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View Full Version : Kiwaya KSL-2 Koa Longneck Soprano



OldePhart
02-11-2011, 01:37 PM
(Part I, apparently there is a 10000 character limit on posts to this forum and I am too wordy.) :biglaugh:

I know that the guidelines ask for numeric ratings in a number of preset categories but I'm really not comfortable doing that. If I rate this ukulele an 8 in features, for example, what was I comparing it to? What would be a 10? If the "baseline" for a ten is a solid-koa hand-built Hawaiian guitar with abalone binding then this is a 6, if the standard is an inexpensive laminated uke then this is a 10+, and so on. So, I'll just be really wordy and y'all can assign your own numeric ratings based on what's important to you!

I've created a short video to accompany this review. That video contains none of the details here, it's just to demonstrate the sound of the uke. I'ved edited this post to add the link http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dJQSC9a9voI.

The Kiwaya KSL-2 is one of two long-necked soprano ukuleles available in what Kiwaya calls their "eco" line. The other is the nearly identical KSL-1. The only difference between the two is that the KSL-1 is a mahogany veneer while the KSL-2 is a koa veneer. I purchased mine from MusicGuyMic on eBay (MGM here in the forum) and the price was a few cents under $400 with a Fremont rectangular tweed hard case. As usual, Mike did an excellent job with the setup. Intonation at the first fret was spot on. Action was very good all the way up the neck.

The "eco" line are Kiwaya's lowest priced ukuleles, but they are significantly more expensive than the Lanikai / Kala ukes that one normally thinks of when discussing laminated ukuleles. In fact, the Kiwaya KSL-2 is more expensive than most of the solid-top ukuleles available from Lanikai and Kala. Kiwaya has so far resisted the bean-counting temptation to transfer production of their eco line to Indonesia or China; the KSL-2 is made in Japan. I'm old enough to remember when "made in Japan" was anything but a mark of distinction but for the last decade or two at least, "made in Japan" is often the sign of a pretty good instrument - especially in the case of acoustic stringed instruments.

The KSL-2 falls into a somewhat unique nitch in the ukulele world. The design and build quality are on a par with far more expensive instruments while the materials - most notably the "super thin" laminated body and top woods - are at once distinctly inferior to solid wood and superior to the laminated materials used in many inexpensive ukuleles. "Super-thin" is an accurate description of the laminated materials. Examining the side of the unbound body shows this pretty clearly. While the back is clearly a laminate, the top appears to have been sanded thinner and I had to look very, very closely to determine that it is, indeed, laminated. Curiously, no effort appears to have been made to choose highly figured woods for the exterior veneer. Often, companies choose a laminated material with a very highly-figured top veneer to enhance the "eye-appeal" and marketability of the instrument. On this particular sample, the soundboard and headstock veneers are extremely plain, straight-grained wood with just the slightest hint of curl. There is nothing wrong with that but it seems curious because at this price-point if a manufacturer isn't going to use a highly-figured veneer then they probably could have used a "plain but solid" top for only a fraction more expense and had a much more marketable instrument. I.e. with the plain veneer they have sacrificed both the "eye-candy" and "solid-top purist" markets. That puts the instrument squarely into a rather small nitch market of folks who want the durability of a laminated instrument but are still willing to pay a premium for a high-quality build with good tone and projection. That market is there, but definitely a small one.

CONSTRUCTION:

As noted above, the design and construction of this ukulele make it a much nearer cousin to hand-built solid-koa Hawaiian ukuleles than to your typical laminated ukulele. At 13 ounces total weight, it is two ounces lighter than my KoAloha concert - an all solid koa instrument with the same neck and scale length but a slightly larger body. In short, this isn't your typical "plywood" ukulele - the body is very lightly braced and the laminated wood is only very slightly heavier than solid koa would be. That shouldn't come as a great surprise - theoretically the expert use of laminates would allow one to build an instrument that is superior to a solid-wood instrument. The Kiwaya isn't at that level, by any means, but it is certainly miles ahead of any other laminated instrument (uke or guitar) that I've played.

The sides of the body are a single piece of laminated wood. There is no seam at the heel of the body. The side wood is actually more attractively figured than the top/headstock/or back of the instrument. The seams between top and sides and back and sides are all tight and clean with no glue squeeze-out, chips, or other blemishes.

