17.11.13

Mahalo UFV1G 'Flying V' Ukulele REVIEW

On occasion I get a couple of more common criticisms about Got A Ukulele, and I thought it would be good to address them with a brand new review.

The first is that my reviews are skewed towards more expensive instruments. Well there are certainly some higher end ukes in there, but I have done some cheapies too. Secondly, people have said I am unfair on Mahalo ukes, as I have been quite vocal about their poor sound and quality control. So, to address both of those I grabbed a Mahalo Flying V ukulele for the princely sum of £30.... (Video review at the end of the article!)

Mahalo Flying V ukulele


I figured I would approach this like many beginners do in a way that contravenes the advice I give to new buyers, so I bought it from Amazon. As such it arrived with me as it would arrive from the factory - pretty much unchecked or setup. Whilst I can do a uke setup, I have deliberately not done that with this instrument to show you what a beginner will face. The only change I have made is put a set of Aquila brand strings on it, as that seems to be a common change a new player will consider. Otherwise though the uke is 'as is'.

The first thing that hits you with this uke is clearly the look of it. I have to admit having a bit of a soft spot for the flying V shaped guitar, so for me a uke that is built this way is naturally a cool thing. The Mahalo is built from laminate (top back and sides) and is finished in gloss black paint. Rawk!!

The shape is certainly flying V, no mistaking that, and looks the part. As a bonus, because of that shape it also stands up unaided. On closer inspection though, the finish is pretty poorly (or rather, liberally) applied, with lots of pooling and surface flaws on the sharp edges and where the body meets the neck.

The bridge appears to be rosewood and is a notched affair, meaning you tie a knot in one end of the string and just hook it in. A great bridge for a first time player as changing strings is really easy. It's shaped to compliment the instrument and its nice to see something a bit different. The saddle is plastic and is shaped and compensated which I think is total overkill on an instrument like this. My biggest gripe however is that the bridge is set in the wrong place. Not just the saddle, the whole thing. It is actually fitted on a slight angle and not quite in line with the neck either. It's a minor misplacing but this kind of thing can lead to tuning issues that are pretty much impossible to fix. Something of a cardinal sin.

Mahalo Flying V ukulele body and bridge


There is no other bling on the instrument body, and the sound hole is unadorned. Looking at the edge of the sound hole though shows you just how thing this laminate wood is - its over 2mm thick and that is pretty awful. Good laminates are half this thickness or less. Why does that matter? Well the top of the instrument needs to vibrate to create tone and project volume. I think you would need to hit this with a hammer to get any character out of it.

Inside the uke shows a very messy build. There is black paint overspray on the interior wood, glue seepage all over the place, and wood shavings stuck to the inside.

Moving on to the neck, the first observation is that the fingerboard fits the body flush. That is to say, unlike many ukes the fingerboard is not raised above the top of the body - it kind of runs directly into the body. Some older ukuleles used this build, usually because they set the frets directly into the neck.  That is not the case here though as there is a fingerboard topped on to the neck, it is just deliberately set flush. For theatrics, some players like this because it allows you to fret strings beyond the neck directly onto the top of the body, although I doubt Mahalo introduced this design for that kind of player!

Mahalo Flying V ukulele string angle
note the string angle and thickness of the top


I cannot tell how the neck is built as it is covered in thick paint, but it has a fairly standard, chunky C shaped profile which is pretty comfortable to hold. There are 14 nickel plated frets, and I know they are plated as it looks like some finish is coming off the lower ones and they are turning a brass colour. In fact one of the frets is showing signs of rust, so who knows how long this was sitting in a damp warehouse!

The fingerboard 'appears' to be rosewood, but I actually suspect it's something more generic as a glance at the (unbound) fingerboard edges shows that it has been stained with a rosewood coloured paint. We have pearloid looking fret markets at the third, fifth and seventh frets, and it is good to see they are repeated on the side of the neck. I don't understand why the fingerboard markers are differing sizes and think they look odd. I also prefer fret markers higher up as I have no issue finding the third and fifth frets, but I suppose this is a beginner uke.

Mahalo Flying V ukulele fingerboard


The nut is cut from plastic, neatly applied yet the slots are far too high (more on that later)

The headstock mimics the headstock on the Gibson Flying V guitar in shape and looks kind of cool. It too is finished in black gloss paint. The Mahalo logo is applied by way of a transfer in a gold colour, but it is totally uninspiring and looks like it uses a very basic font and was applied as an afterthought.

Mahalo Flying V ukulele headstock


The tuners are open geared, finished in gold plating and the mountings are shaped like dolphins (a dig to their rivals Makala perhaps?). The gold finish is tarnished, particularly on the string posts and they look much older than they should be. They are not quite set in line with the headstock, and the large black plastic buttons are FAR too big and look silly. They hold tuning ok though, but do grind and go from slack to firm on turning which is a sign of ultra cheap gears. A drop of chain oil 'may' help here.

Mahalo Flying V ukulele tuners


Completing the package was a set of the most awful nylon strings I have ever encountered (now changed to Aquilas) and an extremely cool gig bag. Not quite sure how they include a bag like this for £30, but its white, leatherette finished with a really rather fabulous plush blue interior. A really nice addition.

