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Keilwerth SX90R tenor saxophone (multiple variants)

Keilwerth SX90R tenor saxophoneOrigin: West Germany
Guide price: £4000+
Weight: 3.52kg
Age of review model: Various
Date reviewed: February 2002 (with multiple addendums below)

A potentially superb professional level instrument...with a large caveat...

I have to say that this review may worry quite a few SX90R owners - so I would welcome comments from other repairers/owners to incorporate into this review.

Ah, the Keilwerth SX90R. This horn is surely one of the most famous (or perhaps infamous) horns out there - and quite possibly due to what follows. But let's kick off with the general stuff...

Although Keilwerth have been around for a very long time (in saxophone manufacturing terms), it was only with the advent of the SX90 series that the 'Big Three' (Selmer, Yamaha and Yanagisawa) became the 'Big Four'. This in itself is a remarkable achievement.
For sure, if you didn't much like what the Big Three had to offer there were always a few niche makers to fill the gap (Borgani, Rampone etc.), but despite their formidable offerings they never quite managed to make it to the mainstream market...which may not be such a bad thing - there is, after all, a certain value to exclusivity...not to mention a healthy dose of street cred.
That Keilwerth managed to muscle in on 'the big boys' means that they must have been doing something right...

Keilwerth SX90R tenor bell braceAlthough there are a great many models to choose from, the design remains the same save for a few small details - and most of the difference between the models is down to finish and material choices.
And it has to be said that Keilwerth haven't been shy about mixing up their materials and finishes, which has led to some rather distinctive horns.

The construction is of the single pillar design, with the only plate (multiple pillars fitted to a single base) being for the palm keys. The pillars themselves are notable for their angular design - it's both fresh and elegant, though on the minus side I'd like to have seen them fitted with slightly larger bases.

There are all the usual modern features, such as a detachable bell, adjustable thumb hook (metal), a distinctive triple-point bell brace and a large, plastic thumb rest - which although flat has a rolled-off edge, so it's quite comfy.
I really like the bell brace design - it's a beautiful example of a perfect marriage between form and function, being both visually appealing and mechanically sound insomuch as it's designed to deal with impacts from both the front of the bell as well as side on. This is a belt-and-braces design, with an extra belt, and a bit of string (just to be on the safe side).

Likewise the sling ring is both beefy and of a size large enough to take a decent locking sling hook. This might seem like a small point, but good sax slings are like good mouthpieces - when you find one, you never want to let it go...and finding that it won't fit your new horn is a bit of a disaster (to put it politely).
Keilwerth SX90R tenor thumb hookContinuing along the same theme, the lock screw for the large metal thumb hook is equally chunky, and looks to have been designed so that it can be adjusted with the aid of a coin. I really like this idea - I mean, think about it...when are you most likely to need to adjust the thumb hook? Yeah, that's right, halfway through a gig just after you got the horn. This is just about the time when you figure the thumb hook needs to shift a tad more to the left - mostly because your thumb is killing you and your fingers keep slipping off the lower stack - and do you have a screwdriver handy? Well no, but everyone's got a coin or two in their pocket, right? Like the sling ring, it's another small point, but it makes a big difference.

Finishing up the body you have a set of adjustable bell key guards, fitted to the body with reassuringly large stays. This means they'll take a few light knocks in their stride, which is exactly what you want on a pro-spec horn.

The finish on the model shown (the plain lacquer variant, circa 2010) is very good - but I noted some finish issues on a nickel plated lacquered model. This is an unusual finish, being a nickel plated body with a coat of lacquer over the top. The nickel plate is undoubtedly durable, nickel plate being extremely tough - though lacquer will be lacquer, and may not be as durable.
However I'm not so sure the marriage is a happy one, I found the finish to be slightly streaky with distinctly darker patches around the fittings.
I also noted some file/machining marks on some of the keys. It's a small point, I know, but at this price point I'd expect to see a bit more attention to finishing details.

When it comes to the action, Keilwerth have pushed to boat out to make the SX90R a distinctive horn, and perhaps the first feature you're likely to notice are the curious key pearls (these are proper mother-of-pearl). They're not so much seated inside the key pearl holders as on them - and they're thick pearls too. Personally I'm not sure that it works aesthetically - and from a purely practical point of view it seems to me that it makes the action feel slightly larger than it ought to be. On the plus side, they're set at a forward angle - and there's a domed Bis Bb pearl.

Keilwerth SX90R tenor palm keysThe second feature you're likely to notice is the adjustable palms keys. The bane of sax players has always been the relative height of the palm key touchpieces, leading to all manner of gadgets and additions to raise the keys to a level comfortable for the individual. Keilwerth have recognised this dilemma and have incorporated an adjustment into the palm key touchpieces which allows you to set their height and the horizontal angle. Whilst I applaud this innovation I have to say that I thought the design to be somewhat less than elegant, which is a shame as this is a rather elegant horn otherwise.

I'm very much in two minds about this feature: on the one hand it's great that you can adjust the height of the touchpieces - it's something I'm asked to do all the time. On the other hand, how big a need is it?
For most players who want the palm keys adjusted it'll be a matter of a few millimetres. Five minutes with your tech will sort that, and once it's sorted, it's sorted for good. Having the ability to adjust these things at random might mean you're never happy with them...and then there's the obvious downside that the keys look damn ugly. There, I've said it.

I'm also less than taken with 'no stick' G' mechanism. It's designed to make use of the power from the F# key as an aid to lifting the G# key.
In normal use, and with a working G#, the arm does nothing at all - but should the G# stick, the lever pivots on the stuck G# key cup and makes contact with the Aux.F key cup. Once it does this it tries to force the Aux.F key down - in effect using the spring of that key to boost that on the G# key cup and supplying the upward force at the pivot of the lever. In theory it's a sound idea - the G# key pad is often notoriously sticky, and the larger the tonehole rim, the more likely is it to stick (and remember, the SX90R has very large tonehole rims - plenty more of which later).
Keilwerth SX90R tenor G sharpIt works, but boy does it look kludgy - and pretty much all of its functionality could be duplicated with the simple addition of a flat spring fitted to the G# lever arm. This is a mod that's been kicking around since at least the 1960's - and can often be found on many an old pro's Selmer MkVI.
And in spite of setting the lever up correctly I found there was a slight delay before the G# cup came unstuck.
Still, a 'late' G# will be better than no G# at all - although most horn players will habitually test the G# and low C# keys before playing. If a stuck key is found it's a simple matter to just lift it off with your finger, and thereafter it shouldn't trouble you again for the duration of your gig/practice. If it does then it's rather more likely to be an imbalance of springing.

A less-noticable, but nevertheless important, feature is the chunky front top F touch piece. This thing is a brute in comparison with other manufacturer's options. It's big, it's fast, it's comfortable - that's all that needs to be said about it.
Similarly, the G# touchpiece is huge, as are the low C/Eb spatulas - both clearly designed to accommodate a wide range of finger sizes.
Continuing this 'chunky' theme, there's an F# helper bar that's simply a thick bar that extends off the F key cup. I've seen this idea implemented in a number of ways on other horns, but it always suffers from a degree of inbuilt flex - which renders the whole idea a complete waste of time. Not so with the SX90R - the bar is short and chunky, and if anything's going to flex it certainly won't be this arm.
Likewise, the fork and pin connectors for the side Bb/C key are plain, simple and wholly effective.

