4BR Roadtest: Around the horns


4BR puts the latest Besson Prestige and York Preference up against the Yamaha Maestro to see which one comes out on top in the battle of the horns.


There was a time when getting a decent tenor to play on was a major achievement in itself. 

Passage of time

The basic design (and build quality) of the instrument had remained very much the same for the past 100 years or more, with little real research and development into its true potential.  Where cornets and euphoniums in particular had been subject to a plethora of makeovers and redesigns the tenor horn remained untouched somewhat by the passage of time. 

The last radical change came over 35 years ago with the launch of the Sovereign range of horns, which not only looked better (with the exception of the blue ‘plastic pig’ cases, which appeared to have been modelled on those three wheeler cars for people with mobility problems), but was also a major leap forward in terms of intonation and blowing. 

Others followed – most notably Yamaha, but it hasn’t been until the last couple of years that the major manufacturers have taken another, closer look at the instrument. 

21st century

NormansNow the 21st century tenor horn may well resemble its ancient forbearers, but if truth were told, it is a completely different instrument all together, and the market place is now awash with excellent instruments for the improving student to the bespoke top level soloist.  

At that top end of the market, three instruments lead the way – the Yamaha ‘Maestro’, the York ‘Preference’, and the Besson ‘Prestige’.

Which one though is really the best of a high class bunch, and which one do we think delivers the most for the experienced top level performer?    


We have been fortunate to get our hands on them for a little while now and have put them through the rigours of the 4BR Roadtest to see which one comes out on top, thanks to our friends at Normans Musical Instruments and Band Supplies.

Band SuppliesMarks as usual out of 25 for each category with the total out of 100.



Besson ‘Prestige’ - BE2050
Yamaha  ‘Maestro’ - YAH602SUK
York ‘Preference’ – YO-TH3050

Build Quality/Design:

Yamaha HornYamaha Maestro

The Yamaha is the oldest of the three instruments and has been around now for some considerable time. It has though built a fine reputation for build quality, even if the angular looks are now in need of a bit of a nip and tuck surgery. 

No doubting the quality of the bright silver plate finish on the instrument we had and the tolerances on valves and slides was of a standard that hundreds of horn players have enjoyed for many a year.

That said, the fiddly bits such as waterkeys and valve tops etc still feel as if they were built to last as long as the buttons on a cheap Japanese hi-fi set, although overall it is still a weighty bit of metal work and not particularly well balanced.  

The finger crook on the first valve still seems superfluous.

The top action hand lapped monel valves in brass and stainless steel are very good, if a touch sluggish, and the lead pipe position still seems as if it has been chosen by committee rather than any real desire to get it perfectly right.

YorkYork Preference

The York meanwhile has a slightly more compact design and look about it (it is shorter than the Yamaha, but slightly taller than the Besson) although it feels light and well balanced.

The stainless steel top sprung monel valves are very good and so too are the tolerances on the slides.  

The ephemera of valve tops, waterkeys etc also have a sturdy well built feel.

As for the trigger mechanism? The simple design is easy to use and adjust (with the slightest of touches from the little finger) and is well thought out, linked to the strut of the main tuning slide. 

The tiny bit of cork stopper on the back of the trigger is a cheap laugh though and should have been replaced by something worth at least 1 Euro.  

The lead pipe is neatly angled and well positioned (some thought has certainly gone into it) and the instrument felt comfortable in the hands. 

The quality of the bright silver plate finish wasn’t as good as the Yamaha (none are) but it was still high class nevertheless.  

BessonBesson Prestige

The Besson is without doubt the best looking instrument – elegantly designed, it is shorter than its rivals, but it seems, significantly wider, allowing for the mass of tubing to be set out spaciously to the eye.

The instrument is neatly balanced and the bright silver finish was of a uniformly high quality (although still not quite in the Yamaha class). 

An extra bit of care and attention has been paid to the instrument furniture though and the gold valve tops and bottoms, black onyx buttons, waterkeys and trigger mechanism not only look the biz, but crucially don’t feel as if they should be in the latest Joan Rivers QVC jewellery sale.
The trigger mechanism itself may look a little more Heath Robinson than the York, but it works perfectly using the thumb of the left hand. There is plenty of travel and it is easily adjustable too, whilst the valves are slick and facile.  


The Yamaha, despite being the oldest design still maintains formidable standards for itself, with its excellent finish still looking better than a page three model’s latest Botox job.

