Here's a ukulele review that has been intriguing (and, if I'm honest, worrying me) for quite a while. From that esteemed old brand of musical instruments. It's the Martin 0X Uke Bamboo Soprano Ukulele... Hold on to your hats folks.
So, sorry to be a bore, but we need to cover some basics first. Depending on who you listen to the Martin 'X series' ukuleles and guitars are either 'genius', 'ethical' and 'eco-friendly' or they are a 'travesty' 'awful' and 'not real Martins'. And the reason for that division lies mainly in the materials they are made from. The main focus of concern is on the body material which is made from something called HPL or 'High Pressure Laminate'. And this is one of the first misconceptions that people point out in their reviews and complaints. You see, laminate in the ukulele world usually refers to sandwiched layers of wood in a plywood with an outer veneer that looks more flashy. This Martin, despite endless comments saying it's 'laminate' (and even has the word laminate in the HPL name) is NOT a laminate in the same sense as most ukulele players would normally understand it. In fact it's not even made from wood... You heard me right...
You see the HPL Martin use for this is made from layers of paper in a resin built up to create a material that is extremely strong, and (they claim) similar to wood. But it ISN'T laminate in the sense you might expect from a laminate ukulele, in that it has no layers of actual wood in the sandwich. To be fair, I suppose it IS a laminate of paper and glue, but wood laminate it is not. Another common name for this material is Formica.. Yep the counter top material.. It's essentially the same thing...
So what about the 'Bamboo' element? Isn't that wood? Well here comes another misconception. That is not actually bamboo either... It's a photograph. A graphic. An image of bamboo that is applied to the outer face to make it look like something it isn't. And there's my first gripe as every single product description, including that on the Martin site lead you to believe that this is something that it isn't. There are just too many references to bamboo that make you think that it contains some when it actually doesn't. It's made of laminated paper with an outer image of wood. To be fair, there is nothing new there either I guess. The first OX ukuleles did exactly the same thing in 2010 but the outer image wasn't bamboo rather it was another wood grain image (Koa). More on my thoughts on that later though.
OK, back to basics.. This one is a double bout soprano made in Mexico and looking very like a Martin S1 ukulele in shape and dimensions. The OX bamboo ukuleles are available in four colours, either minty green, pale blue like this one, natural or red. They also do a more expensive 0XK version in which the outer pattern is Hawaiian Koa, but for this review we are looking at the bamboo models. I will come on to my views on the colours later, as I have mixed opinions on them, but for reasons you might not expect. Anyway, that bamboo graphic DOES look like actual bamboo. I can see why people think it's a veneer.
And that HPL material is extremely strong and hard, and it must be said, put together extremely well by Martin. It's very typical of Martin construction and quality control regardless of what it's made of. Very clean, very precise and feels very solid and stable in the hands. It's also said to be resilient to humidity and temperature changes, so potentially this is a rugged instrument (though as you'll see because there IS some wood in other parts of the instrument, the possibility of it being waterproof is gone). Anyway, despite this not being made from wood in the body, the instrument still oozes high levels of quality all over its construction. It really is very well done.
We have minimal decoration apart from some black edging to the top and back and a simple soundhole rosette transfer. Incidentally, that black edging isn't binding at all, rather that's the natural colour of the HPL in cross section. The edges are also chamfered off giving it a nice feel with no sharp edges, and I really like that. The soundhole rosette whilst white like the S1 doesn't look anywhere near as stark against the pale blue. I kind of like it. In fact I like most things about the body. You know it's not wood when you touch it but it has a kind of matte coating so it doesnt feel synthetic either.
The top back and sides are each made from single pieces of HPL and the back is very slightly arched. The depth of the body is identical to the Martin S1 too. Incidentally - the thickness of the top is noticeably thinner than the wooden top on the Martin S1. I assume that because of the strength of HPL it can afford to be.
The bridge is an 'as expected' Martin style slotted bridge. The store this came from lists this as rosewood, but the Martin site explains that they have now switched these to Sipo wood. That's an African hardwood sometimes called Utile or Sipo Mahogany. Sipo actually looks rather nice and is presumably a response from Martin since the tightened CITES regulations of early 2017 made it extremely difficult to ship rosewoods around the globe. Maybe we will be seeing a lot more Sipo on ukuleles going forward. I suspect this one is 2016 stock so if you buy from last years vintage you get Rosewood, this year onwards you get Sipo. Understandable. The saddle is compensated and made from white Tusq - a synthetic ivory substitute. The whole thing is much nicer in finish than the bridge on the S1 soprano I reviewed too - just cleaner all round but identical in dimensions.
It's interesting to look inside and see the use of spruce bracing in the instrument. I would have thought that if HPL was as strong as they claim that they would need minimal or no bracing, but there you are. Whilst I found it impossible to check inside fully I am told that Martin have used their trademark bracing pattern on these, so I assume the braces are to create the 'voice' they wanted. There is a tail block in there too so there should be no issue in attaching a strap button. We also have notched spruce kerfing around the top and back joints. So it seems that the only thing that differ in this from a wooden uke is the material used to make the top, back and sides. Aside from that we have the numbered makers label and you get to see more of the natural colour of the HPL which is a very dark grey and pretty bland. It too seems to have something of a bamboo image applied to it but in dark grey. You can see why it needs an outer image that's more interesting!
