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Yanagisawa 901/902 alto saxophone

Yanagisawa 902 also saxophoneOrigin: Japan
Guide price: £2500 (902, when new)
Weight: 2.45kg (902) 2.33kg (901)
Date of manufacture: 2012
Date reviewed: February 2015

Yanagisawa's entry-level pro alto

I was going to begin this review by saying that of all the horn manufacturers, Yanagisawa seem to be the most consistent.
This applies equally to the standard of build quality as it does to the model line. While other makers are faffing about with MkII and MkIII versions of existing horns, or chopping and changing ranges with the passing of the seasons, this company just keeps on producing the same great horns...year in, year out. I was also going to say that there's a lot to be said for maintaining the status quo - and that if you're brave enough to keep it up, it eventually becomes a unique selling point. It's why long-established companies are quick to point out how many years they've been in business...there's a sense of comfort and security in that, and quality.
And then I find that they've discontinued the current range and brought out a whole new set of horns (altos only, at the time of writing).
Bloody typical.

And, of course, it's typical that they've discontinued the 902 (now superseded by the AW02) just as I'm about to review it. I must have worked on hundreds of these horns but never felt there was a pressing need to review one simply because there would always be another one along a few weeks later, and Yanagisawa would keep turning them out until the end of time. Oh well, it just goes to show that you can't take anything for granted.

The 902 is the bronze-bodied version of the 901 - pitched as an entry level pro model. If that makes you think that you'd perhaps be better off going for a horn that's aimed more at 'seasoned professionals', I'd say "Think again". Or at the very least don't be fooled into thinking this horn is any less a pro-spec instrument than its more expensive siblings and competitors.
In terms of the build the 902 is identical to the 901 in all respects bar the body material, so the choice of which to purchase is solely about which horn you like the look of...or whether you feel there's a tonal difference between them. I've chosen to review the 902 simply because it looks prettier.

The construction is single pillar (post to body), with box or U-section cradles for the palm and side keys. The single pillars are fitted to generously-proportioned bases, which means they'll tolerate a bump or two without being knocked over...or even off. The bases for the low C/Eb pillars are even larger, and this makes a lot of sense given that these pillars are particularly vulnerable to knocks.
Yanagisawa 902 alto bell braceSimilarly, the bell key guard stays have large feet, as does the bell brace where it attaches to the body - and these will help to spread the load of any (inevitable) knocks. There's a single pillar compound bell key pillar which also has a very large base - which should help prevent it from being knocked out of line, either from a direct hit or (as often happens) when the horn takes a fall while in its case.
I have my reservations about the box-section cradles, but it's mostly that they just don't look that elegant - and their thinness means the thread portion of the cradle doesn't provide that much 'meat' for the thread of the rod screw to sit in.

All the usual mod-cons are present; adjustable metal thumb hook, complete with dimpled base; large, slightly domed metal thumb rest; triple-point bell stay and a detachable bell.
The toneholes are drawn, and nicely levelled.

You get a chunky sling ring, though it's a bit small in diameter - and I've come across locking sling hooks that won't go through a ring this small. It's no big deal, for sure, but it's a bit of a pain if you've found a sling you really like...and then you find it doesn't fit your new horn.

The build quality is very good - all very neat and tidy - and the attention to detail means that not only is it a very solidly-built horn, it looks it too.
I especially liked the little blue felt inserts fitted into the brass bumper (white) felt adjusters. It's such a simple thing, a small disc of coloured felt - makes absolutely no difference to the Yanagisawa 902 alto octave keyfunctionality of the adjusters, but it just catches the eye. Very neat.

The keywork is equally neat and tidy, with the standout features being the teardrop touchpiece on the front top F key and the sculpted octave key touchpiece. It gives the sense that someone's sat down with this horn and worked out that a few simple design tweaks can dramatically improve the player's comfort and efficiency - though they must have been on a tea break when it came to deciding to fit a convex pearl to the Bis Bb key. A domed pearl here really makes a difference to the feel of the top stack...though at least they've fitted proper mother-of-pearl touches.

There's an anti-whip clamp fitted to the side top E/F# key barrels, which serves to protect these long rods from knocks and bashes, and also prevents them from bending when the keys are pressed - though this latter feature isn't as useful on keys that are normally sprung closed as it would be on those that aren't (the bell keys, for example).
I was pleased to see simple fork and pin connectors for the side Bb/C keys. These are slick and quiet in action, and being a simple design they'll be reliable down the years.
Yanagisawa 902 alto F# helper armAnother nod to reliability is the use of proper point screws. These are secured with threadlock, and there's a bit of leeway built in - which means there's scope for adjusting the action to take up any wear and tear for a good few years before the pillars will require reaming in order to take up any excess play in the keywork.

