On occasion an ukulele comes my way on loan that I really don't want to have to send back. Kala take the honours on that score with this new model of theirs. The Kala KA-SRT-CTG-CE Comfort Edge series electro tenor uke. Aside from the clumsy model name, I think it's a belter.
So a high end Kala this one, in traditional tenor shape with what they call a florentine cutaway on the top edge. They also do one without a cutaway if you are one of those traditionalists for which such things offend you (for about £50 less). I'm not, and I think it works well with the looks. And yes, that model name IS clumsy. I usually try to decipher them, but I gave up with this one with the exception of the CE for 'comfort edge'. So, for me, this remains a 'Kala Comfort Edge Tenor'...
The whole of the body of the instrument is made from solid woods, with a solid cedar top (with nice straight grain) and a gorgeous solid rosewood back and sides. The contrast between the two is quite beautiful and whilst you see a few laminate backed rosewood instruments, it tends not to be until the higher end that you get solid rosewood backs and sides. On this one the rosewood grain pattern is striking, uniform and looks smashing in my opinion.
The whole instrument is finished in gloss and going over it with a fine tooth comb, I found no evidence of bubbles, gloss pooling, drips or cracks. A really good finish all over.
To compliment the woods, the trim throughout the instrument is made of an African wood called Padauk and trims the edges of the body, the edges of the fingerboard, around the sound hole, on the bridge and on the 'comfort edge'. It compliments the woods well in it's deep orange brown colour and it is certainly nice to see Kala sticking to a single wood trim type rather than mixing it up and delivering a clumsy mixed up finish. The Padauk is complimented by some simple black and white trim edging on the body edges which helps to set it off nicely. Really classy.
But on to that comfort edge. This is a feature that originally would have been the preserve of the higher end luthier built instruments, so it's good to see such ideas travelling down the line to the consumer end of the market. It is essentially a shaping to the bottom upper edge of the top of the instrument, directly under where the strumming arm tends to rest. And why? Well anyone who has played a ukulele for a period of time and been left with a ridge on they inner arm from the top of the instrument will know why. This comfort edge on this Kala is super smooth and comfortable and finished in the padauk wood. Gimmick? I really don't think so. Not only is it pleasing to look at, it really does feel comfortable on the inside of the strumming arm. I think it works extremely well.
Elsewhere on the body things are fairly standard. We have a rosewood bridge mounting and what I described in the video below as a plastic saddle. Their specs actually say it is NuBone, but it really looks like plastic to me. Either way, NuBone is not a wonder material and at the price of this instrument I would rather have seen this made of Tusq or bone. Putting it in perspective there are some entry level Mahalos that claim they use NuBone in big letters on their packaging - hardly a great endorsement. A minor niggle that most people won't notice, but there you go.
Looking inside things are nice and tidy, with delicate bracing and notched kerfing. No glue drops or wood shavings anywhere. Interestingly - the inside of that point on the cutaway seems to be boxed off which suggests to me that the point is strengthened by Kala. A good idea if it is likely to be knocked.
Cut into the top side of the body is a Kala branded pickup system running to an under saddle piezo strip. It's a fairly standard affair with EQ controls, onboard tuner and a jack socket off centre on the base powered by a couple of cell batteries. My regular readers will know I would rather do without all this gubbins and just have a good quality passive pickup. This one works, and I know exactly why Kala use it - it's trouble free for players - just plug in and go. But this is a higher end Kala and I would wager someone dropping the money this instrument costs may well be more demanding on their plugged in sound. Oh well.
One more thing (as part of a rant I am going to increasingly have in my reviews)..... Being a tenor with a pickup I think there is a high chance this will be played on stage in a performance. Why not give us a strap button Kala? So many people are now retro-fitting them, it would be nice to come with one as standard!
The neck is made of mahogany and in two pieces with a joint at the heel (which is capped in padauk). It's got a nice if fairly standard tenor profile and width and is finished in gloss. No complaints here.
Topping the neck is a rosewood fingerboard which is nicely finished and even in colour. The frets are nickel silver and we have 19 with 14 to the body. They all feel nicely finished with no sharp edges, and the edges are hidden by more padauk trim on the fingerboard sides. A nice touch.
We have outward facing position markers in small pearloid dots at the 5th, 7th, 10th and 12th fret spaces and thankfully these are repeated on the side, inlaid into the the padauk trim. Nice.
Past the nut (again, NuBone / plastic) we have a fairly standard Kala shaped crown headstock with the Kala logo inlaid in pearl under the gloss. Turning the headstock around shows off another nice bonus with this instrument. Tuning is provided by gold coloured open geared tuners which are Grover branded. Essentially the same tuners you would see on Kanile'a tenors and are top quality. No slack or wobble with these and I love the vintage shaped buttons.
And that is almost that. It comes with Aquila Lava brand strings (which I would personally change, but that is just me) and is available in the UK at around £380. For a Kala, (their Elite series aside) that is a high end price, but in the bigger scheme of things in the ukulele world it's actually more of an intermediate price point. It's kind of where the likes of Pono tenor prices begin, but one thing is for sure - you would not get one of those with this level of trim for that price. As such, for what you are getting I think it is great value. But that would mean nothing if it played like a dog.
Thankfully things are positive on that front also. Firstly the instrument is nicely weighted and balanced and as I say, that comfort edge really does work. It's a joy to play and hold. Really comfortable.
Setup out of the box was good, and I have no issues with the nut or saddle height on the review model. Yes, as I say, I would change the strings but that is just me and you will all have your preferred brands. Would love to try it with flourocarbons though!
The first thing that struck me when playing it the rich clarity across the strings. Usually the mark of a well made and balanced instrument. More often than not with far eastern ukuleles when strummed in anger, the mix of notes the strings are making can get muddy and certain notes become lost in the noise. The Kala excels on that front and every string has it's own space in the mix.
The cedar is giving it warmth but it certainly did have a brighter top end than I expected (not a bad thing - as I say - all about the mix). So it has a balanced tone with a bit of punch in various levels that I particularly like. On the whole it's a balanced mix that works well when played hard or soft.
Projection, whether strummed or picked is great and this instrument will hold it's own it whatever scenario you are in.
Fingerpicked, those highs really zing right the way up the neck and it's sublime to noodle on in this way. Kind of reminds me of a nice acoustic guitar - both in looks but also in terms of sounds.
Plugged in, as I say I am not a huge fan of these onboard active systems. It works. It sounds typically piezo and would benefit from more tone shaping than the onboard EQ can deliver, which kind of supports my view that I would prefer a good passive (as I am going to EQ it down the line anyway), but there you go. It works and the volume across each string is even and clear.
In short, no - it's not comparable to a £1,500 Kamaka before you ask, but it really is rather nice sounding (and nor is it pretending to me something it is not). It is really highly playable though with a very clear and pretty tone. In fact I will stick my neck out and say this is the nicest Kala I have played before and also one of the nicest tenors I have come across at this price point. I think it holds its own against many of the higher priced intermediate instruments on the market.
I think things are getting really positive with Kala lately. In the past I will be the first to admit that I found a lot of their range rather 'samey'. If this is the sort of thing they have on the drawing board for the future, then I think it could be exciting times ahead.
Be sure to check out my other ukulele reviews here!
-Clarity across all strings
UKULELE CONS-Some would prefer better nut and saddle at this price
-I would personally do without the active pickup system
UKULELE SCORESLooks - 9.5 out of 10
Fit and Finish - 9 out of 10
Sound - 9 out 10
Value For Money - 9 out 10
OVERALL UKULELE SCORE - 9.1 out of 10
UKULELE VIDEO REVIEW
© Barry Maz