Welcome to SOTW UNLEASHED! Tonight's main bout features two of the heavies in the modern alto saxophone world. Let's learn a little about each of our contenders before they enter the ring.
Selmer's Reference 54 alto has taken the alto world by storm in recent years. Touting a tone quality equal to (or better than!) the famous Mark VI, with better intonation and ergonomics, this horn is purported to to have delivered in spades. Flocks of saxophonists are now playing these horns.
Yanagisawa's A992 alto is said to be one of the best kept secrets in the alto world. It hosts an array of features to help the player and repair-man, while looking at delivering an outstanding warm tone with perfect intonation. But does it stack up to Selmer's top fighter? Let's find out!!
NOTE: BOTH HORNS HAVE BEEN ADJUSTED TO PERFECTION PRIOR TO TESTING!!!
Selmer Reference 54: I used to own one of these so I knew what to expect when I picked up the horn. Feels like a million bucks, and looks to boot. I do think these are one of the best-looking mass production horns out there. These have quickly gained an almost legendary following, and it's easy to see why. It's got Selmer Paris on it. . Nontheless, the hype that surrounds these horns makes them a must-try for almost everyone.
Yanagisawa A992: I know several monster players who have switched to these horns, and I got a chance to pick one up at a decent price. I've heard great things on this horn. It had been somewhat used when I got it; lacquer was wearing in places on the keys and the horn needed a little work. After a few trips to the repair tech, everything was working alright...but I expected it to play when it arrived.
Winner: Reference 54
Selmer Reference 54: Ergonomics are very good, especially when adjusted correctly. The one thing I can't stand on any Selmer alto is how low the side Bb, C, and E keys are. Risers are a necessity, and it's been suggested Selmer does this ON PURPOSE, to allow the player to customize the height. I can see it, it makes sense. The side F key was turned into a pearl, which I did not approve of...even though it gives the vintage feeling, I'd rather have function over image. Also, the fork F key was a pearl, and placed so ridiculously high that you can't possibly roll onto it. You most definitely have to lift. With all this being said, the action is slick and comfortable. Has a very "smooth" feel to it.
Yanagisawa A992: Stellar. I really enjoy the feel of the pearls...they're cupped yet flat at the same time. These ones had been worn in and it felt great. My hands fit into it just right. Everything was positioned close to the body, especially the palm keys. I had them raised up a bit vertically, and also further away from the body. Not a problem, most palm keys need to be adjusted to the player. Once I got the rollers cleaned and lubed, everything was really moving. High F# key is just perfectly placed. A great feel that is a bit on the heavier side...but that's ok, because it works for some reason. I had the Fork F aligned a little bit, to be in a straighter line with the rest of the pearls. The low B/C# mechanism is genius; you can really fly down there.
Winner: Slight edge to Yanagisawa A992
Selmer Reference 54: The horn is sturdily built, that's for sure. I just wish Selmer's quality control was better. They definitely need to be adjusted perfectly. There's been concern of the "gurgling low C" issues, and yes, my horn had that issue. A perfectly tight-as-a-drum horn relieved this somewhat, but it disappeared entirely when I switched to a copper Phil Barone neck (the neck also improved response and volume). Mouthpiece choices help as well. Me? I'd rather not have to worry about all of this with a brand new horn.
Yanagisawa A992: Yanagisawa has one of the best build qualities on the earth in my opinion. Everything is placed great, and there are all kinds of extra gizmo's to help the player and repair guy out. Double armed bell keys, large beefy braces, F# helper bar, and a C#/B mechanism that makes it easier to play quickly. The action feels solid; you just know you're holding a top quality horn. I think Yanagisawas continued innovations and improvements keep moving it forward; and I like seeing that from a company. It shows they're taking feedback and applying it to their designs.
Winner: Yanagisawa A992
Response - To me, response is how quickly the horn responds to your airstream for articulation, tone changes, and volume.
Selmer Reference 54: Amazing response on this horn. It has just the right bit of resistance, but is still free-blowing. Articulations were a piece of cake, anywhere, all over the horn. Altissimo sang out, and the upper register was clear and focused and in tune. Low notes would NOT come out upon first receipt; after taking care of leaks and adjusting the neck cork/neck tenor...they were purring like my 2 year old cat. Low Bb and B were popping with so much as a whisper. Truly excellent. Push the horn, and it gave you more. No thinning, a TEENY bit brighter, and plenty of edge if you needed it. Also, this horn can get LOUD. REALLY LOUD. Seriously, the thing can roar. Or it can purr. Whichever you want.
Yanagisawa A992: Response was also excellent on this, but it has a bit of resistance...something to push up against, which I like. When you kept pushing the sound stayed the same...not any brighter or darker. Lows and highs are equally effortless...altissimo is excellent. Clear and in tune. Volume was not as loud as the Reference 54, but it was easier to keep a mellower, darker sound at loud volumes. However, the extra brightness/edge was there if called upon...something that would work well for players who do alot of classical and jazz playing.
