Lava Music Lava U 26 inch Tenor Ukulele - REVIEW

12 Apr 2020

Lava Music Lava U 26 inch Tenor Ukulele - REVIEW

Ah yes. The ukulele everyone seems to have been talking about since NAMM 2019. Hold on to your hats, this is the Lava U 26 inch tenor ukulele from Lava Music.

Lava U Ukulele

And this review could be a long one as there is a lot of detail to get through here. First unveiled last year these are very soon going to start appearing in ukulele dealers and there is a lot of interest in them because of the striking looks. In basic terms the Lava U is a carbon fibre impregnated composite bodied ukulele with a bunch of other tricks and design features that have been turning people's heads. They come in a couple of sizes with that annoying Chinese naming convention of '23 inch' and '26 inch', (really meaning Concert and Tenor). This one is the tenor. It really doesn't matter what the overall ukulele length is, only the scale length and I DO wish brands would stop doing it. Other than the scale though, they share the same features.

As I say, this is made from a plastic polymer impregnated with carbon fibres, very much like the Enya Nova U and the Outdoor Carbon. Lava Music call the material 'Air Sonic Carbon Fiber Composite', which sounds very grand, but as above, the material has been used before by a couple of uke brands. Whether it's the same blend as others, I cannot say, but the concept is the same. The body is in a kind of dreadnought shape and seems to be a single piece of moulding on the back, sides and back of the neck, with a top dropped on. The shape of the uke has created mixed opinions with people, but you know what? I rather like it for being so different! I'm really taken with it in fact. It's finished on the outside in a range of colour options, and appears to also be like the Enya Nova U in that regard as it's a painted / dipped coating. You can tell that as looking inside the material is black, but only the outer is coloured. This one is very obviously blue with some sparkle, but it also comes in some pastel colours, a sparkly red and a black. The finish is matte meaning it is pretty good at resisting fingerprints and I really like how the edges are softened making it feel like like its moulded from one piece. It's extremely tactile. Also worth noting is the fact that, unlike Enya, Lava make a claim on their site that the material is safe down to -4 Farenheit and in humidities of 10% to 90%. Great.

Lava U Ukulele body

The bridge is made of the same composite material but is glossy. It's a hybrid design, most closely reminiscent of a slot bridge. Here the strings go through a hole in the bridge plate and come out of the bottom. They are tied off with washers to stop them slipping back through. I can't tell what the saddle is made of, but it is compensated. I really like the look of the bridge.

Lava U Ukulele bridge

There is no real decoration to the top as such, but then I am not sure where you would put it as there are no real edges to bind. The off centre sound hole is surrounded with a chrome ring which I find a bit gaudy, and there is a small inlaid Lava Music logo in a silver mirror just below the bridge.  It's certainly different!

But of course the soundhole here also shows what I suppose is the 'main event'. The Lava U is fitted with a pre-amp system that outputs to a jack socket on the base, but also has a range of integral 'effects' that work on both the jack output AND the acoustic tone. It's not a new development either as it's very similar to the Soundwave system on the Flight Diana, and is, in fact, made by the same company who made that. There's a similar system on the Enya Nova U too and of course this tech first appeared on Yamaha guitars.  The controls here are far less intuitive than on the Flight Soundwave though. Firstly you have an internal control panel which holds the USB charging socket, and the power button. It also holds a  switch to choose between chorus and delay, but more on that in a moment.  On the outside of the ukulele on the top edge are dial controls for reverb, effect volume (which also changes delay speed) and overall volume. These controls link to an actuator stuck on the inside back of the ukulele and apply the three effects to the acoustic tone by vibrating the instrument itself. It's a lot of fun and very clever.

But pay attention to that 'less intuitive' comment above. The Flight Soundwave comes with simple dials for each effect on the outside of the uke. In fact you can control everything from that one panel. On this you can't actually have the chorus and delay on at the same time, it's one or the other and that seems odd, plus having some controls inside and some out is just annoying to use. Putting everything on a single panel would have been much better.  Something that also confuses me is that on this model there is a slider labelled 'mic' which, no matter where I position it, doesn't do anything to the sound at all. [EDIT - it has been pointed out that there IS a microphone in there, but I still don't notice any difference. I know it is connected because if I plug it into an amplifier and dial the mic up it creates feedback.. That's about it!]. Even stranger is the fact I know someone who has the concert version of this and their system doesn't have the slider at all! Anyway, in the video you will see more about how this works and sounds, because it IS fun to be fair.

