What To Look For In A Good Inexpensive Mandolin
I know of some very good, yet affordable, beginner mandolins that you can buy online for under $150 that are well made, enjoyable to play, produce a nice crisp mandolin sound and are durable. Of course, you want it to be made well, without a history of problems, but if there is one other feature I would look for, it is a fully adjustable bridge; one that you can move and change the height on.
Why? Because the "action", meaning the space between the fretboard and the strings, can make the difference between finger blisters or a crisply produced sound. This is true of all stringed instruments, but for the double stringed mandolins, it's more so. Sometimes, just getting better strings is not enough (I think D'Addarios are the best, by the way). Being able to lower the bridge (action) is a feature I always look for. So, for that reason, I usually recommend those mandolins with a fully adjustable bridge and geared tuners (to keep the strings from slipping out of tune) for beginners. Learning to play a new instrument should be enjoyable, not a chore, and the instrument itself should not be the cause of such frustration, that you give up learning.
If you are going to buy your first mandolin, or give one as a gift, I recommend you also get a learning book/CD/DVD, a set of picks, a tuner and a strap. If you can afford it, also get a case or "gig" bag (soft or padded case) to keep it safe from bumps and tumbles.
The instruments that I can recommend as good beginner mandolins are the Ibanez M510DVS (Under $150), the Stagg M20 Bluegrass (Under $110), and the Rover Student Mandolins. Why not recommend one of the cheaper models/brands for a beginner that cost less, like a Johnson or Rogue? Quite simply, you get what you pay for, and if I had the choice, for example, of having either an Ibanez or a Johnson-Rogue, I would take the better Ibanez everytime. I think most people starting out need a decent instrument to keep them motivated, with few frustrations, that will last beyond their learning period. (Why spend $60+ on an instrument you already think you would upgrade to a better one, when better models are under $120? Just my opinion.)
Notes on buying a new mandolin:
Many new stringed instruments like these ship with the bridge/strings unattached and require some set up. If you need help, you can take it to a instrument shop (luthier) to have someone else do it for you or you can go online and find out from mandolin maker. I will be including some instructional videos on that soon to help you.
It's also normal to have to spend some time tuning the new instruments, and you should expect to have to tune it a few times initially for for the tune to remain stable on some models. This is not abnormal. Some experienced players change the strings to their liking immediately when they get them, although the models I have chosen come with quality strings. It's really personal preference so if you are unsure, I would wait until you get it until you decide on new strings. Beginners who have a difficult time with the hardness of brass strings however, might want to get a set of lighter weight strings right away to avoid painful fingers. (See the accessory section in the upper menu)
Most mandolins tonal sound will improve with age, especially those with solid wood construction.