I've posted pictures of this instrument in this thread and wanted to talk about it here.
I've been on something of a quest for a moderately-priced mandolin that had the virtues of the fantastic instruments Sephan Sobell is making but without all of the drawbacks. Chief among those drawbacks are cost and scarcity. Other modern oval-hole instruments I tried just didn't have the sound I was after. I was beginning to think that the best I could do as an approximation was a vintage American instrument, particularly a teens Gibson A-style or a Vega cylinder-back. Both of those are among my favorite vintage instruments, although their sound is different from a Sobell. I'm a little hesitant to drag them around and expose them to the rigors and risks of travel, flying objects, beer puddles, etc., because, well, they're old. Similarly, Sobells have risen so much in value that it feels a bit scary to lug them around where they might be exposed to hazards.
So, what I've been looking for is something with the general look and feel of a Sobell with a bit of vintage Gibson A thrown in for good measure. Frankly, I really wasn't expecting to find anything too close but thought, if nothing else, the quest would be a lot of fun.
Surprise, surprise!! I've actually found what I've been looking for.
The instrument in qeustion is a Beard Model DM. (Actually, as Jim Garber pointed out in the other thread, Richard's web page describes this body shape as the SM but the label is marked DM. I'm not sure which is correct. The web page also doesn't metion rosewood, so perhaps the lineup has changed.) This is a mandolin with a flat rosewood back and a carved Engelman top. The body depth ( 2 1/4") is actually a bit greater than a Sobell small body mandolin (2 1/8") and a bit smaller than a Sobell large body mandolin (2 7/16"). The unbound neck is a generous 1 3/8", an eighth narrower than a Sobell (also unbound). It's radiused and has guitar-sized frets. Mine has an adjustable bridge and Allen tailpiece. The shape is more pear-like than the wider, squatter Sobell.
First, let me say that this days-old instrument isn't quite up to a Sobell -- yet. The treble courses actually sound remarkably like a small-bodied Sobell carved-maple-back mandolin. The bass strings aren't quite as mellow or complex, non doubt reflecting its tender age. But they're pretty darn close. Also, the instrument is louder than the Sobell small-body. It's perhaps just a hair softer than the Sobell large-body (cedar top, flat rosewood back) to which I compared it. It's also more focused, less playing-in-a-cathedral-like than the large bodied Sobell. For melody playing, that can be a good thing. The combination of something closer to Sobell small-body tone with something closer to Sobell large-body volume is great.
The feel is also great. The neck profile is a bit thicker than the Sobell's. It will take a small playing adjustment on some tunes, but no big deal. The fingerboard width is really excellent. There's plenty of space for left-hand ornaments but, pleasantly, it's not quite as guitar-like as the Sobell. The frets are somewhat beefier, perhaps in part because they're new and haven't undergone the recrowning that the Sobells' have. When I look at the fingerboard, I have the sense that the action is a tad high but this isn't really the case at all. It's just that the space from string to fingerboard is a bit bigger than what I'm used to. But the distance from string to fret is excellent; just frets that are a bit taller.
The workmanship is first rate. Fit and finish are excellent. The nut doesn't fit quite as perfectly in its groove as on the Sobell, which looks like it was CNC'd into place. I'm not talking loose, sloopy, or messy here -- it is at least as good as about anything but a Collings or a Sobell. The finish is nice and shiny, a bit less so on the neck, which makes for a very nice feel and no sticking in place. Although the fingerboard isn't elevated, there's actually a wedge of wood between it and the top. In other words, the neck angle is a shade steeper than on most instruments with a flush fingerboard but that's achived by the wedge, rather than air inder the fingerboard end. There's an attractive little curlicue detail at then end of the fingerboard, as well.
I've already said a little bit about the tone as compared to other instruments. It's warm but with very good projection and volume, which seem to be the enemies of warmth on many instruments. The notes are more cleanly separated than on a vintage Gibson or Vega -- or the Sobells, for that matter. There is only a small trade-off of less mellowness and complexity in exchange for that projection for the bass strings. And I think that's already beginning to change. The trebles give up nothing.
I'm not going to say that this is the best mandolin I have ever played because that would be meaningless and, frankly, it's probably not the absolute best I've ever played. But it's in a very small group clustered near the top. On a given day and in a particular sitaution, I'm certain it would be my first choice. It has a combination of volume, projection, and tone that I've only ever found in the Sobells. It's a bit clearer and just a tad less "lush" than the Sobells. Teens Gibsons (which I love) either lack the volume and projection or they lack the warm tone. There may be some with both, but I haven't encountered any that are loud and truly have the tone I'm after (which may or may not be what you're after). This instrument comes remarkably close to having it all.
It's not polite to talk price, but let's say that it came in at under $2000. That makes it an absolutely remarkable value in my view. It really does compare to outstanding new instruments that are two to four times as expensive and beats the pants off of a whole lot of others in that same price range.
Although this instrument was designed for the Irish music that Richard Beard primarily plays, it's also very well suited to old time music (which he also plays, I believe). He described his goal as a cross between a Sobell and a Gibson A and he's done an amazing job of getting there.
For those of you who think that this is just another gush over someone's new mandolin, let me just add a couple of observations. I've been known to criticize instruments that I bought (and still own, in fact) when I felt that they didn't live up to my expectations. I've never really called any instrument bad because I think these judgments are subjective. But I've certainly voiced my views of other instruments -- those I bought and those I didn't -- honestly and critically. I honestly can say that Richard Beard has built me an instrument I find hugely satisfying and which I think may well mature into something really spectacular. If it changes not at all, though, I'll still be satisfied. It sounds and plays great right now.
If you've been lusting for a Sobell or for a teens Gibson A but were afraid of one because of the cost and wait and afraid of the other because of the potential durability issues, I'd urge you to consider one of Richard's mandolins. I'm sure glad I did.
[I have no financial interest, just a very happy customer.]