Keilwerth SX90R tenor top stackProper bullet-headed point screws are used - and even better, the key barrels have been reamed with matching tapered holes. Plain old holes would have been sufficient, but Keilwerth have really pushed the boat out here. Top marks.
What this means for the player is that when the action wears (as it inevitably will), it's a simple matter to tighten up the point screws and take up the excess play. Tapered holes mean that there's maximum contact between the key barrels and the point screws...which ultimately means less wear.

On the negative side, there are no regulation adjusters fitted to the main stacks.
I'll be honest - I really would have expected to see them on a horn of this calibre. I realise there's perhaps a sort of snobbery (that's possibly filtered down from high-end flute manufacturers) that says 'adjuster on the stack are for wimps', but out in the real world they allow for fine play-and-test adjustments that can really make a difference to a horn. You can certainly set a horn up 'by the book', but you can only make it sing by playing and adjusting it to even out the inevitable compromises - and that's where adjusters earn their keep.

There's a decent set of pads fitted but some players have had problems with stickiness. This'll be down to a number of reasons, the most obvious being the wide tonehole rims - but there's also the quality of the pad leather and the strength of the springs to be taken into account. If you find it's an issue, check out the article on sticking pads for a solution.
And finally, the whole action is powered by blued steel springs.

In terms of feel, the SX90 series has always felt a bit strange under the fingers to me. Much of this is undoubtedly due to the placement and angle of the key pearls, but also the position of the spatula keys.
While the bell key table is a superb design - smooth in action, fast and responsive - it's placed a little too far down the horn for my liking...and I haven't got particularly small hands, or short fingers. Reaching the G# isn't a problem, or the low B/C# - but getting the low Bb touchpiece seems like a bit of a stretch.

Keilwerth SX90R tenor spatulasI also stumbled with the Eb key. In fast passages it was possible to get my finger trapped between the Eb touchpiece and the underside of the D finger button. It didn't happen every time, but often enough to make me acutely aware of it.
I can see what's happening - if you're playing a jump from, say, E to Eb you instinctively press the D and the Eb key at the same time. If the Eb key is ever so slightly ahead of the D key it's possible to trap the tip of the little finger between the two. Naturally, not every player will be affected by this - and even then it's perhaps something that you'd learn to avoid - but in comparing the D key with a Yamaha 62 tenor it can be seen that the Keilwerth's finger button is a great deal closer to the bottom of the cup, and thus very close to the Eb touchpiece when it's pressed down.

There isn't quite the precision feel of the Japanese saxes, nor quite the fluidity of the Selmers...but a nice middle ground with a responsive and fast feel - though it's worth pointing out that having the action set up by your repairer will certainly improve matters.
As for the ergos, I'm sure that these are things you can get used to, just as I got used to the action on some of the vintage horns I used to play.

As to the tone - well, I've spent quite a lot of time playing these horns over the years and while I've come across examples that have felt a bit lifeless, I've also found some that positively oozed with fire and crackle. This'll be down to the individual construction of each horn rather than any of that body material mumbo-jumbo, and I'd certainly advise prospective buyers to take the time to try a number of models before handing over the readies. This is good advice no matter what make the horn is - but it's especially relevant in this case.

After you've played quite a few examples of a particular horn, you form an expectation - and my expectation of the SX90R is this.
Tonewise it's a very rich-sounding horn, having a good balance between the warmth and darkness you'd get from a vintage tenor and the punch and clarity from, say, a Yamaha. There's quite a lot of midrange response - and whereas I sometime find this to be a bit 'boxy' on Selmers, the Keilwerth tempers it with a nice bit of glitter or edge.
That glitter runs right across the range - and while it's great at the top end of the horn I sometimes found it a little intrusive down the lower end. It can be tamed though, with the right mouthpiece or a tweak of the embouchure - and on balance I think I'd rather it was there than not at all.
But perhaps the best feature is the response. It's a very easy horn to blow, and one that's quick to respond to your input. For a good player this means the horn is versatile, and it'll sing - but for a less experienced player it can often mean the tone will vary considerably over the range.
Being blunt, it means that if you sound crap on an SX90R it'll be because you're a crap player - which is quite distinct from being able to play the horn well enough, but not liking the tone.

At the end of the day it's a £3000 plus horn - and at its best it plays like one. It's up to you to decide whether it's what you want.

And now we come to the bit where it all goes to pot...

Keilwerth market this sax as having tone hole rings. Although this gives the horn the appearance of having rolled tone holes, true rolled holes have the lip of the hole rolled over and tucked underneath to form a beaded rim to the tone hole - a practice common on vintage American horns. Advantages include extra strength to the tone hole and a wider seating area for the pad. Disadvantages are that it's extremely difficult to level such holes in the event of damage, and there is some justification to the point that a less well defined tone hole rim makes for a less definite seal.
Keilwerth have compromised - the 'rolled' section is actually a separate fitting, soldered onto the tone hole. This means it's possible to remove and replace the rolled section, giving some of the advantages of a true rolled hole and fewer of the disadvantages.

All good and well, but an examination of a number of these horns showed that the tone holes (typically from low D down) were often slightly warped.

Now, this is not an uncommon problem with cheaper horns, and is easily remedied with a light dressing of the tone hole (more severe warps require bringing up from beneath the tone hole). However, these horns typically have straight tone holes - the addition of a roll complicates matters enormously. Dressing a rolled tone hole runs the risk of breaking through the roll, and even if this doesn't happen it leaves an uneven surface area on the top of the tone hole. On a professional level horn such an error is a grave manufacturing defect - and a remarkable oversight given that Keilwerth fitted the rolls separately.

Such errors can be compensated for by backing up the pads to match the profile of the tone hole - but this is an expensive and skilled procedure and is never as reliable as a true tone hole and a correspondingly flat cup.

Last impressions then. Certainly an interesting horn, with some very nice touches - but potentially badly let down by some serious manufacturing defects. I'd want more for my money, and I'd strongly advise potential buyers to take a packet of cigarette papers with them when they try the horn - and check those lower tone holes.

Additional notes:

Since this review was published, I have received much correspondence and seen many comments about it dotted around the web. I think it's worth reviewing those points here - if only to save me having to re-write them time and again.

Surely no manufacturer would consistently turn out horns with a defect - perhaps you're only seeing the worst examples?

It seems very unlikely that only the worst horns turn up at the workshop. Indeed, the people who respond to my offer of a free check-up often have no idea as to whether their horn is affected by the problem.
I've seen anomalies on horns by other manufacturers, and where serious have advised clients to return the horn for replacement. Once you get to the standard of the basic Yamaha horn, serious structural or cosmetic defects are gratifyingly rare - and can be counted on the fingers of one hand in as many years. The problem with the SX90R horns has turned up on almost every* example (I got up to twenty and stopped counting) thus far. How many do you think I need to see before it becomes obvious that something's not quite right?
I've seen reports of other examples from third parties, but in the interests of accuracy I can really only comment on the horns I've seen personally.

* I'm happy to report that I have now seen three examples with level tone holes, as noted in the addendums below (November 2005, December 2008 and January 2013), and a reasonable example in February 2015.

If people don't realise their horn has a problem, surely it's not that serious?

