Where to Find New, Inexpensive Brass and Woodwind Instruments

A brand new YTR-2330, Yamaha’s student-grade trumpet, will usually set you back about $1,200. It’s an excellent entry-level horn, viewed by many as the gold standard for a first instrument, but that’s a lot of scratch for a beginner or casual player. Same goes for the company’s clarinets, which start at just under a grand, and their lower-end trombones, starting at $1,200.

Fortunately, shoppers can find less-expensive options. But you have to know what to look for to avoid ending up with a dog, or, as some trumpet players like to call them, a “trumpet-shaped object.”

When shopping for an inexpensive instrument, musicians have options. Often, the best bet is a used instrument made by a reputable company with a long history of producing quality equipment. But a lot of players, especially younger students, are not interested in a well-loved instrument with worn lacquer and a few battle scars.

They want a shiny, new one with that “new car smell.” But, with so many options available online, and quality and prices varying so considerably, choosing an inexpensive brass or woodwind instrument can be a daunting and frustrating experience.

Emerging Chinese Brass and Woodwind Manufacturers

Amati ACL-201 Clarinet

Twenty-five years ago, only a few companies offered affordable instruments that were genuinely playable. There was Jupiter, a division of the Taiwanese instrument company KHS, and the Czech brand Amati, but not many others. Over the last several years, however, the quality of instruments manufactured abroad has improved dramatically, if unevenly, especially in China.

Hundreds of factories, most of them in the Tianjin metropolitan area, are churning out band instruments by the thousands. As with other manufactured goods, lower labor costs in China enable those manufacturers to sell their products at low prices.

In fact, some are manufacturing student and intermediate instruments for some of the most revered music companies in the world, including Yamaha, though the company doesn’t go out of its way to advertise that fact. Unfortunately, for each competent factory, several others are still making inferior products, or at least inconsistent ones. That’s what makes shopping for a new bargain-basement instrument such a risky endeavor.

Why Does the Quality Vary So Much?

Quality varies from factory to factory for many reasons. Some manufacturers experience heavy turnover as workers go back to their hometowns after earning a certain amount of money, so they’re constantly breaking in novices. Some have gotten better by hiring alumni from established U.S. companies as consultants. Yamaha did that with Renold Schilke in the late 1960s, which helped that company advance into the major leagues.

Some factories just have better machines and cleaner facilities. The problem for consumers is that instruments from different factories look much the same and are sold under many different brand names. A buyer can’t tell the bargains from the clunkers just by looking at a picture online. Meanwhile, two virtually identical instruments might be offered at prices hundreds of dollars apart by two different retailers who got them from different distributors.

Shoppers can avoid those issues by buying from a dealer who has vetted the instruments and weeded out the TSOs.

Look for Dealers Who Tweak Imported Brass and Woodwinds

Some dealers import instruments directly from a factory, inspect them thoroughly, clean and adjust them as necessary, and resell them under their own store brand. The labor adds to the price of the instrument, but it’s far less than the markup major brands apply to their Chinese imports. And, unlike the sellers of cheap horns on eBay, those dealers stand by their own brands. If a problem arises with an instrument, those dealers generally don’t hesitate to repair or replace it because the store’s reputation is at stake.

ACB Doubler's Flugel

Take the case of Austin Custom Brass, which Trent Austin launched six years ago in Reading, Massachusetts. Austin knew there was enormous demand for a decent, affordable flugelhorn because musicians don’t want to spend a fortune on an instrument they play only occasionally. So he started trying to figure out how to offer a decent low-cost, outsourced flugel under his own brand.

“I bought nine different flugelhorns that all looked the same from nine different Chinese companies,” Austin said. “Six of them were ‘lamps.’ Three of them were pretty decent.”

Of those three companies, only one was willing to work with Austin to fit the flugels with the custom lead pipe he had designed. Austin now gets the horns straight from the factory, so there’s no middleman taking a cut and adding to the cost. His technicians clean them up, make sure everything fits properly, perform a few top-secret modifications and play test each one.

The resulting instrument, the ACB Doubler’s Flugel, sells for $569. It’s no surprise that they sell like hotcakes; that’s less than half the price of the King 650 flugel, one of the lowest-priced major-brand flugels. Sure, a cheap flugelhorn directly from China sells on eBay for about half the cost of the ACB Doubler, but it won’t have Austin’s custom tweaks and quality assurance. And players who buy a cut-rate lemon can’t just send it back and receive a different one.

