NBD Redux – SX (ESSEX) Content

Discussion in 'Basses [BG]' started by Mossmatic, Jul 5, 2013.

  1. Mossmatic

    Mossmatic Compulsive Modder

    Jul 19, 2012
    Hey everbody... I thought I'd finally get around to posting a review of my latest acquisition (SX Ursa 2 Hum). This isn't literally the day I received the bass (this actually all started a few weeks ago). The first one they shipped me had a number of issues and I had to send it back for an exchange (hence the 'redux' in the title). When I got the replacement, I wanted to wait until I had tweaked it to my liking and had lived with it for a while before rendering an objective opinion about it (I think too many people - flush with the excitement of a new toy - rush online too soon to post a gushing review about it). As a fair warning, this is a very detailed review and kind of a long read, so you may want to grab a cuppa coffee and settle in.

    This is my second SX bass and my fifth instrument from Rondo Music [SX JMB (Jaguar bass), Agile 3100, Harm 12-String and a “lawsuit” DC Junior copy] and every one of them were excellent guitars in build and finish without any major issues of any kind.

    For guitars and basses in this price range, You figure you're probably gonna get a dog eventually (that goes for ANY price range, actually) so I wasn't too upset about having to send this one back. Fortunately, Kurt has a great return policy and the replacement was on my porch two days after they received my return. Granted, I live 60 miles away from Rondo, but the point is; they didn't drag their feet in turning it around (like some big-box, online dealers I've purchased from). It actually took much less time to get the replacement than the original bass.

    For those who are interested; the issues with the first bass were both cosmetic (which I'm not so fussy about) and flaws in the construction (which I care a lot more about).

    The “binding” and “inlays” looked like they were painted 5 minutes before quitting time on a Friday, with a stencil that should have been retired the day before. Not a clean edge to be seen... Also, the blocks were visibly off-center both horizontally and vertically. There were areas down both edges of the fretboard where the painted binding had been sanded through, then clear-coated over.


    That's not a reflection, that's sand-through. And it goes down the entire length of the neck on both sides.

    The binding at the end of the fretboard looked like it was achieved by using three pieces of masking tape (instead of a smooth, curved edge following the contour of the fretboard, it was comprised of three straight lines) most likely in an attempt to salvage a failing stencil.

    On the body, there were numerous “dimples” in the finish, which I figure were the result of being a little too stingy with the grain filler on the Ash body (yep, despite what it says in the website description, it is indeed made of Ash, not Alder... Whether it's actually “Swamp Ash” as claimed on the decal is open for debate). There were also several small voids from dust and debris in all the painted surfaces, which made me wonder if they'd ever heard of tack-cloth in the SX factory.


    To be fair, my HD camera made these look much worse than they actually were.

    I was willing to overlook the cosmetic flaws and I kept reminding myself that it's a $179 bass, and that I bought it as a player and a modding platform, not as a showpiece. But as I got into the process of setting it up, I discovered that there were no less than four high frets (2nd, 4th, 7th and 14th) which produced terrible buzzing and no amount of relief or raising the action (playable action, anyway) would get around it. If it were just one, or maybe 2 frets, I might break out my file and finesse them a bit, but I wasn't interested in doing any kind of rescue work, so back it went.


    Ok, Now for the good stuff... As I mentioned, the replacement arrived a lot faster than I thought it would...


    ...and the first thing I did was give it a quick set-up (both basses came with a pretty decent set-up right out of the box, actually) and check for buzzing frets and dead spots. I found none... Just to be sure, I checked the level on all the frets and didn't find a single “rocker” among them (with the neck nearly dead straight). The fret ends are clean and smooth, and the over-all fret job looks (and feels) immaculate.

    I gotta say, I LOVE the way this neck feels! The profile is very slim, (like a Geddy Lee Jazz Bass) and it's very fast. I'm not sure what the finish is (I think it might be polyurethane instead of polyester) but it's very slick and not “grabby” at all. I typically knock the gloss off my necks with a piece of ScotchBrite, but I don't think it'll be necessary with this one.

