It surprises me a little that with a name so very well known in ukulele history, I've only reviewed one ukulele from C. F. Martin before on this site. Time to change that with a look at their S1 Soprano ukulele.
The first Martin I reviewed received a high score from me, in the form of the T1K Tenor ukulele. Like the S1 we are looking at today, that was a 'modern' Martin, made in their Mexico factory and not in Pennsylvania, USA. I mention that at the outset as I should probably repeat what I said in that tenor review. You see Martin guitars have an incredibly rich heritage in making ukuleles, with their vintage instruments fetching some incredible prices for such small and very old things. The community of officionados of vintage Martin ukuleles is also an extremely strong one, and it would be fair to say that some in that community tend to prefer their vintages and don't tend to get too excited or even interested in the new lines. If fact, some people plain HATE them. I totally understand that, but you should bear in mind that this is a review site 'mainly' for people looking to buy new instruments from the usual channels. Sure, I 'could' review a vintage Martin (and heck, I know enough people who have them to arrange such a review if I wanted to), but that would simply be a review of that one particular vintage example. It's not like readers could then easily go out and buy the exact same one, of the same age, with the same patina, wood aging and history. So a review of a vintage would be next to pointless for the purposes of what this site tries to do. Trust me, I've played a few of the old ones and they can be staggeringly, seriously good, but for this site, it makes more sense to look at the current retail line-up that people can actually go out and buy. Yes, you may be right, your vintage may sound better, but that doesn't stop the new ones being instruments capable of being reviewed in their own right. So, with that over with, let's take a look!
The S1 Soprano from Martin has actually been about for a few years and in fact surfaced about the same time as that T1K tenor. It isn't the first 'new' ukulele from Martin though, as before this one came their S0 Soprano. By common consensus people were not totally enamoured with those to be honest and they felt like a bit of a rush job for Martin getting back into ukuleles. The S0 was their first in a while and basically they missed a few marks in the construction... Yet this S1 is still one of the cheapest Martin ukuleles on the market, and aims to improve on the S0 in many areas, and it's actually been doing quite well. And I say 'one of the cheapest' because below this one in price is the range of OX Martin models which are made from HPL (high pressure laminate) including those very weird bamboo veneer ones that hit the market recently. I would therefore be more correct to say is that, at the date of writing, this IS the cheapest solid wood new Martin soprano on the market.
The instrument is styled on the original Martins of old and has a totally traditional look to it. It's a very 'old-time' double bout shape with a nice curved base and generous upper bout proportions. Not quite a full figure of eight, but it's getting there. I like that a lot. Body wise this is made from all solid mahogany and finished in satin. To my eyes the mahogany is gorgeously rich and reddish brown. It's not particularly stripy or even all that interesting to look at but the deep coloured wood, coupled with the satin finish gives it a very traditional look that I like. The grain that there is isn't straight up and down the body, rather a little more swirly, but looking at photos of others, they can be variable like that. Nothing is lined up here or bookmatched. Rememeber, Martin will be saving the select woods for their higher end models that cost considerably more than this one (and I mean considerably...). Incidentally that satin coat is hand rubbed and I immediately was struck with a vintage vibe when I opened the case. All of that said, it is a very simple and plain look. I like ukuleles like that, but undertand that if you covered the Martin logo, people may assume it was a generic Chinese ukulele. Possibly, but that is just a first glance thing. There's quite a bit more to this one. As you can probably tell, I'm not falling over myself about the looks on this one. It's far from ugly, but equally it doesn't make you go wow when you open the case either. Functional and traditional I guess.
The top and back of the instrument are single pieces of wood and the sides are in two pieces - nothing remarkable with that for a soprano. The back incidentally is very slightly arched too. Other than a black and white (and very simple) sound hole rosette, there is no other body decoration, and no edge binding. Plain, plain, plain. I tried to work out if the rosette is a trasfer or an inlay, but I couldn't get a definitive answer. My money is on transfer, which, if true, is slightly disappointing for the money these cost. That said, I think the original simple black rosettes on early vintage Martins were decals too.. It's interesting really - for a ukulele that is clearly a higher price than many would want to spend, one should remember that Martin guitars and ukuleles actually used to be the instruments of the people at one time. Of course that was back in the days when there wasn't much else about and things like the internet and mail order didn't exist of course! What I would say though is that I find the rosette to look a little stark against the mahogany, and would probably look better if it was just a black ring without the bright white.