It's what you're used to. Any repairer will have worked on horns that have only come in for 'a bit of cork', and found leaks on the bell keys. Having repaired those leaks and handed the horn back, the client will often remark that they never realised they were missing so much 'oomph' down the bottom end.
You compensate, and you become accustomed to it - but that doesn't make it right or desirable.

I tried a number of horns out in the store - the Keilwerth beat them hands down.

And so it might do - it is, potentially, a very nice horn. But it comes back to what you're used to - and when trying out new horns you'll be taking on board a whole package of new impressions and sensations, and you may not realise that the horn is capable of more than you're getting.
Bear in mind too that the problem represents 'trouble in store'. New (and therefore soft) pads have a degree of accommodation in them - once they start to harden up they'll be less and less able to compensate for any anomalies in the tone holes. This could very well take a few years, but it would be a repetitive cycle. You'll be seeing a lot more of your repairer than owners of other makes of horn. Keep in mind too that very few stores bother to set their horns up - so you could well be comparing one leaky horn with another leaky horn.

Didn't the old Conns have the same problem?

Conn saxes had proper rolled toneholes (see the accompanying article for more details) and yes, they had their problems too - but I've seen more Conns than I have Keilwerths and the problem is nowhere near as endemic or severe. Those examples that have warped toneholes will have exactly the same problems as any other horn with the same fault.
It's also not an excuse. The Conns were built around seventy years ago, and because the toneholes were properly rolled the manufacturing techniques required were very complicated. It's now the 21st century, manufacturing techniques have come on leaps and bounds - and the Keilwerth doesn't even have proper rolled toneholes.

Hey, I'm happy with my Keilwerth!

I'm really pleased to hear that - and I hope it remains to be the case.
Assuming a given quality of manufacture I can repair a horn, hand it back to the client, slap my hand down on the workbench and promise, even guarantee, that they'll be happy with it for a long time to come. I can't do that with the SX90R.

I know a guy who says he's never come across this problem, nor have any of the people he knows who have these horns.

Good for him - I'm delighted to hear it, but that makes him and his friends the luckiest people on the planet.
Consider the statistics. There have to be tens of thousands of these horns out in the marketplace, so the chances of coming across a single anomaly should be reasonable enough. The chances of coming across that anomaly twice should be quite rare. Three times, even rarer still.
Once you get to four times, five times, six times etc. - the probability factor is getting seriously phenomenal. Now consider the probability of seeing those anomalies on consecutive after another, from a random selection out of thousands and thousands of horns.
Am I really so fantastically unlucky that I've only seen the dregs - or is this a consistent and repetitive problem?

And some people seem to take criticism of their horns rather personally. I've seen comments ranging from complete dismissal of the problem through to suggestions that even if there is a problem it really doesn't matter. In one instance I saw a claim that all the horns I'd seen had been mysteriously damaged in transit (that one made me chuckle).
Don't be satisfied with glib brush-offs...ask the same questions I've asked, read the accompanying article on warped tone holes and weigh up the pros and cons for yourself with the benefit of factual information and unequivocal proof.

My repairer has never heard of you, and I'm told that none of the UK shops know you.

Does that make a difference?
Anyone can be shown how to diagnose a warped tone hole, you don't need to be an engineer or a professional musician to see the problem or to understand it. In any event I value my independence and take great care to ensure that personal or business relationships don't compromise it, no matter how illustrious the name.
I can see how a retailer with a stockroom full of SX90R's would want to distance themselves from any hint of a problem - and if someone expresses an opposing view you'd be well within your rights to ask what their associations or interests might be.

I can get my low notes - surely my horn doesn't have this problem?

Just about any horn is capable of belting out the low notes. If there are minor leaks you can compensate with extra finger pressure and more air support. The real test is in playing subtone (that lovely, soft, typically Getz sound), and with light finger pressure.
If you pick up a well maintained and regulated horn and blow subtones around the bell notes, you should be able to do so with ease - and with a very light touch. If you find you have problems you tend to compensate subconsciously - in the same way that you will adjust your embouchure to play in tune.
What this particular problem does is not necessarily stop the horn dead in its tracks, rather it takes away a percentage of the tone and volume (I reckon about 20%), which only comes back if you tighten your grip on the keys. For many players this would be enough to send them scurrying off to their local repairer. It's a fault, no two ways about it.

How do I know you're being entirely honest?

Mainly because you're reading this article. This isn't a secret document, hidden away from prying eyes - it's a public statement, subject to public scrutiny...and legal scrutiny.
There's one beneficiary from the time and effort that goes into these review pages - and it's you. On these pages you'll find plaudits and put-downs in equal measure. I hold no allegiance, I simply report on the evidence before my eyes without fear or favour. And I can do that because I have the evidence. None of the horns reviewed are figments of my imagination, they exist, they have been made, bought and paid for - warts and all.

You seem rather over-concerned with this issue.

Keilwerth's tag-line is "Saxophones are our passion".
Guess what? Same here. I reckon any of my clients would be able to attest to how much these amazing instruments thrill me. You can see it for yourself - just pop along with a vintage beauty in mint condition, or a unusual horn with an interesting history and you'll see my eyes light up like a kid who's been given the day off school and then found a fiver on the ground - right outside a sweetshop.
But it's more than that too. I take pride in my work, nothing beats the satisfaction of coaxing the very best out of an instrument - and defects such as those found on these horns make my job that much more difficult, if not almost impossible,
And then there's the issue of you, the consumer, and your rights. Nobody buys a Rolls Royce and then expects to have to put up with wobbly steering at 70mph. I've always maintained that you get what you pay for - and in this case I truly and honestly believe that you're getting less than you paid for, and more than you bargained for.

So what d'you reckon is going wrong?

A client was gracious enough to lend me a copy of Keilwerth's video of their manufacturing process. Naturally I was very keen to see it.
I think I see precisely what the problem is. The tone holes are drawn very early in the manufacturing process - right after the bell and the body are formed from the sheet. Directly after that the holes are machined level and the tone hole rings are soldered in position (and I am assuming here that the rings are level - I've seen examples where the rings were badly fitted).
After that, the separate bell and body parts go through a whole range of processes, whereby the pillars and fittings are attached, the bell section is fitted to the body and finally the keywork is matched to the horn before being sent off to the finishing department.
The whole thing is subject to a great deal of heat and manipulation following the fitting of the rings - and it's only natural to see how assorted stresses are imparted to the structure. This would explain the gentle curves of the tone hole warps, as opposed to the relatively sharp curves you'd see as a result of impact damage.
Now, I can understand the need to level off the tone holes and solder on the rings early on in the process - it would be tricky to jig the body parts up once the pillars and fitting are in place in order to solder on the rings and dress the tone holes.
What's needed is an oversized tone hole ring - one that's, say, 3mm taller than currently fitted. This can be fitted as per usual, early on in the process, and then dressed down with a suitably profiled die fitted to a handheld machine after the pillars and fittings are in place and the bell attached to the body. The extra height of the tone hole rings would allow for any warp to be ground out as the rings are brought down to their specified height.
Of course, it would involved some material costs - they'd need suitable dies for every size of tone ring, and handheld drivers to power them, and it would probably add about 30 minutes to the production run - but the end result would be gloriously level tone holes.
That's really the only answer I can come up with for now - and this assumes that the problem isn't due to the rings themselves being warped prior to which case the problem would be far easier and cheaper to address.

