Populele 2 Concert Ukulele - REVIEW

28 Jun 2020

Populele 2 Concert Ukulele - REVIEW

Here's a brand that's taken an absolute age to feature on Got A Ukulele, but we finally managed it. This is the second release Style 2 Concert from Populele. Bear with me on this, there's a lot to get through!

Populele 2 Concert Smart Ukulele

The original Populele (the Populele 1) has been around for quite a few years now. Getting one for review on Got A Ukulele fell down because they were principally aimed at the US market, and it was proving cost prohibitive to get one over to the UK on loan (a difficulty that has led to challeges getting certain other models over here too). Anyway, that original model has since been complemented by a  newly designed version, and the Chinese team behind both models got in touch to ask me to look at it.

Both Populele's are billed as 'Smart Ukuleles', which we will come on to shortly, but aside from the smart functionality, this one differs consisderably from the original in terms of construction. Whilst the original was made of all wood (spruce laminate I believe, with a maple neck), the style 2 follows a growing trend for ukuleles made of composite plastics impregnated with carbon fibre. Outdoor have done it, Enya have done it with the Nova (a ukulele I really liked) and Lava music have done it with the Lava U (another ukulele I liked, but didn't like the utterly silly price). In reality I think these 'carbon impregnated materials' are much less revolutionary than the brands like to make out despite some of them using proprietary names for their 'mix'. They are NOT real carbon fibre, just plastics with an 'amount' of carbon in the mix. It's nothing new really and ABS has been strengthened by that addition for years so I do wish these brands would stop trying to make out it's made from something which it isn't. Want a true carbon fibre ukulele? Look at a Klōs Uke, or if you can find one, an original Blackbird.

Anyway, they are what they are, and this one is composite plastic 'impregnated' with carbon fibre strands. I'm ok with that as other similar constructions have shown me that the addition makes the plastics sound less boxy and artificial.

And... there is no getting away from it, but there is a striking similarity in the design here to the Lava U. I put a sneak peek image up of this on various Social Media channels and the common response was 'is this a Lava U?'. The companies are not connected to my knowledge. Odd.

So an important aside on that point before I get into the detail of the review.  I am not going to get into any arguments between brands as to 'which came first' here as I simply do not know. They can speak for themselves. My 'memory'  tells me that I have seen images of this Populele far earlier than I ever saw the Lava U, but I stress.. that is just my memory. What I will say though is that the Lava U launched at NAMM in January 2020 (that's a matter of fact), whereas a simple Google search will allow you to find articles about the Populele 2 launching as far back as April 2019. That's not to say Lava were not developing theirs at this point, but I just didn't see it online. Make of that what you will... Answers on a postcard!

Populele 2 Concert Ukulele body

And because of the similarity I like the shape in the much the same way I liked the shape of the Lava U. It's certainly very different and comes in the same (though not quite) dreadought lozenge shape with absolutely no sharp edges, top or back making it wonderfully tactile. The Lava is a little more curvy on the sides wheras these are much straighter, but it's still VERY similar. This example is in the black colour which, like all ABS ukes in black is a fingerprint magnet! It also comes in other colours such as red, white, pink and pale blue.  The outer finish is a satin which feels nice to touch, and is also very like the Lava. I suspect that like the Lava, and the Enya, the core material here is black, but the different colours are down to a painted outer coating.

Also very similar to the Lava U, you also get an offset soundhole with a chrome ring around the edge. I actually prefer this to the Lava simply for being round and more traditional. Less 'out there' if you will. There was something about the elongated sound hole on the Lava irritated me a little over time. It looked like a handle on a sliding door.

Populele 2 Concert Ukulele sound hole

The bridge is a slot style and looks to be made of black plastic, but could be Richlite I suppose - a paper composite. That's fitted with a bone saddle with a compensated top and it's all very neat and tidy.

Populele 2 Concert Ukulele bridge

Inside there is not much to see, as it's just black plastic moulding and very difficult to photograph due to contrast glare. It looks like the strap button is bolted in rather than just screwed which is good to see as the composite won't be stressed by a tapping screw. There are also simple bracing ribs on the top and strengthening the area around the bridge, presumably to stop dipping.

Populele 2 Concert Ukulele inside

The neck is composite too, and like most plastic ukes is a moulded extension of the back and sides making them all one piece up to the headstock. It's pleasingly shallow in profile and tapers to a reasonable 35mm nut with 27.5mm from G to A.  Looking at press pictures from Populele it seems that as well as holding the Smart funcions, the neck itself is heavily strengthened with criss cross bracing moulded in to the material to stop bending.

