I am often accused of only reviewing 'expensive' ukuleles. I clearly don't (just go to the Reviews section and see...) so here we go with another one at the low price end. Say hello to the Vintage VUK20N Soprano.
I actually owned one of these years ago when I started the blog and it featured in my video comparing the sound of lots of instruments. It was pretty dreadful to be honest. Sadly, that was before I started writing up regular instrument reviews, and I had since given it away (along with a bunch of other ukuleles) to a charity. More recently though I have been keeping an eye on ukuleles on Amazon and picking out those that have unusually and consistently high user review scores. In fact this model regularly hits the billing as "number 1 best seller" on Amazon UK. So this one certainly fits the bill on that score, yet could I have been wrong about it all those years ago? Let's take a look.
The Vintage VUK20 is billed on Amazon as the 'Vintage Ukulele Outfit' (meaning it comes with a gig bag, a plectrum and a pitch pipe) although it is available in very similar forms called the VUK15 also. To my eyes, they all look very similar and are the same price too.. I was actually intrigued by the Vintage brand as I actually owned a guitar of theirs which was pretty damn good. In fact, their guitars have built a fairly solid reputation as good value and quality in both the acoustic and electric markets. Clearly they chose to dip a toe into the ukulele world. But did they take that decision seriously?
First up, let's take a look at some of the product wording from Amazon for this one. It is billed as being made of mahogany. Err, no, no it isn't. It's made of laminate plywood with a mahogany coloured outer that is spray painted. In fact it doesn't even look like wood as there very little grain showing at all. Pedants may suggest the plywood is made of mahogany pieces, but for me that does not make it a mahogany ukulele. The product descriptions also says it is 'wonderfully finished' and being 'for beginners wanting to spend that little bit more for superior quality'. We shall see. I'm not entirely what this is 'spending more' than, considering it costs just over £20 but there you go. Are people actually spending less than £20??
To be fair, the Vintage website is not quite so gushing, but describes the body as Sapeli Ply. It is certainly ply, but that is far as it goes... But that product description on Amazon must have come from somewhere, and considering it wasn't a third party seller, I'd wager it came from Vintage... For those interested, Sapele (note the correct spelling) is a cheap african wood reminiscent of mahogany and often mistakenly called 'African Mahogany'. So isn't actually mahogany in the first place, but not even laminate with a mahogany outer. It's Sapele... plywood. I would also note that on the UK Amazon store this has a massively high user rating and very few negative comments. Sounds too good to be true?
So as I say, a laminate body ukulele in a kind of spray painted satin gloss finish in a rather dreadful shade of brown. Mahogany does NOT look like this in any way and for that matter, neither does Sapele.. It's in a soprano scale and standard in shape with a double bout. It's made in China (where else?) and can be bought for about £23 in the UK. At first glance it actually doesn't look too bad on the construction front. Cheap certainly and rather bland to look at, but all seems to be in one piece.
It comes boxed with a suitably Hawaiian look to the packaging and arrived with me with one of the worst setups I have ever seen on an instrument. More on that later, but trust me, if you are a beginner, you will not be able to realistically play this from the get go if it arrives like this one did.
The laminate is extremely, in fact MASSIVELY thick and it feels overly heavy for what it is. As I say, generally speaking the body finish is ok, but there are a few scuffs and scratches in the finish here and there which isn't right for a brand new instrument of any price. The issue appears to be a mix of that soft plywood construction coupled with a thin finish with no resilience to everyday knocks. There is no body binding or decoration save for a simple white screen printed double circle around the sound hole. As simple as that decoration is, it is also applied slightly off centre. Annoying. The top and back are made from single pieces of laminate and the back has no curve to it. A pretty basic standard cheap soprano then.
The bridge is a slotted type made from what Amazon claim to be rosewood. At first I thought it may well be, although looking closer, the strings are starting to split and gouge the wood. That would be very unlikely with a good rosewood leading me to think it is either not rosewood at all, or a very cheap piece of it. It is finished ok though I suppose, very simple and held in place by screws covered by a couple of pearloid cover plates. But the impact those strings are having on the slots worries me. On cheaper ukuleles those slots can split to be too wide for the knots rendering them useless and pretty much unfixable. I suspect that is what is going to happen to this one.
The saddle is plastic, straight and uncompensated. One of those cheap saddles that you know has not been shaped in any way whatsoever as you can still see the ridge from the plastic moulding machine running along the top.