    Also, the neck pocket is very tight (you could lift the whole bass by the neck with the screws removed). Much tighter than my MIM Jazz or even many MIA Fenders that I've owned/worked on.

    The block markers and “binding” are MUCH better than the first bass. The edges are much cleaner and the blocks are almost perfectly centered. I did do a little touch-up on the binding here and there with a fine-point Sharpie pen to hide the larger dust voids (I know it'll most likely wear off, but it didn't really call for the whole black nail polish and wet sand routine) but otherwise, I think this neck looks pretty darn swell.

    The finish on this body is much better than the first bass. I did find a few random “dimples” in the back of the body, but nothing on the top. Also, this finish is thinner than you would expect on an import guitar. It doesn't have the “dipped in liquid plastic” look that my older SX and MIM Jazz Bass have, (which I know to be polyester).

    The tuners are surprisingly smooth... I mean unbelievably smooth... Like Schaller or Hipshot smooth. I had doubts about how well they would hold tune, but since the new strings have settled in, they've been holding tune like a rock (and we've had some drastic temperature/humidy fluctuations around here lately).

    The nut looks acceptable and it doesn't have the dreaded “open A buzz” (like the first bass did). I don't really see a need to replace the nut or use a 3-string tree (like I have on my MIM Jazz).

    Like the tuners, the truss rod action is super smooth and the neck is very responsive to adjustments. Almost too responsive... When I was setting it up, I over-adjusted at first and had to back off a bit as I got a feel for this neck and how it responds. Concerns about neck stability have crossed my mind, being that it's a thin neck and it doesn't take much to move it with the truss rod, but the climate has gone from cool and dry to hot, humid and rainy within the span of few days and it hasn't even gone out of tune.

    The bridge on this bass is surprisingly stout... I would say it's comparable to a Gotoh 203. The base plate is thicker than a standard Fender bridge and it has larger saddles. There are no grooves in the base plate to hold the saddles in place, but it's not really necessary. When the strings are at tension, the saddles pull together into a solid unit. You'd have to hit 'em with a hammer to make them move.

    I actually installed a Gotoh 201 that I had laying around and made some recordings with each bridge, just to see if there was any difference in tone or sustain. They actually sounded nearly identical. The Gotoh had a slightly ballsier tone due to the brass saddles, but it was a very subtle difference. Just to be thoroughly scientific about it (or anal retentive, depending on how you look at it) I put the saddles from the SX bridge on the Gotoh and recorded that as well... That sounded slightly brighter, with more of a mid-rangey tone.

    You can listen to the comparison here: https://soundcloud.com/mossmatic/sets/bass-bridge-comparison

    Those clips were recorded clean, straight through a Zoom B3 in bypass mode. It sounds tighter and growlier on these recordings than it does coming out of my amp... I think the EQ settings on the amp probably smooths it out a bit.

    I'm going to keep the Gotoh on there for now, but if I had to stick with the stock bridge, I'd be perfectly happy with that too.

    The stock pickups are also better than I expected... When I bought my SX Jaguar about 5 years ago, everything on that bass (except the tuners) was junk. Especially the pickups... They were weak and sounded terrible (I ended up using them as refrigerator magnets). By contrast, the MM style humbucker on this bass is crazy hot (12K Ohm resistance) and while the tone isn't exactly breathtaking, it doesn't sound horrible, either. It's a little hard to describe, but I think you can hear what I'm talking about in the clips...

    It's got the fuller sound that you would expect from a humbucker and it's growly, but there's a “pinched” or slightly nasal character to it that's hard to put into words. I think it has more to do with the position of the pickup (closer to the bridge) than the pickup itself. At any rate, I'm not too concerned about it. I have a '76 Stingray preamp clone (built by fellow TB'er; Gideon) that I'm going to install in this piece and see if it creates a monster (mwahahaha!) One thing's for sure.. This bass is gonna be LOUD! Even just as a passive pickup, it can clip my amp at relatively low gain. It could very well sound like poopiee with the pre, but I can always replace it with a pickup that's not quite as hot.

