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Thread: Ellis F5 vs. Gibson F5 vs. Collings MF5

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    Registered User CollingsFever101's Avatar
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    Default Ellis F5 vs. Gibson F5 vs. Collings MF5

    Recently, I attended a Bluegrass music festival where I had the opportunity to compare the tonal characteristics of three top flight mandolins: a 2006 Ellis F5, a 2003 Gibson F5 Fern, and my 2008 Collings MF5. The owner of the Gibson (Hallmark498) and I borrowed the Ellis from the owner, and we played various licks and tunes on each of them to test the response of the treble, the mid-range, and the bass of each instrument. We selected two non-mandolin players to offer their own unbiased judgments: a fiddle player (Danbanjovi) and a banjo player. The mandolins were set up with D'Addario strings with mid to low action and two feet bridges except for the Collings which had a full contact bridge. The following details our observations:

    The Ellis clearly won the bass battle between the three. Tonally speaking, this was its most definitive quality. It possessed an incredibly deep, resonant, and powerful forth string which never once became "muddy" in its projection. Its bass was not offensive in any way, but I can imagine as the instrument ages it will only become more bass heavy. By comparison, its mid-range and treble were not as powerful or resonant but were still very clear and crisp. Overall, the Ellis produced a very "wide-open" tone that when played projected a broad sound.

    The Gibson in our estimation won the treble/mid-range battle and was, thus, its most noticeable quality. It produced a bell-like clarity up the neck on the first and second strings which seemed under developed in the other two mandolins. The exceptional treble and mid-range was loud and open which precipitated and showcased note clarity. On the flip side, its bass was not as present as the other two mandolins. Overall, we seemed to agree that the Gibson produced a very "focused" tone which when played projected a more directional sound.

    The Collings on the other hand seemed to possess a very even, commensurate quality. The second and third strings produced a very punchy, clear, and round sound which we felt set it apart from the Ellis but not the Gibson. Its treble was more brilliant than the Ellis, and it had a similar tone to the Gibson but was perhaps a bit "drier" by comparison. The bass wasn't as powerful as the Ellis but was more powerful than the Gibson's. Overall, we observed that the Collings produced a very "balanced," "blended" tone which when played projected a woody/punchy sound.

    A few caveats to this experiment must be noted. Clearly, the conclusions/observations we arrived at concerning each instrument are not an across-the-board representation of the three respective brands. Since the mandolin is a wood instrument, the properties of the various mandolins within their brand will have some variation due to the organic materials utilized. This experiment was an attempt to compare their strengths/weaknesses between each other so as to determine their particular "voice." One of the draw backs to this experiment was that both the Ellis and Collings were equipped with bigger frets than the Gibson which was fitted with the standard, thinner fret wire. This produced a "thinner" tone in relation to the other two. However, the Gibson had been played for many more years than either the Ellis or Collings. Admittedly, the extra years of play time on the Gibson has done it a great credit in maturing its sound production. The Ellis had recently been purchased by the owner and, thus, lacked the development extended play time brings, although it did open up significantly during our experiment. Finally, the ages of the strings on the three mandolins was varied.
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    Registered User Glassweb's Avatar
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    Default Re: Ellis F5 vs. Gibson F5 vs. Collings MF5

    This is a very good, informative and well written piece... thanks much for the run down. And how refreshing it is to see three lovely mandolins in their original, "as-intended" form... i.e. none of them being afflicted with the "dreaded black tongue".

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    Default Re: Ellis F5 vs. Gibson F5 vs. Collings MF5

    It was a blast! Tone is so subjective as well as personal tast. A few things I found interesting is the difference in tone collingsfever and I pulled from each mandolin. When I was playing both listeners choose the ellis, mind you this was a blind test. Even better I asked them which mandolin they thought I was playing and they were wrong, didnt get one correct. Now what really blew me away was the non player choose the ellis when I played but choose the gibson when cfever played.

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    Default Re: Ellis F5 vs. Gibson F5 vs. Collings MF5

    Ha, I love the black tongue-both sonically and aesthetically. I would scoop even if there was no pick clink...and I have!!

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    Default Re: Ellis F5 vs. Gibson F5 vs. Collings MF5

    Judging by the photos, the Collings has a ToneGard on it, while the others don't. That will make a huge difference. Did you remove the ToneGard during the testing so you could get an apples-to-apples comparison?