The finish appears to be some variety of poly, applied very evenly and reasonably thin. It is not as thin as it could be as evidenced by a bit of typical "poly pucker" around the neck joint and where the fretboard and bridge meet the body. However, neither is it crazy-thick as on many instruments where it appears that the finish was poured on. Careful examination turned up one small impression on the back (it appears to be a tool mark and is about 1/4" long) and a tiny, tiny black flyspeck on the top. Both are under the clear finish. Personally I tend not to get bent out of shape over stuff like that and on most laminated ukes I wouldn't even mention them, but on a uke that is at a price point with solid-wood ukes they deserve mention, at least. The rosette complements the uke very nicely. Honestly, I can't tell whether it is a superb inlay or an invisibly-thin decal - and I obviously don't care enough either way to look it up on the manufacturer's web site!

OTHER FEATURES:

The fretboard is quite dark and reasonably fine-grained. It does not appear to be ebonized, or if it is then a very stable dye was used, because none of the color transferred to my white paper towel when I applied lemon-oil to the fretboard and rubbed vigorously. After the first coat removed wax probably applied by MGM the second coat was only lightly absorbed, indicating the wood was in good shape. (On rosewood and ebony fretboards I prefer occasional cleaning with lemon oil to waxing.) The ukulele has twenty frets in all, with fourteen to the body. There are fret markers at the 3rd (unusual on a uke), 5th, 7th, 10th, and 12th frets. The markers on the front are very tiny making it difficult to determine exactly what material they are but I think they're MOP. On two of them there is a tiny gap between the dot and the wood but it is difficult to tell if that is just due to the grain of the fretboard or actually a "blemish." They are extremely small anyway - you have to look very hard to notice them at all. I wouldn't have noticed them if I hadn't been examining the dots so closely while attempting to determine what material they are made of. The configuration of the markers is a tad strange - there are two dots at the seventh fret instead of the tweflth. The dots on the side of the fretboard appear to be white plastic.

The fret work is very good to excellent. Most notably, this ukulele has frets appropriate to a ukulele! What do I mean by that? Most ukuleles, including many of the very expensive ones, come with wide, tall frets that are more suitable for electric guitar than for a short-scale acoustic instrument with nylon strings. I was overjoyed to discover that this ukulele has very narrow and reasonably short frets. These are the kind of frets I will demand if I every order a custom-built uke. It's hard to describe the importance of frets sized correctly for the application if you've never had the opportunity to play an instrument with such frets.

The bridge saddle is compensated. This is rather unusual on ukuleles, and very welcome. Typically intonation up the neck suffers on ukuleles, even expensive ones, because the higher tension A and G strings need to be shorter as you go up the neck. A compensated bridge saddle corrects this by making the scale length on these strings slightly shorter. The molded plastic saddle is too thin to completely overcome the intonation differences but any improvement is very welcome.

TONE AND PROJECTION:

I don't have a solid-wood (let alone solid koa) instrument with a soprano-sized body to compare this to so I'll avoid unfair comparisons and simply say that the volume was louder than I expected and, once the terrible strings were replaced, the tone is quite pleasing as well. Both are far better than my granddaughters LU-11 soprano, but comparing a $35 uke and a $300+ uke is probably a bit meaningless!

OldePhart
02-11-2011, 01:38 PM
(Part II)

THE CASE:

I suppose some mention should be made of the case since that was a significant part of the ~$400 price tag. The Fremont rectangular case is one of the few hard cases currently available that fit this uke well. I know a lot of folks don't like rectangular cases but I have no problem with them They do offer the advantage that there is plenty of room for humidifiers, straps, wipedown cloths, and what have you in the case. There was a small "Humistat" humidifier in the accessory compartment. I don't know if that comes with the case of if Mike threw it in. Technically, a humidifier probably isn't critical with this laminated uke but it certainly can't hurt, so I'll probably keep it wet.

The case is available in black and tweed, I asked for the tweed. It looks like a baby Fender case, sort of. The case seems quite sturdy, this uke is a firm fit in the padded interior (no loose rattling around). There are about four pounds (exagerating, of course) of hardware on this thing. Not only are there brass feet on the bottom and back (so it stands on feet when it's "handle up" andwhen it's layed down for opening) but the inner compartments are attached with brass screws in brass cup washers from the outside of the case. The vinyl wraps at the end are supposed to look like leather, I suppose. They fail at that but do look decent and seem pretty sturdy and well attached.

SO, WHAT SUCKED?

