Sunday, September 9, 2012

Review: Buffet 400 Alto Saxophone Matte Finish

Two years ago (July 10, 2010) I wrote my original review of the Buffet 400 alto saxophone.  You also know how much I really liked the horn and gave it a rave review.  At the time, I spent the better part of two weeks playing both the matte finish and the gold lacquer horns, and was quite impressed with them, though I favored the matte finish, not just for its aesthetics, but I like a darker sound to my alto that I can also push and give a little more "edge" if I wanted to, without getting a thin or shrill tone.  Of course, tone quality is subjective, and is the result of the player and their set-up, mouthpiece, reed, ligature, and a matter of individual taste, both from the point of view of the player and the listener.

You may wonder why I'm writing another review if I already wrote one and gave it a thumbs up.  Well, lately I've had the chance to spend a lot more time with a matte finish alto than I did the last time, and so it has given me a chance to really explore this horn and see what it is really capable of, and also whether after two years, I would still feel the same.  I haven't been able to play any more Buffet 400's since my last review because I moved from one store location to another, and the new location dealt more with students than professionals, and so we had mostly lower end horns.  After I became department manager, I was able to get an inventory of better quality horns.  Among them were the Buffet 400 alto and tenor matte finish saxophones.  When I took out both horns to put on display, I went through the basic testing of keys and how they sound.  They were good out of the case, and they looked great on the wall, adding a bit of class to my display.  However, I just couldn't seem to keep my hands off the alto.  Every moment I had down time, I took advantage of it to play.  So I felt that a new review based on the extended time I've had to play has been able to broaden my perspective of this horn.  

It still comes inside that excellent blue case with the Buffet-Crampon logo embroidered in gold stitching, and with extra large pockets that can easily hold books and accessories.

Once again, and I think this is particularly true of the matte finish horn, when you open the case and see it the first time, it is a striking looking saxophone.  Beautiful but understated engraving can be found all over the sax, bell, bow, key cups, body and neck, giving it a very classy appearance. The matte finish is applied evenly and beautifully all over the horn, with dark spots near key cups and touches to give it more of that vintage, worn look.  The finish itself was evenly applied, and I didn't find any uneven spots.  There is something to be said for this, especially when I saw a couple of Selmer Reference 54's that had uneven lacquer blobs near the key posts, and a Reference 54 matte finish alto fresh out of the case that looked as if there were brush scratches on the bell, and these horns go for three times what the Buffet 400 goes for.  Inspecting the keys, they are solidly soldered on, and are weighty and strong, definitely not flimsy, and I didn't find any solder blobs or see any ribs, posts or keys that weren't correctly positioned,  as I have found on a couple of P. Mauriats and Cannonballs.

One of the things that I have found with the Buffet 400, at least thus far, is that it plays well right out of the box.  Of course I always recommend a professional set-up by an experienced technician, but the fact that every Buffet 400 I have played right out of the box responded immediately is significant.  With the exception of perhaps Yamaha, every other more expensive brand needed some form of adjustment or leak sealed before it would play properly.  Again, I find this rather significant for a saxophone that goes for far less than these others. The keys just snap into place, and the bell keys have double arms for a tighter seal, which none of the big 4 have.  The key pearls are not real pearls, but so what?  They still look nice, and they are concaved differently than other keys.  Deeper but not as wide, which somehow makes my fingers feel as if they are going to stay there and not slip, which also means my fingers will move less and respond faster.  I'm not sure if the key pearls were designed with this in mind, but it works that way for me, and I'm sure others who play this horn may feel the same.  The ergonomics are what you would expect of a modern horn.  I have read a couple of reviews that stated that they thought the G#, C#, B, Bb cluster was a little further than they liked, but I had no problem.  I liked the distance between keys.  For large hands like mine, they were in a good position.  I had no problem reaching any of the keys.

