Selmer Reference 54 tenor saxophone
Guide price: £6200
Date of manufacture: 2014 (Serial range: 774xxx)
Date reviewed: October 2017
Selmer's modern retro tenor
It's been a little while since I reviewed a top-end
Selmer horn, so when this Reference 54 came in I couldn't resist
the opportunity to give it a bit of a 'scrute'.
I think it's fair to say that Selmer's performance on my workbench
these last few years has been - shall we say - sketchy. I've noticed
their tendency to overcomplicate things, along with a selective
lack of attention to detail - which is something of a dangerous
mix given the strength of the competition.
But the business of making horns isn't a static one. There are always
things that can be improved or tweaked - with both the design of
the horn and the process of manufacture - and as the Reference series
has been around for quite a while now, I was understandably interested
to see whether there'd been any ongoing development on the build-quality
And there's only one way to find out - by putting
the thing on the bench and taking it apart.
The construction is semi-ribbed (or 'mini-ribbed').
Most horns these days are either ribbed - with the main stack pillars
fitted to long plates, which are then fitted to the body - or single
pillar...where each pillar is fitted individually, with perhaps
a few grouped together on plates (typically the palm and side keys).
Semi-ribbed means that some of the stack pillars are fitted to plates,
and some are individually attached to the body - so it's a mix of
the more common methods of construction.
I've no doubt that claims will be made as to effect this has on
the tone, but from a practical perspective it means the body benefits
from a degree of stiffening from the ribs, and some weight is saved
by the use of standalone pillars.
The way in which the pillars are fitted to the
body bears some examination.
On examining the horn I noticed how very neat the soldering is.
In fact there's very little evidence of it...which is unusual. Even
with the neatest soldering job you'll always see a seam of solder
between the joint.
And then I noticed the bore had several pock marks on it. Most of
them showed up a small round marks, but one of them exhibited some
very distinctive pitting.
Here's a close-up - it's beneath one of the bell brace mounts.
It seems that Selmer are using some sort of electronic
'pick and place' technique, and these marks are made by the machine's
But this pitting suggests that quite a lot of current is being shunted
through the metal - which perfectly fits the profile for resistance
this is the case, it throws up a number of issues.
On the plus side it means that pillars so fitted will be very securely
attached to the horn. This is a good thing. Mostly.
It also means that the joints between the body and the fittings
will be very neat and tidy. This is also good.
But what happens when you need to take a fitting off? It's often
the case that a pillar will get damaged by a fall - the impact pushes
the pillar into the body (leaving a big dent) and distorts the base
of the pillar. It's a joyless exercise trying to remove a large
dent beneath a pillar, and you'll get nowhere fast if the pillar's
base is distorted. It has to come off - at which point the dent
can be taken out and the base reshaped before refitting. But if
the pillar's welded to the body, what you gonna do?
Either way I'm not terribly impressed by the size
of this pock mark in the bore (when it came in it had a couple of
threads from a pull-through stuck in it) - not so much from any
effect it might have but more from the point that I'd expect better
on a horn of this price.
Thankfully there's some evidence that the bell
key guard stays have been soft-soldered on, as these are often the
first things to get bent out of shape following a fall. I'd be interested
to hear from other repairers about their experiences with this construction
method. I seem to recall having to deal with it before, but (annoyingly)
can't remember where or when - and I'm now wondering if it's this
method that accounts for the tidy fittings I noted on the SA80III.
You get the usual raft of body features; a detachable
bell, a triple-point bell brace, semicircular compound bell key
pillar (not removable), adjustable bumper felts and adjustable metal
thumb hook...but only a flat plastic thumb rest. The sling ring
is also a little on the mean side, coming in at a measly 14.3/8.6mm.
are a couple of curiosities - the first of which is the profile
of the bell brace ring. It's got a flat on the underside. It just
seems a bit odd to go to all the trouble of using round stock bar
to make the ring, and then milling a flat on it. At a guess I'd
say it had something to do with making it easier to fit the lugs
during manufacture, but I still reckon it looks a bit odd.
And what d'you suppose this little gadget does?
What you see here is the low C# lower pillar. The top screw is the
point screw (on which the C# lever key pivots) - and the lower screw
simply butts up against the cradle that helps to locate the position
of the bell in relation to the body.
why the screw?
I doubt it's any sort of adjuster, because it simply wouldn't be
able to exert enough force to make a difference.
Perhaps it's intended to act as a brace, adding stiffness to the
bell section - but by the time the force of an impact to the rim
of the bell gets down this far, I doubt this setup would be very
effective in resisting it. And besides, the bell usually gets knocked
to the right...which would make this brace wholly ineffective.
All I could come up with is that it's some sort of acoustical voodoo...perhaps
to 'transmit resonance' from the body to the bell. I can stand to
be corrected, of course.
