One type of ukulele that hasn't featured that much on the Got A Ukulele Reviews section are Baritone scale instruments. In fact there is only one other in the form of a model from Pono. Many thanks to the folks at Mahalo instruments for helping redress the balance by sending me a baritone model to review. The Mahalo U320B series baritone in fact.
This Mahalo is an entry level instrument, a fact given away by the RRP of about £70 complete with gig bag. That makes it one of the cheapest baritone ukes I am aware of. So what are you getting for your money?
The U320B is standard in shape and design. It's a double bout instrument made from laminate woods with a mahogany outer veneer. Fairly standard looking, but that makes it inoffensive and instantly recognisable as a ukulele! Made in China, although I am calling it an 'entry level' it is not the most entry level ukulele in the Mahalo stable, but I am sure you knew that. As Baritones go - this is certainly 'entry level'!
The laminate body appears to have single pieces on top and back (something you can easily do with laminate that is not so possible with solid wood because of the inherent strength) and the mahogany finish is actually quite nice with a fair amount of stripe to it and a deep orange brown colour. It's also not overly thick like so many entry level Chinese laminate instruments. It looks like a wooden instrument and isn't trying to be something else!
The sides are made of two pieces joined at the base and the back is not arched. The edges where the top and back meet the sides are unbound but I quite like that as the contrast of the edge of the laminate in a paler wood kind of looks like binding and gives it a detail that may not otherwise stand out.
The body is finished in a gloss / semi gloss finish. That is to say it is indeed glossy, but not a mirror finish and the pores of the mahogany veneer show (and feel) through the coating. I think it looks and feels a little cheap myself. Kind of like a plastic coat and it doesn't feel very tactile in the hand. I'm not saying the finish is overly thick, it isn't. It's just not to my tastes.
A look inside shows a remarkably tidy build with no pools of glue or wood shavings and notched kerfing where the sides meet the top and back.
The top has no other decoration save for a screen printed gold sound hole rosette that sits under the gloss. Again, this looks a bit cheap to me (but it is only £70!)
The bridge is rosewood and a slotted type for easy string changes. It is also covered in the same gloss which I really don't like. The saddle is plastic and compensated.
For the body then, I am pretty pleased with the quality control and general construction. We have no pooling or flaws and certainly not splits or cracks. I just really don't like the gloss!
Up to the hardwood neck, this is made from three pieces with a joint at the heel and one up the neck towards the headstock. It too is finished in (you guessed it) the same gloss.
Topping the neck is a rosewood fingerboard. It's nice and even in colour, though looking a bit dry. Better than many fingerboards I see though. The edges are unbound meaning you can see the edges of the frets through the edging paint. Position markers are provided facing out at the 5th, a double at the 7th, a single at the 10th, a double at the 12th and singles at the 15th, 17th and 19th spaces. Thankfully the dots are repeated in singles on the side of the neck too. The frets are nickel silver and we have 20 in total with 14 to the body. They are dressed nicely with no sharp edges. Not bad at all.
Past the plastic nut and up to the ubiquitous crown headstock we have a screen printed Mahalo logo and my next big gripe with the instrument - the tuners. They are the dolphin shaped geared tuners that Mahalo use on so many instruments. The buttons are black plastic and far too big for a ukulele but the tuners themselves feel really cheap. Turning them is a bit rough, they have a grind and get stiffer at certain points on the turning circle. Tuning kind of jumps up in places. To be fair, they do hold tuning when you get there but they are not enjoyable to use! If this was my instrument they would be replaced quick smart.
Completing the deal - strings appear to be Aquilas on the B and E strings with wound strings on the D and G. I don't mark instruments up down for strings as I figure most people will experiment anyway. They are however perfectly passable strings. Also for the price comes a really nice padded gig bag branded with the Mahalo logo embroidered into the front pocket. The padding is good and the zips are really strong (complete with Mahalo logos). One of the better padded gig bags I have seen for some time.
So in summary - a £70 baritone at a rather incredible price, especially for one that is built pretty well, even if I don't like the gloss or the tuners. Throw in the gig bag and you are looking at quite a bargain here. So what gives?
Well, to hold it feels nice - not overly heavy and nicely balanced. I don't like the gloss under my fingers but that is just me.
The setup was pretty much spot on and this plays accurately out of the box with no need to meddle with the saddle or nut. OK so far.
Strummed, the sound is rather one dimensional and not actually that loud. Louder than many cheap ukuleles on account of that extra resonance from the big body but not as loud as many other baritones I have played. It plays accurately enough, but it doesn't set me alight. It can get a bit muddled on strums and you can find it hard to pick out individual notes, but that is not surprising for £70 either. What I really don't like is the kind of echoey boxy sound it projects - almost like it is rattling (I checked - nothing is loose!). It's just a fact of £70 laminate construction I guess - the woods are not singing - it strikes me that the strings are doing all the tone work and the sound box is doing all the amplification - that's ⅔ of what a ukulele should do, but it misses the final third in any sort of sweet tone.
Fingerpicked it is much nicer, and you can get some clear tremolo on individual notes, but I still wouldn't call the sound sweet. Still its functions far far better than many other entry level instruments I have reviewed in smaller scales and plays more accurately too. I think that baritones are naturally more forgiving than other cheap ukuleles because of that extra resonance - they kind of automatically sound like a more serious instrument. I suppose you only notice the lack of bell like tone on them when you play them against other higher end versions of the same scale. Unfortunately, I have!
But hey - it's £70 you know? So who is this aimed at? You see - I don't see a lot of beginners going to baritones for a first ukulele. I am not saying that never happens, but it's rarer. This would actually suit them down to the ground and dare I say it would be a better musical instrument than many of the entry level sopranos and concerts. But they don't tend to because of the different tuning and the fact most beginner tabs are in C tuning. So what about more seasoned players? If you are already playing a more serious ukulele (and I am thinking here of something £150 up, perhaps solid wood) and you are toying with a first baritone? If you are used to sweeter tones in other scales I think this may disappoint you and you may do better with a higher end baritone. Certainly something equivalent to a £150 solid top concert ukulele should cost you MORE in baritone scale not less - and this would be much less.. On the other hand, £70 is not a huge investment and I have enjoyed noodling with it on the sofa so perhaps that is the target - someone wanting something cheap to dabble in baritone scale for a while. I wouldn't personally buy one, but that is not what these reviews are about.
So it leaves me a bit confused and feeling a little sorry for it really because it really isn't terrible. In fact as an entry level instrument it's pretty good, I'm just not sure who it's aimed at.
Be sure to read all my other ukulele reviews here
UKULELE PROSGood build quality
Nice gig bag
UKULELE CONSCheap looking and feeling gloss finish EVERYWHERE!
Echoey one dimensional sound
UKULELE SCORESLooks - 7 out of 10
Fit and finish - 6.5 out of 10
Sound - 7.5 out of 10
Value for money - 8.5 out of 10
OVERALL UKULELE SCORE - 7.4 out of 10
UKULELE VIDEO REVIEW
© Barry Maz