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Lupifaro Platinum Vintage tenor saxophone

Lupifaro Platinum tenor sax reviewOrigin: Italy (mostly)
Guide price: £4000
Weight: 3.22kg
Date of manufacture: 2017? (Serial range: IT002xx)
Date reviewed: May 2019

A Borgani on a budget?

Boutique horns (essentially unbranded horns that are bought and badged by resellers) have been popular for a number of years now, and with good reason.
If you're prepared to put aside any concerns about where such horns are built, they offer the potential to bag yourself a decent horn at a significant saving over the cost of a comparable big name brand. However, you are, to some extent, taking something of a leap of faith - given that such horns are often sold by companies who have little or no history, and there's always the spectre of eventually finding out that the horn you splashed out for is identical to one that costs £300 less under a different brand name.
However, at the midrange price point (around two grand) such horns are pretty much all that's available to buy - given that even some of the larger manufacturers are buying in their lower ranges from out of town.

But when the asking price starts rising, so too do the questions - if only because there are competing offerings from established companies - and the biggest of these questions is "Is it worth it?"
That can often be quite a hard question to answer because boutique horns seldom have a reassuringly large user base from which to draw some 'herd comfort'. More often than not you have to make do with a handful of endorsements from fresh-faced young jazzers you've likely never heard of, and a few promising posts on a saxophone forum. You could, of course, simply try the horns out and make up your own mind - but that takes a degree of prowess in the chops department, and still leaves the vast majority of players in the dark with regard to the build quality of the horn...unless, of course, an example has found its way onto these hallowed pages...

And that's exactly what we have here. Or do we?
The Lupifaro brand is a relative newcomer to the scene and is a partnership between ex-Borgani design and product manager Luca Cardinali and a Swiss company of some description (admittedly I lost interest at this point) - and appears to offer a two horn range...the cheaper of which (the Gold range) seems to be an Asian-built boutique brand. The more expensive option, however, is the Platinum range - and this is distinct from a boutique horn insomuch as the body is crafted in Italy and the keywork is bought in from elsewhere.
I've no doubt some of you will be mumbling about that, but it's a manufacturing technique that's not without precedent - as we'll see later - and what it means is that the example shown here is a rather different beast than your bog-standard rebadged and blinged up boutique jobby.

I could probably witter on at some length about the ins/outs/pros/cons and the politics of where and how horns are made - but that would probably take up a page and half...and wouldn't make for very interesting reading - so let's just get on with taking the horn apart and seeing how it's been put together.

Before we get started I should apologise in advance for what's going to be a rather 'cramped' review. There are lots of things to say about the various features I found, and thus rather a lot of photos to squeeze in. I generally try to pad things out a bit for the sake of tidiness, but this horn had me beat good and proper - so you'll have to do your best and read around the photos.

I'll kick off with a quick word about the finish - 'Jazz Vintage', apparently. They've taken the bare horn and put it into some sort of acid/chemical bath before applying a coat of clear lacquer. Whether that was to impart a specific hue to the metal or simply to clean it up after assembly is anybody's guess - but as far as such finishes go it brings out the crystalline structure of the brass and doesn't look too bad at all. That being said, the process appears to have blackened the silver solder that's been used to assemble the keys and fittings, resulting in black rings around the base of the pillars and on the keywork - which, I feel, makes the horn look a little untidy.
This model is keyed to top F only; there's another model, the Classic, that's keyed to top F# and features a clear lacquered polished brass body.

Lupifaro Platinum tenor bell braceThe construction is ribbed (multiple pillars fitted to plates, which are then fitted to the body as a single item) along with a few smaller plates and a handful of individually-mounted pillars on suitably large bases. You get an adjustable metal thumb hook and a large flat plastic thumb rest.

