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Ultra-Cheap horns

First published 2004

There's an old Chinese curse that goes 'May you live in interesting times'.
As far as the world of student instruments goes, at least in terms of Ultra-Cheap horns, these are indeed interesting times - and your definition of 'interesting' is likely to depend on whether you're a buyer or a seller of student instruments.

If you've read my article on general hints for buyers you'll have noticed that I divided up instruments into three sections; student, intermediate and professional.
Well, there's a new kid on the block - and it's the Ultra-Cheap horn.
These horns are a recent development. Up until then it had been pretty much safe to say that anything below a certain price point was certain to be not only cheap but very nasty. Life was easy - when people asked me what horns to buy or to avoid I could simply point to a minimum specification and tell people not to drop below it.
But lately there's been in influx of horns made by manufacturers that no-one's heard of - often sold under shop or supplier trade names or on online auction sites, such as Ebay.

I've seen a few of these cheap instruments in the past, and on the whole they really have been of very poor quality - but it appears that some manufacturers have got their act together and are now turning out respectable student instruments at prices that are, quite frankly, unbelievable.

This is a good thing, naturally - but with the market still awash with mediocre cheap horns it's going to be hard to tell which make is good and which is bad.
In short, this means that without a creditable recommendation there's still a chance that you might end up buying one of the nastier cheap horns - until such times as the word gets round on which brands are up to scratch, and the substandard ones disappear off the market.
This raises something of a problem for me, ethically.
The horns reviewed on my site are widely available from a range of suppliers worldwide - or, in the case of used horns, from assorted private individuals and dealers. Ultra-Cheap horns are sourced in an entirely different way.
Here's how it works. It appears that there are about half a dozen or so manufacturers making these instruments. Practically anyone can place a bulk order, and can have the horns stamped with any name they like.
This means that the same horn can be bought from several different suppliers under correspondingly different names - though it's unlikely that the average punter would be able to tell...and there's certainly no guarantee that two apparently identical horns actually come from the same factory (you'll see why in a moment).

If, then, I review a horn labelled 'XYZ', you would only be able to purchase it from the company that labelled the horn - and if my review was generally positive it could follow that the distributor might use the review as a source of free advertising, and thus a source of income.
You could argue that the same is true for, say, Yamaha - but with the removal of a dealer network I feel it places me one step too close to the dealers (I make an exception for specialist products, typically made by individual craftsmen, which can't be sourced any other way).
I feel that my reviews are generally respected by those who have an interest in such things, and a significant portion of that respect is due to my independence - you'll not see any banners advertising such-and-such a horn, nor any indications of sponsorship. This means that when I praise a horn it's due to a collection of impressions based on my technical experience - and not because someone's slipping me an envelope full of cash. In other words, I write precisely the sort of reviews I'd want to see if I were in the market for a new horn. (See March 08 revision below).

Another issue is that of the speed at which these horns are changing.
I recently examined an Ultra-Cheap alto, and a few months later I had the opportunity to examine another example of the same brand. The first example was rather good, the second example was virtually a completely different horn - and slightly better.
The folks that are producing these horns don't appear to be slow in making improvements - which means that by the time I get around to publishing a review it could well be completely out of date!
Furthermore, there is a certain amount of 'mimicry' going on. The horn I just mentioned was a remarkably close copy of one of Yanagisawa's, right down to the shape of the guard plate on the crook. It seems fair to me to assume that if these companies are prepared to copy designs from other manufacturers then it's entirely feasible that they may copy designs from each other.
In order for me to provide an accurate review, I'd have to examine examples on a monthly basis - and that's just not feasible.

In some ways the manufacturers have shot themselves in their own feet. Without a consistent brand line it's virtually impossible to pin specific models down. This may change in due course, if the manufacturers decide that there's money to be made in establishing a formal dealer network. Conn-Selmer have taken steps to exploit this gap in the market - by having a horn produced in China and marketed worldwide under a known brand name.
It's clear that something needs to be done - the industrial expansion is running at a fantastic rate, and western governments are already uneasy about the impact that this new economy will have on their own. Even the Chinese government is aware of this potential problem, and has considered self-imposed export rules in order to prevent good from flooding other markets (the clothing industry in particular).
They're not alone either - a similar thing is happening in India, and it might not be long before we see Ultra-Cheap horns sourced from there.

