It's a first for this brand on Got A Ukulele, and possibly the first with Australian heritage too. This is the Ashton UKE100 Soprano uke.
I say Australian, and that is because Ashton are an Australian company, but this particular ukulele is made for them in China. Intriguingly though, the box and makers label both say proudly that it is 'designed in Australia'. I am not entirely sure what that means as from a first glance at it I can't see any particular design cues and it all looks rather generic, but there you go. As a company, Ashton make quite a range of musical instruments and gear, including drums, a range of guitars and a number of ukuleles. It must be said that the UKE 100 is their entry level ukulele, but as a brand with a number of stringed instrument products in their line up, perhaps they know what they are doing. We shall see.
The UKE100 is a soprano scaled instrument, with a traditional double bout shape and is made from all laminate woods. Ashton bill it as 'Linden' wood (also known as Lime), but make no mistake - this is cheap plywood. Very cheap in fact, and also very, very thick. Without pre-judging the rest of this review too early, it's possibly one of the poorest ukulele bodies I have ever come across. The UKE100 is also available in a range of colours, this one in a very dull brown, but if you want something a little less sombre you will find this in lots of primary colours too. I wouldn't get too excited by the alternatives though as like the plywood itself the finish on this is extremely cheap and poor. It kind of feels like thin poster paint has been used and it marks if you rub it with your nail. It also has numerous flaws and bubbles over most of the body and in places it is flaking off. It really is appalling. Strangely, stock photos seem to suggest that their other colours appear to be glossy, whilst this one is definitely matte. Not sure why that is.
Equally concerning are the mounds of what look like cement filler that are layered up around where the fingerboard comes over the body. They are slathered with paint but it looks like window putty underneath. The mind boggles at the sort of gap that is (badly) trying to hide.
We have no other decoration save for a rudimentary sound hole rosette in the form of a transfer. Naturally, that is applied off centre. For the bridge we have a tie bar style firmly screwed in place. Ashton specs tell me it's rosewood, but it appears to be painted black. The thin straight saddle appears to be plastic. The whole thing is extremely rough with some wood splinters showing on the edges. In the groove that houses the screws holding it in place there is some strange sort of mold or crust growing in there. Yuck. I would have also thought that a slotted bridge would be a better choice on what is obviously a beginner instrument, but there you are.
Looking inside and it's pretty messy. Dollops of glue around the edges, wood shavings and splinters. Surprisingly (or not perhaps), we have no bracing at all and no edge linings. I guess when your plywood is this thick bracing is just not necessary and when you have so much glue holding the thing together, things like edge kerfings are just unnecessary fripperies.... (These are not things to be proud of by the way!)
Up to the neck, and I have no idea what it is made from or from how many pieces because it's covered in the same thick paint. I think there is a joint at the heel but I can't be sure. Topping this is a what Ashton call a 'layerered rosewood' fingerboard. I am not sure what they mean by 'layered' though. Do they mean laminate? If so, why on earth would you need a laminate fingerboard? Anyway, it matters not because what you are looking at here is not the actual wood finish as the whole thing has been painted matte black. I mean, come on.. if it IS rosewood under there, why paint it? Unless of course it's because it's rosewood of extremely questionable quality.. who knows? Amusingly in a nod to Martin ukulele styling we have some end shaping to the board. Silk purses and pigs ears spring to mind.
Fitted into this are 12 frets which appear to be made of brass. They look horrible and the ends are dressed terribly. These are not just slightly sharp, but the protrude so much you could use the edge of the fingerboard as a saw. Imagine how that feels on your fingers... It's odd because some of the fret crowns don't quite make it to the edge of the fingerboard, whilst they are still sharp - it's like the tops have been dressed back, but not the seating part of the fret that still sticks out. Incidentally, looking at the frets more closely they appear to be set directly into the neck wood, so perhaps that reference layered rosewood really does mean that it's a very thin veneer. It's very odd. One thing I suppose it does have going for it is that the neck profile is not overly chunky, rather is traditonally shallow. Sadly the nut width is 34mm so very thin there too though. Oh, and we have no position markers either facing out or on the side. For a beginner ukulele that's a pretty poor show.
Past the plastic nut and we actually have a relatively nicely shaped headstock. Fair play to Ashton for not simply going with a three pointed crown clone and choosing something a little more unique. Unfortunately it's totally let down by more poor finishing a cheesy looking screen printed Ashton logo and a set of some of the worst open geared tuners I have ever seen on a ukulele. The ones with plastic front collars, overly large plastic buttons and posts the wobble in their mountings. Terrible. Amusingly it also comes with a holographic label of Ashton authenticity on the back. As if that makes everything ok, and as if somebody would want to copy it..
Completing the package is an extremely thin 'gig bag' of which I have seen thicker carrier bags, and an unnamed set of strings. They are clear and my guess is that they are basic nylon and certainly not fluorocarbon. You WILL want to change those out. And for that you will be looking at an RRP of £23 in the UK.