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    Default Re: Ellis F5 vs. Gibson F5 vs. Collings MF5

    Nice review. I've played all three makes and would agree with your descriptions of the sounds. The one part I don't understand is how the thinner fret wire makes a "thinner" tone.

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    Registered User Hallmark498's Avatar
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    Default Re: Ellis F5 vs. Gibson F5 vs. Collings MF5

    The tone guard stayed on. Im not sure about the frets, but the difference in thickness of the pick cfever vs what I used would have (BC TPR 45)

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    Default Re: Ellis F5 vs. Gibson F5 vs. Collings MF5

    Interesting... I'd broadly agree with everything said. One thing to note is that the Gibson F-5's from that period are quite different sounding from the current (post-flood, Dave Harvey) examples. I would place these latter ones a couple of notches closer to the Ellis 'voicing' - stronger low end and a more complex voice than the ones from say, 10-15 years ago, which tend to be 'drier' and more mid-rangy. All very fine mandolins, though, and very much a matter of taste as to which you might prefer, also, as you say, different pickers bring out different things in them.
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    Default Re: Ellis F5 vs. Gibson F5 vs. Collings MF5

    Quote Originally Posted by Glassweb View Post
    This is a very good, informative and well written piece... thanks much for the run down. And how refreshing it is to see three lovely mandolins in their original, "as-intended" form... i.e. none of them being afflicted with the "dreaded black tongue".
    To me, there's very little that ruins a mandolin, in both beauty and value, like the "Black Tongue". I can't imagine such a forward motion on a pick, that would reach right in between the strings and hit the fingerboard...

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    Default Re: Ellis F5 vs. Gibson F5 vs. Collings MF5

    I think, of all that was described, the tone guard and the age and type of strings would have the most effect on "skewing" the results, especially as how you folks were listening so hard. Both, I would guess, would impact the tone more than the width of the frets.

    But as a comparison of individual instruments as is, that was great. Not, perhaps, to accurately be generalized from, but still a great analysis.

    I especially prize evenness across the range, and I am glad to see that addressed. I like it when the instrument has a consistent voice regardless of where it is played.
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    Default Re: Ellis F5 vs. Gibson F5 vs. Collings MF5

    I was thinking about these results, and one of the first things that kind of surprised me was the comment about Ellis having a strong bass response with the mid-range and treble not as strong in comparison. Even without the comparison to the other two mandolins, and only comparing to itself, I've never considered Ellis F5s to be strongest in bass response. The mid-range on these is really what stands out to my ear on all that I've played.

    I will admit that over time, as my Ellis F5 has been played in, the bass response has become much more pronounced and balanced with the mid-range. It's actually something I've noticed changing over the last few months (I've had mine about a year and a half). It has developed a booming bass response, especially on chop chords. But I still wouldn't call it more powerful than the mid-range, which is where I spend most of my time. Maybe by the time mine reaches the same age as the 2006 model that was part of this comparison, that bass will come out even more. I'll be definitely keeping that in mind.

    On the few Collings I've played, it was the piercing trebles that caught my attention, so on that count I think I agree with the OP that it's one of the strong suits of Collings. The treble struck me as out of balance with the rest, though. But this was on brand-new floor models, and I'm sure that the playing-in or opening-up process changes over time, with more balance developing. The "dry" sound of Collings is something with which I concur.

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    Default Re: Ellis F5 vs. Gibson F5 vs. Collings MF5

    Very well written review.
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    Default Re: Ellis F5 vs. Gibson F5 vs. Collings MF5

    leaving the tone guard was a pretty big... "oops".....either should have pulled it off, or added it to the other two....

    Nice write up
    John D

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    Registered User Atlanta Mando Mike's Avatar
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    Default Re: Ellis F5 vs. Gibson F5 vs. Collings MF5

    Yes, if one mandolin had a toneguard on it and the others didn't then the results aren't even comparable.

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    Registered User Atlanta Mando Mike's Avatar
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    Default Re: Ellis F5 vs. Gibson F5 vs. Collings MF5

    they just add so much volume and body to the tone.

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    Default Re: Ellis F5 vs. Gibson F5 vs. Collings MF5

    That said, I love writeups like this Great job. There is nothing better than a mando tasting.

