Different tiers of brands?

greenfrog

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I’m not ready to buy another ukulele yet, but I am curious to start learning about the reputations of different brands and how people might mentally organize them into ranks/tiers.

Names I’ve come across so far include:
  • Big-name brands like Kala, Lanikai, Mahalo, and Ohana that are likely importing at least their lower-end instruments from factories in China or elsewhere.
    • Do the lower-end to midrange instruments from these big-name brands differ from each-other in quality/quality-control, or will they all be pretty similar?
  • Big-name guitar companies that also do ukuleles, like Cordoba and Alvarez.
    • Are there any patterns where their ukuleles tend to differ in some way (good or bad) from the more Ukulele-centric brands?
  • Amahi/Snail, Luna, Enya, Teton, Uma, Flight, Caramel, Kmise, New Orleans, Mainland
    • I don’t know much about any of these brands yet.
    • How would you rank/tier these brands relative to the bigger name brands? Eg. “better” “worse” or “about the same” as a lower-end Kala or Lanikai?
I know when it comes to sound and enjoyment that can be a very personal and subjective thing — when I refer to quality here I mostly mean the less-subjective things like intonation and other quality control issues that can impact playability, and whether it’s made to last at least a decade or two or if it will develop major problems/fall apart long before that.

Edit: If there are other brands I should know about, please let me know. I'm new to the ukulele world, there is a ton that I do not know.
 
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mikelz777

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From my experience I would rate Lanikai lower than both Kala and Ohana in general. I've seen several pretty bad (unacceptable to me) Lanikais in the stores whereas I don't think I've ever found an Ohana or Kala in the stores that I would have rejected for quality control. Having said that, I no longer own the sole Lanikai I purchased but I wished I still had it as a beater. Once I had the super high action lowered it was a great player with a decent enough sound but not as good of sound as any of my other ukes. On the other hand, I borrowed my niece's Lanikai to see what it would be like to play a tenor. I had the action lowered and put new strings on it for her and still found the sound lacking and wouldn't be happy with it if it were mine. For whatever budget I'd always look at a Kala or an Ohana before I'd consider a Lanikai.

I have a solid spruce top/lam Kala which I really love. I recently sold one of my Ohanas so I'm down to two of that brand and I love them both. In general, from top to bottom models, I think that Ohana ukes are a very good value and sound great. I'm eyeing another and would never hesitate to buy another Ohana. I like them so much I bought one of their logo t-shirts! From what I've seen and read, Mainland is the same thing as an Ohana, just a different brand name. Regarding guitar company brands, my experiences with Fenders has always been disappointing. I don't think I've heard a single one where I've liked the sound. I'd spend my money elsewhere.

The only other experience I've had among the brands you mentioned was with a Flight. My wife is a super casual player and was knocking the hell out of one of my beloved solid Ohanas so I thought I'd buy her a cheapie Flight which would suit her meager needs and she could bang it around all she wanted care free. I bought one of the cheap plastic jobs with a laminate wood top for around $50 so I wasn't expecting much. When I got it I thought it sounded pretty awful and I wouldn't even think of inflicting that uke on her. I thought it sounded like crap so I returned it. I don't think my negative experience should be taken as a knock against Flight. You get what you pay for and any brand model in the $50 range is probably going to sound like crap. One of the members of a uke group I've played with has a Flight and I thought it looked and sounded very nice.
 
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merlin666

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I like going to instrument stores, factories, and luthier shops to check out and compare various types of ukes. And I own a handful of diverse ukes myself. So my experience is limited to the first impressions you get from playing many ukes. I think the brands you listed are all very similar as they are mass produced in Asian factories that have very limited access to outsiders and any info that is provided is for marketing. Typically their ukes will be ok and generic, and as you go into lower price ranges there may be more difference between individual ukes of one model than systematic differences between models and brands. For higher priced ukes they hopefully have more quality control and consistency. Typical differences are superficial but enough to suit someone's preferences, but that does not imply that one may be better or worse value than another in a general sense.
 

greenfrog

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From my experience I would rate Lanikai lower than both Kala and Ohana in general. I've seen several pretty bad (unacceptable to me) Lanikais in the stores whereas I don't think I've ever found an Ohana or Kala in the stores that I would have rejected for quality control. Having said that, I no longer own the sole Lanikai I purchased but I wished I still had it as a beater. Once I had the super high action lowered it was a great player with a decent enough sound but not as good of sound as any of my other ukes. On the other hand, I borrowed my niece's Lanikai to see what it would be like to play a tenor. I had the action lowered and put new strings on it for her and still found the sound lacking and wouldn't be happy with it if it were mine. For whatever budget I'd always look at a Kala or an Ohana before I'd consider a Lanikai.

