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Selmer 130th Anniversary Edition alto

Selmer 130th Anniversary alto sax reviewOrigin: France
Guide price: £4500+
Weight: 2.47kg
Date of manufacture: 2018(?)
Date reviewed: November 2020

Not that special

When this horn turned up on the workbench I wasn't really sure what to do with it, exactly. OK, yeah - service it, obviously...but the client was rather keen for me to review it, what with it being a rather distinctive horn and all that.
And sure, it is distinctive....but how distinctive is it really? This is the trouble with 'special edition' horns - it costs an awful lot of money to set up a production line for a series of horns, and the very nature of a 'special' edition is that it's, er, well, special. But it simply isn't going to be economically viable to make radical changes to a production line simply to accommodate a limited run of horns - and so this leads to a few questions - such as just how special is it? What has been changed that sets a particular model apart from its standard brethren? What is it about it that's different enough to warrant a premium on the price tag. And, of course, is it worth paying that extra over and above the cost of a bog-standard model?

I suppose some of it depends on your perspective.
My own perspective is that a special edition anything should have something unique about its functionality that sets it aside from the norm. It perhaps goes back to the days when I'd just passed my driving test and began to take an interest in cars. I recall being terribly impressed (AKA green with envy) when one of my mates turned up in 'super special' something-or-other. Much gloating and bragging was had on his part...until someone pointed out that the only difference between his car and the ordinary model was a stripe down the side of the car and an extra pair of spotlamps...and some rather lurid seat covers. And a badge on the boot (trunk). That was it. That was the difference. Didn't seem like an awful lot to us, and we took quite some pleasure in taking the piss.
Which is why, ooh, about fifteen years later I smiled wryly to myself when I inherited a special edition VW Beetle...and noted that what was special about it was...a stripe down the middle of the car, some fancy seatcovers and a pair of spotlamps.

Anyway, I decided to do not so much a review of this horn as an overview. Y'see, underneath all that bling there lies what appears to be a plain old Selmer SA80 II. I've covered the tenor (Series III) in another review - so from a mechanical point of view there's not much else that needs saying. However, this horn is touted as the Selmer 130th Anniversary Edition. I've no beef with that, but somehow they shoehorned in a reference to this horn being a tribute to Adolphe Sax (200th birthday). Again, I have no particular problem with it - it's just that even while the horn was sitting on the workbench I spotted a couple of things that weren't up to scratch...and if you're going to invoke the name of the great man himself, you better be damned sure that what you have to offer is up to the mark.

So let's give things a bit of a stir and see what floats to the surface...

The construction is ribbed - with a detachable bell, a semicircular compound bell key pillar, adjustable metal thumb hook, a small pearled thumb rest, a 14.5/8.5 sling ring and detachable wire-type bell key guards with built-in bumper felt adjusters. The body is neatly put together and finished in a lacquered matte silver finish and offset with bright silverplated keys. And not a little custom engraving on the bell. I think we can all agree that on looks alone, this is certainly a very unique horn from the Selmer stable.
If you look a little bit closer you see further differences, such as the bell brace and the trouser guard.

Selmer Adolphe alto bell braceNow, I rather like the trouser guard - it's both entirely functional and visually striking. Nothing wrong with that at all.
The bell brace, on the other hand, leaves a fair bit to be desired. Sure, in terms of holding the bell out in front of the body it does a good enough job - but it has rather less resistance to side impacts than I like to see on a pro spec horn. Yes, I can understand why they went for this design (a modern take on those bloody useless wire-type braces from the olden days) - but with a bit more thought I'm sure they could have come up with triple-point brace that looked 'homagey' enough.
And while we're (vaguely) on the subject of detachable bells I note that the bottom bow clamp has but a single screw to tighten it up. Not really sure why they did that. Actually, I am...and we'll come back to that a little later.

I also rather like the wire bell key guards. They look quite elegant and seem to give the horn a sense of 'being able to breathe' down the lower end. It's a nice touch that they're detachable, and that they incorporate a bumper felt adjuster. However, if there's a drawback to wire guards it's that they can get knocked out of shape rather quickly and end up looking a bit scruffy. Perhaps not so much of a big deal on this horn given that they can be taken off and beaten back into shape (just about).

Selmer Adolphe alto octave mechUp the other end of the horn we have a custom octave mech. Well, half a custom mech at any rate. It's a standard swivelling mech, but Selmer have chosen to make a bit of a statement by getting rid of the usual profiled thumb key and fitting one that first appeared on the Modele 26 way back in 1926. What they haven't done is use quite as much metal. You can see that the touchpiece stands a little high in this shot, and when I set to adjusting it I found that all I needed to do was poke a finger under the upper end of the touchpiece and press down on the lower end. It was that easy to bend. I did some work on an SBA alto recently, and noted that the same job required the aid of a pair of smooth-jawed pliers.

