I was somewhat skeptical when a representative from Kmise ukuleles contacted me recently, and offered to send me some of his company’s instruments to review. I had never heard of the company and never seen any of their instruments in music stores.
A bit of online searching showed them as a Chinese maker of modestly-priced instruments. Not just ukuleles, however: they offer a wider range of instruments and accessories (many are listed on Amazon), including singing bowls, harmonicas, kalimbas, u-bass, banjoleles, pickups, violin bows, effects pedals and more. (I plan to buy their U-bass to compare it to others I’ve had…)
Most of the Kmise ukulele line sells on Amazon for under $100 CAD, including many with a gig bag, strap, and tuner. That’s at the low end of a price range in instruments that can reach several thousand dollars at the upper reaches.
Their Aklot series (see the bamboo uke, below) is a bit more expensive than their other models, but not much. At that price, how good could they be? I asked myself. Well, I’d find out.
I had not developed a good impression of most lower-priced ukuleles in the past. Most low-end instruments I’d previously encountered are mass-produced, with low-quality tuners and strings, poor action, poor intonation, mediocre sound. Fit and finish was not very good on those I had examined in the past. But I agreed to look the Kmise instruments over and review them.
A few weeks later, I received a mahogany tenor, a bamboo tenor (Aklot) and a mahogany guitarlele (a short-scale six-string guitar).
I was surprised – pleasantly so – by the build quality and the sound. While not super fancy, they were far better than anything at that price range I’ve seen in the past. I would have expected them to be selling for at least double and more what they list for, especially when they come with the gig bag and other items.
So let’s look at these three in a bit more detail.
The mahogany instruments are solid tops, not laminates; another surprise: low-priced instruments tend to be made from laminates because it’s a less expensive material. The bamboo uke is a laminate, however (see below).
In general, laminate tops do not provide the clarity of sound you get from a solid wood top. This isn’t always as noticeable on smaller instruments, such as the soprano scale, but it often is on a tenor-sized uke. To my ears, laminates don’t have the depth of sound (in musical terms, the ADSR envelope isn’t as sharp a peak, and drops off more sharply at the SR part of the curve).
Mahogany is also a good choice for a small body because it’s clear and bright, without being too brash and offers a reasonably close equivalent in tonal range to the original Hawaiian koa wood. Spruce – commonly used as a top wood on guitars, but sometimes on ukuleles – is sound-wise a more resonant wood, but on a small instrument can be a bit harsh (again, to my ears – your mileage may vary). I also like cedar as a top wood, but it’s not very common.
Mahogany is also light – these instruments are very easy to hold and carry while playing. Despite the lightness, both have strap pins (at the bottom of the lower bout, and on the heel of the neck) and come with straps in the package. Again for the price, this is unusual for ukes (but somewhat expected on the larger guitarlele), since few inexpensive ukes come with strap pins (or straps).
The top, back, and neck appear to all be solid mahogany on the tenor uke and guitarlele, and I suspect the sides are, too. The wood is a pleasant reddish-brown, with a matte finish. These are plain instruments with a simple rosette around the sound hole (mahogany instruments; the bamboo tenor lacks the rosette) and no other decoration. Elegant and understated.
The uke has an 18-fret neck; most tenors I’ve had are in the 15-18 fret range. The guitarlele has 20 frets. Personally, I very seldom play at the upper range above the 15th fret, in part because on small instruments the spacing between frets that high up the neck is rather tight for my fingers. The neck ends, where they meet the sound hole, on both are shaped, not simply cut straight, as on some brands. A small touch that adds to the visual appeal.
The width at the nut is 1 3/8″ for the tenor uke and 1 7/8″ for the guitarlele. That’s about the industry standard for the uke (although Kala and some ukes tend to be a bit narrower at 1 1/2″). The guitarlele is about 1/8″ narrower than my Islander (Kanilea) guitarlele – that little difference makes the Kmise guitarlele easier for me to finger (I’ve always found the Islander neck just a tad too wide for comfort).
Also, the body of the Kmise guitarlele is a bit larger than the Islander. While they both measure the same at the lower bout across the bridge, the Kmise body is longer, starting at the 14th fret compared to the 16th for the Islander. The Kmise strings tie to the bridge, while the Islander uses bridge pins. This is a design choice rather than a functional difference. I often put small string beads onto the ends of tied strings. Whether that makes a difference is debatable.
The Kmise guitarlele sounds brighter and a bit louder than the Islander, and with longer sustain. Both are solid mahogany, but in fairness the Kmise has newer strings, so that may affect the result. Still, to my ears it has an edge over the Islander – which cost several hundred dollars more.
All of these Kmise instruments have similar strings: adequate but not the best I’ve played on. I suspect there will be some tonal improvements if I swap them for a higher-end brand like Aquila. Sound quality is a subjective thing, however. I did find it took several days for the strings to settle in and stop stretching – not entirely uncommon with new instruments, but perhaps a little longer than some I’ve had.
