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Hanson Series 8 (SA8) alto saxophone

Hanson SA8 alto saxophone reviewOrigin: Germany(body)/UK(keywork)
Guide price: £500+ (used)
Weight: 2.69kg
Date of manufacture: 2008 (Serial range: 70xxx)
Date reviewed: June 2019


Lots of companies have 'buzz phrases' associated with them - indeed, some of them are even trademarked. From burger bars to expensive German cars, the buzz phrase becomes synonymous with the company to the point where it can effectively replace the brand name. When it comes to Hanson I've always thought that "Heard of Hanson?" would make a good buzz phrase for them - because despite being around for a good long while, and despite designing and making some very good instruments (some of which really are built in the UK), they just don't seem to be as well-known as they ought to be. And I really don't understand why. They've got a lot of things to shout about, and yet they seem laid-back almost to the point of insouciance. It's really quite odd, and yet they must be doing something right or they'd have disappeared without trace many years ago.

And that's perhaps why I don't see many Hanson horns in the workshop, which I think is a great shame - but it might also be because Hanson horns come with a very generous five year warranty that covers servicing and wear and tear. A great many of their horns are going to be going 'back to base' for repairs - and there's no reason to assume that owners won't keep using this service long after the warranty has expired.

So when a client dropped one in for a service I positively jumped at the chance to give it the old review treatment.
First up - this is a horn that's partly built in the UK. The body is of German origin (apparently), but Hanson make the keywork and assemble the horns themselves in Yorkshire. This is unusual in two respects, the first being that someone's actually making musical instruments in the UK at all (single instrument makers notwithstanding, of course) - and the second being that it's the keys they're making, and not the body. Most, if not all, of the other manufacturers who partially construct their own horns typically make the body and buy the keys in. It's all a rather contrary - which, as some of you might already be thinking, is Yorkshire for ya.

This example, the SA8, sat more or less in the middle of their range of horns - being one up from the basic model and two down from the top-of-the range.
I suppose by rights I ought to consider this a boutique horn because it fits the definition, but I feel it doesn't quite capture Hanson's involvement in the design, R&D and manufacturing of it. It's rather a lot more than "buy a few bits in and bung 'em together", and in many ways it's a parallel to the Inderbinen - which features bought-in keywork on a handbuilt body. Maybe we need a new term - one that recognises a significant input in the production of an instrument over and above those companies that simply buy in to resell, with perhaps a few cosmetic tweaks. Bespoke, maybe? Artisan, maybe?
Feel free to argue amongst yourselves - and in the meantime I'll pop the horn on the bench and take a butcher's at it...

The construction is ribbed, with the remaining pillar being set of small plates or mounted directly to the body on nicely-proportioned oval bases. The solder work is neat and tidy. The toneholes are all plain drawn and were, on the whole, reasonably level. They could be better, but they're no worse than most of the other horns I see. There was a significant warp on the low B, but given the bell keys were out of alignment due to a knock to the bell I rather suspect this'll be down to impact damage. I certainly had no beef with the condition of the toneholes rims, they were all nice and smooth.

Hanson SA8 bell stayThe body features include an adjustable metal thumb hook, a large and flat plastic thumb rest and a (just) slightly larger than usual sling ring at 15.5/9.5mm. You also get a set of adjusters for the bell key guard bumpers, though I was a bit miffed to see that foam bumpers had been fitted. I don't like these at all, but it's not difficult or expensive to swap them out for some nice felt ones. On the plus side the guard feet were slightly larger than average, which I very much like. There's another guard around the side/chromatic F# key cup, but this is fixed in place - and there's also a detachable lower stack/trouser guard. The body and keys are finished in silverplate, and there's extensive engraving that runs right the way onto the crook - which is nice if you like that sort of thing/bling.
I'm not that keen on silverplate as a finish for a sax, I think it tends to make a horn look fussy and a bit 'brass-bandish' - but from a purely practical point of view it's quite hard to keep silver looking clean and tidy on such a complex bit of kit.
Sure, it's easy enough to tackle the wide open spaces (bell, rear of body etc.) but it's damned hard to get into all the little nooks and crannies. So you end up with a horn that looks like the one in the opening shot - nice and clean in the accessible areas but slowly and inevitably tarnishing where the sun don't shine. Leave it like this for much longer and those areas that are now brown will go black. It's a bit like bare brass horns - they might look very cool and chic in the shop, but keeping them that way in the long term is quite a lot of work. Just something to bear in mind, OK?

