Allora Bb 2017 review
[2018 update: My new catalog from WWBW advertises the Allora ACL-250 Student Series Clarinet. The price for this new model is $369.99. The AACL-336 (same model number as reviewed below) costs significantly higher than last year— $299.99 rather than $149. So I think it highly likely that WWBW insisted on better quality from the manufacture. I anticipate that both of these models will be OK for students this year. Stay away from new clarinets that cost less than $200.]
I bought this clarinet, and will take advantage of WWBW’s generous 45 day return policy. My aim in this 2017 review is to give parents and band instructors a fair, honest, and data-verifiable review of this clarinet.
WWBW's site says this:
Highest quality student clarinet. The Allora AACL-336 Bb clarinet is a superb quality student clarinet that will allow any student to progress to the next level. It incorporates features found on the best student clarinets. With a 0.577" cylindrical bore, students will find it to be an easy-blowing instrument that is well centered and produces a strong, characteristic sound. Featuring the Boehm key system, this instrument has remarkable intonation for a clarinet of this price. A durable ABS plastic resin body makes the AACL-336 Bb clarinet at home on the marching field or the concert stage. Includes molded case, mouthpiece, ligature and cap. The Allora line of instruments was developed to offer the student musician an excellent start to their music career, at prices that parents can afford. Allora instruments meet exacting standards for intonation, comfort, and mechanical reliability and are an ideal alternative to renting.
The bold highlights in the above quote are mine. I think this clarinet is actually made of hard rubber, not ABS plastic. Hard rubber is better. But please judge for yourself about the claim about intonation after reading below. If a clarinet fails in intonation, then it cannot be called “Highest” or “superb” quality.
I recently reviewed an A clarinet by Berkeley, and the Allora appears to have been made by the same Chinese manufacturer. I posited in that review that Bb clarinets by this manufacturer would be better than the A clarinet, because only perhaps 1% of clarinets are made as A clarinets. The Bb clarinet is— of course, the basic band instrument. Every clarinetist must own a Bb clarinet. But it is normally only the top 1% of clarinetists— those chosen to play in orchestras with string instruments, who will seek to own an A clarinet. The Berkeley A clarinet sells for over twice WWBW’s price of $149 for the Allora clarinet.
The Allora brand name seems to just be a stencil brand sold by WWBW. I think that WWBW is perhaps the largest music instrument retailer in the USA today, and I regard them as an excellent company. I often buy mouthpieces and reeds and other supplies from them. I wistfully note that $140 was the price my Dad paid for my brand new Bundy clarinet in 1959 (when I was 9 years old). That was made in Elkhart, Indiana. The hard plastic Bundy has the hollow sound that I dislike. The Allora and many other Chinese clarinets have the hard rubber body that makes such a pleasing dark and focused sound.
Like the Berkeley A clarinet, the Allora comes in an almost identical case (except the A clarinet case is bigger, of course). Both cases came with an identical polishing cloth. Both clarinets have the identical adjustable thumb rest. The Berkeley came with one precision screw driver. The Allora clarinet came with a very poorly made knock-off of the LaVos clarinet reed holder. The Allora clarinet came with two reeds, and the Berkeley came with three, but no reed holder.
Suction test for the pads:
The right hand joint of the Allora Bb fails the suction test. It doesn’t hold suction with all the holes closed for even one second. But the leaks in this joint are not so bad that I can discover them by blowing into the closed joint.The left hand joint passes the suction test, but only with a C grade. So, bottom line, this means that this clarinet will probably play fine, and there may be slight extra resistance or very slightly muffled tone in the right hand notes. The Chinese-made bladder-style pads on these instruments generally work well. But I judge suction based on my experience with Valentino pads. Valentino pads require more care in installing them, but afterward they give an A grade seal, where suction can be maintained almost as well as in an empty soda bottle.
Note also from these two pictures and the first two below, that this clarinet came with four corks holding the keys down. I’m sure that these were applied at the factory, and their purpose is to make sure that the pads will conform to the tone holes and will still seat well by the time the clarinet arrives to the purchaser. Note also that some naive beginning students will be flummoxed that the clarinet doesn’t play properly. The cork under the bridge key of the left hand joint must be removed before one can play even the first three beginning notes.
Serial #: none marked. The only part stamped with ‘Allora’ is the bell.
Barrel: 61.9mm 62mm barrels are standard for low end Chinese clarinets. Since normal clarinet barrels are between 64-66mm, a 62mm barrel will cause problems unless the left hand joint has been designed to be 2-4mm longer to match this.