And what about that spring hole below the screw heads - what's that
You might suppose it's simply a superfluous spring hole - perhaps
put there by the machine that churns the pillars out. But this is
a one-off design, there's nothing else like it elsewhere on the
horn - and as not all the pillars are drilled, it's fair to assume
that Selmer have a number of 'pillar patterns' stored in the machine
that makes them.
It's also quite a large hole - much larger than any spring you're
likely to use on a tenor. And that's a bit of a clue, because it
suggests that something's supposed to go through this hole rather
than sit in it. Now look at pillar next to it. This is the lower
stack lower pillar - the low D key sits here - and with these two
pillars in such close proximity, you'd never be able to replace
the D key spring...at least not without a lot of bending and cussing.
Hence the hole in the C# pillar. Neat, eh?
toneholes were nice and level. Well, almost. A few needed a little
very light touch with a file here and there. It would be
nice to expect this degree of attention to detail at this price-point,
but this sort of fine levelling is typically way beyond a factory
set up. They get an 8-9 out of 10, which is about the best you can
hope for these days.
However, the body octave pip gets a 3 - you can see that it's rather
wonky. It's unlikely to be much of an issue with the stock pad that's
fitted (though it's likely to mean it fails sooner rather than later),
but if you were to install a firmer pad, or even a cork one, you'd
soon run into problems.
It might not look very significant, but a leak here will affect
the response of the entire horn - and at this price-point it's a
Easy enough to fix, though - and something that's well worth asking
your repairer to check next time you have your Ref.54 serviced.
While we're here, I'm led to believe that the
octave key pip is brazed onto its plate...which is then welded to
the body. If that's the case (I haven't yet had to remove one),
it's going to be a bit of a problem if you ever need to get a large
dent bar down the horn.
Let's just say that this is beginning to look like a horn you really
wouldn't want to drop.
678xxx tenor, octave pip popped out when brushing
out the bore
Some evidence that pillars are soft soldered on.
However, there is also evidence of less than 100% coverage of the
mating surfaces. On its own this would point to quite poor build
quality - so it may well be the case that some kind of spot welding
is used to fix the pillar in placem which is then followed by a
cursory soft-solder job.
to the keywork now, and it's something of a mixed bag when it comes
From a repairer's perspective (and that of the advanced DIYer) the
lack of any regulation adjusters on the main stack keys is a proper
nuisance. There's really no good reason not to fit them these days,
and they provide a real advantage when it comes to dialling in minor
adjustments...or compensating for the inevitable flex in the keys.
I guess it's a 'tradition' thing - which might also explain the
lack of modern buffering materials. Sure, there are few plastic
tubes here and there, and one or two felts, but the vast majority
of the buffers are plain old cork. Nothing really wrong with that
- as long as they're neat and not overly thick and squishy - and
at least they seemed to have ditched the awful rubber buffers they
used in the past.
In this case I'd say the quality of the corkwork was indifferent,
and if you're going to go with no adjusters on the main stack then
these regulation corks are way thicker than is ideal. A far better
bet would be thin felt or composite cork.
that there aren't any adjusters at all - oh no, you get the usual
ones for the G#/Bis Bb and the low B to C# link...and you also get
adjusters on the side Bb/C keys.
On the face of it this seems like a brilliant idea - being able
to adjust the opening height of the side keys at will. And I'd agree,
it certainly makes the job of tweaking the tuning/response of these
two notes a breeze. But how many times are you likely to do this
job? Once or twice in a lifetime? Maybe every time you bought a
new mouthpiece? It's not that they don't work - it's just that I'd
rather have seen the cost of them spent elsewhere.
At least you get plain old fork and pin connectors for the side
keys - which are slick and quiet in operation.
I should also mention that the side key rod screws were a touch
on the short side. It's no big deal, but I like to see rod screw
tips that sit flush with the face of the pillar. It makes access
to the screw easier and lessens the risk of someone chewing up the
pillar when using a screwdriver that's a touch too large for the
And speaking of slick and quiet, I was very impressed
with the key fit on the rod/hinge screw mounted keys. Not bad...not
bad at all - and just what you should expect at this kind of price.
When it comes to the point screws, however, I'm rather less enthusiastic.
some years now Selmer have been using a sort of self-adjusting sprung
insert mechanism in the point screw key barrels. It has its pros
and cons, but I've always felt its biggest drawback is that it leaves
the action feeling just OK. Not bad, not brilliant, but just OK.
I wouldn't say it was a dealbreaker, and it'll quite probably be
ideal for the player who's less fastidious about getting their horn
serviced on a regular basis - but I find I miss the sense of precision
you get from a truly tight action.
