I’d put off adding a soprano sax to my existing tenor and alto for a number of years since I had heard from a few sources that whilst it was possible to get a good sound out of a cheap alto/tenor that you really needed to spend a decent amount of money to get a half decent soprano.
Having got to the stage where I might have been prepared to spend a significant sum on a good soprano I started to do some research. I was surprised to find a large number of people who seemed to be very happy with what might be considered ‘cheap’ sopranos (something less than £600 or so). I therefore ended up spending far less than I might have on my new sax, and having just had chance to have a really good play on it I thought I’d write up a quick review.
Choosing the sax
After I’d decided to go for a cheaper soprano I spent a while deciding which one to choose. I toyed with the idea of spending a few hours in a shop playing with the various models to see which I liked best, but decided against this. I did this before when choosing a new mouthpiece for my tenor – and ended up buying the wrong one. It takes a bit of time to get used to a new setup, so quickly moving between several saxes would require a long time – probably longer than my lip would hold out – and making objective decisions between more than 2 or 3 saxes would be extremely difficult. Add to this the fact that I’m a good couple of hours from the store I’d want to go to and I preferred to take a punt on a single well researched instrument and never go back to look at what I might have missed!
There are a quite a few different ‘student’ sopranos available and when researching them I didn’t really find any that no one had a good word for – however there were a couple which seemed to get consistently good comments from experienced players.
The one I looked at long and hard, before ultimately rejecting it, was the Kessler Model 2 Soprano. This is an American sax made by a family company in Las Vegas and the reviews of both the sax and the company were universally glowing. My only problem with this instrument is that currently there seems to be no one importing it into the UK, so I would have had to get it shipped from the states. Once I add to that the hassle of getting it through UK customs, which their opaque pricing and procedures, I reluctantly decided that it was going to be too much hassle, and once I’d added shipping, VAT and customs tax, wasn’t going to be as cheap as it first appeared.
My final choice therefore was the Antigua Winds SS490LQ soprano. Antigua Winds seem to be a relatively new entrant to the sax market, but they seem to be making a name for themselves on the back of creating copies of high quality Yanigasawa instruments. [Yanigasawa aren’t really in a position to complain about this as they gained their initial reputation on the back of making Selmer copies]. Reviews for all of the Antigua Winds range of saxes were generally good, but for the soprano in particular I hardly found anyone with a bad word to say. I was particularly interested to see a number of players who had high end tenors and altos, but who had plumped for the Antigua Winds soprano. At £559 it wasn’t the cheapest of the student saxes, but it was still less than a third of the price of a high-end soprano.
I bought my soprano from sax.co.uk. I’d not used them before, but had a couple of friends who had bought things from them both over the web and in store and had had a good experience. Their collection of saxes is impressively complete and they have pretty good information for most of them, including video reviews for many of the more mainstream brands (not for mine unfortunately).
Purchasing through their web store was very straight-forward and went without a hitch. In addition to the sax I also bought:
- An Otto Link Tone Edge #5 mouthpiece
- A box of Vandoren #3 reeds
- A pad saver
Experience with previous saxes has convinced me to spend a bit to get a good mouthpiece since this is probably the best way of quickly improving the tone of a sax. I have an Otto Link on my alto and have been very happy with it, and the soprano version seemed to be a good choice.
I put my order in around 11pm on a Wednesday night, and the sax turned up on Friday morning with all of the order present and correct. In terms of service you can’t do better than that. One minor grip was that although I got an initial mail from the company to confirm the order, I didn’t get a second mail to let me know that it had shipped so I ended up missing the delivery initially.
The sax arrived very well packaged. It comes in a pretty decent leather effect hard case, which is slightly plasticy, but seems to be pretty robust. That was packed in a cardboard box, which was itself in a second box surrounded by polystyrene packing peanuts. The pad saver was loose in the outer box, but the mouthpiece and reeds were inside the flight case which showed that someone had at least done a basic check over the sax.
Despite the extensive packing there was some slight damage to my sax when it arrived. The G# side key had been knocked so that it was wedged against the C# key and was wedged open. From the way the sax was packed it seems unlikely (but not impossible) that this could have occurred in transit, so it may have been knocked during packing. A small amount of pressure freed the key – which was a relief, but might also imply that the keywork is not hugely strong and will need to be treated with care. After playing the instrument for a short while I found that the G# key was not closing properly which made many of the mid-notes fuzzy and strained. Again, a slight adjustment fixed this, but a novice player may either not have noticed this and suffered with poor tone, or had to send the sax back to get the problem sorted.
From the first time I played the instrument I was happy with the choice I’d made. The sax was very free blowing and I had no problem playing comfortably over the whole of its range. The intonation was very good almost immediately (better than either of my other saxes), with only the long Eb being very slightly under pitch. The keys are well laid out and fall comfortably under the fingers. The sax came with a very broad strap with was very comfortable to use, but might be a bit chunky for use on a soprano.
When I first started playing I found that the new pads were a bit sticky, with some of them occasionally remaining closed for a fraction of a second after being released. This was initially annoying, but improved markedly after about 30 mins of playing and will hopefully continue to improve as the pads wear in a bit. There is a bit of noise from the keywork, but in general it felt quite tight and it didn’t take very long to be able to play fast passages with confidence.
The Otto Link mouthpiece fitted very well on the sax and proved to be very easy to play. If anything the Vandoren #3s were maybe a little light (to be fair I’ve only tried one so far), as the tone is still quite bright. I’ll play on it a bit more before I decide if I want to go with a heavier reed. Whilst the mouthpiece was good, I did have problems getting ligature set up properly. It didn’t initially fit very well over the reed and I had to adjust it a few times before it seemed to bed in.
I also tried the stock mouthpiece which came with the sax and was pleasantly surprised. It was a brighter tone than the Otto Link (I’d definitely want a heaver reed if I was going to stick with it), but it was easy to play on and the tone, although not as good as the upgraded mouthpiece, wasn’t bad either. I’m definitely going to keep it in the case for emergencies.
My mind has been changed about the merits of cheap soprano saxes. The Antigua winds SS490LQ has earned its place alongside my existing saxes, and at a fraction of the price I’d been expecting to pay. For what is supposedly a student instrument I found the sax to be perfectly adequate for the sort of usage I’m going to make of it. I’m not saying that this will take the place of the Selmer you’ve been dreaming of, but if you only have £600 to spend then don’t feel you have to save up more to get a usable instrument. This sax will be good enough for all but the most demanding of playing.