Ortega Keiki K1 Sopranino Ukulele - REVIEW

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6 Jul 2019

Ortega Keiki K1 Sopranino Ukulele - REVIEW

I am moving to the smaller end of the uke scale this week on Got A Ukulele with a new sub-soprano sized instrument from Ortega Guitars. This is the K1 Keiki Sopranino ukulele.

Ortega Keiki K1 Sopranino Ukulele

There is clearly a passion out there in ukulele land for tiny instruments as no matter who puts out sopranino / piccolo / pocket scale ukes the market seems to lap them up. Sadly I tend to find they are extremely variable in quality going from the high end (hand made) stuff from the likes of Andy Miles, John Daniel and DJ Morgan (which sound GREAT and are not actually that expensive) to more generic thinner / brittle sounding models from brands like Ohana and iUke. With any scale I think that quality and tone matters most yet for some reason the market seems to accept poorer qualities in this regard when they are small. I find that really quite odd. Anyway, it was a matter of time that a brand with a ridiculous number of models in their range released their own tiny uke. Step up to the plate Ortega, a German brand with a range of far eastern made instruments.

The K1 Keiki (A Keiki being a clone plant of an orchid!)  is a smaller than soprano sized ukulele with a scale length of about 11 inches. Sopranino, Sopranissimo, Piccolo, Mini, call them what you like. What we are talking about here are ukuleles with scale lengths smaller than a standard soprano. Like so many other sopraninos, it follows the standard double bout ukulele shape and is essentially a shrunk down soprano. It's made of Okoume wood in the body and is a full laminate. In what is a pet peeve for me,  some shops that list these are less than clear with their product descriptions and drop the 'laminate' part in order to make people assume they are getting something they are not. I despise that. To be fair to Ortega, their website used the term 'plywood' so at least the actual brand are playing fair. I just wish stores would do the same because, that is what it is. Plywood.. The top, back and sides are each made from two pieces and  you will also note that the body depth front to back is quite slim too at about 40mm. I like that and it is in keeping with the smaller instrument all round. Sadly the consistency in proportions doesn't last with this one.

Whilst this one is in a rather dull brown satin stain, it also comes in green, purple, red, natural, blue, yellow and pink... It keeps the kids happy I guess, but I am never much of a fan of rainbow colours on ukuleles and think they only serve to re-enforce the 'toy' label that the ukulele suffers from . The outer finish is an open pore satin which, coupled with the colour looks (and feels) a bit cheap and unfinished to me. I'd rather they used a decent wood outer veneer and went with that.

Ortega Keiki K1 Sopranino Ukulele body

The body is decorated with an overly deep etching of a turtle around the sound hole. Etchings are something else I don't tend to go in for, but each to their own I suppose. At least they didn't run the etching under the bridge plate like certain brands have done in the past (I'm looking at you here Luna). The turtle though is just SO stereotypical, and things like this make me wonder if anybody at at all in the uke world has any imagination any longer. It might as well have been a bird of paradise flower or a hula girl like so many cheap brands use to adorn their packaging. No, it's not for me.  There is nothing else to decorate the uke, so no edge binding or inlays. Just that damn turtle..

Ortega Keiki K1 Sopranino Ukulele decoration

The bridge plate is a generic tie bar style with a plate made from walnut. It holds what looks like a straight topped plastic saddle and appears to be screwed in place. It's pretty standard for a ukulele, however when the instruments go smaller I would want to see a smaller slotted bridge as there is then less wood laying on the smaller vibrating top. In this case they just went to the same parts bin and thought 'hey, a bridge is a bridge'.. No, a bridge ISN'T just a bridge.. Lazy.

Ortega Keiki K1 Sopranino Ukulele bridge

Inside is only reasonable. There is no back bracing, only top braces, and the linings are notched. But there is a fair bit of glue seepage in most places and the neck block is splintered and very rough looking. Still the soundboard top is not overly thick to be fair. I do worry about the deep etching around it though as that can't be doing much for the strength.

