactly what many players want in this range, it's just that the PC did it with a touch more decorum.
Things were more even down the lower end, and the GA felt more robust here with that 3D effect coming to the fore.
It's less noticeable to the listener, so I was told, but the player will certainly hear it.

Cannonball Fat NeckThe GA came with another crook - a silver-plated underslung model known as a 'Fat Neck (tm)'.
I didn't like it initially, it felt like it closed the horn down and pinched the tone in somewhat, but after a while it began to open out and I started to notice just how much it darkened up the lower end of the horn. However, I felt it had a touch of boxiness about it...a little too busy in the midrange for me.
It's not as 'pushy' a crook as the standard affair, it feels more resistant - but if you go with the flow and back off, it seems to respond better. I felt it brought a sort of 'soft bounce' to the horn, which makes it excellent for ballad work - but for me the bottom line is that the PC alto does this much better as is, and without that touch of boxiness.
At any rate you certainly can't complain about having it as an option, and there's every chance that it might work better than the standard crook with your chosen mouthpiece.
Nice octave key design too - the split key probably makes little or no difference to the feel (I compared it to the 992's single-piece underslung key) but it's yet another example of someone having put a bit of thought into the horn.

In terms of personal preference I found myself facing something of a quandary. I liked the playfulness of the PC but felt the GA better suited my style of playing...and then began to wonder whether the GA simply fits into my expectations while the PC perhaps provides a bit of inspiration. Tricky one, that.
What it clearly tells me though is that the myth that Taiwanese horns are all pretty much the same is well and truly busted - there are differences here that are both subtle and obvious at the same time, which is quite a neat trick to pull off.
I'm usually pretty good at choosing between two contenders...I figure out what each one has and hasn't got, decide what it is that I can afford to let go of and what it is that I really want to have, and then cover it with a generous dollop of instinct before point to the chosen one and handing over the cash. This mean I can walk away knowing I've made the right choice and not be plagued by "What ifs" for ever after. In this instance though I found it a great deal harder to come to such a decision, and even resorted to simply looking at the horns.

Cannonball Gerald Albright engravingAnd just look at that engraving on the GA alto - when it catches the light just right it lights up against the black nickel plate. In this shot the horn is sitting atop its case, and I can honestly say that I was just as happy to sit and look at it as I was to play it.

I think what's very clear is that this selection of horns from Cannonball show just how much clout the company has. I freely admit to having regarded them as something of an also-ran in the past - a company that knocks out reasonable horns that turn up from time-to-time, but nothing really to shout about.
I now freely admit that was a mistake, because these three horns put them firmly in centre-stage - not just as 'lookalikes' to the major names but as individual horns in their own right.
The Vintage Reborn tenor almost stands unique in the current marketplace (were it not for the Bauhaus M2 Studio) - and while you could argue that you'd save a few hundred quid with the Bauhaus it's also fair to say that the VR is aesthetically more impressive. Not only do you get all those nice design features and that artistic engraving, you also buy into the Cannonball brand - and that's worth something if ever you decided to sell the horn on. I certainly wouldn't feel hard done by.

As for the altos, they too stand proudly under the spotlight. Both horns have a certain sound to them - the Cannonball sound, if you will - but the differences between the horns bring out subtle variations in that sound. I have a feeling that what takes me back to my Yamaha 62 is familiarity rather than a tonal preference, because 'on paper' the Cannonballs seem to have more to offer. Up against the Yanagisawa they both square up to the competition with ease, and if you can get past that "Yes, but it's a Yanagisawa!" state of mind you might well find yourself walking out of the shop with one of these altos.
With four altos on the floor and time to kill, it was the PC model that I kept coming back to - and that's got to be a fine recommendation.

I mentioned at the start of this review that Cannonball make various claims regarding the tweaks they make to their horns. The accompanying product brochure goes into these tweaks in more detail, and looks impressive. I probably have something of a reputation as a sceptic when it comes to such things - I've seen far too many claims made that simply don't match up to the science, and even more that don't match up to the playing.
So I shall say this much. Have a look at the brochure and admire the quality of the presentation. Take note of the real 'meat and potatoes' stuff, like the enhanced features you'll find on the action. And when it comes to the stuff about stones, tones and tweaking - put the catalogue down, pick up the horn and just play it. You won't be sorry, you really won't.

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