New Uke Day (NUD) Martin 5K Soprano Ukulele Review and Comparisons

experimentjon

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This new-to-me Martin 5K soprano is finally here! The first ukulele I ever learned on, back in the Aldrine-Guerrero-IAmHawaii.com days (right around when UU was first founded) was a Tangi soprano. Like many on the journey, I ended up favoring the tenor size and staying there. But the right opportunity came to finally own a 5K came, and I couldn’t resist the allure of a soprano again.

The Martin 5K is truly a “flagship” or “brand halo” instrument. With its $5k MSRP (as of 2023) to match its 5K name, it is an ukulele that seems to make little sense as a practical choice when a comparable Hawaiian K-brand can be had for a fraction of the price…or a fleet of K-brands for the same price depending on the flavor of your UAS. But even in the early 1900s when Martin began making ukuleles, the 5K was their top-of-the-line model—the equivalent of their Style 45 guitar, replete with abalone inlays and flamed woods…something that I could only aspire to. I remember staring at a 5K in an NYC-based dealer a few years ago—it was protected like a gem of an instrument, behind glass—and I thought, man, that must be one heck of an instrument.

As soon as I picked up the Martin 5K, I noticed that the instrument is noticeably heavier than expected. If you’ve tried a Collings (very lightweight) and a modern Kamaka, the 5K definitely leans closer to the Kamaka. Perhaps it’s just the density of the neck because I cannot judge whether it is actually “overbuilt”…but the instrument is still well-balanced with a fulcrum right around the 10th fret (even with the geared tuners).

And yes, the tuners were replaced by the previous owner from the standard friction tuners to Waverly open-back geared tuners. At first I was a bit torn on the look (reminds me of a Makala Dolphin and loses the iconic 5K headstock look). But when trying to tune a Martin 0XK with its stock friction tuners—which would not have been too dissimilar from what came with the earlier 5K reissues—I completely acknowledge that the Waverleys are far superior. And at least they are lightweight open back Waverleys, which are premium tuners, rather than heavy closed-back Grovers. Geared pegheads (lighter) or Gotoh UPTs (heavier) would probably have been the choice today for aesthetics, but back in the early 2010s those were not yet options. And now, with holes already tapped [slightly misaligned…but that’s part of the charm now], the highly-precise Waverley units are staying on.

The next thing I admired was the curl and the bling. It’s certainly very highly decorated with no corners cut. Starting with the abalone flowerpot inlay on a flamed headplate, moving down to the snowflake inlays on the fully bound ebony fingerboard, and of course, the abalone rosette and purflings on both the top and back—it’s a thing of beauty! I gave the gloss finish a light cleaning with some Martin Polish & Cleaner (gentle and very effective) and the one-piece curly Koa top and back, as well as the nicely flamed sides all absolutely popped in the light.

Time to play it! After the Aquila nylgut strings stretched and settled in, it comes with the “bark” that many describe Martin sopranos as having. It doesn’t have the full, sweet tone of a tenor or the nice balance of a concert, but that’s not what I’d want or expect out of the soprano body. It sounds good…exactly like you’d imagine from the YouTube videos. The notes are surprisingly well articulated for a soprano, and the projection enough to fill a small room. Admittedly, its tone is not something where I was blown away. It didn’t redefine what I thought the instrument could be, like the first time I played a KoAloha concert or a Kanilea Tenor with TRU bracing. But the Martin has the attitude and feel that you’d expect from an instrument with its looks. And I’m excited to have it age and sound even better over time. This is a 2010 model, 13 years old at this point, and suspect in the next 13, it’ll sound even more open and full.

As for criticisms, people online say the unfinished or blocky bridge is ugly. Yes, lacks the gloss finish of the body, but to be honest, I don’t mind it. I’d assume the lack of finish was for acoustic reasons, and its size and shape don’t look out of place. But then, the only other complaint is the price…

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Is the Martin 5K worth it?

Today there are many 5K-style ukuleles made by a number of highly talented makers at varying price points—with wood that is just as nice. I have not had the chance to play any of those in person, but I suspect that they are just as good tonally as the examples coming out Martin’s Nazareth, PA workshop.

I think that the purchase of a Martin 5K is driven primarily by the desire to own a Martin 5K. It’s what you get when nothing else will scratch the itch. Is that brand heritage and the knowledge that you own the modern incarnation of a legendary instrument worth the sticker of $5,000? (Or the street price somewhere south of that?) Each individual has to answer that for themselves. But perhaps two comparisons can help any on the fence.


Flagships: Martin 5K vs Kamaka Jake Blue Comparison

The Martin 5K is the brand’s equivalent of Kamaka’s “Jake Blue” Tenor – a production-model brand halo. The Jake Blue is priced at $6,400 today, also priced at 3x+ above its base tenor ($1,900). Martin’s Style 0 soprano is about $1600 vs. the $5,000 5K, a similar price gap. And appointment differences are also similar…all-the-stops versus plain koa for the Kamaka and plain sinker mahogany for the Martin.

The 5K is arguably the world’s most iconic soprano, and Jake Shimabukuro’s tenor arguably most famous in its size as well. Both are beautiful. And unlike the rare and gorgeous works of some custom builders, both the 5K and Jake Blue are relatively accessible from retailers—with either a short or zero wait. Tone wise, there may be differences that an amateur like myself probably wouldn’t be able to appreciate between the entry level and the flagships in their respective lines, but I’d suspect for most, they’re 95% sonically identical except for bling.