I also wasn't that impressed by the comfort of the touchpiece; not so much due to its size and shape (though that in itself isn't great) but more that someone's made a boo-boo with the either the depth of the pearl holder or the thickness of the pearl.
As you can see, the circumference of the pearl sits below the rim of the holder - so your thumb sits right over that relatively sharp edge. It's not nice, and it's definitely not up the standard I'd expect to see at this price point.

Selmer Adolphe alto thumb restI also wonder what Adolphe himself would have made of it. I'm pretty sure he'd be thrilled to bits at seeing something as accomplished as an automatic swivelling octave mech - but perhaps rather a lot less impressed to discover that the ergonomically-profiled touchpiece along with its large thumb rest had been ditched in favour of a design which only serves to detract from the players' comfort and speed. And that the thumb rest had sharp edges.

A quick note about the crook. The usual hefty crook key has been replaced by a much simpler (and thus weaker) affair, and if you look carefully at the opening shot of this review you might see that there's no bracing beneath the crook tube. Now, I definitely don't like that.
I'm forever dealing with crooks that have suffered pulldown - and as far as I'm concerned if you're going to muck about with crook braces, it should only go one way. They should be bigger and stronger. Removing the thing altogether is a very risky proposition - and some care should be taken when fitting and removing this crook. And definitely avoid the habit of putting the mouthpiece on after the crook's been fitted to the horn. It's just asking for trouble.

Selmer Adolphe alto top B toneholeThere's a curious feature on the top B tonehole - it has an insert fitted.
At first glance it looks like a bodge - a cock-up in the design/manufacturing stage that needed to be corrected without having to re-jig the entire manufacturing process. It wouldn't be the first time I've seen such post-production fixes on a horn.
However, this is not so much a bodge as a modifier. Horns can often be a bit unstable around the mid/top C/C#, and there exist a number of fixes for this traditional problem - such as lining the bore of the top B tonehole with sandpaper. What we have here is a rather more advanced version - and as such it appears to work because I didn't notice anything untoward with these tricky notes.
I suppose you could argue that better design would be a more effective solution - and that if it was that much of a problem, why don't other brands have this feature? Who can say (not me, mate) - but I have no problem with modifiers and tweaks if they're well-fitted...which this one most assuredly is.

Selmer Adolphe alto low Bb  padNote the white pads. These are fitted as standard, and look very swish against the frosted silver of the body. How long they'll stay looking swish is anyone's guess. Most of the horns I've seen with white pads end up looking a bit unfortunate once the pads get grimy. And they do get grimy.
But these are no ordinary pads, oh no. None of them are fitted with reflectors/resonators. This, apparently is an 'homage' to the original Adolphe saxes, which were fitted with white leather pads that had but a simple stitch in the centre to keep the leather from flapping about in the breeze.
All good and well, but plain pads have a tendency to knock off some of the punch and response of a horn. This isn't always a bad thing on a very vintage horn - where a more modern reflectored pad might 'overcook' the tone (a bit like putting a high baffle piece on a Conn Chu Berry). But this is a modern horn - and it's supposed to be lithe and punchy.
Selmer say they've overcome this dilemma by specifying especially hard pads. I'm unconvinced, personally; leather is leather...and what goes behind it isn't going to make that much of a difference to the acoustic 'reflectivity'. Besides, I had a good poke around with the pads and didn't think they were all that hard really.
The thing about hard pads, though, is that they require a lot of precision, both in terms of the mechanics (level tonehole and keycups, tight action) and the seating. Selmer tend to do quite well when it comes to tonehole flatness - and I'm pleased to report that this horn was up to their usual standard. Not perfect (by my standards) but acceptable for a factory-spec horn. Likewise, the tightness of the action was mostly up to par - notwithstanding the issue of using sprung point screws.
Selmer Adolphe alto bis Bb padBut it all went a bit to pot on the seating. Quite a few of the pads were a tad undersized - as you can see (above, left) in this shot of the low Bb pad. Not by very much, granted, but I wouldn't let it pass on a standard Selmer model let alone a special edition. The few pads that I pulled weren't very well glued in. Here's the Bis Bb - and you can see that someone's made an attempt to correct an irregularity in the seat with a shim. But look at how much - or rather how little - glue there is on the pad. If they'd been a bit more generous with the shellac they wouldn't needed to have fiddled about with shims.

Selmer 130th anniversary alto pearlsA very distinctive feature is the use of metal finger pearls.
I had a bit of a chuckle about this, given that players often complain that the plastic pearls you find on cheaper horns can be a bit slippery when things get a bit sweaty - but there you go.
What's particularly interesting about them is that unlike metal touches of old - which were soldered directly to the key cups - Selmer have simply made metal inserts that fit into the existing pearl holders. I suppose it makes sense from a production point of view, but somehow it seems a bit of a cop-out. And you can see that they've done exactly the same thing on the oval touch on the side/chromatic F#. The main stack touches are concave, the F# and G# touches are flat and the Bis Bb is slightly domed.
As for the rollers on the bell keys they've gone for proper mother-of-pearl.