Lava U Ukulele pickup system

The only other thing to note on the body is the oddly placed strap button on the top of the back. Not only does that preclude left handed players, but there's another oddity with it which completely annoys me. The button is proprietary for Lava and is not a 'real' strap button. In fact it only works with their 'yet to be released' (and at additional cost reported to be a ludicrous $35!) Lava  strap system which attaches the uke to the strap with just one point. It sounds like a neat idea to be fair, but anyone wanting to use their own strap is completely out of luck unless you want to risk drilling the composite to fit regular buttons. (I suppose you 'could' try to rely on this button for one end of your strap, but you then have the question of what to do with the other. Tying it to the headstock would likely hold the ukulele in a really odd postion.)  I really think Lava should have had the strap available at launch and included it with the uke as part of the ticket price. I also think they have missed a trick by not offering regular buttons for those people who want to use their own strap as this material is not straightforward to drill. Forcing buyers to use their own strap system at an extra cost is cynical.

Inside is a lot more interesting than the Enya or Outdoor as it has a unique looking bracing system going on rather than regular straight braces. The back has fins moulded into the composite, and the top looks like a honeycomb. Lava call it the 'Breathnet Bionic' structure which was designed by a computer algorithm to create something organic. Intriguing! I've taken the best photo of it I could below (it's very dark in there), but you can see the honeycomb. Funky. Also visible on the bottom is the actuator that works the effects magic.

LAVA U TENOR UKULELE INSIDE


Up to the neck, and as I say, this is a natural extension of the body material, so you don't have a traditional heel. It's pleasingly flat all the way up and finished in the same matte which makes for a smooth feel on the fretting hand that is not grippy at all. It's an average 35mm and a disappointing  28mm G to A at the nut. That's getting close to being too narrow for me. The flat profile will help offset that narrow spacing on the hand feel though. The Enya was similar.

The fingerboard is a positive departure from other composite ukuleles though, as not only is it topped with a composite (richlite) fingerboard with a slight radius, it also has real metal frets (18 of them with 15 to the body). That's a nice thing as with pretty much every plastic uke you will see people worrying about fret wear. You have no worries on that score with this one and could use wound strings if you wanted to. The frets are dressed nicely too. You get no outward position dots which gives it a minimalist look, but you do get white side dots at the 5th, 7th, 10th, 12th and 15th. Nice.

Lava U Ukulele neck

The headstock is pleasingly simple to look at with the Lava Music logo screen printed in silver. Not much more to say really!

Lava U Ukulele headstock

The tuners are a first for me too and I think proprietary to Lava Music. They are 'no screw' tuners meaning they are bolted on to the headstock in a way I have not got my head around.  I can't think of a single musical advantage for not using screws, but I have to admit that they look just great and are suitably 'spacey' in keeping with the vibe of the rest of the instrument. I'm pleased to report that they also work brilliantly and are some of the smoothest tuners I think I have ever used. Really nice.

Lava U Ukulele tuners

Finishing the package off are clear fluorocarbon strings, a cleaning cloth, a pick, USB charger cable and... oh... a case... Yes. THAT case. It's probably the other big thing people are talking about the most.  Lava Music call it their 'space case' and it's certainly one of the most striking looking ukulele accessories I have ever seen.  It's a plastic clamshell case with a clear front, padded with velour inside which closes with a magnetic and button clasp. It also has rubber feet to set it down and funky chrome D-Ring shaped handles. You also get a very small internal compartment (that will not hold very much at all). It holds the ukulele like a glove and will certainly turn heads on looks, but, you know what?

I really don't like it. For a couple of reasons actually.

