Premier Guitar

Epiphone Zenith Fretted Acoustic/Electric Bass Review

November 5, 2010


Download Example 1
Bridge Nano-Flex Pickup
Download Example 2
Neck Nano-Mag Pickup
Download Example 3
Bridge with a little Neck blended in
All clips recorded with the onboard EQ set flat, into GarageBand through an AxePort Pro.
I’ve long been a sucker for hollow or semi-hollow basses. Something about the f-holes and resonance of a partly suspended top draws me in like a siren. In the quest for semi-hollow nirvana, I’ve tried many a bass, starting with a Japanese import in the ‘70s when those things were new and popular, riding the McCartney-esque wave to fame, fortune—or more realistically, garages and basements, and eventually, closets—all across the land. The magic semi-hollow formula has yet to be found, but I’m always game for another attempt.

When I first heard about the Epiphone Zenith, I just had to get my hands on one. Once more, it offered something new, something I hadn’t yet tried. In particular, the Zenith sports a pair of Shadow pickups—one a magnetic on the edge of the fingerboard, the other tucked under the bridge saddle. Not exactly a piezo, but heading in that direction. It has sleek lines and a single-cutaway body. The rosewood bridge with a vintage Epiphone badge is classy, too.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Build
My review model is a fretted version (fretless is also available) with an understated transparent black finish. The first thing I noticed about the Zenith’s construction was the neck. It felt Gibson-like—rounded and a little chunky. Rather than the typical two-piece maple, this neck was a five-piece sandwich of maple and walnut, a classy look with an antique satin finish. This is a design choice usually reserved for higher-end basses, and was a pleasant surprise. Typically, this type of neck is thru-body, but the Zenith’s bolts on with five recessed screws and no neck plate.

The Zenith’s mahogany body is more chambered than semi-hollow. Knocking my knuckles around the flame-maple top, I determined that the chambers seem to stop not far from the edge of the f-hole areas. Little of the top actually floats over open air, so there’s not much acoustic character imparted to the sound.

The Zenith weighed in a little heavy, right at 10 pounds. However, the weight helped the guitar’s balance, which is often askew in basses of this type. Similarly, my experience has found that the neck of a semi-hollow tends to hang out a little extra, creating an uncomfortable reach. Not so with the Zenith. Its acoustic-style bridge strings through the body, providing noticeably more sustain than a typical bolt-on bridge.

The tortoise-bound body edges and f-holes added a touch of class, blending nicely with the transparent black finish. Unfortunately, the binding around the lower f-hole was marred with a whitish haze on its edge, and looking inside, the body cutout had been only roughed out and then painted over. These defects don’t show from three feet away, are not expected in a quality instrument.

The setup on my review bass was good, with the nut cut to a playable level. Usually, off-the-rack basses have a higher nut than is necessary, but that wasn’t the case here. The 21 medium-jumbo frets were well-crowned. The action came with only slight neck relief and measured a little over 3/32” at the octave, bringing good playability. This isn’t a fast-feeling neck, but one that brings confidence for a solid bass foundation.



The Guts
The Zenith’s on-board active electronics include cut/boost bass and treble controls for each pickup, plus a master volume and blend control. The side-mounted jack plate allows either summed-mono output or running in stereo with two cables and two amps.

Right at the end of the neck is a slim Shadow Nano-Mag pickup, exotic with its tiny air-coil, samarium-cobalt magnets and silver-platinum shielding. The second pickup is like an under-saddle piezo, called a Nano-Flex. This isn’t actually a piezo pickup, but a 7-layer, low impedance element that senses the vibrations of the strings and the body.

The battery box is integrated into the rear cover plate over the electronics. With a snap-off hinged cover, battery changing should be potentially easy, with no screws to lose. However, the cover wasn’t intuitive to open, requiring a small screwdriver inserted into a slot to pop the cover up. The plastic was thin in the latching area and I was afraid it would break if I wasn’t careful. In fact, I actually removed the cover plate’s four screws to check it out. Once done, I was the able to open the battery box safely. With the cover off, I found a Shadow preamp, which used tidy, plug-in wiring. Many active basses have a spaghetti of wiring in their cavity, so this was a pleasant surprise.

The Sound
I tried the Zenith first using the Nano-Flex bridge pickup. It sounded like a typical piezo element, and did indeed reproduce both body and string vibrations. I found that with the bass and treble controls set flat, tapping the body produced a low thump. Likewise, there was a noticeable clack of string-on-fret when releasing a note. I thought that the note-defining midrange was a bit murky. To work around these sounds, I rolled off the treble and bass slightly and boosted the midrange a little on a SWR Headlite amp I used for testing. That tweak added definition to the notes while keeping things round sounding.

In all, the Zenith had excellent sustain, a well-defined attack, and some acoustic bloom to its notes—this is a bass that should blend well with acoustic guitar. Boosting the bass control slightly while rolling off some of the treble produced more of a thump, but still maintained plenty of sustain. This bass won’t recreate an upright bass flavor, but something more akin to acoustic bass guitar. Dialing in a little magnetic pickup to the acoustic element can bring definition to the sound.

Feedback resistance of a bass heading in the hollow direction is always of concern. Happily, the Zenith has little chance of feeding back, even at pretty high volumes.

The Verdict
The Zenith bass brings a different twist to the usual semi-hollowbody design. The build was good—other than the minor flaws in the f-hole binding—and the bass felt comfortable, if heavy, but very playable.

If your main interest is the Zenith’s acoustic potential, there is a fretless version of the Zenith that comes with Labella nylon tapewounds, which might draw out more of the instrument’s acoustic character.
Buy if...
you’re a nut for a bass with f-holes and you’re after something with acoustic character.
Skip if...
you might want to rely on the magnetic pickup or want a relatively light bass.
Rating...


Street $799 - Epiphone - epiphone.com