Production numbers for the Kamaka Jake Blue are around 130 from their genesis in 2018 (first went on sale in early 2019) through Q3 2023. The factory didn’t have a year-by-year breakdown. Meanwhile, there are about 384 Martin 5K reissues (detail below) since they restarted production in 2006. Approximately equal average rates of manufacture…although as you can see for the Martin, averages can hide interesting trends!

But all this to say, if you’re interested in these instruments, you’ll probably eventually end up with both anyway!

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Entry Level vs Flagship: Martin 5K vs Martin 0XK Comparison

Perhaps the more interesting comparison is against the entry level Martin 0XK. $5000 vs $300 MSRP – for the price of one 5K, you can have 16 0XKs. The two instruments cater to completely different segments, but it’s worth seeing what more you can get for the extra Benjamins.

Differences
  • High Pressure Laminate (HPL) vs Curly Koa – While highly flamed Koa is possibly the finest ukulele wood available, the HPL is not unattractive either (with recent models having even more simulated curl)—and certainly more worry-free. The 0XK feels much more robust whereas the 5K feels precious.
  • Tone – playing the two back to back, it’s not hard to identify which one is made of what some describe as “plastic.” Mine are both strung with Aquila Nylguts, but still definitely sound different. However, I can tell you that without a back-to-back comparison, HPL sounds good in absolute terms. Buyers will not be disappointed with how the 0XK sounds—and are unlikely to be “wow-ed” by the modern 5K. I wouldn’t even say the 5K sounds “better”…they’re just different. More projection but more one dimensional vs. slightly more musical but more muted. So while it’s hard to quantify how much “better” the 5K sounds, it is certainly not 16x better, or even 2x better than the 0XK.
  • Appointments and “bling” – The pictures speak for themselves, but the other interesting tidbit is that there is no obvious Martin branding on the 5K as it lacks a headstock sticker—you need to look behind the headstock or in the soundhole for the heat stamps to know who made it…or it’s an IYKYK thing.
  • Made in USA vs Made in Mexico: to some people, country of origin matters. I like MiUSA and MiHawaii whenever possible. However, today, there is top-notch manufacturing in many countries around the world.
  • TKL hard case vs gig bag – You need to be careful around the latches of these TKL cases, but they certainly provide more protection than the gig bag.
Then there’s the history. And if the above doesn’t bridge the $4,700 price gap, the marketing and lore hopefully does.

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Heritage of the Martin 5K Ukulele

Growing up in Hawaii, Kamaka is the OG manufacturer. Everyone knows the pineapple ukulele with the pineapple sticker. Many of us played ukuleles donated by Kamaka in our elementary school classrooms. What I didn’t know until recently—and the fact that sparked my interest in Martin ukuleles—was that while Kamaka started commercial operations in 1916, Martin began around 1915 / 1917 (depending on who is asked) and is just as historic. Martin’s ukulele production numbers were high too! In the decade from 1916, Martin made ~57,000 ukuleles.

While many prefer to collect the original objects, and with many well-preserved examples of vintage Martin, that is certainly possible to do, I love that brands are going back into their catalogs to reissue historic models. These “neo-vintage” or “reissues” provide much more accessible instruments (relatively speaking) and allow owners to write their own history with their copies. We can argue whether they are better-built with modern technologies or maybe more mass-produced by luthiers that may not necessarily have been hand-picked and at the top-of-their-class (no idea the veracity behind those claims since my 5K is certainly cleanly-built), but I’m personally glad the 5K is out there for us.


How many Martin 5K Ukuleles Were Made?

After stopping 5K production in 1941, the model was revived in 2006. The production figures for 2006 and 2007 had been on the internet, and before reaching out to Martin, I had done the mental extrapolation, surprised at that much demand even in the global market…the actual numbers from Martin (and glad they do such a good job tracking) make a lot more sense. Following the initial two production years to catch up with several decades of latent demand, production slowed considerably, with many years of under a dozen instruments being produced.

Martin 5K Production Numbers (Source Martin Customer Service, Oct 2023)

2006
139​
2007
88​
2008
3​
2009
2​
2010
5​
2011
12​
2012
7​
2013
17​
2014
21​
2015
14​
2016
7​
2017
7​
2018
9​
2019
14​
2020
5​
2021
11​
2022
23​
Total
384​

Hope this helps anyone considering the Martin 5K and whether it is “worth it” or just curious about the instrument like I was!
 
Martin started making ukes in 1915, making 12. In 1916 they made 1,371. Their peak year was 1926, making 14,101. Most years production has been between 3 and 5 thousand.

Styles 1, 2, and 3 appeared in 1917. They first offered the Style 5 in 1923 at $55. Google says that's $982 in today's dollars.

Figures from Beloff's history book.
 
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Martin started making ukes in 1915, making 12. In 1916 they made 1,371. Their peak year was 1926, making 14,101. Most years production was between 3 and 5 thousand.

They first offered the various styles in 1923. The Style 5 was $55.

Figures from Beloff's history book.
There is a 5K on the Flea Marketplace for $12,000 from the 1920’s.
 
The Martin 5K is one of the iconic ukuleles being made. Perhaps the equivalent of the Martin D-28 guitar for recognition and desirability.

My understanding is that the 5Ks are made individually in Martin's custom shop.

Congratulations. It's a truly beautiful instrument.
 
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