Thursday, September 23, 2010

Saxophone Review: Buffet 400 Tenor in Matte Finish and Gold Plate

 It's been a while since I last wrote an article or review, but last week I had the opportunity to spend considerable time trying out the newest editions of the Buffet 400 tenor saxophones.  The horns I played were the new gold plated and matte finish saxes.  If you've read my previous review of the 400 alto, you already know that I'm very enthusiastic about this line, as it not only represents a great value in a musical instrument, but it's also a great saxophone, up there with the big boys.  The only reservation I had was with the tenor. The only time I played a 400 tenor previous to this was a model with the old neck, and I found it quite resistant.  I had to blow harder and the sound was a little too muffled for me.  The neck has been changed, and now the 400 tenor is a much improved horn, finally on a par with the alto and baritone.  What this means is that now you can play and own a great tenor and still have money left over to get a box of reeds and a good mouthpiece. 

Last week I had a customer come into the shop looking for a new tenor.  He wanted a good quality horn, but couldn't afford a Selmer, Yamaha, Keilwerth or Yanigasawa.  On the other hand, he didn't want a cheap student or intermediate saxophone, which really left him with few options.  He tried what we had in the store that fit his budget, including a Yamaha 475 and a Selmer LaVoix, as well as a couple of used horns.  He wasn't quite pleased with any of the horns he tried.  I didn't have any Buffets in stock, so I took him to the NYC Buffet showroom and introduced him to Laurie Orr, the showroom manager. He made an appointment to come back the next day and try the tenors they had in the showroom.  The next day, Laurie called me over, because my customer was there, and he not only wanted to try the horns, but he wanted me to play them for him so he could hear it from the other side of the horn.  The two tenors he was interested in were the matte finish 400 and the most recent addition being their gold-plated 400.  I ended up spending several hours, both playing and listening, and I came away with very favorable impressions on the latest edition of the 400 tenor.

First, my customer asked me to play both horns for him.  I'll call him Joe for easier reference. For my tenor set-up I used a Jody Jazz Red 6 with the baffle removed, and a LaVoz medium reed, which is the reed I also use for alto.  First, I played the matte finish horn.  The sax was well finished, with all the keys set tight and snapping into place.  The response was excellent, and everything fit nicely into my hands, as I would have expected from having played the alto and baritone.  The horn is heavy, and with the finish gives the horn a deeper, beefier sound.   Joe described it as being aggressive.  I played a ballad and got something of a Coleman Hawkins/Ben Webster kind of sound.  When I picked it up a notch, the horn just roared.  When I slowed down and softened it up, it sang like a blues singer after downing a shot of bourbon.  To put it mildly, this horn had balls.  I could almost see it grabbing its package and saying "take that sucker!".

Next came the gold plated model.  The plating is very well done, no pitting or uneven spots.  It, like the other 400's has engraving from the bell to the neck.  The only difference here is that on the gold plated model, they omitted the engraving on the key cups, but so what.  A very classy looking horn.  The mechanics had the same good fit and feeling as the other 400's I've played.  I put my lips to the mouthpiece and began to blow, and the tone that came out of it surprised and delighted me.  What a sound.  When the NYC Buffet showroom had their saxophone day last month, I tried the gold plated alto, and though it was a great horn, I found the sound a bit too bright for my taste, though not thin or shrill.  However, on the tenor, this slightly brighter tone gave the sax a sonorous tone, a very vocal quality.  When I played "The Nearness Of You", I held the last note for a long time.  I just loved hearing that note float through the air.  Joe commented that even when I hung on that one note, he could still hear the melody.  This horn sings.  I changed mouthpieces to a Jody Jazz DV NY 6, and then this horn became anything I wanted it to be, but with a full, clear as a bell tone that really spoke.  When playing soft and low, it sounded like a sexy woman whispering in your ear and saying things that were sure to arouse you.  When playing swing or bebop it was as if Ella or Billie were alive in the horn.  Yes, it looks and sounds like a sexy horn.  Then I played a classical piece, which originally was written for alto, which was The Old Castle from Pictures At An Exhibition.  It worked.  This horn could sound as light and ethereal as the alto is supposed to on this piece. 

Now it was Joe's turn to play.  He started with the matte finish horn, and played some Latin tunes, which is his main style.  Once again, I could hear that this was a darker, beefier horn.  This is a great horn for classic swing and bebop, as well as blues and r&b.  The sound is really full and rich and filled the room.  If you played this in a club without a mic, you'd still be able to hear this baby.  He then played the gold plated horn, and played the same licks.  His face lit up and he started to just go with it.  He chose the gold plated tenor.

Both tenors were outstanding in every way.  They both have very distinctive voices.  BTW, the gold lacquer model falls somewhere between the matte and gold plated models in terms of tone.  Not as dark as the matte and not as bright as the gold plated 400.  However, bright in the case of this tenor does not mean thin.  On both horns, the scale and tone from top to bottom was even.  Intonation excellent, response excellent, and man do they have their sounds.  They project well, and only a deaf person wouldn't be able to hear you. 

Once again, I give two thumbs up to Buffet, and to the new and improved 400 tenors.  The matte finish tenor can be had for about $2200.00, and the gold plated model, at the moment is about $2895.00, which is unheard of for a gold plated tenor saxophone that is also a killer horn in every respect.  Run, don't walk to the nearest Buffet dealer and try these out.

Update February 15, 2016

The gold-plated model was only available for a very limited time the year of this review.  They are no longer available in gold plate except for some that may be floating around that have been unsold, though I can't imagine that they wouldn't have sold out given the few that were available and their price point. I am glad to say that the current batch of tenors is better than the ones I played back then.  The issue with the original run of tenors was the neck, and they fixed that eventually.  Everything I liked about the horn back then still holds true.  However, the competition is getting stiffer.  They are now at a price point similar to the Yamaha 62III, and to Cannonball and P. Mauriat saxophones which are also great horns and worthy of your consideration when looking for a top grade saxophone on a budget.  I do feel that the Buffet has keywork as solid as the Yamaha, which is generally acknowledged as the best in the business. My issue with Mauriats is still with the keywork.  I find too many feeling spongy and rattling after only a short time.  I do wish they would also use real abalone instead of plastic for their pearls, and it's not just for cosmetic reasons, because if it was, then I wouldn't have anything to say about it. It's not about looks, it's about the fact that real pearls transmit more resonance to the fingers.  You don't have to believe me, but they do.  Other than that, it is still a saxophone worthy of your consideration.