Not only would I not be seen dead walking around with it (I'm 47, not 14), I just don't see that it's in any way practical either. Not only does it not allow you to hold much else inside, it would end up scratched beyond recognition after a few weeks of gigging or going to uke club nights (in fact I have already scratched the clear front from storing it on a shelf with some other hard cases - and that's in a matter of only days). I would also question how tough it really can be and it misses practical things like a shoulder strap. Sorry, but I think it is completely style over substance and would personally be carrying a Lava U in a regular pod case myself. Just keep an eye on how these cases will look after a few months of use. You may disagree with my view on the looks (such things are subjective after all), but you will surely agree that it will be next to impossible to avoid scratching..  What would I prefer? Keep the shape, keep the closure system, add a shoulder strap, ditch the clear front and cover the rest of it in a tolex material. It would still look spacey and 'different' but would likely be far tougher too.

In one of the images below you will see the limited internal space too..

Lava U Ukulele accessories

Lava U Ukulele case storage


And the price.. ah, yes, that price. In tenor flavour this will empty your wallet to the tune of $399 and the concert will cost you $379. That's a lot of dough for what is essentially a plastic uke. Sure, I know that the transacoustic system costs a bit of money, but bear in mind that Lava also make these available as pure acoustics and the tenor would still cost you $319 without the pre-amp system.  Putting that in perspective, The Enya Nova U with a transacoustic pickup that does the same thing is $179 and only $89 for the acoustic version. The Lava U is just far too expensive whichever way you slice it. And you even have to pay extra for the only strap that works with it...

Lava U Ukulele case

Overall, whilst you will either love or hate the looks, I actually like them and find that the build in every department is extremely good. It does ooze 'high end' vibes (as it should with such a high end price), though I would live without that case if it brought the price down. But it all has to come back to the playability.

To hold I really like how the material feels in the hands and the lack of any sharp edges on the top is a boon for the inside of the strumming arm.  I also like the neck despite it being a bit narrow on the string spacing. It IS, however heavy feeling, no doubt on account of the pickup system. It does remain balanced though. Replace the word 'heavy' with 're-assuring' and things feel a bit better I suppose!

When it comes to tone, my readers will want to hear a comparison with both the Enya Nova and the Outdoor. I'm afraid I no longer have either instrument, so that will be impossible. Sorry. I can go from memory though, and I think the Lava U does well on that score. You can always go to the Nova review and compare the video sounds side by side.

Acoustically the volume is only reasonable. It's not ultra quiet, but it's not killer either. From memory it's a little better than the Enya Nova but doesn't match up with something like the Outdoor tenor. I suppose though you can always plug it in! Sustain is only reasonable too. It's better than some artificial bodied ukes I have played, but I would like a bit more to give it a touch more character. Maybe a string change would help in both of these departments.

Lava U Ukulele outer controles

The tone itself is quite pleasant though. I found the Enya Nova a little thin and brittle on tone and more one dimensional than this. Here you get a nice range to the sound and as much as the brightness shines though on the treble strings there are mids and lower range tones going on too. I wouldn't call it truly 'full' or 'highly complex', but it's an engaging tone and, importantly, doesn't sound like plastic to my ears. I actually prefer it for fingerpicking as strumming can sound a little muddy at times, but it's not too bad. Picked, it's quite chimey and pretty sounding. But that's just the straight up acoustic sound.. you also have that pre-amp system to play with...

I'm not going to say too much in words on that score - just take a listen to it in the video below. What I will say is that it works as well as on the Flight Soundwave and is every bit as much fun. The reverb in particular is great fun, but the delay is the star of the show as it was with the Flight. The chorus is still a bit artificial sounding to me and not that prominent, but you don't have to use it. What I really don't undertand though is why it's an either / or on the chorus and delay and why you can't dial a bit of each effect in at the same time. As much as I could pass on the chorus with the Soundwave, I did find that with a small amount of it dialled in you added a bit of character to the tone. It's impossible to do that here if you want to use the delay mode. I also dislike the split control systems inside and out of the ukulele. It's awkward.

But.. all of that said - it does give you a lot more expression in your tone, which is exactly why it's there.  Putting it another way, I couldn't see me ever going for the pure acoustic version of this. Oh, and also bear in mind - anyone telling you this (or the one on the Enya or the Flight) is intended to make the ukulele louder, it isn't... That's not how it works. It fills the sound, but it's not a speaker in there.