Up to the neck and things continue to be somewhat unconventional. It's attached to the body with a secure dovetail joint which is normal for Martin, but that's about the only thing that is normal. It's made from several strips of birch ply running the full length of the neck in a laminate sandwich. It's claimed that it gives the instrument an extremely strong neck that is impossible to warp and gives it a very stripy look. Martin call it 'Stratabond' and it's been used by them on some guitars for quite some time. Profile wise it's identical to the Martin S1 ukulele neck, but that stripe will be an either love it or hate it look. It's finished in a nice rubbed satin coat which is very comfortable and never 'grippy'. I also read some commenters suggesting it is heavy, but I can't say I notice that myself. I'll stick my head out here and say, I actually really like the look of it... For those interested, the width at the nut seems identical to the Martin S1 at 36mm so that gets a thumbs up from me too.
Topping this is a fingerboard made of rosewood, (though again for 2017 models this will be replaced with Sipo) with 17 nickel silver frets with 12 to the body. It's the same sort of fingerboard layout as on the S1 with the same end shaping. We have position markers at the 5th, 7th and 12th spaces with the 7th being a double spot. They are made from small cream plastic dots. Like the S1 they are repeated on the side where you also get a couple of extras at the 3rd, 12th and 15th. The ends of the frets on this are dressed far better than those on the Martin S1 I reviewed also. In fact the fingerboard on this is flawless.
Beyond the Tusq nut we have the traditionally shaped Martin headstock with a three pointed crown. It's faced in the same blue bamboo HPL but the Martin logo on these doesn't use the gaudy Chistmas card sticker, rather a black ink print - much nicer. I like the taper on these headstocks as it gives you plenty of room to fret first position chords without your hand bumping the nut or the tuners. I also like the contrast between the blue HPL and the pale neck and once again you get a black edging from the cross section of the HPL.
Tuners are entry level Grovers seen on the Martin S1. Not bad, but not the best. Looking at the Martin site it appears they don't mention the Grover brand any longer so it may be that as well as the fingerboard woods changing in 2017, that you might get a more generic peg. I wouldn't worry about that too much though as the Grovers on this one are not the best either so I can't see them being a downgrade in any way. One thing that does concern me if you wanted to swap these out is I have no idea how well HPL or that birch laminate cuts if you needed to widen the holes. I usually widen holes with a luthiers reamer (by hand) and know how it will cut the most common woods in a headstock neatly and easily. I have no idea with this one...
And completing the package are a set of Martin M600 fluorocarbon strings and the same blue padded gig bag that comes with the S1. I know I suggested with the S1 that they should ditch the bag as most buyers would get a hard case anyway, but that was a solid wood instrument in need of protection. With this one I totally undertand the addition and it's nice to see. And for that you are looking at a retail price of $449. Gasp i
Before we get into the ins and out of the concept and price, let's first see how it plays.
As I say, construction is wonderful and the instrument is light in the hands and balanced at the 12th despite those reports of heavy necks. It isn't off balance at all. It's a touch heavier than the wooden S1 ukulele but when you are playing it you don't notice it, and the S1 is a supremely light instrument anyway. And here's a weird thing... It smells like a Martin ukulele. That smell of woodshop that is always so strong with Martins is in there. It can only be coming from the braces and linings as the rest is HPL! Very odd!
Setup was is absolutely perfect on this one at both nut and saddle. In fact taking a measurement it's exactly the same action height at the 12th as on my Martin S1.
And then I started to play it.... Wow. It's quite remarkable really for a synthetic ukulele. I do not know how they did it, but this instrument sounds startlingly good. Excellent in fact. And guess what? It sounds like wood too. If you were expecting boxy plastic lunchbox type tone, that's just not there. OK it doesn't quite have that Martin jangle but it has a really rich rounded tone of it's own, with plenty of soprano bite when needed. Volume is great as is sustain (on a par with the S1 on both counts) and is right up there with some of the better ukuleles I have reviewed. Sound is subjective of course, so I wouldn't say it is 'better' than 'this' or 'that' ukulele - only that it is still very good in it's own right. VERY good. It really did surprise me.
Whether strummed or picked it's a real joy to play. It's easy to play too with fast comfortable neck, light weight and skinny frets. It's also dead accurate on the intonation all over the neck. A typical 'plastic' uke this is not.
The dynamic range is excellent, the note clarity is great. In fact, I am struggling to find bad things in the sound. I suppose my only gripe is that I like my sopranos a touch brighter, and this can sound a little dark and a bit too warm, but I'm being really picky when I say that. But of course, you are not going to get individual tonewood characteristics when there is no tonewood! I suppose in the same respect, there will be no aging or opening up of the HPL over time. It will always sound like this.
