Islander MS-4 Soprano Ukulele - REVIEW

21 Sep 2019

Islander MS-4 Soprano Ukulele - REVIEW

What could be more stereotypical Hawaiian than a ukulele brand called 'Islander'? This week I am looking at the Islander MS-4 Soprano.

Islander MS-4 Soprano Ukulele

Apologies for the tongue in cheek introduction to the review, it's just that my regular readers will know that I can get a bit irritated by brands appropriating all things Hawaiian to sell their ukes which have never even been to Hawaii. But... in this case the Islander brand is actually one that comes with rock solid Hawaiian heritage. Islander are actually the value brand wing of the hugely respected Hawaiian ukulele company - Kanile'a. Some years back they realised that for many people, owning a solid, hand made Kanile'a from Hawaii is beyond many budgets so, like several other 'big brands',  decided to apply their skills and designs to create far eastern equivalents for a much lower price point. Koaloha have done the same, Kiwaya too and it makes a lot of sense. Whilst the Chinese factories are churning out ever more 'who are they?' brands for sale on Amazon, the Hawaiian brands work on the basis of 'if you can't beat them, join them'. And by going down this route you know that you are also getting some overarching quality and design control from a brand that REALLY knows their ukes. Add to that, if you do it well, you could gain a customer for life who, in time, will step up to your high end offerings. Cool.

The MS-4 soprano is part of the entry level range from Islander, but that is not to say all their offerings are at the low end. Some years ago I looked at one of their solid wood offerings in the form of the MST-4 Tenor Ukulele - and it was a great uke. This one lowers the price further as it's made of all laminate woods and forms part of a series that also includes a concert and a tenor. Like all Islander ukuleles, the original design and concept comes from Kanile'a themselves so you will find a number of design features that hark back to those oh so sought after Hawaiian instruments.

Islander MS-4 Soprano Ukulele body

So it's a standard double bout soprano body made from laminate mahogany sheets. It uses two sheets for the top and flat back and as single piece for the sides. You will notice that this one has some etching work of turtles on the top (it's called the Honu version, the Hawaiian name for turtle), and I believe there is another with the etching of the Hawaiian islands on the top. I am not a fan of etchings as you know, but this one made it's way to me for review. However, i'm not going to adjust the score for the decoration though for the simple reason that you can also get this in a plain version with no etching and for the same price (ish). I'd always get the plain one myself, but your views may differ. Importantly though, the build construction is the same on each MS-4 model - only the etching differs. So the review stands for all of them really.

Islander MS-4 Soprano Ukulele decoration

Other than that etching, the body comes with no other decoration on any of the flavours, so no rosette, no purfling and no binding. That's up my street of course, but those if you who like bling may find it a little plain looking as there really is nothing else going on here. The body is then finished in the usual open pore satin that is common at this price point, and it's all done rather well. I can't find a flaw in it.

The bridge is a huge nod to the Kanile'a heritage in shape, and is also a pin bridge style like it's bigger brother. I'm a fan of these and own a Kanile'a K1 Tenor with the same arrangement. Yet I am less taken with this sort of bridge on a soprano as I think there is an awful lot going on here on such a small body. I mean, it even looks like it's taken over the top. Sure the string changes are easy with bridge pins, but I like small simple slot bridges on sopranos myself - Martin style. Still, I get the Kanile'a connection and suppose it had to be like this. It's part of their trademark I guess. It's tidy though and holds a straight topped NuBone saddle.

Islander MS-4 Soprano Ukulele bridge

Inside is very tidy but simple. One thing you don't get with Islander models is the Kanile'a TRU bracing system (which minimises the contact between the braces and the top to allow more vibration). This is braced in a more standard fashion with straight tapered braces glued to the soundboard and back. The kerfing is not notched, but there is no mess anywhere I can see. The soundhole edge shows this to be a touch thicker than I would like to see, and certainly a heavier build than, say, the Kiwaya laminates, but it's still hardly chunky and the body still feels resonant.

Up to the neck and the wood is not specified, though I suspect it is made of mahogany or possibly Okume. The joints holding the three pieces are massively obvious and ugly. I hate it when they are so obvious. The neck too doffs its cap to Kanile'a insofar as it has a wonderfully wide nut.  This measures 38mm and 30mm from G to A and it's also fairly flat in profile. Terrifically comfortable! The way all ukulele necks SHOULD be, and demonstrates that Chinese factories CAN do it if they are directed to.

The neck is topped with a walnut fingerboard in great condition. It's joined at the body at the standard (for soprano) 12th fret, and is then extended to give you frets up to 17. A nice range meaning you won't run out of notes. You also get outward facing pearloid dots at the 5th, 7th and 10th, which is just enough. Thankfully we also have side dots in the same places.

Islander MS-4 Soprano Ukulele neck

Beyond the NuBone nut is the final nod to Kanile'a with a shape that is similar (though not quite identical to my eyes) to the Hawaiian models. Like the earlier Islander I looked at all those years ago, I find the Islander logo itself to be a bit tacky and cheesy looking. It's also etched, and whilst I think the gold transfers they use on some models would look better, it blends in ok. On this Honu model you also get an etched turtle motif but that disappears on the plain one. I'd do without it in the same way as on the body myself.

Islander MS-4 Soprano Ukulele headstock

The tuners are a nod to the Kanile'a in style, but they are not (naturally for this price!) Grover open gears, but generic open gears in chrome.  The plastic white buttons are small enough, but with this being a soprano, I'd much prefer rear facing tuners. That said, even the full fat Kanile'a Sopranos come with side facing gears, so what do I know?!