Bridge wise we have a typical plain Martin slotted bridge made of rosewood, and in to this is set a TUSQ compensated saddle. I suppose it's nice to see saddle compensation on a soprano scale instrument or smaller as intonation is even more critical on short strings I find. In fact I never quite see the point of fancy compensated saddles on tenor instruments quite so much. This is just another little detail that I suppose goes towards the price and Martin 'quality'.
Looking inside and we see one of the tidiest ukulele builds I have ever seen, hands down. Really.. EVER. The kerfing linings are notched and angled into the top and back joints, the braces are delicate and there is absolutely no mess at all. We have a makers label with a hand numbered serial code. In fact as well as this ukulele having a tidy build it really is a very precise and decent build on the outside too. There are no gaps in the body joints dressed with filler, and it all looks incredibly well put together. And yes, I did sniff it... It has 'that' soundhole smell that seems to be another Martin trademark - a mix of woodshavings and tru-oil. Yum.
Fitted into the body by way of a dovetail joint (another Martin trademark making for a more secure connection at this point - necks are normally / glued / bolted) is a single piece mahogany neck, once again finished in hand rubbed satin. I absolutely adore both the look and feel of this neck. It's a traditionally shallow profile, but the look of the wood is just fantastic. It's a very deep brown, almost moving to black in places that makes it look old and well played. It's not the finish doing that, it's the wood itself. It's satin coated, but as it's so thin, you really feel the wood. In fact I'll stick my neck out and say it's one of the nicest feeling ukulele necks i've come across for quite some time. I just think it would be nice if the body, and in particular the top, followed that look a bit more.
Topping this is a rosewood fingerboard that is deep and dark with no unwanted stripe. I believe they previously may have used morado for the fingerboards on the S0, but this is definitely rosewood. We have a generous 17 nickel silver frets with 12 to the body and they are really delicate. This is another change from the S0, as that came with 12 frets in total. Whilst I normally prefer fatter frets, I admit that thin frets look better on something as delicate as a soprano. They look and work great here. The edges of the fingerboard are unbound so you do see the fret edges, but they are dressed reasonably well. I say 'reasonably', as whilst there are no sharp fret edges but I can feel the edges from frets 13 to 17. I can't see why I would feel them in practice here as they are over the body and not in a place that you will be gripping around the neck, but I thought I would mention it. They are certainly set close to the unbound fingerboard edge, so I guess something as common as a slight humidity change could have called what guitar techs refer to as 'fret sprout'. That's not a great observation to be honest for an instrument of this price.
You may recall in my review of the T1K tenor that I didn't care much for the really tiny outward facing position markers made from small cream plastic dots. We have the same markers on this soprano, but actually, I totally see how they suit the smaller ukulele scale. In fact, when they are small like this on a soprano, you see how bigger dots can stand out too much. The outward facing dots are in the 5th, 7th and 10th spaces with the 7th space being a double dot. We also have position markers on the side and interestingly we have more side markers than we do outward facing markers. I've never seen that before, but I welcome it. It's the side markers that I will actually use! Side markers feature at the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 10th, 12th and 15th. In terms of width the nut is on the wider side for a soprano at about 36mm, putting it on par with something like a Flea. This is a good thing for playability, particularly for those people who believe the myth that if you have big hands you can't play a soprano. Even 1mm more at the nut is really noticeable on space for the fingers. This is where space matters more!
