First published 2004
There's an old Chinese curse that goes 'May you live in
As far as the world of student instruments goes, at least in terms of
Ultra-Cheap horns, these are indeed interesting times - and your definition
of 'interesting' is likely to depend on whether you're a buyer or a seller
of student instruments.
If you've read my article on general hints for buyers you'll have noticed
that I divided up instruments into three sections; student, intermediate
Well, there's a new kid on the block - and it's the Ultra-Cheap horn.
These horns are a recent development. Up until then it had been pretty
much safe to say that anything below a certain price point was certain
to be not only cheap but very nasty. Life was easy - when people asked
me what horns to buy or to avoid I could simply point to a minimum specification
and tell people not to drop below it.
But lately there's been in influx of horns made by manufacturers that
no-one's heard of - often sold under shop or supplier trade names or on
online auction sites, such as Ebay.
I've seen a few of these cheap instruments in the past, and on the whole
they really have been of very poor quality - but it appears that some
manufacturers have got their act together and are now turning out respectable
student instruments at prices that are, quite frankly, unbelievable.
This is a good thing, naturally - but with the market still awash with
mediocre cheap horns it's going to be hard to tell which make is good
and which is bad.
In short, this means that without a creditable recommendation there's
still a chance that you might end up buying one of the nastier cheap horns
- until such times as the word gets round on which brands are up to scratch,
and the substandard ones disappear off the market.
This raises something of a problem for me, ethically.
The horns reviewed on my site are widely available from a range of suppliers
worldwide - or, in the case of used horns, from assorted private individuals
and dealers. Ultra-Cheap horns are sourced in an entirely different way.
Here's how it works. It appears that there are about half a dozen or so
manufacturers turning out these instruments. Practically anyone can place
a bulk order, and can have the horns stamped with any name they like.
This means that the same horn can be bought from several different suppliers
under correspondingly different names - though it's unlikely that the
average punter would be able to tell...and there's certainly no guarantee
that two apparently identical horns actually come from the same factory
(you'll see why in a moment).
If, then, I review a horn labelled 'XYZ', you would only be able to purchase
it from the company that labelled the horn - and if my review was generally
positive it could follow that the distributor might use the review as
a source of free advertising, and thus a source of income.
You could argue that the same is true for, say, Yamaha - but with the
removal of a dealer network I feel it places me one step too close to
the dealers (I make an exception for specialist products, typically made
by individual craftsmen, which can't be sourced any other way).
I feel that my reviews are generally respected by those who have an interest
in such things, and a significant portion of that respect is due to my
independence - you'll not see any banners advertising such-and-such a
horn, nor any indications of sponsorship. This means that when I praise
a horn it's due to a collection of impressions based on my technical experience
- and not because someone's slipping me an envelope full of cash. In other
words, I write precisely the sort of reviews I'd want to see if I were
in the market for a new horn. (See March 08 revision below).
Another issue is that of the speed at which these horns are changing.
I recently examined an Ultra-Cheap alto, and a few months later I had
the opportunity to examine another example of the same brand. The first
example was rather good, the second example was virtually a completely
different horn - and slightly better.
The folks that are turning out these horns don't appear to be slow in
making improvements - which means that by the time I get around to publishing
a review it could well be completely out of date!
Furthermore, there is a certain amount of 'mimicry' going on. The horn
I just mentioned was a remarkably close copy of one of Yanagisawa's, right
down the the shape of the guard plate on the crook. It seems fair to me
to assume that if these companies are prepared to copy designs from other
manufacturers then it's entirely feasible that they may copy designs from
In order for me to provide an accurate review, I'd have to examine examples
on a monthly basis - and that's just not feasible.
In some ways the manufacturers have shot themselves in their own feet.
Without a consistent brand line it's virtually impossible to pin specific
models down. This may change in due course, if the manufacturers decide
that there's money to be made in establishing a formal dealer network.
have taken steps to exploit this gap in the market - by having a horn
produced in China and marketed worldwide under a known brand name.
It's clear that something needs to be done - the industrial expansion
is running at a fantastic rate, and western governments are already uneasy
about the impact that this new economy will have on their own. Even the
Chinese government is aware of this potential problem, and has considered
self-imposed export rules in order to prevent good from flooding other
markets (the clothing industry in particular).
They're not alone either - a similar thing is happening in India, and
it might not be long before we see Ultra-Cheap horns sourced from there.
