Back to the ukulele reviews bench for 2017, and we move on with a new brand for Got A Ukulele. The Kmise Mahogany 'Carved Cat' model.
In fact this is something of a special ukulele review in that it marks the 100th detailed uke test on the site! (Pull the party poppers!). So we shall see if this one lives up to the prestigious review slot it happened to fall into.
Kmise is a Chinese ukulele company that deal a dizzying array of musical instruments (not just uke), parts for instruments and a host of other things nothing to do with music. So at first glance they strike me as a brand that sells anything that they think is popular. The confusion continues in their broad array of ukuleles and the fact that the product descriptions keep changing, as do the packages they come in. In fact, I've had this one waiting review for about 2 months and since it arrived with me I see it now comes pre packaged with a gig bag and tuner which this one didn't come with. Hmmm. (Incidentally, you will mainly see these on Amazon, but also one or two other world sellers like Alibaba - so not a brand you are really seeing in specialist music shops...)
And that confusion continues with the name. On Amazon this is billed as the (wait for it)... 'Concert Ukulele 23 inch Hawaii Guitar Mahogany Carved Cat'.... I kid you not. Heck, it would be just too easy for me to tear that name apart as it's so silly, but lets just give them the benefit of the doubt and put it down to something being lost in translation. One thing it isn't though is a guitar... Or Hawaiian..
Let us move on.. This Kmise model is a standard concert shaped and scaled ukulele made from all laminate mahogany. The product descriptions dont say it's laminate which is a usual bugbear of mine, but when you know that these are available for £39 or $55 (at the time of writing) you should KNOW it's a laminate. But that's not the detail you want me to get into is it? Go on, say it. You want me to talk about the cat...
OK, OK.. Carved into the top of this one is a cartoon cat, with a couple of sound holes punched through for the eyes. Cats you may say? You love cats? Cartoon cats? What's not to like? Well, I am not personally big on cartoon images and carvings on ukulele tops (or carvings full stop for that matter), but if you are going to go with a cartoon cat, you could at least make it cute couldn't you? This is less Hello Kitty and more 'Hello Your Worst Nightmare'. I think the idea is the cat is supposed to look 'street' or 'tough', (it does appear to have a chain running from his ear), but I think it just looks damn scary and crass. No, I don't like it, and for me i'm just thankful Kmise also make some plainer looking ukuleles too. But fair enough, I'm an old bloke, so maybe I am just not getting it and I accept that some of you may be looking at this and saying, 'Awesome!!'. Be my guest. Anyway, enough with the cat...
So, cats aside, we have a standard looking concert ukulele made from laminate mahogany. The edges are unbound, but it's generally well put together on the core construction. The whole thing is finished in a satin coat which could have been applied a little better in places. There isn't pooling as such, but a couple of bare patches on the back and on the front what looks like the remains of a bubble of finish that has burst, then scratched and now sits as a noticeable white mark. We've also got some finish bubbles on the bridge plate and an odd raised line of finish in the grain on the headstock too.
The sides are made from a couple of pieces and the join at the butt is rather roughly finished. The back is slightly arched and made from a couple of pieces of laminate. This part intrigued me, as despite being made from laminate the back is actually rather pretty. It's well bookmatched, and the mahogany has a stripe to it that shimmers in different lights. If only the two piece top could have used the same wood as instead it's made from one of the roughest, plainest looking pieces of laminate I have seen. It seems an odd choice, but hey, at least the top does have a scary cartoon cat on it... The wood is plain and the joint is visible in some lights on account of a line of filler between the woods on the lower bout. In fact, when it comes to the scoring on this one, I was concerned that the kitty would sway my score on that front too much. Thankfully, (or unthankfully depending on your point of view), I have marked it down a little anyway as I don't like the quality or look of the wood on the top regardless.
You may also have noticed something else on the side, and that is a sound port on the upper shoulder. I was pleased to see this, not least because I just like them and you rarely see them at this sort of price, but also because I was concerned about low projection on account of those small eyes (sorry, soundholes) on the top. We shall see how that helps things.
The bridge is a very standard, screwed in place rosewood tie bar style, holding an uncompensated bone saddle. As I say, very standard, but not much to complain about either. They work.
Assisted by that side port, I can take a good look inside and it's actually very tidily put together. We have notched kerfing and the bracing doesn't look to be over thick. This view shows that the laminate used in this ukulele is certainly not thin either. It's not the thickest I have ever seen (this is no cheap Mahalo) but it's not pleasingly thin either.
Up to the neck, this is made from pale Okoume wood out of three pieces. The joints are in the heel and the headstock, and sadly the wood colours differ dramatically making the heel joint extremely noticeable. The neck is finished in satin and is otherwise pretty generic Chinese factory in profile.
Topping this is a rosewood fingerboard which is actually in pretty good shape and even in colour. We have one or two finish marks on it (which always stand out more on rosewood) but I have seen much worse. The fret edges are not bound meaning you see the ends, but it appears to have been stained to hide them. We have pearloid inlaid position markers at the 5th, 7th, 10th and 12th spaces and thankfully these are repeated with side dots. We have 18 nickel silver frets in total with 14 to the body joint and the end finishing is sadly terrible. In fact they are dressed so badly a fast run up the neck could well take some skin off your fingers. The nut width is very typically Chinese factory too at about 35mm. Nothing remarkable there, but playable.
Beyond the bone nut we have a relatively generic crown shaped headstock but at least it has a bit of 'sweep' to it that makes it different enough. The Kmise logo is applied in adhesive lettering that looks like something you would get on a cheap homemade Christmas card. It looks cheap because it IS cheap, and the edges of the stickers seem to be either lifting or are just discoloured. Ugh.. I'd rather there was no logo than this. You can probably spot that ugly line of finish flaw at the top left edge too.
Flipping it over we have pretty generic chrome sealed geared tuners. Sadly some of them have been slightly mis fitted so they are not quite lined up. Things like this annoy the OCD in me. To be fair to them though, they work ok and don't grind or have any play in them. Being gears, they should hold ok too.
And completing that thirty quid / fourty dollar price tag are Aquila strings, what else.. As I say, if you buy one now, chances are it will come with a gig bag and tuner too for the same money.
So a mixed bag really. No, I don't like the cat, but recognise that you may well disagree. But there are some bad finishing issues on this one regardless, mixed with some nice touches such as the back, the fret markers and the sound port. There are clearly some quality control issues going on here on what might (I stress, 'might') have had the makings of a decent enough beginner instrument. I knew this one wouldn't be so easy as merely blaming the cat..
To hold, the ukulele is actually quite pleasing. The weight is good and light and it feels nicely balanced in th hands at the mid point. These are ticks in the right boxes for me, and it's nice to see that despite being a budget instrument they didn't throw it together with absolutely terrible woods and braces making it feel like a log. That said, I am still concerned about the thickness of that top.
For people new to my reviews, I do always comment on the action at the nut and saddle out of the box. Yes, I know these things can be adjusted (and should be by a good dealer), but I do so to give you an indication if the brand got it hopelessly wrong, or if their QC has let an instrument out of the door that really should have been recalled. I consider it to be an indicator of how haphazardly or otherwise they put their instruments together. The action at the saddle on this one is just about ok at the saddle (though I would personally take it down a touch), and high at the nut. It's fixable, and perhaps a beginner may not notice it as it isn't massively high and throwing notes out that much, but it does need work.
Playing it, despite that light feel in the hands is a little underwhelming on account of the low volume. You really find yourself having to dig into this one to get it to project. Perhaps it's the thick woods, but perhaps it's also the minimal sound hole size. You can get some feedback from the side port, but in terms of forward projection it just seems to be lacking to me. You may listen to the video and think it sounds fine, so you just have to trust me on this. The video has gain added to it so you can hear me!
This is a shame, as the tone is surprisingly sweet for a ukulele of this price. In fact, in pure tone stakes this is right up there at this price point and beats many other entry level instruments hands down. It's got a bell like chime that is particularly nice fingerpicked, but also comes through on strumming. It sounds like a concert ukulele should - that mix of soprano staccato with a bit of extra richness and sustain. It's such a shame that the volume is low. Don't get me wrong, it's a thirty quid ukulele and I am not saying it sounds like a K brand.. it's just not offensive at all.. if it projected.
And I think that kind of sums up where I am with this one, and it's something I hinted at above. It's a mixed bag really. Some nice touches let down by poor quality control in other areas. A nice sound let down by poor projection. In fact it's as confusing as the name they gave it, or that poor cat which doesn't know if it wants to be cute or something from a horror film. Admittedly a lot of the faults with this one could be weeded out by a good dealer, the fret ends could be filed back, the action adjusted... but they are not being sold in dealers that I can see. You are buying these factory boxed from Amazon so they will come with no checks beyond the factory. That means you might get a good one.. equally, you might not..
With so many other Kmise instruments out there, you may want to give them a go. Hey, not all of them have cats on them, but based on the quality control issues on this one that escaped the factory, I would personally go forward as 'buyer beware'. I think you can do better for the money myself.
Light weight and balanced
Generally good core construction
Nice chiming tone
Quality control issues on finish throughout
Sharp fret edges
Badly fitted tuners
Hideous makers logo on headstock
..... the cat...
Looks - 7 out of 10
Fit and finish - 6.5 out of 10
Sound - 7 out of 10
Value for money - 7 out of 10
OVERALL UKULELE SCORE - 6.9 out of 10
UKULELE VIDEO REVIEW
© Barry Maz