BY DAVID LIBMAN
CAST CYMBAL SOUNDS AT SHEET CYMBAL PRICES
With its revamped XS20 series, Sabian is offering a combination of professional-quality B20 cast bronze with a semi-professional level mid-range price tag. That’s very unusual, and here’s why.
DIFFERENCES FROM TOP TO BOTTOM
All of Sabian’s most expensive professional cymbal lines — like the AA, AAX, HH, HHX, Vault series, and so on — are made from B20 cast bronze, which contains 80-percent silver-bearing copper and 20-percent tin. When cymbals are “cast,” they are worked and shaped into their final form through both secret and not-so-secret processes. Although cymbal manufacturers are loath to disclose those secrets, most of them acknowledge that casting bronze involves more handwork and expense than stamping bronze cymbals from flat metal sheets. Cymbal prices confirm that to be true. If you go to your local music store shopping for less-expensive beginner or intermediate cymbals, they are typically not cast. Rather, those lesser expensive models are stamped into shape from flat sheets of alloy and therefore often called “sheet-metal” cymbals.
Although some would argue with me on this point, I find sheet-metal cymbals are slightly more prone to cracking and less durable than more expensive cast-metal models. For that reason, really cheap cymbals are almost always made from sheet brass, whereas mid-priced cymbal lines are usually made from sheet bronze with lower tin contents than B20 bronze, such as B8 bronze (92-percent copper/8-percent tin) or B12 bronze (88-percent copper/12-percent tin).
In recent years, as manufacturing processes have gotten increasingly more sophisticated, the distinctions between casting processes and bronze alloys, in terms of what makes cheap or professional-quality cymbals, have blurred. For example, many sheet-metal cymbals seem to be more durable these days than they used to be. And some cymbal manufacturers make it a point of explaining that even sheet bronze has a degree of casting in its manufacturing process. Moreover, some manufacturers make professional Euro-style cymbals from B8 sheet bronze. For example, Sabian’s B8 Pro line is made from — you guessed it — B8 “uni-rolled” bronze.
Oftentimes, you’ll find B8 model cymbals (made by Sabian or other manufacturers) showing up in professional rock drummers’ setups because B8’s lower tin content can sometimes provide some higher-pitched, cutting frequencies that are not quite as prevalent in the B20 cast bronze cymbals.
With that said, in the past, many professional manufacturers’ cymbal lines reserved cast B20 bronze for their elite professional lines. For example, Zildjian’s As and Ks, Paiste’s discontinued 602s and recent Twenty series, Istanbul’s Agop, and Meinl’s MB20 lines are all professional B20 bronze cymbals. For its part, Sabian still claims that the B20 bronze it uses in all of its professional lines, other than the B8 Pro series, is its most musical and durable alloy.
A RECENT FACELIFT
When Sabian originally introduced its XS20 line in 2003 (after 10 years of research and development), it proclaimed the XS20s to be the “world’s first and finest budget-priced cymbal cast from B20 bronze.” Initially, the XS20 cymbals had a lathing pattern with spaced stripes. Sabian received feedback from consumers that they wanted the XS20 line to have a more “professional look” by dropping the stripes. I find that request to be a bit odd, given that several of Sabian’s professional B20 AA Metal-X models have a striped lathing pattern, which I think looks pretty cool. But nobody consulted with me, and to its credit, Sabian recently responded to its consumers’ demands by revamping the XS20 line with a tonal groove lathing pattern that removes the stripes and makes the XS20s look virtually identical to Sabian’s natural-finish non-striped AA models. In fact, on close inspection, the only visual difference I can see between the XS20s and Sabian’s AA line is that the XS20s bear the XS20 logo and appear to have much less hammering marks than the AAs.
Sabian would not disclose the secret details of the proprietary process involved in making XS20 cymbals, but it was willing to reveal that the XS20 manufacturing process involves less handwork and hammering than that which is required for Sabian’s other more expensive professional B20 lines like, for example, the AAs. Moreover, despite the visual similarities to Sabian’s professional B20 lines, the XS20s’ price tags look much more similar to the price tags of its B8 Pro line. For example, if you were looking to buy a 20″ Medium ride cymbal, according to Sabian’s 2007 list prices, a B8 Pro model goes for $219, an XS20 model goes for $256, and an AA model goes for $403.
FOR THE EARS AND THE WALLET
I received virtually every cymbal in the XS20 line for this review. At the same time, I also happened to be reviewing a full arsenal of Sabian’s various professional B20 bronze models for DRUM!’s sister magazine, TRAPS. As a result, I was able to compare the quality and sound of Sabian’s XS20s to that of its more expensive B20 bronze lines. To my ears, the XS20s fall into three categories: 1) Excellent professional-quality cymbals for any price. 2) Pretty good professional cymbals, which are even better when you consider their price. And 3) Decent-sounding cymbals acceptable for semi-professional use, which end up being a bargain when one considers their price and the extra durability that the XS20’s bronze can offer. I’ll start with the best models first.
The XS20 10″ splash shocked me with its superior sound quality. It barks with an instant, explosive burst of papery highs and mids that quickly disperse without any weird lingering overtones. This splash sounds better than many other professional splashes I’ve heard that cost much more. The 12″ splash, in similar fashion to the 10″ model, also quickly explodes with a papery splash. Yet this 12″ model’s sound is filled with a much fuller range of mids. I loved this splash so much that I took it to a few of my professional gigs, and I would still love this cymbal if it listed for $202 like an AA 12″ splash. But the XS20 12″ splash lists for only $138. What a deal!