I for one am not going to underestimate the Chinese. Many moons ago it
was the Taiwanese that were turning out the cheapest horns, and in recent
years there's been a shift there towards developing more upmarket products.
It might seem improbable that the Chinese could turn out a pro spec. horn,
but then again they have a history of music that goes back far beyond
that of the western world (I recall being amused when Yamaha flutes first
hit the UK markets - and people could be heard to say 'Japanese flutes??
What do the Japanese know about flutes??')...and furthermore, if you can
build 'the bomb' you can almost certainly find someone who can design
and build you a saxophone...
It's a mistake too to think that the Chinese are content to knock out
cheap horns and leave it at that. I've noted in my dealings with those
who are importing such horns that there's a system of feedback to the
manufacturers. If a particular instrument has a manufacturing problem,
the dealer will return or scrap the instrument and apply for a refund.
Obviously this costs the manufacturer, and there appears to be a will
to rectify such problems at source. That's why the horns are getting better
all the time.
It's interesting too that distributors are seeking advice from people
like me - there's a lot of competition out there, and the last thing a
retailer wants is to be stuck with a consignment of substandard horns.
Given that there's very little (if any) difference in price between the
good examples and the duff ones, this process of 'filtration' will eventually
ensure a more even level of quality in the marketplace.
It's rather more worrying than that though - it appears that the Chinese
are now actively seeking out western expertise, offering very lucrative
deals to people who might be able to teach their technicians and designers.
No longer content with simply exporting cheap goods, they're now importing
top-quality skills. You can work out for yourself what this will mean
in the long term.
I mentioned earlier that some (in fact many, if not all) of these horns
are copies of significantly more expensive instruments. Why, don't you
wonder, haven't the manufacturers of the original instruments sought to
stop their products being ruthlessly copied in this fashion?
I suspect that most of it is down to the sheer problems of trying to negotiate
with the Chinese - it isn't exactly an open economy.
Then again it could well be that it's not that bad a thing as far as they're
Consider a student who's bought a sax that's a close copy of a Yanagisawa.
When that student progresses to the stage that he or she decides to buy
a decent horn, they'll most likely end up in a music shop with a choice
of half a dozen or more different horns to try out. If there's a Yanagisawa
horn among them it will already have a considerable advantage in that
it will feel immediately comfortable in the player's hands. It might not
sound like much of an advantage but there's many a nice horn out there
that I've tried and liked in terms of tone, but just haven't been able
to get to grips with the feel. In a highly competitive market that head
start is potentially worth a great deal of money.
Having said that, it's sometimes less clear what these copies are based
on. For example, it's possible to buy horns that combine a number of features
as seen on a variety of different makes; thus you might find a horn that
has mainly Yanagisawa style keys but a Selmer octave key mechanism. In
some cases the basic body remains the same whilst the keys and fittings
There's also the fact that the high-end manufacturers tend not to dabble
in the student horn market - so they're unlikely to lose much business
to Ultra Cheap horns anyway...and the more players there are in general,
the more chance they have that some of them will buy their instruments.
The people that are feeling the pinch are those that only make student
horns - and they will have to move upmarket (as Jupiter and Trevor James
are trying to do) or simply give up and go home (as some already have).
It's impossible to ignore this phenomenon, so I have decided to review
a Chinese horn 'anonymously'. This should give you some idea as to what
to expect from one of the better examples without actually naming a specific
brand - you can read the review here.
Naturally this instrument has flaws and limitations, but none of which
are of that much consequence to the sort of buyer this horn is built for.
Whack another three hundred pounds on the price and perhaps I might complain
a bit more loudly about a few minor niggles - but at its current price
of £220 it's quite simply extremely difficult to find fault with
the instrument without appearing to be nit-picking.
And there are those who will nit-pick.
For example, when conducting my research on Ultra-Cheap horns I came across
several opinions posted to various boards and forums on the web. One in
particular made me chuckle - it consisted of several paragraphs bemoaning
the poor quality of an instrument, along with negative references to its
tone and tuning...and yet the first sentence in the article said something
like "I've never seen one of these horns...but..".
Similarly, on another forum a poster had replied to the question "Are
Chinese horns any good?" by saying "Definitely do not get a
Chinese sax, they are terrible"...but then goes on to recommend the
(and even describes it as "an exceptional instrument") - which
is, yep, you guessed it, a Chinese horn.
I think that says it all.