So - some nice looks, but sadly let down with the finish and a fundamental error in the build. How does that translate into playing it?

Firstly, it is uncomfortable. To play without a strap, those V fins dig sharply into the arm, and I am not even sure where or how you would attach a strap button. Because of those angled sides the Mahalo is also uncomfortable to play sitting down as the neck of the instrument constantly wants to fall to the floor. If you are a beginner there are far more comfortable ukuleles to hold. It is also quite heavy on account of that overly thick laminate construction.

Setup wise, things are not great. The action at the saddle is not too high, but the nut needs cutting down a bit. Asking a beginner to lower a saddle is not a big job, but lowering nut slots is a more delicate affair. The string height here is too high, and the result of that is when fretting notes at the first and second frets, the tuning goes sharp on account of the string being pulled down too far. Looking at it side on though, whilst the saddle action is ok at the higher frets, that is on account of the build being wrong as the strings approach the neck on far to steep an angle, as the body seems tilted back a little. That is to do with that flush fingerboard fitting to the body. All bad for intonation and accuracy.

But that misplaced bridge really doesn't help things and intonation down the neck goes off fairly badly. The only fix for that is removing the bridge and re applying it, which is really not an option that a beginner is going to consider worth it on a £30 instrument.

The sound is pretty dead and one dimensional. A friend likened it to rubber bands on a margarine tub, and I know what they mean! It has a thin sound with very little sustain or character. And this is with Aquila strings, it was really dreadful with the stock strings. Volume is very low, and even with the power of Aquila strings, even the most vigourous strumming doesn't get a lot of noise out of it. All in all, pretty awful.

For me it is a novelty only, but actually that saddens me. The uke struggles enough at times to rise above the 'toy guitar' moniker, and Mahalo are doing nothing with this to help its cause. Further, I have played many entry level Mahalos that suffer from similar build issues and those ukes are (on account of their price) the ones that many beginners start out with. And that has always been my issue with Mahalo - when a new player starts on one of these I think they are capable of putting them off the instrument for life, or at best, re-enforcing the 'toy guitar' stereotype. For me, I would always suggest beginners spend a little more, but if £30 is indeed your budget I remain of the view that the Makala line is a far better bet.

Mahalo Flying V ukulele gig bag
nice gig bag though!


PROS

The rock shape
Wonderful gig bag

CONS

Everything else.

SCORES

Looks - 7
Fit and Finish - 1
Sound - 2
Value For Money - 6

OVERALL - 4

7 comments:

barefootgypsy said...

Mahalo do themselves no favours with a uke like this....

Anonymous said...

I think this review is spot-on. When shopping around I also tried Mahalo's "Les Paul" lookalike, and though I didn't have time to examine the cosmetic finish in any detail, it suffered from the same too-heavy build and a dead sound (I suspect partly worsened by the cutaway) as the model you've reviewed. These are gimmicky instruments, and they may be fun to look at but there are too many compromises in playability and musicality.

I'd like to see you do proper reviews of some of the other Mahalos, though, rather than just condemning them outright, since the "Flying V" is an obvious outlier, the faults you mentioned are utterly predictable, and most beginners are going to come across the more conventionally shaped Mahalos as they're so ubiquitous. And I'd argue they shouldn't be universally scorned.

I bought an entry-level Mahalo UG30 for my wife to begin on, and it's proven a good buy, really coming alive with the usual upgrade to Aquila strings. I did a little refining work on the nut (I've played guitar for many years, so I can do basic setups), and that's all it's needed. It certainly isn't a toy, despite the price point and minor cosmetic finish issues. A neighbour we play with has the same model and it's done him good service for the past year or so, though he'll be looking to upgrade soon and has the funds go go considerably upmarket if he wants.

I think the problem with any of these lower-end ukes (and indeed most intruments) isn't necessarily that they're all terrible, but that the Friday-afternoon/Monday-morning jobs really are stinkers (they exist among more expensive models as well, of course), so I'd never buy one online unless I was braced for disappointment and the prospect of some woodwork.

I also have to agree that from my eperience the stock strings on the lower-end Mahalos are pretty bad, which will do them no favours unless a reviewer's willing to splash out on an upgrade.

I treated myself to the Mahalo concert U230C (by this time we'd had a uke in the house for a month or so, so I knew I was interested in taking it further), and it's been a winner. It came with Aquilas fitted as stock, which probably went some of the way to selling it to me. The tuners could be of better quality but do the job fine (no surprise that any maker at the lower price range would skimp there), the build quality's otherwise pretty good, it's a looker, intonation's all you'd want, and it projects like crazy. The "satin" finish was a bit odd to me coming from the guitar, but I just waxed it to offer a little protection (didn't want to risk doing anything more permanent like oiling it as I liked the tone as it was) and it's aged and glossed up nicely so far.

Thanks for the reviews and the site anyway. I'll be looking in from time to time.

Barry Maz said...