From the outside the horn appears to feature a detachable bell, complete with a vintage Selmer-style two-point bell brace and a substantial clamp around the bottom bow joint. The bell brace is fixed to the bell but bolts onto a stub on the body section.
However, if you removed this bolt and the bottom bow clamp, the bell still wouldn't come off because it's been soldered on.
This, according to the blurb on several retailers' sites (though I couldn't find any mention of it on the manufacturer's site) is explained thusly: "A key feature of the Platinum series is the soldered bow to the bell which promotes unrestricted air flow, unique among modern saxophones. With no interruption between the bell and body, the instrument blows more easily and expresses a fuller tone." (I take this to mean that the bottom bow is soldered to the body - because a bell that's soldered to the bottom bow isn't unique at all. In fact it's completely standard practice, and always has been).

This is complete hogwash. Sure, a soldered joint is likely to be more reliable than a hot-melt glued joint (or simply a clamped joint) in the long term - but it won't have any mechanical or acoustic benefits over a joint that's been properly expoxied in place.
And what about promoting unrestricted airflow? I can't see how, given that the joint is exactly the same as every other bottom bow joint, whereby one tube fits inside another. I guess if you really took some time when designing the horn you could come up with a joint that was virtually seamless - but this ain't it. No - what we have here is your plain old bog-standard detachable joint...that's simply been soldered together.

Lupifaro Platinum tenor bottom bow joint solderAnd pretty badly at that. Unrestricted airflow? What about that dirty great mass of solder sticking up over the seam?
I suppose you could say that at least it shows the joint is good and properly soldered - there's no way that lot's going to give way in a hurry. But if you look a little further around the joint it's quite clear that the solder hasn't run evenly around the entire joint.

Lupifaro Platinum tenor bottom bow jointYou can see that the line of solder peters out on the left and then picks up again on the right, leaving an apparently unsoldered section in the middle. Thankfully it appears that at least some solder has flowed beneath the joint because I tested it with cigarette light fluid and found no leaks. But how much solder is in this section? I don't know. Might be plenty, might only be enough to seal the gap....for the time being.
The thing is, it ain't difficult to do a decent job of soldering a bottom bow joint up - especially if you haven't got to worry about any lacquer or plating. In fact it's quite a fun job to do (well it is for me, anyway), and there's a lot of job satisfaction to be had from watching a neat and shiny seam of solder follow the heat from the gas torch around the joint.

It raises an interesting question though. Why bother with a bottom bow clamp if you're going to solder the joint together? You could also ask "Why bother with a detachable bell stay too?" - but I suppose there's a case for making things slightly easier in the event that the bottom bow ever has to be taken off. If you intended the joint to be soldered while you were at the design stage you'd make it like most vintage horns and have a permanently-fitted decorative ring to act as a socket. I could be entirely wrong, but it looks very much like an afterthought to me...though perhaps there were some issues with the old-fashioned two-point bell brace being a touch on the weak side?

Lupifaro Platinum tenor low C pillarElsewhere on the body the solderwork is incredibly neat. In fact it's almost impossibly neat, and I wondered whether the pillars and fittings might have been spot-welded to the body. Normally you'll always see at least a faint grey line around the base of a soldered-on fitting even on the neatest job (and quite a lot more on a scruffy one) - but I really had to trawl up and down the body to find any 'witness marks'. I found some eventually, which settled the question - and then I saw this.

It's the low C/Eb upper pillar, and it's clearly taken a bit of a knock because it's canted very slightly forward and the base has lifted away from the body. That's not the problem - slightly displaced pillars are part and parcel of the light knocks and dings that any horn accrues during its working life - no, the problem is that there's no solder underneath this part of the base. You can see right underneath, and it's nothing but bare brass.
This throws up a rather disconcerting thought; what if the reason there are no witness marks around the pillar bases is because there simply isn't enough solder underneath them? And why would they be so neatly fitted when the bottom bow joint soldering was so bloody awful? It doesn't make any sense.