It does though seem dated in design and looks – more 80’s shoulder pads and hairspray than chic Millennium elegance. The Japanese are great at taking original designs and improving on them, so a new Yamaha horn may well include a bespoke trigger mechanism, some more rounded curves and better instrument furniture.  

Still a fine instrument, but perhaps on its last legs.

The York is a very well put together instrument that perhaps just harks back rather than forward in pure design terms. It is compact and busy to the eye, and although no doubting the quality of the workmanship the design department budget could have had a few more quid to spend just to give it that extra stamp of class.

The mechanics though are top notch, with the simple trigger mechanism a real bonus, and there is a feel of German efficiency about the whole package. It could just do with that extra touch of flair though.

The Besson certainly has that in abundance, and despite the little quirks (the trigger mechanism is more complex than the York) there is so much to admire in the care and attention to detail (the third slide waterkey for instance is positioned to be used by the left hand – and the finger crook on the third valve gives excellent support).

The extra gold looks attractive of course, but the rest of the instrument has been very well put together and feels as if it has been constructed not only by people who know what they are doing, but who have that little extra touch of inspiration too. That just gives it the edge for us.

Besson: 23
York: 22
Yamaha: 20

Ease of Blowing/Tone: 

With brass bands now blowing louder than ever before, even the tenor horn must sometimes be able to honk it out like an old East German shot-putter on steroids.

Much of course depends on the player being able to push the air through the tubing in the correct manner, but at the top level the best players have lungs the size of the Goodyear blimp, so it is more a question of whether or not the instruments themselves can handle it without losing their ability to retain quality to their timbre.   


In comparison to the York and Besson, the Yamaha seems to be built out of recycled armoured plating from Russian T34 tanks – a feels so heavy and dense.

Technology has moved on, but it is surprising just how hard it felt to push huge columns of air through the Yamaha (despite its 11.9mm bore). The York and Besson in comparison felt so much more easy to blow and our guinea pig felt that the Maestro was some way behind the other two when the bellows were called for.

At the other end of the Beaufort scale, the Yamaha was still pretty good, but lacked responsiveness in comparison to its rivals. 

Tonally, the Yamaha produced a richer, darker, more richly hued sound than its rivals, making it more difficult to project at times. However that lack of sheer brightness made it comfortable to handle in the mid range and easy to blend.

York & Besson

There was very little to choose between the York and Besson for us (although the York has a bore of 11.84mm to the Besson 10.40mm), with it coming down to a matter of choice (or preference even!). Both were remarkably easy to blow, although they did retain their tonal characteristics even when the needle on the dynamic dial was in the red zone.

The York perhaps had the edge in terms of brightness, but that was offset by the Besson’s slightly darker mid range tone. Both retained remarkable flexibility throughout the dynamic range.

Both were very modern sounding instruments – much brighter and edgier than the Yamaha. Not perhaps to the traditionalists complete liking, but very much in line with current trends in brass band playing.     


Once more the two more modern rivals have gained a march on the Yamaha, which despite its fine characteristics needs more work and effort to gain the same results.

The York is a remarkably flexible instrument with a bright edge to its tone, whilst the Besson just retains that hint of dark hued tonality that for us just gave it the narrowest of edges over its rival. 

Besson: 23
York: 22
Yamaha: 20


Horns can be notoriously difficult instruments to get in tune, especially as a section, but that seems to have been overcome with the development of the main slide trigger on the York and Besson.


On its own the Yamaha is a fine instrument still, but the lack of the trigger is now a huge handicap. Without it the Yamaha feels like a car without power steering.

It also means that if the Yamaha is now settled into a section with two horns with triggers then it can become a real source of potential intonation problems– especially if it’s the second horn who has missed out on a new toy in the lottery application.

The Yamaha still does what it needs to do well enough, but with the usual inherent problems the help the trigger provides is appreciable.


The York meanwhile benefits greatly from its trigger mechanism, which has an inordinate amount of travel, but can be used with real facility. It gives the instrument such a well centred feel about itself both above and below the stave with any potential problems easily remedied in an instance.  Hard to find fault in fact.


The same goes for the Besson, and although the mechanism is different in design the outcome of its use is very much the same.

Easy to use it allows the player a degree of confidence in their ability to play in tune that is almost priceless – both as a soloist and section player.  It may well come down to the preference of the player, but the Besson and York make real intonation problems a thing of the past. 


Can’t separate the York or Besson out. Both were a league apart from the Yamaha, which now seems an instrument whose day has passed.