A look inside shows it to be very plain. It is neat enough I suppose, but at the end of the day it's a laminate box. The edge kerfing is flat and on one side seems to be splitting with a chunk of wood kind of peeling away from the inside. What surprised me is that there appears to be no bracing at all. I know laminate is stronger than solid wood, but you usually see at least 'some' bracing to give some strength to the thin laminate pieces. But hey, when your laminate is this thick - Vintage clearly don't think you need it.. It genuinely is just a hefty plywood box then. I suspect the strength on the top under the bridge area is achieved by some extra sheets of plywood in that area. Exactly where you want resonance and vibration... Not good.
The neck is a fairly generic Chinese factory soprano profile and width. It's coated in the same finish as the body so it's hard to see how it is constructed in full, but I think it is made from three pieces with a joint at the heel and one at the headstock.Vintage claim it is made from Linden wood. Lime or 'basswood' in other words. You know, just because a brand uses the species name of a tree, doesn't mean it's any good for a musical instrument. And basswood is super cheap.
The fingerboard is made of......hang on, what on earth is that made of?? Amazon claim it's rosewood but it certainly isn't. I think it's a cheap slab of mahogany, possibly laminate that looks cheap, rough and unfinished. It's got an orangey colour and has an open grain that I don't like on a fingerboard. It looks like a piece of wood taken out of my garden fence. Looking at it more closely and there are quite a few indentations and gouges in the wood in various fret spaces. Taking a fingernail to the wood and pressing it leaves a mark. You see, there is a reason why denser and harder woods are used for fingerboards and Vintage seem to have ignored that completely. In short I think after a night of playing this, the fingerboard is only going to look worse. The softness, open grain and light colour also are likely to make it a magnet for oils and dirt from fingers and I suspect this will look dirty quite quickly. Quite honestly - horrible.
Set into the fingerboard are brass frets with a fairly standard 12 to the body. The edges are finished ok but the frets themselves look like they have seen better days (bearing in mind this is a new instrument). Most of them are caked in a fairly gunky looking rusty corrosion which is not really to my tastes at all. And surely I am not being fussy there? This is a BRAND NEW INSTRUMENT! "Would you like your ukulele frets corroded or non corroded sir?"
Position markers are provided at the 5th, 7th and 10th spaces in the way of inlaid pearly plastic dots. There are no side markers and the edges of the fingerboard are unbound.
Past the moulded plastic nut (in which we have something I would not describe as 'slots' more 'slight depressions' for the strings) we have a generic crown shaped headstock finished in the same brown as the rest of the instrument. Screen printed on is the Vintage logo in gold (and screen printed quite roughly at that with a fuzzy edge to the print like the transfer came from a bad photocopier).
Tuning is provided by open geared chrome tuners that are of the ultra cheap variety and move in the brackets when you turn them. The buttons are cream coloured plastic and way, way to large for an instrument of this size (unless you like your sopranos to look like it has ears like Prince Charles). They are each held in place by two small screws, but Vintage clearly thought that was overkill, so on one of the tuners, a screw has been missed. This means the whole tuner shifts on the mounting not just the peg. I'm sure it is probably in the packaging somewhere and probably didn't leave the factory like this but the inside of the screw hole looks sheared. No wonder it came out.. A fiddly thing to fix that will involve plugging the screw hole and resetting.. if you can be bothered.
Completing the deal is a black 'gig bag' (of which I have seen bin liners that are thicker), a pletctrum, a pitch pipe and a set of black nylon strings that you REALLY want to swap out (unless you like the feel of strumming rubber bands).
So.. dare I go on? How does it 'play' (I use that word with caution)? Well in the simplest sense it feels like a soprano ukulele I guess. It's overly heavy for what it is, and certainly over built. The feel of the body is not the nicest in the world and the fretboard, as well as being marked and scratched as I say above, actually feels rough under the fingers. The corroded frets are also noticeable against the fingertips. Some people talk about the smell from the sound hole in instruments in their reviews. I never have, but I did not need to get my nose anywhere near the sound hole to know what it smells like. A kind of synthetic, glue /chemical odour. Not enjoyable.
Action at the saddle is unacceptably high although that can be easily adjusted I suppose if you know what you are doing. Action at the nut though is one of the highest I have ever seen which means the notes throw sharp when fretted at the lower spaces on account of the string stretching required to make the strings engage with the frets. That isn't quite so straightforward for a beginner to fix. We are talking MASSIVELY high here. Bearing in mind this is aimed at beginners, and beginners spend most of their time playing chord shapes in the first positions (i.e. near the nut) - well you can see that this sort of setup doesn't make for a good experience. Sure enough, even simple first position chords sound out of tune when the ukulele is actually in tune played open. Classic high nut issue.