The neck is unspecified and appears to be made of 'at least' two pieces with a joint showing in the heel. It is a typically far eastern rounded profile and is a ludicrously narrow under 31mm at the nut and under 25mm between the outer strings. I have a major issue with that. The best sopraninos out here recognise that a smaller scale doesn't necessarily mean you need a smaller nut width and compensate for the lack of fingerboard space generally with larger string spacing. It's what keeps them playable and any luthier builder know this.  So whilst I talk about consistency in proportions being important, this is one area where you should tread carefully. The big brand names seems to just assume 'oh, it's smaller than a soprano, lets just make everything smaller'. That shows a basic lack of understanding of one of the most critical parts of the ukulele and how it affects playability. This nut width alone rules the instrument out for me as it probably would for any of you who have said 'I don't like sopranos because there isn't much space'. This will be even worse.

Ortega Keiki K1 Sopranino Ukulele neck

Topping that is a walnut fingerboard with a touch of end shaping. It has a fairly standard 12 frets to the body with position markers at the 5th, 7th, 10th and 12th. These are also repeated on the side. The edges are stained rather than bound, but do hide the frets well enough.  The frets are a touch on the sharp side though. Not the worst I have seen, but  they are still not right and a mark down here for quality control.

Beyond the nut is a headstock shape reminiscent of the Vox guitar brand. And contrary to my comment above regarding makers 'just making everything smaller' they didn't do that with the headstock. It is FAR too big for the small instrument and looks totally out of proportion. Don't get me wrong, I rather like the shape in itself, but it needs to be much smaller. This is the same criticism I had of Ohana with their sopraninos where they just stuck a standard soprano headstock on their models. If there is one thing you NEED to make smaller to stay in proportion to the body, it's the headstock. Ugh.. It's etched with the Keiki logo, and interestingly the whole uke, down to the box, pitches this a being a 'Keiki brand' as opposed to Keiki just being a model name. The box and label still say 'by Ortega', so they are pitching this as a child brand of the main company.

Ortega Keiki K1 Sopranino Ukulele headstock

To add insult to injury on the proportions front, the tuners also look massive on this because it's such a small instrument. They are just generic gears that no doubt exist on many other Ortega ukes. (Back to that parts bin again!) Personally speaking, on a sopranino I really think you really do need friction pegs to keep the proportions right. However I do get that this is aimed at beginners and they may struggle to use those. But if you are going with gears, you really need to use the smallest gears you can with short tuning shafts and small buttons. These stick out to the point that they are the most noticeable thing about the instrument. They look completely ugly. Worse still they are pretty poorly pressed from metal, with the mounting plate on one of them so sharp on the edge that rubbing it with my thumb grazed the skin. Another mark down for quality control here..

Ortega Keiki K1 Sopranino Ukulele tuners

Finishing it off are what are named as Ortega's 'own line' of strings developed in conjunction with Aquila. Whether that means a whole new set or just regular Aquilas with the Ortega name, I'm not sure, but I suspect it's the latter.  Ortega recommend that these are tuned in D or G, so it's good to see that they recognise that going a full octave up just sounds, well... awful.  And that is yours for a street price of about £60 ish. A low price indeed and one of the cheapest sopranino ukuleles I have seen. That's probably got your attention!

The build is generally good apart from the elements I have talked about. To be fair the body and main structural elements feel solid and well put together. It's light enough and balanced along it's length, but it does have that odd trait I have seen on one or two ukuleles in that it is not balanced front to back. That is to say when you hold it the top edge kind of falls back towards your chest. Very odd and not very nice to hold. It feels like it is forever tumbling towards you.

Before we get into playing it I just have to report on some of the, frankly, woeful product descriptions that some shops have applied to this one. I share these now because you should bear these in mind as you read on and watch the video. I've seen phrases like this being a "stunning ukulele that provides sweet tones that you'll never tire of hearing", and, "it delivers a beautiful tonal palette that's responsive enough to accommodate a wide range of playing styles", and that okoume (laminate okoume remember!) has "an exquisite natural resonance meaning your playing will benefit from wonderful richness". Don't you just LOVE marketing departments? Do you think these people ever played the thing?..

Volume is in the 'ok but not brilliant' category. It's to be expected that a smaller instrument will have less punch, but DJ Morgan shows it can be done on the contrary. This one is loud enough to be heard but not much more than that. Sustain is also something that tends to fall off with smaller instruments, and it's certainly the case here with picking play in particular coming a cropper.

