Reviewed in the United States on May 8, 2012
Whether a serious musician or a beginner, you've probably heard of Vandoren reeds. As always, it remains the standard and the best reed-maker in the business. I apologize if this review might seem basic, but I'm targeting this review to the latter audience because I feel that experienced musicians are probably already familiar with Vandorens. Additionally, while I have tackled a variety of musical styles, performed well in solo and group festivals/competitions, and played in collegiate bands, I am by no means a professional and only play as a hobby now. This rating is based on my personal experience and the collective opinion of people whom I have played with and who use Vandorens. To be fair, I have given these reeds 5 STARS IN COMPARISON TO ALL OTHER REEDS ON THE MARKET THAT I HAVE USED, not based exclusively on the product individually. I have tried a wide variety of reeds including, Vandoren original (this product), Vandoren V16, Rico, Rico Royal, Legere synthetic (plastic), etc. Also, remember that in order to get the best out of your reeds, you should be using a good mouthpiece and ligature. From the very beginning I have been using a C-star s-80 mouthpiece and rovner ligature. In terms of instruments, I started off with a Selmer Bundy II but for the past 8 years I have been played on yamahas (marching band) and a silver-plated Selmer series iii alto saxophone for personal/symphonic/concert use (the instrument was WAY cheaper than current Selmer models when it was purchased in 2003). Knowing what I know now, if you are considering purchasing a higher-end saxophone, I would highly recommend a laquered instrument; the silver plating has been sssooooo annoying/time-consuming to upkeep and both produce the same quality of sound. Also, if you do find a series ii and a series iii (although I don't know if either are in production anymore), go with a series ii super action 80. I wish I had; there are some pitch issues on the iii. But if you are still in the market for an instrument, talk with professionals in the area; I am no longer familiar with which instruments are the best on the market for beginners, upper level, etc.
Cons: If I was not comparing these reeds to other manufacturers, I would give this product 4 stars because I feel the quality of Vandoren reeds has slightly decreased over the years. I mean this by saying that while there used to be only a few "duds" per box, the percentage has increased (I know of multiple professional musicians who share my opinion in this regard) over the 12-ish years I have been using them (I've been playing for 13, but started out on Rico Royals--I will never go back to those again). Now, I find that only a few reeds per box of 10 are of the exceptional quality that I am looking for. For the beginners, by "duds", I mean reeds that won't consistently give you high quality tone and control over an extended period of time. With these, I find that it takes me an especially long time to break them in (keep in mind all reeds to take some time to break in, no matter how good the quality). And if they ever do reach the clean tone I am looking for, it is rare, and very short-lived (a week or so max with a couple hours of play-time every day). With these "duds", you will see a higher incidence of "squeaks" and a larger difficulty controlling your dynamics (volume), especially at extremes such as pianissimo, fortissimo, etc (very quiet, very loud) or particularly low/high notes, especially above upper D (above the staff) and below lower D (below the staff). The poorer quality the reed, additionally the more difficulty you will have controlling your tone; you may find that your tone is too brassy or that it is difficult to change your tone to suit different styles of music, even with changing your embouchure (mouth positioning) and/or air flow.
Now onto the pros: Even with their setbacks, Vandoren remains the best reed manufacturer. When you do find those good reeds, you will find unmatched quality and amazing flexibility in your capabilities and won't have to work as hard to achieve your desired results. Additionally (in my experience), when you first start playing and don't have strong control over your embouchure and tone, you really won't notice a difference in quality from reed to reed, especially at lower strengths like 2, 2.5. The quality difference I mentioned is something that you likely won't realize or annoy you until you start playing at an upper level and have strengthened your air tone and air control (for me, it took about 4-5 years with private lessons once a week and band practice for an hour 5x/week; keep in mind I started using Vandorens and taking lessons in 6th grade--if you are starting as an adult and/or have already mastered another wind instrument, this likely will greatly reduce that time). And even once you reach an upper level, most of the "duds" can still be used for everyday practice, just not concert performance. In fact, I find that forcing myself to play on these reeds has helped me develop the control I had over my tone, instead of relying solely on the quality of the reed. SOMETHING NEW I LOVE: All of the reeds are now individually sealed air-tight like little candies. In the past, all of the reeds used to only be in their own plastic holders but still loose so if for some reason there was excess moisture in your case (e.g. you forgot to leave your case open to let a wet instrument dry out from playing in marching band) over only one night you could end up with an entire box of ruined moldy reeds (this has happened to me on more than one occasion). Now, I am never faced with that issue. That being said, if your instrument/case is at all damp/wet, it is crucial to let things dry out or it could do some serious damage to your instrument over time (accelerated rusting, stiff/cracked leather on the pads, loosened pads from deteriorated glue, etc.)
Choosing the strength of your reeds: When I was first chair my senior year of high school, I was playing on 3's and switched to 3.5s when I started playing in a collegiate marching band (if you need to frequently play extremely loud like I had to for marching, then you will need stronger reeds; you'll have less tone control on softer reeds at louder volumes and burn through them more quickly). But after needing such a strong embouchure for so long, I had to stick with 3.5s to maintain the tone quality I desired, even in a symphonic concert setting. If I go for months without playing, I have to start off using 3s until my embouchure is strong enough again. Some of my peers were playing on 4.0s. When I was a freshman the first chair was a 4.5. Remember that being able to play on stronger reeds does not equate to greater ability--it is reflected by the natural strength of your embouchure and air flow. Working your way up in strength takes time and should not be rushed; at one point you might reach a strength and never increase again. As a casual player, I hover around a 3.0-3.5. As long as you are getting a good smooth tone out of your reeds, stay at that strength. If you are a beginner, I would recommend starting out on a 2.0 or 2.5 for these Vandoren reeds. If you are younger, completely new to wind playing/have a weak embouchure, have undeveloped diaphragm muscles (i.e. you can't push air very strongly), or any combination of the above, start out with a weaker strength. For adults I would probably recommend a 2.5, for children I would recommend a 2.0, but that is by no means the rule. It is better to start off with a weaker strength than a stronger one. If you receive your reeds and are able to put out a sound immediately, easily (without pushing air very hard), and your tone sounds more like a buzz, then the reed strength is too low and you should move up (e.g. move from 2.0 to 2.5). If you really struggle to put out a sound and can only manage to squawk or play loudly but not quietly, try to play on the reed for a few days if you can get out a sound. But if you are still facing the same issues, you should consider moving down a strength.
***I have been referring only to the original Vandoren reeds in terms of strength. I would strongly advise you to use Vandoren over any other manufacturer. But if they are just too expensive, consider Rico Royal (NOT RICO). If that is the case, then add 0.5 to everything (e.g. a Vandoren 2.5=Rico Royal 3.0). Also, the Vandoren reeds are optimal for classical playing but can also be used for a broad range of styles--I've used them for marching band, symphony band, jazz band, etc. But if you positively know that you will only be playing jazz music, consider using the Vandoren V16s and purchasing a jazz mouthpiece and ligature.
Sorry this is so lengthy; hope it helps! :)