Lupifaro Platinum tenor low C# toneholeThe toneholes are all plain drawn, and on the whole were mostly level - which is to say they were no better or worse than those on just about any other modern horn these days - except for the low C, Eb, E, G and side C, which had noticeable warps.
The low C# had a "Buffer's dip". This is caused by being bit heavy-handed on the buffing machine, and you can see there's a polished section to the rear of the tonehole where the buffing mop has ground a dip into the rim. This is essentially why the horn came in for a service. Over the last couple of years the response and performance had dropped off - and this was entirely down to the pads losing some of their elasticity and/or shrinking slightly and thus no longer being able to accommodate the discrepancies in the worst of the toneholes.

There's a full set of detachable bell key guards, complete with bumper felt adjusters - and there's also a fixed guard around the side F#.
I was very surprised at the thickness of the low C and Eb guards - or should I say the thinness? The brass is just 0.8mm thick, which is typical of the sort of guards you'll find on an Ultra-Cheap Chinese horn. This really is very under par at this price point, unless they're intentionally thin so as to act like a crumple zone on a car. It kinda makes sense given that the bell key guards take most of the knocks, and a stiff guard is likely to stove the body tube in before it gives way and crumples.
Lupifaro Platinum tenor low C guardAs such it's an inspired design feature...which is why it's odd that they don't shout about it in the blurb (like the soldered bottom bow joint).
It's also odd that they gave up on the idea when it came to the low B/Bb guard, which is 1mm thick. That's still a touch on the thin side; the spare Selmer guards I have in stock all measure out at 1.2mm thick. I'll leave you to make up your own mind as to the merits of fitting thin bell key guards...

So much for the body then - now it's time to take a close look at the keywork, which, apparently, is bought in from elsewhere.
Now, I know a few people will huff and puff about this - but I completely understand why it makes sense. If I ever had a desire to build a horn I'm pretty damn sure that my main focus would be on the body. That's the heart and soul of the horn - anything else is just so much mayonnaise. Loads of players have made comments about the particular tonal qualities of various horns - but when was the last time you heard one say "...and oh my, that Bis Bb key! What a beauty!!". I rest my case.
In any event it's not unheard of. For example, Mr. Inderbinen makes horns that practically play themselves - but chooses to fit Yamaha professional keywork on them. He make no secret of it, and why should he? It's good keywork, after all.

With that said, it makes little sense to go to all the trouble of pouring your heart and soul into forming the most exquisite body...and then chucking on a set of keys that were built by a short-sighted wrestler with a headache and an especially nasty case of the old farmer's...
Or so you'd think - because this is where it all goes tragically wrong for the Lupifaro.

Lupifaro Platinum tenor top D key wobbleThere are lots of places you can buy keywork from in Taiwan/China - but as with any industry there are companies which excel, companies that do OK...and companies that manage to scrape by because they're cheap. And, I'm sure, there are a number of companies that pretend to be something they're not. If you're as curious about such things as I am you won't be satisfied with a glib "keywork from Taiwan/China". Oh no, you'll want names, dates, prices...the whole shebang. Unfortunately I don't have that kind of information...but what I do have is some experience of fixing 'boutique horns' - and there's much about this Lupifaro that I've seen somewhere before.
Now, I'm not saying I've nailed this thing bang to rights - so I'm simply going to go over what I found and finish up with an interesting comparison. From that point on it'll be up you to use your skill and judgement to draw your own conclusions.

The very first thing I noticed was how wobbly much of the keywork was.

Here's the top D key ('scuse dirty thumbnail). There's significant play in the key, such that the cup moves quite some distance side-to-side. This is down to play in the key barrel - but note the ends of the barrel, how they are free to move back-and-forth between the pillars.
I see this sort of wear on a regular basis - and there are two ways it occurs; it either comes as a result of years of use, or it was built in at the factory. There are ways to tell the difference, but all I had to do on this horn was remove the rod (or hinge) screw.

