Gear4Music Soprano Ukulele - REVIEW

19 May 2019

Gear4Music Soprano Ukulele - REVIEW

Back from a week off, refreshed and still reeling from the string of superb ukuleles I've had the pleasure to look at recently. They were all certainly 'high end' though and therefore at a price point which is unlikely to suit the absolute beginner. So, let's go to the other end of the scale with this soprano ukulele from Gear4Music.

Gear4Music Soprano Ukulele

I must admit from the off that I am not a huge fan of shops like Gear4Music. They are what I call the 'big box shippers' rather than a real music store, carrying a dizzying array of musical instruments and gear at very competitive prices. And they can do that because they are essentially just a set of warehouses full of stuff ready to ship out straight from the factories. They are very much like Thomann, another similar big box seller you may have heard of. Gear4Music started out in the UK, but now are shipping to an array of EU countries and, more recently, the USA. Helping the high street music store they are NOT.

That is not to say they carry nothing but rubbish though. If you want high end kit, they carry that too from top end Fender Stratocasters to Gibson acoustic guitars costing thousands. When it comes to ukuleles they carry a lot of the usual suspects for sure, but also go up to the intermediate / upper end with brands like Martin, Risa, Seagull and Godin on offer. Yet they are in the business to make money with big volume sales, and therefore, in what comes across to me at least as a move that doesn't take the ukulele seriously, they put out a range of ukes in their own name. And very cheap ones at that.

This one is the absolute entry level model for them, though a browse of the site shows that you can also spend a little more, either getting this one in the ubiquitous 'starter pack' (i.e. cheap bag and tuner thrown in), through to some 'deluxe' models (which still look cheap to me, but throw in a pickup). Anyway entry level this one is, and unsurprisingly comes in the usual range of brightly painted primary colours together with a Union Flag model (don't they all...). Yay, colourful ukes! That's what people want!!

Gear4Music Soprano Ukulele body

It's a soprano scaled instrument in typical double bout shape made, naturally, from all laminate wood. In terms of a wood type it's Linden wood laminate, also known as the wood from the Lime tree. One other name you will see given to this wood is 'basswood', and it's very much at the lower end for musical instruments. It's a soft wood which is easy to work with, but dents easily and has next to no interesting grain. Perhaps it's a good job then that it's covered in thick glossy paint as there wouldn't be much else to see. But never mind all those wood names, let's cut to the chase and call it what it is. Cheap plywood.

The finish is woeful and comes with no other decoration other than a white, badly painted sound hole ring. The whole thing is very reminiscent of the entry level Mahalo's with the paint glooped on thickly, with runs, bubbles and pooling everywhere. 'Thick' is an understatement here. And in a nice touch they couldn't even mask off the edge of the fingerboard so you have blue paint up the sides of it and creeping on to the fingerboard itself. Lovely. If I can say something positive, I suppose it's quite a nice shade of blue..

Gear4Music Soprano Ukulele paint

The bridge is made of 'ebonized maple' a technique of staining a paler wood with iron oxide to darken it. That makes it sound more exotic than it really is and this is just essentially a painted / dyed bridge. It's a tie bar style, very plain and screwed in place fitted with a straight topped plastic saddle. And if you are going to 'ebonize' something, why not make it darker? This is very pale and unattractive.

Gear4Music Soprano Ukulele bridge

Looking inside and it's exactly as you would expect. Extremely basic with no edge linings or bracing. You also see the edge of the soundhole showing off just how thick this top laminate is. And it's because of that thickness that you don't need bracing or linings... It's also scruffily finished with wood splinters hanging off it covered in the same blue gloop. Ugh..

Gear4Music Soprano Ukulele sound hole

The neck wood is not specified and the thick paint means I have zero idea how many pieces it is made from, but it may come as a surprise to note that it is pleasingly shallow in profile. Sadly at 34mm it's still on the narrow side for me.

