Sunday, July 11, 2010

Saxophone Review: Buffet 400 Alto Sax

Lots and lots of saxophones come into my shop, from the cheapest no name student brands to the most expensive and prestigious name brands and everything in between.  I play them all so that I can evaluate their condition and also whether or not they are a viable deal to the potential buyer.  The first time I sat down and played  a Buffet 400 alto sax was one of the biggest and best surprises I ever had.

Buffet is one of the most famous name brands in the music industry.  They make what are probably the most widely played clarinets in the world.  The company begins its history with Denis Buffet-Auger who set up a small workshop in Paris in 1825 and quickly gained a reputation for making excellent 13 key clarinets.  In those days, clarinets were made entirely by hand requiring slow and meticulous work.  In 1830, Denis' son Jean-Louis Buffet took over the workshop, and when he married Zoe Crampon, they established the brand Buffet-Crampon.  In 1844, the logo for Buffet-Crampon was designed and is the one stamped on all of their instruments to this day.

Louis Auguste Buffet, Jean-Louis' uncle, was friends with clarinetist Hyacinthe Klose who was also the author of the famed clarinet method used by many clarinet students today.  Together they took the idea of movable rings which the German Theobald Bohm had developed for the flute and adapted it to the clarinet.  First exhibited in 1839, the new system was so successful that the Buffet-Crampon factory was built in 1850 in Mantes-la-Ville in order to meet demand for the new clarinets.

Buffet-Crampon began making saxophones in 1866, only 20 years after its invention by Adolphe Sax.  The first American made saxophone was built by Conn in 1888, and Selmer didn't begin making saxophones until the early 1920's, so Buffet was ahead of the pack.  The first saxophones made by Buffet were fairly faithful to Adolphe Sax' original design, as he was licensing them.
   However, by the latter part of the century, Buffet-Crampon began to change the keywork of the saxophone as it was known, and the company was a leader in the modernization of saxophone design.  They continued to make improvements in the mechanism throughout the ensuing years.

In 1950, Buffet introduced their Dynaction line of saxophones.  Many players and collectors will attest that this line of saxophones had slicker keywork and better action than the Selmer Balanced and Super Balanced Action saxes of the time.  In 1957, they introduced an improved version called the Super Dynaction which was the only saxophone of the time that posed a serious challenge to the vaunted Selmer Mark VI.  I know a couple of players who own them, and they swear it's the best horn they ever played.  I had a chance to play one 20 years ago and I was very impressed.  The action was super slick, the sound had the kind of darkness I like, but with lots of spread for either playing jazz or classical, or anything in-between.  On top of that, it looked like a work of art.

Unfortunately, Buffet-Crampon never gained the respect and popularity of their saxophone line as they had with their clarinets.  Selmer had cornered the saxophone market, and one thing I learned about sax players is that it's very hard to change their beliefs about something once they fix their minds.  They want to try everything out there, but they do so with a fixed attitude, and very few will admit that something is better than the instrument they swear is the best ever made because everyone says so or because they paid so much for it, how can a medium priced horn made in China even compare?  Fortunately, there are a few players left out there who have open minds and will judge something by its own merit, and not by its so-called reputation.

This brings me finally to the Buffet 400 alto, which is really what this article is about.  They also make a tenor and baritone, and I will review these later.  For now, I'm concentrating on the alto because that is my primary sax.  Let's get one thing out of the way here.  Yes, these saxes are manufactured in China and Buffet does not conceal this fact.  The baritone is manufactured in Taiwan.  What Buffet-Crampon has is over a hundred years of sax manufacturing experience behind them, and they know how to impart this on whoever is building their saxes. It is important to put away any prejudices about this and consider the company behind its production.  Besides, manufacturing technology has improved immensely over the years and the factories they are made in are new and modern.  One thing was obvious to me when I first tried one and that was that Buffet had a vision about what they wanted to achieve with this line.  Personally, I think they have achieved it beyond what could be expected.  I do know that Mike Smith, artist/production manager for The Music Group/Keilwerth saxophones was responsible for the technical design, especially the alto.  When the saxophones arrive at the Buffet USA headquarters in Jacksonville FL, they are inspected by product manager Matt Vance who also oversees the whole 400 line.
I had the opportunity to play both the lacquer and the matte finish horns.  In both cases I was surprised in a way I would not expect.   Before I even saw the horns I was impressed.  The 400 series saxophones come in a beautiful ProTech like rectangular case which is solid and well made.  It is blue and has handles on the top and side as well as built-in backpack straps with a webbed and cushioned back for extra comfort when you're carrying it.. There is a large pocket with a zipper that can hold books and accessories.  The Buffet-Crampon logo is embroidered on the pocket in gold thread.  There are two clips that close over the top and bottom part of the case for extra security. The case lets everyone know you're carrying a classy instrument.

When I opened the cases of the lacquer and the matte finished saxophones, I was greeted with the sight of a beautiful instrument.  Both instruments were beautifully engraved from bell to neck and on the keys and on the inner rim of the bell.  The Buffet-Crampon logo is clearly stamped on the bell, and the bell brace is solid and also has the Buffet logo on it. The gold lacquer had a deep honey color to it.  The matte finish was very well done. On both horns I could not detect any flaws on the finishes, even minor ones.  When I picked up the horns, I felt like I was holding a quality instrument.  They felt solid and had weight behind them, nothing shoddy here.  The keywork was solid and the keys just snapped into place, feeling as good as any Selmer, Yamaha or Yanigasawa that I've played.   The keys were cupped so the fingers would fit neatly into them.  If I have a complaint, it's that they're not using real pearls, but simulated pearl made of plastic.  I would recommend they change that since other saxophones being made at the Buffet's price point are using real abalone on their keys.  The bell keys had double braces for extra snap and better seal.  On both horns, everything was fit nice and tight.  No loose keys, nothing out of place.  These horns were inviting me to play them.

