Encore SB403 Bass
Koreans go "cheap"
WHAT DOES £99 sound like? Well, this is a one-sound bass that tends toward clanginess when strung up with roundwounds. But let's not be too hasty. There is a welcome absence of fret buzz, one of the chief afflictions of cheap guitars, and while "acoustically" it has the occasional rattle around the octave on the G-string and higher up on the E, once plugged in these are diminished.
Happily, the strings and pickups give a good, even output across the range, without undue emphasis to one or another of the strings. This too is something to listen out for on cheap basses (and, unfortunately, on some not-so-cheap efforts too), so full marks to the Encore here.
As soon as you play the bass it's clear that the fingerboard is relatively wide and flat — in fact, the skinny frets look like they were made for a marginally narrower board, finished with a steeply sloped edge on top and bottom. The fingerboard is, on closer examination, a separate piece of wood, even if the light-coloured neck gives the impression from a distance of one-piece maple, in fact the board is lighter in colour, contrasting rather unfavourably with the richer headstock wood. Indeed the fingerboard wood looks rather nauseous in daylight.
The Encore range of guitars is made in Korea, seemingly the new source for what is politely referred to as instruments "made to a price". This means that they are dead cheap, both in production methods and eventual selling price. In the league table of Eastern guitar-making quality, Korea is clearly third, after Taiwan and, of course, Japan.
A tell-tale sign of this cheapness includes the mentioned mismatch, in appearance at least, of the woods — also there's a vertically misaligned cheap plastic position marker up at high C, badly finished bases of the two control knobs which feel like moulded silver paper (I kept pulling the volume knob right off), and the overall "bulkiness" of the complete instrument. But you could live with all these things when you get a bass that plays so reasonably for under that magic hundred-quid figure. What you might have a little more lasting discomfort with is the bridge.
No sooner had we picked the bass out of its box and given it a preliminary pluck had it become obvious that the E and A strings supplied were, er, duff. So let's rip those off and replace them straight away. Straight away? Not quite.
The bridge has four big chrome "saddles" (more like toilet seats), each with a hole in the middle. The string travels over the lip on the front, through the hole, and down to a hole-and-slot on the baseplate where the ball-end is restrained. There are a couple of tiny slot-head screws passing down through the front of each saddle for action adjustments, and a sprung cross-head screw gripping a threaded hole on the back for intonation.
OK. The tricky bit comes when taking off or putting on a string. It's awkward because you have to wrestle in an ungainly fashion with the saddle, wiggle the string around to disengage/engage the hole and slot, and push back on the sprung screw to give you enough clearance to do all those things. All at the same time. Poor old musician-type fingers. Sure, you'll get used to it, and once we'd changed strings back and forward a few times the operation became much quicker. But user-friendly it ain't.
A bigger problem was the E-string I wanted to put on to replace the duff original. It was too wide (merely a "medium-light" .105) to sit in the slot, so it sat in the hole instead and consequently pushed the saddle up at an uncomfortable angle. A bit of screwing with the action adjusters made it nearer to the norm, but still not right. Don't the Koreans know that E strings are, generally, that bit thicker than other strings? I think they should be told.
Anyway, here we are playing it after all. The pickups are good — split P-Bass types — and the controls do the normal volume and tone jobs. The volume is smooth and fine; the tone has a distinct click in its response down at the bass extreme which renders the last tenth or so unusable.
But then, how many bassists actually use the tone knob? 99% of them just whack both knobs full up and leave them there for ever. Test: where is the tone knob on your bass? Did you say on the headstock? This one will respond perfectly to such conservatism.
A quick look around the black body and light-wood neck before we go: there's a plastic nut, again cut with rather light stringing requirements in mind, but dealing with the .105 better than the lads down the other end. Machines hung on to the strings with a pleasing grip, and on the back leave the cogs open to the elements. There is a strong scratchplate, and a thumb rest for you to try out your screwdriver on. There are strap pegs. There is a jack socket.
So, the bridge could be made simpler, but it does at least work. Those string slots definitely should be wider, though. And substantial knobs would be useful, too. But if you can get along with a wide, chunky neck, an unspectacular sound and low-key looks, then the Encore is worth the loot. Play it again.
ENCORE coaster bass: £99
Review by Tony Bacon
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