Westone & Aria Basses
Aria Straycat bass / Westone Pantera bass
Now here's an interesting set of contrasts, indicating just what your money is going to get you from two established Eastern bass makes these days.
With the new Straycat, Aria have gone for fashionably cheap Taiwanese production, no surprises, and an adequate if unexciting guitar. Westone, on the other hand, have retained costlier Japanese manufacture for their new Pantera line, with more attention to style than before, but no loss whatsoever in the more crucial sound department.
Glancing at the Aria, we notice a plankish body, flat, dryish looking fingerboard, and, on the review sample, a plain white finish. Evidence of the budget manufacture is apparent (signs of a tiny wood repair at the headstock, for example) but hardly overpowering.
Picking the bass up and plugging in reveals a good balance and a stark if reassuring simplicity of layout: single eight-polepiece pickup governed by a single volume and single tone control.
There is plenty of volume on hand, too, and the immediate impression on fiddling with the knobs is of a surprisingly wide range of tone colours from the back control, despite the simplicity.
Simplicity is generally considered A Good Thing on basses, and many top bassists will, given half the chance, tell you how the original Fenders got it right in this respect and that all the subsequent gimmickry does little or nothing to enhance the basic sound of a piece of wood with four strings vibrating over a pickup. Aria have plainly listened to this murmuring.
But move over to the Westone and it is immediately obvious what an extra £160-odd can buy you. If the bassists we just mentioned consider 'gimmickry' to include such diversions as a smooth body line, trendy droopy headstock, and an application of black paint wherever it will go without detracting from the pearly white colour of the sample's body, then the Pantera has its share of gimmicks.
But sound and feel are the qualities which separate a great bass from a good bass, and it is these we must consider when a bass is put before us which seems keen to drag quids from our wallets.
Right: the neck of the Aria feels slightly unusual to me. It's 'unfinished' in effect — no paint, no lacquer — and if it feels kinda dry at first it's certainly not lacking in speed and smoothness. Actually it reminds me of the feel of the vastly expensive Kubicki Factor bass from the States - and as with that instrument, I have a feeling (though no evidence) that it might get dirty soon.
But I digress (and it's only 2pm). Sound and feel, remember? The Aria's fingerboard is wide and flat - so the advantage is that you can skip about and exploit the clanginess of the natural sound of the bass with little stress on the old left hand; the disadvantage is that you lose the precision that a slightly more 'condensed' board would offer.
Personally I really liked the dimensions of the Aria's neck, particularly the thin-ish profile and the medium-width frets. Slapping revealed a good response across the strings, too, though the passive nature of the electronics held back the wilder noises available to the fingerboard-basher from active beasts.
Overall? Sound - some reservations, but good for the money. Feel - excellent for me. There you are. You insist on a summation of looks too? Looks - bland, uninspiring. You did ask. But I insist it's the least important bit.
One set of people who disagree are the design team at the Matsumoku factory in Japan where Westone guitars are made. The team must have put quite a bit of effort into making the new Panteras look good. Whether you like the result is obviously a matter of taste. As you're in an insistent mood today, I will tell you that I rather like the rounded body shape that sweeps the controls away from you when you're wearing the bass, but I admit to groaning at the sight of yet another drooping headstock. Still, fashion is all about being unoriginal.
First thing you really notice when you pick up a strange bass in a shop is the neck, don't you find? The neck on the Pantera is thick, emphasised visually on our model by its blackness. It's what our old gaggle of bassists, who haven't made a comment for a few paragraphs, would call "a bit of a tree trunk". But then they're old and therefore often say things without thinking.
Actually, it's a bit thick for my tastes, too. To my way of playing (largely fingerstyle, though slapping was rewarded here), it makes things just that bit slower and marginally more ungainly. But we are talking infinitesimal measurements here, Horace.
The frets could almost have come from the same roll of medium fretwire as the Aria's and after overcoming the putoff-ability of the profile, I did indulge in some enjoyment.
Next, the sound. What you really notice is the benefit of having too pickups. The controls let you choose front, back or both pickups from the three-position switch, and the three knobs are for volume overall, then for front tone, and lastly back tone. Nothing to strain the intellect there, but the results certainly stretch your amp in a pleasant manner.
There was a particularly nice piano-y quality to the sound with both pickups on, the back tone quite high and the front tone centred. Quite a yummy, full-bodied little noise, in fact. The tonal range was as wide as a passive will allow, and while the attractive 'cheap' clang of the Aria was beyond my twiddling, the Pantera had the ability to sound warm and full without any feeling of complexity.
It's the tricky moment when either you must go home and listen to your Stanley Clarke bootlegs or open your wallet.
I'm happy to report that both basses are good buys in their respective price brackets. That means we might even see the Straycat appearing in the Bible ere long.
This Aria looks cheap but not tatty, and does a good job if you require basic, passive sounds without extremes, and will lend a springy tone to your basslines. You'll play it as soon as you pick it up.
By contrast, I found the Westone Pantera less immediate because of its uncompromising feel, but loved the classiness of sounds it sent along my jack lead. Quite what the Pantera "triangle with curvy bits" logo is all about, though, I've no idea. Maybe some of the Letraset fell off on the way over from Japan?
Review by Tony Bacon
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