You wait years for your first archtop ukulele review and then another comes along the week after... This is the Ortega RUSL-HSB Concert.
The dust has not settled on the Kala Archtop Ukulele review of last week and it's already proving divisive on the 'love it / hate it' stakes. I remain of the view that it's a nice enough electric instrument, but is somewhat flawed as an acoustic. Oh, and the price is ALL wrong. I don't like making side my side comparisons and would rather the scores spoke for themselves, but being 'back to back' it's hard not to in this case. I've had a look at a couple of Ortega ukuleles over the years, but don't mind admitting that they have not impressed me so far. So there's a touch of trepidation here! I bought this one for the review, as I did the Kala.
The (mouthful named) RUSL-HSB is another archtop 'style' ukulele made from laminate woods, but this time in the concert scale. That 'style' point was quite key to the Kala review because I felt it was an archtop in looks only. Sure, this is pressed laminate too and not carved from wood for the same reason, but there should be something immediately obvious that pushes this one closer to the true roots. But we'll come on to that in a moment. Rather than spruce and mahogany laminate this goes for flamed maple and, despite my comments on colouring below, is rather nice wood to look at with some very obvious 'tiger stripe' going on. It also shows that it's made from two pieces each on the top, back and sides as the striping works to create a fan effect from the centre lines.
Moving on to the bridge arrangement and we see the main difference to the Kala that makes this feel and look a lot more authentic. This uses a mandolin style setup seen on true jazz box guitars, though only nearly, 'not quite'. This sees the bone saddle held in a block of walnut over which the strings pass down to a tail piece. The top of the saddle has grooves in it rather like a banjo to spread the strings out and then they come back together down to the tail. This system is used with archtops because it aids downward compression of the bridge into the top to help sound transference rather than the lateral pull of a regular bridge like on the Kala. Aside from that, it just LOOKS much nicer than the Kala option. I say 'not quite' though, because this is not a true floating bridge as the walnut is actually glued down so not movable (for a reason I will come on to). Still, the benefit of the compression downwards will still be there. Rather than tying off on a regular bridge, the tail piece ( a copy of an old Gibson mandolin tail) has a removeable cover that slides back and allows you to tie the strings on to hooks beneath. It's actually an actual mandolin tail as you can see in the picture because it's possible to put many more than just four strings on it! What I don't like though is how thin and basic the tail metalwork is. The gold plating and pressed 'engraving' both look cheap and it also has some scuff marks on it. A regular fully chrome tail would have looked nicer here for a start. Still, the overall look here is much nicer than using a regular bridge. String spacing at the saddle incidentally is 40mm.
Decoration wise we, naturally, have a pair of F holes as sound ports. (Interesting point I was told recently - the points half way down F holes are guide points to set the bridge in the right place. I don't know how true that is, but if so, I like that! (Thanks Tom)). Improving on the gaudy look of the Kala, the edge binding top and back here is made from a darker wood with black purfling and works nicely and isn't too glitzy. The overall finish is what Ortega call 'Honeyburst' and for me, I must say that I am not a fan. Sure, it's nicely done I guess but the colour palette is just too much on the yellow side of things for me. Personally speaking, the sunburst on the Kala is much more attractive and this colouring gives the instrument an air of being more 'toy like' to my eyes. But such things are subjective and I am conscious that this has the nicer binding and a nicer 'overall' look on account of the bridge. The whole thing is finished in a satin which doesn't seem to have any issues with it.
Also like the Kala this comes with an active system branded as 'Ortega / Magus' with an ugly control panel in the side, and a jack socket in the tail. I don't need to repeat myself too much, but these are too big, too ugly and have too much wiring for me. I'd prefer a passive pickup. In fact, a spot passive would have allowed the bridge to move too, as the pickup strip here sits under the bridge saddle. This is why it needs to be glued down.
Much like the Kala, I cannot show you inside but it does look tidy (aside from all the wiring!). The kerfing is notched and there is no obvious bracing on account of the arches. It's also worth noting that the top laminate is noticeably thinner than the chunky Kala. A good thing, surely.
The neck is made from Okoume, jointed at the heel and headstock but both well hidden by the sunburst effect. It's finished in satin too and is tidy. The profile at the nut is more rounded than I would like and whilst not the widest concert neck I have seen at 35mm (28mm G to A) that is WIDER than the Kala which is a tenor! That is certainly worth noting if comfort here matters to you. Incidentally, the Ortega website has these listed as 37mm at the nut but I can assure you it is NOT 37mm wide. The heel joint is also much nicer and authentic than the Kala with much more of a floating cantilever over the top of the body and none of the ugly woodwork filling the gap. Much better looking and less to interfere with the top vibration.
Topping the neck is a walnut fingerboard in decent condition, edge bound in a dark wood to hide the fret ends without looking gaudy. You get 18 of those joined to the body at the 14th. Pearly dot markers face out at the 5th, 7th, 10th, double 12th and 14th and those are repeated on the side too. No complaints here.
The headstock has an interesting top shape which sets it apart from the norm and is faced with a plate of more flamed maple in sunburst. The script 'O' of Ortega is applied to the top in a screen print. Nice enough too.
Tuners are unbranded gold plated sealed gears with small black buttons. Like the Kala they are unremarkable but they work ok. That branding label on the back is damn ugly though!
And finishing off the package is a tail strap button, a set of Aquila strings custom branded for Ortega and a nice quality padded gig bag with strong zips and handles. That alone sets it above the Kala on value for money, but then so does the overall price. Whilst I had seen some Kala versions at around £350, this can be found for about £190 - £200. Yes, I know one is a concert and one is a tenor, but that's still quite the saving.
So all things considered I think there is much that trumps the Kala in terms of authenticity, but the price saving only adds to the attraction. The one thing I prefer with the Kala is the colour, but that really is about it. It's put together well like the Kala and I can't find any worrying build or finish issues on this example. Partly because it's a concert though also because the laminate looks thinner it's a far less hefty beast too at 600g. Another positive.
It's probably somewhat unfair to compare sound performance between a tenor and a concert, but the Kala really worried me on volume. Whilst this isn't the loudest concert I have ever played either, it's not worrying me to the same degree. You would still be heard. In fact it feels a lot freer and more responsive than the Kala which sounded strangled and muted acoustically. Sustain is similar, which is to say not terrible, but not stellar either. And yes, I do notice more neck comfort on this one too. Setup is generally good, although it needs an intonation adjustment at the nut on the 1st string. That's not something I would mark it down for as it's easily adjusted, but if you are not confident i'd make sure you buy from a specialist uke store who will check them over. This wasn't bought from one of those places!
The tone itself has a brightness to it and is rather pretty. Whereas I found the Kala a little muddy this is extremely clear when strummed. It does, however, have a kind of echoey tone that irritates me a little. To be absolutely fair here, I say that about certain cheap laminate ukuleles which can have that effect (sounding boxy, echoey), but I may be doing this a disservice. This IS a jazzbox style instrument after all and you get that same sort of difference between an archtop guitar and a regular body. It's kind of 'how they are' and can even help with that twang of a sound you'd expect from an archtop. So perhaps it shouldn't be a criticism. You should just be aware of it. In fact when I think of it that way, I kind of get it. I suppose the Kala is more for you if you like a darker woodier tone as this has a crispness to it, but you really would need to put up with the muted volume on the K.
And of course it has a pickup. It works just as well as the Kala and because you can then EQ your output to your hearts content it's even stevens with the Kala on that front.
Where this clearly makes more sense to me is that it's not a one trick pony. Whether it's down to the more traditional bridging or simply the thinner laminate in the top it just has more 'out of the box' life than the Kala. I saw one ukulele store list this as the 'Kala killer'. I can totally see why.
Yes it's a different scale to the Kala, and yes, there are one or two things I still don't like (the colour, the cheap tailpiece). But it's a whole lot more authentic looking as an overall package, is more playable on the neck and has better unplugged volume. Most of all though, it's not over priced - in fact it's actually a bit of a bargain. Make this in a darker sunburst Ortega and I'd probably buy one for myself. Recommended.
UKULELE SPECS ROUNDUP
Model: Ortega RUSL-HSB Archtop
Body: Flamed maple laminate
Bridge: Floating 'style', walnut with 'gold' plated tailpiece
Spacing at saddle: 40mm
Frets: 18, 14 to body
Nut width: 35mm, 28mm G to A (despite what Ortega say)
Tuners: Generic gold sealed gears
Finish: Honey sunburst, satin coated
Extras: Tail strap button, Ortega Magus Pickup system
Strings: Ortega branded Aquila
Country of origin: China
Price: Circa £190
Much more authentic looks
Tidy build and finish
Good acoustic volume (considering)
Very clear tone
Works well plugged in too
Tail looks and feels cheap
Not a fan of the very yellow colouring
Somewhat echoey tone (though maybe that's deliberate)
Looks - 8.5 out of 10
Fit and finish - 8.5 out of 10
Sound - 8.5 out of 10
Value for money - 9 out of 10
OVERALL UKULELE SCORE - 8.6 out of 10
UKULELE VIDEO REVIEW
© Barry Maz
GOT A UKULELE IS NOT PAID BY BRANDS OR SHOPS - DONATIONS KEEP THE SITE GOING!