Obviously “one must have an axe if you want to play the sax.”
There are the four or five name brands of saxophones that have been around for years, but now it seems as though the sax is following the way of the flute; lots of small, independent, custom instrument makers producing our horn.
Selmer (Paris and USA), Yamaha, Yanagasawa…these are household names in the instrumental music education world (where saxes are concerned). There was Bundy, Conn, and Martin too. Jupiter is a relatively new kid on the block, and was known for poor quality. But in the past four years they have really turned into a respectable manufacturer.
More and more small, independent makers are flooding the sax market. These include Winston, Cannonball, Keilwerth, Orpheo, LA Sax…and a whole host of others.
Most brands of saxes come in three levels:
1) Student. These are designed for young beginners, are cheaper in price, and are supposed to be sturdier than their higher level counterparts. They tend not to have adjustment screws, and are made of less expensive metals. They usually come in basic, entry level cases. Student horns, aside from the obvious choice for kids, are a good alternative for older, more experienced players who want to double on sax, or for use in marching band.
2) Intermediate or Step-Up. These saxophones are the compromise between student level and professional models. They come in nicer cases, may or may not have adjustment screws, and are made with better quality metals. They might have scroll work on the body. They are more expensive than student models, but usually not prohibitively. A serious high school saxophonist should at least be on an intermediate level horn. A mid level instrument can get you through college, but at some point you will feel held back.
3) Professional or Custom. These are at the top of the food chain. They are engineered with tight tolerances. Very high quality metals—some models including gold--are used. Nice, usually well made cases will hold them. They usually come with more expensive, non-synthetic pads in the cups. Pro level horns will often have stronger springs. Most will have decorative scroll work. College musicians will want to move to professional or custom level saxes. The quality will be reflected in the price, however. But if a pro horn is selected very carefully, it could be the last sax you need to buy.
While the quality of Selmer and Yamaha are solid and dependable the real question becomes, what about the others? The immediate answer comes from two sources: The local repair tech, and collective opinion. Research into a make and model of horn is no different than searching out a car. A phone call to the repairman can yield a wealth of information. He can tell you if he’ll even work on a particular make, whether it’s easy to repair or not, and what kind of bill it may incur. The internet can also provide information on players’ opinions toward a brand of sax. But be careful; sometimes a maker will post biased comments for their brand or against another in forums or through tweets.
As you search out a brand of sax, keep in mind what type of playing you intend for yourself. Are you a jazzer? Do you stick with classical? Are you in need of a sax that will have the sound for both? Various brands will have tone characteristics that lend themselves more useful to one style of music over another. And appearances are everything as well. Do you want to be dressed in a black tux on a recital stage giving a performance of the Dahl blowing a green sax with blue flashing lights?! Consider what the horn looks like too, and if it's going to be appropriate to your stage appearance.
The ultimate thought is yours. Examine a brand for yourself and play test it.