I always enjoy it when I get to feature the Kiwaya brand on the Got A Ukulele reviews section. But this time it's something a little different for a variety of reasons. This is the Kiwaya KSU-1L long neck soprano ukulele.
So far I have looked at the (excellent) Kiwaya KS-5 Soprano, the (utterly sublime) Kiwaya KTS-5 Soprano and the (price confusing, but otherwise excellent) Famous / Kiwaya FS-1 Soprano. They were all great ukuleles and they all had one thing in common - they are all made in Japan to exacting and precise standards that exceed much else in their price categories. Which is why I read with interest that the UK distributor for some other brands I have looked at, Stones Music, was taking on UK distribution for Kiwaya. That's great news, as until now I have always found them hard to source, and, as I have said before, confusing on pricing. But the other point that caught my eye with this particular model is that Kiwaya have opened a new line of production for the first time outside of Japan. That's clearly an effort to bring costs down, and hence we have this one which is made by Kiwaya in China. I must say, the exacting standards of their Japanese production was really a huge part of their appeal to me, so will this one stand up?
As you can see, like most Kiwaya ukuleles, it's a very plain, very traditional and very simple looking ukulele. In fact it's rather like their KS1 / Famous FS1 in the body, being a traditional double bout shape modelled very much on the Martin sopranos. So the mahogany is very simple, and it's finished in the same sort of tactile satin as their other laminates. That's no bad thing, it's just not really a head turner. The top is made of two pieces pieces as is the flat back, and the sides are a single piece. And construction wise I must say it's really not too bad considering the move away from Japan. OK, it's not quite as flawlessly finished as Japanese Kiwaya ukes I have had my hands on, but it's really pretty decent. I can spy a bit of roughness here and there, and the edge of the sound hole is a bit messy, but nothing eye watering. I've seen much worse.
Bridge wise this is a typical Martin style slotted bridge plate made of black walnut. It houses a bone nut which unlike other Kiwayas is not heavily compensated. It's very tidy though and rightly diminutive for such a small soundboard.
Inside is a touch scruffy for a Kiwaya with some glue seepage in various places. The linings are not notched and the bracing looks very simple. Once again though, I have seen much worse
Up to the neck, this is made of three pieces of mahogany with the usual heel and headstock joints, but the real prize here comes with the flatter profile and and extremely comfortable 36mm at the nut. For a soprano... A Chinese soprano.... That's excellent to see and shows very clearly that Kiwaya are being very much in control of production and not simply re-badging an 'off the production line' clone in their own name. Why can't other brands specify their Chinese ukes this way? I am SICK of 34mm nuts on Chinese sopranos!! You will of course also remember that Kala long neck soprano I reviewed recently. That totally failed for me because they put a concert neck on the uke but kept the nut narrow. People actually commented on that review suggesting 'that's just the way it is with long neck sopranos'. Utter rubbish, and here we have an example that disproves that. Full marks Kiwaya. Full marks.
It's topped with a walnut fingerboard which is unremarkable, but relatively nicely finished. There are a few glue and scuff marks where it runs over the top of the body, but again, nothing frightening. And being a long neck you get 18 frets with a joint at the 14th - a proper concert scale. Nice. The edges are not hidden, but they are dressed well enough if not super smooth. Dots are provided facing out at the 5th, 7th, 10th, 12th and 15th and we have them of the side too.
Beyond the bone nut we have the usual three pointed crown headstock that Kiwaya use on the vast majority of their instruments complete with the very classy looking Kiwaya logo. It's faced in something darker, but it's not specified. Possibly a thin rosewood veneer, possibly just something that has been stained. It's a nice contrast though.
The tuners are pretty generic open chrome gears, but at least the buttons are small. Of course I would much prefer this to come with friction pegs, being a soprano. Shame. Still, these are not bad tuners, they are just unremarkable.
It comes with a functional but basic gig bag and a set of un-named fluorocarbon strings. Oh and it comes in a gaudy box with suitably stereotypical aloaha's and palm trees. Ugh.. Though you may be wondering why I am not being totally sniffy about some of those scruffy finishing points I mention above and pulling it to pieces. I mean, this IS a Kiwaya after all.... well, you see, there is the small matter of the price. These are available in the UK for £119. And no, that is not a typo. Under £120 for a Kiwaya ukulele. That's amazing, and is the most affordable Kiwaya i've ever seen (and the standard soprano is even cheaper!). But that would of course mean nothing if it sounded like a bag of hammers...
In the hands, like all other Kiwaya ukes I have played it is nice to touch, very light and impeccably thin on the tone woods. It's also nicely balanced despite those tuners and longer neck. The build, despite some scruffiness is secure and solid too. That Japanese standard of incredibly light and thin, whilst strong has not been lost in the transition to China. And I really must add, I am being very picky on the scruffy parts. It really is very good to be fair.
And before I get on to the sound, a word about the playability. Firstly the setup on this review model is spot on for me. But it's the light weight coupled with the roomy neck with a comfortable profile that is the best part. It's just so playable under the fingers like all other Kiwaya ukuleles I have tried. But most of all, this is a long neck soprano that can truly state that it has 'more room', unlike certain others. Terrific.
And then you play it.... Wow. I really don't know how Kiwaya do it, but this has a terrific punch and volume that will annoy the neighbours. It's how a soprano should project when strummed hard. A real snappy bark that far belies its price and construction. Absolutely first class. For a laminate instrument too the resonance and sustain is terrific, so you can imagine how those factors pair up. Beefy, punchy, snappy, in your face. But it's not a let down on the quality of tone stakes either. Sure it's a little on the bright side, but you would be hard pressed to tell me in a blindfold test that this wasn't a solid wood instrument of any wood type. It's got a richness and harmonic shiver when notes are played together, but never seems to lose it's way or get confused. Clear as a bell in fact and right up the neck too. OK, it's not the most complex tone I have heard, but it's certainly one of the best, if not THE best laminate ukuleles I have heard. Heck, never mind the laminate thing, this one sounds better than countless solid wood sopranos I have played costing considerably more. I have to keep going back to check that price and build location because this one is punching far, FAR above it's price. I'm really struggling to criticise this.
All in all this has impressed me in the way all Kiwaya ukuleles have despite where it's made. It's quite clear that, whilst the finishing is not up there with their Japanese counterparts, they have ensured that the elements that matter have come through in the build. That means you are getting a well made, resonant and thin, and extremely playable ukulele like all Kiwaya's are. It sounds terrific too. Oh, and you are getting it for a complete steal of a price. VERY highly recommended. You DO need one of these. A Kiwaya for everyone?
Many thanks again to Stones Music and World of Ukes (stockists) for helping arrange this loan for review. A total pleasure.
Great general build
Terrific volume and sustain
Notes are clear as a bell whether strummed or picked
Shimmery harmonics on a £120 instrument
Some scruffy finishing here and there, though not as bad as I expected
Would prefer friction tuners
Looks - 9 out of 10
Fit and finish - 9 out of 10
Sound - 9 out of 10
Value for money - 9.5 out of 10
OVERALL UKULELE SCORE - 9.1 out of 10
UKULELE VIDEO REVIEW
© Barry Maz
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