The fingerboard is plastic too with integral moulded frets. It's a very shiny plastic which I don't much care for on the looks front, but when we get into the 'Smart' functionality you will probably understand why it's made like that. Those moulded frets are 14 in number with the body joint at the 14th.  There are no sharp edges, and no zero fret. Bear in mind that with plastic frets, like on the Enya Nova and Outdoor, you will want to take care on your string choice. Wound strings will be a no-no as they will quickly destroy the fret crowns.  Also because of the Smart functions on this model there are no dot position markers at all, front or side.. Or... are there? (Read on!)..

(Irrespective, i'd still have painted side dots on it as you will see below!)

Populele 2 Concert Ukulele neck

Beyond the nut we have a simple and interesting headstock. It's a smooth simple top profile but has a hole running through the face. Not a big hole making it into a headstock like those on Flukes and Flea's (so the tuners are still fixed in a regular way), but.. just a... hole. It serves no purpose other than aesthetics, but to be honest I rather like it! It's actually a design cue that was also on the original Populele.  The Populele logo is screen printed on the top face in silver.

Populele 2 Concert Ukulele headstock

The tuners are very generic sealed chrome gears with small black buttons. Not much more to say here. They work ok and are not ultra cheap. Very smooth actually.

Populele 2 Concert Ukulele tuners

But before we get on to the round up, I have to explain the basics of the Smart functionality. On the back of the Populele is a small hatch operated by a switch which holds two AAA batteries. This powers the Smart funcions which allows the uke to 'talk' to the dedicated Populele Smartphone / tablet app via Bluetooth. Underneath the fingerboard are a series of lights on each fret space corresponding to each string - four per fret space. This allows the Populele to show you chord shapes in lights on the neck of the ukulele as a teaching aid to accompany a series of challenges and songs on the app. You can also set it to show some other things such as dancing light patterns, fret position markers or your own patterns.  This explains why the fingerboard looks like that I suppose as it has to show the lights through it.  I will come on to how the Smart functions work later in the review. One thing I will note at this point though is.. it seems odd that considering they have put a powered system into a ukulele that they didn't go the extra step and also have it power a pickup output through an end jack. This is purely an acoustic instrument.

One other minor gripe here - if you don't connect this to your device you will get no lights at all. If you just turn it on the lights flash randomly as it is searching for a connection. It would be nice to be able to just turn the fret markers on without the need for a Smartphone I think. A minor gripe perhaps, but that's the reason I think it needs side dots!

Populele 2 Concert Ukulele chord lights

To wrap up, you get nothing else with it bar a regular strap button in the base (that's actually a good factory addition as drilling plastic is not as straightforward as wood) and fluorocarbon strings. In other words there is no funky space case bumping the price up! And the price is actually extremely low if you shop around. On the Populele site itself this is sold at $189, or about £150 in the UK which is reasonable enough, but that seems to be more of a RRP direct from the manufacturer. A Google search throws these up on all sorts of other sites at around the £100 mark, including Amazon, AliExpress and those sort of sites. Knowing that my readers are a canny bunch, i'm therefore treating this as a £100 (approx) instrument. Do remember though that far eastern pricing tends to be very dynamic - it could cost more tomorrow! Still at either price that's considerably less than something like the Lava U and, not a great deal more than the acoustic Nova U. Whilst it misses on the transacoustic pickup (and daft case), it's clearly a very different beast with the Smart functions suggesting this is more of a teaching aid rather than a performance instrument. Still, it's very good value for a plastic ukulele even if you don't ever turn it on. Let's have a play.

Populele 2 Concert Ukulele back

I'm going to be looking at this model in two ways, both as a Smart ukulele but also, first and foremost, as a ukulele in its own right. And I think that's important with something like this. It has to work as an instrument first and foremost.

Firstly, the build quality here seems to be very good indeed. Whilst I don't like the look of the shiny fingerboard, everything else is very well put together with no flaws I can spot. In fact it is a good deal tidier than the Enya Nova I looked at which had one or two scruffy noticeable seams and is easily on a par with the much more expensive Lava U. Not only does it look like that model it feels like it too and is extremely tactile with no sharp edges at all. It's a touch shinier than the more matte Lava, but I don't think that's a criticism - just different. In terms of weight, it is not 'heavy' as such, but rather 'substantial' and comes in at 750g / 1.65lb and a touch more with batteries installed.  You very much know it's there, probably bumped up a little by the electronics inside and the couple of batteries, yet it's still a lot lighter than the Lava with the pickup installed. Thanfully it's also really well balanced at the 12th too despite the gubbins in the fingerboard. The bracing in the top and the neck is doing its job too because there is no dipping in the top and the neck doesn't bend when played. Setup too is also very good on this example and it intonates well right up the neck.

As for the acoustic sound (and of course, this is ONLY acoustic), i'm actually rather pleased. The volume here is very good and the sustain is really not bad either with pleasing vibrations barrelling back into the chest. It's certainly an easy match for the Lava and louder in my memory than the Nova. You will not find yourself lost at uke club playing it. 

