When I saw that I can get an Ibanez bass with Bartolini MK1 pickups and powered preamp system, wenge/bubinga neck, mahogany body and 24 frets for around $600 my first thought was that for the price the specs list reads like a dream. Then the sceptic in me thought that they'd have to cut some corners in order to deliver an instrument in this price range and with these impressive specs.
So what did I do? I decided to try one. Having played Ibanez SR series basses in some local studios I have always been impressed by the workmanship and the neck feel. They are always punchy and sit well in a mix, and when set up right the action is incredibly low. Ibanez is also reasonably priced which can't be said for some of their competition. I've also always enjoyed Bartolini pickups and preamps in any of the basses that I've played and owned so I had very high expectations for this axe.
My initial impressions upon unpacking the bass was that it was indeed beautiful. I am a sucker for natural wood feel and this guitar had it in spades. The tuners and hardware are also of a very interesting color - something between black and chrome hardware, which also looks really cool. The first surprise was that this guitar is actually built in Indonesia. Ibanez was usually built in Japan, with their cheaper models being made in Korea, so this came as bit of a surprise. Another surprise was that the headstock read "SD GR, Soundgear by Ibanez". So it looks like Ibanez are not putting their name in huge letters on this one. I was pleasantly surprised to see that Ibanez sends their basses with quality Elixir strings on them, unlike some other basses that come with strings that you need to change right away, adding up to the cost of the bass as a set of strings for 5 string bass can set you up in the vicinity of 30 bucks.
On closer inspection I noticed that the neck joint fit could have been more precise. On one side it was flush to the body, while on the other side there was a hole of about 1.5 millimeters and some kind of black wax paper sticking out. The frets weren't crowned properly and would scratch my hands when doing slides. The intonation and setup on the guitar was way out, and it took a few neck adjustments and intonation tweaks to get it right. The neck is also pieced together with cost saving measures in mind, and it is composed of several pieces of wenge/bubinga glued together. This didn't seem to affect the guitar feel and tone projection, but if you buy this axe thinking that you get a solid single-cut bubinga neck - that is not true. The body is made of 3 pieces of mahogany glued together and color matched so well that you could barely tell.
Once the setup was done right, the guitar action was low as I remember from previous SR basses that I've played.
The Bartolini pickups were great and offered lots of tonal options - from deep thumping bass to sparkly modern sound. It pretty much covered all the styles and did it well. The tuners are smooth and performed well. One innovation I found on this design was the truss rod adjustment cover - it slides out so you don't need to twist screws every time you need to make an adjustment. The input jack is recessed as in other Ibanez designs but this one was rather hard to take out, as you have to apply real strong pull to separate it from the body. This was fixed by a simple adjustment on the input jack from inside the pickup cavity, but the height was still problematic for some of my low profile cable connectors, such as GeorgeL's solderless cables.
With the proper setup, and if you can afford an after-market fret crowning job, this guitar plays like a dream. Ibanez has cut a few corners in the wood assembly, especially on the neck (6 pieces!). There are some small issues with the hardware, and one big problem with the fretwork. Honestly, if it weren't for the Bartolini system this guitar should go for a lot less. Still, in this price bracket, the Bartolini system and the natural wood selection make this instrument stand out from the pack.