Topping this is a fingerboard made of more pale ebonized maple with the usual Martin-esque end shaping and a standard 12 frets to the body. The frets seem to be made of brass, which work, but is not a look I am keen on. And yes, unsurprisingly, the ends are sharp too. But the main event here is that the whole thing seems to have been finished with a clear gloss. Right over the top of the fingerboard AND the frets in one go. I've seen finish pooling on bodies before but never on a fingerboard, but that's what we have here. It's gloopy, poorly finished and has some particularly nasty varnish build up around the upper frets that has turned cloudy. And anyway, who wants a glossed fingerboard in the first place?? To add to that, the wood finishing is pretty poor with carved chunks in the side and uneven edges all the way along. Oddly you get no position markers either facing out or on the side. For a beginner ukulele that is a very poor omission.

Gear4Music Soprano Ukulele neck

Beyond the plastic nut is the expected three pointed crown shaped headstock, finished in the same blue paint. Interestingly you don't get a makers label on the headstock. Perhaps they knew people would be ashamed to sport one, but that is the least of the problems here.

Gear4Music Soprano Ukulele headstock

Tuners are generic, cheap open gears with enormous white buttons and ugly plastic bushes on the front of which one will not seat lower because of what is likely a flaw in the drilled hole beneath it. They really are pretty poor and, as expected, they are all completely different tensions, some loose, some grind. And don't get me started on the ugly 'ears' look. Oh, and if you look at the picture, they are not on straight either. One other interesting feature here is that the nut is slightly wider than the actual neck as you can see. That makes for a sharp edge on the fretting hand in first position chords. Nice.

Gear4Music Soprano Ukulele tuners

Finishing it off are a set of unnamed strings which look and feel like very cheap clear nylon to me with some very odd looking gauges (the C and E strings look identical). Let's put it this way, they match the quality of the rest of the instrument. And for that little beauty you are looking at the princely sum of £14.99. So about the price of a set of Worth strings, and less than a half decent ukulele lesson. See the problem here?

As you would suspect, in the hands this doesn't feel too good at all. You can tell that it's made of hunks of plywood as it feels chunky, and just plain dead. To be fair it's not massively heavy and is balanced too. However there is an odd thing going on with the balance here. Whilst it balances at the 12th, it tries to tip back to the body along the length with the top edge falling back to your body. Very odd. The gloss paint is also grippy on the hands on not very pleasing either. OK, sure, it's not that much different from the tide of other brightly painted ukuleles, but it doesn't get a bye because of that. That is not a thing to aspire to!

Gear4Music Soprano Ukulele back

I really can't say too much about the sound because it is, frankly, pretty bad. As expected I guess, but think rubber bands on a margarine tub sound. The sound that people who know nothing about ukuleles think is normal. Minimal sustain, low volume, absolutely no character at all. It 'kind of' plays in tune to be fair and setup at the 12th is just about ok. But the nut is too high though meaning the intonation goes out slightly in first position fretting. The high nut also makes it difficult to fret down on the strings, particularly at the first fret. It's really uncomfortable. You really just need to watch the video below to have a listen as I would be wasting my time here to talk about things like character, dynamic range and shimmer... mainly because it doesn't have any of those things. And please don't suggest 'oh a string change would help it'. Maybe it would, but come on, it's a poorly finished £14.99 ukulele. Why would you spend another tenner and almost double your outlay to even try? Is it the worst sounding cheap ukulele I have played. Well, actually no. It's not making me weep. That credit goes to either the Ready Ace, the Ashton or the Martin Smith, but saying that it is 'better' than any of those is hardly an accolade. It's light years behind things like a Dolphin or a Kala KA-S.