Now, as you can probably tell there isn't actually much, if anything, about this ukulele that I have liked so far. But let's give it a chance and see how it plays. (Remember folks.. I do this so you don't have to...!)
First up, I was actually surprised by a first look at the setup. Whether this was more down to luck than judgement (I am going with luck), it's actually acceptably set up at both the nut and the saddle. Unfortunately that is rendered completely irrelevant by virtue of the fact that I think the bridge is screwed in the wrong place. That is to say it is, it seems screwed on an angle, and not intentionally either. The whole plate is on an angle, not just the saddle. That means that regardless of factors such as action height and break angles for the strings, that intonation is never going to be on point. That's actually a fatal build error as it wouldn't be cost effective to correct.
On to another positive, the UKE100 is also balanced well in the hands. Yet once again, that positive is completely nullified by the fact that it is really, REALLY heavy. It also feels pretty awful on the fingers too. Kind of tacky, kind of rough, kind of... I can't quite put my finger on it. In fact I really don't WANT to put my finger on it.... oh, do I have to?
Anyway, play it I must. And after days and days of tuning, re-tuning and re-tuning, those nylon strings eventually got to a point of holding.. Incidentally, talking of tuning. You know I said the tuners looked bad? Well they work pretty badly too. The usual issue of some grinding, some feeling loose and there being lots of play. Oh well, being gears, they won't slip I suppose.
And when it comes to tone and sound, well there isn't a great deal I can say really. Almost zero sustain and about the most 'plinky' dull sound I think i've heard from a ukulele. There's just nothing about it for me that is likeable. Yes, the intonation is slightly off, but actually that isn't the worst of it. It just has no life to the sound whatsoever. The C strings is worst, but really none of them come together to give me anything. It has 'some' volume, but it's really not great (and to be honest, I am not sure I would want it any louder..) And yes, before you say it, new strings would help, but really, when the rest of it is so rough - why would you? I will tell you what it sounds like. It sounds exactly like people who have a deep rooted hatred for the ukulele think all ukuleles sound like. That assumption of the ukulele sounding like rubber bands on a tissue box, of being childlike and non serious. It sounds EXACTLY like that. And that is pretty damning.
So there you have it, I think this is quite possibly one of the worst ukuleles I have ever reviewed on this site. And yet I can guarantee that now some people may be moved to comment such things as "of course it is, it's a cheap one after all, what did you expect", or worse still, as I say above, "yes but I could put better strings on it and knock it into shape" (begging the counter question, "but why would you though?"). I will also get the "I have one of these and it's actually OK - you must have got a bad one" (a comment I get whenever I review a ukulele badly) and maybe even the "There's lots of 5 star reviews on Amazon, you are clearly wrong". Perhaps you did and perhaps there is, but the fact that this one must have gotten through their quality control tells you exactly why I can't recommend them.
But I'm actually angry with it less because of how bad I think it is (it's bad, that much is clear, but it certainly isn't the ONLY bad ukulele out there), but it's because of how it serves to perpetuate the opinion that the ukulele is not an instrument to be taken seriously, that it's a toy, that setup and QC don't really matter. You see, it's out there under the name of what appears to be a reputable musical instrument brand not a random Chinese 'who are they?' brand. When you have a known instrument brand name you carry a certain amount of respect. People assume that you know what you are doing. And when they see a ukulele like this they may then assume "that's just the way they are"... "hey, it's an Ashton, it's even got a holographic sticker and everything!" This isn't an instrument designed to be sold in discount stores as a 'toy' like the fabled Ready Ace was - this is being sold by a musical instrument brand as a serious thing - as part of their line up.
The brand may say, "yes but we are just meeting a demand / filling a gap and there are people out there that only want to spend this much", and that, of course, is both true and fair enough. But there's the thing - several other brands such as Octopus, Tiger and Makala have shown that you CAN do cheap pretty well. It IS possible. This one however is cheap done very, very badly. Very roughly and without much of care about the end result.
And what I find particularly sad is that Ashton have what appear to be some other nicer instruments in their range. Who knows, perhaps they actually do make some good stuff. If so, why have this in the line up at all? Why degrade your brand? If they do make good things, I for one will now never be moved to try them because the fact they have the UKE100 in their lineup says to me that they don't actually give a damn. Yet, I give you this quote from direct the Ashton website..
"We know how important a great sound is, which is why we put so much time and effort into the research and development of our products."
And they also state..
"Designed in Australia by a highly qualified team of experts, Ashton’s range of musical instruments and sound equipment are built to strict quality standards. All Ashton instruments, systems and accessories are the end result of countless hours of development, research and testing."
Sorry Ashton - none of those statements mean a single thing as long as you are selling instruments like this one. This blows your credibility.
Nothing I can really find. It's very cheap I suppose..
Looks - 2.5 out of 10
Fit and finish - 2 out of 10
Sound - 2 out of 10
Value for money - 3 out of 10
OVERALL UKULELE SCORE - 2.4 out of 10
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© Barry Maz
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