Lava U Ukulele back

All in all something of a mixed bag for me but on the whole I think I find more positives than negatives. It's not as ground breaking as people are claiming. Some of the new stuff works for me, like the tuners and the choice of metal frets on a composite uke, but others, like the case and the proprietary strap system, don't. The build is very good and I quite like the tone too, though I wish it was a bit louder. I like the price far less and when you see the acoustic price, I don't think the pickup system justifies it alone. And whilst I say above that that I think the tone is an improvement on the Nova U, it's not an improvement to the tune of $220... Nowhere near.

I am sure they will sell like hot cakes though, but that will be more for reasons of style rather than substance. It's certainly a head turner if you are performing on stage, and of course the jack output will be a boon for that sort of use. And fair play to Lava for putting something like this out there as it's always good to give the ukulele market a kick up the backside. It's bold and different.

I don't think it's for me personally, but know many will love it.. If they can afford it...


https://www.lavamusic.com/en/






UKULELE SPECS ROUNDUP

Name: Lava U 26 inch
Scale: Tenor
Body: Carbon impregnated composite
Bridge: Tie bar style (ish) made of composite
Saddle: Unknown, compensated
Neck: Integral to composite body
Fingerboard: Richlite, radiused
Frets: Metal - 18, 15 to body
Nut: Unspecified
Tuners: Screwless chrome sealed gears
Strings: Fluorocarbon
Extras: Cloth, pick, USB charging cable, transacoustic pickup system, space case
Price: $399

UKULELE PROS

Looks certainly are different
Very good build quality
Nice feeling neck
Metal frets
Tuners are sublime
Broad tone acoustically, and not 'plasticky'
Pickup system is huge fun

UKULELE CONS

Pointless case that is a scratch magnet
Slightly narrow string spacing
Pickup system not as intuitive to use as some
A bit quiet
Proprietary strap should be included, not an extra
Far too expensive

UKULELE SCORES

Looks: 9 out of 10
Fit and finish: 9 out of 10
Sound: 8.5 out of 10
Value for money - 6.5 out of 10

OVERALL UKULELE SCORE - 8.3 out of 10

UKULELE VIDEO REVIEW





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8 comments :

  1. Really sorry to say this but it's hideous

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. As Barry said, looks are SO subjective. I personally like it and, even if I didn't, appreciate the difference. It's not another boat paddle/cutaway/double bout. It's not a plastic uke trying to look like a wooden one. It's a unique thing, and that adds something. It's a choice for someone who wants a different look, and it stands out in a crowd.

      Whether it's almost $400 something is a different question.

      Delete
  2. I have a Lava U, and I like it. I wish it had a wider neck, but I can live with it. As for the strap situation, there's an easy solution instead of waiting (forever?) for Lava U to come up with some fancy strap. Two devices available on Amazon: Strap Jack. A "button" that plugs into the amp jack for acoustic, and onboard electronic playing. The other is an Acousti-Lok strap lock adapter which provides for a strap, and allows for an amp cable. Strap Jack is around $8.00, the Strap lock adapter is $20.00.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I have the Enya Nova U and I would still prefer it over this. I am not sure I like the tone on the Lava, and everything about this ukulele and its brand just seems pretentious. Despite the thinner tone on the Nova U, it's a delight to play and I really don't mind its sound, especially considering it isn't trying to be anything but an affordable, easy playing, durable travel/everyday ukulele that goes everywhere with you and begs to be picked up and played. For only $90 USD, I am not sure there is anything else like it in the market. There are many great ukuleles at the $400+ price point to justify getting this.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The last line is the real issue.

      $400 gets you, for just one example, a tenor oreo from Bonanza. That looks much nicer than this, is hand-made by a real craftperson, and can even be tweaked to your specifications.

      This is, at the end of the day, a plastic uke from a factory. Not that there's anything WRONG with that, but it doesn't to quite justify the price. At half the price it'd still have competition, but be more worthy of consideration.

      I wonder how much the "space case" adds.

      Delete
  4. I like the looks of it, but I don't like it 400 bucks worth...

    ReplyDelete
  5. Hate to send a negative comment , but in my opinion it really looks cheap and nasty. Its like something you would see in an old sixties sci-fi movie when they were guessing what things would look like in 1999, with every one dressed in shiny jump suits. Still, just my opinion. Keep up the good work. Just bought the flight diana sound wave after seeing your review on it, and am very pleased I did cheers

    ReplyDelete

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