I guess it says something about a certain brand when I now own three of them. Not ukuleles loaned to me on test, three I actually bought for myself. So to compliment my Concert and Tenor models, a Baritone scale instrument has joined the fold. The Pono MB-e.
First things first, let's not pre-judge this review, but it is fair to say I am a big fan of Pono instruments. They represent to me the link between the upper end of intermediates from China (these too are made in the far east in Indonesia) and the higher end handmade instruments from Hawaii and elsewhere in the USA. Pono are a far eastern subsidiary of the Hawaiian 'Ko'olau' brand of instruments and are made over there to Pono's standards and with their wood supplies. They haven't failed me and are played on stages by many professional musicians.
This review also represents something of a first for Got A Ukulele - would you believe, it's the first Baritone ukulele I have done a written review of. It's not the first I have played, but certainly the first I have owned and that fact kind of surprised me. I honestly don't know why that is, and I have nothing against the Baritone. One thing is for sure though - in the UK the range of Baritones on offer is pretty limited compared to other ukulele scales. I suspect it may have something to do with people not wanting to learn to transpose chords which seems crazy to me, but there you go. Anyway, I thought about setting that omission straight, and being a fan of Pono, this one seemed like something for a no brainer to me. This model came from Southern Ukulele Store, and was pre-fitted (by them) with a Fishman AG series under saddle passive pickup. In this spec it retails at about £395 including the pickup and a pod case. The base MB model Pono without a pickup can be found for around £340.
So, the naming convention is pretty obvious, the M standing for Mahogany (of which this is made, all solid tone woods) and the B stands for Baritone. Pono also make a glossier version of the MB series called the MBD of which this is identical bar the gloss finish. I like plain, and this is certainly that.
It's a traditional double bout shaped instrument and the first thing that jumps out at you is how very well made and finished it is. It's really nicely put together and both looks and feels 'high end'. A look at all the joints, top and back edges, and inside the body shows a very high quality build all over. There is not a mark on it, either in the base woods or the finish.
The second thing that surprised me was the colour. This is incredibly pale looking wood for mahogany and much lighter than I expected from looking at stock pictures. Sure, mahogany comes in many varieties, but this is really pale. I won't say I don't like it, but I will say it took a little time to grow on me.
The whole body is finished in a satin so thin you would question whether it needs much of a finish at all. It is there, but there is very little of it! Some people who long after mirror finish glosses will be put off by this, but I own several ukes finished this way and actually prefer them though and there is no doubt that a thin finish will give the most honest tone. The downside to that for some will be how prone it will be to finger scratches from strumming, but again - it's never something that troubles me greatly - these things are meant to be played not kept as museum pieces.
So, an extremely plain but very well made instrument so far.
Elsewhere on the top is a rosewood tie bar bridge with what looks like a bone saddle - both of which are very nicely made and well fitted.
The only concession to bling on this one is the rope marquetry inlaid around the sound hole which looks very nice I think.
The sides are made from two pieces, and the grain patterns on both sides are nice and uniform. The back has a very slight arch to it, but nothing much. I suppose getting up to this scale, volume and projection are already being helped by the larger sound box.
Grain wise - hey - it's mahogany. Not a wood renowned for it's flame or curl so this is as you would expect. Very simple, understated and, erm... plain! In fact, so slight is the grain, whilst the top and back are made from two pieces each, you really do struggle to spot the join.
A look inside shows off one of the neatest factory builds I have seen on a ukulele. The kerfing is extremely nicely done and the bracing delicate yet well fitted. No glue drops, no mess, no wood shavings. Aside from the Pono label the Ko'olau Pono name and serial number are also stamped on the neck block right up inside the uke. I like things like that.
Up to the mahogany neck, this is jointed in three at the heel with another joint at the headstock. The heel is also capped with a shim of rosewood which is a small but nice touch.
