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Borgani OBS soprano

Borgani OBS soprano reviewOrigin: Italy
Guide price: £2500 (used)
Weight: 1.46kg
Date of manufacture: 2015
Date reviewed: April 2023

A good horn ruined

Now here's a treat for soprano fans. As much as I'm quick to admit that they're not really my sort of thing, I really can't deny that this is a very elegant - and dare I say pretty - little horn. Indeed, my first impression upon opening the case was "Oh wow!" That says a lot. What also says a lot was that I was later to say "Oh wow!" again, but in a very, very different context. So let's cut to the chase and get right down to taking this horn apart and seeing what it's made of...

As far as I can tell the single-piece body is made from nickel silver, finished in a matt silverplate finish. The keywork is brass, and just like the Joe Lovano tenor it's finished in a coat of nickel silver which has then been gold plated and lacquered. As mentioned in the Lovano review, putting lacquer over plating is seldom a recipe for a lasting finish - but, for whatever reason, it seems to have fared better on this horn than on the Lovano. OK, so there's around 5 years difference between them - and there's a very good chance that the tenor has seen more use than this soprano. But the caveat still stands; sooner rather than later, this horn isn't going to look quite so pretty.

Borgani OBS soprano detachable bellThe construction is the usual fare for a Borgani, namely single pillars throughout with various styles and sizes of pillar bases - all quite neatly fitted. You get an adjustable metal thumb hook and a flat plastic thumb rest...and that's really about all you ever get on a one-piece soprano in terms of fixtures and fittings. However, the Borgani has a little trick up its sleeve by way of having a detachable bell. Yep, it unscrews from the body tube.
Why? I don't really know - but from perusing the blurb it seems that you can buy different bells for this horn, and given that one of the options is called a 'Powerbell' I'm kinda thinking that it's a way of getting sopranoists to dig deep into their wallets. It also occurs to me that if you have access to a lathe and plenty of spare time on your hands, you could knock up an extension that would give you a low A when the Bb is pressed down. A soprano with a low A. Who wouldn't want that?

I suppose you could say that there's a practical benefit to having a detachable bell, given that it's extremely common to see sopranos with flattened bells. This tends to happen when people put the horn straight down on a hard floor with rather a heavy hand - so it's kind of nice to know that if you crush the bell, you can simply call Borgani and buy a replacement. Not sure what the cost is but it's likely to be a great deal more than paying a repairer to knock a bell back into shape. Features like this add weight, which is why the Borgani comes in at a fairly hefty 1.46kg - making it easily one of the heaviest sopranos on the market.
Something to bear in mind though is that there's a dirty great threaded ring right at the point when a soprano is quite likely to cop a whack - and if that ring gets damaged there'll be all kinds of hell to pay in trying to fix it so that the bell can be removed and refitted at will. And if, by some freak chance, you manage to damage the ring while the bell is off - well, let's just say that you're not going to be a very happy bunny at all.

The toneholes are of the plain drawn variety - at least up to top B. Thereafter they're silver soldered on - which is pretty much standard practice on sopranos these days.
I'm delighted to report that all the (small) soldered on toneholes were moderately level - but none of the drawn ones were. In fact some of them were very poor indeed - especially the low C and F. OK, so this isn't a new horn - and so may well have seen a knock or two in its lifetime already, and as such I'm prepared to give it a little benefit of the doubt. But only a little, based on what I've seen of other Borgani horns.

Borgani OBS soprano G# braceA particular feature that caught my eye was the brace for the compound bell key pillar that attaches to the lower G key pillar. Sure, it's just a rod of metal, but it still looks very elegant - and it adds a bit of stiffness to what's otherwise quite a vulnerable part of the horn.

So far, so reasonably good - but now it's time to have a close look at the action.
It's at this point I'm often moved to say things like "And then it all goes terribly wrong" or "But now for the bad news". I thought long and hard about a suitable intro to this section of the review but, y'know, the only thing that really seemed wholly appropriate was this:


And now I've got that off my chest, let's continue...

