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The Vintage American Alto Heavyweight Bout!

In this corner, nicknamed after a famous player from the 20's, wearing stunning original gold plate and fancy engraving, the Conn "Chu Berry" 228,xxx serial!

And in the other corner, touted by the greats such as Art Pepper and Earl Bostic, the enigmatic and often relacquered, "The Martin Alto" 167,xxx serial!

These two will go head to head to determine the winner!


Initial Impressions

Conn "Chu Berry" 228k: This horn was in excellent cosmetic shape for being over 80 years old, and absolutely stunning. This is considered a "portrait model" and the gold plate was near 100%, save for some wear on the edge of some key cups and just a little bit of wear near the thumb hook. Otherwise in great shape; the engraving scene is a butterly flying over a lake, with a ton of dense floral patterns surrounding and extending all the way to the bottom bow. Amazing. It's tough to surprise me on a vintage Conn alto as I've played so many of them, so I knew what to expect going in on this horn. I wasn't disappointed. This horn had an overhaul maybe 3 months before I got it, so it was in great playing shape and I had it adjusted after shipping just to make sure it was 100%.

"The Martin Alto" 167k: Original lacquer finish was in great shape; I'd say 95%+, and this engraving pattern is one of my favorites amongst all the vintage horns. Was overhauled less than 6 months ago with the correct thin pads and flat reso setup. I've played quite a few of these horns as well and have always enjoyed them; unfortunately, my hands usually don't do well with the thumbrests as I have CTS in both wrists. When people think "Martin" they typically think of what is referred to as "the classic Martin warmth" in the sound. It's usually correct for the vintage horns.

Winner: Conn "Chu Berry" 228k


Conn "Chu Berry" 228k: I will say this upfront; I am used to the keywork on these horns. That being said, I still think they're more comfortable than most people give them credit for. A lot of it has to do with how well it is set up; a good technician will get the action snappy, quick, and a tad on the lighter side. They feel very fluid. The only thing you really need to get used to is the G# pinky cluster, but even that is fairly intuitive. It obviously isn't going to have the snappy precision of a dialed in Selmer...but these are comfortable horns and you can move around just fine on them. I will say if you're getting one repadded or restoring one, definitely consider getting all the springs replaced with Music Medic's blue steeled springs; they feel fantastic and really give a sense of security when moving through quick passages. Very reliable and you'd be surprised how quickly your hands adapt! This one also had the raised high E key...a bit strange as you typically don't start seeing that until the 235,xxx range but it's not all that uncommon to have it a bit earlier.

"The Martin Alto" 167k: I've always thought that these horns feel GREAT in the hands....EXCEPT for the pinky G# cluster. I have no idea what Martin was thinking with that. The stacks, palm keys, side keys...feel excellent. Properly set up, they have a great pop and great speed. But Martin goofed it up with the G# cluster...easily the most uncomfortable on any vintage horn I've tried. Same with the thumbhook, it's adjustable...which is good, I suppose...but it's far too small and the curve on it can really dig into your thumb (depends on the size of your hands). You can easily get some padding on it, or have your tech solder an extra piece of brass on for support. I had that done on a prior Martin I owned and it made a WORLD of difference. Was a bit awkward at first, but I really grew to love it, especially because I was crazy about the sound I got from that horn. But that's for another category...even with the overall great feel of this horn, the G# cluster and thumb hook push this category in favor of the Conn.

Winner: Conn "Chu Berry" 228k


Conn "Chu Berry" 228k: These horns are almost always built extremely well. And I find they hold up well to abuse; even after 80 years the keywork still feels good. You might need some minor swedging depending on how much it was used, but nothing out of the ordinary for any horn. Obviously they didn't take a ton of safety precautions with extra double arms and heavy keyguards that you see on today's horns, but you can't mistake vintage American craftsmanship. The gold-plate is just absolutely stunning, the engraving is so perfectly's simply amazing to look at. Only Jason Dumars can rival this work...the straight cut work is what is most impressive, as from what I understand from Jason is EXTREMELY difficult to pull off correctly. This was made when it was about quality, not quantity.

"The Martin Alto" 167k: These altos are built like tanks. Those soldered on tone holes have to be done perfectly to ensure there are no leaks, and the overall construction is usually very good. The neck is a little strange to me, with the neck tightening screw and how it's positioned, but I've never had an issue with it. Probably the biggest problem with vintage Martins is the quality of their lacquer. It seemed to vary quite a bit, even between the same models. Sometimes you'll see these really rich, dark looking horns with the aged lacquer....other times it appears as a bright gold....but most times it wears away too quickly! That's probably why you see so many of these horns relacquered, they got ugly looking pretty quick!

