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.
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.
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.
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.