Hanson SA8 compound bell key pillarThe bell is detachable via a very beefy two-part bottom bow clamp, and is complemented by a similarly burly triple-point bell brace, which seems to be pretty much the de facto standard these days. Hanson certainly hasn't skimped on the materials for these two features, and they add to the general sense of heftiness that the body exudes.

There's a fixed semicircular compound bell key pillar. I felt the bases were a bit on the small side given the beefiness of the other fixtures and fittings but had no such complaints about the substantial base on the corresponding G# lower pillar (which you can just see on the centre left of the shot).
I think that just about wraps it up for the body other than to say that the crook was a nice, snug fit - even after 11 years in the wild.

Onto the keywork, then - and while we've got the shot of the bell key pillar up I might as well mention that the springs are of blued steel and the point screws are of the pseudo type.
I was quite impressed with how they'd been fitted - even after a decade's worth of use there was very little free play on the point screw mounted keys, which means that some care must have been taken when it came to drilling out the key barrels. I'd still prefer to see proper points screws, naturally.
Incidentally, I note that this model has been superseded by the VIII - and that Hanson claim it has adjustable point screws. My heart skipped a beat...and then it sank when I read that they're using those dreadful sprung points (as found on some Selmers). Why they can't just fit proper point screws and be done with it I just don't know.

The keywork is very well built, quite sturdy (with double arms on the low C, B and Bb key cups) and it's plain to see that some care has been taken over the key fit - which is above average for the price point. I was a bit miffed to find there are no adjusters on the main stacks, but you do at least get the usual trio on the G#, Bis Bb and the low B to C#.
Hanson SA8  adjustersAs an added bonus there's also a helper arm from the low F the the Auxiliary F. I tend to find these helper arms of limited use (they help to keep the Aux.F closed when the articulated G# is in use) because there's often so much flex in them that they barely work anyway. On the SA8 they've fitted the arm directly to the F key cup, which makes it a lot stiffer. However, this kind of design can lead to the side of the F key cup lifting when the articulated G# is in play. It's swings and roundabouts, but for what little benefit it offers it's still better to have it than not.

Without adjusters on the main stacks you have to rely on adjusting bits of corks to regulate the action, and I'm pleased to report that the corkwork was all really rather good. Not only that but they haven't skimped on the use of felt in all the right places, which makes for a quieter and less clunky action.

There's a tilting bell key table - and very nice it is too. It's not an especially difficult key group to make, but it's easy to make a mediocre one if you're at all careless with the positioning of the touchpieces and the accuracy of the swivelling Bb. No such problems here, and as you can see it all looks very neat and tidy. It works very well too, and even the fit of the rollers is good. It's nice to see such attention to detail and wins Hanson a handful of well-deserved points...but then they lose a few by virtue of the fit of some of the key pearls.
Hanson SA8  bell key tableThey're plastic, as you'd probably expect at this end of the market, with a concave profile (bar the Bis Bb, which is slightly domed). However, some of them are set a little low in the pearl holders which leaves a little bit of a ridge against the fingers. You can just about make it out on the G key pearl in this shot - note that thin, dark crescent around the right hand side of the pearl. Half a millimetre higher and they'd be just fine.
As you can also see, there's no oval pearl on the G# touchpiece - nor one on the side/chromatic F#. I really don't mind this as I tend to prefer the feel of a plain metal G# touchpiece...and I can't remember the last time I used the side F# key in anger...

