I often feel like a broken record these days when reviewing lower-level, import-line basses from established manufacturers… “You sure get a lot more value for your money and much higher quality than you used to…” Nevertheless, that trend marches on – and does so in a time when not much else seems to work that way!
Ibanez has added two very different basses to its reliable and consistently high build-quality stable: the SRMD200 Mezzo from the Soundgear line ($299.99 street) and AFR4FMP Affirma from the AFR series ($1,499.99 street). These basses couldn’t really be more different, and they’ll likely satisfy wholly separate swaths of the bass community. However, they both strike me as instruments that could potentially compete with other basses two to three times their cost. Let’s take a closer look at each.
Sporting the familiar Soundgear line of basses’ stylings and contouring – a line that has successfully been in production for more than 30 years, continuously – the Mezzo was immediately familiar and endearing to me. To be fully transparent, my first high-quality bass was an Ibanez Soundgear SR885, purchased new around 1995 from a local music store, which has long since succumbed to the increasingly nationalized and shrinking M.I. industry. I spent pivotal years becoming proficient on that bass (or at least attained a good amount of the limited proficiency I currently enjoy), so although that SR885 was long ago replaced in my personal lineup, the Mezzo’s vibe was appealing from the get go.
The SRMD200 is an Indonesian-made, medium-scale (32”, 813mm) 4-string bass that doesn’t possess any of the string floppiness or tubby tone that I often associate with the presently en vogue, shorter-than-standard-scale bass flock. In fact, to be honest, as I hastily unpackaged the bass and started playing, unaware of the specifics of what I had been sent for review just yet, I didn’t realize it was a medium-scale bass right away. To me, that’s high praise! After I realized what I had in my hands, I was all the more impressed how “normal” it felt and sounded, while benefiting from the easier playability and almost childlike enjoyment that medium and short-scale instruments are known for. It arrived at my door packaged (more than a little precariously) in a triangular cardboard box, within another shipping box, without an included gig bag or other protection. But I was pleased to see that while that packing scenario may not inspire the most confidence, its reinforcement foam and the bass’ position within the framework did their duty and the bass arrived unscathed.
The Mezzo is comprised of a poplar body sporting a very attractive teal sparkle-metallic finish and white pickguard, maple neck and fretboard, 22 frets that are exceptionally well-seated and dressed for this price point, and a P/J pickup configuration that utilizes Ibanez’s DXP and DXJ passive pickups. Although the pickups are passive, the bass employs an active preamp and does not feature a passive bypass, opting instead for full-time active output that provides global bass and treble controls and a separate volume pot for each pickup. Taking a deeper look, I found the pickups to be mounted with both a spongy foam and sturdy springs to provide more than adequate suspension. Taking a look around back in the control cavity, I discovered that one of the preamp’s boards is intentionally left loose within the cavity, though its foam covering ensures that no errant connections are accidentally made and no shunting to ground is likely to occur against the black shielding paint used within.
I always applaud a tilted-back headstock that puts centuries of pre-Fender luthiery savoir-faire to good use in avoiding the need for a string tree to provide the needed break angle of the strings over the nut. The Mezzo achieved this with a very nice scarf joint that extended from the 1st to the 2nd fret positions, rather than right under the volute, ostensibly for greater strength. Smart. Up at the headstock, you’ll find another cool Ibanez-ism: their pivoting, no-tools-necessary truss rod cover. Of course, you’ll still need an Allen wrench to turn the rod, but I dug the quick and easy access this simple, but elegant, little touch allows for. The bridge appears reasonably massive (in a good way) and was easily adjustable, but I always prefer a design that allows quick string release, where possible. A separate battery compartment sits alongside the main electronics compartment at the back, but I find this of limited use if it’s not a design that allows for tool-less battery changes. Why not just open the main cavity? That said, I did very much appreciate the threaded machine screw inserts that are used on the battery compartment, to avoid stripped screw holes from the (potentially) more heavily accessed power provider.