Lupifaro Platinum splayed rod screwsHere it is, along with the two others from the palm key group.
It was quite clear (though you can't see it in the photo) that the head of the rod screw was moving in the pillar. This is a sure-fire sign that the rod screw is undersized...either through wear or poor manufacture. The very big giveaway in this instance is that someone knew these rods were undersized and took (ahem) steps to rectify the situation - by squeezing the rod screw heads with a pair of wire cutters so as to flare out the ends. It's as bodgey a bodge as you'll ever see, and about the only place you might expect to find it is on the worst of the Ultra-Cheap horns.
Oh, it works well enough - it forces the head of the screw into an oval and thus takes up most of the free play. But not all - and it does bugger all for the free play in the key barrel. In short, it's crap.

But hey, it's only the palm keys - what's a little wobble between friends? And besides, those pads more or less self-centre themselves, don't they?
Lupifaro Platinum tenor topstack playOK, let's have a look at the top stack then. The stack key are the very heart of the action, and while you might think you can get away with a few wobbly ancillary keys, you sure as hell can't play fast and loose with the stacks. Can you?

The technical term for what you see here is "Flapping about in the breeze".
As per the palm keys the rod screw is undersized for both the key barrels and the pillars. It may look as though the only result of this is that the Auxiliary B key wobbles about a bit, but as with any play on the main stacks it'll have a knock-on effect down the line. So when you play an A, the A key comes down and also closes the Aux.B key - but it can never do so properly because as soon as the A key pad hits the tonehole and stops the key dead in its tracks, the Aux.B key will take up the free play in the key barrel and pillar...and open just a tad. Oh, it won't be by much, to be sure, but it'll be enough to knock a percentage off the tone and response.
You could compensate for it by adjusting the regulation of the A key so that the Aux.B key will always close...but this will mean that the A key will now always leak slightly. And the same thing will be happening to the B key. So you lose a bit on the B, you lose a bit on the A...and you lose more and more as you go further down the horn and encounter similar play on the lower stack.
It's like trying to drink tea from a mug that has a hole in it. You'll drink some...for sure, but you'll never drink it all. And you paid top dollar for that mug too.

Lupifaro Platinum tenor  low Eb  keyEvery rod screw mounted key exhibited the same issue - though to be completely fair, the side Bb and C keys, the octave key swivel and the front top F auxiliary lever only needed a bit of swedging to snug them up. Here's the low Eb key, and you can see that the barrel's been drilled/reamed off centre - and it wasn't the only key so affected. In itself it's not that much of an issue, it won't alter the functionality of the key in any significant way, it just shows a lack of attention to detail and accuracy.
The accompanying shot shows the original rod screw sitting in the barrel, and you can clearly see it's undersized. It might not look like much, but this amount of free play will translate into a significant amount of movement at the key cup - easily enough to knacker any hope of achieving a precise and repeatable pad seat.

Lupifaro Platinum tenor  low C pillar playBut there's an extra kick in the teeth because there's just as much play between the rod screw and the pillar, which effectively doubles the amount of play at the key cups.
It's less serious here than it is on the main stacks, but this sort of sloppiness can make the difference between a low C that's solid and resonant, and one that's inconsistent and unstable. And it'll do much the same for the notes below it. The G# rod screw was similarly sloppy, and if there's one place on the whole horn where you don't want any sloppy action, it's on the G#. Trust me on that. It's difficult enough as it is to keep the damn key from opening fractionally when the bell key table is in play - even when the setup is a tight as the proverbial drum. The slightest bit of play in the key barrel and all bets are off.