The keys that are mounted on point screws use a system of sprung inserts to take up wear and tear in the action. I've written at length about this system before, so here's just a very quick overview in case you're new to it.
Point screw sprung insertEach point screw key barrel is fitted with a brass insert backed up by a spring. The spring forces the insert against the point screw so that as the insert wears, the spring pushes it further against the point screw...thus eliminating wear. However, the system relies on moving parts - which adds a degree of imprecision to the mechanism. What you end up with is a mechanism that should never really get badly worn...but it also never really feels as tight as a point screw that's been properly fitted to a solid key barrel. And when it does get worn, the fun starts.

For it to stand even half a chance of being a reasonably worthwhile exercise it has to be built with a high degree of accuracy...and this is clearly not Borgani's forté.

Borgani OBS soprano split barrelBut have you ever seen anything like this before? I certainly haven't.

What's happened here is that the insert inside the low Bb key barrel has broken through the wall of the barrel. Now, I'm not (quite) going to pin the blame on Borgani for this failure because I'd like to think that even they would have spotted something this bad - and examining the damage with a magnifying glass shows some evidence of tool marks. What I think has happened here is that the key took a knock at some point, and the damage either occurred at that point or while someone was trying to straighten the key out.
I said I wasn't quite going to pin the blame on Borgani for this, but they do have to take the rap for the design of the key. Y'see, the sprung insert that fits inside the end of the key barrel has a diameter of 3mm - and the key barrel itself has a diameter of 4.5mm. Drill a 3mm hole in a 4.5mm rod and you're left with a wall thickness of 0.75mm. That's not a lot to play with.
You could say that the insert provides some strength - but it's only 6mm long, with a 10mm spring attached to it. And the hole it goes into is around 18mm deep. So that leaves around 12mm of unsupported tubing with a wall thickness of 0.75mm. On a sax. It's a classic example of an accident waiting to happen.

But these are just the bell keys. The rest of the point screw mounted keys have barrels of 4mm in diameter - using the same 3mm insert - which leaves a wall thickness of a mere 0.5mm. The only other time I can recall seeing a key barrel with such a thin wall was on a vintage clarinet...and that was on a rod screw mounted key, which would have provided adequate support for the barrel. I don't recall this measurement being so critical on the altos and tenors because they likely have thicker barrels - but next time one comes in I'll be sure to check.

And all this assumes that the hole in the barrel end has been accurately drilled on centre. Well, it's a Borgani, so whaddya think?
Borgani OBS soprano drilled key barrelHere's a shot of the low C# lever key, and it's plain to see that the insert hole has been drilled off centre. This is quite bad in itself, but it's not the end of the story because where that spring broke through on the low Bb key you can clearly see that the wall is so thin that it has disintegrated. So not only might you have to contend with barrels that have been drilled off centre, there may also be some that have been drilled at an angle - and the only way to tell for sure is to remove each insert and poke a snug-fitting rod down the hole to check the alignment. That's not generally something you want to be bothering with when you're buying an expensive new horn.
What's puzzling me is how all of this came about. There are various ways of ensuring that holes are accurately drilled into key barrels, the easiest of which is drilling out the barrels in a lathe before the key is assembled. Even if you only drilled a pilot hole and then re-sized it manually after the key had been assembled, you'd still be sure of reasonable accuracy. Another method is to use a set of jigs. The assembled key is placed in the jig, which positions it in alignment with a drill or a suitable drill guide. Thereafter it's a simple (and repeatable) matter to drill the hole accurately. Neither method is particularly complicated or expensive.
It must surely have been clear to whoever was assembling these horns that the accuracy of the insert holes had to be a critical factor. Upon encountering a key with an offset hole the correct procedure should have been to scrap the part.