Winner: Conn "Chu Berry" 228k

Response: To me, response is how quickly the horn responds to your airstream for articulation, tone changes, and volume.

Conn "Chu Berry" 228k: When these horns are tight, there is an almost effortless response. They can take a ton of air, too, so it's a nice combination of ease of play with little resistance. Of course, some guys like a little push up against (I'm one of them) but I can't help but be enamored by how these horns feel in the mouth while playing. Sub-tone is fantastic and very easy. Altissimo can get interesting..on this particular horn I had to come up with a few different fingerings to fine tune the intonation, response suffered on a few of them. Standard fingerings work, for the most part, but the intonation varied.

"The Martin Alto" 167k: These horns have a nice pocket of resistance that lets you push hard while maintaining control. This allows you to move a ton of air but keep the sound a little more focused than the Conn above. That being said, they're not as free blowing as the Chu, although they are still perfectly comfortable to play. Martin horns have a renowned lower end, and this horn was much of the same. Low notes fall out of the horn and feel effortless, while sounding fantastic. Altissimo felt much more stable than the Conn, I could use all my standard fingerings without issue.

Winner: "The Martin Alto" 167k


Conn "Chu Berry" 228k: I say this with almost any vintage horn. I feel that the older horns have "flexible" intonation vs. modern horns which have "slotted" intonation. The older horns were used in bands and in sections, you had to blend and be in tune with the lead player in your section...and if he was sharp, well you had to play sharp, too. These older horns will allow you to flex the pitch. For a player who has a proper embouchure and a good ear, this is a big benefit, as they will always find the center of the pitch. For an under-developed player, sometimes this can feel like a drag because the pitch will vary. Now, for sure some horns have certain notes that are a bit wacky...but these Chu's do play in tune. I have never had an issue with a well setup Conn blowing with bad intonation. I find the upper registers to be a bit more flexible and have the potential to go sharp if you're not paying attention, but for the majority of the range, there are no intonation issues.

"The Martin Alto" 167k: If there is any myth I've heard about Martins that couldn't be further from the truth, it's the myth about them having bad intonation. It's just not the case. I think the main place these rumors came from is a Martin not properly setup can play out of tune. It is the common consensus that Martins prefer thin pads and flat/no resos. This particular horn had plastic resos and the correct thickness pads, and the intonation was very solid. I did note about a 10 cent variance around G2, G#2, and A2, but that is well within the range most professional players will be in when playing quickly. On ballads or longer notes, that 10 cents will disappear quickly. The rest of the horn felt very solid, upper register was right there, lower register lined up nicely.

Winner: "The Martin Alto" 167k

Dynamics/Projection: Not the same thing, I know, but included in the same part of the review. Projection, in my mind, is the ability to fill up a room with your sound; the ability to make your sound carry to the far corners of the room, no matter what volume. To me, volume is simply how loud you can play...a higher amount of decibels.

Conn "Chu Berry" 228k: The projection on these Conns tends to be spread, and I think the Chu is the best example of this. It carries a huge presence, dynamics on these horns are simply outstanding. They can be extremely powerful altos. You won't find much focus or refinement, just a really huge, spread sound. The upper register can blow so freely you'll have to watch intonation when you're really pushing. These horns can whisper very nicely, but sometimes don't have the definition needed when you're playing super quiet in the lower register. I'm not sure who really plays like that, except in some "legit" settings...where they probably wouldn't be using a Chu anyway.

The Martin Alto 167k: These horns have a fat kind of projection, but it is much different than the Conn. There is certainly more focus, more structure, but it retains a bunch of "oomph" when needed. I find these horns to have some of the best dynamic ranges of any saxophone. When these things are tight, they will absolutely whisper for you...but you can also bring them up to a very raucous roar when you need it. The "Magna" examples in particular have an even bigger dynamic range than the regular "The Martin Alto" models...and that's really saying something. I'd go so far to say the Magna model are amongst the most powerful altos I've played (especially with the sterling neck!). But, I digress, this horn really was a pleasure to do long tones on...really gave you a feeling of accomplishment when you take it from barely audible to "good lord the roof fell off" loud. And it retains some structure, too!

Winner: "The Martin Alto" 167k

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 "evenness" of the tone...this is if the tone of the horn stays consistent throughout the ranges.

Conn "Chu Berry" 228k: Something I've heard used to describe these horns is "tone machines" and I think that is pretty accurate. They certainly have a big sound, fat, spread, but usually very rich and thick as well. The overall tone quality of this particular horn was on the medium-dark side for alto, although I've played examples that are brighter and edgier. I wouldn't say the tone of these horns is very even across the range; the low register is round, resonant, and a bit on the darker spectrum of the horns overall tone...while higher register is much more brilliant and has a definitive brighter sound quality to it. Some people really prefer this, and it is a trait you'll find on a bunch of horns, even if people don't realize it. If you had to pick an alto for the sound, and only the sound, a vintage Conn Chu would certainly be one of the contenders. That's why you always hear people say "vintage conn sound, with modern keywork!" being the most requested modern design of a saxophone.