Winner: Selmer Reference 54
Selmer Reference 54: Intonation was terrible when first received. Low notes were sharp, upper register was flat, middle D and E were at least 35 cents sharp. Terrible. After adjustments, however, the horn drastically improved. Low notes were still a little sharp, but the rest of the range was very solid. Altissimo was a little harder to reign in, but still definitely manageable. Mouthpiece choice made a big difference on intonation. It takes a bit of work, but once you get it locked in, the intonation is great.
Yanagisawa A992: Easily the most 'in tune' horn I've ever played. All three C#'s are perfectly in tune with no problems. Even the D2 and E2 are nearly perfect. Palm keys can actually be flat if you don't support, but as long as you play correctly they're right there, spot on. Even when I first got the horn and it had some leaks, the intonation was nearly flawless. I detected a sharp A2, that was about it with leaks.
Winner: Yanagisawa A992
Tone: To me, tone is the general description of the sound produced by the instrument. Adjectives like bright, dark, warm, thin, edgy etc. can be used to describe tone. I also refer to the "eveness" of the tone...this is if the tone of the horn stays consistent throughout the ranges.
Selmer Reference 54: This is where the Reference 54 is supposed to make its stand on the saxophone world. Rumored and purported to sound like (or better than) a vintage Mark VI with the modern ergonomics and intonation. I was hoping to find this was true...but didn't really. The sound is decent throughout the range, with the upper register having a sweetness to it not often found on modern horns. It was also quite a "big" sound, and projected very well. It had a definite core to the tone, and a healthy dose of edge tossed in as well. As far as "vintage sound"...I wouldn't go that far. It's still a contemporary saxophone, with lots of edge and power in reserve. It definitely is a drastic improvement over the Series II and III, in my opinion, but doesn't quite recapture that "vintage sound". I was hoping for a more complex tone out of the the horn, something to remind me of that classic jazz alto sound of yesteryears. Instead, I found a horn that is darker than alot of modern horns, but still has a modern sound. I've played plenty of vintage horns (Martin,Conn,Bueschers) so I know what to look for in a "vintage tone". This horn doesn't approach that. The overall tone I would say is on the darker end, edgy, powerful, and has that core people talk about...but I still missed the richness and complexity that I would have expected. Don't get me wrong; it'll work. It does sound good. But I expected more from the sound. And this coming from the best Selmer Reference 54 I've tried out of nearly a dozen. All of them were fairly consistent too...not a very drastic change.
Yanagisawa A992: Ahhh, relief... A very warm sound, on the darker sound spectrum, rich and complex. When playing with most mainstream pieces, it's hard to get any edge out of this horn. It definitely projects, but if it's tons of edge you want than this is probably not your horn. However, it produced a very full, warm sound with great presence and core. Edge could definitely be acquired through mouthpiece/reed choice. When I switched to Superial 3's with my Lamberson there was an excellent jazz tone: full, warm, round, but with great projection and just a bit of edge. If you want to start talking "vintage tone", you could start here with the Yanagisawa A992. You just have to own a mouthpiece that offers some edge. It has that warm, round, lyrical quality...with plenty of presence and projection...about as complex a sound as you could want from a modern horn. Get a mouthpiece with some edge and you've got a great vintage alto tone. For the record, I still believe the older horns (Martin/Conn) have a richer, more complex tone quality...but for modern saxophones, this one's hard to beat...WITH a correctly matching mouthpiece. If you try to play a Rascher or Caravan on this, you might have to call an ambulence.
Winner: Yanagisawa A992
Selmer Reference 54: Those loyal to the Selmer name will continue to hype this horn, and why not? It's a good horn. Is it the best? Not in my opinion. Especially considering the overall price..and then another few hundred to get it playing perfectly. Nontheless, MANY people have started playing this horn. I did it myself. And I liked it alot. But as time went on and I played it more and more, I kept hearing something more in my head, that I wasn't getting out of the horn. Only a vintage horn has been able to fill that niche so far, but other horns have come close. With heavy marketing, the Selmer name and fame, this one takes the intangibles no doubt.
Yanagisawa A992: Known as a more..'discreet' company, often praised but never in the spotlight. You also have your options as to after-market necks. The whole "bronze" thing probably has some merit...having tried an A991 plenty of times before I'm willing to bet the bronze warms up the tone a little bit. It's a bit pricey but still about $1,000 cheaper than the Reference 54...and IMO, the better horn. Nontheless, people will gravitate to a famous name and slick advertising. This has come the closest to filling that vintage tone quality I hear in my head...at least for a modern horn.
Winner: Slight edge to Selmer Reference 54
Overall Winner: Yanagisawa A992
But, not by much. I felt the Reference 54 was a good horn, but very over-priced and over-hyped. Paying $4,000+ for the new Reference 54 seems steep...it could get you a good Mark VI, a perfect mint condition vintage Conn with plenty of cash to spare,etc etc. The Yanagisawa had the honest-to-goodness better sound quality...two other players with me agreed in a blindfold test. The Selmer had more power behind it, more edge...but lacked the richness/complexity I like out of my altos.
I hope you all enjoyed!
Feel free to add your comments; these are all my personal experiences and of course YMMV.
Upcoming bout: P. Mauriat 67R vs. Conn Transitional 6M