They also use a sprung rod on the low C/Eb keys, and I'm definitely
not keen about this feature. For more details and info on these
sprung pivots, take a look at my article on the Benchlife
Blog, where I go through the pros and cons of the system and
show how I upgrade the C/Eb rod.
while we're on the subject, the design of the top stack rod screw
bears some comment.
On most horns these days the rod screw runs right down the entire
stack - but on this horn it terminates in a point when it gets to
the A key...which means the A key pivots, effectively, on a pair
of point screws (arrowed).
I'm not sure why they've done this. Maybe it's a way of addressing
the wear that the A key seems susceptible to - and ordinarily I'd
say it's a good solution. However, you have two sprung pivots in
the A key...which couples to the Bis Bb, which also has sprung pivots.
I think it's asking for trouble, given that this key group (A/Bis
Bb/Aux.B) is traditionally a regulation blackspot that relies greatly
on the precision of the keywork - and it seems a little absurd when
you consider that the small but nonetheless welcome gain in precision
you might make by pivoting the A on points is likely to be lost
by the inherent vagueness of the sprung-point mechanism.
Suffice to say I'm all 'Hmmm' about it, and although I don't mind
the basic idea of converting the A key into a point screw action
at all - it does rather make removing the A key something of a chore
(you have to undo two screws instead of one. Yeah, I know, it's
a hard life).
a brighter note I really liked the design of the octave key touchpiece
and the palm keys - specifically the top D. It's not that the design
makes them work any better - it's simply that it's unusual, and
it lends the horn a bit of character. It shows that someone's put
a bit of thought into it - a bit of flair, if you will.
They could have stuck with the same old design that everyone else
uses, and all would have been well - but they pushed the boat out
(a little bit) and went for a more distinctive look.
So it's just a bit of a shame that they decided to plonk a flat
plastic thumb rest on. Would it have cost so much more to put a
slightly domed metal one on? I mean, c'mon guys - the horn deserves
They could also have done with splashing out a
few bob to fit Teflon tubes to the ends of the octave swivel arm.
The mech itself is fine - just a bog-standard Selmer swivel...a
design that's been tried, tested and copied down the decades - but
it has a tendency to get a bit rattley as wear and tear takes its
toll. Some of this will be down to wear on the central swivel pin,
but rather more will be down to where the tips of the swivel arm
sit in their sockets.
I think what particularly grates on me is that
the connector from the touchpiece arm to the swivel has a Teflon
sleeve on it, as does the pin that actuates the crook key - so why
on earth couldn't they have gone the whole hog and 'tipped' the
ends of the swivel arm? And while they were there they could have
just as easily fitted a sleeve for the central pivot.
a simple tweak, but it makes such a lot of difference in the long
term. It reduces wear and tear, it keeps the mech slick and quiet,
and it reduces servicing costs down the years. It also solves the
problem of players who're too damn lazy to pop a drop of oil on
the mech from time to time.
And this is precisely what I find so frustrating
about Selmer - their selective attention to detail.
You get the snazzy top D and octave touch, and then they skimp on
the thumb rest. You get adjusters on the side keys, but none on
the stack keys. They convert the A key to point screw action, but
forget to tip the octave swivel with Teflon sleeves. It's infuriating
I tell ya.
And just to rub my nose it in, they fit a custom
spring to the low C# lever key.
Just look at that. Isn't it neat? It's the flat spring that holds
the pin off the low C# key cup captive. Nothing particularly special
about that, it's a design that's been used for decades...but there
was always a (small) risk that the spring would come loose and slip
sideways. This would be very unfortunate, if rare, but Selmer have
neatly addressed the issue with a custom spring that's folded down
over the arm on which it's mounted.
isn't just dotting the i's and crossing the t's - it's putting a
shine on them and then getting someone in to make sure they're sensitively
And yes, I'm easily pleased. Sometimes.
A quick word about the pads. They're fine. Modern
Selmer pads had gleaned something of poor reputation among repairers
in recent years due to their tendency to be, shall we say, rather
sticky. This was reckoned to be down to some sort of coating that
was applied to the pad as a means of waterproofing it. I noticed
no such coating on these pads and nor did I find they were inherently
I'm also pleased to report that the pads sported domed nylon reflectors
as opposed to metal ones. Nothing wrong with metal reflectors...as
long as you don't make them out of steel (which Selmer did), because
they go rusty (which they did).
Wrapping up the action you get a full set of slightly
concave proper mother-of-pearl touches, plus a domed one for the
Bis Bb and flat ovals on the G# and side F# - and the action is
powered by a set of blued steel springs.
As for the cosmetics - the horn is finished in what's variously
described as matte, vintage or antique finish - but it's essentially
a two-tone matt lacquer over a scratched brass finish. I'm in two
minds about. It looks neat and tidy at the moment, but I'm not sure
how well it will degrade over time (as all finishes do) - and somehow
I feel it lends the horn a very two-dimensional look. That aside,
it seem very well applied - so no complaints on that score. One
thing I noticed, though, is that dirt and grime seem to stand out
on it...especially oil/grease marks. They seem to sink into the
matt finish and then spread out, and it takes a fair bit of wiping
to get shot of them.