The Importance of Service and Parts

Steve Dillon, owner of Dillon Music in Woodbridge, New Jersey, agrees with Austin that inexpensive imported instruments are getting better, but he’s convinced that it’s still a hit and miss proposition for most who try to purchase direct.

Like Austin, Dillon sells its own branded instruments, sourced in China, and his technicians spend anywhere from one to three hours on their imported tubas making sure everything works.

Jupiter 378 Student Tuba

“You have to do that with these instruments,” Dillon said. “They are not ‘play out of the box’ quality nine out of 10 times.” Even after accounting for that labor, the price tag is only a third of the Jupiter 378 student tuba, which retails for about $2,865.

According to Dillon, the need for an expert to scrutinize every instrument becomes even more acute with woodwinds because so many things can go wrong with them. Pads shift, corks fall off and every seal has to work right. Another big problem for consumers buying instruments directly from China is the inability to obtain replacement parts, Dillon said. If something breaks and you don’t even know who manufactured the instrument, you’re stuck.

“We can get parts from China quite readily, sometimes even quicker than from our American manufacturers,” Dillon said. But you have to know which company has the parts you need, he adds.

Safer Bets for Inexpensive Brass and Woodwinds

So what are some of the other inexpensive brands that are safe to buy? It can be a crapshoot, but there are a few good bets.

Jean Baptiste PT384 Pocket Trumpet
  • Jean Baptiste, retailer Sam Ash’s de facto house brand, has been around for 80 years, and its student horns are generally considered adequate for beginners. In the past, some of the higher-end Baptiste horns have actually been made by the well-respected German instrument maker B&S.
  • Eastman, founded in 1992 by flute player Qian Ni, has been gaining a lot of fans in recent years. Eastman instruments aren’t the least expensive, but they are more affordable than bigger-name brands and their quality impressed enough people at NAMM to be named a “Company to Watch.” Eastman acquired the high-end trumpet and trombone maker Shires a couple of years ago, and, according to Austin, Shires designers have been flying to China to help boost the quality at Eastman’s Chinese factories.
  • CarolBrass is the brand name of instruments made by the Taiwanese company Hoxon Gakki, which has been making solid instruments since 1989. Like Eastman, they are not the least expensive horns out there, but they are relatively affordable compared with the best-known brands, and the quality is unimpeachable. CarolBrass also manufactures instruments sold by some big-name companies under their own brand names, but those companies tend to keep that information under wraps.
  • John Packer is a British company that sells Chinese-made instruments of decent quality.
Wisemann DFH-BF600 French Horn
  • Wisemann is a 16-year-old company based in Beijing that has had its own factory since 2007. Their wind instruments are playable and very inexpensive.
  • Allora is Woodwind & Brasswind’s house brand. While these instruments may not get the degree of individual attention a smaller dealer like Austin or Dillon provides, they are usually reliable. And like Jean Baptiste, some of the older Allora horns were actually made by B&S, so a good price on a used Allora that says “Made in Germany” constitutes a real find.

This list isn’t comprehensive, and some decent brands aren’t included. For example, Austin imports two other affordable brands: Manchester, and the Japanese brand Brasspire, that he believes compare favorably to many higher-priced instruments.

Next Level Brass and Woodwind Instruments

Some players want to aim a little higher than an entry level instrument. What should they expect when they bump their budgets up to the next level? Generally, it’s a matter of fit, finish and materials.

  • In clarinets, for example, those next few hundred dollars may mean moving from plastic instruments to wood.
  • In flutes, the amount of silver used in the construction could be the biggest change.
  • In a brass instrument, the precision of the machining, which is critical to fast, smooth valve-and-slide action, may be the most important difference at the next price bump.

The main problem is consistency, and that’s what sets the best Chinese manufacturers apart from the middling ones. One might get a decent Jinbao-made horn, but without an intermediary who has gone over it thoroughly and made adjustments, the buyer just can’t be sure.

For a $100, pocket trumpet to throw in the suitcase before leaving on vacation, an inexpensive Chinese probably worth the gamble. After all, if it doesn’t work out, TSOs make excellent paperweights. Again, a lot of those differences are not detectable from an online photograph. To tell if one horn feels more responsive or has better intonation than another, a shopper has to actually blow it.

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