It's patently obvious that this play was built in from new, and as it was my job to make the horn work properly I had to decide what I was going to do about it.
The undersized rod screws presented me with something of a quandary. I could elect to fit bushes to the pillars and this would solve the poor fit of the rods in them, but it would mean a certain amount of cosmetic damage and I'd still have to take up the play in the key barrels...which would require a great deal of swedging.
I could peen the pillars to reduce the diameter of the hole, but this technique only works on the outer edges of the pillar and isn't really what I call a proper fix. It also still leave the play in the key barrels to deal with.
So I decided to go with making oversized rods. The original stack rods measured 2.78mm and the overdrilled pillars would accommodate a 2.84mm rod screw with a nice snug fit. This would leave me with a few pillars to ream out slightly (easy-peasy) and likewise a few keys (no big deal). Or at least half of them - in some cases the oversized rod would slide halfway along the key barrel before it jammed...which in itself is rather worrying on a horn that's practically new. This is the neatest fix and restores full contact between the rods and the barrels, as well as the pillars, and requires the minimum amount of key swedging to sort out the axial (end-to-end) play. In other words exactly as it should have been when it came off the production bench.
Similarly, the palm keys rods were upgraded from 2.46mm to 2.56mm - and I also had to upgrade the G# and low C/Eb rod screws.

Lupifaro Platinum tenor  low CFew, if any, of the key barrel ends were finished off square. Here's a typical example, on the low C key. If you had any doubts as to whether the wobbly keys were down to poor manufacture or wear, this ought to seal the deal. There's simply no way you could wear the key in this fashion, with the end of the key barrel set at an angle.
Part of the problem with poorly squared barrel ends is that it concentrates the friction over a smaller surface area than if the barrels had full face contact. This leads to early and rapid wear of both barrels - so a key fit like this starts off bad and just gets progressively worse unless it's dealt with.

Lupifaro Platinum tenor crook keyUp at the other end of the horn we have the crook key. The key barrel was too short to fit snugly between the key barrels but it's clear that some sort of 'fitting' has been carried out on it because both ends were burred over (it's easier to see on the outer end). It's rough as guts and twice as nasty.

I guess by now you kinda get the picture, but it doesn't stop there. All of the keywork issues above are pretty serious, but the slap-dash build quality continues down the scale to issues that are far less critical but still rather naff.

Here's the bell key table, and as you can see it's a standard tilting table affair. Nothing wrong with that.
The compound bell key pillar is of the semicircular type and is soldered to the body. The bases are a touch on the small side, so I wouldn't say that it's a particularly sturdy setup - but otherwise it seems to work well enough.
Lupifaro Platinum tenor bell key tableTake a look at the G# key pearl though. In common with the rest of the pearls it's proper mother-of-pearl, which is nice. The main stack pearls have a flat profile on them, which I feel lends the horn a distinctive and retro feel under the fingers. They missed a trick by putting a flat pearl on the Bis Bb though, but both the oval pearls on the G# and side F# are slightly domed.
But look at the discrepancy between the thickness of the pearl and the depth of the pearl holder. The top of the pearl barely rises above the height of the pearl holder, and the sides are nowhere near high enough.
Granted, you won't notice it for much of your playing but once you start sliding back and forth across the table your finger is going to have to cross that gap on the nearside of the pearl. And over time that gap will fill up with icky finger grease.
It's all just a bit 'bargain basement', and you have to wonder how anyone could have thought "Hey, that looks just fine and dandy".

Lupifaro Platinum tenor  rollersBut if it's of any consolation, the fit of the rollers is just as pants as the G# pearl. They're a good couple of millimetres to short for the touchpieces - but presumably they're 'close enough for jazz'.

Another minor flaw is the spring on the top Eb key - it doesn't sit in the channel that's been cut into the palm key plate. It might not look like much of an issue but it means the profile of the spring is all wrong, and so the bottom of the key hits the spring when the key is pressed down.
This makes the action feel very spongy, and you get none of the typical 'snap' you'd expect from a palm key. It's an easy fix - simply cut a few millimetres off the end of the spring so that it sits in the channel, tidy it up and bend the tip upwards...and hey presto, one snappy Eb key.
It took as long to fix is as it did to type the last two paragraphs, it's that simple. So why was it left like this?