It may just come down to personal preference, but these two instruments have brought the tenor horn into the intonation 21st century.
Besson: 23
York: 23
Yamaha: 19

Overall Value for Money: 

The one thing we didn’t like about all three instruments was the cases they came in. All three looked as if someone with little imagination had designed them on a style template influenced by 1960’s Soviet gulag housing blocks.

No wonder more and more players are opting for the soft case option, as all three (the York and the Besson seemed to be identical) looked bland, lacked space and seemed rather cheaply put together with locks even the most basic petty criminal could open in less time than it takes them to hot wire a getaway car. 


The Yamaha now sells for around £1,500 – some £300 or more below the asking prices for the York and Besson.

That perhaps tells you that the manufacturers and the retailers see it as an instrument that has come towards the end the road and is in line to be replaced by a newer model.  It still offers a great deal for good players, but for those who wish to make it to the next level, it is now very much a stepping stone. 

The Yamaha comes with the usual case, mouthpiece, valve oil and slide grease and helpful booklets (but no lyre), but you may well be better off waiting a little while longer to see what the clever chappies from Japan come up with in the next year or so, or save a few more pennies and opt for either the York or Besson.


The York is certainly on that top tier and at around £100 or so cheaper than its Besson rival does offer an attractive high class instrument for the money. There is a lot you get for the money and the build quality is very high, even if the instrument could have a bit more design flair to it. 

It comes with a 2 year guarantee, cloth and ‘tromba’ valve oil, but no mouthpiece or lyre.  It does everything it needs to do with admirable efficiency though.


The Besson is the most expensive, coming in around a few quid short of two grand, but the price does reflect the overall quality of the instrument.

The build quality is top notch and the extra bit of design flair and feel for the aesthetic make it a truly elegant instrument. It also does what it needs to do too, and despite the more complex look to the trigger mechanism, it does a superb job.

The instrument comes with a two year guarantee and has been ‘signed out’ of the factory so to speak by Leslie Howie herself. It comes with a lyre, Webster valve oil, an extra set of heavy gold valve buttons and bottoms and an Alliance mouthpiece (although the one that came with this instrument was of poor quality finish it must be said) 

For us it just had that extra touch of quality about it to more than justify the extra few pounds you have to spend to get your hands on one. 


If you are looking for a top of the range tenor horn then the Besson is the one to go for – the extra expense is well worth it for what you will be getting back in return. It is a superb instrument.

The York does an admirable job too and very nearly matches the Besson model in every facet too – it just needs a touch more imaginative flair in the design process for us.

The Yamaha has been a fine instrument for many years now, but time has caught up with it and it seems that you would be better off waiting to see what it will be replaced by if you wish to stay with the Yamaha brand.  

Besson: 23
York: 22
Yamaha: 19

Overall Scores:

  Build Quality/Design Ease of Blowing Intonation Value for Money Total
Besson  23 23 23 23 92
York 22 22 23 22 89
Yamaha 20 20 19 19 78

Yamaha 20/ 20/ 19/ 19 = 78
York 22/ 22/ 23/ 22 = 89
Besson 23/ 23/ 23/ 23 = 92

Technical specifications:

NormansBesson Prestige – BE2050
Instrument specifications

· Key: Eb
· Bore: .409" (10,40mm)
· Bell diameter: 8" (203mm)
· Valves: 3 top center sprung monel
· 3 water keys
· Main tuning slide trigger
· Black onyx inserts in gold-plated button tops
· Additional removable slide with water key
· Newly developed lead pipe for freer blowing
· Left hand finger hook for additional balance and support
· Gold-plated trigger, top and bottom caps

Finishes: lacquer or bright silverplate
Optional: heavy bottom caps supplied

Available from:

NormansYamaha Preference – YAH602SUK
Instrument specifications
· Key of Eb.
· 3 top action hand lapped monel valves.
· 205mm (8") bell.
· 11.9mm (0.469") bore.
· 38D4 Mouthpiece.
· Clear lacquer finish.
· Lacquer model also available: YAH-602UK

Available from:

Band SuppliesYork Preference – YO-TH3050 – BE2050
Instrument specifications
· Pitch: Eb
· Bore: 11.84 mm (0.468")
· Bell Diameter: 203 mm (7.99")
· Weight: 2.0 kg (4lb 7oz)
· Main tuning slide trigger
· 3 top sprung stainless steel valves
· 3 water keys
· Special leadpipe design into 3rd valve
· Finishes: clear lacquered or silver plated

Available from: