Here's a new brand to Got A Ukulele and one that has been creating quite a buzz on social media. The CC102A Zebrawood Concert Ukulele from Caramel.
I've said many times recently that I am staggered at the sheer volume of new ukulele brands emanating from China these days. And the Caramel brand seems to be one that has a lot of people talking very positively. Whether that is because they are genuinely good ukuleles or because they are ludicrously cheap I am not sure. Either way, I thought it would be good to see what the fuss was all about.
This is one of the cheaper Caramel models out there in their large range of instruments, coming in at £30 or $38, which, it must be said, is ridiculously cheap. These are also principally only available from the likes of Amazon and Ebay, so I immediately sneer a little as that means they will arrive straight from the factory with no setup. In short, they have not been through the hands of a dealer. To make matters worse, they are not actually warehoused by Amazon, so ordering one means waiting for one to arrive from China, which in my case was a wait of four weeks. My concern that the are mainly supplied through Amazon (as this one was) is also marked by the fact that this brand seems to have nothing but 5 star 'reviews' for their various products. I always raise an eyebrow when I see that, especially when you consider that instruments like the Stagg US10 ukulele was one of the highest rated ukuleles on Amazon UK - a view I very much did NOT share. I'm not saying there are no objective reviews on such sites, but the majority seem to be from people who have no other experience of ukuleles (and as such, saying it sounds 'brilliant' is a bit of a hollow statement) and people who give five stars for things like 'it holds tuning'. Any ukulele will hold tuning if it's set up correctly...
Still it arrived safely in a Caramel branded cardboard box, complete with the 'oh so sickly' strap line of 'Caramel melts in your heart' written down the side. I thought it melted in your mouth to be honest, but there you go.
The CC102A is a standard shaped and scaled acoustic concert ukulele made from laminate zebrawood. The brand don't go to any great lengths to point out that it is made of laminate, but if the price hadn't convinced you that this isn't solid wood, let me confirm it. It's definitely laminate. As I always say, this is not necessarily a bad thing, but I still think they should make it clear. And a word here about zebrawood laminates. Personally, I don't actually like it much. Sure, it's pretty enough I suppose, but I think it has become totally over-used by Chinese brands in their ukuleles. It's certainly not the first zebrawood ukulele I have looked at, and a quick search of ukuleles on Amazon.com showed extremely similar models from Donner, Hola, Kulana, Elvis, Zimo, Amoon, Kmise, ADM, Kingster, Facilla, Snail, Aosdin, Aklot, Tycoon, Makanu, Amahi... and.... and then I got bored scrolling, because there were many more. You get the picture. It's absolutely clear to me that these originate from a small number of factories (perhaps just a handful) who are knocking them out in large batches, changing the makers label to suit. Nothing wrong with that per se and it's understandable considering how many come from that country. But do we REALLY need quite so many zebrawood bodied ukuleles? What happened to originality? I suppose the counter-point to that is that there was a time when most ukuleles were made of mahogany, so maybe this is just a non-point. For me though, this wood is SO striking that seeing so much of it get's extremely samey.
Anyway, zebrawood it is, and striking because of that which is precisely the reason they use it. Looks, and not much else. This one is put together well enough, and is also complimented by some off white edge binding where the top and back meet the two piece sides. That's nicely applied and compliments the zebrawood I think. Also decorating the top is an engraved sun motif. Seriously, is everyone putting sun motifs on ukuleles now? It's also nice enough I guess, but originality now seems to have gone out of the window! The top and back are bookmatched pieces and a glance at the edge of the sound hole shows it to be rather thick laminate too. The back, incidentally, is slightly arched.
Looking inside and we have notched kerfing linings and overly chunky braces. It's also quite messy with a fair bit of glue and wood shavings on show. In the bracket of 'small things that irritate me but are not life and death' - the makers label... it's photocopied so badly that you can't actually read the text in the middle. You had ONE job... The whole body is finished in a satin coat. This has not been applied brilliantly and there are some large irritating rough patches on the back of the body together with some noticeable scuffs and chips on the top. Again, not fatal issues, but they are enough to irritate me.
For the bridge we have a rosewood tie bar bridge plate, screwed in place and fitted with a straight buffalo bone saddle. Very generic as you would expect for this price and no complaints other than the fact that the wood looks to be screaming for some conditioning oil. It's extremely pale and dry. The action at the 12th is reasonably good, but on closer inspection of the end of the fingerboard I noticed something more worrying. Rather than the end of the fretboard being dead flat, it kind of dips down into the body just above the sound hole. This could be a serious build error that suggests that either the top is sinking or was just built incorrectly at this point. Either way, I would reject and instrument showing signs of this and go no further.
Up to the neck and Caramel don't specify what it's made of. It is most likely mahogany or a similar looking hard wood, and is also very pale in colour and made from three pieces with a joint at the heel and headstock. Topping this is a rosewood fingerboard of reasonable condition. It's quite pale and looks like it could do with being conditioned. The edges are stained brown to partially hide the fret ends and we have outward facing pearloid position markers at the 5th, 7th, 10th, 12th and 15th spaces, the 12th being a double spot. Sadly we have no side facing markers. Frets wise, these are nickel silver with 18 in total and 14 to the body. Sadly they are dressed very poorly with sharp edges on most of them as you run your hand up and down. These need work. Incidentally, at the nut the width is an equally generic 35mm.
