Big Island Honu KT-TR Tenor Ukulele Review

22 Aug 2021

Big Island Honu KT-TR Tenor Ukulele Review

Here's a blast from the past as ukulele brands go for Got A Ukulele. A return to the reviews bench for Big Island with their Hono Series KT-TR Tenor.

Big Island Honu KT-TR Tenor Ukulele


That 'blast from the past' mention is not a slur on Big Island, rather more on the fact I have not personally seen another one since I bought and reviewed one of their concerts many moons back in 2012. That 'Traditional Concert' instrument was one of the first more serious ukuleles I personally bought and it reviewed extremely well (if a little simply by my review standards of today - and, before I made videos), but sadly I had to move it on. Still, a first foray to me into the middle ground of the ukulele world before the heady heights of Hawaiian instruments.

Some background on that. The Big Island Ukulele Co is a business founded in Hawaii, now run out of Japan and selling instruments made in Vietnam. That's not as confusing as it sounds and there is a clear Hawaii connection that goes beyond the name. Their instruments are made in the far east to keep costs sensible, but they use their own harvested Hawaiian Koa wood (in fact, one of those involved in Big Island is a Hawaiian wood exporter) to make their instruments. I guess it's similar to the way Pono work as a sub line of Ko'olau with roots in Hawaii, but taking advantage of lower production costs in the far east. And such things matter not a jot with me IF the quality control is there (and it certainly was with the concert I looked at). Their product lineup is a little confusing, but I understand the 'Honu' moniker here (meaning turtle) is linked to the headstock shape. Their 'non Honu' instruments are made to the same standards but have more normal shaped headstocks or slot heads. Anyway, enough of the boring stuff, let's get into it.


Big Island Honu KT-TR Tenor Ukulele body


The KT-TR is a traditionally shaped double bout tenor instrument made from all solid Hawaiian Koa. It has a really attractive swoopy fat lower bout which reminds me of Koaloha instruments that I love and I think looks great. I know what you are saying though. 'That's really plain koa'... And.. yes, this one is. In fact it's very plain and simple without much stripe and certainly not curl or flaming apart from in very small spots. Yet do bear in mind that koa wood comes in a wide variety of forms and colours from the dark to the dazzling to the... well... plain. Regular readers will know I like my instruments simple though even I would like a bit more colour variation in this one. There is also a school of thought that the plainer koa wood sets make for more consistent tone woods in sound terms, though I would say that claim screams of being a point of debate that one side could never win. Maybe. What you should bear in mind though is a Google of this model shows up quite a range of colours and striped versions of the same instrument. So whilst this one is plain, if you bought one blind you might get a darker body. That's not a problem of course if you know in advance what you are getting. The faces of the instrument are formed in two pieces on each of the top, the ever so slightly curved back and sides and are all put together very well. You'll also note that the body depth is really diminutive and is only 6 cm top to back at the instrument waist. It's hardly a thinline, but certainly thinner than most tenor ukes around. That should make for comfortable holding without a strap, and likely less weight too.

The bridge is made of ebony and on first glance is styled like it's a through body. It's actually a slot style though and very low profile. It's extremely nicely finished, very tidy indeed and fitted with a compensated bone saddle. Spacing here is 46mm.

Big Island Honu KT-TR Tenor Ukulele bridge


There is no other decoration to the body anywhere which I suppose extenuates the plain look, though bear in mind my comments above. It's finished in a very nicely done gloss in which I can find no flaws at all. The edges to the top and back are very lightly smoothed off making it all very comfortable.

Big Island Honu KT-TR Tenor Ukulele sound hole


Inside is extremely tidy with notched kerfing and thin braces. The top is braced vertically from sound hole to tail. 

big island honu kt-tr tenor ukulele inside


The neck is made of mahogany from what looks like a single piece and is glossed. I really like the broad chunky heel, capped in koa, which is shallower in depth but wider than normal which reminds my of my KM Ukuleles Dreadnought Concert. I find it helps with access down there as your hand has further room to go down the neck before hitting the heel. It tapers to a flattened off back profile but only an average 35mm nut with with 28mm from G to A. I can live with that as the back profile is not like a broom handle, but would still prefer a touch more width - but you know - your mileage may vary.

That is topped with an ebony fingerboard in great condition. It has a touch of colour variation but nothing too jarring. It's not edge bound so you see the fret tangs, but the neck gloss runs up and over them which I think looks a bit odd. I'm nit-picking on that point, but then I would prefer a satin neck which would get rid of that altogether. You get a generous 20 frets joined at the 14th. Pearly position dots face out at the 5th, 7th, 10th, 12th and 15th and they are repeated with white side dots.

