Prince Music + Instruments (Review)

Readers of this blog may note that I have tried a number of instruments from overseas and given some favorable reviews to a number of them. Since I'm looking out for a relatively small budget while trying to build up the instrument inventory and the whole band program at a newer school, I have to consider cost as a critical factor on any purchase. This has led to a pretty open mind and lots of trying of new things. For this week, I'd like to describe my experience at Prince Music Company a few weeks ago.

A couple families have asked me about the instruments carried by Prince Music, so I wanted to check out what they offer in person. The prices are comparable to some other dealers on the low end, but having a more local connection to dealers like this would be nice. Prince Music carries the most common starting instruments for band (as well as strings, though I won't be dealing with those since I don't have the expertise to do so) in up to three different models: student, student+, and intermediate.

[Why do we designate instruments this way? There are some "beginner" instruments which are fine for a student to play through high school. Also, having "professional" features on a "beginner" instrument may be a brilliant marketing tactic, but having a high-F# key on a 5th grader's saxophone is like putting 5-disc CD change on your kid's tricycle..]

I tried quite a few instruments--basically all the models available for flute, clarinet, alto and tenor sax, trumpet, and trombone. The branding appeared to be either Slade or Etude on all instruments, and several were labeled "made in China." There were marked differences between the lines (Student vs Student+ vs intermediate), and the short story of the review is to stay away from the regular Student models. 

Student

No serial numbers. Poor quality craftsmanship (evidenced by some misshapen parts, like a pad holder on a clarinet and sloppy soldering on the brass instruments). Hard to tell if the sluggish valves on the trumpet were due to mishandling or something else, but the Student line instruments all felt worse than the ones I am used to playing. Pitch was more or less fine (adequate on everything the saxophone--as I have found common on the low end saxophones, the upper octave gets sharper and sharper the higher you go up). I brought all my own mouthpieces and reeds, so I assume that the stock mouthpieces would only sound worse (since that has been my experience so often before).

Student+

You could start a beginner on these instruments. Though I have questions remaining about how long they would last, I didn't find anything terribly wrong with the instruments in this line. The quality, for instance, of the bracing and soldering on the trumpet was noticeably better. Everyone likes having a serial number on their instrument, so that's another plus! The saxophone Student+ is only $50 more than the student model, and that extra $50 gets you something that is perhaps worthwhile to play. While I think there are better options out there, the Student+ models that I tried would at least be okay to start a student on.

Intermediate

I'm really not sure what the real-world difference between "Intermediate" and any other type of instrument is. I have a feeling that it is a term that is at least sometimes used to get another product category--You don't want a professional instrument yet? Okay, how about something at the intermediate level?

In the case of the Intermediate instruments at Prince Music, I found very little separating them from the Student+ line. When I pick up my own Bach Stradivarius (model 37, regular lead pipe), I immediately notice some pretty significant differences compared to my Getzen-made Canadian Brass trumpet. The differences between the Student+ and Intermediate level instruments seemed to be negligible. For instance, both the Student+ and Intermediate trumpets have a rose-brass lead pipe. Does the Intermediate instrument have a better tone? Maybe, but it would take more side-by-side playing to figure it out, and if you're wanting to do that, you probably don't want to be looking at the cheapest line of instruments you can find.

Summary

While the Student+ (and Intermediate) instruments tended to play fine, the considerably lower quality of the Student line raises doubts in my mind about all the instruments. I would not want a student on one of the Student instruments, and I would also be hesitant to try buying one of the others without some sort of guarantee on it.

Allora Aere Trombone (Plastic!) Review

If all you want is to see and hear a quick comparison of the Allora Aere and a student model Bach, see these two short videos.

Quiz

Which of these recordings is a plastic trombone? The four combinations of mouthpiece and instrument are plastic/plastic, plastic/metal, metal/metal, and metal/plastic. [Yes, I know I don't sound amazing on trombone]. See the answers at the bottom of the post.

I ordered an Allora Aere Trombone in blue back in December. It must have been a popular Christmas item because it was on backorder for more than two months! I paid about $120 with a percentage off coupon code, and so far I think it was a fair price for what I received.

Positives

  • sounds like a trombone
  • plays in tune (though what does that really mean on trombone?)
  • slide moves freely and has improved over the last month as I have played it more
  • comes with lots of "extras," including two plastic mouthpieces, a stand, cleaning supplies, and a bag that fits everything neatly
  • very light
  • blue! (or other colors)

Negatives

  • difficult if not impossible to get a brassy, edgy tone that is often characteristic of trombone
  • plastic slide is noisier than metal
  • slide lock is weak and tugging on the slide while locked releases the slide
  • included stand is adequate for holding the trombone but feels flimsy

The biggest issue I see with the Aere trombone is that it can't match the sound and power of my Bach TB-300. While trombone isn't my main instrument, I use it extensively while teaching because it is the easiest low instrument to pick up and play lines when needed. I also think I do an adequate job demonstrating tone for my younger trombonists, especially when I need to show them using more air for a bigger sound or toning it down to blend with the rest of the low voices. The Aere trombone is mostly fine for demonstrating these things, but I can't make it cut through an ensemble in the same way as my metal bone.

Looking at trombone currently on Craigslist, I see some trombones available used for $150. If I were looking for a trombone for a beginning student, I would almost certainly purchase one of these (Bundy, Bach, Yamaha, etc.) instead of the Allora Aere. That said, I can imagine a few reasons to get a plastic trombone. I've never taken complaints about the trombone's weight too seriously, but I could see using one with a student who needed the lightest trombone they could find (perhaps recovering from an arm/shoulder injury, or the very young). It is cool that it is blue and brings some spirit to pep band. I've also found it beneficial to play on the Aere trombone as a practice tool. I find that playing it at the level I want requires more air, and that translates to a bigger, better sound on whatever I play next (my regular trombone or trumpet).

Cosmetically, the Aere trombone looks great from far away. Close up, though, there are some rough spots. The joints on the ABS tubing show some extra adhesive. The mouthpiece receiver has some sort of white, powdery residue that I haven't managed to clean all the way out yet. The slide lock feels flimsy, and the socket connecting the bell and slide sections has a few rows of extra threads that make it feel not well thought out.

I do feel a metal mouthpiece gives a better sound that the included plastic ones (or the plastic Kelly 6 1/2AL I normally play on), but I think the difference is marginal.

Audio answers from samples at the top:

  1. Allora/Bach
  2. Allora/Kelly
  3. Bach/Bach
  4. Bach/Kelly

Listening back to myself, I don't hear as much of a difference in the recordings as I heard while playing.