The Mezzo sounds fantastic! It’s got a biting, somewhat aggressive and lively quality with the EQ set flat and both pickups up full, and certainly has that delicious P/J growl and “upfrontness” typical of that string-sensing scenario. The treble and bass boost/cut controls were useful and voiced well, and the two volume controls work surprisingly well with each other – really minimizing insertion loss and crosstalk between the two very different pickup types. Even their soloed volumes were similar. This made me wonder if there might be a buffered, active blend being put to good use somewhere in that proprietary preamp circuit. This is a great bass for just about any style of playing, but really shined for slapping and fingerstyle work. Several of my students commented positively on the bass’ feel and tone during weekly lessons, as well. I detected a hint of a dead spot at the D/7th fret of the G string, but truthfully, it was almost negligible. I would expect that many players would likely not notice it on this specific bass, and another example of this model may not exhibit it at all (or may relocate it).
In contrast to the Mezzo’s more mass appeal, with its traditional-leaning pickguard, relatively familiar shape, and popular pickup placement, the Affirma sits solidly in more contemporary territory. I was surprised to see more interest and curiosity surrounding the Affirma after posting photos of the two basses on my social accounts; much of it on the part of fans of the now defunct Ibanez Ergodyne models, which I’m now aware have an almost cult-level following I hadn’t previously been hip to.
Ibanez’s AFR4MP is also made in Indonesia, and exhibits the same attention to detail and built quality as its less expensive cousin for the most part, which it certainly should do for its higher, $1,499.99 street price – still a steal for a bass guitar with these specifications. The Affirma uses a majority maple construction, with a lightly flamed maple top and walnut inset in the body. The neck, which features what appears to be a very deep set-neck design and is dubbed “half neck through” construction by Ibanez, is made of three maple laminates with inlaid graphite bars for stability. It is capped with an ebony fretboard that sports 24 well-attended frets under the G string, tapering off to 22 by the time you reach the E string. This type of neck-to-body joint is slightly reminiscent of designs that some Ken Smith and Fodera basses use, lending a boutique quality to the instrument. The neck-to-body seams at the joint with the body wings were just slightly harshly finished, though there were no functional or playability concerns, there.
As with the Mezzo, I was pleased to see a nicely angled back headstock – but in a bit of a one-up on that model, the headstock appears to be carved from the neck laminates, rather than a separate piece or pieces of wood that attach to the neck via a glue joint. Nice! While we’re on the subject, this headstock is unique in a number of ways. A first glance will show you it’s very pointy, narrow, and short, which helps to balance the bass so well. It also allows for a nice, straight string pull over the nut to each tuner. But in order to accommodate this with such limited space, the tuning machines are actually installed upside down on each side – unusual at first, but definitely not an insurmountable issue by any means.
Let’s talk about looks. If you’re looking for something non-traditional and markedly un-FSO (“Fender Shaped Object”) like, the Affirma is right up your alley. Fans of vintage and reissue P-basses with period-correct finishes and components might have more mixed feelings about its aesthetics. The upper horn extends to the 12th fret and features some less rounded, carved edges as part of its contouring. The lower horn’s unique shape helps the bass to sit and balance very nicely on the left thigh (for right handers) when playing while seated – presuming that you’re the type to prefer a bass’ body to rest between your legs, rather than on top of your plucking hand side’s leg. One unique aesthetic choice was to place the model/designer inlay on the body (in the space between the magnetic pickup and bridge), instead of the more traditional location on the headstock. I can see that doing this allows for more ornate and noticeable brand marking, but this stylistic choice does take a little getting used to.
There’s a single split-coil, humbucking magnetic pickup – made by venerable California-based Bartolini – placed such that Ibanez figured the fingerstyle player might want some additional anchor points for their thumb (there are also piezo pickups in the bridge, which I’ll cover in the next paragraph). So, as a novel solution that I hadn’t before seen, they carved a rounded channel into the body that extends from just after the neck to the magnetic pickup; the idea being that you’d rest your thumb anywhere in this channel that feels comfortable to you or allows your hand to be placed to cop the tone and feel you’d like to call up. A very interesting choice, functionally and aesthetically. My personal preference is to anchor my plucking hand’s thumb somewhere just on top of or above the bass’ body, such as the case when anchoring on a pickup’s shoulder, rather than down past the body’s surface. The inset channel threw off the mechanics of my right hand and I didn’t ever gel with having my hand about ½” closer to the strings than I typically would like. That said, players with other preferences – or players who are really dialed in on this particular instrument – may not mind this setup.