Big Island Honu KT-TR Tenor Ukulele neck


Beyond the bone nut is an interesting shaped headstock. In fact i'm not sure what you would call it with its flared wings and slightly asymmetrical outline. I guess it reminds me of old time banjo headstocks or the headstock you get on the Barnes & Mullins Bowley. I like it. A turtle emblem (the Honu) is inlaid in abalone in the front koa facing. 

Big Island Honu KT-TR Tenor Ukulele headstock


Tuners are unbranded sealed gears with very small koa buttons. They look slightly mis-placed at first glance, but are actually not - it's an optical illusion caused by the asymmetrical headstock shape. Still, they seem good quality, though I would prefer open gear Grover tuners. I can take or leave the makers label on the back of the headstock myself.

Big Island Honu KT-TR Tenor Ukulele tuners


The package comes with a set of Aquila strings and a nice quality fully hard case with the Honu emblem. And for that you are looking at what I think is a stupidly good price. Yes, I know it's not made in the USA, but it is made from premium materials. I also have not yet found anything wrong with the build. In fact build wise it's on a par with instruments I have seen that are MUCH more expensive - including the Koaloha I named above. Yet this comes in at £589 at Southern Ukulele Store who loaned me this one. OK, I suppose it's in the Pono territory of pricing and there is no way it should be at the Kanile'a level considering the build location.. but then it's less than the aNueNue Light Bird and that too is made in the far east. I think it's a great price myself.

Big Island Honu KT-TR Tenor Ukulele case

All very good so far I think if you like a simple, but very well made instrument. I'd like a bit more interest to the wood though that's about it really and could no doubt get another that looked completely different. It certainly is nice to hold too and is not heavy at 660g. It's extremely well put together and feels 'premium' far beyond its price point. This example is set up very well too, though i'd expect that from SUS.

To play, i'd say volume and sustain could both do with a little more, and maybe that is down to the shallow body as it certainly isn't over built. That's not to say either are poor and in fact I'm not entirely decided whether it's the volume or the sustain as I can certainly feel the instrument vibrating my hands and chest when playing. 'Punch' is the word I am looking for -  It's almost like there is a bigger sound wanting to get out. Maybe the wood needs to open up more to give it more bark, I don't know. I was cautious about writing that and I stress, it's still very good (and you won't tell on the video) - but i'm just being honest. Compared to something like a Kanile'a tenor it just doesn't have that 'punch'. Maybe that comparison is unfair though.

What that does mean though is it's a very laid back, relaxed sounding instrument. Whether strummed or picked the tone is very pretty and rich (as koa tends to be) and put a real smile on my face. There is a bright zing to the sound and some harmonic complexity going on too, yet the softer volume kind of mellows it all back and removes any harshness. Picked right up the neck it stays clear and precise and no matter how you play it, it's pretty. Is it up there with the Hawaiian Koa tenors? No of course not, but you know what.. it's closer than it deserves to be.

Big Island Honu KT-TR Tenor Ukulele back


I really ummed and ahhed about the scoring for this one as I was concerned I was going to over-cook it. The trouble with scoring sounds is that it's so subjective, yet aside from wanting a touch more punch to the projection (and only a touch), I think the tone is very pleasant. Charming in fact. It's really comfortable to play too and the build is pretty much flawless.

So whilst I have gripes they are really minor - in fact I think this is a no brainer uke for the money. Whilst it doesn't have the stellar looks of some instruments out there, looks don't make sound, and this has a build and finish that punches well above its price point. Comfortable, simple and a really pretty tone for less than half the cost of a Hawaiian Koa tenor. What's not to like? 

Highly recommended.



UKULELE SPECS ROUNDUP

Model: Big Island Honu KT-TR
Scale: Tenor
Body: Solid Hawaiian Koa
Bridge: Ebony
Saddle: Compensated bone
Saddle spacing: 46mm
Finish: Gloss
Neck: Mahogany
Fingerboard: Ebony
Frets: 20, 14 to body
Nut: Bone
Nut width: 35mm, 28mm G to A
Tuners: Unbranded chrome gears
Strings: Aquila
Extras: Hard case
Weight: 660g
Country of origin: Vietnam
Price: £589

UKULELE PROS

Excellent build and finish in all areas
Looks (if you like simple!)
Comfortable neck
Comfortable, diminutive body
Pretty, laid back tone
Superb price

UKULELE CONS

Looks (if you like bling!)
Would like a bit more volume punch
Not much else wrong!

UKULELE SCORES

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

OVERALL UKULELE SCORE - 9.1 out of 10

UKULELE VIDEO REVIEW



 


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