I for one am not going to underestimate the Chinese. Many moons ago it was the Taiwanese that were turning out the cheapest horns, and in recent years there's been a shift there towards developing more upmarket products.
It might seem improbable that the Chinese could turn out a pro spec. horn, but then again they have a history of music that goes back far beyond that of the western world (I recall being amused when Yamaha flutes first hit the UK markets - and people could be heard to say 'Japanese flutes?? What do the Japanese know about flutes??')...and furthermore, if you can build 'the bomb' you can almost certainly find someone who can design and build you a saxophone...
It's a mistake too to think that the Chinese are content to knock out cheap horns and leave it at that. I've noted in my dealings with those who are importing such horns that there's a system of feedback to the manufacturers. If a particular instrument has a manufacturing problem, the dealer will return or scrap the instrument and apply for a refund. Obviously this costs the manufacturer, and there appears to be a will to rectify such problems at source. That's why the horns are getting better all the time.
It's interesting too that distributors are seeking advice from people like me - there's a lot of competition out there, and the last thing a retailer wants is to be stuck with a consignment of substandard horns. Given that there's very little (if any) difference in price between the good examples and the duff ones, this process of 'filtration' will eventually ensure a more even level of quality in the marketplace.
It's rather more worrying than that though - it appears that the Chinese are now actively seeking out western expertise, offering very lucrative deals to people who might be able to teach their technicians and designers. No longer content with simply exporting cheap goods, they're now importing top-quality skills. You can work out for yourself what this will mean in the long term.

I mentioned earlier that some (in fact many, if not all) of these horns are copies of significantly more expensive instruments. Why, don't you wonder, haven't the manufacturers of the original instruments sought to stop their products being ruthlessly copied in this fashion?
I suspect that most of it is down to the sheer problems of trying to negotiate with the Chinese - it isn't exactly an open economy.
Then again it could well be that it's not that bad a thing as far as they're concerned.
Consider a student who's bought a sax that's a close copy of a Yanagisawa. When that student progresses to the stage that he or she decides to buy a decent horn, they'll most likely end up in a music shop with a choice of half a dozen or more different horns to try out. If there's a Yanagisawa horn among them it will already have a considerable advantage in that it will feel immediately comfortable in the player's hands. It might not sound like much of an advantage but there's many a nice horn out there that I've tried and liked in terms of tone, but just haven't been able to get to grips with the feel. In a highly competitive market that head start is potentially worth a great deal of money.
Having said that, it's sometimes less clear what these copies are based on. For example, it's possible to buy horns that combine a number of features as seen on a variety of different makes; thus you might find a horn that has mainly Yanagisawa style keys but a Selmer octave key mechanism. In some cases the basic body remains the same whilst the keys and fittings are changed.
There's also the fact that the high-end manufacturers tend not to dabble in the student horn market - so they're unlikely to lose much business to Ultra Cheap horns anyway...and the more players there are in general, the more chance they have that some of them will buy their instruments.
The people that are feeling the pinch are those that only make student horns - and they will have to move upmarket (as Jupiter and Trevor James are trying to do) or simply give up and go home (as some already have).

It's impossible to ignore this phenomenon, so I have decided to review a Chinese horn 'anonymously'. This should give you some idea as to what to expect from one of the better examples without actually naming a specific brand - you can read the review here.
Naturally this instrument has flaws and limitations, but none of which are of that much consequence to the sort of buyer this horn is built for. Whack another three hundred pounds on the price and perhaps I might complain a bit more loudly about a few minor niggles - but at its current price of £220 it's quite simply extremely difficult to find fault with the instrument without appearing to be nit-picking.

And there are those who will nit-pick.
For example, when conducting my research on Ultra-Cheap horns I came across several opinions posted to various boards and forums on the web. One in particular made me chuckle - it consisted of several paragraphs bemoaning the poor quality of an instrument, along with negative references to its tone and tuning...and yet the first sentence in the article said something like "I've never seen one of these horns...but..".
Similarly, on another forum a poster had replied to the question "Are Chinese horns any good?" by saying "Definitely do not get a Chinese sax, they are terrible"...but then goes on to recommend the Conn-Selmer Prelude (and even describes it as "an exceptional instrument") - which is, yep, you guessed it, a Chinese horn.
I think that says it all.
Contrast this to my experience, of actually working on and playing these horns - and of being able to compare them side-by-side with very much more expensive instruments, and to be able to do so with whichever client happens to wander into the workshop as an unsuspecting tester. I can tell you, I've seen a few jaws drop.
And consider this. If I were offered a run of gigs abroad I'd very seriously consider buying an Ultra-Cheap horn for the job. Why risk my expensive instruments in the hold of an aircraft, or chance their well-being to careless baggage handlers? A cheap horn placed in a proper flight case and my mouthpieces carried in my pocket, and I'd be more than happy. I wouldn't have considered this before now, as cheap horns just didn't feel good enough. I already know of other pros who're using such horns in similar circumstances, where an expensive horn might be at risk or where there's a need for doubling on an instrument they don't normally play.