Islander MS-4 Soprano Ukulele tuners

Completing the package are strings which are the usual Kanile'a choice of Aquila. And it comes it at an RRP of $149, but a street price of more like £125 (or indeed $125). It's not the cheapest price for a simple laminate soprano, but bear in mind the Kanile'a connection and I kind of get it. It's also in the same ball park as the Chinese Kiwaya ukuleles and a bit cheaper than the Koaloha Koalana equivalent (if you can find one these days). Not bad really I don't think.

Like all Islander ukuleles I have picked up, the build quality and finish is great throughout. This is part of what you are getting by choosing a brand overseen by Kanile'a rather than a faceless Amazon only brand. It would not do Kanile'a any good to churn out rubbish and this has clearly been made to a good quality standard. It's also very light, nicely balanced and feels good to hold.  Setup is good on this example, but I would take the saddle down a touch. Naturally, your mileage may vary, but such things are meant to be adjusted.

Playability is, as I expected, terrific on account of that roomy neck. This is a perfect example of a soprano ukulele that blows the age-old myth of 'I can't play sopranos because I have big hands' out of the water. This has more fretting space than many concerts and even some tenors I could mention. Space where it matters. It feels great to fret. When are other brands going to take note of this when specifying something from China?

Islander MS-4 Soprano Ukulele back

Volume and sustain are also very good and punching at the top end of the laminate world. It's a ukulele that delivers much more from the first strum in these departments than I think most would expect.

The tone is surprising too. Often laminate ukuleles, and particularly the small scale ones can sound a touch brittle, thin and one dimensional. This certainly has some brightness and zing, but it also has a darker and warmer edge to it that comes together in a nicely rounded tone. Strum it and you realise it's a great little soprano with a lively jangle which is exactly what you want for a rhythmical instrument.  Fingerpicked and it's really rather nice. The warmth comes through, but also a higher chime, which coupled with the above average sustain makes it expressive when played this way. Very enjoyable.

It's a resonant instrument too, using it's full construction to project. You know that when you play it as you can feel vibrations back into your chest and also in your fretting hand. If I have one gripe though it is that it can fall foul of a certain echoey boxiness that often comes with laminate ukes. I suspect it's because laminated wood here is being pushed to its limit and you just won't get the pure tone that solid wood can deliver. It's not a show stopper though and I have heard worse for more money, but I noticed it.

All in all though, I think this is a cracker of a beginner soprano. You just know you are in safe hands with Kanile'a and whilst this is far eastern in origin, it arrived with me very well made, well finished and sounding good. The supremely comfortable neck is the standout and is a joy to play on, and all things considered, the price isn't too bad either really. Sure, you can get an Ohana or Kala laminate for less, but they won't have the neck this one has. I would also contend that they don't have the tone either. No, I don't like the turtles, but as I say, you can get this one in a plain wrapper too. This comes highly recommended for the money.

https://www.islanderukulele.com

SPECS ROUNDUP

Scale: Soprano
Body: Laminate mahogany
Neck: Mahogany or Okume?
Fingerboard: Walnut
Bridge: Walnut, pin style
Saddle: NuBone
Nut: NuBone
Frets: 17 (12 to body)
Nut Width: 38mm (30mm G to A)
Tuners: Unbranded chrome open gears
Strings: Aquila
Price: $149 RRP, Street prices lower

UKULELE PROS

Great build and finish
Supremely comfortable neck
Light with great resonance
Good volume and sustain
Rounded tone that is not thin or lacking
Decent enough price considering the heritage (though do shop around)

UKULELE CONS

Etched models are not my taste
Would prefer rear facing tuners
Tone can be a little 'laminate typical'
Ugly neck joints

UKULELE SCORES

Looks - 8.5 out of 10
Fit and finish - 9 out of 10
Sound - 9 out of 10
Value for money - 9 out of 10

OVERALL UKULELE SCORE - 8.9 out of 10

UKULELE VIDEO REVIEW




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8 comments :

  1. Wonderful T-Shirt!
    But dont you think the intonation is not very good on the first 1-5 frets? It sounds a bit "strange" some chords - not as I'm used to hear it? But the rest - I like them very much, but I think some of them (almost the soprano models) hav intonation problems.

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    Replies
    1. As I say in the video, the tuning slipped out (new strings). I probably should have re recorded but was I a rush this weekend. The intonation is fine.

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    2. I was just wondering if we'd had bad luck, because we recieved 4 Sopranos in our shop and they had all big intonation problems on the first 5 frets (up to 25 cent). The Concerto size was absolutly perfect - they are great (for this price).

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    3. But surely that’s an easy adjustment / sounds like nut slots are too high? I’ve seen very high end ukes needing that adjustment

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  2. Ha! My darling Michèle always says that when I'm on-stage I always look like I'm impersonating a turtle. The MS-4 is the uke for me!!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Glad you reviewed this one! Baz, what are your thoughts compared to the acacia version, the AS-4?

    Btw, I have a Kiwaya KSU-1 and the quality is quite dissapointing—much rather an Islander!

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  4. Glad you reviewed this one! Baz, what are your thoughts compared to the acacia version, the AS-4?

    Btw, I have a Kiwaya KSU-1 and the quality is really quite disappointing, these Islanders are so much nicer.

    ReplyDelete

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