Does this problem affect the SX90 - without the tone rings?

Not that I'm aware of - though I haven't 'officially' reviewed one yet. Looking at the manufacturing process I would tentatively suggest that there's a risk, but in any event it would be easy enough to rectify permanently by conventional methods. From an entirely personal point of view as a player I feel the rings add nothing tonally anyway - and simply create more problems with regard to sticking pads. Mind you, it's a moot point now - they no longer make this model.

Have you told Keilwerth about your findings?

Yes, I've had correspondence with people at the factory and with executives at the (now ex) parent company stateside.
In the former case they said they'd examine their manufacturing process and report back to me. They apparently did so, but informed me that they could find no problems.
The email I got from the parent company expressed concern at my reservations, but thanked me for bringing the problem to light. I have had no follow-up to my response, so I cannot say if any changes in the manufacturing process have been made.

I believe that they're caught between a rock and a hard place on this issue. If they were to admit that there is or was a problem, then that would leave them open to every SX90R owner chucking their horns back at them.
If they don't admit to it, but subsequently claim something like 'improved tone hole accuracy' then that leaves them pretty much in the same boat.
The only commercially viable option is to say nothing and quietly resolve the manufacturing issue.
That being said, the addendum added in August 2004 points up yet another problem with the tone holes.

Are you sure it's a manufacturing issue? Couldn't the horns have got damaged somehow?

If the warps were a result of damage there'd be collateral evidence. If your horn took the kind of knock that could distort a tone hole then there'd be a corresponding distortion to the body. Such damage would be clearly visible - you can see what it would look like on the photo of the copper belled horn below. Another way of distorting tone holes is by bending the body of the horn - but this too would be highly visible, and tends to occur around the G-F tone holes (sax bodies typically get bent around the mid section). A bend on the bottom bow would be highly unlikely - the sort of force required to do that would result in a crushed bell.

Would you ever say if you'd seen one without warped tone holes?

Yes, as I have done.

Have you ever managed to fix one?

Yes, I've been able to address the issue on a number of examples that weren't too badly affected - and the difference it made was significant. Success depends on where the warps are and how deep they are...there's only so much I can do. Over the years I've been working on new techniques and custom tooling and can pretty much sort out all but the very worst examples without too much fuss.

Maybe you just don't like Keilwerths.

I'll admit they're not my horns of choice, but then neither are many of the horns that get reviewed on this site...and most of them manage to get a decent enough write-up.
I don't have to like a horn in order for it to be a good one - the web is awash with 'reviews' by players who feel their horn is the best - but any half-decent player knows that it's all down to personal preference. Because such things are personal my reviews focus on the mechanics.
In any event, I awarded an SX90R my 'horn of the show' in my 2008 Frankfurt Musik Messe report

Years have passed since you last saw a Keilwerth with tonehole problems - what are they like now?

The most recent models I've seen (as of 2013 - see addendums below) have been fine. If they maintain that level of build quality there should be no problems at all.


I like to base my reviews on a number of examples of any given make/model of instrument, and where I find exceptional problems on later examples I'll post an addendum to the original review. In the case of the SX90R the problem is significant enough to warrant an addendum for almost every example that comes in - and they're listed below in order of date of build.

Addendum: Build date - 1997: Review date - September 2008

Keilwerth SX90R 106xxx low B toneholeA chance to examine a very early SX90R - this one bearing a 106xxx serial number, bought new in 1997.
As far as tonehole issues are concerned, this example wasn't too bad - though it still had some problems on the low C/B and Bb tone holes. Seen here is the low B tonehole showing a warp that affects about a third of the area of the tonehole. The low C tonehole was about as warped, the low Bb slightly worse with gaps showing on both sides.

What was particularly interesting about this horn was that it had been serviced a little while back and a number of pads had been changed in an effort to remedy the horn's reluctance to speak clearly and accurately. Unfortunately no effort had been made to address the tonehole warps, either by tackling the toneholes or backing up the pads - and it was possible to note multiple failures of the cigarette paper test.

Given that the latest model seen with such problems was built in 2007, and this one dates from 1997 - it amounts to an issue that spans a whole decade. Happy Anniversary.

Addendum: Build date - 2002: Review date - December 2002

I have supplemented this review with an article dedicated to the issue of warped tone holes, which explains in more detail the nature of the problem - and contains further details specific to the SX90R. It can be found here.

I have recently examined an alto variant of this model, with the black nickel plate finish.
Regrettably I found the same old tone hole problem. This is particularly disconcerting on this model as any attempt to level the holes from the top down would destroy the finish on the tone hole tops.
Even more disconcerting is that fact that this instrument is barely four months the tone hole problem remains an issue.

The review of the tenor corresponds to my feelings about the alto - though I will add that the black nickel finish looks gorgeous!

Addendum: Build date - 2003: Review date - July 2002

I had a client bring in a tenor, bought new in February 2003 which exhibited the same tone hole problems as detailed above. In this instance the low C and C# tone holes were affected - with the C showing gaps at the top and bottom of the hole, and the C# showing a gap at the top of the hole.

Lovely brushed nickel plate finish on the body though, very distinctive.

Addendum: Build date - 2000: Review date - August 2003

I have recently examined another tenor - built in 2000, a special 'Anniversary' model.
Again it exhibited the tone hole problem, specifically on the low C, B and Bb holes, with the warp on the low Bb being quite severe.

I felt this model had far more 'zing' than the others I've seen thus far, particularly on the low notes (when they worked).

Addendum: Build date - 2000: Review date - March 2004

Keilwerth Anniversary low CAnd yet another example comes under scrutiny - an Anniversary 'Edition 75' tenor, built around 2000, with a black nickel plated body and silver plated bell and keys. Looks very nice - but once again the toneholes exhibit the same old problem. The low C and Bb in particular were really quite badly warped.
Here's the low C - there's a substantial dip at both the front and the rear of the tone hole.
Might not look much, but bear in mind that a serious leak is one that you can slide a cigarette paper could get a bit of card into these gaps!

Addendum: Build date - 2002: Review date - August 2004

My offer to examine SX90R horns brings in another example - this time a horn in the 109xxx (purchased new around 2002) serial number range. This model features a copper bell and crook with standard brass body and keywork. Very nice it looks too.
On my initial examination I really thought I had at last found an example without the tone hole problem - and this proves how hard it can be to spot the anomaly in amongst the curves and reflections, because when I placed the 109xxx low B tone holetest die over the low B tone hole I found a pretty major warp.

In this case it begins just left of centre of the tone hole, with its apex at the extreme right. A particularly difficult one to spot, given that as you look down the bell with the cup closed it doesn't show a leak on the lower portion of the pad.

Of more interest (to me, at any rate) was another anomaly I spotted on the G# tone hole. Have a look at the picture below.
Note the arrow, which points to the rim of the drawn tone hole. The tone ring is fitted onto the tone hole - and if you assume that the parent tone hole is level, then if follows that the ring ought to sit flush on the rim of that hole.
But look just above the arrow and you can clearly see a gap inbetween the rim and the lip of the ring.
Note too how the gap decreases away from the arrow - which means the tone hole ring has a rise in it.

