On to a full review… Let’s start with the basic facts and measurements. It has a scale length of 347mm (13 5/8 in), so a Soprano. A total length of 528mm (21 ¼ in) and a nut width of 36mm (1 3/8 in) There are 12 frets to the body, (standard for a Soprano), on an overlapping fret board that continues on to 15 frets in total, (plus a little bit after). There are 4mm circular fret markers at 5, 7, 10, 12 and 15, with the 12th fret markers being doubled. These markers are mirrored on the right side with smaller circles in the fret board binding, again 2 on the 12th and even the 15th is mirrored. It was made in mainland China in 2013 or 14 by one of the big factories, (but I don’t know which?) and branded for the Chris Rubin distribution company, (though I have seen the same model on sale branded by different Chinese based distributors).
The overall appearance when you first look it is quite striking. Yes you can’t help thinking that the offset multi-epaulette sound holes have more than a passing resemblance to the Ovation design; and I’m sure that the tooling that did them was originally set up to copy, (counterfeit?), the Ovation Applause UA20, however the more you look at it the less similar it is. Apart from the obvious only one side there are fewer holes and they are bigger, plus the overlay has been tweaked to resemble a fish rather than a leaf. And with nothing else about the Ukulele trying to mimic an Ovation, marks then for trying to move away from the seedier side of manufacture, even if not full marks for originality.
Up close there are no obvious faults in the look and finish of the Ukulele. The finish is a very nice even satin on the body with no varnishing on the overlay woods, (though clearly some staining to get the contrast and the little detail lines). Yes the body is laminate, for the cost of it you could expect no more, but it is a nicely grained rosewood top layer that is neatly bookmarked on the soundboard and on the back. The edge binding is exceptional, I was expecting plastic but its wood, and its all little inlay pieces! This really is much better than you would expect for the money with three different patterns on the sides and an extra inlay binding on the top. There are very few Ukuleles that I’ve seen with better binding. The problem with it though is somehow it looks a bit too traditional for the more modernistic overlay design; a bit of a style clash(?) and the overlay woodwork itself is probably the least impressive of the main woods. Nothing particularly bad, just very machine made and the stained lines made to imitate what was suppose to be etched looks a little cheap up close. Also if I were designing it I wouldn’t have used the two different wood stains they chose. I think one colour would look a little less busy?
Away from the body, it has a rosewood bridge and fret board on a nato neck. The neck is very nicely done with a reasonably substantial D profile and the veneer covering the front of the headstock matches the body. These rosewood parts are very solid but not triple A quality. They are pretty consistent in colour and untreated in any decorative way, perhaps a little porey up close but very much the standard setup for this level of manufacture. The one thing that does perhaps raise the fret board quality up is the well finished edge binding around it, the colour and curve matching is excellent. It is barely noticeable to look at but hides the ends of the frets and makes the whole neck very nice to hold and move your hand across.
The frets themselves are well fitted too, with no protuberances or sharp bits, well finished ends and a good even brass colouration. The nut and saddle are plastic, (as you would expect), and well fitted with the nut being nicely wedge shaped and neatly fitted, a tiny bit shorter than the width of the fret board but well centred and the smaller size ensures there is no bits to stick out and dig into the chording hand, (this is a good bit of design). The nut gluing, as with all of the gluing, is absolutely top class. No extraneous glue marks anywhere, including what I can see of the inside and everything feels solid and stable, no lips, no gaps just very well put together.
Finally on build quality is the tuners; and they are excellent! Enclosed geared models with a slightly rubberised, (so soft to touch), black buttons. Very smooth action very stable holding the notes and whilst I don’t know the gear ratio, they are, (and this may be co-incidental?) set so that one full turn roughly equates to one step on the scale so two full turns on each tuner and you move from C tuning to D tuning.
On to the sound and it has a nice full tone, even across all of the strings with more in the bass register than a spruce top and less in the treble. In fact it is quite a deep sounding Soprano and it works on both C and D tuning equally well still retaining the depth on the higher tuning. Being a laminate it does perhaps lack a little of the warmth you get with solid wood soundboards but it is a little more distinctive than a lot of laminates which can end up sounding very similar, (maybe this is from the design?) On the down side, it is quite quiet. Laminates are never that loud but this has a lower acoustic volume than most, possibly down to the small sound holes and no side port though wood overlays never help volume; also it doesn’t get any louder with a higher tuning as can sometimes be the case. (I have seen the same design on sale but fitted with a pickup if you were worried about the volume). Intonation down the fret board is a little off being about 10-15% sharp at the 12th fret. Some of this is down to a high factory setup and the worst place for intonation is the first fret. You could take the action down at both the nut and saddle, which would probably improve this but you would need to be very careful to keep everything even and not to go to low and introduce a buzz (risky when its not that far off to start with). While I’m talking about the action when playing, the neck is just about perfect for me, very smooth, tactile and no roughness, sharp bits or protrusions. It doesn’t have a radiused fret board but apart from that I love it. The bridge end not quite so much though, the bridge is a bit close to the bottom so it is a little too easy for the strumming arms to interfere with the strings, especially if you are wearing loose fitting sleeves; not a major issue, but something to watch out for.
To sum up then, this is a wonderful Ukulele, and one that proves that modern Chinese manufacture is at least as good as, and probably better than anything that has gone before. It may seem from what I have said that I have a downer on it but I don’t. The faults it has are all very small and I only mention them for completeness. This is a very well made instrument that would fit well into any Ukulele session and one that I have every confidence will last well. It only cost a little more than a budget beginner Ukulele but the step up in quality is vast. If you can afford the couple of quid extra this is a spectacular first ukulele or a very good second one.
Would I buy one again if I lost it? That is a difficult question. Something with a similar tone and build quality, yes without hesitation but the design hasn’t grown on me and I do feel it’s a little mismatched. Like the manufacturers took a number of elements they were producing and just stuck them together with no overall design plan. This though is purely my opinion and being fickle I would probably miss the look if I lost it – (so in all likelihood yes then)