But the standout issue for me here is just how thin and characterless the tone is. It reminds me very much of the Eddy Finn Peanut in that it really only reminds you of rubber bands on a margarine tub in sound. It's the typical sound that people who don't like or know ukuleles assume they all sound like. So when I played this one I found the sound utterly depressing because it just perpetuates the myth. There is very little going on here in terms of character. Sure, it plays like a ukulele and you can make a sound with it, but it's so lifeless I really would defy anyone to say they really 'enjoy' it. A "beautiful tonal palette that I will never tire of hearing?" You're having a laugh.  Sure, sopraninos don't have the dynamic range that their larger siblings have, but the better quality ones don't get far off it. This doesn't get close.

And I have to come back to that nut width. Sure, not everyone has large hands like I do, and I am also a big believer that the majority of people who say they 'can't play a soprano' simply haven't practiced enough. But when it comes to comfort and space, nut width is key for most people. This is just far too narrow to be enjoyable to pick up. If you struggle with a soprano or have large hands, be VERY careful with this one. I found it a real chore to the point I was bending notes out of tune just to make certain chords. As I keep saying... it doesn't need to be like this. Just make the neck wider!

Ortega Keiki K1 Sopranino Ukulele back

All in all, whilst I don't blame Ortega for putting this out, it's fairly lazy in implementation and smacks of 'oh we have to make a sopranino as people like them... let's just put one out quickly'. The thought that went into this seems to have gone little way beyond the colour choices and the turtle. The incorrect proportions and terribly narrow nut are bad enough. But I'd possibly forgive those if it sounded ok.  Now, sure, as I said earlier, it IS cheap, and one of the cheapest sub soprano ukes i've come across, but price really isn't the be all and end all. The Ohana O'Nino is not hugely more expensive in the scheme of things, and whilst still staccato has a MUCH nicer tone. I really can't get on with the sound or playability of this one. And that's why, despite it being cheaper I nudged the value for money score down. Yes it's cheap, but you are not getting anything for that price cut that I think is worth the saving. Cheap does not mean 'value'.

I'm really not trying to be too hard here, and it doesn't get a toally catastrophic score because it's not a catastrophe of an instrument. It fulfils the basics of being a ukulele I guess. But if you want to dip your toe into this smaller scale you should realise that  certain build factors need to be taken into account. I don't think they did that here and it shows a lack of understanding of what makes a scale like this tick. Give the alternatives I would look elsewhere.

Will they sell? Oh, of course they will. Probably in big numbers. Partly because they are colourful, partly because they have a turtle on them and, sadly, because there are enough 'influencers' out there saying  nice things. No comment... Are they ACTUALLY any good? Well this reviewer (who bought it himself and hasn't been told what to say) doesn't think it's all that great at all.  I'd avoid this one.

https://ortegaguitars.com

SPECS ROUNDUP

Scale: Sopranino
Body: Laminate Okoume
Bridge: Walnut
Saddle: Plastic?
Neck: Unspecified
Nut Width: 30mm, 24.5mm G to A
Fingerboard: Walnut
Tuners: Unbranded open gears
Strings: Aquila for Ortega


UKULELE PROS

Low price
Generally good body build that feels solid
Generally good finish all over
Soundboard not overly thick

UKULELE CONS

Proportions are wrong in various departments
Turtle looks are NOT for me, and etching is worryingly deep
Odd balance
Stupidly narrow nut
Overly large headstock
Overly large tuners
Scruffy tuner metalwork
Scruffy inside
Extremely thin sound with no real character
Poor sustain
Hard to play unless you have the smallest nimble fingers

UKULELE SCORES

Looks - 6 out of 10
Fit and finish - 7 out of 10
Sound - 6 out of 10
Value for money - 7.5 out of 10

OVERALL UKULELE SCORE - 6.6 out of 10

UKULELE VIDEO REVIEW






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1 comments :

  1. never heard of this cloned orchid thing. keiki is Hawai'ian for child.

    also, I have an Ohana SK21 sopranino. it's solid mahogany, has friction tuners, and good build quality. all you have to do to make it bark like a big dog is tune it up a fourth (not an octave) to F tuning (CFAD). I busk with it in the noisy conditions of Pike Place Market and it cuts right though the din. nothing thin about its sound at all.

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