190xxx G# tone holeSo what's going on here? Up until now, and confirmed by what I've seen in the manufacturer's video, I've assumed that at some point the parent tone holes have been levelled off - and that warpage appears to be caused by stress imparted to the body later in the build process. But this picture indicates that there's yet another potential problem - that of the tone rings being incorrectly fitted in the first place.
As you can imagine, having the tone ring sticking up in this fashion completely destroys any hope of the tone hole being level - and this on the of the most critical tone holes on a saxophone.
I'd expect better - and if you've forked out several thousand for such a horn, so should you.

109xxx low Bb tone holeSomething else caught my eye too - take a look at this shot of the low Bb tone hole. There's a crease just under the rear of the hole, as shown by the curved reflection about a centimetre from the base of the hole.
I wondered how that might have got there.
I tend to assume that any structural damage is down to the owner - but just how would you push a crease like this into a horn? Bear in mind that the Bb key cup sits over this hole, as well as the low B/Bb key guard.
To make a crease like this the owner would have had to crush both the guard and the key cup hard down onto the tone hole - and at the rear of the key cup too. Naturally such an impact would do a great deal of damage all round, but none of this was in evidence.
Oddly enough, the low Bb tone hole was level - but I wonder if it started off uneven and had been given a 'tap' at some point to bring the rear of the hole down?
I shall be looking out for more examples of this particular 'fix' in future.

As for the blowing - pretty much the same as the other examples, although this horn had a nice crackle to it - perhaps more due to the copper neck than the bell, and although it blew all the way down to the low Bb you could still eke out a good 20% or so more tone by squeezing the keys hard against their tone holes.
The owner hadn't played this horn much since purchase, so the pads were pretty much as new - but as time goes by the G# in particular is going to cause some considerable problems.
There is a possibility that the warp in the low B can be corrected by raising the body underneath the tone hole - which would leave a hump to match the removed crease on the low Bb.

Addendum: Build date - 2000: Review date - February 2005

An Anniversary Edition 75 alto finds its way into the workshop. This time it gets a full review, and whilst it's about the best example I've seen in terms of the tone hole issue, it still fell on a very warped low C.

Addendum: Build date - 2003: Review date - November 2005

A solid nickel silver bodied alto turns up on the workbench - and becomes the very first example of the series I've seen without the dreaded tone hole problem. Read all about it here.

Addendum: Build date - 2003: Review date - December 2008

SX90R tenor 111xxx low CThis example, bearing a 111xxx serial number, dates from around 2003 at a rough guess and receives the accolade of perhaps the worst example of a warped tonehole I've seen to date, beating even the model reviewed on 20/06/07. The client 'noticed some difficulty' in getting the low notes.
The overall setup was poor too, with many cups at the wrong angle which meant the pads were contacting the rear of the toneholes first and leaking at the front. I spent a good hour tweaking cup angles and resetting pads just to get the horn in reasonable blowing order.
The client the told me it had recently been serviced by a major London shop and the bill had been in excess of £150.
I don't know what's more disgraceful - the state of the tone hole shown or the appalling service job...

Addendum: Build date - 2004: Review date - January 2007

Another nickel-bodied alto arrives in the workshop - but unlike the previous example it exhibits problems with a couple of the tone holes. I have added it to the alto review here.

Addendum: Build date - 2004(?): Review date - October 2022

Keilwerth SX90R tenor 115xxx low CThis tenor - with a serial number in the 115xxx range (estimated to be from around 2004/5) - was a bit of a bargain. The story is that a chap bought it for himself as a 50th birthday present with the intention of learning to play it - but other interests overtook him and the poor old sax was stuffed into a cupboard and pretty much forgotten about. It came onto the market recently and was snapped up at a price I won't reveal...because it'll turn you green with envy. Suffice to say this was a minty fresh, barely used standard Vintage SX90R for a good deal less than half the price of a new one.

The client who brought it in had seen this review and wanted me to examine the horn and fix any issues. And there were quite a few of them. All of the toneholes bar one (the low F) exhibited noticeable warps. Of these I'd say about a quarter of them were just about passable if you squinted a bit - and the rest were just plain awful. The low C in particular was outstandingly bad - possibly the worst I've ever seen. That gap measures 0.4mm - and there's an almost equally large gap around the other side.
A playtest prior to fixing it showed that the tone and response pretty much petered out after G unless you used the old gorilla grip.

It took four hours to flatten the toneholes and the results were spectacular. Perfect, immediate response all the way down - and bags of that big, fat Keilwerth tone. And still at less than half the price of a new one. Can't complain about that.

Addendum: Build date - 2006: Review date - April 2006

A brand new standard SX90R (118xxx) is brought into the workshop for a checkover and setup.
This example was much improved over the earlier versions I've seen, though I regret to say I still found a few issues worthy of comment.
SX90R_118xxx Eb tone hole The low Eb tone hole was slightly warped, with a gap of about 1 millimetre at the front and rear of the pad.
The reason for this warp is an incorrectly fitted tone hole ring, as can be seen on the photo on the left.
See that grey band just below the top of the tone hole? That's the side of the tone hole ring, and the grey band marks out the discrepancy between the top of the tone hole base and the lower part of the tone hole ring.
Had this ring been fitted correctly the tone hole would have been level.

Fortunately, the Eb pad is always held closed by its spring - so this discrepancy won't be too critical an issue for as long as the pad is in good condition. Trouble is, the Eb pad takes a lot of punishment in terms of moisture and gunk - and it will be necessary to change this pad more frequently than on a horn with a level Eb tone hole.

The low C tone hole was fractionally out, but I felt it was within reasonable tolerance after a slight dressing. It needed a dressing too, there were a couple of rough spots on the surface. It'll be fine, but it's still less than perfect.

SX90R_118xxx top DAnother place that had imperfections was the palm key tone holes. My attention was drawn to these by excessively heavy springs - and in order to back off the spring tension I had to remove the palm keys. I also had to address the problem of a seriously sticky top F key pad (so sticky that the front F mech failed to open it).

Upon removing the keys I noticed the F and E tone holes had burrs inside (can be seen here as a rough white arc inside the tone hole). The reason for the F sticking was the pad fouling in the tone hole burr. All that was required to remedy this was to remove the burrs with a fine file before smoothing over the bore of the holes.

In terms of improvement to build quality I'd rate this example as an 8 or 9 out of ten - though it's lucky that the badly fitted tone hole ring was on the Eb key. Had it been the low D or C it would have been a far more serious issue.
Overall though the quality control is still not up to the standard I would expect to see on a horn in this price bracket.

Once set up the horn blew very nicely. The balanced combination of a rich, warm tone coupled with a nice touch of edge makes this a very versatile tenor that will respond nicely to a wide range of mouthpieces. Without suffering the vagueness of earlier examples with more severe tone hole problems, the lower notes spoke with more immediacy and authority.

I still feel the action feels slightly large under the hands, and on this model the bell key action felt ever so slightly more sluggish. This would appear to be down to the fitment of a spring to the unusual G# anti-stick mechanism. It's a small point, but having felt a great many excellent bell key mechs I think I'd be inclined to remove the spring to put back a bit of snap into the action here.

So, a bit of improvement then, but still a disappointment to find quality control issues on a top-level horn - and as such I can still only recommend this horn with caution.

