Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Intermediately Priced Pro Saxophones For The Working Saxophonist On A Budget (or the serious student)

Most of the working saxophone players I know, as well as other musicians, are not stars or in bands headlining in some of the most prestigious clubs and concert venues in the country or touring the world playing in front of thousands.  Most working musicians I know have to do every kind of gig, from studio work to bars, small clubs, VFW halls, weddings and bar mitzvahs, store grand openings, etc., as well as teach in order to make ends meet.  In many cases, in order to work those increasingly hard to get gigs or to do studio work, they have to be doublers, meaning playing more than one type of saxophone as well as flute and clarinet, or some other instrument.

With the price of saxophones skyrocketing, it's getting more and more difficult to find professional level instruments that are affordable.  The price for a Selmer Paris alto for example exceeds 6 grand, the tenors 7 to 10 grand and the baris at 10 grand plus, and I'm talking discounted prices if you can get them. Top of the line Keilwerth, Yanigasawa and Yamaha saxophones are not far behind, and in fact Yanigasawa 992 series is even pricier, I saw their altos at 8 grand and tenors at 10 to 12 grand, and that wasn't list.  All of the working musicians I know do have that one Mark VI or Series II, III or Reference, or maybe their Yamaha Z or EX, their Keilwerth SX90R or Yanigasawa 992 that they keep as their main horn, used only for their favorite gigs, but some of them have to play more than one saxophone in the studio or onstage with a band, or when they play that rowdy bar gig, they're not going to take their precious Mark VI where it may get damaged by some drunken idiot, or stolen. All of my friends who own more than one saxophone do not own all Mark VI's or top of the line new or used ones.  They can't, they just don't have the money.  In order to have a full line of saxophones to get more gigs, they bought intermediate saxophones from well known brands or pro models from lesser known brands that look and have all the features of a pro horn.

For this article, I not only look at saxophones I have tried and liked, but also asked my friends what they were playing and recommended for an intermediately priced pro horn.  I'm discussing only new horns, but there are plenty of used horns out there, and if you can find one in good condition for the right price, then you should by all means buy it.  However, while there may be book value on used saxophones, in general. the price you pay for a used one will greatly vary from one seller to another, and whether it was from a dealer or if it's a private transaction.  So for this article, I am only writing about new saxophones, where the prices are more or less consistent from store to store, and especially with the larger dealers and chain stores.  I will not only discuss the major brands, and other lesser known brands that still make a quality product, but also proprietary brands, which are instruments made for a store or dealer by a factory in Taiwan or China and stamped with the store or dealer's name.  In this case however, the proprietary brands I will discuss are by well known repair techs and dealers who maintain and back up their products.  However these proprietary brands have managed to sell quality pro saxophones at a price that even students can afford.  While the resale value of proprietary brands is next to nothing, they are still good instruments and will serve the musician who doesn't care about name or status quite well.

None of the saxophones in this article are cheap.  The reality is that even the cheapest student saxophones that are worth playing at all go for at least $500 to $700, and that is still on the low end.  If you want quality, you have to pay more, but in the end it's worth it when you have an instrument that will play with you, not against you.  Some of my readers may have already advanced beyond the beginning stage and are now ready for something better than the student horn they were playing.  It is now possible to get a moderately priced pro level horn.  The line is really blurred now between pro and intermediate, and in fact I would go so far as to say that modern intermediate horns that are made by respected brands are really entry level pro horns.  They have the looks and features of pro horns, are well made and solid, and sound good.  So as far as prices go, I looked at saxophones that were 3 grand or below for alto, tenor and soprano, and under $4500 for a baritone.  In some cases, I did not add the tenor or baritone of the same model line because they were above the price criteria I am using as a guideline or I could not obtain appropriate images to show.  The price difference between an alto and a tenor for example can be anywhere from $100 to $800 or more depending on the brand as well as the dealer.  Some brands like Buffet for example have what is called MAP pricing.  This means that no dealer can sell the same instrument below a certain price as established by the manufacturer, so you will often see the same instruments at the same prices regardless of who the dealer is, even one famous for giving big discounts.  All sopranos, altos and tenors shown here are retailed at 3 grand or less, and all baritones are below $4500.  However, there is still a very wide choice of saxophones that are professional grade that fall within these price guidelines, and all quality instruments.

Selmer

For a long time, Selmer was pretty much the only choice for professional saxophones, and Selmer Bundy II was once the only choice really for a decent student saxophone, and they even marketed the Signet model as an intermediate model, which was no more than a Bundy II with a little better cosmetics, but were soon discontinued.  The Bundy II's and Signets were made in the Selmer USA facility in Elkhart, Indiana, which was once the Buescher factory.  For a while, Selmer USA even made lower cost pro horns like the Omega, and they were decent horns, they just didn't sell very well. Yamaha came along and took over the student market that was once occupied by Bundy II with the YAS and YTS saxophones, which were superior in quality and playability to the Bundy horns.  Eventually they were also able to intrude into Selmer's domination of the pro market starting with the 52, and then the 62, 62II and now the 62III, and extending into their Custom Z and EX saxophones.  This also paved the way for other top grade professional saxophones from Yanigasawa and Keilwerth to enter the market. 

