People who read this blog regularly will know I have a common rant about the flood of cheap musical instruments on the market. It seems to be an endless tide, perpetuated by low prices on the likes of Amazon. People also (wrongly) claim I only review high end instruments, so I got hold of this model recently, from Amazon - the Stagg US10 Soprano. Their number one best selling ukulele! All yours for a shade over £20.
Now, to correct those who think I have a downer on every cheap instrument. I don't. I regularly recommend models that do it well, like the Octopus Soprano as an example. What I DO have a downer on is the regularly falling standards of quality control at this low end price. People will regularly respond to my warnings by saying things like 'But I have a Mahalo and its just fine'. I am sure they do, and I am pleased. I am not saying every single example is badly made, but what I AM saying is the chances of getting a badly made one are far higher these days than I think is acceptable. I could rant again that I see no sense in paying less than the cost of a basic lesson for a musical instrument, but people will still do it - lured by the likes of Amazon and their low prices. My advice is just that there ARE better alternatives and places to buy that will narrow those chances of getting a dud if you go carefully.
So using my own hard earned cash, I paid the 'big A' my cash and this Stagg model arrived. It's the bottom end of their range, and as I say, the best selling uke on the UK Amazon site. Make of that what you will.
It's billed by them as a 'wonderful introduction to the instrument'. Read on for my views.
The US10 is built in traditional soprano uke scale and shape, with a double bout and normal looking neck. It's built from nato laminate wood throughout the body, and boy, is that thick laminate. First warning Stagg. Don't try and dress it up with the use of phrases like 'Nato Wood' - this is cheap plywood, pure and simple. It's also extremely thick and hastily thrown together. A look inside shows wood shavings, glue drops, what look like animal droppings and just a very low end feel to it.
The body is finished in their 'natural' colour (meaning thick spray paint hiding any hints of underlying wood grain) but other colours are available (strangely, with some at a price premium). On the whole the body covering is nicely applied and the whole thing has a satisfying satin finish that is nice on the hands. There are no scratches or bubbles, but honestly, I can't claim a ukulele is 'good' because it is not scratched can I?
Decoration is limited to a gold sound hole rosette transfer, but at least it is applied straight.
The bridge is dark stained wood and is a slotted design, meaning for far easier beginner string changes without bows and clever knots. The saddle is plastic, and is both uncompensated and a little high. I won't gripe too much about a high bridge as it is easily fixed by a beginner. Looking more closely though, it does look to my eyes like the bridge is screwed on ever so slightly in the wrong place. More on that later, but accurate bridge placement is fundamental to accurate tuning.
So body wise it is, on the whole, pretty uninsiring, but I have seen worse. The label also proudly displays the words 'handmade ukulele' on it. I could perhaps forgive Stagg for being tongue in cheek with that, but I think not. This is not what I would class as a handmade instrument and I find the use of the term to be an insult to my intelligence. What it is, is a uke made in a Chinese factory by people being paid arguably too little. Don't try and dress it up Stagg!
On to the neck and we have a common or garden soprano neck, 12 nickel silver frets stopping at the body and a fairly standard profile and width. These sort of necks are all made in the same factories so no surprise there, but I would like to see them start making the nuts a bit wider for my tastes.
The frets are applied neatly with no rough edges which is good to see, but sadly the lack of finish flaws on the body don't apply to the neck. The finish is uneven all over the back and whilst the edges of the fingerboard are unbound (meaning you will see the fret edges) the uneven finish is really given away here. Some areas didn't even get covered at all.
The fingerboard may look like your normal dark wood or even rosewood, but on inspection it is just painted black. Ugh.. You know, whilst this makes no difference to the sound, as I say, you CAN do better. The Octopus is the same price and has a genuine and rather nicely finished genuine rosewood fingerboard.
We have plastic inlayed fret markers at the 5th, 7th and 10th and these are repeated on the side which is good to see.
Up to the nut and this is made from a moulded plastic - in other words it has not been cut by hand, but rather the slots were in the mould. It is also too high which is a major gripe. Whilst a bridge can easily be tinkered with and high nut is a bigger job, involving nut files and very easy to go too far (rendering the uke a buzzing, unplayable mess). Bad job Stagg / Amazon. Perhaps this would have been picked up through buying from a reputable dealer who could give it a once over. (You see - there I go with my rant again). Seriously though - this WILL affect intonation at the lower frets. If you are happy to learn out of tune, be my guest I suppose.
Up to the headstock - all fairly plain, with a screen printed Stagg logo and open geared generic tuners. They work ok, nothing fantastic, but they don't grind and they hold ok. The buttons however are far too big and make the uke look like it has ears. The perils of picking from the cheap parts bin.
The whole 'deal' is finished off with cheap nylon strings which are just horrible and the worst quality gig bag I have ever seen. On the former, people will say 'oh but yes, you obviously need to change the strings' and yes, I would do that, but then the £20 uke becomes nearly a £30 uke and the bargain drifts away a little. As for the gig bag - its so thin I honestly cannot see the benefit of them even including it. It provides no protection whatsoever.
But what about the proof of the pudding? Well it sounds uninspiring, and not much better than rubber bands on a tissue box to my ears. Very little sustain, and a strum just delivers a muddy mass of noise rather than defined chiming notes.
Yes it needs a string change, not least because of the overall tone, but the C string just sounds dead to my ears anyway. I checked the nut and bridge which are both clear, and therefore assume its a bad string.
But beyond that, that high nut is throwing slightly sharp notes at the lower frets, and a check on intonation at the 12th fret shows that we have a problem there too. Generally- the note plucked at the 12th should be a perfect octave above the open note, and these are not. A string change may fix that, as may dropping the bridge height a little, but I do worry whether it is also hampered by a misplaced bridge.
The high nut will definitely need work unless, as I say, you like your first position chords sounding 'off'. I don't.
All in all it sounds like a bad example of a £20 uke. I have seen worse, but as I say in my opening, I have also seen so much better.
Frankly I fail to understand why people take the trouble to try to defend these things or the bad quality control. There ARE better options, certainly if you pay not a lot more, and even at THIS price. So long as there are better options, there is zero excuse in my book for these existing with this sort of quality.
I'm not down on all ukes at this price, but as I say, buy carefully, read reviews and please order from a specialist store. You may pay £5-£10 more, but honestly, is that really too much of a price to pay to reduce your chances of a dud (and to get better strings!). I was also massively conscious that some people will take this review and the scores as a 'well, you would say that wouldn't you?' type of review. I can't avoid that, but honestly, I am struggling to find anything good about this model. You may own a good one, but as I say, I am pleased for you. Could you guarantee they are all good though?
And as for the other common response of 'these are perfect for beginners and children' I fail to see that being a beginner or a child means you should have to put up with something that doesn't play well or in tune. Particularly when there are better options out there for the same money!!
So as for this being the Amazon best seller - I think that tells you everything you need to know about how quality control failings make me rant. It is truly depressing. To repeat - it NEED NOT BE LIKE THIS! No recommendation from me Stagg, and no amount of telling me that you also make better instruments for more money changes the fact that this one is a dog.
(For more on my views on cheap ukes, by new years rant may be the place to go! LOOK HERE )
And to check out my other ukulele reviews take a look here!
None really (easy tie bridge? Fret markers?)
Quality control generally
Lack of sustain
Pointless gig bag
Looks - 7
Fit and Finish - 6
Sound - 5
Value For Money - 6
OVERALL - 6 out of 10
To understand my review scoring and see this result in context - visit my review page at