Good to know!

My current ukulele is a Lanikai with pretty good sound. But a warped/twisted neck, so possibly fits the pattern you describe.

I am particularly curious if anyone knows anything about the Amahi brand and where their $200-$400 baritones fall on the quality scale compared to other brands. My preference is for a laminate so I can keep it with me instead of getting over-protective about humidity and having it join the list of instruments I've left with family for safekeeping. Amahi seems to have quite a range of options for laminate baritones, *if* they're actually good-quality instruments. But it's hard to find much information about them...
 
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greenfrog

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This basically reflects the current myopic world of UU.

The reality is that there are many more good brands and makers who never appear on UU.

We will never see a lot of the current brands and makers actively participating in UU, and if you want to look at the entire market you need to reduce your hours on UU and spend more time on the rest of the Ukulele parts of the internet and in the stores near where you live.

That's why I'm asking. (About these brands or others, and I will edit my post to clarify the "or others" part and take out the "imported" part)

I find the idea of buying an instrument without playing it first to be more than a little unnerving. But when it comes to ukuleles, so far I've been lucky if a store I've called has *a* baritone. Seeing multiple baritones in one place might require a plane ticket. (Maybe I need to watch for an opportunity to go on a work-related trip to a city with a ukulele-oriented store...) So I'm trying to find out what I can online, but aware that there are enormous gaps in my knowledge that I need to fill.

If you have other recommendations for brands/places I should be looking at instead, please share them, this is exactly the kind of information I'm looking for! I'm still very much a newcomer to the world of ukuleles (about two months), there is a lot I don't know.

(I will add that I need to avoid solid wood for the next few years or it will just end up being left with family for safekeeping. But still happy to learn about those options for later.)
 
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rainbow21

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Most seem to fall into a category that lumps them together. My bias says the ones I would consider would be a Flight or Enya.

But a much better way to figure it out is to look here, at Baz's site (and he posts all of them in the Ukulele Reviews section of this forum:

 

merlin666

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Good to know!

My current ukulele is a Lanikai with pretty good sound. But a warped/twisted neck, so possibly fits the pattern you describe.

I am particularly curious if anyone knows anything about the Amahi brand and where their $200-$400 baritones fall on the quality scale compared to other brands. My preference is for a laminate so I can keep it with me instead of getting over-protective about humidity and having it join the list of instruments I've left with family for safekeeping. Amahi seems to have quite a range of options for laminate baritones, *if* they're actually good-quality instruments. But it's hard to find much information about them...
The Amahi brand is very popular in my city and I would say that about 3/4 of players I meet have one. This is likely due to our guitar shop that used to host the local uke circle and is an Amahi dealer. He also carries Ohana, Kala, Kamaka, Tanglewood, and others. But strangely enough most people ended up with Amahi. I have to admit that I don't remember trying one of them in the store.
 

greenfrog

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Most seem to fall into a category that lumps them together. My bias says the ones I would consider would be a Flight or Enya.

But a much better way to figure it out is to look here, at Baz's site (and he posts all of them in the Ukulele Reviews section of this forum:


Thank you!! That site is awesome!!! (And thank you to Baz for putting a resource like that together!!)

I think I may actually be looking for something a tier higher than some of the brands I’ve named. Not lowest-end entry-level, but still laminate. (And sold by a store that’s going to do a good setup, not Amazon!) But I could only name brands I’d come across in my research so far, and as others pointed out my perception of what’s out there may be limited/incorrect.
 

greenfrog

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The Amahi brand is very popular in my city and I would say that about 3/4 of players I meet have one. This is likely due to our guitar shop that used to host the local uke circle and is an Amahi dealer. He also carries Ohana, Kala, Kamaka, Tanglewood, and others. But strangely enough most people ended up with Amahi. I have to admit that I don't remember trying one of them in the store.

That’s great to know!

Did you like the Amahis when you’ve heard them played?
 

merlin666

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That’s great to know!

Did you like the Amahis when you’ve heard them played?
In a uke group it's not easy to distinguish. I didn't find they were standing out in a bad or good way, just regular ukes.
 

man0a

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I think there is so much overlap, that trying to group brands into generalized tiers is going to be misleading at best. For example, Kala is trying to expand upmarket with their Metropolitan and Elite models. On the other hand, Koaloha and Kanilea are trying to move down market with Koaloha's Koalana and Opio models and Kanilea's Oha and Islander models and someone posted a rumor that Kanilea is working on a new line of made-in-China models. Brands like Flight and Enya and Anuenue and Kiwaya make a huge range of ukulele models, from less than US$100 to over $1000. There are also numerous smaller brands that make good quality or good value instruments that always get left out of projects like this.
 

