There are dozens of entry-level mandolins, and only a few have even fairly good tone. Though it’s no match for a high-end Gibson or Weber instrument, the Kentucky 250S is a great way to get started on the mandolin.
Tone is the most important aspect of assessing any musical instrument’s value, and the Kentucky 250S is worth its $250 price tag. This mandolin offers a solid spruce top, solid maple back and sides, and a rosewood fretboard. Even though its woods are better than laminates, the mandolin will be somewhat tinny and thin at first; all new wooden musical instruments need some breaking-in time before they sound their best. After a few months of use, the mandolin’s tone improves throughout its range, with warm lows, punchy middle notes, and mellower highs.
The Kentucky 250S has some great features to enhance its playability, a quality nearly as important as tone. Most entry-level instruments have flat fretboards; the Kentucky’s is radiused, or slightly convex and more ergonomic. Many players find the radiused fretboard much easier to play than flat ones.
Equipped with a truss rod, both ease of play and longevity of the Kentucky are assured.
Noticeably smaller than typical mandolins, the 250S is both thinner on the sides and smaller on the top and back. This compact design reduces weight and eases play, but may impact the instrument’s tone slightly. It also sits somewhat loosely in a standard sized case, so rough handling of the case should be avoided.
While it may not impact tone or playability, a mandolin’s looks are still significant; cheap-looking finishes can repel a player. The Kentucky’s dark burgundy-colored finish, while unconventional, is beautifully subtle and complex, with the faintest “chocolate burst” on the instrument’s top. The back and sides have some flaming in the solid maple, though not as much as can be found in Gibsons or Rigels. The headstock has surprisingly impressive inlays, while the fretboard offers standard dot markers. Binding around the top, sides and fretboard is simple but effective.
Of course, no entry-level mandolin will be perfect. The tuners, while workable, are fairly cheap and should be replaced with Gotohs or Grovers. The plastic nut is basic but does its job, and the tailpiece is unremarkable. The included bridge should also be replaced with a better ebony one.
A sturdy “A” model mandolin with bluegrass-friendly F-holes, mandolinists of any genre will find something to like about the Kentucky 250S. It’s no Gibson, but this mandolin is a great way to get started.