Keilwerth SX90R Vintage tenorAddendum: Build date - 2006: Review date - January 2007

The latest example on the bench is a 'Vintage' model - so called because of the distressed finish to the plain brass body, similar to that seen on the Borgani Ponzol, whereby the body is 'dirtied up' and then lacquered. It has the effect of making the horn look instantly old, and ensuring it stays that way and doesn't get any grubbier (where's the fun in that though?).
This model (serial number range 123xxx) was bought new in Dec.2006.

It doesn't look too bad, though probably not to everyone's taste, and the brushed matt finish on the keys certainly helps to make this a very distinctive looking horn.

From my initial inspection I suspected that what problems there were with the horn was due to poor action setup. Several keys were badly regulated, which caused leaks due to pads being held off closing by linked action.
This made the lower subtone notes insecure, and although the horn didn't sound too bad it lacked the zing it should have.
SX90R 123xxx low C toneholeTweaking the action helped matters greatly, particularly slackening off the excessive spring tension on the main stacks and bell keys - but a warp was found on the low C tonehole. Although a double warp (photo left, warp on left side of tonehole hidden), it wasn't as bad as those I've seen on previous models - and I would be tempted to say that this bodes well were it not for the recent alto model that shows a step backwards in terms on tonehole integrity.

An adjustment was made to the tonehole which helped to lessen the degree of warp, and this, along with an adjustment to the pad seat, really improved matters for the subtone notes.
Once blowing properly it was possible to fully appreciate the richness of tone throughout the horn, and the playful edge to the lower notes

As it stands, this horn represents an improvement, but I still find manufacturing defects of this nature unacceptable on a top-flight horn - and I shall keep watching...

Keilwerth SX90R Shadow tenor 121xxxAddendum: Build date - 2006: Review date - March 2008

This SX90R Shadow bears a serial number of 121xxx, which places its build date somewhere in 2006 at a rough guess.
When this tenor arrived in the workshop it was barely working at all - it was a real struggle to get much below low F, and naturally I assumed it would be a problem with the tone holes.
But I was wrong (pretty much), because although this horn had a couple of tonehole issues the chief problem was the state of the action.
Practically every single key cup on the main stacks was at the wrong angle, resulting in the pads bedding down at the rear - which leaves a leak at the front.

Now, this horn has been in use for a couple of years - so I can't really point the finger at manufacturing problems, but I will say that such problems rarely come about of their own accord (unless someone has taken a mallet to each and every key cup and given it a healthy whack) - and that I've seen the same issue on quite new examples.
The problem is indicative of a pad that has been compression set - it's been placed in the cup and then forced closed against the tonehole, rather than heated and manipulated to lie level.
Pads set by compression tend to expand and thus lose their seat at one end or other of the tonehole - and the only fixes are to have the pads reset (or the cup angles adjusted) or use those dreadful key clamps to maintain the compression seating when the horn is in its case.

Because this horn played so badly the client was able to purchase it for a knockdown price (I won't say what it was, it would bring tears to your eyes) - but then discovered that the reason it played so badly might be down to warped toneholes...hence a nail-biting visit to my workshop!

And yes, it did have warped toneholes - but only a couple, and fortunately neither were so bad that they either couldn't be levelled or compensated for with a backed-up pad.
The biggest problem was the low D tonehole, with a slight warp to the front and the rear. Because of its proximity to the bottom bow joint it wouldn't be advisable to attempt to rectify matters by lifting the bore or tapping down the tonehole sides, so I opted for fitting backing wedges to the underside of the pad to take up the discrepancy. It took a while to get it just right, but it's a substantially cheaper solution than having to whip the bell off to remake the bottom bow joint seal. Not as permanent, mind you - whoever replaces that low D pad will have to ensure they shim it to match the profile of the tonehole rim.

Keilwerth SX90R Shadow tenor 121xxx low Bb toneholeOf more concern was the low Bb tonehole.
You can see to the rear of the tonehole that the body is clearly dented (note how the light curves around the base of the hole).
I've seen this before, on the copper-belled model reviewed in 2004.
There's really only one way to get a dent like this in the body, and that's to give the tonehole rim a whack. Because of the placement of the key guard it's all but impossible to do this kind of damage accidentally - and in any case, if you did you'd warp the tonehole. As it happens this tonehole was level from front to back - which suggests that this dent has been deliberately made in an attempt to address a warped tonehole.

It almost worked - I had to raise the hole very slightly on the bell rim side to fully level it.
It still has to be said, a fix like this is unacceptable on a top-end horn.

Once the keywork issues had been addressed, and the tone holes accounted for, this horn blew as sweetly as any of the very best tenors I've played. The client, considering the price he paid for it, was over the moon. So was I, to be frank.
Note definition was superb - every single note had a nice sparkle, but there was also a deep richness there too. It almost felt as though there were two horns bright, one warm - and this carried on through right across the range.
I would say though that at subtone that sparkle was a little intrusive, and in a side-by-side test with a Yamaha YTS62 the Yamaha actually sounded warmer at subtone. Not by much, I grant you, but enough to surprise me. This was on the same mouthpiece though, and I would think that a larger chambered piece would quell that slight brightness if it wasn't to your liking.
It's an effortless blow too - very free-blowing and responsive, and I think for the very first time I actually enjoyed playing one of these horns. I still feel for me that the design and layout of the action makes the horn feel big under the fingers, but that's something that individual players will either like or not.

What's particularly frustrating about this example is that it shows what these horns are capable of. I can combine that comment with my recent experience at the Frankfurt Music Messe this year (2008), at which I snuck onto the Keilwerth stand and gave their horns a good blow. They were featuring a 20th Anniversary Shadow with a solid silver crook which was just gorgeous to blow (I checked the toneholes visually, they looked OK) - perhaps one of the best horns at the show.
Contrast that with the previous addendum - the horn so bad that it got sent back to the manufacturers.
This is what's so frustrating, it's obvious that these horns are good...great even...when they work - but someone, anyone, at Keilwerth has to recognise that consistently good build quality is demanded and expected at this price level.
Let's not forget too this latest addendum example had build issues too (fortunately largely correctable) - and as such I do have to mark it down as a fail in terms of build quality.

Addendum: Build date - 2007: Review date - June 2007

Now this is interesting...this next SX90R to arrive in the workshop (bought new in May 2007) is the same model as the one reviewed above - the 'Vintage'. This horn bears a serial number of 123xxx - and is approx 450 horns later than the model above.
If you make the natural assumption that the more horns Keilwerth make - the better they should be at it, then this model should be an improvement on the previous example.

In fact this particular horn was the worst example I have ever seen. The reason it came into the workshop was because it barely blew much below low D - and here's why.
This photo show the low Eb tone hole; note the cavernous gap on the right hand side. There's another gap on the other side, though it doesn't show up on the photo.
This is bad enough, but this isn't even the half of it.

Not only was the low Eb tonehole completely out of true, so was the low C, and the low B...and the low Bb - and by a considerable degree. I didn't even bother to check the C#, or any holes above the Eb...there didn't seem to be much point.
When it came to deciding which tonehole anomaly to display I was quite literally spoilt for choice.
Bearing in mind that this horn was bought mail order (from Germany) I examined the horn carefully for transit damage. None was evident - the defects found were built in at the factory.

