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John Packer JP044 MkII baritone saxophone

John Packer JP044 MkII baritone sax reviewOrigin: China
Guide price: £1549
Weight: 5.61kg
Date of manufacture: 2017
Date reviewed: March 2018

The tri-tone baritone

It's been ten years since I last reviewed a Chinese baritone (the Gear4Music) and two things surprise me about this. The first is that ten years seems to have gone by in the blink of an eye - and the second is that I've seen far fewer cheapo baritones in the workshop than I would have expected.
This may be due to their lack of popularity. I doubt it somehow, because I see plenty of posh baritones - so I rather suspect that there's some sort of relationship between the price someone is prepared to pay for a bari, and the amount of money they're willing to spend to keep it in tip-top shape.
They're cheaparses, in other words. Not that you can blame them, because the baritone is such a trouper it'll keep chugging on even if a couple of keys are about to fall off - and as every true baritone aficionado knows, the less money you spend on fiddling with your horn, the more you'll have to spend on beer, fags, chips and shove ha'penny.
And reeds. Did you know...a typical bari sax reed (Rico) cost as much as a nine foot length of 4 by 2 from the timber yard? Brings me out in a cold sweat just thinking about it.

In the last ten years the Ultra-Cheap horn market has changed dramatically, with many respectable brands having fallen prey to rising costs and inconsistent quality control.
That said, there were never that many people selling baritones, and to some extent this section of the market has remained more or less static.
Gear4Music and John Packer were there at the start, and are still there today - and have recently been joined by's Sakkusu brand. And there's still the Bauhaus Walstein at the upper end of the spectrum.
And since ten years is plenty of time to iron out any niggling production problems, it's high time to take a look at what John Packer has to offer in the shape of their basic bari, the JP044 (Mark II).

First up - the finish.
It's advertised as being built from brass with a rose brass finish - and while I've seen plenty of horns that have a two-tone finish (a brass body and bronze bell, for example), I've never before seen one that feature three body finishes. It seems to have a light gold lacquered main body, a clear lacquered bottom bow and a rose brass/bronze bell. A tri-tone, in other words.
Not that it makes a jot of difference - it just looks a bit...well...odd.

John Packer JP044II baritone top bowThe construction is single pillar (post to body) - all of which have reassuringly large bases. Rather confusingly the website blurb describes this horn as being of ribbed spite of the product shots (and this example) suggesting otherwise. Maybe it's a typo, or a leftover spec from the Mk1.
The toneholes are all plain drawn, the bell is detachable - as is the top bow (at the top of main body tube), and there's a four-point bell brace. You also get an adjustable metal thumb hook, a flat plastic thumb rest, adjustable bell key bumpers and a very generously-proportioned 20.5/13.5 sling ring.

The placement of the top bow clamp is sensible, given that it allows tooling access to the main body tube without having to pull the bell off. However, the braces on the top bow are a bit on the flimsy side. This isn't unique to this model - all the cheap baritones have overly-thin braces here - which is why you should exercise some caution when fitting the crook and the mouthpiece.
The standard advice for any horn is to fit the mouthpiece to the crook and then fit the crook to the horn. This helps prevent stressing the crook and the receiver during assembly. However, I know that many of you (myself included) bung the crook on and then fit the mouthpiece - which is a bit naughty, but slightly less naughty if you at least ensure the mouthpiece cork is nicely greased first.
On these cheap baris it's dead risky to cheat on the assembly because the braces are so thin - and if you attempt to wrestle the mouthpiece on to the crook while it's fitted to the horn, the top bow will flex. This will eventually weaken and break the seal at the top bow joint, and at some point one or other of the braces will pop off. And if any of the brace screws have worked their way loose (as they do), the whole process will happen that much sooner.

John Packer JP044II baritone bell braceNo such concerns with the bell brace, which is a very substantial affair.
It's your standard three-point job with an extra leg that extends across the top of the body tube and is mounted between the A and G toneholes. I've tinted it to make it a little easier to see what's going on.
This extra leg is a very nice feature, because while the three-point brace is good at preventing the bell section from being driven backwards into the body, it's not much cop at stopping it from being knocked sideways. The extra leg takes care of any impacts in that plane...and in the event of a knock it proves a wider area over which the shock can dissipate.
It still won't stop the body from bending as a result of a hefty whack, but there's a world of difference between having a gentle bend in the body and a dirty great crease, complete with a couple of misshapen toneholes.
The only drawback with these braces is that they're not always terribly well fitted - and even though the screws are done up tight, the brace is still a little bit loose.
If in doubt, give the brace a bit of a wiggle - but don't be too quick to take a screwdriver to the screws as you might end up stripping out the threads.

