Soundlab: Sabian Big & Ugly Hi-Hats and Crashes Reviewed

From the February 2017 issue of DRUM!  | By John Nyman

Two years ago, Sabian first took us to a new part of town, to the Big & Ugly neighborhood where rough-looking ride cymbals sang and guffawed. The visit was enough of a success that Sabian introduced us to more characters from the underbelly. Please shake hands with Big & Ugly hi-hats and crashes and their weird, wonderful cousin, Sick Hats.

They’re all ugly, indeed. Sabian’s Big & Ugly line looks unfinished, with mottled and stained faces, colored like a brown dog in a bathtub with pale streaks, with suds dripping across mud-toned fur. They look abandoned, too ugly to take home. They sound terrific, complex, dark, slightly thick, and stubborn.

I don’t want to shock you, so I’ll introduce you to the most “normal” Big & Uglies first, the Monarch and Apollo hi-hats. From there things get weird quickly.



The Monarch hats have the family’s acid-dip-sauce look, but are lathed clean and shiny on both undersides, with small and tightly cupped bells. The sound is tight, funky, and slightly dry. On paper, they are listed at 14″, but the Monarch cymbals have no size markings. Is this a family thing, something we “don’t talk about?” My tape measure confirmed that they are 14 inches, my hands judge their weight to be medium and medium-heavy, and my ears confirmed hi-hats with a mellow but short voice — strong and funky.

I lucked into an afternoon of recording at a friend’s house, and put the 14″ Big & Ugly Monarch hats up first. They were quite good, but my thought that day was, “They’re really nice hats from Sabian. So what? Sabian makes nice hats.” But, ah-ha, these Big & Ugly Monarch hats are from Sabian’s XSR line, which is the company’s “budget” line. I didn’t know by listening that they cost less, because they simply sounded really good.



14″ AA Apollo Hi-Hats (pictured), $309 MAP; 16″, $379 MAP


The 14″ Apollos have a different look. They’re faced with concentric rings, not the splashed and spilled acid bath of the others. But they are still ugly. The rings are light and dark, as if the lathe operator had dirty hands that day. The sound is bright — after all, these are from the AA line, the most classic and bright of the bunch. I found the 14″ hats to be both good and distractingly normal — only their appearance makes them Uglies. The sound is crisp and focused and a bit bendy due to the light top cymbal and medium bottom. But there is an aural patina here, like AA cymbals that have been dirtied by thumbprint residue over a period of years. Sort of vintage-ish, sort of old but new. They are pre-dirtied. Yeah, that’s it: AAs, pre-dirtied at the factory.

The 16″ Apollo hats are Big. And Ugly. They’re blotchy to a fault. But when I close my eyes I love them so much. They’re loud, and can be played more softly, more dynamically and still are clearly heard. Super-sized hi-hats are quite popular, but I think I’ve misunderstood. I always thought them appropriate if you had to throw subtlety out the window, fire up your biggest engine, and simply try to keep up with a loud band. Nope. Big hats equal effortless horsepower. The sound of the Apollo 16s is crisp, throaty, blended. Top and bottom pies are close in weight, creating a singular, organic voice. Please help me! I love them so. They can jazz, swing, and I suppose they can even hip-hop.


18″ AA Sick Hats, $445 MAP


Frankly, notwithstanding being ugly, this batch of pies has been short on shock value. But that ends here at the 18″ AA Sick Hats. The first shock is an 18″ pair of hats! Oh, and the holes. That’s one hole in the middle of the top cymbal, as expected, and 28 more that weren’t. All those empty holes make for a lightweight cymbal. The other cymbal is quite heavy, raw, ugly, and unlathed. Together they make beautiful nasty sounds.

There’s no airlock between the cymbals due to the holes (duh), which allows them to slap together like your own personal elevator car squashing jumbo roaches. Foot-chicks are just not the same as regular hats at all. They have a new note: large, white, brash. And the sound with sticks on the cymbals? Okay, it is a hi-hat, kind of, but there’s plenty of white noise; enough to line these up with ribbon crashers, stacked cymbals, and trashcan lids.

But you get to use your foot! Modulation of the pressure between the two hats opens up a much larger palette. They can be tight and white, sloshy and dirty, pea soup with rocks in it, or just barely touching like a nuclear ride cymbal. I think they’re too big and too weird to be your everyday hats, but on a remote hat stand with a foot pedal these would no doubt allow you to rule the world!

And so, in my quest for world domination, I used the Sick Hats on our friendly recording session. My friend actually lamented that I didn’t have an OctaPad or other such controller/noisemaker. “Dude!” I said, “We don’t need no stinking OctaPad!” I played the Sick Hats, he played with the EQ knobs, and soon we had a ferocious hand-clappish backbeat over which I had tremendous musical control! Yay, Sabian! (Yes, it was hard to play on all those holes, but I did it. Then I read Sabian’s suggestion to put the bottom on the top. Oh. Of course.)


18″ XSR Monarch (pictured), $165 MAP; 20″, $195 MAP


Here’s a phrase I just invented: “Budget Shimmer.” It’s what these Monarch cymbals have. Sabian sometimes calls these crash cymbals, and sometimes crash-friendly cymbals. The 18″ XSR Monarch crash-friendly Big & Ugly cymbal (hereafter referred to as “this cymbal here”) is a slightly thick one with strong low tones, sweet high tones, and a gap where the high-midrange tones should be. Hence, a budget cymbal. However, Sabian has blended the tones very nicely, and there’s a sweet gliss of shimmer, that budget shimmer, which steers your ear across the pothole of missing zing and leaves you satisfied. It’s a neat trick. Also, this cymbal here might even be thick enough for some ride cymbal duties, maybe. Crash-ride duties are a sure thing. And because these cymbals here are from Sabian’s XSR series, they’re priced less. Tah-dah! The 18″ is pretty sweet. The 20″, to me, is buy-it-now sweet.


18″ AA Apollo, $219 MAP; 20″ (pictured), $259 MAP


Imagine my surprise, after developing my crush on the Monarchs, to find the Apollos less than drool-worthy. These full-priced cymbals have, to my ear, a similar gap between the low high frequencies and the shimmering, glassy, sibilant highest high frequencies. It’s not my thing, and it reprises the question: do we call these crashes, crash-rides, or rides?

I say it’s just the gap between sounds and words tripping us up. These cymbals are definitely related to the larger Big & Ugly ride cymbals. And as such, some frequencies are stronger than others are. So, yeah, they ride fine. Can you crash them? Yes! But then there’s that tonal gap. However, I do recognize what this recipe, this particular tonal gap, produces: Punch.

The 18” Apollo punches darkly, with strong stick definition and good shimmer. It’s not a very versatile ride. The 20” Apollo rides quite nicely, with strong stick definition and dark wash. Crashing it is short, punchy, and dark. There’s added whump that comes from gaps in the spectrum. Many drummers need that power more than they need those middle-high frequencies. And some drummers need a crash they can ride a little more than a ride they can crash a little. Your mileage may vary.



Sabian’s newest Uglies are fun and quirky. The Sick Hats stretch boundaries and open up new musical horizons, the XSR Uglies are a tremendous value, the 16″ Apollo hats are powerful and musical, and the rest are worth a listen to see if they are the kind of ugly that you find attractive.