    The neck pickup is fine, but the output is a little mis-matched (this pickup is only 7K Ohms against the bridge pickup's 12K). Dialing it in gives the tone a little more bottom, but it's not a very dramatic difference... More like boosting the low mids a little on an EQ.

    I'm not sure if it's practical to match a Fender-style single-coil with a MM-style humbucker. Even EBMM hides another functioning single coil pickup (not a dummy coil) under the pickguard of their “HS” models (technically, I think they should be called “HSS”, but that's just me). At any rate, I'm going to replace the single coil neck pup with another humbucker (probably from GFS) and see how that sounds. The GFS is only 8.35K, but I think it will be a better match (both sonically and aesthetically) than the stock single coil. I'll also wire in a 4-position switch for neck only/neck and bridge humbucking/neck and bridge single-coil/bridge only. I may also add a passive/active switch on the control plate as well.

    In terms of over-all character, this bass is very lively. You can feel the vibrations through the whole bass when you play it and it has a nice, strong voice when played acoustically. Often times I find myself practicing with it unplugged for long stretches of time, without even thinking about plugging into an amp.

    This bass is also very light. At 9 lbs., it's a full 2 lbs lighter than my MIM Jazz and 1 lb lighter than my SX Jag. This may be due to the wood (actually, Ash can run heavier or lighter than Alder), or the fact that the body is only 1.5” thick (as opposed to the 1.75” of the Fender and 1.625” of the Jaguar). Or it could be a combination of both... Either way, I like it!

    Compared to the crap parts that came stock on my Jaguar, it looks like SX has stepped up the quality of the hardware and pickups over the last few years. Don't get me wrong, the build quality of the Jag is solid (and it's also very lively), but they really cut corners with the parts. However, once I installed a BA II bridge, Fender pups (from a “real” Jaguar bass) and CTS pots, it became a joy to play and has been my go-to bass (over my much more expensive American and Japanese basses) for the last five years or so... In fact, I've since sold off all of my higher-end basses, and honestly, I don't miss them... I'm perfectly content to mod and play SX's and Squiers (and I used to be kind of a gear snob!).

    I'm not saying that I wouldn't own an American made bass again (I've still got GAS for an EBMM Sterling) or that import basses are “just as good”, but if I can make a $200 or $300 bass play and sound like 50 kinds of awesome, I find that a lot more gratifying.

    Minor cosmetic imperfections don't bother me that much... If the build quality and playability are there, and you know how to do your own set-up and mods, anything that's “wrong” with it can usually be corrected (unless you just get a dead piece of wood, warped neck, etc.). Sure, the QC can be a little spotty sometimes, but I would say no more so than any other import guitar manufacturer. I've also seen my share of American-made guitars/basses that were lifeless or had issues straight out of the factory. Any mass-produced instrument you buy without actually playing can be a gamble, no matter what name is on the headstock. At least most online retailers make it easy to return an instrument for an exchange if you happen to get a dud (unless you live outside the US, in the case of Rondo... Not sure about the others).

    Overall, I'm pretty well thrilled with this bass! I'd say the quality is equal to a Squier VM and probably better than an MIM Standard (I haven't touched another MIM since I bought mine in '98, so I don't know how they are now). If the mods I have in mind end up making this fiddle sound the way I want it to, I may have just found my new favorite bass! (and I really LOVE the Jaguar, so that's saying a lot.)

    About the only thing I'm not so crazy about is....


    Yeah, I really can't stand the headstock... I know, you don't play the headstock, you don't see it while you're playing, etc., but I'm also an artist and aesthetics matter to me.

    I thought it might not look so bad in person, or that it might “grow on me”, but it just doesn't look like it belongs on this bass. What's funny is; I thought the previous SX headstock design (which the Jaguar had) was hideous and I re-sculpted it into a Fender shape.