To help you listen to it (as YouTube compression can ruin tone in videos) there are a couple of Soundcloud clips at the foot of this review - the same chord progression on the 0X and on the S1 so you can listen to them side by side. I think there is a distinct difference - both nice sounding in their own right. The S1 is clearly brighter in tone though.
So what's troubling me? Well there are a few things in my mind that I can't quite shift or square up.
Firstly, when it comes to the choice of materials I'm really in two minds here. Perhaps the reduction in the use of wood should actually be applauded as an eco friendly innovation. Pressure on global natural resources are a real problem these days, and the introduction of the tightened CITES regulations shows that countries are waking up to that fact. Who knows, perhaps in the future we will see that the majority of ukuleles are made from non-wood substitutes like this due to ever increasing restrictions on the shipping of timber. If that's the case, perhaps Martin are ahead of the curve here in the way that Blackbird have shown with their marvellous Clara ukulele. However... if that is going to be the case then why not go completely wood free? Why the use of Rosewood / Sipo wood instead of Richlite? Why not a composite non-wood neck instead of birch? I feel that I would 'buy into' the concept more if Martin had been bolder and offered a totally eco friendly model like Blackbird did. As it is, it's neither one nor the other really. They just took the wood out of the body.
And I have a similar gripe with the outer wood graphic. I've nothing against ukuleles that are not made from wood. In fact the current boom in popularity of plastic models is actually nothing new and original plastic ukes like Macaferri Islanders are much sought after collectors items now. So why did they apply a graphic to the outer that looks like wood? Why not accept it for what it is and use the opportunity to put something completely unique on the outside? It's not wood, so why try to make it look like it is? As I undertand it, that outer graphic could be anything at all, so why not be creative? Pete Mai of Bonanza ukuleles makes instruments out of the same stuff and chooses dazzling non-wood patterns on his, and they look great! Heck, even flat colour would be an option and I can't be the only one who would like the idea of a jet black Martin uke? Yet the product descriptions seem to suggest that Martin is almost 'ashamed' that it's not wood and are going out of their way to make you feel that it is. I personally find that very odd. The Clara for example makes no such claims - it's not wood and doesn't try to look like wood either. Why not do the same here?
And of course we have to talk about that price. Sure, it IS expensive for what it is I suppose, but then Martin ukes full stop are a bit expensive for what they are in my view. On the one hand I think that the assumption that a 'laminate' instrument should automatically be cheap is more borne out of market expectation and conditioning that 'laminates must be cheaper than solid woods'. However, something like the Clara which is totally synthetic will cost you significantly more than this. Something like the Kiwaya KS5 which is all laminate wood is in the same ballpark at about £300. So pitched against quality instruments like those perhaps it's actually a reasonable price for a highly rated brand with such excellent construction? Unfortunately, I think market expectation IS important and I think a lot of people (not all) will struggle to part with this sort of money for a synthetic ukulele when for only a touch more they can get an all solid mahogany Martin. Flipping my opinion back 180 degrees (again!), bear in mind that the bill of materials cost in a ukulele is not necessarily the biggest part of the price, labour comes into it hugely. So if you ignore that this is HPL and simply take it for what it is - a very well made and great sounding instrument, perhaps the price is just right. In other words, what does it matter what it is made of?
So as I said, a really difficult one to write this, and I am still not sure I have come to a total conclusion. We've got an instrument that sounds truly great and is built extremely well. On the one hand it could be considered innovative and eco friendly, but on the other seems priced wrongly for many people and is trying to hide what it actually is. I can't help feeling that Martin had an opportunity here to be totally innovative and could have gone for something completely 'green', but instead felt compelled to create something of a halfway house.
Yet here's another final thought. Would these ukuleles be dividing opinions quite so strongly if they didn't have the Martin name on the headstock? What if Blackbird had released this model, would they be getting plaudits instead? It's something to think about and I suspect a lot of the sniffiness may be a case of the vintage Martin fans making their views known. There are people who simply don't like the wooden Mexican Martins, so it stands to reason they won't like these either I guess. For me personally, I don't care a jot where they are made, only what they play and sound like for the price.
So I suspect these will create different reactions with different people. Still, it does sound tremendously good though and I'm actually rather attached to it for what it is. I'd still say 'have a play'. Does it matter what it's made of (or where it's made) if you like the way it sounds? You might actually be surprised.
Excellent build quality
Innovation in materials (though not actually that 'new')
Light weight and balanced
Surprisingly good tone and sustain that sounds in no way artificial
Volume and sustain on a par with the Martin S1
Not as eco friendly as it might have been
Outer bamboo graphic misses an opportunity for something more creative
Price for many people will be hard to justify
Would like better tuners
Looks - 8 out of 10
Fit and finish - 9.5 out of 10
Sound - 9.5 out of 10
Value for money - 8 out of 10
OVERALL UKULELE SCORE - 8.8 out of 10
UKULELE VIDEO REVIEW
© Barry Maz
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