Buffet Crampon 400 Series Alto Sax

Not long ago, I was in a New York City music store, listening to a sales clerk haggle with a confused-looking customer over the purchase of a vintage Selmer Mark VI alto. The clerk reminded me of Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons; the customer was older than Lisa Simpson, but not by a whole lot-certainly too young (in my curmudgeonly opinion) to require such a precious instrument, unless she was the next Charlie Parker and carrying a Blue Note recording contract in her pocket (she wasn’t). Comic Book Guy quoted a price in the neighborhood of $5,000. I had to butt in. “Excuse me,” I said to the kid, “but why don’t you save a couple grand and buy a new horn?” Comic Book Guy-clearly unhappy that I’d jeopardized his commission-blew his top. He expressed his displeasure in colorful and abusive language, whereupon I vowed-in similarly vivid terms-to fulfill my saxophonic needs elsewhere.

My point was this: In general, only an accomplished professional has any business spending that kinda dough on a Mark VI, especially when there are so many good new horns being manufactured today. Buffet Crampon’s 400 Series alto is a case in point-a quality sax in the intermediate “advanced student to professional” category that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg, yet delivers excellent performance. The alto lists at $2,750, making it a relatively affordable option for the serious saxophonist on a budget, young or old.

I was impressed with the 400 Series before I even laid eyes on it, thanks to the lightweight, backpack-style case that came with the horn. Covered in blue-black fabric stretched over a hard shell, with a custom-molded inner compartment that holds the horn fast without an ounce of wiggle, the case is a well-built, practically conceived and visually appealing piece of equipment.

The Chinese-manufactured 400 Series comes in alto, tenor or baritone with either brass/matte or lacquer finishes. Buffet sent the matte alto for review, and it’s a handsome piece. The brushed metal gives it a satiny appearance, with dark antiqued touches around the keyholes and other areas where metal meets metal. There’s extensive engraving: inside the bell and on the key cups, bow, body and neck. The engraving isn’t Tiffany’s quality, by any means-look closely and it seems rather rough. Overall, however, the horn has a striking appearance.

It’s a heavy instrument; the metal is thick. The keys, posts and rods are stout. The springs are strong. There are double arms on the low C, B and Bb keys, and reinforced spatula bracing. The horn is immaculately assembled. Everything about it is weighty. This is a solid, well-crafted saxophone. Given Buffet’s reputation for quality, I’d expect nothing less.

I used my New York Meyer 5 mouthpiece with a closed Rovner ligature and an Alexander Superial DC number 2 1/2 reed when testing the horn. The 400 Series blows free and true in all registers. The sound is perhaps a tad dark by contemporary standards, but with a nice bead on the edge of the tone. The tone is not golden, exactly, but it isn’t chocolate, either: It’s a strong, lead-alto-worthy sound, with good projection and a pleasing touch of grit.

Like many horns right out of the box, the 400 Series’ key action was high. I prefer my keys set fairly low, so in the beginning the horn was a bit difficult to evaluate. The wide-open keys contributed to its free-blowing nature, yet made it a bit difficult to play fast. I’m sure my repairman could adjust the key-heights to fit my needs. In any case, after practicing on it for a month, my fingers adapted reasonably well. The mother-of-pearl key buttons are finely contoured, giving the horn a nice feel, although the F# pearl popped out repeatedly-odd, given the generally high level of craftsmanship. The Pisoni pads (with metal resonators) allow for a silken touch and a rich sound. The horn fingers very smoothly, key-height notwithstanding.

Besides the F# pearl and the high action (neither of which are deal-breakers), the only real problem I had with the horn involved the low Bb key. It requires a bit more of a reach with my left pinky than I’d prefer. People with small hands might not find it comfortable.

As the price of top-end horns climbs, it’s important that companies make horns like this-intelligently designed and solidly crafted new instruments that aren’t too expensive. The 400 Series ain’t cheap, by any means, but for less than three Gs, you get a lot of horn-more than enough for even the most precocious student. A pro could do a lot worse, too.