Beginner flute students are usually handed a flute from the back of a music store and sent on their way. Even though beginners have no frame of reference to know if this flute is the right one, parents should still have an idea of what brands are higher in quality before buying. While it may seem more economical to purchase a new no-name flute for $100 over a 30 year old $400 Gemeinhardt student model, in the long run the no-name model will need work, and will not produce a quality tone.
Just like clothing, every instrument is different, and the musician should have the chance to "try it on" before buying. Experienced players will usually try out many flutes before deciding on the one. For new students purchasing flutes in a store, ask the resident flute teacher to try it out in front of you.
Before buying a new flute, experienced flute players should make sure the flute they are currently playing is in its best possible condition before buying a new one. This is to ensure your comparison from old to new is fair. If your current flute is not in good condition, anything new you try will sound better, even if it's only marginally in the long run. Many flute players pay good money for what turns out to be just an "ok" flute, thinking it's superior to their old one.
Even if you're not looking for an expensive professional flute, you should still take the time to research brands and know your price range before walking into a store. Ask to try out identical flutes in the brand and price range you want, because, again, each flute is different. Before testing a flute in its entirety, play the low register first to check for leaks. If there are leaks, hand it right back. It is also beneficial to bring a tuner and check every note to see how well in tune it is. Check for balance and if it feels comfortable in your hands.
Take your time trying out the new flute. Bring a book of solos or etudes with you, and play a piece you know well, along with playing legato, staccato, piano, and forte while listening for tone quality. Play some trills to check that the keys have the right tension.. If you know a professional flautist, bring her along to play it for you standing close and far away to hear how the sound travels.
Never settle and don't get caught up in the excitement of the shine and newness. If the flutes are not quite what you want ask the store manager to order some in for you to try. If that is not possible, find a flute dealer, or get ready for a road trip to a big city.