Ibanez also includes their own Aerosilk piezo elements incorporated into their quick-release Aerosilk MR5 individual bridge saddle/tailpieces, which definitely offer a ton of non-magnetic sounding possibilities to your overall tone. You can fine-tune the piezo output volume for each sensing element via an adjustment control around back, but I found the response of the Affirma’s piezoelectric system to be evenly balanced out of the box. The electronics comprise separate volume controls for both magnetic and piezo pickups, active tone for the piezo signal, and stacked treble/bass boost and cut for the Bartolini. While some of the brand’s marketing mentions upright-like qualities with the piezo tone dialed up, I found it to actually be much closer sounding to an acoustic bass guitar. In fact, this bass can really nail Mike Inez’s acoustic/electric bass tone on Alice in Chain’s Jar of Flies EP from the mid ‘90s – especially when using a pick! I found the pick to be the way I communed best with this model and the style of play that really made it shine through with a unique and powerful voice. I did experience a “dead-ish” zone, rather than a more commonly found “dead spot,” that ran from about C# to E on the G string. Notes in this region just seemed to lack the clarity, tone, and resonance that the rest of the fretboard’s range displayed. If this was indeed the case and not some strange perception found only on my part, it could well be an attribute of this one specific bass, as opposed to a model-wide occurrence. Finding the neck to be adjusted as I like, I also did not try adjusting the truss rod, which may have been able to factor in, here.
A convenient pop-up (black plastic) battery compartment is included on this model, which makes a lot of sense to a working musician who may need to make a quick change. The Affirma’s control cavity, like the Mezzo’s, was also lined with black conductive shielding paint and presented foil-lined cavity covers. The same free-floating but foam-encompassed preamp module that was found in the Mezzo’s main electronics compartment was also found here, but again seemed not to jeopardize operation or durability. The output jack is thoughtfully angled slightly upwards within a small cutout, seemingly to make it more difficult to inadvertently step on your cable, which can cause an accidental but very literal “bass drop” in the middle of a performance.
Worthy of note are the fine quality, hybrid hard shell/foam case that the Affirma ships in, and the very handy multi-tool that Ibanez includes with the purchase. It would obviously be difficult to find a bag or case design that’s a good match for a bass with these unique dimensions, so Ibanez gets a tip of the cap for not only including one, but a very nice one at that. The case is extraordinarily sturdy, while also being very light, and it gave me greater confidence in shipping and transport to know the bass was nestled snugly within that custom-fit case, inside its well-padded shipping box.
The Mezzo and the Affirma, for $299 and $1,499 respectively, are unquestionably killer values, and exhibit an overall quality and attention to detail that I don’t believe I’ve seen before in an Indonesian-made import model. Ibanez has clearly extended its high standards for production instruments to these less expensive lines as well, which is admirable and impressive. Whether you dig a more traditional vibe and the “fun factor” of a shorter-scale bass, or are looking for a platform or vehicle that will allow your next-level technique and creative direction to blossom, the Japanese-based company has you covered here. In a marketplace filled with countless variations on just a couple of themes, I’m happy to see a major manufacturer writing some new lines of their own.
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In-hand Score 4.57average
Fun for cheap! Well made, well executed P/J medium scale bass with comfortable contouring, familiar looks and great sound. Not much to nitpick about the Mezzo for fans of smaller basses.
In-hand (AFR4FMP Affirma )
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In-hand Score 3.90average
An innovative step in the evolution of the bass guitar, with some ultra-modern styling and sonic options to boot. Neither the aesthetics nor the tone won’t be for everyone, but that’s the beauty of a large brand like Ibanez taking the plunge into such adventurous design – they can afford to do it and will no doubt continue to tweak and improve over time! Definitely a strong consideration for someone looking outside the norm.