The horn comes with a shaped semi-soft zippered
case (made in Thailand) and Super Session ebonite mouthpiece. There's
very little storage space in the case - you get a dedicated slot
for the crook and another for the mouthpiece, and there's a 'tray'
beneath the lower body which'll take a small bag. I'd consider this
a light duty case - and although it holds the horn snugly it's rather
more flexible than I'd like. It'll protect the horn from light knocks,
but a meatier impact could deform the case...and whatever's sitting
in it at the time. If you're planning on taking this horn out on
the road I think you'd be well advised to consider buying a better
case for it.
In the hands the horn feels nicely balanced, with
a nimble action. It doesn't quite have the snap and zing of a MKVI,
but being a tenor it suffers less from having shorter springs than
the alto version does.
The factory setup is fair, but some judicious tweaking will pay
big dividends. Bear that in mind when trying one out in a shop.
I'll knock a point or two off for the use of a round pearl touchpiece
on the front top F, which despite some tweaking still isn't as slick
and effective as a teardrop touch - but add a point or two on for
the layout of the palm keys...which felt immensely comfortable to
I still don't like the sprung point screw thing, mostly because
I know just how good an action can feel when it's super tight -
and I miss that 'goes like a train' feel. Other than that I had
no problems getting around the horn.
the 54, the first impression it gives is that it's a very mature
horn. Tonewise it seems like it's thrown off the trappings of youth
and exchanged the sneakers, surf shorts and T-shirts for a nice
pair of brogues and a comfy tweed jacket. Not that it's dull, mind
you...it's just relaxed, more mellow, more confident. There's some
wisdom too, because there's a sense of gravitas about the tone.
It's rich, it's deep, it's complex.
There's still a twinkle in the eye though, because there's a nice
touch of top-end shine to the notes. Not too much, but just enough
to add a bit of fire to the notes without allowing them to 'come
over all unnecessary'. This, coupled with quite a resistant blow,
makes the presentation naturally soft. You can push it and it'll
go there - but there's a sense that the horn is pushing back at
you...trying to get back to that comfy place.
It's smooth rather than percussive, thoughtful rather than shouty.
It's the SA80's dad, if you will.
Much is made of the 54's nod to the past - specifically
the MKVI (hence the 'Reference') - and while it's definitely got
that typical Selmer depth, it doesn't quite have the petulance of
the VI. Then again it also doesn't have the instability, nor the
tonal variability over the scale. This is classic 'win some, lose
some' territory - focus on the stability and you lose some of the
brilliance, even out the response and you reduce the attack.
But it's not as if you don't get anything in return, because this
horn gives you a full-fat, double-cream tone that's bursting with
Using my tried-and-trusted test of letting the tone dictate the
tune, I ended playing "All God's Chillun Got Rhythm" - which fits
this horn like a glove. It's melodic, it's not in your face, it's
relaxed and joyful...it's no trouble at all. It'll get busy, but
it won't make a fuss about it.
As an aside, I felt that the tenor worked less
well as a 'nod to the MkVI' than the alto did. It still has the
same rounded approach, but the alto's natural brightness tends to
give the overall sound a lift...which isn't quite there on the tenor.
You can, of course, alter the presentation with a brighter mouthpiece
- and while this will undoubtedly give the horn a lift, I think
you'd be missing out on where this horn excels. I don't mind saying
that this isn't the horn for me, but I equally don't mind saying
that I really enjoyed playing it. In fact I liked it rather more
than I did the Ref.54 alto - simply because it does a better job
of being a tenor that the alto does of being an alto...at least
as far as my own personal preferences are concerned. But that's
not so uncommon - lots of players will prefer 'Brand X' for a tenor
and 'Brand Y' for an alto, it's just the way things work.
On its own the Reference 54 tenor stands up really
well. It very clearly flexes its six grand's worth of muscle - and
backs it up with a decent build quality. When put up against the
competition (such as the Andy
Sheppard Autograph) it becomes more clear where this horn prefers
But that's the wonderful thing about horns, they're as individual
as their players - and all you really need to know is whether the
package is worth the price. I'm pleased to say that I was quite
impressed with the way this horn was put together (a few niggles
notwithstanding) - and as much as I find myself having to pick holes
in the way manufacturers put their horns together, my impression
of this horn is that Selmer have upped their game in recent years.
Can they do better? Yes, of course - and they ought to - but this
is an encouraging step in the right direction.
And I liked how it played - and as such I feel it's safe to say
that if you're out shopping for a £6000 horn, you can put
this one on the list.