The thing you'll notice when you pick up any one of these saxes is the weight.  If you're a baritone player, you better get a harness. These are heavy horns, definitely heavier than than any horn in its class, with maybe P. Mauriat coming closest in that department.  However I give the edge to the Buffet on the solid feel of its key posts over the Mauriat, which in my experience, bend easier when you squeeze them.  At its price point this is again significant.  This is a solidly built horn that feels like it will stand up to countless gigs and nights on the road, and be ready to play when you are. That's a lot more than I can say for some horns that cost more.  The body to bell brace is definitely the heaviest I've seen on any saxophone at any price.  It is not just a ring like other brands, including the big 4 saxes, but is thick and solid, with heavy posts and screws at three points to connect the brace to the body and bell, and the Buffet-Crampon logo is raised and gives it an attractive appearance.
With the weight of this sax and its overall solid feel, it can probably take a little punishment better than your average saxophone, though I don't recommend trying it to see if it's so.  However, as stated above, it feels like it will serve its owner for a long, long time.  So on build quality, finish and key work, I would rate the Buffet 400 up there with the best of them. 

Now comes the meat and potatoes of the saxophone, for me anyway, and that is the sound.  The very first time I played the Buffet 400 two years ago, the biggest surprise I had was in the sound.  I did expect a rather generic saxophone sound at best, and at worst, a sound that would be found on a student level horn, from okay to terrible.  Keep in mind that knowing these horns were made in China still colored the way I approached it.  The first hurdle in dissipating and eliminating my prejudice about a sax built in China was the build quality, key response and finish quality.  It passed the first test.  Now actually playing it.  It passed that test too, but now I would have more time with it than before and I relished it.

What can I say that I haven't already said in my last review?  Actually, plenty.  I have played quite a number of Selmer, P. Mauriat, Yamaha, Yanigasawa and Keilwerth saxophones and liked them all.  In fact, when I tried the new editions of Selmer Reference 54 saxophones last November, I was really enamored with them, and loved them, thought they were the best ever.  I didn't have six grand though, so I had to forget about it anyway.  Then the Buffet 400 matte finish alto came into my shop and once again I could re-evaluate it against all the other horns I played since the last time I played one, and so the reason for this new review.  I could see if the horn still held up to the others, like I thought the last time. 

Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised after my last review about the sound of this saxophone, but I still was.  I used my usual set-up of a Meyer 6M mouthpiece with a LaVoz medium reed and also used a LeGere Signature Series 2 1/2 synthetic reed as well for contrast, and the Rovner Dark ligature.  With my LaVoz reed in place first, the very first notes that came out were powerful, yet not booming loud, like some Mauriats, and gave me more control, or so I thought, of the dynamics of the horn.  Its sound is lush and full, with just enough resistance to control the tone, good for classical, yet free blowing enough to swoop and swirl the notes for jazz playing.  A very versatile saxophone from the get-go.  The matte finish horn is initially dark, which I like, but if I push it, it can play brighter, yet not have what I call that buzzy edge, or ever get thin or shrill at the top which makes my ears ring, even when playing altissimo.  Of course, as I mentioned at the beginning, tone is subjective, but to my ears and taste, this horn provided me with exactly all the qualities I look for in a saxophone. I especially love playing ballads, because besides the beautiful melodies, playing them means you have to have control of your tone and technique.  You can't make mistakes, and if the horn has bad intonation (or the player is bad), then the sour notes will stand out like a giant pimple on the tip of the nose.  The scale of the Buffet 400 is at least as good as any horn that costs more, and better than some.  The sound of the horn along with its intonation made playing ballads such an intense pleasure.  This horn has a voice and it can sing!  As good a sound as you can get from a saxophone at any price.  

I switched to the LeGere reed, and the tone was just a tad brighter, but it was still rich and full.  From the bottom of the scale to the top, it had great intonation and tone, with what are to me the usual culprits, transitioning from middle C up to middle D for example, and I found that low D, which is generally sharp  played better than any saxophone I've played, and while that's not a big deal in general, the price point of this saxophone makes it a big deal to me.  However, the overall tone and the flexibility of its tone is as good or better than most horns at a higher price.  Actually, it is at least equal to all of the most expensive horns I've played.  That's saying quite a lot for a saxophone that comes in at around $1850.00.  Its closest competitor price wise is at least $300.00 more, and then the big boys are a thousand plus bucks more, but you still won't get more horn, just the prestigious name.  Wait!  Buffet-Crampon is a prestigious name.  So what's holding you back from at least trying these horns?  You may be as pleasantly surprised as I was and continue to be.

Here is Matt Vance demonstrating the Buffet 400 alto with matte finish