The Martin Alto 167k: These altos also carry the torch of "vintage American sound" because it is fatter and has more grit than a Selmer. These altos have much more focus than a Conn, but they don't encroach on the focus a Selmer has. I find these altos warm, rich, and fat sounding. This particular alto had one of the richer tone qualities I've played on this model; some people attribute that to the fact this is a very early example of these horns, which are purported to have deeper and more resonant tone colors than later examples. Based on my experiences, I would tend to agree. This horn has more edge than the Conn above, with just as much power, so it tends to be a bit more versatile in the styles it can cover. I love the sound out of these horns, you have that classic warmth to the tone quality that every alto player seeks...while still having edge and tons of power. Upper register is not thin sounding at all, the lower end is amongst the best you'll play on an alto. Out of all the examples I've played, I find they sound best with a firm pad and no reso....although flat plastic resonators still work quite well and don't alter the sound that much.

Winner: Slight edge to Conn "Chu Berry" 228k


Conn "Chu Berry" 228k: If you love beautiful saxophones, it's hard to do much better than these horns (save for the very special Virtuoso Deluxe models). There is also the price factor...these vintage Conns can vary wildly. Most of it depends on the finish (gold will obviously command more), engraving style, condition, etc. Usually, the later serial numbers bring more money, and I believe they tend to play better and the intonation is a little less quirky. You can find early serial number silver Chu's needing an overhaul for a few hundred bucks...versus the $6,000+ a Virtuoso Deluxe Chu can bring in.

The Martin Alto 167k: Art Pepper played this model, as did Earl Bostic...and their sounds are pretty far apart from each other. While it is certainly more about the player, it shows that the horn is versatile and capable of producing a wide range of sounds. The price is fantastic right now for these altos, one of the best values on the vintage horn market. You can find relacquered horns in great playing shape for under a grand easily.

Winner: "The Martin Alto" 167k

Overall Winner: TIE!

Time to move into sudden death overtime...with a new category I've never used but is still interesting nonetheless and suggested by a friend.

Mouthpiece Friendly: To me, this means how well a horn will play with a variety of different mouthpieces. I used several different combinations of chamber size, tip opening, and baffle structure to test out these horns. Mouthpieces used include Brilhart Tonalin, Lamberson Fmaj7, small chamber Meyer, Phil-Tone Solstice, and Gregory Master 5A-18M, amongst others.

Conn "Chu Berry" 228k: I find these horns will work with a wide variety of mouthpieces, but you do have to be careful in selection. The longer mouthpieces (think Soloist long shank, etc.) can and do play flat on these horns. There's just not enough room on the neck. Your standard Meyer size should work just fine though. I find small chambers don't work nearly as well on these horns and cause the intonation to be all over the place, although it does depend on the piece. Larger chamber mouthpieces work best...baffle size doesn't make a huge difference for me, chamber size definitely did.

"The Martin Alto: 167k: Definitely a strength of these horns. They accept almost any type of mouthpiece without any problems. I didn't notice anything wacky intonation wise, save for maybe a JodyJazz DV 8 tip...but that was most likely me reeling it in as I'm not used to that large of a tip on a high baffled piece. But for the most part, no real changes in the horns behavior. I find the tenors to be slightly more picky, but still very flexible and "friendly" for the mouthpiece connoisseur.

Overall Winner: "The Martin Alto" 167k

So "The Martin Alto" takes it. Definitely a close call...and you will personally be swayed based on your tonal preferences. They are both fantastic altos and should be on the top of anyone's list if you're looking for a rich sounding, great playing vintage alto. Be aware...have them set up correctly! It is so crucial to these horns, especially on Martins. I find it always works best if you get a horn in need of an overhaul and have it done by a trusted tech, or get one that has just had recent overhaul by a noted tech.

Comments and feedback are welcomed and encouraged, your appreciation of these reviews is what keeps them coming. Flaming posts, rude remarks, and attacks/insults can be directed to my PM box. Feel free to ask any questions and I will answer them here for you.

As always, your mileage may vary. Every player is different. These are only my individual experiences. You should ideally form your own opinions on horns by playing them.

Upcoming Reviews: Viking M58 Legend Series alto...Viking Acoustic Balance M40CB (copper bell) tenor...Mouthpiece Cafe Espresso Tenor...and more. Stay tuned!!

Hope you enjoyed!

- Saxaholic
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