Contrast this to my experience, of actually working on and playing these
horns - and of being able to compare them side-by-side with very much
more expensive instruments, and to be able to do so with whichever client
happens to wander into the workshop as an unsuspecting tester. I can tell
you, I've seen a few jaws drop.
And consider this. If I were offered a run of gigs abroad I'd very seriously
consider buying an Ultra-Cheap horn for the job. Why risk my expensive
instruments in the hold of an aircraft, or chance their well-being to
careless baggage handlers? A cheap horn placed in a proper flight case
and my mouthpieces carried in my pocket, and I'd be more than happy. I
wouldn't have considered this before now, as cheap horns just didn't feel
good enough. I already know of other pros who're using such horns in similar
circumstances, where an expensive horn might be at risk or where there's
a need for doubling on an instrument they don't normally play.
Be wary too of the oldest retailing trick in the book - whereby a seller
goes to great lengths to discredit the 'opposition', and then proudly
recommends their 'own brand' range of instruments...that almost certainly
come from the same source. That said, buying from an established dealer
is always a good bet - but a lot of new companies (particularly on the
internet) have sprung up to service this new market, and some of them
are very good indeed. Ask them a few questions and see how well they respond
- the good ones will value your custom from the outset.
To be fair - there are still some nasty horns still out there - but if
you're careful enough when seeking out opinions you should manage to avoid
the duff 'uns.
From a trade point of view, what's most interesting is the impact these
horns will have on my profession.
On the negative side I can foresee a time coming when the cost of repairs
needed is going to exceed either the retail price of the horn, or at least
a good portion of it. In essence this will make these 'disposable' horns.
Use them for four or five years, then toss them and buy a new one - it
certainly won't be cost effective to have them repadded or overhauled.
But there's a much larger plus side, which is that these instruments
represent truly affordable options for parents on a tight budget, or those
who feel they might just be catering to a child's whim, or just the plain
casual buyer who fancies having a go at playing an instrument...but not
at £500 a throw.
That opens up a whole new market and a whole new generation of potential
musicians - and that just has to be good for business all round.
It's also good for education - schools obviously have to work within budgets...if
instrument were free then every child would have the opportunity to at
least have a go. Reasonable instruments at low prices mean that schools
may be able to more than double their inventory of musical instruments.
I'm already seeing this happen. I have a number of clients who've invested
in a Chinese instrument. Some are experienced players, buying starter
horns for their children, others are just parents wishing to start theirs
kids off on a musical journey...and then there are the professional musicians
I mentioned earlier.
Even more interesting is what might happen in a few years time.
Assume you've bought one of these Ultra Cheap horns, and now it's time
to get rid of it. What are you going to sell it for?
If you've had it a few years you might ask £80 for it. If the market
is full of similar horns up for sale, you might have to go down to £50.
£50 for a saxophone!
This opens up a whole new market - the casual buyer.
There must be millions of people out there who've always fancied 'having
a go' at the sax (or flute, or clarinet etc...and I've seen some good,
remarkably cheap flutes too).
For fifty quid, what have they got to lose?
OK, even if the vast majority of them give it up as a bad job it will
still leave huge numbers of people who might discover that they can actually
play something - and isn't that what it's all about?
Think too, what this means for the current supply of the previous generation
of student quality instruments. They're already feeling the strain - who's
going to pay £150 for a tired old Eastern European sax that was
never that much cop in the first place, when another £70 can get
you a new instrument that far outclasses it? When secondhand Ultra Cheap
horns hit the market you might find the only way to get rid of an older
student horn is to give the thing away - or put it on Ebay and hope there's
someone out there who doesn't know any better.
And there's another reason why I'm cautiously positive about this change
in the market.
Very few players are going to play these cheap horns forever. The average
student, having found that they get on with the instrument, will start
to take an interest in what else is available. This information will come
from a variety of sources - word of mouth, meeting other players, even
perhaps finding sites like my own on the internet.
This is going to put them on the upgrade path - and given that you can't
upgrade what ain't there it seems nothing short of encouraging that the
market will be awash with a whole new generation of horn players who want
For the time being though, I would advise caution. It's not enough to
assume that just any brand of horn will do - the same caveats apply as
per any other instrument, and when buying an Ultra-Cheap horn you absolutely
must seek out reliable and independent information as regards quality.