    But compared to this canoe paddle, the old headstock looks absolutely beautiful. In fact, if this bass had the old headstock, I wouldn't even change it... but I gotta do something with this. There's not enough wood there to shape it into a Fender-style headstock, but I think I can turn it into a Music Man style 3+1 headstock without much difficulty. It's already turning into sort of a Jazz Bass/StingRay hybrid (JazzRay?) anyway, so I think an MM headstock would be appropriate.

    Well, I think that just about covers everything... Sorry it turned into such a long post, but I hope it was helpful to anyone who's thinking about pulling the trigger on an SX. I'll keep y'all updated on the progress of the mods!
  2. Just played a killer show, so I chose beer over coffee.

    I really appreciate your thorough and detailed review.
    Answered some of my questions about the current state of SX basses, as I'm considering a Jazz-type for some rather extreme modding.
    Since I'll be wanting to replace the pickups with split-coil aftermarket J's it's good to know that I won't have to throw a bunch of money at the hardware.

    VERY nice write-up.
  3. bassbenj


    Aug 11, 2009
    What is the order of the bridge recordings. The first two sound pretty identical to me, with the third one just a tad less bright.

    I had an early "fishhook" SX and did the "fauxFender" bandsaw mod too. For all my Ursas I have done the "dixiecup" mod. Some people say they hate that worse than the Ursa, but to me it's kind of like a G&L without the eye poker.

    Anyway, Great review of your SX consumer experience! Lots of great comments both for noobs and a fan-boi like me with a huge SX herd.
  4. Mossmatic

    Mossmatic Compulsive Modder

    Jul 19, 2012
    Thanks Keith...

    Yeah, when I buy an SX, I usually tend to think of it as buying a body and a neck, rather than a complete instrument. I usually figure on spending at least as much as the cost of the bass on upgrades, but it looks like this time around, I won't have to.

    What I'd really like to get are a pair of Nordstrands, but since this is more or less an experiment, I'd like to see how the GFS and the stock pup sound with the preamp before I go too nuts. I really like GFS guitar pickups, but I've never tried their bass pups - or even heard from anyone who has - so we'll see how that goes.
  5. Mossmatic

    Mossmatic Compulsive Modder

    Jul 19, 2012
    Thanks Benj...

    The clips should be in the order that they're listed below the player (SX bridge > Gotoh 201 > Gotoh w/ SX saddles).

    It's interesting that the last clip (Gotoh w/ SX saddles) sounds less bright to you. I thought that one sounded the brightest (I'm not even sure if "bright" is the correct adjective, but it does sound different than the other two) and the middle clip (Gotoh w/ stock brass saddles) sounded slightly warmer and fuller to me. They are almost identical, though. You really have to strain to hear the subtle variances... It could just be a difference in our respective speakers/rooms/headphones.

    I've heard others mention the "dixie cup mod" on here, but I never knew what it was! Do you think you could post a picture of it?
  6. Scott in Dallas

    Scott in Dallas Commercial User

    Aug 16, 2005
    Dallas, north Texas
    Builder and Owner: DJ Ash Guitars
    Is the plastic still on the pickguard?

    EDIT: Just noticed you sent that one back. Sorry.

    Love the looks of that bass. Even though I'm not a huge fan of that headstock, I don't think it needs the dixie cup mod at all.
  7. Mossmatic

    Mossmatic Compulsive Modder

    Jul 19, 2012
    Yeah, I'm digging the black-n-maple look myself. I debated for a while whether to get that or the sunburst finish. I typically prefer the look of wood over opaque finishes (except in my younger days when my guitars/basses could be any color as long as it was black! :ninja:), but for the sake of variety (I already have a bass in 3TS) and aesthetics (the humbucker seems to really stick out against the sunburst finish), I chose the black one, and I'm glad I did.

    I did a search for the "dixie cup" mod to see what it looks like, and I think it looks pretty good. I had considered something similar as an option, but I think I'm pretty committed to the 3+1 MM style. I don't consider this work to be a hassle or a chore.. I enjoy it.