SX90R 123xxx IILeaving the build quality aside for a moment, I was rather taken aback by the overall finish of the horn.
The 'pre-distresssed' finish has been around for some time now - and whilst I'm not particularly a fan of it, I can at least appreciate how some players would find it appealing...but I have to question where the line is drawn between a deliberately 'funky' finish and just plain sloppiness.
The photo on the right shows the bell section of the horn. Note the black splashes around the key guard stay and bell stay plate. These are what's left of flux/solder residues after the body has been dipped in a cleaning solution. You can clearly see what's called a 'wipe mark' to the left of the key guard stay...where the builder has wiped the soldered joint with a cloth to remove any excess solder. I call these 'witness marks' - they point up areas of repair.
If it were the case that an ordinary horn needed a parted stay resoldered, this is how the job would look immediately after the stay had been resoldered in position (though many a repairer would have made rather less mess) - and subsequent to the resoldering the area in question would be cleaned and polished.
There are marks like this all over the horn, and much as I like to be objective about esoteric finishes I feel that in this case someone is taking the piss - it's really not a nice finish at all.
A 'vintage' finish should be about treating the brass to make it look old and worn - if your old and much-loved Selmer came back from the repairer with these kind of witness marks you'd probably have a blue fit.

I did try to play the horn - if only so I'd have something good to say about it in the write-up - but it really wouldn't blow very well...the setup was absolutely atrocious.
I ended up advising the client to send the thing back on the grounds that it was a complete and utter disgrace - and recommended that if he wanted to buy a sight-unseen horn then he'd better stick to something from Japan...or get himself off to a decent music shop and spend a day trying out horns.
He did send it back, and the seller's technician agreed that the horn was awful and a full refund was made. He subsequently spent a day trying out horn in a shop and came away with a Selmer Ref.54 (so he's not completely out of the woods yet).

So where does this leave the SX90R in terms of quality control?
I really had hoped that as time went by the manufacturer would address the issue of warped tone holes, but with this very up-to-date example being the worst I have ever seen it looks like there's been a step backwards, if anything.
I find myself applying the term Caveat Emptor to a horn that costs over £2000...and that's an appalling state of affairs.
I'm told that production is moving to a new factory shortly. I'm not holding my breath...

SX90R 20th Anniversary tenorAddendum: Build date - 2008: Review date - December 2008

This brand new (as of November 2008) Anniversary Shadow tenor (serial 124xxx) looks very impressive, with its black nickel body, solid silver crook and bell. I played one of these at the Frankfurt Music Messe earlier this year and felt it was perhaps the best playing tenor there - so I was extremely keen to get one on the workbench for a thorough inspection.
As it happens it was one of two possible horns that might have found their way here, but the other example the client tried out in the shop failed to work at all - which wasn't very encouraging for such an expensive horn.

Given the previous record of SX90R horns the first thing I checked was the integrity of the toneholes.
I'm delighted to say that they passed muster! I found a couple of very slight gaps in two toneholes when testing against the die, but not of sufficient size to cause any undue concern (which perhaps puts into perspective how bad some of the previous examples have been).
It's not all good news though, there were a number of very significant leaks from the pads - including a very large leak from the top B key pad. I did the cigarette paper test and had the client tug on the paper so that he could clearly see how one side of the pad completely failed to grip the paper.
There were similarly serious leaks on the entire right hand key stack (all the pads leaked at the front, which points to incorrect cup angles/pad thickness) and a very noticeable leak on the rear of the low B pad.
Because the toneholes were level it was relatively easy to correct these errors - but on a horn of this quality and price they should not have been there in the first place. I know most, if not all, horns will benefit from a setup from new, but these kind of issues shouldn't be seen in this quantity at this price level - and perhaps explains why the other horn in the shop failed to work at all (the client subsequently wrote to Keilwerth to express his surprise that such an expensive horn should be allowed to make the showroom in this condition).

Once fixed up the horn blew very well indeed. Tonewise I would liken it to the difference between the Yamaha 62 series and the Z series - essentially the same tone as the cheaper model, but a bit more of everything. I think existing SX90R owners are unlikely to be tempted by it en masse, but new buyers might well be persuaded to fork out the extra over the standard models.

On the basis that I found no manufacturing defects on this model I feel I can cautiously recommend it - but with the caveat that you'll very probably need to have it properly set up.
You should also continue to check for tonehole problems, you'll see from the timeline of the reviews above that a decent example is no guarantee at all that the next horn off the production line will be as well built.

Addendum: Build date - 2009: Review date - February 2011

A Shadow (124xxx) is brought in for a checkover.
This horn was bought around two years ago, and as the client also had a Shadow alto he felt it was worth making the long trip over from Bristol to take advantage of my 'inspect and oil' offer.
I hesitate to say I found no significant problems - because the photo on the left shows the upper side of the low Bb tone hole...and there's a distinct line between the rim of the tone hole and the soldered-on tone hole ring.
That shouldn't be there...the ring is designed to fit on top of the tone hole. It hasn't been filed either, as the tone hole rim is ever so slightly lower than the ring.
In terms of playability it represented no problem - but in terms of quality control at this price level it's not great. The tone hole itself had a very slight warp, with a dip in the upper and lower sides - but this was easy enough to correct with a very slight lift to the bore.
The horn was blowing well enough when it came in, with just a very slight lack of solidity on the low Bb. The tone hole correction sorted it a treat and gave the low note just a little bit more zing.

Addendum: Build date - 2010: Review date - February 2015

I had plain lacquered model in for a service, with a serial number in the high 125xxx range. At a rough guess this dates it to around 2010/11...which would be around or just after Buffet acquired Keilwerth.

I found no 'serious' warps to the toneholes, though the low Bb/B/C# and C toneholes all had slight dips at the front.
These were not visible and only showed up when tested with a flat standard - and to be fair I've seen this sort of thing on other pro-quality horns.
It's still not perfect, but it's just about within the capacity of the pads to accommodate the small discrepancy.
I wanted perfection (the horn deserves it), so these holes received a very light dressing and the pads were reset - but before I did so I corrected a few small issue with the main stacks (just general wear and tear) and gave it a blow.
It certainly blew all the way to the bottom, but from the low C down it lacked the grunt and punch I'd expect from these horns - even with a moderately hard finger pressure. Once the slight warps had been dealt with, the horn sang all the way down.

Keilwerth SX90R Shadow tenor saxophone 126xxxAddendum: Build date - 2012: Review date - January 2013

It's been a while (at the time of writing) since I had the time to do an update to this long-running review, and in that time the Keilwerth factory has undergone a number of changes. For a while it looked like there was some doubt as to whether this distinguished marque would survive, but with the acquisition of the company in late 2010 by Buffet it would appear that all is well. It would also appear that someone in the company bought a new broom and gave the factory a bit of a once-over.
How so?
Well, this is a brand new SX90R Shadow (serial 126xxx) - ordered late 2012 and delivered to the buyer barely a week ago. It's about as hot-off-the-press as it gets. And it's perfect.

Well, OK, it needed a couple of keys realigning and a spot of double-action dealing with - but as it was a mail-order purchase I think it's only fair to put that down to a spot of jiggling in transit.
The big deal is that the tone holes are level. All of them. Spot on.
About bloody time too!

Now, I've been here before. Having announced (with genuine pleasure) that I've seen an SX90R with good tone holes, and suggesting that it may herald a new era of improved quality-control, I've later found myself disappointed to find the same old problem cropping up on later models.
This time it's different. I am led to believe that some changes have been made at the factory - and whether that means they've bought the quality-control inspector a new pair of glasses or are horsewhipping the builders every hour, I don't really care. Just as long as every horn they turn out is like this one.