The octave key mechanism is something of a curiosity.
It's essentially a standard swivelling mech - nothing particularly special about that, other than it's as nicely-built as the rest of the action.
The thumb key touchpiece is, I think, something of an acquired taste. There's no doubt it does the job well, what with its generous width and the way it's profiled around the thumb rest...but it just looks a bit, well, funny.
Hanson SA8 octave mechBut that's not the oddity - oh no - it's the pin key that caught my eye....the bit that sticks up over the crook socket. I do believe it's quite the longest pin I've ever seen. I'm really not at all sure why anyone would want to make a pin key this long, given how often they get bent - and about the only (just about) plausible explanation I can come up with is that it's cheaper to make shorter crook key than it is to make a longer pin key. I did briefly toy with the idea that extended pin key moves the circle of motion upwards and thus optimises the leverage against the crook key, but decided this was a crap idea.
About the only idea that made any sense was that I suppose it could come in handy if you wanted to fit a different crook to the horn - and it would very likely save you from having to deal with a crook key ring that didn't come down far enough.

I spotted another oddity on the palm key plate. Here's the top F key - and note where the tip of the flat spring sits. It's some way back from the key's barrel and should be sitting in that little channel. In fact it sits just to the rear of it because the channel's in the wrong place - it's just a bit too far forward. If you pop on a spring that's a better fit it screws up the leverage (for the given design of key) and makes the key feel awfully stiff and unresponsive, no matter how much you tweak the spring.
Hanson SA8  top Eb spring channelNow look where the channel for the top Eb is positioned (just to the right of centre shot). It's practically sitting right underneath where the Eb key's barrel would go.
It's even more poorly-placed than the F key channel. Whoever assembled this horn very sensibly decided to ignore the channels and fit springs that came to rest in the optimal position - which is just past the channel for the F key, and just short of it for the Eb.
It's no big deal, though flat springs whose tips don't sit in channel have a tendency to wander off the one side if there are no obstructions to stop from doing so. In this case the F spring juuuust dips down a bit into the channel, and the Eb spring is obstructed by the F spring on one side and the D key pillar on the other.
It's a bit of a geeky point, I'll admit, but there ya go.

And that just about covers it for the action, save to mention that the side keys feature very sensible fork and pin connectors.
Oh, and then there are the pads...

Hanson SA8 low C padThe pads themselves are of reasonable quality - nor premium by any means, but not junk either.
Hanson have clearly gone to great lengths to ensure the body and keys have been well built and finished - and then have rather let side down by skimping on the ol' shellac.
To be fair there weren't any major issues with the seat of the pads (other than that caused by wear and tear, and a spot of shrinkage), and this is almost entirely down to the build quality of the keys and the relatively even toneholes. But if you needed a pad tweaked, you're going to be stuffed. At the price this horn sold for when new (£1400 or so in 2008), it's really not up to par.
I also noted that some pads had been shimmed - which was a little disappointing, but if I'm feeling generous I suppose I could say that it's inevitable if you consider the overall build quality of the horn versus the asking price. At some point the money runs out and corners have to be cut.

Wrapping up the outfit is a semi-shaped semi-hard case. It looks quite sturdy and seems to have survived thus far, but has the usual dreadful zippered fastener. There are dedicated spaces for the crook and a mouthpiece, and even a tiny accessory compartment too - though there's also zippered bag on the top of the case, along with rings for attaching shoulder straps.

In the hands the horn felt heavy - and I mean that both in terms of the weight of the thing and the feel of the action.
It came to me with the original factory setup and the springs were way, way harder than they needed to be. The action's clearly capable of some finesse, and five minutes with a springhook positively transformed the way it felt and performed.
As for the weight of the horn - at 2.69kg it's very definitely at the heavier end of the market. In fact the only horn I can think of that (just) beats it is the Cannonball GA5, which tips the scales at 2.72kg. Even the TJ RAW, which is by no means a lightweight, only manages 2.57kg. The Yamaha 275 is a mere 2.3kg (as is the Selmer MkVI).
Once I'd donned my meatiest sax strap and beat the springs into submission the horn felt reassuringly nimble. I know I'm always banging on about the fit and accuracy of the action and the damned point screws - but it's precisely these things that make all the difference in the world to how the horn feels.
The bell key table felt fine, the octave key mech worked a treat, everything was where you'd want it to be - there's really not much else to say.

