Time for another look at an Ohana Ukulele, with a long established model of theirs in the SK-35 Soprano uke.
The purchase of this came about as I was looking for a decent good value soprano ukulele for travelling with that I wouldn't worry too much about losing or damaging. Cheap but not dreadful in other words! One of the key requirements I wanted it to meet was that it was installed with friction peg tuners - and that's where my problems began. You see, in the main you will only really find friction pegs on either the absolute cheapest brightly coloured Chinese trash (no thanks) or on a plethora of high end ukuleles from brands like Koaloha, Kiwaya and Kamaka. The latter of these didn't meet my requirement as a low cost instrument, and then I realised that the choices are extremely limited in the middle to lower price bracket. In fact the vast majority come with gears only. I found a couple though. It came down to Mainland or Ohana as the only models that really satisfied the brief, and I went with this one.
And why friction pegs? Well, as I've said before I just think they look much better on a soprano, and don't get in the way of the fretting hand. I also don't buy the argument that they 'don't work', as good quality ones DO work fine. In that respect, I would have even bought one with poor quality friciton pegs as swapping them for better quality ones is a super easy job. As it is, finding the Ohana, I found an instrument that not only had them but had 'fairly' decent ones too.
The SK-35, like the Mainland sopranos actually comes in a variety of variants. The SK-35G is exactly the same instrument but with a gloss finish, and they also make an SK-35S which has side facing geared tuners. This is the straight up plain SK-35, so it comes with friction pegs and matte satin finish, but as you can see - something for everyone which is nice.
It's a standard scaled and shaped soprano made from all solid mahogany and very much modelled on a Martin ukulele in almost every way. The top and back on this one are made of single pieces and the sides are also a single piece bent to shape. The back is completely flat. The whole body is finished in a satin coat on this one, and it's 'generally' nicely applied. The grain on the wood is straight up and down the body, but being mahogany was never going to be hugely ostentatious or curly. But it's nice for what it is, and exactly what I wanted. It's a nice warm orangey brown, typical of mahogany.
Bridge wise we have a rosewood slotted style bridge plate housing a straight bone saddle shaped at the ends to match the taper on the bridge. The whole bridge and saddle is really nicely finished I must say and in fact in much better shape that that on the Martin S1 which was much rougher.
Decoration wise we have some black and white edge detailing next to rosewood binding on the top edge, and more of the rosewood binding the back. Around the saddle we have a subtle, cream coloured sound hole ring that is a transfer under the satin. Unlike the Martin S1, I think it looks nice and isn't stark white. The whole thing looks classy, vintage and traditional. In fact this detailing is what sets it a peg above it's slightly cheaper younger brother the SK-25 Ukulele. That one is essentially the same instrument without the bindings.
One thing I will say about Ohana satin finishes though is that, rather like Kala, they can make the instrument look a bit too 'new' and almost artificial. Yes, I know it IS new, but on something the like the Martin or Kiwaya you will find finishes that still make the instrument 'feel' like wood. The factory finishes on these mass produced models just seem to take some of that away for me. It must also be said that there are also quite a few finish flaws and marks on this one, particularly on the edge binding but they are minor I suppose and are nothing structural. I guess it's one of the things that sets a £150 instrument apart from one costing £400 or more.
Inside things look reasonably good. Scalloped braces, notched kerfing and the makers logo label. There are though, it must be said, lots of glue seepages around the joints. Pretty messy.
Up to the neck, this too is made from mahogany with a joint at the heel and the headstock. It's finished in satin too, although the colour of it is a little too orange for my liking. I would have liked that to match the body colour more closely. Sometimes little things like this set off my OCD.
Topping this is a rosewood fingerboard which is nice and even in colour and nicely conditioned. We have a generous (for a soprano) 15 nickel silver frets with 12 to the body joint, the last few overlapping the top above the sound hole. They are all finished nicely, helped by the strips of rosewood edge binding on the sides that hide the fret ends. Personally I would have liked thinner fret wire on a soprano, but there you are. Compared to something like the Kiwaya KTS-5 though, you see that the fingerboard is much thicker where it passes over the top of the body. There are also a couple of finish flaws in the edge binding that actually look like splits in the rosewood that have been polished over. Again, pretty minor, but noticeable to me.
We have pearloid position markers at the 5th, 7th and 10th spaces. I'd like one at the 12th too, but they are thankfully repeated on the side - something that I think was missing from the original run of SK-35's. Good to see that Ohana are improving things as they go along.
Incidentally, the nut width is a generic 34mm, so narrower than I would like too, but I suppose pretty standard for a Chinese instrument.