Selmer Adolphe alto end capOne very nice extra which caught my eye was this very elegant blackwood top cap.
Sure, it's just a simple thing - but it's nicely made and finished...even if its sole purpose (beyond what any top cap does) is to provide a bit of bling for your money.
And although you can't see it, it's hollow - which means it allows air to circulate around the top section of the horn. That's a nice touch.

The horn came in a standard box-style zippered case, nothing special...though I believe this too is supposed to be a limited edition design.
Given that the design brief for this horn appears to have been to take a standard horn and 'value-add' vintage bling to it, I would have thought that a bespoke vintage-style case (perhaps based around the old Selmer 'crocodile skin' design) would have been an easy choice...but there you go.

Selmer Adolphe alto bellIn terms of the feel - well, it's pretty much as you'd expect from a modern Selmer.
Aside from the retro thumb key the rest of the action is standard fare, right down to the tilting bell key table and the rather short blued steel spring which power the action. I had no issues with the metal key pearls, but then I didn't play the horn long enough to work up a proper sweat.

I don't mind admitting that when the horn came in for repair I could hardly wait to play it; I was that curious to see how it sounded and whether it was radically different from all the other Selmers I've played over the years. I should have waited though - because it was entirely disappointing. If there's one word to describe it, it would be 'flaccid'.
But let's be fair here, the thing was leaking like a sieve. With all the leaks sorted and the action suitably tweaked, I set about giving it a fair crack of the whip - and I'm pleased (and not a bit relieved) to say that it made a big difference. Well, OK, at least the thing worked now.
Tonewise I feel it plays exactly like an SA80 II - it's got that same midrange presence, the expanded lower end and that touch of creaminess up at the top end. It's got the same tonal balance across the range, and the same presentation. If there's a difference at all it's pretty slight - and I'd really need to compare it side-by-side with an SA80 to be able to nail it properly - but from experience I felt that it was just a bit more laid back. A bit softer, a bit more reserved. In a funny kind of way I almost preferred it when it was leaking, because it had a more 'velvetty' tone...a touch more Paul Desmond, if you will.
Now, I don't know whether Selmer did anything to the bore of this horn (I suspect not, given how much that would cost) - and there's the issue of that insert in the top B tonehole - but I'm going to put my head on the block and say I reckon the tonal difference is entirely down to the pads having no reflectors/resonators. It just seems to fit the bill, and is exactly the kind of change in response I've noticed when I've been asked to swap out a set of reflectored pads for a set of plain riveted ones on a vintage horn overhaul.
I guess the acid test would be to compare it with an SA80 that's been kitted out with riveted pads - but finding one might be a bit difficult as I really don't know anyone who'd want such a thing done.

And there you have it - the Selmer 130th Anniversary alto.
In reading some of the blurb from retailers it seems that there's a recognition that previous Selmer special editions amounted to very little more than a few cosmetic changes and some fancy engraving (colour me surprised). This horn, however, was touted as being rather different...but I'm not convinced.
Yes, there are some very obvious differences (as highlighted) - but there's a great deal more that's just standard. It's essentially an SA80 - and what Selmer seems to have done is changed whatever can be changed with the least possible cost...which amounts to the least possible change to the standard production line. It's quite a clever exercise in marketing really, because they haven't really added anything to this horn...they've simply taken things away. You don't get a different body tube or bell, and I doubt you even get a different crook. In short you don't get anything different that really matters...that really makes a difference. Well, apart from a custom mouthpiece that's specific to this horn alone...but that's only any good if you actually like it. If you don't, it's just so much dead weight.
As someone who's spent almost every day for the last 45+ years taking horns apart and putting them back together, I have a pretty good idea of what you can change on a horn and not make the slightest bit of difference to its performance. I also have a pretty good idea of what's cheap to change and what's not.
In short it all smacks of a marketing exercise designed to relieve a number of people of a not insignificant amount of money. I mean, let's be honest - who on earth celebrates a 130th anniversary?
100? Of course! 150? Well, sure. 200? Without a doubt. But 130? That's like hiring a marquee, booking a reasonably well-known band and inviting everyone you've ever your 47th birthday party. OK, sure, there's the 200th birthday of Adolphe Sax - but it rather comes across as an afterthought...a convenient coincidence.

As far as I'm concerned it all boils down to the kudos of owning a largely cosmetic variant of a stock horn that few other people own. Only 400 of them were made, so I suppose there's some value in it being a 'collectable' horn - but given the prices used models seem to be selling for, it doesn't strike me as being a particularly lucrative investment. Looks nice, though - and I have to say that the owner loves it. And maybe that's all that really matters.


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