I said I'd never seen such a thing before, so I'm more than prepared to accept that the cracked key could be a one-off - but I can clearly see the potential for it happening. For example, a fairly common job on a sax is to realign the key cup to centre it over the tonehole. This may need doing because it was made off centre or because it's had a knock. Standard practice is to put a pair of parallel-jawed pliers (with suitably protected jaws) over the cup arm and give it a little twist to bring the cup into centre. On some keys on the Borgani it's going to be the case that all that force is going through a hollow tube with a 0.5mm wall...and that's an enormous ask.
The way around this curious problem is to remove the insert, stick a solid 3mm bar down the hole (with a small hole cut into it to accommodate the point screw) and then bend the now-supported key.
That should do the trick - though there are two problems. Firstly, you can't always get the insert out - even if you know a couple of tricks. There were eight on this horn that were firmly wedged in place - and if you try fiddling with the ones that look like they might be moving you're likely to drive them deeper into the barrel...where they'll stick. And the second problem is that you'll have to be sure you can get the supporting insert out after you've realigned the key. Might be worth drilling a hole right through it and cutting a thread in it to allow for a removal tool to get a good grip.

I'm sure there are any number of these sopranos out there, quite happily going about their business with no similar issues - but the cogent point here is that given Borgani's crappy quality control you're simply not going to know if your horn is going to fail in this way. It might be fine - but it might equally be just as bad...or even worse.
I suppose you could argue that it all depends on how much wear and tear the horn is subjected to - but I think it's pretty obvious, given the pristine condition of this horn, that it hasn't had a hard life. But even if it had, would you be happy investing several thousands of pounds on a pro-spec horn that starts to break up after less than a decade? Whichever way you look at it, it's inexcusable.
If you already own one of these horns I'd say that there are two things you can do to mitigate this potential issue: Don't drop the horn - and make sure you tell your repairer not to bend any point screw mounted keys unless a solid supporting insert is first installed, or grip the base of the key arm and make the bend further up the arm.

Incidentally, the fix for this disaster was to make up a solid insert (with a pilot hole drilled in it) and soft solder it in place, thereafter facing it to length and reaming out a hole for the point screw. I opted for this method rather than silver soldering on the basis that I didn't want to do too much damage to the finish - and that given the internal surface area of the insert hole there should be enough mechanical support in the repair.


Borgani OBS soprano F sharp lever keyI sorted out the horn and the client collected it - and set about writing the above for the review - but barely a day later he dropped me an email to say that another barrel had broken through - the top F# lever key.
It's easy to see what's happened - the barrel wall is paper-thin and the spring has simply pushed its way through. In doing so it's weakened the barrel still further and propagate a crack...which you can see running along the side of the barrel before making its way up over the top.
Borgani OBS soprano solid insertAs to why it chose that moment to break through, I would guess that the process of tightening up the action and making the inserts actually work has pushed the stress on the key barrel to, literally, breaking point. The implications of this are very worrying indeed, especially for repairers.

Thing is, I'd inspected each key to see if there were any other cracks but was entirely satisfied that the low Bb key was the only one affected. It's all rather unfortunate but it does rather highlight the comment I made about the issue being an accident waiting to happen. I've sorted the key out as per the low Bb, and here you can see the solid insert just prior to fitting and soldering in place.
Removing the sprung insert can be tricky if it's stuck on the barrel. Given that's it's not going to be used again the best method is to very carefully drill it out - starting with a 1.6 mm drill on low speed and working your way up the sizes incrementally. If you're lucky one of the drills is going to bind in the insert and spin it out. If you're unlucky you'll have to keep going all the way up to around 3mm. And if you're having an exceptionally bad day the drill may bind in the insert and tear the barrel apart. So go very, very carefully and ensure that you support the key at the and of the barrel rather than further down the key.

Sadly, there doesn't appear to be any way I can guarantee that another key won't go pop - apart from removing all the sprung inserts and soldering solid ones in place. Not cheap. I said earlier that I wasn't going to entirely blame Borgani for what happened to the low Bb key. I take that back, unreservedly.


