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Helmke 1119 soprano saxophone

Helmke sopranoOrigin: China
Guide price: £160 (Yes..that's £160!)
Weight: -
Date of manufacture: 2004
Date reviewed: August 2004

A budget horn that completely re-defines the standards for student instruments

NOTE: This review should be read in conjunction with the article on Ultra-Cheap horns.

If ever I've come close to having a catchphrase it's been a toss-up between 'sod this for a game of soldiers' and 'you only get what you pay for'. With the arrival of the Helmke soprano sax on my bench I find that I'm one catchphrase the poorer.

Before I go any further, let's just look again at the retail price on this horn.
£160. One hundred and sixty pounds...
What on earth can you get for £160?? A decent week's shopping? A slap-up meal for you and your partner at a posh restaurant? About 280 miles in a Ferrari??
Well now you can get a very respectable student model soprano sax.
This is unthinkable - up until now the benchmark for a budget soprano has been the Taiwanese Jupiter - and at around £700 it's been a stalwart of the starter market for quite some time. There are cheaper sopranos, yes, but 'you only get what you pay for' bites down hard below the Jupiter's price point - and I have genuine doubts as to whether it's worth paying any less. Up until now, that is.

So what d'you get for you money?
Well, have a look! The Helmke comes finished in clear lacquer, with nickel plated keywork - pretty much the standard student model finish.
Looking closer at the horn you'll see that the finish is really quite good. If you look very carefully you'll note that some of the pillar bases are a bit less than symmetrical - there are a few wonky edges, and some pillar bases don't quite line up with the centre-line of the horn. But that's not so important, as long as the pillars are well soldered on and the pillars themselves line up. They are, and they do.

Warped tone holes are a common problem with cheap saxes - but the Helmke doesn't appear to suffer from them. I noted a slight warp on the top B tone hole, but that was it.

This is a brand new example, so it's impossible to say with any certainty whether the lacquer will hold up in use - but as I couldn't see any imperfections I'm willing to bet it'll do just fine. Helmke soprano spatula keysAnd take a look at the keywork. Student horns usually have 'catering quality' keywork - it's functional and not terribly attractive. The Helmke goes one better, with keywork that's remarkably well finished, both in terms of profile and plating.
Look at the shot of the bell key spatulas, note how well rounded and smooth the keys are. Note too the extended roller between the C# and B spatulas - a nice professional touch.
What's even better is that the keywork is nicely fitted - there's no excessive play, which again is something that usually plagues cheap saxes. Even better yet, the keywork feels very good under the fingers - the stock factory action is better than average.
I gave a couple of the keys a good tug and noted that they didn't seem overly inclined to bend.

And as if that wasn't enough the horn boasts an adjustable thumbrest, a top F#, a vented top C# and two straight, one slightly curved.
It comes in a decent enough case too - a lightweight plastic-shelled affair with plenty of room inside for your bits and bobs.

It's worth a quick mention that the horn bears an inscription that refers to 'German Engineering'. Precisely what this means is anyone's guess - but I would assume that it refers to some input in the design process? Either way I think it's safe to regard this as a bit of hype.

But now comes the bit where I must balance the praise with some pertinent criticism (the bit you all like).
OK - the pads aren't up to much. They're a bit spongy, though most of them are seated well enough.
The action isn't set up very well at all - there were leaks on the main stack pads, and although the sax blew well enough it only did so with a firm finger pressure on the keys. The regulation of the action wasn't great either, leading to an imprecise feel.
Lastly the case interior leave the side trill keys too close to the edge of the case - which could result in damage to the horn if the case is dropped. Oh, and you can chuck away the stock mouthpiece that comes with the horn.

All in all, I'd reckon on there being about £50's worth of work that would be needed to bring the horn up to standard - plus the cost of a decent mouthpiece, and perhaps a bit of foam to stick in the case where the trill keys lie.

Now then - £50's worth of work to bring a brand new horn up to scratch seems like a bit of a bummer, but even if you had to spend £100 you'd still be quids in...and here's why.

Blowing the horn was something of a ceremony for me. I'd been impressed by the build quality for the price, so I figured that there had to be a catch somewhere...and chances are it would be in the playing. I did my best to wipe a precursive smirk off my face, and made ready to wince with each squawky and out of tune note.
Oh how wrong I was!
It blows..and better than that, it blows really quite well.

I would describe it tonewise as being slightly pinched. Some would call it mellow, or warm - but by pinched I mean that it's not got the full, rich sound of a warm vintage soprano...coupled with the free blowing characteristics. There's the difference - there's a bit of resistance...but then it's a student horn, and that's what you get with a student horn - it's nothing out of the ordinary. Otherwise the tone was good, and fairly even over the entire range. As to the tuning, that's fine too. Well within what you'd expect - with perhaps a little bit of embouchure adjustment needed to bring it all into line. More than acceptable.

In fact, as I was drafting this review a client came in to collect his Yanagisawa soprano. £1000's worth of pro quality horn, and yet having seen and heard the Helmke he was pondering the idea of getting one for the 'knockabout' gigs. Similarly, the client who brought the Helmke in said that his daughter, Hannah, was reluctant to part with it while I did the review (I did some grovelling on behalf of you, the punter).
I can understand why - in spite of the faults you can't escape the absurdly cheap price, or the fact that with a little bit of tweaking it's a very presentable horn indeed.
My only caveat is that one has to wonder what the manufacturers are paying the workers to build these horns...I sincerely hope it's enough.

To sum up then, a truly outstanding bargain. I can only wonder what the alto and tenor might be like - and if I were a manufacturer of student horns, I'd be afraid...I'd be very afraid indeed.

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