It's ukulele review day, and Got A Ukulele returns to show it absolutely has it's finger on the pulse of new developments in uke-dom. Not really.... this was first released in the late 2000's... It's the Kala KA-JTE 2TS Archtop Tenor.
So it's an old model, or at least an old concept for Kala, but still.. I have felt that the reviews page was missing it for the simple reason that so many people have them and enquire about them. So I bought this. This ukulele is patently based on an archtop jazz guitar as the originals were, but this current iteration has one or two changes that I will try to pick up on as we go through.
This is a Chinese made, all laminate bodied tenor instrument that comes in either this tobacco sunburst finish or, if you can find them, a metallic black finish and, occasionally a white model. The colour styles seem to go in and out with Kala, but I do recall the very first one of these I saw in about 2012 was in sunburst. The key difference though was that model was fully glossed and this one is satin. More on my views on that below. And of course the use of laminate needs to be discussed here. Regular readers will know that I don't get sniffy about laminate, but it's perhaps even more 'appropriate' here (for want of a better term) because of the construction style. Because it follows the style of old jazz guitars, the top and the back on this have a pronounced arch (not just a curve, a very obvious bulge) to help sound projection. There are two ways that can be done - an expensive one or a more common and cheaper one. The expensive option is for a luthier to hand carve the curved top from a single piece of wood, much like a violin maker. You can imagine the labour cost of that... The alternative is to press a sheet of wood into the shape, as is the case here. That's much more sensible to attempt with laminate, and in fact I believe that even some of the now much sought after jazz guitars from the likes of Gibson in the 1950's used pressed laminate on the top. So no complaints from me. If it was hand carved, the price would be astronomical. Alongside that difference in body woods, there are some other divergences from true jazz box guitars too, so I think it's fair to repeat that word 'style'. This is more in a homage to the jazz guitars rather than using their construction type to the letter. Whether that is for better or worse, we shall see.
Let's press on. So, arched top, and arched back in a double bout shape in tenor scale with style elements that ooze an old time jazz look. The laminate used here is spruce for the top and mahogany for the back and sides. This sunburst variant is very reminiscent of the Gibson bursts on many of their guitars with colours ranging from almost black to a golden yellow orange glow where that has been buffed out. I find it very attractive myself and much prefer it to the white and black versions.
The bridge is the first area where we have a departure from a true jazz box as it's a regular tie bar bridge made from rosewood and fitted with a straight topped NuBone saddle. It's a significant departure as the usual jazz box method of creating the saddle would be to have a floating bridge which sits on the apex of the curve on the top that is moveable to set intonation. The strings would sit in grooves in the saddle to space them out and then run down to a tail piece attached to the butt of the instrument. The system is much like a banjo works and supposedly helps sound transference down into the top through compression of the bridge. I think it looks very odd here and completely out of place. The sound board may as well have been flat. A shame I think and we shall have to see if that affects the tone. String spacing here is 37mm.
Elsewhere on the body are the traditional looking F holes for sound ports, keeping with the jazz look. Decor on the body consists of rather gaudy looking plastic abalone type pearly binding strips around the top and back. I appreciate the style and look they are going for, but this is not to my taste at all and I think cream would have looked just fine. The body is then finished in a fairly unremarkable satin coat, where I think a gloss would have brought out the sunburst much more vividly. Still, I can't find any flaws in it.
Oh.. and you also get a pickup. An active, Kala branded pickup with an ugly control panel in the side and battery box (cell batteries) in the offset jack socket mount on the tail. OK, sure, I get that this will get a player started, and perhaps even that a pickup is probably an essential thing with a laminate jazz box as I suspect the acoustic volume might be low (a lot of old jazz guitars relied on pickups for the same reason).. but... It all looks ugly and uses too much wiring for my liking. Give me a straight passive please. Incidentally, I think it's made for them by Shadow, but I still don't want the ugly control panel and wish uke brands would stop using these monstrosities.
I can't give you a view inside as my camera won't get in there easily enough, but aside from the surfeit of wiring I can see it looks ok. The top does seem quite overly thick for laminate though - chunky in fact. The kerfing is notched and I can't see any regular bracing, presumably on account of the strength coming from the pressed arch shape.
The neck is almost certainly jointed, though I can't say where as it's finished in the same attractive sunburst that runs from black to rubbed orange and hides them. It's made from mahogany and tapers to a typical far eastern Kala round profile at the nut. It's also only 34mm wide here with 27mm from G to A. That's a not a combination that works for me at all, but your mileage may vary. It has a pearly cap on the overly large heel and, in another departure from traditional jazz boxes has a rather ugly joint arrangement at the top of the body. Jazz guitars tend to have a fingerboard that floats above the curve of the top, but here Kala have tried to create the illusion of that by having the fingerboard end raised up on a dark block above the body. I think it looks ugly and clumsy.
The fingerboard is made of rosewood on the pale side and in only fair condition. It's not dry, but there are some scruffy finishing marks in some of the spaces. You get 18 frets joined at the 14th and I can't feel any sharp ends. That's partly down to edge binding in yet more pearly plastic which I think looks too fussy. That also has some scruffy finishing here and there too. White dots face out at the 5th, 7th, 10th and 12th and these are repeated with small black dots on the side. In another change from the originals, those used to come with an inlaid palm tree motif on the fingerboard. That removal is a good thing in my opinion!
Beyond the NuBone nut is the usual crown shaped Kala headstock covered in the same black as the outer edges of the body. The Kala logo is a screen print in gold. Not much more to say here.
Tuners are unbranded sealed chrome gears which are unremarkable but work ok. Not much more to say here either!
The only other additions are a black strap button in the base and a set of Aquila strings. No bag, no case, which seems to be par for the course with Kala and leaving them a little behind the competition these days. And that comes in at a price I have seen anywhere between £290 and £350 depending on the store. Even at the lower end I think that's quite a hefty price for what is, essentially, a laminate tenor ukulele. Hmmm. It's going to need to really sparkle to justify that price I think.
To hold it feels rather hefty and comes in at 715g. It is, however well balanced and feels solid and well made. I really don't like the profile or width of the neck though, but understand this is a subjective point. Setup is not too bad to be fair.
Being an electro acoustic there are obviously two ways of looking at this one. And that turns out to be something of a relief because it's far better plugged in than not. Acoustically it isn't offensive sounding, but just seem to be lacking life. The sustain is reasonable, but not great and the volume is below average. In fact you really have to give it some welly (technical term) to coax life out of it. This is not a responsive instrument and feels somewhat muted and strangled. Maybe it's down to the bridge, maybe the thick top, but it's like there's something struggling to get out. Strummed I found it more characterless and at times a touch muddy. Fingerpicking is better and it can sound a bit more chimey, but it's still unremarkable and i've played many laminate tenors at a third of the price that sound as good. Does it work as a ukulele? Sure it does. It's just a bit too lifeless for me played this way without an amplifier. Is it a £350 tone? Get out of town..
Thankfully, despite me not liking active systems this one does work ok plugged in with a good balance of volume across the strings. Straight into a flat EQ and the tone is still on the basic side (just louder!), but that's where the beauty of an EQ section on an amplifier comes in as I am sure it could be tweaked to provide more character. In fact the world is your oyster as I suspect some reverb or even tremolo would really make this one interesting. Playing it this way makes a lot more sense.
So it's all a bit mixed for me really and I wanted to like it more than I did. I love the look of the sunburst and the general concept here, but the bridge looks all wrong to me and Kala really need to update their necks now. It's far from the worst acoustic sounding instrument I've ever played, but it's quiet and doesn't rise to the price point. I think you will hear similar tones from a sub £100 laminate tenor. I appreciate that volume isn't everything and many will be attracted to its laid back punch, but bear in mind the actual tone itself is a bit lifeless too. For the amplified player though this certainly has the looks for a stage and works well through an amp, so maybe that's really what it's all about. I still think it's too expensive for what you are getting which is essentially a laminate tenor with a pickup.
I'm not giving it a terrible score, but once again I think it's one of those ukes that you really need to be sure of HOW you intend to use it before buying. An all rounder for me it is not.
UKULELE SPECS ROUNDUP
Model: Kala KA-JTE-2TS Archtop
Body: Laminate spruce top, laminate mahogany back and sides
Bridge: Rosewood, tie bar
Spacing at bridge: 37mm
Frets: 18, 14 to body
Nut width: 34mm, 27mm G to A
Tuners: Generic sealed chrome gears
Finish: Tobacco sunburst with satin coat
Extras: Tail strap button, Kala pickup system
Country of origin: China
Price: £280 - £350
Looks authentic (from a distance!)
Very nice sunburst
Generally good finish
Works well plugged in
Too much pearl for me
Bridge choice is wrong for an archtop - looks out of place
Ugly neck joint
Would prefer passive pickup
Acoustic volume average
Not hugely responsive to play
Acoustic tone lacks character
Expensive for what it is
Looks - 8 out of 10
Fit and finish - 8 out of 10
Sound - 7.5 out of 10 (acoustic, 8.5 plugged in)
Price - 7.5 out of 10
OVERALL UKULELE SCORE - 7.8 out of 10 (8 out of 10 plugged in)
UKULELE VIDEO REVIEW
© Barry Maz
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