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John Packer JP 045V alto saxophone

John Packer JP045V alto saxophoneOrigin: China
Guide price: £490
Weight: 2.52kg
Date of manufacture: 2010
Date reviewed: October 2012 (Updated July 2019)

A budget horn with a lot of potential - perhaps yet to be realised

Although ultra-cheap horns have been around for a few years now it still pays to be careful about where you buy one from. Whilst it's true that the general standard of construction has improved over the years it still remains the case that some examples are better than others - though it should be noted that price isn't always a reliable indicator.
The standing recommendation for would-be purchasers is to stick to models from established retailers - so that in the event of any problems there'll be recourse to an after-sales service of some kind. You might pay a little more than you would buying from, say, an auction site, but the assurance of quality more than makes up the difference.
The performance of certain models from some retailers is now quite well documented - on this site alone you can find a number of reviews of ultra-cheap horns from sellers such as Bauhaus Walstein, Windcraft, Academy, Largo etc. - and this review marks the addition of one the UK's best-known retailers, John Packer, to the list.

The JP 045 series is their 'step up' student model, one up from their basic starter model. I doubt many people will kick off with the basic model and then upgrade to this one - being only £150 or so dearer - and it more likely fits into the 'slightly better quality starter horn' bracket. In other words it's a bit like buying a basic model car but specifying allow wheels or power steering - though it should be noted that even the cheapest horn in the range costs half as much again as many of the basic Chinese horns from other retailers.
What you get for your money is horn that quite clearly 'takes its inspiration' from the Yanagisawa 992 alto. It's a popular 'pattern' model with Chinese manufacturers, so it should come as no surprise to see apparently identical models being sold by other retailers. I say 'apparently identical' because although such horns often look the same - even from quite close quarters - they're very often completely different instrument, both in terms of who made them and how they're put together. And in how they blow.

On the face of it, there's little to distinguish this model from many of the other 992-alikes. All the usual features are present, such as a detachable bell, a removable side F# key guard, adjustable metal thumb hook, a large and slightly domed metal thumb rest, double arms on some of the bell keys and the distinctive 'underslung' octave key.
What sets this example apart from many others is how it's all put together. It may not be perfect (as we'll see later) but there are enough good points to tip the scales in its favour at this stage.
For example, the body and fittings are quite neat and tidy - and the fact that this horn has survived a couple of years in the hands of a young student is proof enough that the pillars are held on with more than just a hint of solder. This robustness is echoed in the design by such features as ribbed construction, a triple-point bell brace, a meaty sling ring and a semicircular bell key pillar.

The keys have some nice features, the most obvious of which is the pearls - which are either figured mother-of-pearl or abalone. Either way, they're not the usual plastic fare, and they're flat - which makes a nice change from the usual concave fare, though I noted that the Bis Bb pearl wasn't domed...which is a shame, as it's a very cheap way of improving the feel under the fingers for this note.
In contrast, there's a teardrop-shaped front top F touchpiece which I find a lot more comfortable than a rounded key pearl - and, likewise, a generously-sized metal thumb rest.
JP045V adjustersI was also pleased to see a fork and pin arrangement on the side Bb and C keys (no nonsense, reliable and quiet in action) and key height adjusters on both main stacks. I was also pleased to note that all the screwed-on key fittings were nice and secure. This is a common failing point on cheap horns...all those little stubs (like the one the G# lever arm sits on) are often held on with screws. If they're not done up tight - or, as is often the case, poorly made, so they won't tighten up - they'll cause problems down the line. Powering the keys is a set of blued steel springs.

I noticed the pads were a little sticky - though with no pull-through or shove-it swab in the case this is probably as much to do with the lack of a cleaning regime as it is to do with the pads, which were the standard Chinese fare. They weren't bad, but the basic Bauhaus Walstein alto sports a set of Italian pads for around £30 more.

