I have been long overdue writing this review, but here we have the Ohana TKS-15E tenor ukulele. It's a thin line model and comes complete with a pickup too. How does it fare?
I have actually had this ukulele since late last year, as I won it at the raffle at the Grand Northern Ukulele Festival. It's not a uke I had played before or even knew much about, but I must say, I rather like playing it. The TKS is a thin line body uke, sometimes called 'travel ukes' by other manufacturers (a name I have never quite understood, as the ukulele for me is naturally travel friendly), and part of a thin range by Ohana that also includes a concert (naturally called the CKS).
The uke is pretty standard looking in shape, with a traditional double bout body, and is made from laminate wood with a mahogany outer finish. Like all Ohana ukes I have played, its extremely well put together and very neat and tidy. The top is very plain, with no detailing or sound hole rosette, but does feature cream plastic binding where it joins the sides. The grain is not all that special to look at, but it does have a more 'natural' look to it that some laminates. Inspection at the sound hole shows that the laminate is pretty thin, which for me is a good thing when not using solid wood. (Check my review of this Kiwaya to understand how good laminate can actually be). Laminate is a real divider with people, and often you will face the snobbish response that only solid wood matters. Not so. Cheap laminate can indeed be awful, but it is possible to make an instrument with good laminate too. In fact, top end guitar makers have been working with quality laminate for years.
Looking inside, all is nice and tidy, with flat kerfling holding the top and back to the sides and the distinctive Ohana label. The bracing looks a bit heavyweight to me for such a thin instrument, and one that is made of laminate (that is naturally stronger than solid wood), so I hope that doesn't kill the volume and tone.
It is when you turn this instrument on its side that you see just how thin it is. The sides themselves are made of a single piece of wood with no join at the base which is a little unusual for a tenor scale uke. The sides are joined to the back with the same cream binding which adds a (much needed in my opinion) bit of detail to the uke.
The back is also very nicely arched to help with sound protection, but is otherwise fairly plain looking and like the top, made from a single piece of wood.
Back to the top and we have a standard tie bar bridge in rosewood, and a bone saddle which is nice to see.
On to the neck and this is very nicely finished. It is smooth to the touch and has a slightly chunky profile to it that I like. Topping the neck is a rosewood fingerboard which is extremely nicely finished, smooth and evenly coloured. The edges of the fingerboard are slightly rolled too which surprised me for a laminate uke of this price and feels great in the hands. Top marks Ohana. There are 19 nickel silver frets, with 14 to the body and they have no rough edges and also feel great. Fret markers are inlaid mother of pearl circles at the 5th, 7th, 10th, 12th and 15th frets. Sadly, there are no side markers. The neck itself is made of three pieces with a joint at the headstock and the heel. It is nice to see a chunky joint at the heel, meaning this should stay put. Kala's original travel uke was plagued by a small neck joint, and necks easily snapping from the body.
Up to the headstock, its an unfussy affair in traditional Ohana shape with the Ohana logo silk screened on in silver. Tuning is provided by silver, sealed geared tuners that are stable and work very well. No complaints with these.
But what about that electric connection? Well the TKS-15E is fitted with a passive spot pickup (i.e. not an under saddle) underneath the soundboard which is connected to a jack socket just off centre on the base of the uke. Firstly, full marks to Ohana for going with a passive system and not installing an awful cheap active system. This does really require the use of a pre amp box that an active may not, but I find passive systems give a far more authentic uke tone when plugged in. You also don't need to rely on batteries! I would however have preferred an under saddle system as I find they are better at reducing body noise. Another observation though - why oh why not fit the pickup to a tail block at the base and include an integral strap button? I worry about jack sockets fitted in this place as they are connected to a fairly thin piece of wood. I have seen examples where people have snagged cables and literally ripped a hole out of the side of the instrument. There is far more strength at the base 'assuming' there is a tail block fitted. I can't actually tell if there is one, so the whole affair may be a little fragile.
The package is completed by the usual Aquila strings and there you have it.
Before we get on to playing it, a word about the price. These are listed on Ohana's website at an RRP of just over $300. You read that right and I honestly wondered if it was a typing error. $300 for a laminate uke (albeit one with a pickup and a nice neck). I think that is crazy. Thankfully, they seem to be available on the inter web at at anywhere between $180 and $200. I still think that is a little expensive myself, but it lines it up alongside the similarly priced Kala travel ukes. More on that comparison later.
The uke is very comfortable to play and hold and is nicely balanced. The thin body makes holding it without a strap a breeze and I like how thin body ukes seem to get you closer to the sound in that you can really feel the resonance through the back and into your chest. The neck and fingerboard I referred to above is really, really comfortable, smooth and a joy to play. It also has a slightly wider nut (also made of bone) than many tenors which I also like. This one has become a uke I don't like to put down!
Unplugged the sound is not hugely complex, but it does have good volume and a nice voice. It isn't up there with some premium laminate ukes I have played, but it is a mile above cheap laminates. Notes are very clear, across all strings, but it does lack a bit of sustain. I actually swapped out the stock strings to La Bella Uke-Pro strings as I thought the Aquilas made it bark a little. I'm pleased with the La Bella strings and its a very pleasurable instrument to play.
Through an amplifier, well, I have a problem, and I knew it was likely to manifest itself before I plugged it in. Body noise. The advantage of an under saddle pickup is it minimises noise from handling the instrument itself. The use of a soundboard pickup means everything that vibrates the uke, and not just the strings gets heard. As such, when you plug this in, even the uke rubbing on your arm, or your chest gets amplified. It's a nice sound from the strings, but you really need to hold it very carefully and steady to avoid it picking up everything else. Sat down and playing gently, its just fine, but I could never use this on stage and jig around without other noises being amplified too. The video below demonstrates that quite clearly for you. (I knew it would likely be an issue as I fitted a similar pickup to a Fluke and have the same problem). Perhaps I am just clumsy though, but I find it very hard to play it and move around without picking up all sorts of noise.
Before we finish, let us go back to that hard to ignore comparison to the similarly priced Kala. With the Kala travel you get a solid wood top ukulele which, to some people, will matter. You also get a very nice embroidered padded gig bag that the Ohana doesn't have. On the other hand, the Ohana has a far nicer neck than the Kala for me and has a pickup fitted. So I suppose the choice is yours - do you want solid wood and a gig bag, or can you live with laminate and get a pickup as part of the deal. I think it is a close call, but the Ohana really doesn't sound all that different to the Kala for me, so I guess it just wins. That said, I think both the Ohana AND the Kala are overpriced for what they are!
But price aside, I still rather like it. It's a very playable instrument acoustically with a wonderful neck. For me though, I could not live with the transducer pickup on stage and would prefer to have one of these either without a pickup for a lower price, or with a pickup mounted under the saddle. Your mileage may vary on the pickup, but for me it will remain an acoustic only uke.
Ohana build quality
Great comfort to play
Noisy soundboard pickup
Looks - 7.5
Fit and Finish - 9
Sound - 7
Value for money - 6.5
OVERALL 7.5 out of 10
Take a look now at the video review and better audio sound sample!