Hanson SA8  bellTime for the playtest then, and you know what? This horn's really nice blow. I played the horn when it came in, and despite having a number of leaks that made it rather stiff and unresponsive it nonetheless had a bit of character hidden beneath all the wheeziness. With the leaks all sorted and the action properly balanced, the horn really shone. Tonewise I'd describe it as sort of middling - you know...not too dark, not too bright - but there's something else in the mix. It's got a certain fullness of tone, a bit of weight and authority to it. But it's also quite a relaxed tone - it doesn't get brittle at the top end and it doesn't get blarty at the lower. It's really quite smooth across the range.
If it was just a tad warmer I'd mark it up as a ballad horn - and if it was a little brighter I think it'd be a screamer...but it treads a nice line between these qualities and puts out a tone that's rather better than the price would suggest.
The manufacturer's site claims that players who've reviewed this horn compare it favourably to various well-known professional horns. I raised an eyebrow at it being compared to a Yamaha 62 because it simply doesn't have the sheer brilliance it's noted for (and I should know), but I think the suggestion that it's rather like the Yanagisawa 901 is pretty much spot on. It's got that same sense of balance and stability...though I'd note that it's a more interesting horn. It's a bit meatier, a bit more expressive. It's a very creditable performer

All things considered I was really rather surprised by this horn. It blows a lot better than it ought to for the money, but what really sealed the deal for me is the quality of the keywork and the way in which it's been fitted - as well as the build quality of the body.
The only fly in the ointment is that Hanson no longer makes the SA8. The model that's replaced it is called the VIII - and because it's radically different it's impossible for me to compare the two (and I haven't got a VIII to hand anyway). Radically different, though?
Well, they say it's much lighter (let's face it, it couldn't possibly have got any heavier), mainly because the body is a 'thin wall' jobby. I'm not at all sure just how much weight you can save by reducing the thickness of the body wall, but I'm pretty sure that it will come at the cost of some robustness. Fear not, though - because it now allows the horn to 'resonate' all the more. Hey ho.
On the plus side they also say that the pads are Pisoni Premium Deluxe (excellent) and that they're fitted with proper shellac (about bloody time) - and as if that's not enough it's also got proper mother-of-pearl touches. And if even that's not enough it also comes with a very impressive five year warranty that I mentioned at the top of the review. That's an extraordinary deal - or at least it is if it's anything like the standard of this SA8.
I won't know for sure until I get my hands on one...and that could be rather a long time away.

As it stands then, the SA8 is only available on the secondhand market - and due to Hanson being rather less well known than they ought to be, prices tend to be favourable...for the buyer, at least. I've seen these horns go for a tad under £500 (in good condition), which I'd consider to be a bit of bargain for such a well-built horn. At that price point about the only competitor worthy of note is going to be the Yamaha 275 or 285 (or a very decent 23 or 25). It's a good horn - a great horn, even - but it can be very 'in yer face' with it's neutral-to-bright precision...though it does have the advantage of being significantly lighter in weight. The SA8 carries rather more decorum with it and, potentially, delivers more bang for bucks.

Meanwhile, the next day...

Hanson SA8 bent pin keyHaving said, right at the top of the review, that I don't see many Hansons in the workshop - another SA8 turned up the very next day after I published the review for a quote on a service. Typical.
This time it was a gold lacquered model, slightly newer than the silver one above.
I took a quick look over the horn with the intent of checking for consistency in the build quality department, and I'm happy to report that it came up to scratch. It's due to come back in a few weeks for a service, at which point I'll do a full strip-down and report back if I find anything unusual/different to the reviewed model. If nothing else appears here you can safely assume that I didn't.

Remember what I said about that rather long pin key on the octave mechanism, and how I reckoned it looked rather vulnerable? Sure enough, the pin on this alto had taken a bit of a knock. Not enough to stop the mechanism from working, but just enough to slow it down and make it feel unresponsive. The client was adamant the horn hadn't been dropped, but with such a long pin key it was quite likely that it just got knocked against the side of the case when removing or replacing the horn...and that's all it takes.


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Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2019