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If you’re looking for the best in acoustic guitars and ukuleles, one name always jumps out at the top of the list – Martin. The iconic Pennsylvania company has been making top-of-the-line acoustic guitars since 1833 – but many people don’t know that they have also been producing outstanding ukuleles since 1916. The S1 Soprano is their take on a classic soprano uke with quality construction and vintage tone. Let’s check out what makes this instrument one of the best ukuleles under $500.
While it’s not the flashiest ukulele, the S1 offers a refined vintage style with high-quality materials. The top, back and sides are all constructed from solid mahogany, while sitka spruce interior bracing provides added support and projection.
A hand-rubbed satin open-pore finish emphasizes the natural grain of the wood and ensures a comfortable, smooth feel in the player’s arms. The 17-fret sipo fingerboard sits atop a hardwood neck. Build quality is flawless across the board, as you would expect from any instrument bearing the Martin name.
At just over 13.6” long, this is certainly a small uke yet the relatively roomy nut width of nearly 1.5” helps players with bigger hands not feel overly cramped. Most ukuleleists shouldn’t have a problem fretting both chords and single notes across the neck with this spacing.
As befits a Martin, the S1 features vintage, top-of-the-line hardware. The 17 frets are finely crafted from nickel-silver alloy. These are sized well to the soprano, and are leveled and dressed appropriately. The sipo bridge holds a compensated white Tusq saddle, which matches the white Tusq nut at the opposite end of the neck.
The headstock is home to a set of nickel peg friction tuners and the famous Martin logo (unfortunately, the logo here is just a sticker). While they’re not the greatest tuners, friction tuners do tend to work better than more traditional gear tuners at the soprano size. Ultimately, they do a good job keeping tuning stable, while intonation remains great across the fretboard. The S1 comes strung with Martin ukulele strings, action is low and easily playable out of the box. A padded gray gig bag rounds out the package here.
The S1 has all the hallmarks of vintage soprano ukulele tone; there’s no shortage of bright, punchy sounds on offer here. The range tilts noticeably toward trebles, and the notes lack depth in comparison to larger-bodied concert and tenor ukes. However, the S1 does offer a reasonable amount of balance in its tone – chords chime and jangle but don’t cross into shrill territory.
Likewise, plucked notes are smooth and focused but not overly piercing. This uke also projects much better than most other sopranos – while it may be tiny, it’s certainly loud! Though clearly optimized for strumming chords, players should be able to play any style of soprano music on the S1 and get great tone without any problems.
In terms of quality, ukuleles are an outlier in the instrument world. It’s not hard to find a solid model without spending over $100 or $200. The S1 certainly offers top-notch soprano sound – though there are other ukes that can approximate the same tones at a slightly cheaper price. What sets the Martin apart is its impeccable build quality and rich heritage. Advanced players and high-end uke aficionados ought to give the S1 a look.