Being such a (relatively) cheap horn I was expecting to find the usual collection of iffy toneholes - but in fact they weren't too bad at all. Not perfect, by any means, but well within the "It'll do at this price" range. The only ones that were outside that range were from the low C down to the low A - and as if to make up for this encouraging display, the low A exhibited a classic Chinese aardvark. You can see a fairly substantial warp at the front of the tonehole - but what's going on at the right hand side, just behind the apex?

John Packer JP044ii baritone toneholeIt's a notch, and a pretty deep one at that. It's gracefully curved and completely smooth - so I'm not so sure that it got there due to an error in the drawing process (quite common on Chinese horns), and I rather suspect that it's down to a spot of careless buffing.

This is why many players tend to avoid relacquered horns. Buffing is just a cosy-sounding word that means 'very fine grinding', and in careless hands a buffing wheel can remove surprisingly large amounts of metal in a very short space of time. It's unlikely that anyone intentionally buffed the tonehole - rather they were probably working on an adjacent spot (perhaps where the guard stay is) and failed to notice that part of the wheel was touching the top of the tonehole. Half a minute later and there's your notch...all smooth and curved.
Fortunately, in this case, the notch sat beside the raised portion of the tonehole - which would need to be taken down in order to level the with a bit of careful filing and some gentle bore manipulation, it was possible to eliminate the notch without any adverse effects.
Had it been anywhere else it might have been much more of a problem.
And I should say at this point that the client bought this bari at an 'ex demo' discount. More often than not this is a euphemism for 2nd quality or B stock goods (retailers are often reluctant to admit there's such a thing as 2nd quality) - though it's generally standard practice to point out what anomalies are responsible for the discount. No such information was given at the time of purchase.

The action turned out to be quite good. Baritones can be tricky beasts when it comes to the keywork because the sheer size of the keys makes it more likely that flex will be an issue. The JP044 does pretty well, and this is predominantly due to the keys being rather stiff. It also helps if the keys are nice and snug on their pivots - and I'm pleased to report that they were. Mostly.
John Packer JP044ii baritone top stackA few of the side keys were a little wobbly, as were a few of the keys that were mounted on (pseudo) point screws - but the main stack action was actually pretty good, all things considered. Definitely better than expected and certainly comfortably above average for the genre.
The worst aspect was the corkwork, which was the usual fare - indifferently fitted squishy corks, held on with poor-quality glue. That said, it was tidier than many I've seen and seemed to be holding up well enough after a good few months' use.

There are no adjusters on the main stacks, though you get the usual adjusters on the Bis Bb, G# and low C#.
Technically-speaking, the low A thumb key is adjustable - but you'd be extremely well-advised not to attempt it. It's a copy of the superb Yamaha mech - which means it's practically switchlike in operation. However, the adjustable part of the mechanism is seldom that well built on Chinese baritones, and fiddling with it is often far more trouble than it's worth.

John Packer JP044ii baritone octave key mechAnd speaking of Yamaha, the octave mech features twin body octave key vents.
Like the double-armed low A mech, these are a worthwhile feature and really help to even out the tone and the tuning over the notoriously tricky G/A break on baritones.
If there's a drawback to this mech it's that it's rather more complex than usual - and the more complex a thing is, the more things there are to go wrong.
Thankfully it's fairly fault-tolerant - which is just as well because it turned out to be bent. I only noticed it because I wanted to check how much 'meat' was in the pillar at the head end of the screw (centre, left), because they seem to have cut the screw a little too short. As I turned the screw, the whole mech rose and fell...which is the classic sign of a bent rod/key.
This turned out to be the most significant problem with the action...but I can't in all honesty say that it couldn't have happened some time after purchase.
While I was fixing it I took the time to add some Teflon buffers to the swivel arm tips...which helps to tighten up the feel of the mech and keep it quiet.