Thanks! I am conscious that this seems to be down on Mahalo full stop, but as I say in the video (I think!) I have played many Mahalos and not been impressed with any of them. This actually isn't the worst I've had - my very first uke was their entry level one that I bought as a bit of a joke. In a long list of things wrong with it was a fret halfway down the neck that wasn't fitted straight making it a totally useless instrument. It appears in my comparison of ukulele videos on YouTube.

And that quality control thing you mention is really key. A lot of people read this site and use it to make decisions. I have played a LOT of ukes (hundreds) and many Mahalos. Every Mahalo I have picked up has had issues. Some worse than others, some fatal. As such, I find it incredibly difficult to recommend them, even though there may be some good ones, as the risk of getting a bad one is too high.

Anonymous said...

Hi again, Barry. I understand your qualms as the last thing you want is people piling in here complaining about any implied recommendation you may have made. Beginners won't necessarily have experience with other instruments (or think to take someone who has it along with them to the shop), so won't know what to look out for, or may not bother to return a mail order uke if it turns out to be a honker and not fit for purpose.

Well, unless you're truly jinxed (or the music shops you use are), I'd take a look at the concert U230C if you get the chance, just to see if that might make a start at overcoming your run of bad experiences!

Mine, at least, is well put together. To reflect some of the points you made in the vid (I held back on singing its praises earlier out of modesty), it's classily plain in appearance with no superfluous ornament to suck up those precious construction £, the laminate (it's said to be mahogany throughout, neck included) on the body is as thin as I've seen, it's extremely light and resonant, and the internal contruction. as far as I can see without getting hold of a dentist's mirror, is extremely neat, with what seems to me to be painstaking detailing that I'd be happy with on any guitar. It came in around the £50 mark, and is much more than twice the uke our UG30 is (not that I'd malign that as I enjoy playing it, but it is what it is and will do as a "party"/travelling uke even if we upgrade some more).

I've never tried the UG50 you have - yes, I took at the round-up you did. (If Mahalo's numbering system were logical, you'd think the UG50 you found so many bad problems with would be a step up from the UG30, but I guess not! Or maybe times have changed chez Mahalo since you bought it?)

I did try a number of cheaper Mahalos in the shop where I bought it at the time (disregaring some of the mnore outlandishly styled ultra-cheap ones that are obviously aimed at the kids' market), and applied the usual criteria, especially regarding intonation, which I expected to be an issue and which can be a swine to fix if, as you found on the Flying V, the bridge is mis-set, for instance. Even with the stock strings (which we agree are generally duds, other than the U230C, which sported Aquilas), I didn't find one that had serious issues.

Maybe quality control has improved, maybe these came from a particular factory (I don't know if this applies to Mahalo, but with other instruments that are ostensibly identical models, there are distinct differences between some that are contracted out to different factories), or maybe the shop I used (where the staff seem to know a fair bit about ukes) weeds the bad 'uns out, though while chatting, the guy who served me claimed they'd had no problems, and they sell a lot locally.

Anyway, my problem now is that since my appetite's been whetted, and being a somewhat long-in-the-tooth and unrepentant guitarist, I fancy a crack at a low-G uke so I can play some longer scale runs without annoying the local dogs. I guess I could get hold of a cheap Mahalo again, or maybe the Makala Dolphin you speak so favourably about elsewhere, but I suspect the U230C's depth of tone would suit that setup better, and I'm not inclined to either experiment with my current one then have to revert the nut, or splash out on another U230C and adapt it only to find the low G isn't all that after all. What a dilemma! Oh well ....

By the way, if you do make any more videos about this benighted firm, the Hawaiians (and I presume the Chinese!) pronounce the name Ma-HAY-lo, not MA-ha-lo. ;)

Barry Maz said...

You may be right, I don't dispute that, but I can only pitch my advice based on my experience. Even if Mahalo sent me their best example and had it set up by the worlds best luthier, I would question it. Like anything really, your brand will get damaged if you expose the market to rubbish. I have played a LOT of Mahalo ukes and didn't like any of them. Not sure where they came from (My Flying V came from Amazon), but that really shouldn't matter. It shows that their quality control system needs work. And I have seen recent examples too. As such I can only tell it like I see it.

Another point though - for the money there are an increasing number of alternatives on the market which have, in my view, better build quality and finish.

If in the next year I come across several Mahalos that are well made I would be prepared to think differently and say so.

Munkon said...

Hello.
I bought a Mahalo Uke 2 years ago to my kid for his 3rd birthday (as he always wanted my guitar and didn't let me play at all).
I didn't know this instrument until then.
Mahalo was the only Uke in the store and I bought it.
I learned how to play this wonderful instrument and I love it very much!
Yes, it's sound could be better but it has no "fatal-building-errors"..
I took my Uke's pics as you can see here:
http://tinypic.com/a/2uzi9/2
It's not the most beautiful Uke exist but it's decent and does the job.

Barry Maz said...

As I say Munkon, I am not saying every Mahalo is bad, that would be crazy. But I do review as I find. I have also played a LOT of Mahalo ukes and found issues with all of them (some minor, some catastrophic). So as a review site that says to me that their quality control is a lottery. For that reason it is hard for me to recommend them to new players as I fear they may get a bad one. I believe there are safer bets at this price point.

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