Two things suck(ed) on this uke. The first is the strings. It came with what I assume are Fremont black line strings and these were the worst strings I've tried to date. They felt wimpy and "wrong" (and I'm a big fan of other fluorocarbon strings). Individually, the tone from each string was fair - not great but not terrible. However, after they stretched in a bit and I tried strumming some chords I kept checking the tuning and intonation because they sounded terrible. I finally realized that the biggest problem was that the A string was much louder than the other three, so chords sounded really bad. I was going to put my private recipe of Seaguar fluorocarbon leaders on but I remembered that I had some Aquila strings in concert size and, since the uke is laminated, I decided to try those first. I did have to scrape a little finish out of the bridge slots for two of the slightly thicker Aquila strings - not a big deal. I will probably still try my Seaguar strings on the uke but I like the Aquila strings well enough on it that I will wait until they wear out.

The other thing that sucks is really a shame. I love friction tuners on concert and smaller ukes, but these friction tuners are very disappointing. Sorry, Kiwaya, you guys made a great uke but you really missed the mark with these tuners. They are exactly the sort of thing that give friction tuners a bad reputation with beginners. In fact, if these had been my first introduction to friction tuners I would be one of those who swore off friction tuners forever. One expects that the tuners on my KoAloha would be better, of course, but the tuners on my Kala pocket uke are also far better than the pretty gold-plated...things...on the headstock of this uke. The tuners work, and they hold a tune, but they are not smooth at all. In fact, when I was turning them rapidly to change strings they felt and sounded as if they were full of sand. Perhaps they will "work in" with time and improve but I can't help thinking that the friction tuners on my other ukes worked fine right out of the box. The next time I change strings I will probably disassemble the tuners to see if anything can be done to make them operate more smoothly. If not, I will order some decent tuners and give these the burial they deserve. I almost wish that they were actually defective so that I could legitimately ask for a replacement. As it is, they aren't defective, just inferior. Put bluntly, a laminated uke in this price range should have outstanding tuners, not these marginal ones!

OVERALL:

Overall I'm really pleased with this purchase. I bought this ukulele to see if I would like the format (i.e. a concert scale neck on a soprano body). Obviously, I suspected I would like it or I wouldn't have made the purchase. I considered waiting until I could afford a solid-koa Hawaiian made longneck soprano but decided that if, as I suspected, this was going to become my favorite strumming format then I would want one that I could drag to outdoor festivals and what have you without being paranoid about it. I have found that this is, indeed, my favorite format for strumming. The concert scale is much more comfortable for me than a soprano scale, but the soprano body is truer to the "uke sound" than a concert body. I will almost certainly purchase a Hawaiian made longneck in the future, but keep this axe for "rough duty." In the mean time, there is no rush to purchase the Hawaiian instrument because this uke is certainly a very playable and good-sounding instrument. The only real disappointment is, as noted above, the rather poor tuners. If the tuners were of a quality in keeping with the overall quality of the uke I could recommend this instrument to anyone without reservations. However, having experienced these tuners I can only recommend the uke to those who are patient with gritty friction tuners or are willing to replace them. The strings also were terrible but I don't really consider strings a factor in purchasing an instrument as they are so easily changed to suit one's personal taste. In fact, if you ask him to MGM will set the uke up with Aquilas.

cletus
02-11-2011, 01:50 PM
Excellent in depth review. I'm disappointed to hear about the tuners, as I'm interested in the concert neck soprano in mahogany.
Thanks for taking the time, I'll look forward to hearing and seeing it on youtube.

hmgberg
02-11-2011, 04:34 PM
Great review!

Chris Tarman
02-11-2011, 05:02 PM
Great review. I feel exactly the same way about whatever those black strings are. My KTS-7 has them too, and I can't WAIT to change them out for something else!

OldePhart
03-12-2011, 06:34 AM
Okay, a month later how do I feel about the uke?

Basically, everything I said still stands - especially the part about the substandard tuners.

I love this uke and it gets more play than any of my others right now mostly because it's a longneck soprano and I'm mostly strumming right now.

However, I have to report that the tuners are even worse than I thought.

I thought maybe they would "wear in" and be a little smoother but it's been just the opposite - they've taken a set so they won't hold at the in-tune pitch but are still stiff and grainy elsewhere. I can get them to work better for a while by completely slacking the tuning by close to a full turn of the knob then bringing them back up to pitch but a few days later the "set" is back.

It's not a matter of tightening the tension screw because the tuners are already "tight" everywhere except the area immediately around the in-tune position. Granted, the KS series are Kiwaya's "eco" line but "eco" is relative - if you're going to charge almost $300 for a laminated uke you should put decent tuners on it! Even the tuners on my little Kala pocket uke are far better than these.

