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Venus AS512DN alto saxophone

Venus alto saxophoneOrigin: China
Guide price: £179-£235 depending on finish
Weight: 2.63kg
Date of manufacture: 2009
Date reviewed: October 2010

An Ultra-Cheap alto from a manufacturer with a growing reputation

One of the most common concerns expressed by potential buyers of Ultra-Cheap Chinese saxophones is whether they will last. Much of this is due to reading scare stories written by people with an axe to grind, coupled with the experiences of buyers who have often chosen unwisely. One of the very first such instruments I reviewed is still going strong some four years later - and my own Chinese tenor (that lives in the boot of the car) shows no signs of failing after at least a couple of years hard labour.
All the same, I like to keep an eye on how the genre as a whole is standing up to wear and tear - so the chance to review an Ultra-Cheap horn that's been in use for some time is always welcomed.

This particular Venus alto is about a year old. It's been in the hands of a 12 year old student in that time and has suffered the rigours of being lugged to and from school, as well as putting up with (shall we say) less than careful ownership. That fact that it made it into the workshop in the first place was down to an 'incident' involving a heavy hand and a rather careless crook fitting episode...which resulted in a slightly bent key.
I'm not at all concerned about the damage, I've seen it on horns right across the price spectrum - but I was very keen to see how a sub £200 horn was doing after a year's use.
But first a quick rundown of the instrument's qualities, quirks and features.

I would imagine the first thing that catches your eye is the finish.
The black lacquer body (or it could be lacquer over black nickel plate) and gold lacquer keys are a striking combination - but if there's one thing black lacquered horns are noted for it's how quickly they can look shabby once the finish gets damaged. This is particularly an issue if ever there are repairs needed to the body, such as solder or dent work. These 'heavy' repairs will often result in a little damage to the finish, and whilst it's possible to touch up any such damage on a clear or gold lacquered sax it's extremely difficult to completely hide it - and even more so with a coloured finish.
There is also the issue of how long a finish remains in good order - and unaffected by manufacturing defects such as acid bleed and poor quality lacquer. I was, therefore, quite impressed to find the finish was still in excellent condition - and better still, had been very well applied in the first place.
As you may know, I tend to err on the side of the traditionalist when it comes to finishes and favour a plain clear or gold lacquered finish, but I appreciate that young players in particular prefer something a little more individual. And why not?
If a lurid pink or sleek black finish encourages a student to take up and practice the instrument then I'm all for it.

The build quality of the body is really rather good, very neat and tidy. I did notice one discrepancy though - some of the tone holes are a little rough on the rims. Not all, mind you (which was odd), just a few here and there. I didn't notice any problems (such as sticking or worn pads), but it would be as well to have such issues dealt with as it could cause problems at a later date.
The body sports all the usual features, such as a detachable bell, adjustable thumb hook, three point bell brace, detachable side F# key guard etc. and all the pillars and fittings are neatly made and attached.

Venus bell key pillarI have some reservations about the bell key compound pillar which consists of a single pillar with a multiple head. There are a lot of keys hanging off this pillar, and some sort of bracing would seem wise. This pillar seems to rather susceptible to case-shock damage - where a heavy knock or a drop causes the instrument to jar inside the case. This can cause the bell keys to act a little bit like a slide hammer and direct all the shock energy into the compound pillar.

That being said, it seems to have survived thus far.

The keywork is also nicely built and finished. Compared to some other Ultra-Cheap horns it's slightly less well-featured. For example there are no adjusters at all on the main stack keys, which makes it a longer job for repairers to regulate the action, and rubber bumper 'felts' have been used - which makes the bell key action a little noisy. These can be swapped out for proper felts, though I can't see any reason why they weren't fitted in the first place as they appear on similarly priced horns from other manufacturers.
As expected the keywork is suitably robust - as I found out when altering the position of the front top F touchpiece, which had been set too far back over the B key cup to have been useful.
The tilting bell key table (as seen above) is well made and laid out, as was surprisingly slick in action. It's a difficult key-group to get right, but whether by luck or judgement Venus seems to have come up trumps with this one.
My one real criticism of the keywork is that in spite of the rest of the horn having a snug action, the octave key mechanism had quite a lot of free play built into it. To be more precise the socket holes that the swivel bar ends fitted into were slightly oversized, resulting in five or six millimetres of excess movement on the octave key touchpiece...and a sloppy feel to the whole mechanism.
Nonetheless it didn't affect the playability of the horn, and with the fitment of a couple of thin nylon tubes to the swivel ends the whole problem disappears.
I should say that I haven't seen such play on other Venus horns that have come through the workshop, so I'm prepared to give the brand the benefit of the doubt and flag this example up as being unusual in this respect.
The pads are standard quality Chinese ones. These seem to have improved slightly in the last couple of years, being slightly less sticky and a little flatter than before.

The action is powered by a set of stainless steel springs. Though not as good as blued steel (or quality stainless) they nevertheless work very well, and to be quite honest the action feels rather well sprung.
The whole outfit comes in the usual generic case.

Under the fingers the Venus felt well laid out and quite well set up. I actually had to raise the action a touch, which was quite a surprise - cheap horns often have too high an action from new. The only obvious issues were the play in the octave mech and the noise/vibration from the rubber bumpers - everything else seemed to be where it was supposed to be, and did what it was supposed to do. The front top F key tweak paid dividends - the teardrop-shaped touchpiece is a boon, but it has to be in the right place if it's going to do its job properly.
The Venus is quite an easy blow. Tonewise it's obviously a modern student horn, with a lively feel to it and with perhaps just enough warmth to keep the tone from dropping into shrillness. The low notes were crisp and punchy and the top register was clean and precise. The tone is even enough across the range and the tuning is fine.

I've had the Venus brand on my list of recommended Ultra-Cheap horns for some time time now, and have seen a number of examples over the last couple of years or so - but this is the first time I've formally reviewed one. It's quite a tough test for such a cheap instrument to undergo a review after a year's use, but I think it fared very well.
Couple that comment with other comments I've seen dotted around the web from other Venus owners, which seems to indicate that this is a consistent and reputable brand, and it seems pretty clear to me that Venus maintains its place on my list.
I would knock off a point or two for the play in the octave key mechanism and the rubber bumpers, but both are minor issues and could be dealt with quite easily - which would make the horn feel and play as good as it looks.
Considering the sub £200 price for the basic model, the excellent finish, the general build quality and the playability, I feel the Venus represents very good value for money - and given that the example reviewed has stood up to a year's use in the hands of a young beginner I wouldn't have any qualms about recommending it as a good, sturdy student instrument.

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