I believe that I build the very best horns in the world. I've spent many years studying the instrument and played many hundreds of different horns to determine the most important features. However, my horns are not for everyone and I understand that circumstance do not always permit the cost and wait associated with the very best horns.
I still want to help!
So here are my top 5 characteristics of the very best horns that might help you to identify your next horn. It's the criteria I use to evaluate my own work and how I judge other makers horns as well.
1) The very best horns have great intonation.
Internal intonation is very important to your success as a player. A great horn should have in tune octaves and fifths and should have a pretty similar pitch level across three octaves. In other words, you would like your low G to be roughly in tune with your high G. If the octaves are too large or too small, it takes extra energy to play the horn in tune and it's harder to use a relaxed, air based system.
2) The very best horns have smooth, bump free, note changes.
I was fascinated to find that I was not the only person obsessing over this. John Ericson and I recently exchanged quite a few emails concerning this which spawned a few posts on "clicks" and valve changes over at horn matters.com . Note changes are related to articulations and contain acoustical information called transients. The best horns navigate the transients using a complex series of dampening effects to smooth the bump between the notes. This allows the player to blow through note changes either with or without depressing valves. Playing a slurred passage should require no micromanagement of the air column, it should be smooth and effortless.
3) The very best horns allow sub tones (breath starts).
I test sub tones and breath attacks on every horn of mine, even into the upper register. The best horns will have a clear sub tone. In this video, Andrew McAfee introduces sub tones as part of his video series for students, on a Medlin horn coincidentally. A good sub tone indicates that the horn will have open articulations and playing characteristics and great efficiency.
4) The very best horns get better as you play them.
90% of horns available will play great for 30 minutes. 50% of horns will play great for a few hours. Less than 1% of horns will still play great after two weeks of chop busting and double services on the weekends. Not everyone needs this capability, but if you do, you'll be wise to search for one of these rare horns.
5) The very best horns are well made.
Trust is a big deal when it comes to horn playing, nothing will drain confidence like doubt about the instrument. A hornist must trust the instruments reliability both musically and physically. The best horns are well braced with good architecture and strong joints. I use an extremely strong lead free solder and I wouldn't ever recommend a horn made with lead solder for elite level players. You expect your horn to stand up to heavy playing and abuse, it's worth making sure, just like a car, that your main tool is well made and reliable.