Beyond the Tusq nut we have a traditional Martin crown headstock. I normally have a small dig at other makers that use a Martin three pointed crown headstock style as I think it's just lazy copying and would rather see some imagination in headstock design. So much so I did a ukulele rant on this very subject! But hey, this one IS a Martin, so you'd expect to see it here. (Side note - yes, I know, Martin probably orignally copied original Hawaiian ukulele crown headstocks themselves, but regardless - this style has become the 'de facto' Martin headstock for ukes).. So they get a pass. Unlike most of the copy headstocks though, the crown is really exaggerated with the headstock getting wider toward the top. I think it looks wonderful myself. Sadly, like the tenor, we have the same 'Christmas greeting card sticker' style Martin logo applied on this. I really don't like these and think they look cheap as can be, but know that they come on so many Martins these days - guitars included. Logo aside, one other thing I like about the headstock on this one is how those darker parts of the wood I mentioned in the neck show through. The headstock is not faced with a veneer, so that is the actual neck wood, but on this one it creates a darker path directly between the tuners. I think it looks wonderful.
Moving on to the tuners, and we have Grover friction pegs. I think they are 2's or 4's which are perfectly acceptable and better than most you will get as stock. I'd rather a slightly better peg myself for smoother turning though. Don't get me wrong - these are not bad friction pegs, far from it, but you can get better and I'd like to have seen that on a more expensive ukulele. Once again though, looking backwards to the vintage models, many of those used the most basic friction pegs around, so perhaps nothing has really changed! They work well, but you need to be a little more precise with the tension you set them at. Once set right they are just fine. That said i'm actually going to swap these ones out.
Completeing the deal are Martin clear fluorocarbon strings (what else) and a padded embroidered Martin gig bag in an attractive pale blue. I find the gig bag a slightly odd addition in the way that I did for the tenor. This is not a cheap ukulele and being all thin solid wood it will need some protection from knocks if it's going to survive. I can't see many buyers really using this bag for long and will more likely opt for a full hard case (I know I did!). It's nice for what it is, but suspect I will only use it to carry around a cheaper soprano when I don't want a rigid case in tow. I suppose there is no harm including it, but if they are creating a ukulele to a fixed budget, I'd rather they ditch the bag and upgrade something else - like the tuners, or the headstock logo. That should be possible without affecting the retail price.
And as for that price, this always seems to be the thing that people get so vocal about when it comes to Martin ukuleles of any variety. I picked this one up for about £400 in the UK and shopping around you will either find it at a little under that price or up to about £425. I will come on to my views on the price a little later on though. It's fair to say though, this is not an entry level price for a soprano, but equally it's not the highest you will find either.
As I say, the build quality is exemplary thoughout. It feels incredibly solid, yet is still incredibly light. That satin finish feels wonderful in the hands and it has a certain something about it that makes you know it's not a cheap Chinese model and makes it feel older than it actuall is. It's also really nicely balanced in the hands and 'feels' like a soprano (duh!). Setup wise this was absolutely perfect at the nut, in fact one of the best nut setups I have ever seen on a review model. At first glance I was sure the saddle could go down a little for personal preference, but I think it was actually an optical illusion. Out with the string gauge ruler and it's a hair above 2mm at the 12th fret. It staggers me that a ukulele can arrive like this, (and not from a store that does setups) and still be bang on. It's also not a fluke - this is Martin quality control.
So, a comfortable, light, attractive ukulele, and one that is incredibly resonant too. You can tell that just by rapping on the top a little or even shouting into the sound hole (yes, I did do that..). You get the feeling that this one will be lively.
For me a soprano needs to do a few things over and above just playing in tune. They should be bright, snappy, punchy and almost have a bark to them. You see traditionally, the soprano is more of a rhythmical instrument and they need a punch to carry that off. For me personally if you want a noodling melodic mellow instrument, go for a tenor. A soprano should be in your face like a slap!
So volume wise? Check! In spades.... I mean, seriously, this can bark. It's a powerful little thing and one of the most powerful sopranos I have played for quite some time. With a strong strum you will almost wake the dead (or scare the dog). It really does project that well. But as is usual with Martin there is much more to the tone. As well as delivering on that snappy, punchy sound that I want with a soprano, it also has bags of sustain if you want it and a really complex, characterful tone. Some would say it's a signature of Martins, a kind of 'jangly' sound that comes across like you are strumming more than 4 strings. And this certainly has it. Even a simple down strum with one nail projects a rich jangle that is really rather lovely. I've just not ever found that with cheaper Chinese sopranos.