The first one I played was the matte finish sax.  A quick side note here.  Both horns were set up properly by the shop technician, so they were in the best playing condition.  My advice to any player is that any horn, regardless of make or price point should be set up first in order to truly evaluate its mechanical and tonal qualities.  I test play every saxophone with my usual set-up, which is a Meyer 6M mouthpiece, Rovner 1RL Dark ligature with LaVoz medium reeds.  I've tried lots of different set-ups over the years, but this is the one that works for me.  I can accurately judge a horn's qualities with this set-up.  What happened when I blew the first notes on the horn completely took me by surprise.  At the Buffet 400's price point, I would expect a fairly decent generic saxophone sound.  At its worst I would expect it to sound like a top grade student horn.  Instead, what I got was a full, strong and lush tone that just jumped out of the horn.  If you've read my article on the Conn 6M, you know that I favor that sax over anything else.  Putting all prejudices aside, I had to admit that I was playing what is a serious challenge to my beloved old horn.  The tone was strong and very well centered.  Intonation was spot-on.  The action smooth and solid.  Whew!  I just didn't expect this from a horn whose price is just around $1650.00. I played jazz, classical and even Beatle tunes, and it just made the transitions of musical styles with ease.  With some horns, they either play jazz well, or are made for classical, etc., but very few saxophones at this price point can make the stylistic transitions that the Buffet 400 could.  I also had an easy time playing the lower notes with less resistance, due to the wider bell bow. 
I was playing a saxophone that is as good as anything out there.  Just to be sure I wasn't fooling myself, when  a friend of mine who is also a sax player came into the shop, I asked him to try the horn and see what his opinion was.  He blew into it and after he ripped out a scale, he stopped and said, "Damn, this m%@##&*%er plays".  There was a lot of power in this horn.  The sound is initially dark, but you can push it and brighten it, but without the harsh and fuzzy edges that some modern horns can have.  The gold lacquered model was only slightly brighter but had the same versatility of the matte finished model.  This saxophone is able to cover a wide range of musical styles and tonal qualities.  Whatever you want to play, this horn can handle it.  I continued to play on it over the next two weeks and nothing could shake my opinion about it.  This horn was as good as anything out there at any price.  As good as my beloved Conn, as good or better than any Selmer, Yamaha or Yanigasawa.  You may not want to believe this, but that's just the way I found it to be.  Sure enough, someone purchased the same horn I was playing for those two weeks after spending several hours trying out several other name brand saxes.  He was in a university big band and needed a pro horn.  He had tried all the Selmers, Yamahas, Keilwerths, Yanigasawa's, Mauriats, etc., that we had in the shop, and wasn't sure.  For the hell of it, I gave him the Buffet.  He really didn't expect much out of it because of the price compared to the others.  When he came out of the practice room, he couldn't believe it.  He had the same reaction as I did when I first tried it, and now he could own a top quality horn and still have money left over to buy a mouthpiece, books, and a bunch of accessories.

Buffet-Crampon has re-entered  the saxophone market with a strong product.  This is a saxophone that I could easily make my primary horn, a sax I would be proud to take to any gig.  It looks good, it plays good, it sounds great.  Then there's the price point.  At around $1650.00, depending on the dealer, you are paying an intermediate price for what is essentially a pro horn.  I personally think that it's the best saxophone deal out there.  At the inflated prices of the top name brands, you could buy two or three of these horns.  It is time to put aside any pre-conceived notions and give these horns a try.  I know that it's sometimes difficult to get rid of old prejudices, but I think you'll be as surprised as I was.

Update February 15, 2016

Since first writing this review, the price of the Buffet 400 alto has gone up to around $2500-$2800, and the tenor$3000-$3300 retail.  It puts it just slightly below a Yamaha 62, and around the same price as the P. Mauriat 67R and 66R, and more than their LaBrava saxophones.  The baritones are between $4500-$4900 and are still below comparable baritones.  As far as baritones go, these are great horns and great buys regardless of brand or price point.  At the price point of the alto and tenor, I would also recommend looking into the Yamaha 62III, the P. Mauriat 67R and 66R, Cannonball saxophones, particularly their Vintage Reborn line, and a newer brand,Chateau, particularly their 900 series saxophones, which are at the price point and quality level of the Buffet.  If you are concerned with resale value, the Yamaha will always come out on top.  I will say that as far as the feel of the keywork goes, I found the Buffet to be just as solid as the Yamaha, and better than the Mauriat.  I have had issues with the keywork of the Mauriats in the past, because it often felt a little spongy and after only a short time would start to rattle.  However, the horns are solid otherwise and have a great tone. I still think that the Buffet 400 is a great saxophone, and the more recent ones I tried seem even better than the original batch.  However, at the current price point, I really wish they would put real abalone pearls in their keys.  This is not just a cosmetic thing, but real pearl, and metal too for that matter actually transmits more resonance to the fingers than plastic.  That said, the key pearls are molded in a way that allows the fingers to sit solidly and comfortably on the keys so that they don't easily slide around and there is minimum finger movement necessary to playing every note with more precision. They were shaped exactly the same as the Buffet Senzo, except that the Senzo used real abalone. 

Time hasn't altered how I feel about the Buffet 400 line.  However, the competition is getting stiffer, but that is a good thing for saxophone players.


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