An even closer look at the action reveals the use of parallel point screws. This is quite unusual for this type of horn - nearly all of them tend to have pseudo points (bar the Bauhaus Walstein AI series, which has proper shoulderless point screws) - but both types require very precisely drilled holes in the key barrels if they're to have even half a chance of holding the keys on snugly.
JP045V point screwsSo it came as a pleasant surprise to find that the barrels apparently hadn't been typically overdrilled, and while I wouldn't go so far as to say the holes were accurate in terms of diameter (thus allowing the circumference of the screw's tip to act as a bearing surface) they at least allowed the point of the screw to do its job. What this would mean to you is that when the point screw action wears it could be easily tightened again by lightly reaming the pillars. It sounds drastic but it's a relatively simple job, and it's a lot cheaper to have done than replacing the point screws or swedging the solid key barrels.
This features translates to the player by way of how the action feels under the fingers - that little bit of extra precision will result in a slicker, more responsive action...and that's worth having.

JP045 key waddingHowever, my pleasure at seeing a half-decent stab at precision was short-lived, because a quick peek into the key barrel revealed that old chestnut of a piece of leather stuffed into the point screw hole.
Yep, the holes have been drilled too deep - and to take up the excess free play the manufacturer has packed out the holes. In effect, then, the entire point screw action is pivoting on bits of screwed-up leather.
Oh, it will work - it just won't work for very long. It put me in mind of visiting a Hollywood film set and being impressed by what appears to be an entire city street built in the middle of nowhere...and then finding that when you look behind the buildings there's no back to them and nothing inside.

The rod screw action fared a little better.
There was some excess play on the lower stack action, with the F key being the worst affected, but I've seen a lot worse.
That doesn't make it better, of course (and especially at this price-point) - but then again this is a horn that's seen a couple of years' use. But then again (again) there wasn't much evidence of rod screw wear anywhere it would be reasonable to assume this horn came out of the factory with a bit of a sloppy right-hand action.

The 'V' suffix on the model name stands for 'vintage', and this describes the finish. It's basically a two-tone finish that's scratched-brushed (or it could be electrophoretic lacquer). Either way it's about as vintage as a DVD player...but it looks OK. Combined with the extra engraving around the bell rim it actually doesn't look too bad at all, and in the odd spots where it had worn down to the underlying brass (mostly on the heads of pillars) it looked as though it was degrading with dignity...which is lot more than I can say for some of the finishes I see on the workbench.

The whole outfit came in a rather neat semi-soft shaped case. It's tough enough to protect against light knocks and light enough not to be too much of a burden for young students to heft around - and unlike a lot of other Chinese cases, it hadn't broken after a few months' use.

JP045V lower stackI mentioned earlier about how a lot of ultra-cheap horns look the same until you get very close to them, whereupon you begin to see the differences. You also see quite a few other things too, and this is where things started to go a bit wrong for the 045V.
For starters I noted the action was set very low indeed. To be fair this horn may well have been adjusted post-purchase, but as far as I and the owner are aware it's never been serviced. Such a low action can be a wonderful thing - but the horn has to be built to take it...and I know of very few horns that could tolerate an action this low and not complain by throwing away the tone and the tuning (the Conn 6M is one such horn).
No big deal though - a quick turn of the adjusting screws will sort this...but it does mean that someone's been struggling to play a stuffy horn all this time.

But of much more concern were the tone holes.
These should be level. I always make allowances depending on the price of the horn, but there are some faults that are bad at any price. If a tone hole is warped it will lead to problems. It might show up two minutes after it leaves the factory, or two months later...or even two years later - but it will show up.
JP045V top D tone holeWhat you can see here is the top D tone hole, and it's not even close to being level. In fairness this is unlikely to cause any immediate problems - the key is sprung closed reasonably firmly and this, in combination with a softish pad, will disguise the problem...until such time as the pad hardens and is no longer able to take up the gaps.
This will lead to a leak, and as the tone hole is near the top of the instrument it means it will have an effect on almost the entire instrument. Which is exactly why it came in for a service.
The other palm key tone holes were better, but still not quite level - but were at least good enough not to cause any leaks before the pad itself had worn out.

