April 2011

MACSAX Empyreal Alto: Powerful Tones & Unadorned Beauty

The first person to apply lacquer to a brass instrument must have considered it an act of great aesthetic consequence. No longer would the horn be a mere assemblage of keys, pads and springs. It was now a shiny, golden decorative object, suited for life as a novelty lamp once its playing days were over. Of course, this person didn’t foresee (or didn’t care) that long before the best of those instruments were ready to be converted to light fixtures, the golden shininess would be gone—the lacquer worn and chipped away in blotches, exposing the raw brass beneath.

Austin-based (by way of Houli, Taiwan) MACSAX is one of several modern sax manufacturers to make a horn that expedites the fade-to-brass process by eliminating the lacquer entirely. The MACSAX Empyreal alto we were sent to review embraces the rustic beauty of unadorned brass. Combined with some spare but nicely executed bell engraving, the slightly oxidized metal gives the horn the look of a magnificently maintained vintage horn, right out of the box. Other aspects of the Empyreal’s unostentatious beauty are the mother-of-pearl-inlaid key buttons and left thumb rest; a brace in the form of a gothic “E” connecting the bell to the body; a capital “E” cutout on the octave key; and the understated logo engravings on the bell and neck. There’s nothing flashy about the Empyreal. It makes a virtue of understatement.

The horn’s fine design isn’t limited to its looks. The detail-rich Empyreal incorporates a number of features that enhance the playing experience. Some examples: the side keys for the right hand are gently inclined, enhancing the player’s ability to slide from one to another. Likewise, the auxiliary high-F key is tilted forward ever-so-slightly, making the slide from the neighboring B key much easier. The octave key button is gently contoured, helping to eliminate that awkward pinch that sometimes happens as the left thumb gets caught in the space between the key and thumb rest. The horn also incorporates adjustment screws for the D, E, F, A and B keys, making maintenance a more fine-tuned proposition.

Unlike some manufacturers who dance around the fact that their product is inspired by a particular vintage horn, MACSAX makes no bones about it: The Empyreal is their entry in the Selmer Mark VI play-a-like sweepstakes. In particular, they point to the horn’s pinky keys, which, according to MACSAX, are designed to look and feel similar to those on a Mark VI. This might seem especially important to middle-aged-and-older saxophonists who remember when Selmer introduced the Mark VI’s successor, the Mark VII, back in the mid-1970s. The redesign of the pinky spatulas on the latter horn was a blunder, one that retrospectively gave the Mark VI’s pinky keys near-legendary status. On the Empyreal, sliding from a low E-flat to low C is as smooth and secure as can be. (The action on the E-flat was a little high for my taste, but that can be adjusted.)

MACSAX calls its proprietary brass blend “S-Brass,” which might mean something to a metallurgist. Whatever it’s called, it makes for a hefty, sturdy, resonant instrument. Like practically every new horn I try, the Empyreal has what its maker bills as a specially designed neck. MACSAX calls theirs the “Special MACSAX increased bore neck,” and it allows the horn to play free and loud. The Empyreal has black L. Pisoni Pro-105 Series pads with domed resonators, which surely add to its big sound. The blue-steel springs and the Italian wooden cork are also L. Pisoni.

In playing the horn, the first thing I noticed is its smooth and comfortable feel. The action has a perfect balance of yield and resistance—unusual for a new horn, and sure to cut down on breaking-in time. The key heights are ideal for my taste, allowing for quickness without stifling the sound. With my mouthpiece/reed setup (Meyer 5M with #2 Alexander D.C. Superial reeds), the Empyreal yields a warm, vibrant sound. It’s not especially reminiscent of a Mark VI (it’s a bit darker), but it’s certainly beautiful in its own right.

Of course, I was bowled over by the Empyreal in its as-nature-intended “Unlacquered” guise. However, if you prefer your saxes shiny, it can also be had in “Honey Gold” lacquer and “Vintage Gold” lacquer versions. And if for some reason you’re carrying the Empyreal in the vicinity of Juilliard and have a burning desire to fit in with the orchestral types, the horn’s very cool clam-shell case looks a lot like a viola case.

Thanks largely to the excellence of the horns being made in Taiwan these days, we’re living through a golden age for high-quality yet relatively affordable pro model saxophones. Among those horns, the Empyreal alto, which retails for $2,795 in any of its three finishes, stands out. MACSAX’s attention to ergonomic detail, use of top-grade materials and tasteful visual sense combine with first-rate craftsmanship to produce a superb instrument. Lacquered or raw, it’s enough horn to suit even the most persnickety player.

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