Lupifaro Platinum tenor top Eb springThe point screws use the crappy Selmer type sprung inserts. I've no love for this system and feel that its drawbacks far outweigh its advantages.
Yes, it ensures that any wear and tear is taken up by the sprung inserts, but it also means that the action can never be really tight...there's always going to be a degree of play in it.
However, on Selmer's implementation of the system the inserts have a short stub on the rear end that wedges them into the the insert and spring are effectively a single unit. On the Lupifaro they're quite separate. When the keys are fitted to the horn it makes no difference at all - but when you start to remove the keys you might find that you're in for a very nasty surprise...because as soon as the end of the barrel clears the head of the pillar, those poxy inserts are likely to ping off into the sunset. Which is exactly what happened when I removed the first point screw mounted key.

Lupifaro Platinum tenor sprung barrelI saw the bloody thing fly off and heard the dreaded double-ping - which means it hit something, bounced off, hit something else and bounced off again. The chances of finding the thing were next to zero, but I gave it my best shot for a good 15 minutes before firing up the lathe and turning a new one in less than a couple of minutes.*
The inserts proved to be a right pain in the arse all the way through the job because even if they don't spring off into the wide blue yonder, they simply drop out of the barrels as soon as you pick the key up. If you're tempted to do any home maintenance on one of these horns you'd be very well advised to do so in a spartan room with a spotless white floor.

*Just before publishing this review I got a text message from the owner, showing me a photo of a small brass tube he'd found in the case. I guessed it was a barrel insert but didn't immediately put two-and-two together, so had him drop by with the horn for a checkover. I was expecting to find a key hanging loose, but everything seemed to be intact.
It was only then that I remembered one of the inserts had shot off into the distance - so it must have hit the wall of the workshop and bounced back to land in the case that would have been open on the table behind the workbench. What're the chances of that!?

On a lighter note (and gawd knows we could do with it), what d'you reckon's been going on here?
I mentioned earlier that the finishing process highlighted the silver soldering by turning it black - and if you look at the end of the top E key barrel you can see a distinct ring around it.
That's because an extension piece has been fitted. It's no big deal in itself, but I have to wonder why it was necessary. Was the supplied key too short, or was the pillar moved back for some reason? It's highly unlikely that the pillar was moved because it's fitted to a plate that houses the body octave key pip and the G key upper pillar. So perhaps the octave key pip placement was moved?
Lupifaro Platinum tenor top E keyThis makes more sense. Maybe they noticed some issues with the tuning between the octaves and had to punt the pip back five or so millimetres - leaving the stock E key that much short of the pillar.
As I say, it's no big deal...but for all the sax geeks out there I guess this might mark this example out as a 'transitional' model.

Lupifaro Platinum tenor padsThere's a good set of pads fitted - Pisoni Pro, no less. These are excellent pads, worthy of any decent horn - but it seems silly to spec a top-quality pad and then fit it carelessly.
As you can see, the "Li'l dab'll do ya" method had been used - with a squirt of hot-melt glue around the perimeter of the key cup and an ineffectual swirl in the centre of the key cup which isn't thick enough to touch the rear of the rest of the pad. There's not even a half-hearted attempt to seal the rivet.
You could get away with this if you were sure that the cup, pad and tonehole were completely level, and you focussed on achieving the correct cup angle - but as we've already seen, the toneholes simply aren't level enough to cope with this method of seating the pads.
In other words you're going to have to float the pad seat in, and work the pads around the discrepancies...and you can't do that unless there's a decent bed of glue for the pad to sit upon.

Well, I don't know about you lot but I'm properly fed up of poking this horn with a stick, so I'll wrap up the technical stuff by saying that there are no adjusters on the main stacks (there are the usual ones on the Bis Bb, G# and low C# though), the side keys feature plain fork and pin connectors and the corkwork is scruffy and mediocre (not a sign of composite cork anywhere) - and, finally, the action is powered by blued steel springs.