The neck profile is really nice for my hands. The nut is not overly wide nor narrow, but it has a good amount of 'chunk' to the neck which I find extremely comfortable. One thing that is rather unusual with most ukuleles, but employed here by Pono is the use of a truss rod inside the neck. This is a threaded bolt running inside the neck that can be turned (wisely) to adjust the neck relief. That is to say the curvature of the neck. These are employed on full scale guitars to counteract the effects of string tension, so not something immediately necessary with a ukulele. Still, it does work and this arrived with a nice convex relief on the fingerboard. That allows for a nice playing action without messing around with the saddle too much.
The rosewood fingerboard is uniform in colour and either edge bound or stained (I cannot tell which) but either way the edges of the frets are hidden. As for the frets they are on the jumbo side which I like - no thin wires here. That is not to say they are tall - just wider or thicker than average. There are 20 in all, with 14 to the body and all are edge dressed very well.
We have tiny position markers in mother of pearl inlay at the 5th, 7th, 10th, 12th and 15th spaces and thankfully these are repeated on the side of the neck also. So far so lovely! No doubt someone will take issue with the small dots. The Martin Tenor I reviewed on here has small dots, and I saw some people online say that they would put them off buying it. Really???
Past the bone nut (cut just fine with perfect action up at this end) we have a fairly dull (simple!) shaped but nicely finished headstock faced in rosewood and with a pearloid inlaid Pono logo.
The tuners are a joy - they look identical to the Grover open gears in chrome on my Kanile'a K1 Tenor, but are stamped with the Pono name. Either way, they look great and work great.
Finishing the standard part of the package is my only gripe with the instrument - the strings! I don't actually mark down my review scores for strings as they can be changed, but I am not a fan of these. It comes strung with Ko'olau brand strings with two wound strings on the D and G. This is set up in low D tuning which is just fine by me, but I am not a fan of wound strings. Don't get me wrong - Ko'olau strings are really highly regarded by professionals, but I am not a huge fan myself. When these have been played to death I am certain I will be swapping them out for a full set of fluorocarbons. On the upside - those people who get ridiculously excited by the colour of their strings will probably love the fact that the B and E strings are a golden yellow colour.
Finally, as I mentioned above, in this spec it comes with a Stagg pod case from SUS and they fitted a Fishman AG passive pickup. You may recall I fitted one of those to my Kanile'a Tenor and they really are a sweet little thing. Yes, you will need a pre-amp for them ideally, but... well.... Fishman quality - it sounds wonderul!. Output is via a jack socket at the butt with an integral strap button.
So all great so far, and really nicely put together. In the hands it feels good. A mix of that solid construction, nice satin feel and not being too heavy combine for a pleasurable experience. The setup was pretty much spot on. I may drop the saddle only a touch when I do change the strings, but there really is nothing wrong with it as it arrived. As such, accuracy all over the neck is pretty much bang on.
Sound wise, well, this is a Baritone, so it is always going to have a more resonant sound to smaller scales, but oh boy - the sustain and volume is just smashing! This thing rings and rings, and makes fingerpicked tremoloes on individual strings a joy to play as you can develop a real shimmer with them.
Naturally it's in a deeper tuning than other traditional scales, but it still has a bell like chime to it with the individual notes standing firmly in the mix when strummed. For me though, it shines best when fingerpicked and it has a kind of 'unputdownable' quality which I am finding addictive!
I recognise that many will find it too plain, but that is up to you really. Perhaps I do have to agree that it is very much on the plain side though! Still, extremely well put together, keenly priced and sounds wonderful so the important boxes are ticked!
Not sure what it is with Pono but they are a brand that some people like to try to find fault with on ukulele forums. I have never understood why, and think it must be down to a case of 'it can't be that good can it'? creeping in. Well, I think they can. And it is!
Be sure to check out my other ukulele reviews here!
Extremely plain looks
Looks - 8.5
Fit and Finish - 9
Sound - 9.5
Value For Money - 9
OVERALL - 9 out of 10
To understand my review scoring and see this result in context - visit my review page at
© Barry Maz