It's really time to change strings but I'm holding off on that until I can find some decent friction tuners to replace the junk that is on it. I'll update again once I do that.

Again, I have to emphasize that the uke is fantastic - it's only the tuners that suck. The uke is good enough that, even knowing the tuners are junk, I'd still buy it again.

John

pdxuke
03-12-2011, 06:47 AM
Great review--although I may be the only person on earth who actually likes Fremont Blacks--on my Kamaka pineapple!

I owned the KS1 for a year. It was a great uke, but I prefer playing woods--even the Ohanas, over the KS1, so I sold it. But I do have a KTS4, and everything you've said about the build could be echoed about the all mahogany version. I have Martin 600s on that, and they sound great.

I've had no tuner issue on the KTS4, nor did I on the KS1. Maybe you got lemon tuners!

d-mace
03-13-2011, 01:17 PM
I've really like the friction tuners from Mainland....plus you get 4 finish options!

http://shop.mainlandukuleles.com/product.sc?productId=18&categoryId=5

cletus
03-13-2011, 01:24 PM
I love this uke and it gets more play than any of my others right now mostly because it's a longneck soprano and I'm mostly strumming right now... I'll update again once I do that.Again, I have to emphasize that the uke is fantastic - it's only the tuners that suck. The uke is good enough that, even knowing the tuners are junk, I'd still buy it again.


Thanks for the update, hope the tuner issues get solved with a new set. It'[s great that you love the uke! How is the difference in holding the soprano versus your larger ukes? Much of an adjustment in playing style?

OldePhart
03-18-2011, 11:43 AM
Thanks for the update, hope the tuner issues get solved with a new set. It'[s great that you love the uke! How is the difference in holding the soprano versus your larger ukes? Much of an adjustment in playing style?

I really like the way it feels holding it. Better than the concert, even. The neck is concert scale so there really aren't any adjustments to playing style. In fact, that's why I wanted the longneck - I wanted the concert scale but with the more tradtional sound of a soprano body.

I put the new tuners in and changed to fluorocarbon strings last night. I was going to put another set of Aquilas on it but I figured since I have meters and meters of my "fishing line" I might as well try it. I kind of figured that being laminated the uke might need the "power" of the Aquilas but it actually didn't lose much, if any volume and it sounds vey nice with the fluorcarbon strings on it.

Huge difference with the new tuners. It now tunes the way it should. The holes definitely had to be enlarged slightly - there was no way short of using a hydraulic press to seat the sleeves for the new tuners - obviously, using a hydraulic press to force them in would probably have cracked the headstock if not immediately then over time. I used the "sandpaper around a screwdriver shaft" technique to widen the holes until the sleeves could be pressed in using the "butt" of the handle of a screwdriver and hand pressure with the headstock against a padded flat surface.

The original sleeves were very tight in the holes, but they'd also been put in while the finish was uncured. Since the sleeves had a fake "nut" shape on the exterior I used a small wrench to work them back and forth a little to break any contact with the finish (with round head sleeves you can use an xacto blade around the edge to accomplish the same thing). Even though I did that, when I pressed the sleeves out from the back one of them pulled some finish up with it. Turned out that there was actually a "lip" of hardened finish inside the hole near the top and the sleeve snagged it as it was being pushed out. Took quite a chip out of the finish but fortunately the larger sleeve for the new tuner almost completely covers it.

The bad thing is I don't really know how you can avoid that when the finish has been allowed to run down in the hole and then pool around a tuner installed while the drip is still wet... Maybe working from the front with a thin blade on a bit of cloth padding, I don't know. Maybe scoring the finish with an exacto blade would have worked better here, too. The chip would still have happened but it might have stopped at the scoring and then been completely covered by the new tuner. Ah well, live and learn. As I said, you have to look close to see the mark and this is my beater uke. LOL

John

strumsilly
03-24-2011, 02:27 PM
I have a Kiwaya KTC-1. This came with what I thought were Hilo strings, maybe they were Freemonts. I heard some neg things about these strings, but I thought this uke played and sounded great with them so I wasn't in any hurry to change them. Eventually put Worth browns on it, and I couldn't tell too much difference . I really like the thin frets too. I think they are partly why the intonation is so good; compensating the saddle doesn't hurt either.. My tuners work great. sorry to hear about the trouble with yours. I wonder if they are the same? The friction tuners that Mainland uses are very nice, and the pearl is a little prettier on them than this, but they work about the same, both are smooth. The closest I can compare this uke to is the vintage Martins I've had, only without any vintage issues.