The notes in the mix are extremely clear and shine through individually with some nice harmonisation going on when strummed. There is no muddiness here that my ear can discern and it's easy to get a fun, rhythmical and bouncy sound from it. It has a brightness that is not too searing and is rather pleasant too.  Fingerpicking is clear with a nice bright chime coming through from higher note melodies. Like the Lava this does not sound like a wooden ukulele but really does not sound like a plastic lunchbox either. It has it's own sound and I rather like it. From memory this has more highs to it than the Lava, but not to the point of making it a one trick pony or sounding overly thin.

This acoustic sound is an important point to note because even if the Smart features dont' grab you, this is still a good sounding composite ukulele for a low price. Don't get me wrong - I am not holding this up as a killer Kamaka or a Pono challenger - It's a plastic / composite uke. But I am really impressed in recent years how composites have sounded so much better and as instruments in their own right. This is not half bad to my ears.

On to the main event. I downloaded the Populele app to my iPhone (an Android version is also available) in order to connect to the uke via Bluetooth. (Note - when the Populele app first appeared some years ago there were some real horror stories in respect of the personal permissions it would need access to which led many people to run and hide. I can confirm that these requirements have been removed. The app needs access to Bluetooth and the Microphone only. You will, though, need to register with Populele and give them your email address).  I would also strongly advise that you download the app and make sure it runs on your device BEFORE buying the Populele. All I can confirm is that I have it running on an iPhone 7 on iOS 13 just fine.  Regarding that Bluetooth connection... Don't assume this is anything to do with audio, it's not. The Bluetooth is used to transmit the chord position data to the lights on the neck of the ukulele, not any audio from the uke back to the phone.

Fire up the app, press the button on the ukulele back and it quickly appears on the screen. Tap the uke image and it quickly connects and then prompts you to check tuning. With that done and it defaults to showing fret position markers in white dots on the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 10th and 12th. You could actually just leave it like that, but that is missing the point.

Populele 2 Concert Ukulele position markers

The app first prompts you to run through a series of 'games' to get you going. These include the basics of holding,  strumming, chord position placements and the like and are clearly aimed at younger or completely new players. It uses the microphone on your device to 'listen' to what you are playing and whether you are playing the right notes at the right time, guided by a beat sound in the game / song. Get them right repeatedly and you get a better score. Oh, and of course - the real deal here is that as you go through the games the ukulele shows you the chord shapes to play in lights on the fretboard. I read some reviews of the first Populele which seemed to have dimmer or possibly just smaller lights and some suggested they were hard to see under the fingers. I can confirm that the lights here are extremely clear and bright white - even outdoors. When my fingers are on them you still see enough glow to know the light is on.  Because they face front they are still a touch hard to follow unless you rock the ukulele towards you on an odd angle but they work.

I tested the games part of the app on my 10 year old daughter who flew through the exercises and sample songs with a grin on her face. She said she loved it. I have spliced a bit of footage of that into the video review to give you an idea of her first run on the uke.

Populele 2 Concert Ukulele app

In addition to the 'games' is a song library of about 100 or so pop hits (think Adele, Maroon 5, Vance Joy etc) and older tunes and standards too, arranged into different difficulty levels. Select one of these and it plays the melody of the song along with a beat sound and visual indicators of the chords to play (lighting up the shapes on the uke neck as you go). It also shows you the strum direction (up or down) to play on the screen. Again, whilst you are doing this the microphone is listening to you and giving you. I actually found the layout of the screen for the songs a little confusing and made me want to play the chords on the wrong line. I don't think it is 'out of time' as such, rather it just feels a bit counter intuitive as to 'what to play when' though it's possible the lyric line is a bit out too. That may improve with more time with the app, but it's a bit clunky especially on the more complex songs.

Finally, you then have a 'tools' section which includes a tuner (which I didn't find all that accurate - again possibly an issue with the microphone), a chord library which displays your choice of chord on the neck of the uke (with only a pitifully small number of them.. Twelve...), a 'dazzle' feature that looks extremely cool and displays a couple of  graphic equaliser type effects on the neck that dances around to the sound of your playing, and a 'customised' section where you can display whatever light pattern you want on the neck. All good fun. Check the video for a clip of the dazzle feature recorded in pitch darkness at home!

This element of the ukulele is actually hard for me to review and score because it is CLEARLY not aimed at someone like me. But I cannot get over the fact my daughter adored it and as a learning tool used in addition to other tuition this could well encourage kids to pick a uke up when they would otherwise be glued to the TV or a games console. Kids love gadgets and apps and anything that taps into that fascination and ties it to a muscial instrument has to be a good thing? I just don't see me using it personally bar putting the fancy flashing lights on for fun, though that is not a critisism of the idea itself. It's cool and has a ten year olds endorsement so far in this house.

