There are more and more musical instrument manufacturers who have decided to produce their own line of saxophones manufactured exclusively to their specs, from student to professional levels. In the last couple of years, many new lines of saxophones have come over to the United States from Taiwan, China, and Vietnam.
Initially, many of these saxophones were regarded as inferior due to their poor construction, utilizing mostly inexpensive parts which were assembled without regard to consistent quality controls. Today, a great number of these shortcomings are still prevalent in many saxophones produced in China, Taiwan, and Vietnam. But, there are some horn manufacturers whose horns are built in the Far East who really understand how to build a quality saxophone, and are achieving quality craftsmanship using well-made parts.
R.S. Berkley is one of the musical instrument companies who truly listen to their artists as well as their customers’ suggestions and critiques. Since R.S. Berkley was founded in 2002, they have been constantly improving their saxophones to meet every player’s need, from student to professional.
I am going to be reviewing the R.S. Berkley “Virtuoso” tenor saxophone with the un-lacquered finish. Since testing a couple of their tenor saxophones briefly at the NAMM Show, listening to endorsing artists such as Don Braden, Sharel Cassity, and Tim Ries, and reading more and more reviews on the Virtuoso saxophones, I knew I needed to have another chance to play-test these horns and see how they compared to the competition.
I recently got in contact with the president of R.S. Berkley, Les Silver, and he was nice enough to send me one of their un-lacquered virtuoso saxophones to compare it to my current setup (a Selmer Mark VI tenor). I am going to be reviewing this saxophone on its appearance, build quality, tone and response, action, intonation, and price.
The un-lacquered Virtuoso saxophone has a genuine un-lacquered look, much resembling a horn from the 50’s or 60’s. What really made this particular model stand out was the extensive “flower” engraving that was done on the bell, the body, and even the neck. It reminded me very much of the extensive engraving that was done to the Selmer Super Balanced action line of saxophones.
To complement the Virtuoso’s top quality appearance was the case it came in. This sturdy hard square case has an accessory pouch for music as well as two straps on the back to convert it into a backpack. Inside the case is a place for your mouthpiece, neck, and a nice large accessory box so you can fix a neck strap, tuner, additional mouthpieces, reeds, cork grease, etc.
The Virtuoso line of saxophones was based on the 85XXX-digit Mark VI saxophone because that is the serial number vicinity that Michael Brecker recommended to Les as a basis for the saxophone. I began playing the Virtuoso saxophone and would switch every so often to my Mark VI to get a better feel of each horn’s similarities and differences.
Unlike many saxophones manufactured overseas, the build quality seemed very stable. When I got the horn, I did notice some sticky pads and had to make one or two adjustments to the lower stack (most likely due to shipping). I could tell that this saxophone had been play-tested to check for any major leaks as well as any manufacturing issues because there were no major issues I could see with the construction. This surprised me because many saxophones made in this area of the world are built with softer metals which have a tendency to bend and could greatly affect the life of the horn as well as the playability.
Tone & Response
I found the overall tone of the Virtuoso to be very neutral. I also found the horn to be free blowing in the upper stack of the horn (especially the altissimo) as well as the lower part of the horn going all the way to the low Bb. I found some resistance in some areas when I initially played the horn, but over the past couple of days have actually come to like the resistance of certain notes because it allows me to push and bend the notes to my preference.
The horn responded immediately and did not take much air to produce a robust sound. I would say the un-lacquered finish makes this horn resonate just as much as my Mark VI and allows me to tailor my sound to the type of music I am playing.
The Virtuoso tenor that Les sent me did not come with a high F#, which was great because my Mark VI does not have a high F#. The action on the horn resembles that of the Mark VI in terms of the layout. What I found to be different was the pearls were more concave and were thicker than my Mark VI, the E and F palm keys were moved more outward in relation to the D palm key, the low Eb and C key were a bit further away from the side keys, and the Eb spring was stiffer than my Mark VI. Although there were some differences in terms of the action, the Virtuoso felt more or less similar to my Mark VI and it did not take me long to get used to the layout of the horn.
One of the most surprising features on this horn was its intonation. I found the intonation on this saxophone to be very good throughout the entire horn. I had to put very little effort to get the overtones in tune, whereas I would have to put in a bit more effort with regards to intonation when playing my Mark VI. I found that I had to adjust my embouchure on some notes on the Virtuoso compared to my Mark VI because I was so used to adjusting my jaw to get some of the overtones on my Mark VI in tune. Keeping the Virtuoso in tune required minimal effort. The only note that I had difficulty keeping in tune initially was the high F#, but once I used an alternative fingering, I lined up perfectly with the tuner.
The Virtuoso saxophone is an overall great saxophone at an affordable price. I have seen these saxophones generally listed for sale at approximately $2,500 for the tenors and the altos for about $2,250. They are priced in the same range as many professional level saxophones from overseas, but more than any other saxophone I’ve tried in this price range, this horn incorporates many of the same features and overall sound quality that players have paid $5,000 to $10,000 for.
After playing on the Virtuoso saxophone and comparing it to a Mark VI tenor saxophone for the past week, I can gladly say that I would recommend these saxophones to advanced students as well as professional players. Although many horn companies have tried over the years to recreate the Selmer Mark VI saxophone and have not succeeded, R.S. Berkley has designed a line of tenor saxophones that embodies many of the same characteristics of the Mark VI (especially the keywork), but also takes advantage of the latest improvements in saxophone design and manufacturing to meet more and more saxophonists’ needs.
I can’t wait to get my hands on one of the altos (maybe even the gold-plated one!) and compare it to a Selmer Super Balanced Action alto or a Yamaha Custom.
Hear the Difference for Yourself
On my Selmer Mark VI
On the RS Berkeley Virtuoso
For more information, visit the R.S. Berkley site at http://www.rsberkeley.com
Which horn sounds best to you?
If anyone has any questions or comments, feel free to contact me, and I hope this review helps any saxophonists on the market for a new saxophone or anyone looking for another great horn to add to their collection.