What's Up with Step-Up Flutes?

A step-up flute bridges the gap between a student instrument and a handmade instrument. And, for many people, it can serve as their life-long flute, providing a great sound and fast action at a fraction of the cost of a professional-level instrument. So, what’s the most important thing to look for in a step-up flute? As a repair tech and player, my answer is build quality.

To me, build quality means solid pivots, smooth hinges, well-fit parts, well-cut embouchure holes, quality pads, and rigid metal. Whether the flute is plated or solid, has open or closed holes, is inline or offset, or has a C or B foot is not an indicator of a better or worse flute. Many of us were conditioned to believe that an open-hole solid silver flute with a B foot is automatically an upgrade. But, as a repair tech who sees many, many flutes, I can tell you that it's just not a reliable indicator of whether any flute is better than another.

Solid silver may have an effect on sound, but the greatest effect comes from the cut of the embouchure hole, and how well and precisely the pads seal. Progressing flutists are often working on pieces with faster and faster passages, so they need a mechanism that can keep up with them – this is where the key fitting, pivot quality, and spring material play an important role.

For most people, though, it’s really hard to know the build quality since they can’t take the flute apart, and don’t know what to look for. Listed below are current-production flutes that I’ve found to have consistently excellent build quality:

Beginner flutes:
  • Jupiter 500 & 700 series
  • Trevor James 10X
  • Yamaha 200 series

Intermediate/Step-up flutes $1000 - $3000
  • Altus 807
  • Azumi AZ1, AZ2, AZ3
  • Miyazawa 102
  • Resona R100, R150
  • Trevor James Privilege, Chanson, Virtuoso
  • Yamaha 300/400 series*
  • Yamaha 500 series*

Pre-professional flutes $3000 - $5000
  • Altus 907
  • Miyazawa 202
  • Muramatsu EX
  • Resona R300
  • Sankyo CF-201
  • Yamaha 600 series

Please note that there are flutes out there that are not on my list that sound amazing, and are made as a lower price offering by well-respected handmade flute companies. Unfortunately, the flutes are often made with low quality standards and out of poor materials. But sometimes there is a good run, and the flutes come out well-made, so don’t panic if you don’t see your flute on the list! However, the criteria for making my list is consistent quality over many flutes for many years, such that I’d be confident that any flute you bought from that company would be pretty much guaranteed to hold up well over the long term.

Flute shopping is tough, even when you have a lot of information. If you find a flute that you love the sound of, it’s always a good idea to get it checked out before you purchase it, if possible – especially if it’s not on the list above. A good flute tech can check for loose pivots, grit in the mechanism, pad quality, rough edges, and other signs of poor manufacturing that will shorten the life of your flute, or even make it impossible to repair. Nothing is worse than spending $4000 on a flute only to discover it’s so poorly made that it’s not repairable or won’t stay in adjustment!

So, in short, the most important aspects of a step-up/intermediate/pre-professional flute are often the ones you can’t see or read about in a brochure or online. How much solid silver, which artist has endorsed it, extra keys and levers, price point, and even how it feels and plays when it’s brand new, are not the factors to solely base your decision on if you are looking for an instrument that will last for many years. The list above will provide a solid starting point for not only finding a flute that you love the sound and feel of, but also one that will be a good investment.

*Yamaha 200, 300, and 400 series all have the same mechanism design. The 500 series and up uses their pro-level pivot design and includes a hand-cut headjoint. I recommend jumping straight to the 500 or higher series if you are upgrading from a 200 series. Otherwise, you’re getting essentially the same flute just with holes and more silver, but not a better mechanism or headjoint, which to me, is the main reason to upgrade.