My regular readers who knew this review was coming probably expected these comments, but it still kind of wrote itself - this is not very good in pretty much any way. One of the things that really gets me down about this sort of ukulele is the absurd marketing spin they put on them. And it fuels the assumption that the ukulele has to be cheap. I know they are in the business of selling them, but some of the claims are just ridiculous. On the listing for this one we have phrases like 'high quality linden laminate body improves the sound's projection, adding richness and providing a robust construction'.... Oh please. They go on to use targeted words like 'crafted' , 'trust' and 'stands the test of time' to imply a quality item. Really though, none of these things fit the reality. This is a generic, poorly made, poorly finished plywood box which does the ukulele world no favours at all and only exists to ride a bandwagon of buyers who assume the ukulele is 'cheap' and 'not serious'. Come on - this is a MUSIC shop selling this and surely they have a basic responsibility to sell instruments that are, well... instruments?

Who's to blame here? The maker? Sure. The quality contol guy who was having a day off on this one? Certainly. But don't just blame these cheap poorly paid factories. Blame the distributor / buyer. Blame Gear4Music for carrying it most of all. And also of course, blame the endless media message that a ukulele is 'cheap' for embedding the assumption that this IS what a ukulele costs in beginner buyers minds.

Yes I know that absolute beginners and kids don't want to spend huge amounts of money, but this is the age old problem with the image of the instrument - where it's expected that a ukulele costs less than a few coffee's or the price of a single lesson from a tutor.  That's just ludicrous. A musical instrument is a technical thing and needs a certain amount of care in the build to ensure it actually functions as it is supposed to, and ukuleles are no different. I've said it many times, I firmly believe there is a base price that should apply with ukes, and if you go below it you get nothing more than an 'object' to look at. Put simply, just becasue you want it to be cheap, doesn't mean it can be... if you want it to work at even a basic level.

And I'm also conscious that first time readers of this site may come across this looking for reviews of the instrument and think I am being snobbish. Really, I'm not. Remember that with some shopping around you will find that there ARE some half decent options out there for not a lot more money than this one. I'm more than happy to guide you.  If you are on an absolute budget, please don't go for something like this, save the pennies another week or two and look to something like a Dolphin, or an Octopus. Maybe an entry level Makala or Baton Rouge. Those few extra pennies (and I am talking only a slight uplift here) will work wonders, I promise you. Call a ukulele specialist store and take advice. They can and will help you, whatever your budget.  You do not have to settle for rubbish like this. You really, really don't..

Avoid.

https://www.gear4music.com

SPECS ROUNDUP

Scale: Soprano
Body: Linden laminate
Bridge: Ebonized maple
Saddle: Plastic
Neck: Unspecified
Nut Width: 35mm
Fingerboard: Ebonized Maple
Tuners: Generic open gears
Price: £14

UKULELE PROS

Shallow neck profile
Nice shade of blue!
Literally nothing else!

UKULELE CONS


Terrible paint job and finish
Glossed fingerboard
Gouged fingerboard
Sharp fret ends
Thick top
No fret markers
Uneven tuner bushes
Poor quality tuners with big ears
Tuners not screwed on straight
Terrible strings
Zero sustain
Flat lifeless tone
Poor volume
High nut action


UKULELE SCORES

Looks - 3 out of 10
Fit and finish - 2 out of 10
Sound - 3.5 out of 10
Value for money - 3 out of 10

OVERALL UKULELE SCORE - 2.9 out of 10

UKULELE VIDEO REVIEW




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2 comments :

  1. I bought 5 Octopus Sopranos for my grand-kids for Christmas last year at an average price of £22.50 each and they were all really well set up out of the box and fitted with Aquila Strings. OK the paint finish was a bit variable but the sound and play-ability really surprised me. If they can do it at that price why can't Gear4Music? I know what you mean about these online shops and, it's true, they make it hard for high street music shops but they do have their uses. But selling junk like this and describing it as having a "sweet, mellow sound" (quote from their website) is shameful.

    ReplyDelete
  2. The term "you get what you pay for" has never been more true!
    I think it's reasonable to say that anything costing under £50.00 is for ornamental purposes only!
    I love the idea of making one into a bird box - it would look great in our garden.

    ReplyDelete

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