The pads seem reasonable enough. They're a little bit on the soft side, and on the few that I removed I noted they were held in place with just a lick or two of hot melt glue. The slight softness of the pads I can forgive - and it's probably quite a practical choice for such a large (and thus approximate) horn...but the lack of glue gets a big frown. If you want to reset any of the pads you'll have to remove them and add more glue/shellac...otherwise you'll just be wasting your time.

And that about wraps it up for the keywork save to point out that the side key connectors are simple fork and pin jobs, the low C key has double cup arms, there's a tilting bell key table, the key pearls are all concave plastic - and the whole action is powered by stainless steel springs. At least I think that's what they are. They're not blued - and yet they're tapered...which is unusual for stainless steel springs (certainly on a horn of this quality). They don't appear to show any signs of corrosion, and they seem to be doing a fine that's about all that needs to be said.

The horn comes in a massive box-style case. It looks pretty chunky but it's actually not as sturdy as you'd think. The zippered fastener tends not to last very long, and I'd strongly advise you avoid trundling the case along on its wheels on anything other than the smoothest surface - because they'll break right out of the case. Other than that it offers a reasonable amount of protection for the horn, and there's oodles of space inside for all your accessories.

In the hands the horn feels quite comfortable in spite of its size and weight.
It's very much a contemporary baritone in this respect, and feels more like a large tenor when compared to the feel of a vintage model. Everything's reasonably compact and accessible, there's no frantic stretching required or wrist-breaking gymnastics. It's all there, right under your fingers.
The action feels pretty nimble too, and while it doesn't quite have the buttery slickness of, say, a Yamaha, it nonetheless comes remarkably close. The low A mech in particular is a dream. I've said it before and I'll say it again - I don't know why all baritones aren't fitted with this mech. It's that good.

John Packer JP044ii baritone bellTonewise it's as contemporary as the action, and errs just on the bright side of middling I'd say. It's surprisingly easy to blow, quite responsive with very crisp low notes. It's also got a fair bit of grunt - which is typical of a modern baritone - and while it lacks the kind of precise punch you get from from a top-end horn it more than makes up for it in its enthusiastic approach...and the price tag.
It's quite even-toned across the scale for a baritone and seems to maintain it even at low volumes. I think it's fair to say that it lacks the character and sonority of a vintage bari, but you might be surprised at what you can coax out of it with the right mouthpiece.
Thankfully it seems to be pretty accommodating in this respect - and worked just as well with my ebonite Link as it did with a cheapo high-baffle piece. And the tuning's fine too.

So, thumbs up or thumbs down?
To be honest, a baritone that comes in at around £1500 that plays in tune and doesn't fall apart after six months is always going to get a thumbs up.
It's half the price of a basic Jupiter, and a third of the price of an entry-level Yanagisawa. On a cash basis alone it's way ahead of the field.
My personal perspective on these things is that if you want a bari on a budget it's either something like this, or a secondhand banger.
Old 'n cheap alto and tenors (and perhaps certain sopranos) you can get away with - but a clunky old baritone is whole 'nother world of pain. And, ultimately, expense.
And it seems to me there are two approaches to these Ultra-Cheap baritones. The first is simply to buy one and just get on with playing it. The second is to view the purchase as just the first step, and throw another couple of hundred quid at it to have it properly set up - by which I mean have the toneholes sorted, the action tweaked, the shonky corks replaced and various pads reset.
It made a significant difference to this horn, and even just sorting out the toneholes on the bell section really paid off. I blew the horn beforehand, and it wasn't too bad - but once those toneholes had been levelled and the pads reset, it was like a window had been opened on the bottom end of the horn. Bags more crispness and a much more solid feel to the notes.

In terms of the competition there really isn't very much out there these days. There's the Gear4Music, which comes in at £1300 - and there's the Sakkusu, which costs around £1300 for the basic model and £1700 for the posh one.
I see quite a few Gear4Music baritones, and I'd say they compare very well with the John Packer. I feel the Packer is slightly better built...but only slightly - and I wouldn't like to bet a bottle of beer on it being £200's worth better. As to the Sakkusu, I've yet to see one - though I wasn't so terribly impressed with one of their tenors I recently reviewed.


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Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2018