Lupifaro Platinum tenor side keyI said earlier that there was much about this horn that I'd seen elsewhere before, and at this point I refer you to my review of the Rare TS-7306L tenor (which you might want to open in a new tab).
In terms of the bodywork fittings there's a lot that matches up.
There's the two-point bell brace, which is fixed to the bell and bolted to the body tube; there's the thick, plain bottom-bow clamp and a similar ring on the base of the bell; there's the same tiny 14/8 sling ring; the shape of the cut-outs on the bell key guards; the same 3-slot bumper adjusters. However, you could argue that such things are generic - in the same way that many Ultra-Cheap horns closely resemble the professional models they're 'based upon'.
But if we look a little deeper and compare the keywork we see the same Selmer-style sprung points and the same touchpiece profiles. But the clincher for me is that this horn exhibited exactly the same key fit issues as I found on the Rare, right down to the dimensions of the rod screws - as well as the undersized rods, off-centre barrel bores and uneven and burred barrel ends.

I think it's reasonable to assume that as well as the keywork being bought in, so too are the pillars and fittings. And there's nothing really wrong with this. As I said earlier, the body tube is the heart of the instrument and you can save a considerable amount of time and money by focussing your effort where your skills lie and fitting off-the-shelf parts to complete the project. But I'm really struggling to understand why you'd go to all the bother of making a bespoke body and then kitting it out with what's clearly substandard keywork.
But it doesn't end there - because it's clear that many issues have been ignored, and some have even been bodge-fixed. It's way, way below par at this price point.

It didn't come in with its original case (it was now in a Winter shaped case), but the owner told me it wasn't up to much and he ditched it pretty quickly.

Under the fingers the horn feels comfortable and reasonably slick - but it certainly wasn't like this when it came in, what with all the loose keywork. The sprung points will always knock a percentage off the slickness, but unless you play the horn side-by-side with, say, a MkVI that's been tweaked to perfection, you probably won't notice it all that much. I liked the feel of the flat pearls, though that's very much a personal preference and I'm aware that players to tend to be on the wet side may well prefer concave pearls for a bit of extra grip.
It's quite comfy round the neck, what with being one of the lighter horns on the market. Not the lightest, for sure, but pretty close.

It's fair to say that the horn's had a bit of a drubbing on the review workbench, so the big question now is whether or not it will do the typically Italian thing and shine through is spite of all the faults and quirks. To which the answer is "Yes. Yes it will".
Despite never having played a Lupifaro before, it felt immediately familiar. I daresay this'll be down to its Borgani credentials, because it has that same verve and sprightliness that I've noted in their horns in the past. It's eager, it's responsive and drop-dead easy to blow. Tonewise it's beautifully balanced, but - and here's the killer feature - that balance is on a knife-edge. You can steer it straight down the middle with no problem at all, it's got enough stability to keep you from falling off the rails, but if you tip your hat to the smooth or set it at a jaunty and edgy angle, the horn responds in an instant. Relax and chill, and the horn brings out a rich midrange with just enough crackle around the edges to stop you from dozing off. Kick things up a notch and it crisps up the tone and pours a bucket of fizz over it. And it gets better because it'll do this at any volume. It's got that "What shall we play now?" thing going on that always gets a big tick in my book. I liked it a lot, and it reminded me why Borgani were one of the three horns on my "Which one to get" list some years ago.
Evenness across the range? You got it. Tuning? No problems. Oh, and while you don't get a top F# key on this horn, you'll be pleased to hear that the 'fake' top F# (front top F + side Bb) is bang in tune.

Lupifaro Platinum tenor  bellAt this point I should, for the sake of balance, relate to you how the client came to buy this horn in the first place.
There are two things you should know beforehand. The first is that he's an accomplished professional. If you watch music shows on TV (in the UK) you've probably seen him - either as a soloist or with a horn section. It's safe to say he's no 'weekend warrior'. The second is that he used to play a rather fine Selmer MkVI tenor, which he subsequently sold after he bought this horn.