LorenFL

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^^^ He's not wrong.

You can get a crappy entry-level Kala, or a much better Kala, for example. You get what you pay for, to some extent.

My experience is... I had no problem with cheap ukes. I never both "the cheapest", but inexpensive with decent reviews. I had a Makala, which I was pleased with for a first uke. I bought a much more expensive Oscar Schmidt uke that I hated. Based on what I know now, I'd guess that it's "built like a guitar". It was very heavy, and even though it was a tenor body, it sounded terrible with Low G. It didn't sound bad High G, actually sounded quite good, and had EXCELLENT action right out of the box. But, very heavy, and not the sound that I was looking for.

When decided to try concert scale, I bought a cheap Eastrock laminate uke. Once I dialed in the action, I really like this one, still have it as a "beater". Mind you, I've not taken it out of its bag in about 2 years... I wonder what I'd think of it now?

I absolutely LOVE my Ohana! It's the first "real wood" uke that I've bought, and I was careful in choosing the wood that "should" deliver the sound that I want... and it does. (cedar and redwood are noted to give the lower resonant sound that I'm looking for, I settled on redwood) I did have to lower the action a bit, but otherwise, a very well built uke. Not super light-weight, but not "heavy" like the OS. Highly recommend Ohana for an affordable factory-built instrument.

The other thing I'll say is that anything I've bought that was a "novelty" in any way has always been a disappointment on some level. I bought a cheap "peanut" uke, it sounds like complete crap due to the size of the body. Also a shape that's hard to hold without a strap. Absolute garbage. I bought a Waterman... also sounds like crap. The bridge pulls the soundboard down and throws the intonation off to an impossible degree. It could work were it not for that. And I bought a fairly expensive (to me) Romero ST (concert scale, tenor body volume, physical size of a soprano)... it sounds nice, but I find it uncomfortable to play.

I'll second (third?) checking out Baz uke reviews. If he's done a video review of a uke you're interested in, you can learn a lot!
 

Jan D

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I am particularly curious if anyone knows anything about the Amahi brand and where their $200-$400 baritones fall on the quality scale compared to other brands. My preference is for a laminate so I can keep it with me instead of getting over-protective about humidity and having it join the list of instruments I've left with family for safekeeping. Amahi seems to have quite a range of options for laminate baritones, *if* they're actually good-quality instruments. But it's hard to find much information about them...
I’ve played numerous Amahi ukes in various music stores but have never much cared for them. However, their better quality line (Snail) is definitely worth considering. I have found them to be of better quality than the lower end Amahi line. One of my very first ukuleles was a concert Snail and I loved it. Very comfortable neck, attractive, well made, easy to play, good sound. I regretted having to sell it, but I needed the funds in order to purchase my koa KoAloha.
 
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Dohle

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I’m not ready to buy another ukulele yet, but I am curious to start learning about the reputations of different brands and how people might mentally organize them into ranks/tiers.

Names I’ve come across so far include:
  • Big-name brands like Kala, Lanikai, Mahalo, and Ohana that are likely importing at least their lower-end instruments from factories in China or elsewhere.
    • Do the lower-end to midrange instruments from these big-name brands differ from each-other in quality/quality-control, or will they all be pretty similar?
  • Big-name guitar companies that also do ukuleles, like Cordoba and Alvarez.
    • Are there any patterns where their ukuleles tend to differ in some way (good or bad) from the more Ukulele-centric brands?
  • Amahi/Snail, Luna, Enya, Teton, Uma, Flight, Caramel, Kmise, New Orleans, Mainland
    • I don’t know much about any of these brands yet.
    • How would you rank/tier these brands relative to the bigger name brands? Eg. “better” “worse” or “about the same” as a lower-end Kala or Lanikai?
I know when it comes to sound and enjoyment that can be a very personal and subjective thing — when I refer to quality here I mostly mean the less-subjective things like intonation and other quality control issues that can impact playability, and whether it’s made to last at least a decade or two or if it will develop major problems/fall apart long before that.

Edit: If there are other brands I should know about, please let me know. I'm new to the ukulele world, there is a ton that I do not know.
I would lump Kala and Ohana together as the more established brands that are decent quality but haven't innovated much over the years. Although admittedly, Kala has recently brought out the Metropolitan series which seems to be very similar to Pono ukuleles in terms of features and quality. I haven't tried Lanikai ukes myself but they seem to be lacking in quality and popularity.