Do I have gripes? Yes, one or two. First the app is not brilliantly laid out (though better than some reviews I have seen describe it) and, to be honest, is a little short on content all things considered (Not everybody will want to play every one of the songs in the library). It won't take long to plough through the chords, games and then the songs, and then what? Will kids go back to it? Are Populele updating it? It would certainly be cool if you could add more songs to it. Saying all that - if you get through all the games and songs successfully, surely the Populele has achieved what it aimed to do.

Secondly, the use of the device microphone is extremely finicky as you either need to use the app in a silent room or play VERY close to the screen. Sometimes I found it just simply didnt' hear you and register the chord meaning you lose points on the challenges. I can't help thinking that, had they fitted a pickup that could be connected to the device by a cable, or even used the Bluetooth connnection, that this could be avoided.

Finally, my other concern is one of tech longevity. Devices like iPhones and Android phones are developing at a hell of a rate as are their operating systems. The Populele Smart features ONLY work with such a device so I do wonder what happens if the operating system of the devices change to something that is incompatible. Will Populele support updating the app, and for how long? I certainly know of apps I used only 3-4 years ago which no longer work with current versions of iOS because the app developer stopped updating them. With the rate of change in tech there is a going to be a need for a lot of updating ten or even five years time. Will Bluetooth even be a thing then? Again though, maybe that's not an issue if you are up and playing by then, but you may be left with a Smart ukulele with no Smart functions. You see why I wanted to focus first on the acoustic quality?

Populele 2 Concert Ukulele batteries

Even if the Smart functions stopped working, this is still a well made and decent sounding plastic uke for not a lot of money at all. Heck, even if you have no smartphone you could still stick some batteries in it and have some flashing lights on your uke neck for giggles (though, as I say, you couldn't put the position markers on without a device to control it). I think I would have grave concerns over this instrument if the core ukulele was no good, but thankfully it's not half bad at all and think should be the main take you get from this review.  I think acoustically it sounds a touch louder and richer than the Enya Nova and is on a clear par with the Lava U in acoustic mode. In fact for those preferring a brighter tone, they may prefer this one. And bear in mind the acoustic only Lava U will cost you 2.5 times MORE than this!

No, the tech is not for me personally, and it's a little limited for those that will use it, but I am sure that younger kids will love it (and maybe a few adults too). It has to be applauded for that as anything that motivates the screen obsessed to play music has to be a good thing, even if it is short lived. A catalyst if you will.  For those of you who already play and don't need guided tuition, this is still a well priced, tough plastic uke with a pleasant voice though. One to look at for pure novelty perhaps whilst still knowing it plays well. Everyone likes flashy lights don't they?

So, all things considered it has to come with an overall Got A Ukulele recommendation. It's been fun to look at this and one that surprised me!








UKULELE SPECS ROUNDUP

Model: Populele 2
Scale: Concert
Body: Composite with carbon
Bridge: Composite? Slot bridge
Saddle: Bone, compensated
Neck: Composite with carbon
Fingerboard: Plastic with integrated chord position lights
Frets: Moulded, 14 to the body
Nut: Integral to fingerboard
Tuners: Sealed unbranded gears
Strings: Flourocarbon
Extras: Strap button, Bluetooth connection to Smartphone with lessons and songs
Weight: 750g / 1.65lb
Country of Origin: China
Price: Circa £100 (shop around)

UKULELE PROS

Great build and finish
Nice looks
Great volume
Good sustain
Nice clear tone
Comfortable to hold
Nice neck profile
Smart features are for absolute beginners, but a lot of fun and a great idea
Great price

UKULELE CONS

Don't like the shiny fingerboard (but understand why)
No side markers, in fact none at all without the app!
Strange decision to avoid a pickup
Smart function is a little fussy on the microphone and app a little 'short' of content
The 'tech' may not have a long shelf life as it relies on your phone OS

UKULELE SCORES

Looks - 9 out of 10
Fit and finish - 8.5 out of 10
Sound - 8.5 out of 10
Value for money - 9.5 out of 10

OVERALL UKULELE SCORE - 8.9 out of 10

UKULELE VIDEO REVIEW




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3 comments :

  1. NICE review, Baz. As more and more tech savvy kids take up the love of making music, ukes like this will become popular (No pun intended). That might make it all the more important for parents to have 'consumer reports' on possible gifts for their aspiring musicians.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you for the review Baz! 🙏🏻
    Do you think the frets will wear out by playing with the fluorocarbon strings or nylgut strings?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've not pushed it to know - certainly wound strings will destroy them quickly. As for others - all plastic frets wear eventually. My Flea is wearing down - BUT.. it's 12 years old. Still plays though!

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