Keilwerth SX90R Shadow 126xxx pearlsI'm also wondering if they've made a few minor changes to the action, because it feels like a more cohesive package; these horns have always felt a bit 'industrial' to me - possibly due to the Heath-Robinson anti-stick G# mechanism - but this one felt smoother and creamier under the fingers.
It may well be down to a better overall build quality, but whatever it is (even if it's my imagination) I like it.
I still find it's worth setting the springs just a tad harder than normal, just to alleviate the tendency of the pads to stick to the wider tone hole rims.

The client who brought this horn in wanted to know whether he should keep it or send it back - and there was a certain amount of holding of the breath as I examined the tone holes. Understandable really - the small leaks due to transit affected the playability of the horn in exactly the same way that warped tone holes would.
So I was delighted to be able to tell him it was a keeper - and better still, that if I were going to keep an SX90R, it would be this one. It sings like a bird up top, and growls like a tiger down the bottom.

Naturally, I'm going to continue to keep an eye on this model - but as it stands at the moment I'm going to give 'New Improved Keilwerth' the benefit of the doubt and give them the official thumbs-up on this model.
Perhaps this Shadow will lead them out of the shadows.

Addendum: Build date - 2012: Review date - September 2018

Another 126xxx Shadow was brought into the workshop for a checkover, and I was particularly keen to see how it would stack up against the 126xxx example I examined back in 2013.
An initial playtest revealed that although it was possible to get the low notes, it required a bit of the old gorilla-grip in order to get them to speak clearly - but then again this is a horn that's seen five year's worth of use as opposed the brand new one in the addendum above. A visual inspection of the toneholes showed that they weren't too bad - or at least a great deal better than some of the earlier models I've seen.
Keilwerth SX90R Shadow tenor 126xxx low CI popped a flat standard over a few of the more accessible toneholes and found a few anomalies, of which the low C was the worst. It actually looks worse than it really is due to a bit of light reflection, and realistically I'd say it was only just very slightly worse than the sort of warp I see on many top-end horns. It measured out at just over a thou...which is enough to slide a silver Rizla paper through, and which would certainly cause a few problems with the note production.
The client had had successive services carried out (elsewhere) on the horn, but complained that the low end response never lasted that long - so I was commissioned to strip the horn down, examine every single tonehole and sort out any problems I found. And I found a few.
Every single tonehole showed a warp - but, again, within the sort of range I've seen on other brands.

I think it's fair to say that from new this horn probably blew quite well - but in the intervening five years the pads would have settled down and shrunk a little...which is enough to tip the balance from 'just sealing' to 'clearly leaking'. With practically every pad showing a slight leak it's no wonder the low notes were giving some gyp.

Keilwerth SX90R Shadow low BbAnd Keilwerth aren't doing themselves (or their customers) any favours with the method they've used for setting the pads.
Here's the low Bb, and you can see that there's just a dob of glue in the centre of the pad and a pretty mean smear around the edge...and absolutely nothing inbetween to support the main body of the pad. This is the trademark of a compression-set pad; there's just enough glue to hold the pad in the key cup, and then the key is clamped down against the tonehole. It's a common practice among the manufacturers (see my review of the Mauriat PMB-300UL baritone which came in at around the same time), and while you can (just about) get away with it on a horn with plain drawn toneholes, using it on one with rolled or pseudo-rolled rims is asking for trouble further down the line.
It also makes it very difficult for the repairer, because there's no glue to support any raising of the pad - and any adjustment you make won't last much beyond a couple of gigs. With the toneholes levelled off, many of the pads required no reseating - but those that did had to be removed and have fresh glue added.

With the toneholes nice and level and all the leaks ironed out, the horn regained its punch, poise and precision. The response was effortless and the horn sang as least as well as the previous Shadow I worked on. It's a great horn - but if you don't keep on top of the leaks it very quickly loses the presence that sets it aside from all the other horns.

In terms of build quality I think I have to say that this example isn't quite up to the standard of the previous 126xxx I examined, but it isn't too far short. At the very least it's considerably better than some of the earlier horns, and I'm prepared to mark it up as the natural variation you'll see on any two otherwise identical horns. As such I feel this example warrants a pass, and reinforces my opinion that Keilwerth have got their act together. But only just.

Addendum: Build date - 2015 (estimated): Review date - January 2020

Keilwerth SX90R vintage finish tenorFirst up - isn't this a beauty?
It's Keilwerth's 'Vintage' finish, which takes the currently-poplar fad for chemically tarnished brass and turns it into a more practical proposition by slapping a coat of clear lacquer over it - the upshot being that the horn won't go green and will always look like least until the lacquer wears off. And the brushed nickel keys provide a nice contrast to the rich hues of the body. I like it a very lot.

Anyway, this here horn sports a low range 129xxx serial number - which I estimate to mean a build date of around 2015...give or take a year maybe - which makes it the most recent example I've seen to date. Given the improvement in build quality I've seen since around 2012 I should have had quite high hopes for this tenor.
Have they built upon the improvements noted on the 126xxx models? Have they at least maintained them? Or is it just business as usual?
However, the client who brought it in complained of some difficulty and unreliability on the low notes. On most horns this could be down to leaky pads or poor regulation almost anywhere on the horn - but on the SX90R it tends to be symptomatic of tonehole warps...especially when it's a problem that seems to creep up on the player after a year or so.

SX90R 129xxx low B toneholeHere's the low B tonehole - and I'm rather afraid that it completely fails the flat standard test in quite a big way.
As you can see there are a couple of rather large warps either side of a high spot just left of centre - and the pattern more or less repeats around the rear of the tonehole. It's not good.
The low Bb was similarly affected, though to a lesser degree.

Wishing to give the horn the benefit of the doubt I'd say that the low B/Bb toneholes in isolation could have been subject to a bit of a knock - given how vulnerable they are. However, such a knock usually results in quite a distinctive warp pattern that tends to be focussed around the guard stays. A warp to the opposite side would not be usual.

SX90R 129xxx low C toneholeAnd here's the low C tonehole - which shows a slightly deeper warp.
All things considered I'd say that this horn is a bit of a step back from the previous example, and certainly nowhere near the standard of the one before that - which passed the flat standard test with flying colours. It's by no means the worst example I've seen, though - so I suppose I should be grateful for small mercies.
However, I know that Keilwerth can get it right when they put their mind to it - which makes it so very frustrating to see the quality control slipping. It's especially annoying inasmuch as the horn came in at the same time as a Yanagisawa TWO32...which had the most-level toneholes I've ever seen on a production horn.

I've quoted the owner for a strip down and level job (it ain't cheap, and these toneholes aren't the only wobbly ones), but having the work undertaken depends on whether he decides to hang on to the horn or not. If it were mine, I'd do it straightaway - it's a gorgeous-looking horn...and in spite of all the leaks it still has that characteristic Keilwerth bootiness.

I wished for better, and I'm disappointed. But maybe next time...


If you own a Keilwerth SX90R series horn and are concerned or curious as to whether your horn suffers from warped tone holes, 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 rolling reviews (good or bad).
There will be no charge for this, and 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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Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2018