Past the bone nut we have the usual Ohana headstock style which I really do think looks great. They always exude a certain class in their shape and this is faced in dark rosewood and has the same black and white edge binding detail. The Ohana logo is under the satin and whilst I think it's a screen print, it looks pearly and classy.
And flipping it over we see the friction pegs that I was wanting all along. In this case we have standard Gotoh brand pegs with cream buttons - model UKB I think. They are not high end friction pegs, but they are far from the worst out there and I think they are better than the ones that come as standard on the Martin S1. In fact I think they are exactly the same as those fitted to the Kiwaya KS5. Kind of a 'mid range' peg I suppose.
Completing the package are a set of Aquila strings and whilst these have an RRP of £229, I picked this one up for around £150. Likewise the US RRP is $289 but you will regularly find these for around $180 or so. I do find that a lot with Ohana in that their RRP prices are always much higher than you ever find them for sale and I am never sure why. Even new models seem to hit dealers at lower prices than they show as RRP. Either way though, at a price of £150 I think that's a good deal, so do shop around. I wouldn't be quite as happyy at the RRP I must say.
So the build quality of this is pretty good all over with no issues in the body joints and only minor flaws in the finish. A bit messy inside, but that's about it. It's also light and balanced too. Not as light as a higher end soprano as the tone woods are noticeably thicker, but that's to be expected for the price. Setup is also pretty decent on this one although I would likely take the saddle down a touch. It's not affecting the intonation, just the feel for me, so that's purely a personal preference.
So no huge complaints so far. Sound wise it's got decent volume and it has some nice sustain too for a cheaper soprano. Not ultra long lasting, but it's there and noticeably making it feel lively enough. Not hugely snappy, but not too shabby. But remember, this is a £150 instrument, not a £500 ukulele.
I wouldn't call it a 'complex' voice, but it does have a bit of jangle and certainly barks a bit as a soprano should when you need it by digging in. I much prefer it for strumming than picking, but it's no slouch at the latter. Just a very typically mahogany soprano tone I think and one that does it's job for 95% of people very well. It's a wood that I find gives a warmth and richness of tone that just really suits the soprano scale ukulele. It's no coincidence that classic Martin sopranos used mahogany.
But the one thing I can't get past is the strings. I always point out that I don't review ukuleles up or down based on strings because they are just too personal, but i'm finding it slightly hard to come to a clear view of this one based on the Aquila strings. You see, I want a soprano to be bright, snappy and punchy and I just think that (for me at least) the Aquila strings are far too mellow for it to show what it can really do. I really think that I'd want to try fluorocarbons on it is what i'm saying, and with the review out of the way, that's exactly what I am going to do! Please bear in mind you are entitled to disagree - the number of people who love Aquila strings are legion and this is just my personal opinion. And it's exactly why I don't let strings affect my scores unless they truly are dreadful.
Those tuners on this are also a little bit fiddly, but as I say, they are not the worst out there and do hold and turn smoothly enough. I just find they have a touch of play that is annoying, but as I always say, swapping these out is a minor job.
It probably reads like I am trying to find things wrong with this one, and I suppose I should come to a conclusion that is more positive. And that's because for the great value price, it's actually a great little instrument that I AM positive about. Hugely. It looks the part (traditional and classy), on the whole is built very well and sounds pretty good too. I think it probably fits the bill for exactly what I wanted. A non hellishly expensive soprano that still sounds great and has friction pegs! I therefore still give this a good recommendation and a score to match. I'm very pleased with it!
(Please note! I noticed on playing back the video that the sound goes very 'phasey' in parts - I was experimenting with a new microphone and decided it sounds horrid, but didn't have time to re-record it. So to give you something better to listen to, I have done the audio below which is using a microphone, but without the phasey effect!)
(STOP PRESS - Since writing this review and recording the video I swapped the strings out to Martin M600's. To my ears it now sounds far, far better. However, I stand by my policy of reviewing instruments with the strings they are supplied with and for many of you, the Aquilas will be your preferred choice. Take these comments with a pinch of salt!)
Great price (if you shop around!)
Classy traditional looks
Use of friction tuners
Good volume and sustain
Accurate set up
Some finish flaws and internal glue seepage
Friction tuners are not the best, though easily changed.
Looks - 8.5 out of 10
Fit and finish - 8.5 out of 10
Sound - 8.5 out of 10
Value for money 9 out of 10
OVERALL UKULELE SCORE - 8.6 out of 10
UKULELE VIDEO REVIEW
© Barry Maz
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