Borgani OBS soprano top stack action gapThis is all such a monumental fault that I could really end the review right here and now, but I suppose we should carry on and look at the other issues I found.
As per the other Borganis I've reviewed recently the OBS exhibited an extraordinary amount of play in the action, which was down to a combination of ill-fitting rod screws and lacklustre key fit. Take the top B key, for example; there's a half a millimetre gap between its key barrel and the adjacent key. That's one hell of a gap - excessive even by Ultra-Cheap horn standards, never mind one that costs many thousands of pounds. And it's not down to wear and tear either...unless someone decided to lubricate the action with grinding paste.

Borgani OBS Soprano top stack playSuch inaccuracies are going to have an effect on the playability of the horn, particularly on something as small as a soprano sax - but it probably makes little to no odds because there was so much free play within the top stack itself that it's all rather a moot point. Here's the stack being given a bit of a wiggle - and you can clearly see just how much slop there is in the keywork (and the pillar).

Any amount of lateral (side-to-side) play in a key stack is going to play havoc with the regulation - but this much on a small horn is a recipe for complete and utter disaster. To be sure, there are always some compromises you have to take into account (such as the flex in the keywork) but there's a limit to what you can get away with. Play like this means that while you might be able to, say, set the B key to bring down the Aux.B key at the same time, you simply won't be able to repeat the exercise with the A key. With the B key regulation working properly, the A will not close - and if you set the A key to work properly, the B won't close. In each case the regulation will hold one or other of the keys off. At least unless you resort to the old gorilla grip method of playing.
The Borgani has a set of regulation adjusters on the top stack (for all the good they'll do) but none on the lower stack save for the usual trio for the G#, Bis Bb and low C#.

The palm keys were especially bad. Borgani have opted to put the top Eb and F keys on the same rod screw. This is seldom a good idea because it means the respective key barrels have to be very short indeed. And the shorter the key barrel the sooner it will wear...and the less likely you'll be able to swedge the wear out. So if you're going to use a single rod screw you'd better make damn sure it's a very snug fit. Which it wasn't. At all.

Borgani OBS soprano palm key playAll the rod screw action was like this, which meant having to ream out each and every key and its associated pillars and fit oversized rod screws - and thereafter deal with the poor key fit.
Another aspect of key fit that was rather sketchy was the alignment of some of the key cups. Here's the B and Auxiliary B keys, and if you look at the pad impression rings you'll see that they're very much off centre. Now, while it's nice to have toneholes that sit in the dead centre of the pads it's not actually that long as they're not too far out of whack. Put simply, the more centred a pad is, the more reliable the pad seat will be over a long period of time - because as the pad expands and contracts during the wetting/drying cycle, it will tend to do so more evenly if everything's on centre. And the smaller the pad the more critical this becomes.

Borgani OBS soprano pad alignmentYou can see that the B key's tonehole impression sits quite far back to the rear of the key, which leaves precious little 'meat' to sustain a reliable seat over time - and the impression on the Aux.B sits right at the front on the pad. There's absolutely no margin for error, and precious little room for pad shrinkage down the years.
Granted, you can make the pads work in this position (for a while, at least) but it's not what you should have to deal with on a high-end horn.

And here's something else I definitely don't expect to see on a high-end horn.
See that little spike sticking up from the Bis Bb adjuster? That's a burr. It's created when the adjuster bar is drilled and then tapped to accept the grub screw. During the process of tapping the mouth of the hole tends to break up as the thread is cut - which is why it's good engineering practice to cut a chamfer on the hole to either prevent such burrs occurring or to remove them after the threading operation.
Borgani OBS soprano Bis Bb adjusterOh, it look innocuous enough but believe me - it's razor sharp. Catch your finger on that and you'll really know about it...for a good few days. Worse still, they have a tendency to break off once you're impaled on them - and that's a whole 'nother level of fun. When you pay serious money for a horn you should have an expectation that you won't find nasties like this on your posh new horn. It's completely unacceptable.