The low B tone hole, on the other hand, was almost as poor as the top D.
A tone hole like this will have an effect right from the off - the bell key pads are closed with relatively little pressure and the sheer surface area of the pad makes it a lot less likely that it will take up any discrepancies in the accuracy of the tone hole. About the only time such a setup will work is just after the shipping corks are removed (which will have forced the pad to conform to the warp in the tone hole). Once that compression has been released the pad will relax, fill out slightly and lose its ability to disguise the problem. The low B will become weak and the low Bb will warble - if the player can manage to get it at all.
JP045V low B tone holeThese were the worst two examples by far, with another half a dozen that looked a bit 'iffy. It's worth bearing in mind that the horn's finish can sometimes throw up 'optical illusions', particularly two-tone finishes. You can see it in action on the low B shot - those brighter patches to the rear left and right of the tone hole look like warps...but only one of them is. Have a guess at which it is. Placing a flat standard in the tone hole will soon show up any real problems.

I think it has to be said that it's a disappointment to find such problems on a horn in this price bracket these days, given that there are number of sub £300 horns out there that have level tone holes. It's even more worrying because of the competition the JP045V is up against at the same price.
I would make the point, again, that this is a two year old horn (though I should be quite clear that the problems with the tone holes are not a result of any visible damage), and that the build quality may well have improved in the meantime. However, that remains to be seen.

Under the fingers the horn felt quite good once the action had been raised. Before, there was a distinct difference between the action on the main stacks and that on the surrounding keys - which acted as a bit of a stumbling block. Once the stacks had been opened out it brought the whole action together - and it really wasn't bad at all. I particularly liked the way the pearls felt - very comfortable, very slick.
The issues with the slight wobbles on the lower stack weren't very noticeable, and while a dose of grease had quietened down the point screw action I knew it wouldn't be long before the rattles would return.
Given that the key layout is based on a Yanagisawa I found that everything was where it ought to be, and felt quite comfortable in the hands.

Tonewise it's quite a laid-back horn. There's a lot of 'body' to it, which would be tempting to describe as 'full' - but this implies a broad range of tones, and something this horn lacked was a bit of fizz at the top end and a bit of crackle down the bottom. I guess a more accurate description would be 'rounded'.
To some extent this can be modified by the choice of mouthpiece, but it can only do so much.
It's certainly true to say that the tone opened out with the raised action and made the horn feel rather less resistant, but it still didn't like being pushed. I've noted this kind of rounded response from other Chinese horns, however I've always been able to hear and feel an underlying edge which adds a bit of sparkle into the mix.
That said, there's a certain pleasure to be had from such a relaxed horn - it's a bit like driving a luxury car as opposed to something a bit sportier. It won't go round the corners at breakneck speed, but then it won't crush your spine every time you run over a stone in the road.
My gut feeling is that this particular horn is just a touch on the warm side, and that other examples may well have a bit more zip and zing.

It's, sadly, a moot point though. This may well be a horn with some tonal promise, but the technical issues completely overshadow it. The fact is that I'd be quibbling about the price if it was half as much as it is - and with horns from Bauhaus Walstein and Windcraft setting the standard in this price bracket (and the new Academy Jericho at £200 less) it's, realistically, not even in the running. I hope to get another look at a more recent model in due course, as this is potentially a fine horn that just needs a bit of a leg-up on the quality control ladder.

And the warp in the low B? It was on the right hand side.

Update July 2019:

I had a recent example (purchased 2018) come in for a service, so I thought it'd be interesting to see if there have been any changes...for better or worse.
This model is the JP045S - it's the same model as above, just with a silverplated finish. My main criticism of the 'vintage' example was that the build quality was little, if any, better than Ultra-Cheap horns that cost substantially less - so I was rather hoping that this newer model would represent better value for money when compared with the competition.

