When you buy your first mandolin, chances are its not going to be the most top of the line piece of equipment on the market. While spending billions on a mandolin is not necessary, owning a mandolin that sounds pleasant to the ears and that is not too hard on your fingers is extremely important. By bringing your mandolin to a local respectable luthier, you can make your inexpensive starter mandolin sound much better than it would right out of the box. A decently set up $100 mandolin can sound thousands of times better than a $1,000 mandolin with a poor set up job! So rather than spending $300 on a mandolin, spend $150 and get it well set up by a respectable luthier for $100 and pocket the $50. I assure you that your properly set up $150 mandolin will sound better than the out of the box $300 instrument would have.
So what is a set up? Well, when you buy your first mandolin, chances are it is will have come from a factory. In mando-nerd speak, these mandolins are referred to as Pac-Rim mandolins because they come from factories on the rim of the Pacific Ocean. It is much cheaper for mandolin companies to outsource their production to countries such as China, Japan, and Korea, and therefore that is where the bulk of inexpensive factory mandolins come from. Just because a mandolin is made outside the United States in a factory by no means suggests that they are worthless or of bad quality. Companies such as Eastman Mandolins (they also make violin family instruments) have a reputation to build very high quality instruments in their Pac-Rim factories. It is merely not common practice for factories to hand adjust their instruments to perfect playing condition before shipping them off to their final destinations.
If you are unfamiliar with the parts of a mandolin, I suggest you look at the Parts of the Mandolin page before continuing.
When these factory build mandolins come to the american suppliers, they often come with sub par playability qualities that is up to the american suppliers to deal with. High action (how far off the fretboard the strings are) is one common problem with Pac-Rim mandolins. Other common problems include buzzing frets, bad intonation, and poor bridge and nut tuning. If a mandolin has a high action, it will be hard to play because you will have to push harder on the strings in order to make the instrument make noise. Buzzing frets can be a result of individual frets not being seated in the fretboard correctly and make the mandolin not give a clear tone for certain notes. A mandolin with improper intonation will sound out of tune because the bridge is not properly placed and when notes are fretted they do not give notes that are in tune with the unfretted note of the string. Poor bridge and nut quality can make you mandolin buzz or sound not quite right, but is best dealt with by someone who has experience with setting up an instrument.
Of course, if you are buying from a respectable dealer such as Elderly Instruments, your instrument will come set up well and you have nothing to worry about. Such respectable dealers often charge a premium for their good service and the price evens out in the end. Falling for an eBay “deal” will often leave you with a nearly unplayable instrument that will not bring you the enjoyment that a musical instrument should.