Be wary too of the oldest retailing trick in the book - whereby a seller goes to great lengths to discredit the 'opposition', and then proudly recommends their 'own brand' range of instruments...that almost certainly come from the same source. That said, buying from an established dealer is always a good bet - but a lot of new companies (particularly on the internet) have sprung up to service this new market, and some of them are very good indeed. Ask them a few questions and see how well they respond - the good ones will value your custom from the outset.
To be fair - there are still some nasty horns still out there - but if you're careful enough when seeking out opinions you should manage to avoid the duff 'uns.

From a trade point of view, what's most interesting is the impact these horns will have on my profession.
On the negative side I can foresee a time coming when the cost of repairs needed is going to exceed either the retail price of the horn, or at least a good portion of it. In essence this will make these 'disposable' horns. Use them for four or five years, then toss them and buy a new one - it certainly won't be cost effective to have them repadded or overhauled.

But there's a much larger plus side, which is that these instruments represent truly affordable options for parents on a tight budget, or those who feel they might just be catering to a child's whim, or just the plain casual buyer who fancies having a go at playing an instrument...but not at £500 a throw.
That opens up a whole new market and a whole new generation of potential musicians - and that just has to be good for business all round.
It's also good for education - schools obviously have to work within budgets...if instrument were free then every child would have the opportunity to at least have a go. Reasonable instruments at low prices mean that schools may be able to more than double their inventory of musical instruments.
I'm already seeing this happen. I have a number of clients who've invested in a Chinese instrument. Some are experienced players, buying starter horns for their children, others are just parents wishing to start theirs kids off on a musical journey...and then there are the professional musicians I mentioned earlier.

Even more interesting is what might happen in a few years time.
Assume you've bought one of these Ultra Cheap horns, and now it's time to get rid of it. What are you going to sell it for?
If you've had it a few years you might ask £80 for it. If the market is full of similar horns up for sale, you might have to go down to £50.
£50 for a saxophone!
This opens up a whole new market - the casual buyer.
There must be millions of people out there who've always fancied 'having a go' at the sax (or flute, or clarinet etc...and I've seen some good, remarkably cheap flutes too).
For fifty quid, what have they got to lose? OK, even if the vast majority of them give it up as a bad job it will still leave huge numbers of people who might discover that they can actually play something - and isn't that what it's all about?
Think too, what this means for the current supply of the previous generation of student quality instruments. They're already feeling the strain - who's going to pay £150 for a tired old Eastern European sax that was never that much cop in the first place, when another £70 can get you a new instrument that far outclasses it? When secondhand Ultra Cheap horns hit the market you might find the only way to get rid of an older student horn is to give the thing away - or put it on Ebay and hope there's someone out there who doesn't know any better.

And there's another reason why I'm cautiously positive about this change in the market.
Very few players are going to play these cheap horns forever. The average student, having found that they get on with the instrument, will start to take an interest in what else is available. This information will come from a variety of sources - word of mouth, meeting other players, even perhaps finding sites like my own on the internet.
This is going to put them on the upgrade path - and given that you can't upgrade what ain't there it seems nothing short of encouraging that the market will be awash with a whole new generation of horn players who want better instruments.

For the time being though, I would advise caution. It's not enough to assume that just any brand of horn will do - the same caveats apply as per any other instrument, and when buying an Ultra-Cheap horn you absolutely must seek out reliable and independent information as regards quality.
You must bear in mind that these instruments are not likely to be set up at all well - you should budget around another £40 for a good service (this price has come down as the quality has gone up, a more realistic figure is about £20), and perhaps another £25 for a decent mouthpiece where necessary.
I'd strongly recommend ditching the supplied neck-strap. I've had reports (and seen examples) of these giving way - which often results in the horn hitting the deck. Most of these are of the 'swivel' variety - and if you examine the top of the hook where it fits into the crosspiece you might see that the locking plug has a single slit in it. This type will give way under stress.
Get something like a 'BG' strap, which has a double slit on the locking plug.

