First, should you buy new or used? Both can be good choices depending on your circumstances.
If you are a beginner or someone that is buying their first horn, unless you have a teacher with a lot of experience, a new horn is usually a good idea. You know you’re not buying anyone else’s problems and most music stores have a great warranty. Often a saxophone needs a little tweaking by a good repairman after it’s been played for a while and a good warranty means you won’t have to pay for that. Also if there is some kind of structural problem a good music store will correct it if you are unhappy.
The quality of new horns these days is a pretty amazing value but it’s still important to check the pitch of the horn you choose. If you can get a tuner, check a couple of notes and see how close you get. It doesn’t have to be perfect because you tune while you play but make sure nothing is way off. The other thing I like to check out is the design. Does everything feel comfortable on the horn? Is it easy to get to all the keys within reason? Does it feel right to you? Does it play freely or does it take a lot of effort? And most importantly, how does it sound? If, when you play the horn you can’t put it down and you want to play it all day, then that’s a horn you want to own. I also like to see if I can predict repairs. I check the rods and the posts to try to tell if they’ll stand up and I look to see if the pads are sitting on the tone holes. For a saxophone to really play well the metal can’t be too hard, but if it’s too soft it will need a lot of repairs so I talk to the repairman at the store and see what he or she thinks. They usually give you an honest answer because they don’t want to be repairing the same thing over and over again on warranty.
Now, used horns also have a lot of things to think about. First, they’re cheaper than new horns. If you run into someone that calls used horns Vintage horns (with a capital “V”) he will tell you that, “that’s when they knew how to make good horns.” In some cases he may be right. However, if the horn is a Vintage horn it will cost more–no matter what. The first thing I listen for with a used horn is a great sound and with most pro players I think it’s the same. I check to see if there is any evidence of any major repair work. Are there any wrinkles in the metal anywhere? Are the tone holes round? Do they have any marks or dents? A dent in the bell doesn’t really matter but a dent in the neck or a tone-hole will affect the pitch and the sound and may cost a lot to repair. You want to make sure that the money you save buying a used horn you don’t then spend on repairs. I also check the brace where the bell is attached to the horn to make sure it’s solid and doesn’t wiggle around. Feel around the neck to feel if there are any ridges–that usually means the neck was, or is, bent. A bent neck is going to play out of tune and is expensive to fix. Try to get your teacher or someone whose playing you respect to play the horn and give you their opinion. I think some of the older horns are great but they do have some pitch problems so be prepared to adjust on some of the notes.
When you buy a horn you should think a little about what you need it for. Is it for your own enjoyment, a school band or a North American tour? Whether you buy a new horn or a nice, old, used one, try to buy a horn you can grow into without breaking the bank.