There's a helper arm over the low F# key cup. In theory it's neat idea, but in practice the arm is too long and thin to be of much practical use, as even a tiny amount of flex in the arm (and there is) will render it largely ineffective. Still, as there are no regulation adjusters on the main stacks it's perhaps better than nothing.
You do get, however, adjusters for the Bis Bb, G# and low C# keys.

There's a tilting bell key table. It doesn't have the tilting roller between the B and C# touchpieces that features on the more expensive models, but it's a well made table nonetheless - and I doubt that many players will notice its absence.

The keys are fitted with a decent set of pads, with plastic reflectors, and the whole action is powered by blued steel springs.

Yanagisawa 902 alto bell key spatulasThe whole outfit comes in a smart box-type case, complete with proper catches. I'm a big fan of proper catches; they're much more convenient to use than zips and you stand half a chance of being able to repair or replace them if they fail. Once a zip has broken it's pretty much the end of the line for the case. It's well padded and there's plenty of room for your bits and bobs in the accessory compartment. My only reservation is that the lid and bottom of the case has a bit of padding under the covering, which might mean it's susceptible to tearing if you bash it into any sharp objects.
There's also a couple of D rings fitted, so that with the addition of a strap you can sling the case over your shoulder. Very useful.

The 902 has an excellent action, essentially the same design/layout as on the 901 tenor - but whereas I felt the tenor action to be a bit less snappy than that on a Yamaha YTS62, the alto compares more favourably to the YAS 62.
It's fast, nimble, and even the factory setup is pretty good. A tweak here and there improves it still further.
The ergonomics are superb. I realise that we're all different, and that some players will still struggle over the position of the palms keys or the angle of the bell key table - but they're likely to be few and far between.
I really couldn't find any stumbling blocks - the octave key is lovely, the side keys are slick and smooth and everything's just where it ought to be. If it were my horn I'd swap out that convex pearl on the Bis Bb for a domed one - but that would be about it...though I wouldn't exactly be in any rush to do it.

Played side-by-side with a Yamaha 62 (purple logo MkI) the two horns are, initially, very similar - but it's not long before the subtle differences become, well, less subtle. There's a touch more immediacy to the action on the Yamaha, and it feels more solid and cohesive. It's only slight though, and I'd be inclined to put it down to the fact that I've spent decades running my fingers up and down a YAS62 - so I'm bound to be more familiar with it. All the same I think I still have to tip the hat towards the Yamaha.
Tonewise the 902 is softer than the Yamaha and slightly darker in presentation, but the payoff is perhaps a little lack of fire and liveliness. Not such a bad thing on a tenor, but I like a bit more fizz from an Yanagisawa 902 alto bell key guardalto. If you were to think of the tone in terms of a printed photograph, the 62's would be a plain rectangle with the image going right to the edge, filling the whole to speak. The 902 is the same photo, but the corners are rounded...and there's a small white border around the image.

Yanagisawa 901 alto saxI guess you could say the 62 is more 'in yer face', the 902 is more laid back. Not that that's a bad thing - it's just different. The 902 has perhaps a touch more stability, though still has a good response - and it's an easy blow...but it's slightly introspective, quite precise and measured. Studied, even.
That's with the same mouthpiece though - pop a slightly brighter piece on the 902 and those rounded edges might well sharpen up a little. Other than that it's very even across the range - it doesn't get wild at the top and it doesn't get shouty at the bottom. The tuning is spot on.
Does the bronze make a difference? Nah - I've played shedloads of 901s and they all have that characteristic softening of the edges and that slightly laid back approach that's typical of the range.
Don't get me wrong though - I like bronze horns, but for no other reason than they look kinda cool. I'd probably never buy one though simply because you tend to have to pay through the nose for the privilege, and it's a lot of cash to fork out on what's essentially just cosmetics. A better bet would be a plain brass horn, and spending the money you saved on a decent mouthpiece, or maybe a sturdy shaped case.

If you're a classical player I suspect you're going to find the tonal approach of the 901/902 rather appealing - and this is borne out by the number of such players who turn up at the workshop carrying a Yanagisawa. I should imagine that the good people at Yanagisawa are thrilled to bits by this considering that Selmer had always been always been the traditional choice in the genre. Indeed, I've noted a number of classical clients have actually made the switch in recent years, especially since the arrival of new AW series.

There's no doubt about it - the 902 is a very nice alto, and given the build quality and the playability it represents very good value for money (or bang for bucks, if you like), but it's up against some very strong competition. The 901 - which is the same model but with a brass body (shown on the right) - is cheaper, four ounces lighter (2.33kg) and just as good...but there's the Keilwerth MKX at around the same price and the rather nice Yamaha 82Z at just a couple of hundred pounds more. There's also the Rampone R1 if you fancy something a little 'off piste' - and don't forget about the TJ RAW XS, which easily squares up to all these horns and comes in at a few hundred pounds cheaper.
But, if your heart is set on the 902 I think there's a very good chance you'll both be very happy.


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