    For example, another headstock shape that I'm not fond of the "gumby" Ibanez Soundgear headstock (talk about a headstock you can't do much with). This is what I did to my SR800LE:


    That was a lot of fun.
  8. Interesting Ibanez mod.
    It's growing on me.

    Personally, I don't hate the current SX headstock enough to bother altering it.
    Would look better to me if it was a little slimmer like some pointy '80s metal basses I could name, but why bother?
    If it sounds good I would hesitate to mod for fear of proving Leo Fender right: He once showed that the usual Fender neck dead-spot could be cured by attaching a small C-clamp to the headstock. The added mass fixed it, and we're only talking about a couple of ounces.
    Don't seem to hear any complaints about current SX basses having such obvious dead notes, so maybe bigger IS better.
  9. dabbler


    Aug 17, 2007
    Bowie, MD
    Me neither, and I've got old and new headstock SXes:


    Different strokes for different folks, but for me a HUM is not a traditional J, it's more modern. I like the fact that it has a more non-traditional headstock. Oh yeah, that goes for the Ursa 2 6 too.
  10. Mossmatic

    Mossmatic Compulsive Modder

    Jul 19, 2012
    Yeah, it's unusual... I was originally going to make it come to a point, but I thought it would look too "Rick Turner".

    Because it's fun, creative and gratifying... I build guitars and basses all the time (parts builds so far, but I'm currently working on my first "scratch build"). To me, It's not a bother.

    Greater mass at the headstock can increase sustain and resonance. This can be demonstrated by holding your headstock against a door frame or wall while playing acoustically, (and it also accounts for the popularity of the "Fat Finger" years ago), but I'm not convinced that a small peghead contributes to dead spots in the neck. If that were the case, then every guitar/bass manufacturer would use a large headstock. Some basses (like Steinbergers) have no headstock at all and are not plagued with dead notes.

    Also don't forget, Leo designed the Stingray too, which has a smaller headstock than Fender basses. Some say the reason he moved the G string tuner to the other side was to counter dead spots, but others say there's no credible evidence to support that.

    In terms of practical, empirical evidence; I've reshaped (removed mass from) several headstocks over the years and owned basses with downright tiny headstocks (like the Ibanez) and I've never had that result in dead notes or poor sustain.

    Besides, this is a $179 instrument. If this were a more expensive bass, I would probably leave it alone... But then again, I probably wouldn't buy an expensive bass with an ugly (to me) headstock in the first place. ;)
  11. I considered modifying the headstock on my Ursa 2, but I actually grew to like it.

    Doesn't hurt that my neck has some cool, almost quilted figure to it.
    C67E8FA9-E66D-4C53-AE9F-644BA8B2A30F-40946-00000B47D845BB53.jpg 05509EE6-DC23-41BC-8EFB-C397DF96E1B0-40946-00000B47CD929CAB.jpg
  12. Mossmatic

    Mossmatic Compulsive Modder

    Jul 19, 2012
    That's nice... I've seen other SX's (like Dabbler's above) that have some nice figuring on the neck... I was hoping I would get one of those, but alas, mine are just plain maple.

    You might be able to bring out more of that figuring if you sand it. I bought a cheap, generic guitar neck once that was pretty unremarkable until I sanded the finish off. Then all kinds of flamey goodness started to emerge.
  13. dabbler


    Aug 17, 2007
    Bowie, MD
    Do you remember what colors those other figured necks were? I'm beginning to wonder if they aren't putting the figured necks on the transparent color bodies.

  14. nomadh


    Feb 6, 2008
    I guess the nat finish bodies should get the flamey necks. Obviously those buyers are the ones who love the look of wood.
    Personally I think anyone who paints a nice piece of wood doesnt deserve a nice grained neck. Probably the vendors should just be painting those necks as well.
  15. bassbenj


    Aug 11, 2009
    Dixiecup Mod looks like this:


    (you theoretically use a dixiecup to draw the round end of the headstock to saw it...This isn't mine but does look like mine. I just root around for something circular that is the right diameter to mark the cut. I think in my case it was the top off a paint poof can...rather than a Dixiecup)