Kala's KA-15S soprano ukulele is one of the most popular budget ukuleles on the market.
With over 1,800 5-star reviews on Amazon, it's an obvious crowd favorite. But is it the right choice for beginners?
If you're in a hurry, check out the review summary below. Otherwise keep reading for my unbiased, in-depth review of the KA-15S ukulele.
For this review, I purchased a brand new KA-15S online. My impressions are based on an "out of the box" uke with no tweaks or adjustments of any kind. All pictures are of the actual KA-15S I used for this review.
KA-15S Review Summary
I wasn't sure what to expect from the KA-15S, but after spending some time with it I feel this uke is a great overall value and a natural choice for any budget-conscious player.
The KA-15S is a high-quality budget uke that looks good, sounds great, and is easy to play. It's perfect for beginners seeking a respectable starter uke, but it's also a great option for seasoned players seeking an affordable second instrument.
With an online price of around $50 it's hard to go wrong with the KA-15S, but there are a couple of things to think about before taking the plunge:
- Players with big hands could find the tiny soprano neck a little tricky to play compared to larger sizes (like a concert or tenor)
- Players seeking a deeper, warmer tone might want to consider a larger (but more expensive) instrument like the Kala KA-C or Cordoba 15CM
KA-15S Full Review
Kala has developed a reputation for building great ukuleles at affordable price points, and the KA-15S is no exception.
I touch on some of the specifics later in the review, but in general the KA-15S has a clean look and a tight, solid feel.
The build quality is far better than the cheap ukes you'll find in the $20 to $40 range. In fact, I think the craftsmanship is better than some of the more expensive offerings from other brands.
The KA-15S is a very well-built uke for the money, but it's important to have realistic expectations for an instrument in this price range. If you buy one expecting flawless craftsmanship you might be disappointed.
It's not unusual for less expensive ukuleles to have some rough edges, glue squeeze-out, finish imperfections, etc. These are simply the compromises manufacturers have to make to offer an instrument at a price this low.
While the craftsmanship on the KA-15S is surprisingly good for the price, it's not 100% perfect. The important thing is that it plays well and sounds good, which it does!
Setup and Playability
A common issue with entry level ukes is that the strings are too high off the neck. This is known as "high action" and is generally a bad thing for a couple reasons:
- Instruments with high action are harder to play
- High action can cause notes to bend out of tune, especially when playing near the nut
Based on my experiences with other inexpensive ukuleles, I frankly wasn't expecting much from the KA-15S. That's why I was amazed at how well the uke played right out of the box!
The action was low and even, making it a dream to play. I usually find myself making some minor adjustments to many of my ukes when I first get them, but the KA-15S didn't need any tweaking. Very impressive!
The action was good up and down the neck, and I didn't experience any buzzing or high frets.
The KA-15S has a sweet, warm tone that really took me by surprise. Compared to other budget soprano ukes I've tried, the KA-15S has a lot more bass, volume, and resonance. In fact, I've played much more expensive ukes that didn't sound this good.
There's always going to be a limit to how much sound a tiny soprano uke like the KA-15S can produce, but this little uke is very impressive (especially considering the price point).
Many budget ukes have a tone that is thin, weak, and generally "dead." This is often due to their heavy construction, thick finish, and cheap strings. The KA-15S avoids these pitfalls thanks to its light build, minimal finish, and high-quality Aquila strings.
The KA-15S has a light matte finish that gives the uke a beautiful natural look. You can see and feel the texture of the wood, but it's still smooth to the touch.
While some might say the finish has "rough" appearance, I think it looks great. In my opinion, it's far better than the thick, plasticky finish found on many other budget ukes.
The light finish also allows the ukulele to resonate more freely, which helps tone. The thick finish on other beginner ukes can dampen the tone and make them sound dead and tinny.
A light sunburst finish on the body, neck, and headstock give the KA-15S some real character. I like how the shading is subtle and doesn't cover the natural appearance of the wood.
The laser engraved rosette is another nice touch. Normally I'm not crazy about blasting an instrument with lasers, but the minimal rosette looks great and dresses up the uke without going over the top.
There are three primary ukuleles sizes: soprano, concert, and tenor.
The KA-15S is a soprano sized ukulele, which is the smallest of the three sizes. A soprano is only 21" in length!
Soprano ukes are compact and more affordable than the larger sizes, but their tone tends to be a bit more "tinkly" and treble-heavy compared to bigger ukes.