Those guitar brands that also make ukuleles is a very good categorization. You can add brands like Fender, Ibanez, Ortega and Tanglewood to that category as well. Personally, I would steer away. You can find some ok examples of these kinds of ukes but mostly they're very generic and average.

Of the brands you mentioned, I would rate Snail, Flight, Uma and Enya as being very good quality and value for money. The first three particularly are really starting to challenge some more established mid-tier brands (like Pono) in terms of quality, in my opinion. All of these brands seem to innovate, listen to feedback and hone the quality of their instruments as time goes by. I'm a big fan myself.

If you're looking for a laminate baritone specifically, however, you might have to look at those more established brands like Kala and Ohana as there aren't that many choices around. I did notice that Snail has one laminate baritone model in their catalogue, the SUB-M1. Maybe that's something to check out. Flight also has a few different models but I think they're older models so the quality might not be that great. Worth a look though I guess.
 

Patty

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... And I bought a fairly expensive (to me) Romero ST (concert scale, tenor body volume, physical size of a soprano)... it sounds nice, but I find it uncomfortable to play.

I'll second (third?) checking out Baz uke reviews. If he's done a video review of a uke you're interested in, you can learn a lot!
Disagree about the Romano Signature Soprano; it's my current favorite, sounds divine, and I find it quite comfortable to hold.

But heartily agree about Baz's Gotaukulele website. I'd trust implicity EVERYTHING he says. (Except for one thing: Baz doesn't like the looks of the Romero Creations headstock; doesn't bother me a bit, and I think it's rather cute.)
 

badhabits

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a lot to digest...I'll just add, big name guitar companies often don't make/sell good ukuleles. typically they are lower end imports with their name slapped on. One exception that comes to mind is Martin.
 

greenfrog

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I think there is so much overlap, that trying to group brands into generalized tiers is going to be misleading at best. For example, Kala is trying to expand upmarket with their Metropolitan and Elite models. On the other hand, Koaloha and Kanilea are trying to move down market with Koaloha's Koalana and Opio models and Kanilea's Oha and Islander models and someone posted a rumor that Kanilea is working on a new line of made-in-China models. Brands like Flight and Enya and Anuenue and Kiwaya make a huge range of ukulele models, from less than US$100 to over $1000. There are also numerous smaller brands that make good quality or good value instruments that always get left out of projects like this.

^^^ He's not wrong.

You can get a crappy entry-level Kala, or a much better Kala, for example. You get what you pay for, to some extent.

Excellent point - thank you both!

My experience is... I had no problem with cheap ukes. I never both "the cheapest", but inexpensive with decent reviews. I had a Makala, which I was pleased with for a first uke. I bought a much more expensive Oscar Schmidt uke that I hated. Based on what I know now, I'd guess that it's "built like a guitar". It was very heavy, and even though it was a tenor body, it sounded terrible with Low G. It didn't sound bad High G, actually sounded quite good, and had EXCELLENT action right out of the box. But, very heavy, and not the sound that I was looking for.

When decided to try concert scale, I bought a cheap Eastrock laminate uke. Once I dialed in the action, I really like this one, still have it as a "beater". Mind you, I've not taken it out of its bag in about 2 years... I wonder what I'd think of it now?

I absolutely LOVE my Ohana! It's the first "real wood" uke that I've bought, and I was careful in choosing the wood that "should" deliver the sound that I want... and it does. (cedar and redwood are noted to give the lower resonant sound that I'm looking for, I settled on redwood) I did have to lower the action a bit, but otherwise, a very well built uke. Not super light-weight, but not "heavy" like the OS. Highly recommend Ohana for an affordable factory-built instrument.

Interesting - and glad to hear the Ohana turned out to be so nice!

I'm starting to notice a theme here (in multiple posts) - brand may sometimes give information about how likely it is a ukulele will have certain problems, but not about enjoying the instrument. Pretty interesting to see how much opinions can vary on instruments from different brands even just in this one thread!
 

rainbow21

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I'm starting to notice a theme here (in multiple posts) - brand may sometimes give information about how likely it is a ukulele will have certain problems, but not about enjoying the instrument. Pretty interesting to see how much opinions can vary on instruments from different brands even just in this one thread!
This makes complete sense, though. Our preferences are colored by physical traits, playing skills, preferences in music tastes, playing styles, financial situation, access to different instruments, and the quite large choice of brands. You can come up with other variables.