Beyond the bone nut, we have a headstock with a shape very reminiscent of Kanile'a, with the Caramel logo engraved into the zebrawood veneer facing. Nice that it's not a three pointed crown I suppose, but it's still hardly original.
For the tuners, the Caramel product description confused me. They state that they are "frosted tuning pegs - not plastic". I have NO idea what 'frosted' means in this case, but the buttons certainly look like plastic to me. Rubberised, but black plastic all the same. And the buttons are attached to cheap generic chrome open gears that are nothing special. They really are only reasonable quality and have that telltale sign of some being stiffer to turn than others that you often get with cheap geared pegs.
Finishing it off is a set of Aquila Nylgut strings but no other extras that some of their rival ukuleles tend to offer. Then again, at a price this low, that would seem impossible to make stack up, and as I have said before that I don't like the brands that 'pile em high' with added extras, perhaps I should be giving Caramel some credit here for not doing that.
So in general summary, we have a very generic ukulele which at first glance is built 'ok', but on closer inspection has some more serious issues going on. It's light enough in the hands, but is also clearly very body heavy. This is far better than it being neck heavy, but it's still not right. I'm assuming this is on account of the thick laminates and overly thick braces used in the construction.
As for the sound, whilst I was reasonably happy with the volume this projects, I was less taken with the lack of sustain. Yes, I know ukuleles are not known for screaming sustain, but I've found far more sustain with other instruments at this price, leaving this one very 'plinky plonky' (technical term!). It just doesn't have any presence or dynamic range - very one dimensional.
Set up wise the nut is a little high, throwing some notes sharp when fretted at the first position and whilst, as I say, the saddle doesn't seem to be massively high, I am still finding poor intonation issues higher up the neck, particularly on the C string. Whether it's that dipping top throwing things out of whack or whether it just needs a damn good setup I am not sure. Possibly a bit of both. Some of the notes really are all over the place though. An interesting comment on this point following a recent comment on one of my videos on the YouTube channel in which I mentioned poor setup. This chap replied saying 'yeah, but you get that done after you bought it'.. Of course, you CAN do that (and believe me, this needs it), but it missed the important point that you also CAN get setups done by dealers before they are shipped. Which comes back to the issue of buying direct from Amazon - they won't be. So yes, this can probably be setup better, but that £30 ukulele is now costing you more for the extra service.
Back to the sound and trying to put the intonation issues out of my mind, it's pleasant I guess, could really do with more sustain, but not offensive. It is, however, for me a sound that is as generic as it's looks are. Bear in mind, whilst there are clearly setup issues on this one that can be reversed (to a point), the underlying tone is still pretty poor and simple. It can only be improved so much. I really wanted to like this one more, but it's doing nothing for me.
Which leaves me a little confused as to why people are raving about these in such great numbers. It can surely only be down to the price point, which is indeed hard to argue with. And yes, I realise that others may have received examples that are better set up or don't have the build issues I noted here (and believe me, those people WILL point that out to me... at length..), but to me, that speaks volumes about quality control with Caramel. The question is - do you want to play roulette on an instrument that is going to take four weeks to arrive? For me, I would be spending a touch more and getting a ukulele that you know will be setup properly and have more sustain. And that's the thing - there are plenty of better alternatives. I've played them. Even the Donner ukulele I reviewed last week (and was not totally thrilled with) is leagues better than this. This one is not for me and Caramel would do well to have these go through dealers who give them a final once over before sale. There's just too much wrong with this one as it is though.
Since writing this review it seems to have gone on to create some of the worst backlash I have ever had for an instrument review. It seems that most of the fuss seems to be regarding one point I made about the possible dipping top. This even led to people comparing their Caramel ukuleles and checking if this was a fault or a design feature. They have come to the view that Caramel deliberately shape the end of the fingerboard. I have no idea if that's true, and if it is, i have no idea why they did it. I merely reviewed it as I saw it and having never seen this design 'feature' before, assumed it was dipping. Maybe it isn't and I am happy to stand corrected if that is the case.
HOWEVER - that was but one issue I had with it. I still don't like it. Still think the finish was poor, as was the set up. Still think it sounds utterly mediocre. Seems a shame that just one point has taken the focus. If I hadn't mentioned it, I still would have given it the score I did.
Most of all though - it's JUST A REVIEW - you are entitled to disagree without worry...
Sharp fret ends
No side fret markers
'Possible' fatal build error in dipping top (possibly a design 'feature')
Poor quality tuners
Rough finish issues
Looks - 7 out of 10
Fit and finish - 6 out of 10
Sound - 6.5 out of 10
Value for money - 7 out of 10
OVERALL UKULELE SCORE - 6.6 out of 10
UKULELE VIDEO REVIEW
© Barry Maz
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