This doesn't mean that soprano ukes sound bad. As I mentioned earlier, the KA-15S has a great tone for a budget-priced soprano uke. However, soprano ukes generally have less bass, sustain, and volume than the larger sizes, so if you want a more robust tone you may want to consider a concert or tenor.
Soprano ukuleles can also be a little harder to play for folks with big hands or thick fingers. This is because the frets (metal bars on the neck) are closer together, so there's less room to maneuver on the fretboard. That being said, many players with large hands adapt to the smaller fingerboard and can play them just as comfortably as the bigger sizes.
Laminated Mahogany Body
The KA-15S's body is made of laminated mahogany. This means that rather than building the body with solid pieces of wood, Kala uses several thin layers of wood sandwiched together. Laminated wood is very common on entry level instruments since it's less expensive and easier to work with.
While it's true that solid wood usually sounds better, you will have to pay a lot more to get a ukulele that has a solid top or is all solid wood. Solid wood instruments are also more prone to issues caused by changes in temperature or humidity.
A high-quality laminated ukulele like the KA-15S will sound great and requires little maintenance.
Aquila Nylgut Stings
Like all Kala ukuleles, the KA-15S comes from the factory with Aquila Nylgut strings.
Many ukulele players agree that Aquila Nylgut strings are among the best sounding ukulele strings you can get. They have a warm, sweet, harp-like tone and will improve the sound of nearly any instrument.
Many budget-priced ukuleles come with nylon strings. I think these cheaper strings tend to have a thin, plunky sound and I definitely prefer the Aquila strings.
When reading customer reviews of the KA-15S, you may come across complaints that the uke won't stay in tune. These comments drive me crazy because it's not the uke's fault!
Ukulele strings are, by design, very soft and stretchy. They have a long "settling in" period where the strings will need to be tuned over and over until they stabilize.
You can learn more about this in my article on why a new ukulele won't stay in tune.
The KA-15S comes with basic open-gear tuners. They're tight and accurate, which is all you really need from a tuning machine.
Many ukes in this price range have tuners with cheap plastic washers around the tuner posts that are ugly and tend to rattle around. The metal washers (more commonly known as grommets) on the KA-15S are another nice touch that you won't normally find on a budget uke.
NuBone Nut and Saddle
The KA-15S has a nut and saddle made from a material called NuBone. This is a synthetic material that is hard and dense, which is ideal for stringed instruments.
Many inexpensive ukuleles have plastic nuts and saddles. Plastic is cheap, but it's relatively soft and doesn't do a good job of transferring string vibration to the top of the instrument.
This is one area where Kala probably could have "cheaped out" without many people noticing. The fact that they chose quality over making an extra few bucks says a lot about them as a company.
GraphTech, the company that produces NuBone, also supplies nuts and saddles to top companies like Martin, Taylor, Gibson, Godin, and more.
Considering the price tag, the KA-15's fret work is very good.
The frets were finished nicely and didn't stick out past the fretboard, which can be an issue with less expensive ukes. I also didn't notice any high or low frets, another common problem with entry-level instruments.
The frets on a KA-15S are brass, while more expensive ukuleles have nickel frets.
Brass is less expensive than nickel, so it is commonly found on cheap, low-quality guitars. The trade-off is that brass is a softer metal, so it wears out more quickly.
While brass is a poor material for guitar frets, the strings on a ukulele are so soft and stretchy that they will hardly cause fret wear to any kind of metal. My guess is it would take years before you'd notice any difference between the two materials!
In this situation, brass frets are a good way to keep the cost down without hurting quality.
Kala KA-15S vs. KA-S vs. Makala MK-S
Kala produces two other soprano ukes that are very similar to the KA-15S: the KA-S and the Makala MK-S.
I own all three models, and they're all great beginner ukes. Still, I feel the KA-15S is the best overall value.
The KA-S costs about $20 more than the KA-15S and doesn't add much beyond the white binding on the edges of the body.
The MK-S is about $5 less than the KA-15S, but I don't think it's worth saving that money due to the downgraded tuners and the cheap plastic nut and saddle.
Those shopping for a quality beginner uke at a reasonable price point will have a hard time finding a better choice than the KA-15S. The build quality, playability, and tone are better than nearly every other uke I've tried at this price point.
While I can recommend the KA-15S without any reservations, here are a couple things to consider before buying one:
- The KA-15S's tiny size might pose a challenge to players with larger hands
- The tone is great for a budget-priced soprano uke, but players in search of more resonance and volume will want to consider a larger concert or tenor uke