Does a "Professional" Euphonium Have Five Times Better Tone than a "Mid-Level" Euphonium?
A research study by David R. Miles
Many students purchase a professional quality Euphonium for high school or college use, often investing more in their horn than in their annual tuition, only for the instrument to collect dust after they graduate. Many advertisements suggest that a band or brass section with lower priced horns cannot compare in tone quality with their richer counterparts. The following study suggests that the "dollar" difference in tone quality is probably not that significant a factor in determining the overall ensemble sound; probably far less important than intonation, individual playing abilities, and so forth.
A group of college level musicians were asked to listen to two performers play short musical excerpts on various Euphoniums. Each performer played two different brand instruments for each comparison, first telling and showing which instrument was being used, and then repeating the same excerpt on the same instruments, hidden from the listener's view behind a screen. The listeners then responded by indicating which instrument they thought was played first behind the screen, and which was played second. The procedure was repeated using different combinations of Euphoniums.
The instruments compared were a Besson 18ISS, a Conn 251, a Willson 960BS and a Yamaha 321S. The same size mouthpiece was used throughout the experiment: a Bach 6Ó1/2AL with different size shanks to accommodate the different receivers. The two performers were this writer and Dr. Earl Louder, to whom I am deeply thankful for giving freely of his time and knowledge.
Overall the responses were statistically 68.2% accurate, or the listeners were correct 68.2% of the time. However, because they compared only two instruments at a time, random chance would cause 50% rate of accuracy, so the listeners did only 18.2% better than chance. This would indicate that even though the listeners could tell a difference part of the time, it was not distinct enough for any degree of consistency.
Although one might expect upperclassmen to score higher than underclassmen and Euphoniumists to outscore other musicians, no such differences occurred; in fact it was slightly the opposite in both cases. Also one might expect the accuracy rate to vary with the bore size of the Euphoniums, but there was no noticeable difference.
College level musicians were not able to consistently identify differences between the tone qualities of the brands tested when listening only a few feet away, hearing one instrument right after another, and concentrating only on hearing that difference; yet many would insist that the general public can hear such a difference at a concert when the distance is far greater, the Euphoniums are mixed with other instruments and few listeners are listening intently for tone quality.
Based on this experiment, I would certainly still use a professional quality horn for professional engagements, but if I were a high school band director concerned with budget, enrollment, etc., or if I were a student entering a college program working toward becoming a high school educator, I would not be reluctant to purchase an economy priced instrument simply because it might nut sound quite as good as a more expensive one. Obviously other factors such as intonation, valve action, workmanship, durability or price would also have to be considered carefully.
Euphonium prices currently range from about $1500 to about four times that amount, but for the average Euphonium student, I seriously doubt that the difference in quality is that vast. I seriously doubt that a high school or college player without professional ambitions would find a $5,000 instrument to be $3,500 superior to some which may be purchased for $1,500.
DAVID R. MILES is a freelance musician, holding degrees from Appalachian State University and from Morehead State University. In addition to solo and clinician work on the Euphonium, he is interested and active in education, design, publications and advocacy of all lower brass instruments.
NOTE: this article is reprinted from Euphonia magazine, January-February, 1981, with permission of the publisher, Glenn Call.
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