It had to happen I suppose, but the ukulele bug has been biting my good lady wife over the last few weeks! She has been playing all the time and is really improving, so with a big (ish) anniversary coming this year I thought I would treat her to a ukulele of her own.
After much research, we settled on the Pono MHC Concert ukulele in Mahogany, complete with a hard case. Thanks again to the wonderful Southern Ukulele Store in the UK for supplying. This instrument is from their "Pro-Classic" line of Pono ukes, which represent the top end for the brand. Pono ukuleles are made by the Ko'olau ukulele company of Hawaii, one of the leading K Brand ukes from those islands. The Pono ukes are however put together under Ko'olau control in the far east before shipping back to Hawaii for a final check over and setup. This allows costs to be kept lower, but Pono claim that they insist on the highest level of quality control and that the place of origin should not be obvious to the player. So how does it fare?
Before we get into the detail, its worth a word or two as to where the Pono sits in the range of ukes available out there. This is NOT a handmade Hawaiian uke, and it's price reflects that (£379). That said, that price is considerably higher than other decent far eastern ukuleles such as Kala, Ohana and Mainland. As such, I see the Pono as aiming to sit between the more common brands and the K Brands. That would suggest they should be about as good as you can get without getting a luthier built uke or a K Brand. This review will aim to look at whether that is true. I will use my Mainland uke as a point of reference.
The Pono is certainly a pretty instrument with some extremely pleasing finishing touches. It is of all solid mahogany construction in the body and neck, and finished in gloss. The shape is traditional with quite a wide lower bout to the body and a slightly arched back to assist with sound projection. The grain of the mahogany is quite, quite stunning to look at. I cannot take a photograph to show this properly, but there is a real flame in the grain that glimmers when it catches the light. The top and back are nicely bookmatched and the grain in the sides runs parallel to the top and back also, something you dont see on my Mainland uke. The top and back have an ebony binding bordered with a thin strip of white which is perfectly finished with no flaws whatsoever. Turning the uke over and there is a similar ebony strip down the back and on the base of the uke which adds a very classy touch to the look of the instrument. The sound hole is surrounded by a genuine abalone ring. I am not normally a fan of too much "bling" on instruments, but this is about as blingy as the Pono gets, and I think it looks just right. The real bone saddle is housed in a small and delicate looking ebony tie bar bridge.
Moving on to the neck we have a three piece construction, something that differs from K Brand ukes which will tend to use a single piece of wood. The neck profile is comfortable and ends with a nicely finished headstock which is faced with a piece of piano shiny ebony in which the Pono name is inlaid in mother of pearl. The fingerboard is in beautiful dark ebony also, although it looked a little dry and washed out when it arrived. A very thin application of Fret Doctor oil soon sorted that and it now looks beautiful. There are 19 nickel frets, all dressed perfectly with NO sharp edges at all. The fret markers are small and circular made of mother of pearl, and are repeated on the top edge of the fingerboard. The edges of the fingerboard are also trimmed with an ebony strip to hide the fret edges
The ukulele tuners are geared and enclosed, and bear the Pono name on the back of each one - another nice touch though if I am honest, I would have preferred open geared tuners. That said, these are not heavy. They are finished in gold with very small ebony buttons which pleased me too - other uke makers take note - if you are putting geared tuners on your ukulele, please choose small buttons - otherwise the ukes look like Mickey Mouse! These tuners are smooth and accurate and present no problems. The nut is also natural bone and is set and finished very neatly.
Looking inside the body, I see the top and back are secured with standard looking kerfling. The bracing too looks traditional and also very delicate - these are not rough chunks of wood, but nicely carved to size aiming for the minimal amount of wood whilst maintaining structural integrity, making for a more resonant ukulele.
So to summarise the cosmetics - the ukulele is absolutely flawless in every respect. The differences from, say, the Mainland ukulele, are clear in the little details. The arched back, the real mother of pearl and abalone, the dressed edges to the fingerboard, the use of ebony and oh, that wonderful grain pattern. The gloss is applied perfectly, with no pooling or small bubbles in crevices as I see on the Mainland. There are no glue drops inside the body either, and the only smell coming from the soundhole is the smell of wood. This level of finish on a high end K Brand ukulele would easily push the cost of your instrument over £1000, so it's extremely pleasing to see that level of quality at this price.
But what does it feel like to play? Well it feels good in my hands, is light and nicely balanced. The fretboard is wonderfully finished allowing fast play, comfortably. Tuning and intonation all over the neck were spot on when I checked with an accurate tuner and as such I have zero issues in this respect. The finish is not "sticky" and the back of the neck is smooth to hold and move around on.
So, the biggie. Sound. Well its VERY nice. Sure, it doesnt have the absolute bang on clarity and sustain of a Hawaiian ukulele, but I never expected it to. Volume wise, its on a par with the Mainland but there is more harmony when strumming, more seperation between the notes and a much more chimey sound. It really does have a fizz to it when strumming, yet when picked it sounds really warm and full, meaning its a very verstatile instrument to my mind. This model has been fitted with Worth clear strings by the store as I am not a fan of the Ko'olau gold strings that Pono ship this uke with which will have some bearing on that. The sound is clear, and has good sustain. In comparison, the Mainland, whilst still a wonderful sounding ukulele sounds a little more "boxy" than the Pono, slightly more one dimensional. It's worth adding too that the Mainland I own is about two years old, so the wood will have opened up a little more. As such I can only expect the Pono to improve further with age.
How would I summarise? Well on sound alone I can't say there is a £200 uplift in sound over a Mainland ukulele, but that would be unfair on both instruments. Sound quality is subjective and does not improve pound for pound on a straight line graph. A £1500 Hawaiian ukulele will not sound twice as nice as a £750 ukulele - that would be ridiculous. But pricing is about more than sound, but also looks and finish and in that respect, as pretty as I think the Mainland is, this uke is leagues above it in that respect. In fact it's easily the prettiest ukulele in our household now. If you find the price a little steep, there are Pono ukes available with less "bling" and finish that I would expect to be nice sounding also, so would certainly suggest looking at those.
Do I have any gripes - not really. I have mentioned the tuners, but that is just personal preference, and bear in mind that I paid extra for Worth strings as I am not convinced Ko'olau should ship these with their own strings. I suppose a single piece neck would have been expected for the money, but this is a factory built instrument and I understand the reasoning. Those are, however minor gripes - the instrument looks great, plays great and sounds great.
In summary, I would consider this uke to be in the range of "as good as you will get without going to something handmade". I'm extremely pleased with it and so is she!
As a final word - it is worth me mentioning the hard case. These ukes come supplied with a Ko'olau branded hard case of really nice quality. The case has distinctive red stitching around the lid and is clearly not a cheap case with quality fittings, interior and handle. I would suggest that such a case would probably cost around £40 to purchase, so that £379 ukulele is probably better considered a £339 instrument.
Looks - 9.5
Fit and finish - 9.5
Sound - 8.5
Value for money - 8.5
OVERALL - 9