Where do you think a saxophone with the name of Stephanhöuser would come from?
Bonn? Stuttgart? Berlin? How about Texas?
That’s right, the “new kid” of the saxophone world hails from a town outside of San Antonio, boasting a “revolutionary new saxophone” with no fewer than three U.S. patents for design.
On first glance, nothing about this saxophone appears to be revolutionary. Our test model, a lacquered-brass alto, shares a common look with other saxes, including moderate engraving and Selmer-like braces and guards. A closer inspection uncovers that the instrument is void of any mother-of-pearl buttons. Instead the horn is fitted with specially designed bell-brass buttons, like the King saxophones of old. The feeling is a bit odd at first, but in no time you find yourself adjusting to the buttons. Educators may enjoy this change, for it almost forces the hand into a correct playing position. The only drawback may be that players with small hands could find they hit the sides of these well-defined keys.
When you strap on the instrument you immediately become aware that this is a solid horn. Our test horn weighed in at a whopping 6 1/2 pounds-about two pounds heavier than a Selmer or Yamaha. According to Stephanhöuser, this additional weight can be attributed to the fact that many parts (e.g., keys, etc) on this saxophone are machined from the finest bell brass and not stamped from sheets of metal. Additionally, the patented one-piece bow is heavier (and therefore more resonant) than the standard two-piece bow commonly used in the market today.
The sound of the Stephanhöuser is broad and free-blowing with a good scale. I found the instrument was more accommodating of my more open jazz setup than my classical setup. I found for classical work that the sax produced a stuffier, less focused sound. In general it took me under a week to get comfortable finding the center of this horn. One concern I have was with the tremendous flexibility in the upper register. I was able to finger a high F (above the staff) and bend the pitch, with my embouchure down to a B flat (above the staff) with little effort.
I did notice, as did many of my students who tried this horn, a difference in the quality and projection of the “bow” notes (low C, C sharp). I can only imagine this comes from the heavier bow construction. This tonal difference wasn’t as noticeable to those listening as it was to those playing the instrument, which lead me to question one prevailing theory: The heavier the horn, the greater the projection. I didn’t do well in physics in high school, but it would seem to me that too much overall weight might lend to less ring of the horn. Where this instrument produced a very nice sound it did not “ring” like other instruments that I have played.
The saxophone’s three U.S. design patents include the aforementioned one-piece bow and a heavier and smoother octave-key mechanism.
I could not notice anything unique or different about this system. In fact, I felt the octave key depressed too far, causing a spongy feel. This was due to the lack of cork or brass stop behind the lever.
The third patent, and perhaps the most ingenious of all, is the screwless, spring-loaded pin system that holds the key rods to the posts. Working very much like the rod that holds a watchband to the timepiece, this system allows for less friction, smoother action and quicker removal and replacement of the rods. This idea has been toyed with by other companies by adding a spring to the traditional end screw but has never been taken to this extreme. This design is a great idea and will make your repairperson very happy.
The retail price of the lacquered model is a surprisingly low $1,695. Other models include silver, nickel and bronze plate (at $2,095), an unlacquered “vintage” model at $1,595 and a top model with a heavily engraved sterling silver bell and neck for $4,500. I do wonder if the sterling silver model plays much differently than our middle-of-the-road test model, or if the price spike is merely cosmetic. Either way, Stephanhöuser has created a solid, well-made horn that I believe is in the first stages of its rise to prominence in the saxophone world.