The only roughness I found in any of them was in the fret dressing of the mahogany tenor on the upper side of the neck. It could have been smoother, although it’s minor enough it doesn’t affect my playing. The dressing on the lower side for the fretboard was fine, however. I will break out a fret file when I change strings to smooth the edges a bit. I checked the other edges and inside of all the instruments and found them well finished and smooth. No excess glue was visible anywhere, either. This speaks well for their quality control.
The Aklot bamboo tenor uke is a somewhat different sort of beast. First of all, it’s dressier with a slotted headstock rather than the solid top of the other two, and gold/black tuners. The thin strips of pale bamboo running parallel along the surface are very attractive. The finish is satin or semi-gloss. Plus it’s signed by the designer, Aklot, on the front. And the gig bag is a tad fancier, too, with better padding, a larger front pocket, and a side handle (similar to the gig bag that came with the guitarlele). Yet the price is a reasonable $120 CAD on Amazon.
The pale blonde colour of the bamboo is quite a pleasant contrast to the darker mahogany. It is entirely made from bamboo, including fretboard and bridge (the other two have the standard rosewood bridge and fretboard). Bamboo is, of course, a wonderfully sustainable wood, and I expect we will see more instruments made of it in future. Both the mahogany and bamboo tenor bodies are the same size, although the bamboo bridge plate is 1/4″ wider than that on the mahogany.
The neck of the Aklot is a bit thinner than the mahogany: 1 1/2″ at the nut, but the depth from fretboard to back of neck is slightly greater, and it feels a bit more substantial. The fret dressing on this uke was excellent, and it seems to use the same strings as the others. It also has two strap pins in the same location as the others. The figure-eight shape of the body is the same as the mahogany uke.
Bamboo instruments are always laminates, so the sound is bright, but to my ears somewhat thinner. The bamboo bridge likely contributes to this because it cannot transmit the sound energy as effectively as a denser wood will. The resulting tone is more like a soprano sound than a tenor. For those who prefer a ‘traditional’ ukulele sound, this is good.
The saddles on all three instruments appear to be plastic. Adequate, if not the prime material for transmitting sound energy. I plan to see if changing the saddle to another material (like Tusq or bone) when I change strings might alter the tone in any significant way, particularly in the Aklot uke. But it will take some doing because the saddles on both ukes have been carefully sculpted to ensure proper intonation.
I could find no fault with either the action or the intonation on any of these instruments. They were all immediately playable without any need tor adjustment.
All three have another unusual design element for inexpensive instruments: they have a slightly convex back. Many inexpensive ukes I’ve seen have flat backs because it’s easier and faster to build that way. Just one more bit of attention to detail I hadn’t expected on an inexpensive instrument.
The Joyo digital tuners each instrument comes with are small, battery-powered devices that clip onto the headstock and have a selection of tuning options for general use or specific instruments including ukuleles (tuned to C or D). They work as well as any I’ve tried in the past and gave me no problems. And you can never have too many digital tuners. The geared string tuners for the mahogany instruments are sealed, while on the bamboo, they are open.
Included in the mahogany uke package is plain gig bag, a strap (about 1″ wide), some replacement strings, a basic chord chart and a ‘getting started’ guide. The other two came with a strap and some hard picks in better gig bags. The guitarlele also came with a small hex wrench to adjust the tension rod in the neck.
Pictures that were provided to me of the factory and workers (seen here) suggest a small operation that involves a lot of handiwork in a modest setup, rather than mass production and big machinery. That might explain a few of the details that I found that I hadn’t expected. I don’t know what their output is, but it can’t be very high.
Overall, I was quite impressed by the Kmise instruments. I could find no flaws, no manufacturing defects, no cracks or dents in their surface, no substandard parts. Their sound was good – especially for the mahogany instruments.
These all proved far better than I had expected for instruments that sell in this price range. Had they been available at any local music store, I would have chosen them over their similarly-priced competition: they look and sound better than many brands. As I noted earlier, I would have expected to pay more – up to double – the price for them in a music store, and would not feel I had overpaid for any of them.
I have no hesitation recommending Kmise or Aklot instruments to anyone looking for a reasonably-priced ukulele or guitarlele that also offers reasonable quality. Aside from the minor roughness of a few fret wires on one instrument, I could find nothing to criticize. I liked them enough to put their U-bass on my list as my next instrument purchase.
I’ll be copying this review over to my ukulele site in a few days.
Update: The instruments came direct from Amazon, so the company did not send me specially-chosen instruments to review. These are what any consumer would get through online purchasing.
Also, I live within walking distance of the shore of the Great Lakes. The humidity here can vary considerably and quickly, from bone-dry (especially in winter) to tropically damp in summer. This in turn can affect musical instruments. I’ve had ukes break strings and go out of tune from the changes. So far, the Kmise ukes have shown no significant effect from local weather-related changes. That’s encouraging.