Strummed this just leaves me with a smile on my face too. And despite that volume and jangly sound, every string is still absolutely clear in the mix. Nothing is lost here, nothing is confused and it's certainly not muddy. Lots of dynamic range but lots of harmonies, is what I am hearing. It's outstanding.
Fingerpicking was slightly less satisfying I guess, which is a shame as it's what I am mainly playing at the moment. Saying that, I am talking about pure melody lines here, which can sound a little too thin for my tastes on this one. Maybe it's because it's a very bright strident instrument, maybe it's the strings, maybe it's just because it's a soprano. Played clawhammer with some 'dum / ching' pick and strum it's an absolute hoot to play though. And as I said - it's VERY lively. You can get a great tone from this picking with minimal finger effort. With many cheaper ukuleles, when you pick them lightly they can sound very one dimensional and require some digging in to get a real tone from them. This seems to be lively with very little work. Of course, you can dig in on this too (and then wake the dog once more), but what I mean is, even light plucking with the fleshy part of the fingers produces really nice tones and volume.
And as for that brightness. Well, I admit I was concerned about the Martin strings as I always find them too bright for my personal tastes. This is certainly bright and still a bit more bright than I would like, but there is some warmth in there too, presumably on account of the warm mahogany tone. I may well experiment with something a bit warmer still, like Fremont Blacklines (the string choice of Kiwaya), but this is not a huge critisism. It is thinner on tone though against comparably priced traditional sopranos I can think of.
All in all though, I think it's a great instrument. There are one or two things I would change, but they are realtively minor ones I suppose. And as I said earlier, many will raise and eyebrow at the price point. I have been thinking about this though and keep coming back to the same view. It simply isn't all that expensive in the bigger scheme of things. Sure, it's expensive if you compare it to a Chinese entry level instrument, but it's not a Chinese entry level instrument so the comparison is a bit flawed. Equally though, to be fair to such a comparison, it's also cheap compared to a K Brand from Hawaii or something exotic from aNueNue or similar. I therefore genuinely think it's kind of mid priced for a very good soprano. Perhaps at the top end of 'mid-priced', but mid-priced all the same. And yes, whilst you may be able to get a similar spec (as in woods) for less money from China, I really don't think you will get this level of build quality and certainly won't get this quality of tone with a generic brand far eastern model. Or at least, I've not yet heard it. Better than the vintage Martins? As I say, that's not really the point of this review. Probably not, but it's not (yet) a vintage Martin. At the end of the day, whilst you can get a great solid wood cheap soprano from the likes of Ohana for a fraction of the price, that doesn't make all other more expensive ukuleles invalid. If that was the case, they wouldn't exist.
I do genuinely like the sound of this one, but recognise that all is not quite perfect. And that's the reason why the score doesn't quite tip into the heady heights of the 9 out of 10's on this website. It's very VERY close though.
Are you paying for the Martin name? Possibly, a little, but is that really so bad if it gets you something well made with a decent tone? As I say, I don't actually think it's over priced at all myself. I know that budget is a huge part of everybody's decision making process, but I do think it can be unhelpful when it comes to the 'which is better' debates. And at the end of the day, if you want to spend this sort of money, that's your choice, nobody elses. And if you do choose this one I think you can be assured that it is is a very decent ukulele.
For that reason, despite one or two gripes, it still comes with a 'highly recommended' from Got A Ukulele.
Great old time looks, if a little plain in the body
Superb build quality
Amazing bark and projection
Wonderful jangly 'Martin' sound
Cheaper tuners than I would like
Bag is an unnecessary addition
Horrid headstock logo
Rosette looks a bit cheap too
Some may find the tone a little too bright or thin
Looks - 8.5 out of 10
Fit and finish - 9 out of 10
Sound - 9.5 out of 10
Value for money - 8.5 out of 10
OVERALL UKULELE SCORE - 8.9 out of 10
UKULELE VIDEO REVIEW
© Barry Maz