In choosing a new horn he selected a group of tenors to try and took along a fellow pro to act as a pair of 'blind ears' - who would only be able to hear the horns being played but would not see them. The client blew through the field of candidates, mentally marked the one he liked the most and then asked his friend to call out which number (from 1 to whatever) that sounded the best. The Lupifaro was put up against a Yamaha Custom, a TJ RAW, two Keilwerth SX90Rs, a Forestone, and a couple of MkVIs. I thought the latter choice was a bit odd, given that he already had a MKVI - but he just wanted to see whether either of these two examples would be any better then his own (they weren't).
And here's the thing - they both agreed on the winner. And it wasn't a particularly close-run thing either, though he did say that the Forestone would have been his second choice. Not that this tells you very much; players' opinions are a dime a dozen - but it at least indicates that the horn has a certain terms of its playability anyway.

What about the competition?
Assuming a retail price of four grand we have to start off with the Yanagisawa TW020. OK, it's around £100 more - but when you're spending four grand on a horn it's surely churlish to quibble about a hundred quid either way. But if you're on a tight budget there's always the Yamaha 82Z at £100 less. Both of these horn are titans - if not in playability (AKA personal preference) then certainly in build quality. If you prefer your horn to be a little more left field there's the Keilwerth SX90R for £150 below budget, and the Rampone R1 (which I've not yet seen) at over £500 less. And then there's the formidable TJ RAW XS, which is less expensive still.

So can I recommend the Lupifaro Platinum?
On the basis of this example, no. I'm sure we're all agreed that the way a horn sounds is of the utmost importance, but it should never be an excuse for poor build quality. Having a great-sounding horn is all fine and dandy, but you want it to be reliable and stay sounding great over a prolonged period of time. This example hadn't seen a lot of use - barely a dozen gigs since new - and it came in with the sort of keywork issues that you'd see on a horn that had seen a decade of hard and heavy use.
I can't speak for anyone else but when I spend four grand on a horn I have certain and perfectly reasonable expectations, of which one is that the quality of the action should be commensurate with the asking price.
I mean, even the humble Yamaha 280/23 kicks this thing into a corner in terms of the keywork - and I've seen many an Ultra-Cheap horn that could give it a good run for its money.
The Rare tenor barely passed muster at a directly-imported price of £1500, so I can't in all honesty lower the bar for the very much pricier Lupifaro.

You might think I've been unduly harsh on the Lupifaro, but having spent some time reading the website blurb and some of the retailers' bumf it struck me that they're definitely 'talking the talk' when it comes to bigging up the performance aspects. All that guff about unrestricted airflow and suchlike is just so much hot air if the workbench reveals that the horn don't 'walk the walk'. You know what I'm sayin'?
I'm no fan of marketing spiel (as is well known), but if the end product hits the mark I'm happy to let it pass with a sigh and maybe a knock or two during the course of a review. But it has to hit the mark.

This horn is two years old, and from looking on the manufacturer's web site it appears that a few things have been changed. There are some differences in the keywork ('improved' and 'impeccable' mechanics are mentioned), and some of the pillar bases look to be a different shape - and the pearls have been replaced with wooden ones. If it's the case that the issues have been recognised and addressed, then yes, I'd be happy to give this horns the old thumbs up because it's essentially a Borgani on a budget. It's a fine horn that deserves a fine action - but I can only review the horn that's on the bench. And even if it had the voice of an angel, I wouldn't buy it.
But maybe you'd feel that splashing out four grand on a horn that seems to blow like a Borgani and a further few hundred on having the action finished off is still a good bet. It's your call.
I'd very much like to see a few more examples, especially a more recent one - so if anyone out there has one of these horns and wants to bring it by the workshop for an examination, I'd be more than happy to add my findings to this review.

Addendum May 2020:

  I've had some correspondence in regarding the origin of this horn, but because I can't personally confirm any of the details I'm not really at liberty to post it publicly.
However, a comparison was made with Hanson horns - and as it happens I've just had two of them come in for a service. I've published my review here - and you'll have to make up your own mind about it.

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Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2019