Selmer, realizing that they were losing their once dominant share of the market, revamped their professional line of Paris saxophones, and introduced into the market new lines of student, intermediate and entry level pro horns.  The Prelude series, which is the name they apply to all of their student wind and brass instruments, are made in China, but I always have had issues with their quality control. I rarely have found one that was good right out of the box. A tech really needed to go over them quite a bit to make them play as they should.  Once that was done, they were fine. Not as good as Yamaha or some other brands, but decent.  With new pro saxophones coming out of Taiwan at intermediate prices, Selmer joined the fray with some of their own offerings of horns made in Taiwan.  They also introduced their first true entry level pro saxophone with the AS42 alto and the TS44 tenor, which is a collaboration between Selmer Paris and Selmer USA.  More on that below.

LaVoix II

Selmer introduced the LaVoix series about 10 years ago as an intermediate or entry level pro saxophone.  They are made in Taiwan for Selmer, and they're what you would expect from most horns made there nowadays.  They are available in gold lacquer, black nickel, silver plate and rose brass finishes.  I find these saxes have good projection and spread, a very open sound, but a tad on the bright side, though the tenors have a nice full low end, so I think they would be more suitable for jazz, blues, rock and pop gigs.  

AS42 and TS44
This is the first saxophone made by Selmer that is a collaborative effort between Selmer Paris and Selmer USA.  The body, bell and keywork is made in the Selmer USA facility, and the neck is provided by Selmer Paris.  This is being marketed as an entry level pro horn akin to the Yamaha YAS and YTS 62 saxophones.  Many players may not be aware of just how important the neck is to the saxophone.  In fact, it really is the single most important piece of the saxophone.  It determines how the air passes through the tube, level of resistance, intonation and overall sound quality.  In this case, the neck makes an otherwise intermediate looking horn become a professional sounding horn.  It's actually the single most expensive part of the horn. The look is nothing special on this model. No engraving, and only the Selmer stamp and model number to tell you which model it is.  I find the tone to be somewhere in the middle, not dark and not too bright.  Another horn I think best suited for jazz. blues rock and pop, not so much for classical.  For more information, click on the link below:

P. Mauriat

P. Mauriat has been around for over 10 years now, and has been able to gain entry into a market that was dominated by the Big 4 for a while.  Well known pros like Greg Osby and my friends James Carter and Keyan Williams are endorsers for P. Mauriat, as are many other professionals. They offer what is probably the largest range of quality professional saxophones that are under 3 grand as well as a baritone under $4500.  They are made in Taiwan by Albest, and Alex Hsieh, owner and president is another friend of mine I'm glad to say, and is quite passionate about his product.  If you ever by chance find yourself in Taipei, Taiwan, you must visit the P. Mauriat showroom.  A feast for the eyes and ears.
From left to right we start with the saxophone that made P. Mauriat's reputation and is still its best selling saxophone, along with its tenor equivalent.  The PM67RDK alto and the PM66RDK tenor introduced P. Mauriat into the professional market.  They feature a vintage dark lacquer, abalone key pearls and rolled tone holes that are rolled from the existing metal like old Conn saxophones, not soldered on rings like Keilwerth.  They have a dark but powerful sound, with a clean high end and a full, robust low end.  This remains their flagship model and is still their best seller.  Next is the same model but with a cognac lacquer, which is a very deep gold lacquer. It gives it the appearance of a classic vintage saxophone.  Next is the 86UL. It is an unlacquered horn with a rich dark brown/reddish vintage finish, and looks like a well played and worn classic saxophone.  It is like their System 76 horns, which have flat tone holes and a larger bore than the rolled tone hole models.  Like all Mauriats that I've played, they have a powerful tone with excellent projection.  The last is the LaBravo, which is a no frills basic pro or intermediate horn depending on how you look at it.  It has a brushed gold lacquer finish and a nickel silver neck, which gives it a brighter tone but with a little punch. Great for blues and rock, fusion and pop.  It also comes as a tenor, see below.
Here are two more altos worthy of consideration. The 86SS with satin silver plate, and the 87 brushed nickel silver with gold plated bell.  The soprano is a System 76 one piece with dark lacquer.  P. Mauriat makes a wide range of sopranos from one piece, dual necks, tipped bell and curved sopranos, all coming in a variety of finishes, and all for under 3 grand.  So far, every Mauriat soprano I've played has good intonation, a full sound, not shrill as sopranos can sometimes be.  
Finally is the LaBravo tenor saxophone, and two baritones, the PM301 with gold lacquer, and the LaBravo. There may be other models from P. Mauriat that may fall within the under 3 grand and $4500 price range. For more information click on the link below:

Yamaha

Yamaha was the first Japanese saxophone, as well as the first saxophone in general to begin chipping away at Selmer's dominance of the pro saxophone market  and giving Selmer the first real competition it had in years, with the introduction of their model 52, which evolved into the 62, 62II and now 62III.  The numbers refer to the changes in the neck, as the body is the same, except that they eventually went from the decal logo on the bell of the 52 and early 62's to the stamped logo and more elaborate engraving on the later and current models.  Yamaha was able to break into the market by offering a high quality saxophone with excellent keywork and playability at a price below the Selmer.  They also paved the way for entry into the market for Yanigasawa and Keilwerth, both of which began their entry into the US market by making saxes for other companies under different names.  LeBlanc tried to revive the Martin brand with saxophones made by Yanigasawa, and Keilwerth was introduced under the H. Couf brand.  They were good enough that not soon thereafter, they were marketed under their own brand and with much success.  Later on however, Keilwerth almost went bankrupt, and was eventually purchased by the Buffet group, which has revived the brand a bit.  Anyway, the quality and durability of Yamaha saxophones, from the 23 and 26 series to the 62, Custom Z and EX series have always made them an excellent choice no matter what level you're at.  
 From left to right we start with what is actually marketed as intermediate saxophones. the YAS480 alto and YTS480 tenor saxophones.  They are both no frill horns, minimum engraving, but with all the features of a pro horn.  Excellent build quality and keywork, and I found that tone-wise, they are equal to the 62, so here is a horn that though intermediate is a good entry level pro horn or second horn.  Next is the 62III, the descendant of the original 52 which brought Yamaha into the market and gained the brand the respect that Japanese horns previous to this did not have.  Remember, at one time Japanese saxophones were on the same level as Taiwanese horns once were, and Chinese horns still are.  However, demand for cheaper but still high quality horns changed the market and improved quality of the saxophones made in Asia.  The 62III is Yamaha's entry level pro horn, and in my experience playing many of them, they are on par with any of the best saxophones at any price out there.  Also, Yamaha has a better resale value than some other brands.  All in all, you can't go wrong with this saxophone.  Next to that is the limited edition 62III with dark vintage lacquer and nickel keys.  This falls under the price range established here, yet being a limited edition, has the possibility of being a collector's item and increasing its resale value.  Time will tell.  Below that is the only Yamaha soprano that falls within our price range, the YSS475.  I find it every bit as good as any soprano I've played at any price, good sound, and of course the keywork and intonation.  Why spend more on a soprano when this will do just fine and is built to go the long haul?  For more information click on the link below:

Buffet

Buffet Crampon began making saxophones before any other manufacturer other than Adolphe Sax himself, producing their first saxophone in 1866, only 20 years after Sax patented the instrument.  The first saxes built by Buffet were licensed by Adolphe Sax, so they were basically Adolphe Sax horns under their brand.  However, after the patent expired, Buffet began making improvements in the keywork, as well as expanding the range of the sax, which until the Selmer Balanced Action, was the standard by which other manufacturers followed.  Their line of top professional horns starting with the Dynaction, Super Dynaction, S1 nd Prestige models rivaled the Selmer Mark VI in ergonomics and sound, but never gained the kind of popularity that Selmer had, and unlike their clarinets have.

In 2009, Buffet unveiled its 400 series saxophones.  Marketed originally as intermediate horns, they had all the features as well as the look, sound and playability of a pro horn and soon were being played by professionals, such as my friends Russel Kirk who plays the gold lacquered alto, and Lauren Sevian, who plays her gold lacquered baritone with the Count Basie Orchestra.  They come as an alto, tenor and baritone and have either a deep gold lacquer finish or vintage matte finish.  The alto and tenor are made in China and the baritone in Taiwan.  Other features are double arms on the low C, B and Bb keys, and elaborate engraving all over the horn from the bell and bow, to the neck and key cups, giving it a classy appearance.  They come in a high quality ProTec like case with backpack straps and a large pocket big enough to carry books and accessories, and the Buffet-Crampon logo embroidered with gold stitching, not only presenting an attractive package, but a quality one.  Anyone who has read my review of the 400 altos knows I am a big fan of this saxophone, because I feel at this price point, it is one of the best horns on the market, fit for any professional looking for a reasonably priced pro saxophone. 
The gold lacquered tenor and baritone fall within the price range established here, but the matte lacquered versions are above this price range, though you may find used ones under that.  However, I would avoid early versions of the tenor, because they had issues with the neck that made them very resistant and stuffy sounding, but that has been resolved with a redesigned neck.  One way to tell is that the early necks had a higher arc or curve than standard tenor necks, which is very noticeable. The altos and baritones however were always good and so if you find a used one in good condition, go for it.  For more information click on the link below:

Chateau

Chateau saxophones are made by Tenon Corporation of Taiwan, and are fairly new to the marketplace.  However, the two models I actually played were high quality, beautiful looking saxophones that are priced below the saxophones above, at least for the time being.  You can read my review of the the matte copper and nickel silver altos pictured below in a previous article. Tenon also makes saxophones for Steve Goodson's Saxgourmet line which will be discussed below.  Aside from the two I played because my sax tech had them, I haven't found any other stores in the greater New York area that carries them.  If you can find them, give them a try.  They are a hidden treasure in this market. 
From left to right are some of their alto saxes, the first two made of 93% copper for a rich tone, the third of solid nickel, the last with 85% copper with a deep gold lacquer and deluxe engraving.  
The tenors pictured from left to right starts with the tenor version of the dark lacquer alto, a brushed matte lacquer finish, and standard gold lacquer finish, all models with 85% copper.  For more infornation click on the links below:


Other brands that make moderately priced pro saxophones that are worthy of consideration are Antigua Winds, Cannonball and Jupiter.  For more information on these brands and where to buy them, click on the links below:

http://cannonballmusic.com/

http://www.jupitermusic.com/jbi_index.aspx

Proprietary Brands

Proprietary brands are instruments made by a factory, usually in Taiwan or China, that are made for and stamped with the logo of the store or dealer  that sells them.  While the majority of store brands are stock horns made in Chinese factories and mostly second rate, there are a few dealers that have high quality saxophones made to their specifications and represent an excellent value for the pro or semi-pro player on a budget.  The proprietary brands that I will recommend are from dealers who started out as repair technicians, then began customizing necks and mouthpieces or making their own mouthpieces for their pro clients, and expanding their business repairing and selling vintage horns and then developed their own saxophone line and saxophone accessories.  Since they are sold by experienced and well known repair technicians, all the saxophones will have been set up before they are sent out or sold directly to the customer, and they are all backed up with a guarantee by the dealer.  If you go to their shops personally, they will be there to fix or adjust your sax.  Keep in mind that being proprietary brands, they will have a very low if any resale value, but if you're a working pro, or even a student not hung up and name or status, and just need a high quality horn that is also affordable but that you can take to a gig, then these saxophones represent an excellent value.  All the saxophones come with a quality case, and in most instances, the mouthpiece will actually be a better one than the stock mouthpiece provided by some of the name brands.


Phil Barone

A respected repair technician located in New York City, Phil Barone started out by customizing and then creating his own mouthpieces which became popular with many professionals in the city, including Sonny Rollins and Jackie McLean to name just two.  He expanded his business by offering a full range of high quality pro level saxophones made in Taiwan and built to his specs from straight to curved sopranos, altos, tenor and baritone with a wide range of finishes and options at very hard to beat prices.  A friend of mine who needs the full saxophone range for his studio gigs has his Honey Gold Lacquer Alto and Vintage Bronze  Tenor models, and I was amazed at their build quality, but even more amazed at how well they played and sounded.  If you're not hung up on resale value and just want an excellent looking, sounding and playing horn, he has one of the best deals you will find anywhere.  He also offers custom necks and mouthpieces.  For more information click on the link below:

http://www.philbarone.com/

Steve Goodson's Saxgourmet

Steve Goodson is a New Orleans based dealer who is the repair tech to the stars, and over the years developed his Saxgourmet line of professional and semi-professional saxophones, which are built by Tenon Corporation, the same company that makes Chateau, as well as a full line of sax accessories, some exclusive to him.  You can learn more by clicking on the link below:

http://nationofmusic.com/

Roberto's Winds (RW Saxophones)

Roberto hails from Italy, and began with a small repair shop in Manhattan.  Roberto has some of the best players in NYC and the world as his clients.  Soon he expanded by opening Michiko Studios, where you can rent a studio for rehearsal, or where some of the top teachers in NYC give their lessons, then expanded his business to selling vintage horns at first, then he developed his own brand of reeds and got exclusives for various sax accessories, and finally to his own line of saxophones.  His saxophones are made to his specs in Taiwan.  He's a nice guy too.  If you go, also stop by and take a lesson from Tim Price, who regularly teaches at Michiko Studios.  For more information click on the link below:

http://www.robertoswinds.com/_index.php


If you're a working pro or just a weekend warrior, or a serious student, these saxophones represent a great value along with high quality.  If you can find a used one in good condition, even so much the better, but I believe you can't go wrong with these horns. 

 











1 comment:

  1. Thank you for these reviews! It's going to make my sax shopping much easier.

    ReplyDelete