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    Default Re: Ellis F5 vs. Gibson F5 vs. Collings MF5

    A very interesting and nice write-up.
    I agree with the earlier comments that in the interest of an apples to apples comparison, all three mandolins should have either had toneguards, or not had toneguards.

    I do not agree however that a toneguard adds any "volume" or "body" to the tone. It only serves to prevent the lessening of volume and body to the tone.
    If the 3 mandolins were played with no contact between the mandolin's back and the player's 'front', the toneguard would have made no difference either way.

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    Default Re: Ellis F5 vs. Gibson F5 vs. Collings MF5

    Quote Originally Posted by Glassweb View Post
    This is a very good, informative and well written piece... thanks much for the run down. And how refreshing it is to see three lovely mandolins in their original, "as-intended" form... i.e. none of them being afflicted with the "dreaded black tongue".
    And the OP did not use the word MANDO Great respect to three fine instruments!!

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    Default Re: Ellis F5 vs. Gibson F5 vs. Collings MF5

    Quote Originally Posted by FLATROCK HILL View Post
    If the 3 mandolins were played with no contact between the mandolin's back and the player's 'front', the toneguard would have made no difference either way.
    Absolutley, but, what are the chances.
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    Default Re: Ellis F5 vs. Gibson F5 vs. Collings MF5

    And here I thought I was an oddball for not liking that which I now understand to be known as the "black tongue." A form of mutilation, I have privately mused, a sort of instrument tattoo or a piercing, which view, I hasten to add, is delivered with the complete understanding that these things are a matter of personal taste and nothing more, and one should feel free to do with one's instrument as one wishes at all times.

    MMM, love that dark sunburst on the Ellis.
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    Default Re: Ellis F5 vs. Gibson F5 vs. Collings MF5

    Quote Originally Posted by KevinM View Post
    And here I thought I was an oddball for not liking that which I now understand to be known as the "black tongue." A form of mutilation, I have privately mused, a sort of instrument tattoo or a piercing...
    I think calling what I had done to my Florida a 'mutilation' is a little bit extreme. I just had a few millimeters of 'Florskin' removed.

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    Default Re: Ellis F5 vs. Gibson F5 vs. Collings MF5

    Let me say ALL of these F5s are exceptional in sound and playability. Only after playing them back to back and really listening did we start to hear the differences. NONE of them were weak in any area of tone. What we did find were the strong points, or best points to our ears.

    I dont believe the tone guard had much if any impact. We were sitting down with the mandolins off our bodies for the most part. i hope to do it again and get some video or sound clips.

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    Default Re: Ellis F5 vs. Gibson F5 vs. Collings MF5

    Quote Originally Posted by JFDilmando View Post
    leaving the tone guard was a pretty big... "oops".....either should have pulled it off, or added it to the other two....

    Nice write up
    Good review. Exactly right on the tone guard. Depending on how you held the mandolins the tone guard might or might not be a confounding item.

    FWIIW, took the tone guards off all my mandolins because I consider it to be of little to no value. I always hold to back of my mandolin away from my body so it adds nothing to the sound.
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    Default Re: Ellis F5 vs. Gibson F5 vs. Collings MF5

    Quote Originally Posted by Bernie Daniel View Post
    FWIIW, took the tone guards off all my mandolins because I consider it to be of little to no value. I always hold to back of my mandolin away from my body so it adds nothing to the sound.
    Not to change this discussion to one about ToneGards, but I just recently put mine back on. I had taken it off because it was damaging the finish during that new first-six-month phase where the finish is still soft and curing. And I just didn't feel like putting it back on. Recently I started holding the mandolin away from my body with only the tail end touching my torso, loving the boost in volume and sexier tone I was getting by not holding the back against my chest. I tried and tried to adjust to that hold, but it's not for me. My left hand just isn't free enough when it's constantly having to push the neck out from my body. So the ToneGard went back on, and I'm loving the sound while still enjoying an unencumbered left hand.

    Different strokes and all, but it does exactly what it was meant to in my case.

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    Default Re: Ellis F5 vs. Gibson F5 vs. Collings MF5

    Quote Originally Posted by Tobin View Post
    ...I'm loving the sound while still enjoying an unencumbered left hand.

    Different strokes and all, but it does exactly what it was meant to in my case.
    I couldn't agree more!

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