You must bear in mind that these instruments are not likely to be set
up at all well - you should budget around another £40 for a good
service (this price has come down as the quality has gone up, a more realistic
figure is about £20), and perhaps another £25 for a decent
mouthpiece where necessary.
I'd strongly recommend ditching the supplied neck-strap. I've had
reports (and seen examples) of these giving way - which often results
in the horn hitting the deck. Most of these are of the 'swivel' variety
- and if you examine the top of the hook where it fits into the crosspiece
you might see that the locking plug has a single slit in it. This type
will give way under stress.
Get something like a 'BG' strap, which has a double slit on the locking
I should also add that it's not worth emailing me for specific recommendations
regarding purchases, for the reasons given above.
When I originally wrote this article I expressed a firm belief that the
Chinese horn manufacturers wouldn't simply be satisfied with knocking
out endless supplies of cheap horns of a certain standard - I could already
see process of improvements and innovation at work, and having had the
chance to inspect a batch of new Chinese saxes recently I find that my
beliefs have been borne out.
The most obvious improvement is in the overall build quality. It wasn't
that bad before on the better examples (such as the Chinese alto reviewed
here), but if you've
read any of my reviews of named brand horns you'll know that there's always
room for improvement at any level.
Naturally it's encouraging to see such improvements, it sets a new benchmark
which raises the game for those manufacturers who haven't pulled their
socks up, but it also raises the level of choice for the buyer. It's no
longer the case that you're confined to choosing the best-made model -
with the hope that it'll sound OK...the build quality of the instruments
I examined was such that it's practically a given, and the buyer will
now have the option to consider a horn based on choices that previously
only came with very much more expensive horns, such as tone, body materials
and special finishes. And all that for around the £400 mark.
I've updated the Chinese alto review just mentioned with a photo and a
few comments about just such a horn.
The innovation isn't confined to mere improvements though. Slowly but
surely the Chinese manufacturers are branching out into more unusual instruments,
and they're doing so with the benefit of experience gleaned from turning
out the more common and popular instruments.
This area of the market has always been something of a backwater due to
the combined effects of demand being relatively small and (thus) prices
being rather high. Some of it will be down to certain technical difficulties
in manufacturing, particularly with the smaller instruments, but even
that cost can be offset if demand is high enough.
Imagine then if the manufacturing costs could be sliced to a fraction
of what they normally are. This provides the opportunity to produce esoteric
instruments that retail for hitherto unheard of prices (we're talking
low here!), and because they're now far more affordable they generate
extra sales and so the price comes down...and so the cycles goes round.
felt it would only be a matter of time before the Chinese turned their
attention in this direction, and here's one result of that.
It's a sopranino saxophone.
These are pretty rare, mostly due to the fact that they're something of
an acquired taste (being pitched quite high), but it's also due to the
fact that they're quite expensive - and although quite a few players would
be happy to have one just for the sake of having one, not many of them
would want to shell out the large sums required to buy one.
You can get cheap models - the Earlham sells at around the £450
mark, but then if they're anything like the altos they probably won't
be all that nice.
Even if they are, the best part of half a grand is still a lot to fork
out for an instrument you might not get much use out of.
This horn will probably sell for around a hundred pounds less - which
brings it much more into the impulse buy arena.
The thing is, although it's incredibly cheap it's also quite good.
It's by no means a plain horn either, it has a brushed antique gold finish
- and very well done it is too. It a process called Electro-Phoretic lacquering.
It leaves a very even, tough finish and allows for some interesting cosmetic
effects, such as texturing and colour-blending.
I found a couple of keys that were a little sloppy on their rods, and
for an instrument of this size the integrity of the action is quite critical...so
this horn would definitely need a tweak.
It still played fine though - in fact it played very well indeed. I've
played 'ninos before and never really found anything about them that I
liked (other than they're incredibly portable, being so small), but this
one was a cracker. I'd say the sound was sweet...not in the 'cute' sense,
rather it was lyrical and precise without being shrill - and that was
with the stock mouthpiece! Pop a decent mouthpiece on and I'm sure you'd
get even more out of it.
The obvious point here is that the Chinese phenomenon is no longer confined
to the standard range of instruments. In that arena they're improving
quality and offering more build and finish options, whilst still finding
time to expand their interests into more specialist areas (take a peek
at the cupless alto as seen at the
Frankfurt Musik Messe).