I should also add that it's not worth emailing me for specific recommendations regarding purchases, for the reasons given above.

Update: Nov.06

When I originally wrote this article I expressed a firm belief that the Chinese horn manufacturers wouldn't simply be satisfied with knocking out endless supplies of cheap horns of a certain standard - I could already see process of improvements and innovation at work, and having had the chance to inspect a batch of new Chinese saxes recently I find that my beliefs have been borne out.

The most obvious improvement is in the overall build quality. It wasn't that bad before on the better examples (such as the Chinese alto reviewed here), but if you've read any of my reviews of named brand horns you'll know that there's always room for improvement at any level.
Naturally it's encouraging to see such improvements, it sets a new benchmark which raises the game for those manufacturers who haven't pulled their socks up, but it also raises the level of choice for the buyer. It's no longer the case that you're confined to choosing the best-made model - with the hope that it'll sound OK...the build quality of the instruments I examined was such that it's practically a given, and the buyer will now have the option to consider a horn based on choices that previously only came with very much more expensive horns, such as tone, body materials and special finishes. And all that for around the £400 mark.
I've updated the Chinese alto review just mentioned with a photo and a few comments about just such a horn.

The innovation isn't confined to mere improvements though. Slowly but surely the Chinese manufacturers are branching out into more unusual instruments, and they're doing so with the benefit of experience gleaned from building the more common and popular instruments.
This area of the market has always been something of a backwater due to the combined effects of demand being relatively small and (thus) prices being rather high. Some of it will be down to certain technical difficulties in manufacturing, particularly with the smaller instruments, but even that cost can be offset if demand is high enough.
Imagine then if the manufacturing costs could be sliced to a fraction of what they normally are. This provides the opportunity to produce esoteric instruments that retail for hitherto unheard of prices (we're talking low here!), and because they're now far more affordable they generate extra sales and so the price comes down...and so the cycles goes round.
Chinese sopraninoI felt it would only be a matter of time before the Chinese turned their attention in this direction, and here's one result of that.

It's a sopranino saxophone.
These are pretty rare, mostly due to the fact that they're something of an acquired taste (being pitched quite high), but it's also due to the fact that they're quite expensive - and although quite a few players would be happy to have one just for the sake of having one, not many of them would want to shell out the large sums required to buy one.
You can get cheap models - the Earlham sells at around the £450 mark, but then if they're anything like the altos they probably won't be all that nice.
Even if they are, the best part of half a grand is still a lot to fork out for an instrument you might not get much use out of.
This horn will probably sell for around a hundred pounds less - which brings it much more into the impulse buy arena.

The thing is, although it's incredibly cheap it's also quite good.
It's by no means a plain horn either, it has a brushed antique gold finish - and very well done it is too. It a process called Electro-Phoretic lacquering. It leaves a very even, tough finish and allows for some interesting cosmetic effects, such as texturing and colour-blending.
I found a couple of keys that were a little sloppy on their rods, and for an instrument of this size the integrity of the action is quite this horn would definitely need a tweak.
It still played fine though - in fact it played very well indeed. I've played 'ninos before and never really found anything about them that I liked (other than they're incredibly portable, being so small), but this one was a cracker. I'd say the sound was sweet...not in the 'cute' sense, rather it was lyrical and precise without being shrill - and that was with the stock mouthpiece! Pop a decent mouthpiece on and I'm sure you'd get even more out of it.

The obvious point here is that the Chinese phenomenon is no longer confined to the standard range of instruments. In that arena they're improving quality and offering more build and finish options, whilst still finding time to expand their interests into more specialist areas (take a peek at the cupless alto as seen at the Frankfurt Musik Messe).
For example, I recently reviewed a Chinese baritone sax. It had a few flaws, to be sure, but at a price of £1000 it still represents an amazing deal. Similarly there is now available a Chinese bass. I haven't been able to get one on the bench yet but from what I've seen of it so far it's not bad at all.

(Update 2014 - I had one come in for some wasn't good).

Revision: April 2010

Since the first publication of this article, and the review of a Chinese saxophone, a great many people have emailed me to ask for recommendations regarding brands and models.