JP045S alto tonehole burrWith the horn completely stripped down I made a beeline for the toneholes - and I'm reasonably happy to say that they appeared to be a little better than least in terms of being level. Still not perfect, but then hardly any new horn is these days, but certainly well within expectations for the price.
However, all of them had quite pronounced burrs on the inside of the rims - which will lead to increased stiction and advanced wear of the pads.
Here's the side C tonehole, complete with fingernail shavings on the upper edge of the tonehole.
It is, sad to say, rather typical of cheap Chinese horn manufacturing. You alert the factory to a problem with the build quality (in this case the flatness of the toneholes) and they take steps to address it...but in so doing they create another problem. It's entirely frustrating, but realistically there's only so much 'quality' you're going to get for such a low price. Aside from that, the rest of the body construction was very reasonable - even quite good in places.

I had a good old whinge about the point screws on the earlier example, and I see that they've ditched the pointed parallel points and gone for the pseudo type. As a design it's not much better because it still relies on either the key barrels being accurately drilled or the ability of the tip of the screw to bottom-out in the hole.

JP045S alto barrel and point screwAnd they'd need to, because all of the key barrels had been drilled oversize - which means that unless the tip of the screw is engaged with the barrel, the key will flap about in the breeze.
But they didn' least most of them didn't, which led me to wonder how they'd managed to pull it off. I had my suspicions, so I poked a small hook down the end of a key barrel and did a bit of fishing.

And lucky me! I caught...a wadge of leather.
This is an old trick - and we saw it used on the model reviewed above. You stuff a load of leather (from a pad) into the key barrel and the tip of the point screw embeds itself into it and compresses the leather...thus providing the appearance of a tighter action. It's a bit of a bodge - though it's one that undeniably works. For a time, at least. Leather isn't the greatest bearing material, and in time I'll compress and/or wear, and then the keys start to wobble. However...the principle is sound enough - you just need to swap out the leather for something a bit more robust.JP045S alto  point screw

Essentially, then, it's no real improvement over the previous example - which is a shame.

JP045S alto lower stack rod screwI also found a 'gotcha'. I'm sure it wasn't present on the vintage model otherwise I'd have mentioned it in the review.

Space is always a rare commodity on the smaller saxes, but most manufacturers do a pretty good job of making everything fit together without too many tears. But this time they simply got it wrong.
This is the compound bell key pillar, and that rod butting up against it is the rod screw for the lower stack. Now, it's not uncommon to find that the pillar blocks the extraction of the lower stack rod screw...but it's usually only by a little, which means that giving the screw a very gentle tug towards you will allow it to slip past the pillar.
But the distance this screw would need to travel is a tug too far - and in getting past the pillar you'd put a bend in it. It's not good.
Fortunately the pillar is detachable, which means that the two screws holding the pillar in place can be removed and the pillar lifted away from the body.

Unfortunately it's a complete pain in the arse, and the screws which secure the pillar in place are made of brass. Chinese brass, no less. If at all possible you should avoid putting such screws through a release/tighten cycle too many times, as the risk of stripping out the thread increases dramatically each time.

On the brighter side the Bis Bb key pearl is now slightly domed - but it comes at the expense of the rest of the pearls which are now very slightly concave.
OK, this is rather a personal perspective - but I felt the previously flat pearls gave the horn a rather distinguished feel. So I'm a bit grumpy about the change but I have to concede that they're not as concave as they could have been. The oval pearls on the G# and side/chromatic F# remain flat, as expected.

The only other change that's worth a mention is that the bell brace is now a solid disc of metal rather than the usual ring. This'll make it stronger in terms of an impact to the front of the bell, but it will also reduce its potential for absorbing some of the shock - so it's very much six of one, half a dozen of the other. And it'll make no difference if the impact comes from the side.

Overall I feel that the build quality has come up a notch...but just a notch. But here's the thing; pretty much all of the improvements could be wiped out by the inevitable variation between otherwise identical examples. I'm not going to criticise an improvement, but I think it's only fair to put it into perspective.
As such I feel my closing comments on the review of the vintage model still stand, though it's fair to say that the horn now represents slightly better value for money. But only slightly.
At least it hasn't got worse - which is, regrettably, always a possibility with Ultra-Cheap horns.


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