The 14″ Medium hi-hats are perhaps the best deal in the entire XS20 line. Most Sabian B20 bronze hi-hats list for prices of $484 and up. The XS20 models retail for $314, so you’d be crazy not to give these hats a listen. They have just the right combination of mids, highs, and articulation, but they don’t have too much chunk, low end, or washy qualities. As a result, these hats are incredibly versatile and musical. Foot chicks cut through precisely but are neither abrasive nor wimpy. Open-foot splashes sound high, airy, and clean. Stick articulation is excellent. I took these hats to a few gigs where I played both rock and jazz, and they blended in perfectly in each instance.
The 14″ Rock hi-hats are heavier in weight than the Medium set. Compared to the Medium hats, these Rock models have more chunk in their foot chick, but when played with sticks they have certain frequencies that sound ever-so-slightly stifled. While these Rock models are very good, the Medium models are even better, and they still seem sturdy enough to handle a rock context. Therefore, given the choice of two models with the exact same price, I’d go with the Medium hi-hats.
The 18″ Chinese speaks with a kangy explosion of mostly mid-range frequencies underscored by a pleasantly low set of overtones. It’s not particularly trashy, but it’s also not particularly abrasive either. Does this cymbal sound as fantastic as the 20″ HHX Chinese cymbal that I was reviewing at the same time? No. Does it sound very good for an 18″ Chinese cymbal? Absolutely. And by the way, the 18″ XS20 lists for half the price of that 20″ HHX Chinese cymbal.
The 18″ crash/ride provides a decent crash sound consisting mostly of mids — but not very many lows or highs. This cymbal’s ample mid-range provides an acceptable ride sound at lower volumes that can quickly swell to a slightly annoying mid-range hum as it’s played louder. This cymbal’s accentuation of the mid-range to the exclusion of high and low overtones exemplifies a recurring theme I noticed among many of the XS20 cymbals: They lack the wide sonic spectrum that is present in Sabian’s more expensive B20 bronze lines.
For example, an 18″ AAXPlosion crash I reviewed has an excellent burst of mid-range overtones, but that AAX model also has a much broader range of lows and highs mixed in with those prominent mids. Because of those distinctions, some of these XS20s sound less complex and more one-dimensional than their pricier B20 siblings. And while Sabian’s secrets remain intact, I’m assuming that the lack of sonic range in some of these XS20s stems from the lesser degree of hammering and handwork involved in their manufacturing process.
The 20″ Medium ride provides a clean stick response followed by a nice tail of sustaining ring that remains pure and clean. This ride earns particular kudos for its bell, which cuts through with a piercing yet pleasant tone. On the other hand, like many XS20s, this cymbal strongly emphasizes the mid-range frequencies without very many lows or highs. As a result, it is not quite as expressive or dynamic as I would prefer for my personal ride cymbal. With that said, I am particularly finicky about ride cymbals and am often disappointed even by many professional models. This ride cymbal certainly sounds as good as many allegedly “professional” models I’ve heard that sell for much more. So if you’re looking for an acceptable professional ride but don’t want to spend too much cash, you should definitely give it a listen.
The 20″ Rock ride is thicker, heavier, and a bit higher in pitch than its 20″ Medium sibling. Like the 20″ Medium ride, this model has a cutting bell. Nevertheless, the Rock ride has an even smaller frequency range, and certain of those frequencies sound stifled. Imagine what a professional Rock ride might sound like if you stuck a few pieces of duct tape on it, and you’ve got this cymbal. Given that both 20″ XS20 rides are the same price, between the two models I unhesitatingly recommend the better-sounding 20″ Medium ride.
I placed four crash cymbals in this latter semi-professional category: the 16″ Medium crash, the 16″ Rock crash, the 18″ Medium Thin crash, and the 18″ Rock crash. Each produces a loud cutting crash that would be more than acceptable for semi-professional use. On the other hand, each also suffers from one-dimensional qualities that lack the “sparkle” or sonic range that I look for in a professional studio-quality crash.
To elaborate, the 16″ Medium Thin crash initially screams with lots of higher range mid frequencies that quickly end with a weird muffled sound. The 16″ Rock crash is heavier than the Medium model with a clear and powerful tone that’s slightly lower in pitch but also, unfortunately, a bit clangy. The 18″ Medium Thin crash speaks almost exclusively with mid-range tones that linger for a long time. Finally, the 18″ Rock crash is heavier in weight, yet higher in pitch and a bit more stifled sounding than the 18″ Medium Thin model.
If you’re a drummer that bashes away in a rehearsal room with your bandmates four nights a week, you may not want to incur the almost inevitable expense and disappointment that can come from cracking your super-expensive crashes. Hence, these semi-professional crashes provide an excellent opportunity to save those expensive models for the good gigs — not the rehearsal room. Moreover, Sabian covers the XS20 models with a two-year warranty under which it will replace your cymbal for free if it determines that the cymbal “failed under normal use.”
The XS20s shocked me with excellent-sounding splashes, hi-hats, and a Chinese cymbal — all of which sell for much less than comparably sized B20 models in Sabian’s professional lines. Other XS20s did not sound as good as those “excellent” models but still sounded good enough for professional or semi-professional situations, depending on the model. Plus, the XS20s offer the durability and professional looks of B20 cast bronze, but with the price tag of sheet-bronze cymbals. Budget-minded cymbal shoppers should definitely give the XS20s a look and a listen.
TYPE XS20 Cymbals
MODELS AND SIZES + PRICE
10″ Splash: $134
12″ Splash: $138
14″ Medium Hi-Hats: $314
14″ Rock Hi-Hats: $314
18″ Chinese: $238
18″ Crash/Ride: $238
20″ Medium Ride: $282
20″ Rock Ride: $282
16″ Medium Crash: $208
16″ Rock Crash: $208
18″ Medium Thin Crash: $238 18″ Rock Crash: $238
FEATURES Looks and durability of professional-quality cast-bronze cymbals at low, sheet-metal cymbal prices; two-year warranty.
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