A new one in the stable at Got A Ukulele Towers... The Pono MTD-E Tenor electro acoustic ukulele.
I have been after a new tenor for playing with The N'Ukes for a little while to compliment my Kala ASAC Tenor, but with a passive pickup for a more natural acoustic tone when picking. A scout around the stores suggested to me that this could fit the bill. I have been mightily impressed with the Pono Pro Classic Concert that I thought I would give this brand another go.
I effectively had a choice of the Pono MT - which is a straight up mahogany tenor, or this one, the MTD for which the D stands for 'deluxe'. In reality that means a gloss finish, but I chose that on advice from the good guys at Southern Ukulele Store who felt that the gloss model had a bit more of a chime to the voice. It comes with an under-saddle passive pickup (more on that later) and runs to £500. The 'E' tag refers to the pickup, but it's essentially just a Pono MTD.
The first thing you will notice is that this is a relatively plain instrument. Those who read this site regularly will know that I don't really go in for too much 'bling' on a uke, and prefer them to look a little more understated. In fact, for me, going for gloss was actually a concession!
The MTD-E is an all solid mahogany instrument, built by the Pono line which is the far eastern line of the famous Hawaiian maker Ko'olau. As such it is made in Indonesia, but to Ko'olau's exacting standards, and have become respected as one of the highest quality far eastern ukes around.
The sides are made from two pieces of mahogany and are also book-matched perfectly to the joint at the butt. It's also nice to see that the grain runs completely parallel with the sides, something you often see going awry with the grain on one side being at an angle, and not on the other. A nice attention to detail. Where the sides join at the but is the jack socket for the pickup fitted with an integral silver strap button.
The back repeats the pattern on the top, also nicely book-matched and is also slightly arched to assist with sound projection. One other thing that struck me - this is a deep instrument - those sides are pretty fat at the lower bout end of the uke, especially compared to my Kala Tenor. Will that help the tone and volume?
The bridge is nicely shaped from rosewood and is a tie bar affair. The saddle is cut from bone (as you would expect at this price). The whole body is covered in a nice mirror finish gloss which, on the whole is very nicely done with no 'orange peel' ripples whatsoever. There is a tiny bit of pooling of excess gloss around the top where the neck heel joins the body, but I have seen much much worse.
A quick look inside and all is relatively tidy, with a serial number stamped on the neck block, notched kerfling and the Pono label. There is a little bit of glue seepage on the kerfling, but nothing major. All looking good so far.
On to the neck, this too is made from mahogany, and topped with a rosewood fingerboard. The neck is made from five pieces of wood (five, count them...) with a joint at the headstock and the remaining joints stacked at the heel. This is over the top in my opinion, but not something that will affect the sound. You can see the joints though. The heel of the instrument is capped with a rosewood finish which is a nice touch. The whole back of the neck and headstock are finished in the same nice gloss finish.
The rosewood fingerboard has a moderate amount of orange stripe in it, which I would prefer to have been a little more even, but nothing compared to some instruments I have seen. The edges are bound in what looks like ebony, thus hiding the fret ends and give the instrument a more professional finish.
There are twenty nickel silver frets, with 14 to the body. I had read several comments online about these Ponos coming with rough fret edges. Nothing could be further from the truth on this model and the edges of the fingerboard are like butter. The frets themselves are also quite chunky which I prefer. Fret markers are provided by pearloid inlays at the 5th, 7th, 10th, 12th and 15th, and these are repeated as side markers as well. Full marks Pono.
Another word about the neck - its extremely chunky with a really rounded C shaped profile at the nut. For someone with big hands this pleases me. The neck width is not wide like, say a Kanile'a K1, but it is thicker in the profile and that makes it fit my hand profile just perfectly. If you don't get on with wide nut ukuleles (and as I say, this isn't) then that deeper profile 'may' affect you the same way.
Past the bone nut to the headstock, and this is faced in a glossy mirror finish rosewood which looks just fantastic with a nice stripe to it. The Pono logo is inlaid in mother of pearl and looks very classy.
Tuning is provided by Pono branded sealed geared tuners with small and classy ebony buttons and silver hardware. I would, I suppose, preferred to have seen my geared tuners of choice here (open geared USA Grovers) but these work just fine. The have the right amount of resistance and no sloppy action at all. Those small buttons are also a plus.
Then, on to the pickup - it comes with a Shadow under saddle piezo pickup that is completely passive. That is to say, there is no onboard battery or controls on the instrument. In order to get a decent sound from it therefore you will need to ideally run this through a DI or Pre-Amp box to get a nice fuller tone. I chose a passive deliberately for reasons I will go into further below. I suppose the other benefit of a passive is that you will never have that horrible moment where batteries start to fade mid set!
Completing the package were a set of D'Addario Titanium strings fitted by SUS. I've actually changed them since as I experiment with strings as soon as I get any new ukulele, and currently have Living Water Low G strings on it. The D'Addario's sounded great, but I am not really a huge fan of the way they feel on the fingers. With a shop like SUS though they will fit whatever you like.
So looks and build wise I think this is an absolute winner. It oozes 'quality instrument' and I am very taken with it. But on to playing...
First up, acoustically - not what I primarily bought it for, but obviously a very important part of this review! This is a loud instrument! It has bags of volume, no doubt helped by that body size, and really makes its presence known. But it also has a ton of sustain and a harmonic chime in chords that, to date, I have only seen matched by my Kanile'a K1 which I love so much. Tone wise though, they could not be more different. Where the K1 has a woody earthy tone, the Pono has a punchier and brighter tone (different woods of course), but a tone that I absolutely adore. In fact, I wasn't expecting to say this, but tone wise I have this on a par with my K1, and perhaps because it is new, I am actually preferring it at the moment. Strummed it sounds bigger and thicker than the sum of its four strings, and picked the clarity is just beautiful.
The playability is top notch also. I love the feel of the neck, making it a joy to play fast up the neck with no trouble whatsoever. It feels balanced and solid in the hands and is comfortable. I can't speak highly enough about it in this regard.
On to that pickup. I do like playing my Kala Tenor, but I have recently found it sounding somewhat 'electric' in tone. That may sound like a stupid statement considering it is plugged in, but it was sounding more like an electric guitar, and less like an amplifed acoustic instrument. For some of our rockier numbers that was fine in the mix, but I was less impressed with the performance when fingerpicking something softer. The piezo in this is essentially the same thing, but what it lacks is the onboard circuitry which I think lets the active pickups down. This is literally a single wire running from the piezo strip to the output jack.
It needed to work for my live playing so I decided to really put this Pono through and played a whole set with it at our last gig - and, I was mighty impressed! I ran this through an acoustic pre-amp pedal, then into our mixing desk and was extremely pleased with the sound. The sustain was really evident, but as much as I said above it had a brighter sound, it sounds equally warm and smooth when plugged in, and very much like an acoustic instrument and not an electric. In fact it has delivered exactly what I wanted. It never sounded muddy in the mix, and the high notes in particular rang through extremely sweetly.
So in short, it's leagues above the Kala in my opinion, and closer to the quality of the Kanile'a than I ever expected. As such, this is one happy ukulele player and I would highly recommend one of these, acoustic or electric.
Looks - 9
Fit and finish - 9
Sound - 9.5
Value for money 9
OVERALL - 9.1