It's clear to me that there's a huge demand for qualified information regarding these instruments - and many other correspondents have pointed out that if people are going to be sure of getting decent horns then they're going to need more than a general overview of the current state of the market.
Up until now I have felt compelled to maintain my independence - but the market has changed considerably these last few years, and there is now a far greater choice of decent, presentable instruments out there. To that end I have decided to start naming (and perhaps in some cases, shaming?) those brands which turn up in the workshop. I shall do this via the review pages as and when the various brands come in, but in the meantime I have a shortlist of known decent brands that I'll add to once I've been able to track down supplier details.

Academy/Jericho - (see review)
Walstein - (see review)
Gear4Music - (see review)
Nuova AS3G - Various suppliers (see review)

Conn-Selmer Prelude - A recent report indicates quality control standards have dropped, so my recommendation is suspended. (see review)

Postscript: March 2014 - ten years on

It's been about ten years since I first saw an Ultra Cheap Chinese horn, and quite a few things have changed in that time.
Perhaps the most notable change is how some of the bigger names have moved into China. It used to be that Chinese instruments were the province of a few minor brands - and then, when the quality rose, the independents moved in. And now some of the big guns are sourcing some of their product there.
In some cases, though by no means not all, these companies own the factories - or at least have exclusive manufacturing deals - but it at least suggests that the Chinese are quite capable of making reasonable instruments...once they put their minds to it.

I think, though, that it's fair to say that there's currently something of a pause going on. I noted a few years ago that there were some signs of innovation, but this appears to have been something of a blip because nothing much seems to have come of it.
There's been a steady improvement in general build quality, but this seems to have peaked in around 2012. This coincided with a downturn in the global economy, so perhaps the Chinese manufacturers decided to play safe and have been 'treading water' since then. It would also appear that some of the poorer quality manufacturers have used this time to 'catch up', to the point where it's been a while since I've seen a truly crappy 'ebay special '- at least where saxes are concerned. That's not to say there aren't any out there still, but it at least means that an unresearched purchase is less likely to turn out to be a complete lemon.

As things stand now I'd say that the next big hurdle is consistency. In larger terms this relates to general build quality. It's often the case that I'll examine an Ultra Cheap horn and find that the body is rather nicely built...but the keywork less so...and vice versa. And this on the same brand/model.
Sometimes it's just a single flaw which lets the horn down - a warped tonehole or a key with a chunk missing out of the cup wall.
The truly frustrating thing about this is that when they do get it right, the results are often surprisingly good.
And in smaller terms it relates to the actual construction of the instruments. Pillar placement may vary slightly on identical models, as may the length of key barrels. This is certainly down to the handmade approach that the Chinese have adopted, and it's probably quite true to say that your chances of getting a good/bad instrument depends heavily on which individual assembled it.
The situation is slightly better when buying an established brand (as ever) but it's very clear that there's still room for a lot of improvement in the quality control area on the factory floor.

If all that sounds a bit downbeat, it's not. The very best examples represent extraordinary value for money, and the cheaper models - while perhaps not as cheap as they were ten years ago - are rather better than they used to be, and still a great deal better than the student instruments I learned to play on back in the 1970s.
And finally, I recently did a service on an Ultra Cheap alto sax that was bought at around the time this article was written back in 2004. It's on its third owner now. It wouldn't win any prizes for its looks - most of the lacquer has gone - but the actual structure of the instrument is standing up quite well. It hasn't disintegrated and nor is the action a pile of rattling metal. Even the pads are doing OK, bar the usual suspects (palm keys, G#, low C# and the low Eb). It still works, it still plays - and despite only costing £180 when new, it's introduced three youngsters to the world of saxophone playing. Now that's not bad going...not bad at all.

Update: January 2022

I mentioned above that consistency was something of a problem with Ultra Cheap horns, and this has proven to be the a rather unexpected way.
Retailers have become completely fed up with dealing with customer returns, and extremely frustrated at the seeming unwillingness of the manufacturers to either improve the products or, at the very least, maintain some sort of standard....even if it's not that great.
As a result of this many retailers have simply given up - two of the most notable being the sellers of Academy/Jericho and Bauhaus Walstein horns. I know just how hard they struggled to maintain some kind of quality control - but in the end it simply wasn't worth their time and effort.

There are now, in the UK at least, just three or four sellers of Ultra Cheap horns. The horns are adequate, but not particularly outstanding when compared with the old Jericho and Bauhaus Walstein horns - and for the present my recommendation is to go for the cheapest (Gear4Music) and pay your repairer to tweak it.
Above all, though, don't buy a Jollysun. Trust me on that.

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