Taking a ruler to the neck I noted that the bridge is slightly out of place as well. Not by much, but enough to affect intonation and one of those things I put down to being more in the 'fatal' category of flaws in that it's much much harder to fix. So when it comes to the things that affect action the most - nut height, saddle height and bridge position, all three are flawed. One is easily fixed, one is a more difficult fix and one.... well, honestly, it just wouldn't be worth the bother..
There is something odd going on with the string spacing at the saddle as well. The C and E strings are further apart from each other than they are from the G and A strings. I don't think that is fatal, just odd and badly made. It's more normal at the nut end, so I think the slots in the bridge are cut incorrectly.
Sound wise, the instrument is suitably boxy and one dimensional on account of that excess of thick laminate. It's got poor volume / projection and very little sustain. You can really tell it is not projecting well both with your ears (it is quiet) but in feedback through the body. Lively sopranos vibrate into your chest when you play them. This one feels dead. Hey, I know this is a cheap ukulele, but read my other reviews. You can get sopranos at this sort of price that sound MUCH better. It can be done.
And sure, those strings are truly awful and you WOULD want to change them, but you are not going to get much more life out of this thing regardless of what you string it with. In reviews of other instruments I have been less than impressed with, I quite often receive comments along the lines of 'but if you re-strung it, it would sing!'. Please don't assume that this ukulele is a killer instrument let down by the strings alone. It really just sums up what some people call a 'ukulele shaped object'. Sure you could also call it a 'wall hanger' (i.e. a ukulele for decoration only), but really - with this putrid shade of brown - I'd at least go for something prettier! You could spray paint it I suppose...
This one is heavy, over built, badly built and terribly set up.
Just a final point on ukuleles that get my bad reviews like this one. I know full well that some of the elements I have mentioned on this can relatively easily be fixed. Yes, the strings are bad, but they can be changed. Yes, the action is high but it can be lowered. Heck - you could even swap out the tuners, and some wire wool may work wonders with the frets. I accept all of that but bear in mind the sort of person who is likely to buy one of these. A beginner? A parent buying one for a child? Why should they go through the trouble of having to deal with these things, potentially at further cost in order to make the thing sound even slightly decent. Ukuleles in this state should never reach the customer (and probably wouldn't if you bought one from a good dealer) In fact ukuleles like this should never leave the factory in my view.. So why are these not in the hands of the places I consider to be 'good dealers'? Well probably because far too many of them arrive from China in this sort of state that they are just not worth the hassle!
And those, of course, are just the things that can be adjusted. The thick laminate woods, the boxy sound, the mis placed bridge, the terrible tone - those cannot be fixed very easily.
They are the preserve of Amazon and eBay stores, usually accompanied by 'user reviews' by people who have only ever played this one instrument and think they are 'great'. This Vintage is NOT great and I don't care how many five star reviews you will find. It's just a perfect example of everything I don't like about most instruments at this price point. For the record Amazon, I also don't see anything in it that is 'wonderfully finished' or of 'superior quality' as you state.
Yes - of course you could just 'send it back', but my advice would be to not put yourself through the waste of time in the first place.
And finally, reviews such as this also tend to cause some people to claim the 'snob' card and suggest that I only like expensive instruments. Regular readers of Got A Ukulele will know that is not the case. I just don't like 'cheap' being used as an excuse to make something that is awful and doesn't fulfil the basic requirements of a musical instrument. More importantly, it need not be this way. I understand that for many people money is extremely tight and this may be as much as they can justify on a ukulele. There are good options though. Take my advice - if this is your maximum budget level, get a Makala Dolphin, Makala Shark or an Octopus brand... The Stagg is not a ukulele you should trouble yourself with.
Be sure to check out my full range of ukulele reviews on this page!
UKULELE PROSNot really any I can think of - I suppose it is 'ukulele shaped', and cool if you like the colour 'dysentry beige'
UKULELE CONSScuffed body finish and misleading product description
Horrible soft fingerboard
Cheap tuners that are not screwed on properly
Bridge misplaced, and slots mis cut
Woeful setup out of the box at both bridge and nut
Pointless gig bag
Depressing spray painted colour
UKULELE SCORESLooks - 3.5 out of 10
Fit and finish - 3 out of 10
Sound - 3.5 out of 10
Value for money - 5 out of 10
OVERALL UKULELE SCORE - 3.8 out of 10
UKULELE VIDEO REVIEW
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© Barry Maz