Bore LH joint top: 14.7mm
Bore LH joint at bottom: 14.5mm This seems to be poly-cylindrical!
Intonation results taken when playing loud and not lipping. See how to interpret these results on the Model Comparison Page.
For this test, I pulled 1.6 mm at the barrel, and 1.6 mm at the center tenon. I tested these findings on two succeeding days. I used my normal mouthpiece and reed: Chedeville Prime mouthpiece and a Legere Signature 3.75 reed.
Note that parents who write reviews of this clarinet at WWBW's site are not normally able to do this kind of testing, and intonation faults like those shown below will only show up when the student has been in band classes for more than 45 days (meaning, past the money-back return period).
Intonation summary: TERRIBLE, and I am quite surprised by this! As I said above, I was anticipating that this clarinet— coming from a company I have respected over the years, would be pretty good. I judge that this clarinet flunks the intonation test. This is un-usable intonation. Band instructors will not want an Allora clarinet in their band.
But the Allora’s poor intonation can be substantially improved. The first and most important part is to add about 4mm to the barrel length and get rid of any gap made when pulling the supplied too-short barrel. With a proper-length barrel, or by inserting tuning rings in the supplied barrel, the intonation graduates to beginning level. (By beginning intonation, I mean that you can probably get by in many grade school band classes for two school years.) With further tweaking (see below), the intonation could become intermediate level, but not professional level.
The low C# seems to be a bad note on many of the Chinese clarinets.
Key work quality: This is very acceptable key quality for a student clarinet. The keys are not made of super hard metal, but they are thick enough to withstand a normal student’s clumsiness. The key work of the Allora is similar to the Berkeley A clarinet, and like nearly every Chinese clarinet I have tested.
This clarinet is most appropriate for: Parents on a budget and who have the skills necessary to tweak a clarinet. As it comes out of the box, this clarinet will not ‘play nicely’ with the majority of students who have more normal student instruments. Most student clarinets have sharp throat tones. This one has flat throat tones. Pulling out at the barrel like normal to make the center-of-the-staff C tuning note in tune, will make the throat tones ridiculously and painfully flat. If your Allora clarinet plays like this one, the best thing you can do is to return it within 45 days and get your money back!
Included mouthpiece: The bundled mouthpiece is plastic. It will produce a beginner’s tone with the number 2 strength reeds bundled with the clarinet. Any time you buy a new clarinet, don't expect much from the bundled mouthpiece. Even many high end clarinets come with basically junk or beginner mouthpieces. So the Allora's mouthpiece is no surprise. The one included with this clarinet will at least get your beginning student started, but expect to buy a better mouthpiece very soon. See my recommendations at the Mouthpieces page.
Condition issues noted: The clarinet was in expected brand-new shape, and it plays with reasonable response.
Tweaking this clarinet for better intonation: Start with adding about 4mm of tuning rings inside the barrel! Get rid of the gap in the bore that comes from pulling the barrel out. Wow, what a difference this makes! The cheapest way to do this is to make tuning rings from old CDs. See the page about tuning rings. It turns out that this clarinet must have been originally designed for a standard 66mm barrel. And it seems that this clarinet reacts particularly poorly to any gap in the bore below the barrel.
Since most of the flatness of the throat tones is improved by using the proper barrel, only a few tone holes in the left hand joint will need to be undercut to bring the pitch up. What undercutting a tone hole does is shorten and widen the pathway for the air in the direction of the mouthpiece. And for a note like low C#, the tone hole will need to be expanded, especially on the upper side— the side toward the mouthpiece. Undercutting the tone holes is a delicate and time consuming task. You have to take off keys, work a little bit, and then put the keys back on to test what you have done. This process is repeated over and over again.
The throat Bb key can be improved by further sharpening throat tone A. The player can use resonance fingerings when needed to lower the A. Then that Bb could be further improved by some attention to the register key tube by an expert.
Some of the sharpest notes in the rest of the clarinet can be lowered by putting a thin/flattened layer of Poster Tac on the upper side of several tone holes. Do this especially for that mid-register D which is 13 cents sharp!
No one wants to listen to an out of tune clarinet! No band director wants one in his band. All in all, rather than tweaking this clarinet, it would be much easier to pick up a good-model used student clarinet at a garage sale and replace the pads yourself. That would be easier, quicker, and the results would likely be better than tweaking an Allora clarinet.