Something I noticed about the keywork was that it was incredibly tough - and this got me thinking. About the only other place I've seen keywork that tough is on an Ultra-Cheap Chinese horn. During the course of a setup it's common to have to bend keys slightly - perhaps to adjust a cup angle or to centre a pad over a tonehole. On most horns it usually requires no more than a quick twist with a pair of pliers - but on many Chinese horns you really do feel how much the keys resist the tool. Now, I wouldn't go so far as to say that this was a smoking gun for Chinese keywork - but when you factor in the appalling lack of precision in the keywork...well, it all starts to look a bit suspect.
You tell me. If I lifted the details about this action on this horn and pasted them into a review of a cheap Chinese soprano, would you be surprised at what you read? Just a thought, though.

Finishing up the keywork you get a full set of proper mother-of-pearl key touches - but not Borgani's ergonomic domed metal touchpiece on the Bis Bb. And you get a set of blued steel spring to power the action.

So with all this imprecision in the action, how on earth did the horn even work? Simple really - Borgani fit the squishiest pads they can find. The advantage of a very soft pad is that it will accommodate very large errors in both the integrity of the action and the flatness of the toneholes, as well as less-than-stellar pad seating. The price you pay for that is a very indistinct feel under the fingers. Nothing feels really positive. With the keywork all sorted out the action felt much slicker and more nimble under the fingers. Everything's where it ought to be, which, on a soprano, isn't that hard.
The bell key table is well-placed, though the geometry of the low C# mechanism isn't perhaps the most responsive I've come across. Might just be a case of getting used to it.

Borgani OBS sopranoTonewise? Well, I've often commented on altos that are 'tenor-like' - and this is a soprano that's alto-like. It's not that it's super-dark or excessively mellow - neither of those descriptions really fit - it's more that its tonal soundscape seems to be bigger than it ought to be from such a small horn. If you're not sure what that means (and I don't blame you) all I can say is that if you play pretty much any other soprano first and this play this one, it feels as though the bore of the horn has increased by 20%. It's really quite...strange, but also quite moreish. It's sort of a soprano for people who don't like playing sopranos.
Thing is, as much as I liked it I tend to prefer my sopranos to be more oboe-like in presentation - with bags of clarity and an almost sine wave kind of tonal approach - so this wouldn't be a horn for me. But I can easily see how many players would find it thoroughly intriguing....and undeniably unique. The client certainly liked it very much indeed, and commented that the sound (when I played it) was dark but with a bit of brilliance to it. Pair it with the right mouthpiece and you can bring out that alto-like quality even more - but by the same token a high-baffled piece will rein it in somewhat.

Final thoughts then? It's sadly yet another 'typically Italian' horn. Terrible build issues/quality control - and in this instance something of a truly spectacular Achilles heel - but once put right it can stand alongside the very best of them. You'll be looking at £300-£500 to bring a horn like this into shape - and that's without resolving the insert problem - so bear that in mind when negotiating a price.

That said, given the nature of the problem with the inserts there's just no way I could recommend this horn. The issue with the low Bb was bad enough - but I felt there were enough extenuating circumstances to afford it the benefit of the doubt on this occasion, in spite of my reservations. But having another insert pop after the client picked the horn up pretty much dooms this horn. I just can't see how you could possibly rely on this horn knowing that it could throw a wobbly at any random moment.
The truly sad thing, though, is that were there no or at least very few build quality issues, I'd be raving about this horn. And I really do mean that; it really does make me sad to see such a potentially fine instrument hobbled by such shoddy workmanship. But once again I find myself marvelling with horror at Borgani's unfathomably unerring ability to make a sow's ear out of a silk purse.
Bloody fools.

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