For example, I recently reviewed a Chinese
baritone sax. It had a few flaws, to be sure, but at a price of £1000
it still represents an amazing deal. Similarly there is now available
a Chinese bass. I haven't been able to get one on the bench yet but from
what I've seen of it so far it's not bad at all.
(Update 2014 - I had one come in for some repairs...it
Revision: April 2010
Since the first publication of this article, and the review of a Chinese
saxophone, a great many people have emailed me to ask for recommendations
regarding brands and models.
It's clear to me that there's a huge demand for qualified information
regarding these instruments - and many other correspondents have pointed
out that if people are going to be sure of getting decent horns then they're
going to need more than a general overview of the current state of the
Up until now I have felt compelled to maintain my independence - but the
market has changed considerably these last few years, and there is now
a far greater choice of decent, presentable instruments out there. To
that end I have decided to start naming (and perhaps in some cases, shaming?)
those brands which turn up in the workshop. I shall do this via the review
pages as and when the various brands come in, but in the meantime I have
a shortlist of known decent brands that I'll add to once I've been able
to track down supplier details.
Academy/Jericho - www.studentmusicsupplies.com
Altone - www.umbrellamusic.co.uk
Gear4Music - www.gear4music.com
Largo - www.jouellinestrings.com.au
(see review) - No longer
JP - www.johnpacker.co.uk
Venus - www.discount-musical.co.uk
Walstein - www.woodwindandbrass.co.uk
Conn-Selmer Prelude - A recent report indicates quality control standards
have dropped, so my recommendation is suspended. (see review)
Postscript: March 2014 - ten years on
It's been about ten years since I saw my first Ultra Cheap Chinese horn,
and quite a few things have changed in that time.
Perhaps the most notable change is how some of the bigger names have moved
into China. It used to be that Chinese instruments were the province of
a few minor brands - and then, when the quality rose, the independents
moved in. And now some of the big guns are sourcing some of their product
In some cases, though by no means not all, these companies own the factories
- or at least have exclusive manufacturing deals - but it at least suggest
that the Chinese are quite capable of turning reasonable instruments...once
they put their minds to it.
I think, though, that it's fair to say that there's current something
of a pause going on. I noted a few years ago that there were some signs
of innovation, but this appears to have been something of a blip because
nothing much seems to have come of it.
There's been a steady improvement in general build quality, but this seems
to have peaked in around 2012. This coincided with a downturn in the global
economy, so perhaps the Chinese manufacturers decided to play safe and
have been 'treading water' since then. It would also appear that some
of the poorer quality manufacturers have used this time to 'catch up',
to the point where it's been a while since I've seen a truly crappy 'ebay
special '- at least where saxes are concerned. That's not to say there
aren't any out there still, but it at least means that an unresearched
purchase is less likely to turn out to be a complete lemon.
As things stand now I'd say that the next big hurdle is consistency.
In larger terms this relates to general build quality. It's often the
case that I'll examine an Ultra Cheap horn and find that the body is rather
nicely built...but the keywork less so...and vice versa. And this on the
Sometimes it's just a single flaw which lets the horn down - a warped
tonehole or a key with a chunk missing out of the cup wall.
The truly frustrating thing about this is that when they do
get it right, the results are often surprisingly good.
And in smaller terms it relates to the actual construction of the instruments.
Pillar placement may vary slightly on identical models, as may the length
of key barrels. This is certainly down to the handmade approach that the
Chinese have adopted, and it's probably quite true to say that your chances
of getting a good/bad instrument depends heavily on which individual assembled
The situation is slightly better when buying an established brand (as
ever) but it's very clear that there's still room for a lot of improvement
in the quality control area on the factory floor.
If all that sounds a bit downbeat, it's not. The very best examples represent
extraordinary value for money, and the cheaper models - while perhaps
not as cheap as they were ten years ago - are rather better than they
used to be, and still a great deal better than the student instruments
I learned to play on back in the 1970s.
And finally, I recently did a service on an Ultra Cheap alto sax that
was bought at around the time this article was written back in 2004. It's
on its third owner now. It wouldn't win any prizes for its looks - most
of the lacquer has gone - but the actual structure of the instrument is
standing up quite well. It hasn't disintegrated and nor is the action
a pile of rattling metal. Even the pads are doing OK, bar the usual suspects
(palm keys, G#, low C# and the low Eb). It still work, it still plays
- and despite only costing £180 when new, it's introduced three
youngsters to the world of saxophone playing. Now that's not bad going...not
bad at all.