Caramel Ukuleles–in the light of Got a Ukulele’s Review

A couple of weeks ago, Barry Maz (gotaukulele.com) posted his review of the Caramel Zebrawood Concert (of which I have overseen the purchase of 40 such instruments) and he truly disliked the instrument.  You can see the review here: http://www.gotaukulele.com/2017/04/caramel-cc102a-concert-ukulele-review.html.

If you chose not to access the article, here are Barry’s concerns:

  • Cheap price–ridiculously low
  • Straight from Amazon, eBay, or the factory (no set-up)
  • Long wait for delivery (4 weeks)
  • Zebrawood (Barry isn’t a fan) laminate
  • Thicker Zebrawood laminate at that
  • Sun motif around the rosette (overdone)
  • Overly chunky bracing
  • Messy interior: glue and wood shavings
  • Photocopied label that is illegible in the ukulele
  • Poorly finished satin coat
  • Scuffs and chips in binding and overall construction
  • Bridge and fretboard need oiling
  • Fretboard appears to dip into the soundboard of the ukulele
  • Poorly dressed, sharp frets
  • Headstock is reminiscent of a Kaniel’a
  • Frosted plastic tuner buttons
  • Cheap quality tuners
  • Little sustain
  • Generic sound quality
  • Intonation issues that MIGHT be solved with a set-up

To be honest, I was disappointed by Barry’s review.  Please note that I won’t disagree with any of his observations.  His main concern was that the ukulele may have serious build issues–and that is where I disagree.  I have looked at his picture, as well as our Caramels, it it appears that Caramel shapes the end of the fretboard down.  If you look at Barry’s picture of the “dip,” you can see that the soundboard (face) of the ukulele isn’t dipping at all.  I would also say that Barry forgot to mention the nut. The nut on every one of our Caramels was sharp and needed to be sanded down.  I have looked inside many Caramels–our earliest ones (February 2016) had crooked bracing–but I would say that our most recent instruments have been tidy and clean inside (I could care less about the label), more so than some other “big name” ukuleles that I own!  I can’t really if the bracing is chunkier than any other brand–but Barry has played well over 500 models of ukulele, and I believe him.

Barry is right…if you can afford more money–it may be beneficial to get ukuleles from a reputable dealer who will set them up for you before shipping them out.   The Caramel’s aren’t “overly resonant” with sustain and have a very basic sound.  And they do need set-up work.  But if you are a teacher needing a set of ukuleles, and you can do some of the basic set-up work, $37 for a concert ukulele (direct from the Caramel website) is hard to beat.  Sure, you could buy something like the Makala C (my first ukulele was a Makala CE, and I still own it) but the Makala C begins at $65 (not counting shipping).  A set of 30 ukuleles becomes a $900 difference…or nearly double the cost.  For even better ukuleles, add more investment.  

I “get” that ukulele purists want people to play on good instruments that play well and sound terrific.  That doesn’t match the reality of sets of ukuleles in school (which are likely out of tune with each other anyway); and it also doesn’t reflect the issue of the beginning player who isn’t fully committed to a ukulele, where $37 might be worth a gamble, but crossing the $50 line becomes a “real” purchase.  

In reality, the most recent Caramels have come with generally good action (as Barry mentioned), better dressed frets (which have become exposed as the fretboards dry out in the school and need to be sanded down), and that “general” sound.  And to be honest, the Makala Dolphins, (old) Ukadelics, and even my Makala CE that I have played since Barry’s reviews have not been in tune as you progress down the neck past the 5th fret.  So Caramel doesn’t have an angle in the market in selling ukuleles that are not professionally set-up and don’t play in tune down the neck (although our most recent Caramel DOES play in tune down the neck). New Caramels are coming with a pin-bridge, and I am tempted to buy one of them.  Caramel plans to add side marker dots to instruments later in the year, and to start shipment from a US warehouse this year.

Again–I am not doubting Barry.  In the world of ukulele, he is one of my heroes, and this was a ukulele that he spent his own money to purchase and review.  This is what he was sent.  I have ordered 52 Caramels to this date–and they are getting better–and I would order more.  Not as my primary instrument, but as an instrument for a school or a non-committed beginner.  If you also need a “beater ukulele” that can be used for camping–this is also a pretty good bet.  If a school can afford better instruments–then by all means, go for it.  If a beginner can afford a Kamaka, go ahead (that Kamaka likely needs to be set up, too).  But if you are a teacher in a situation like mine, where you are raising your own funds for instruments–the generic quality of the Caramel becomes attractive.  Furthermore, our Caramels have survivied the tough environment of our school (and sometimes intentional abuse by our students), whereas two of our lovely Mainlands were damaged in a single accident this past fall, not long after receiving those instruments!  And incidentally, the tuners may be cheap, but they are functional.  I haven’t had to replace any, but I have had to replace tuners on two of our Waterman ukuleles (Kala was wonderful with support).

What I would say is this: by a $37 ukulele, and be aware that you will have some work to do, and that sound will be generic.  If you have more to spend…contact some of those great ukulele shops (Mim’s and Uke Republic still deal with “low end” sales) who include set-ups with their ukuleles.  And don’t hesitate to contact Mike at Mainland Ukuleles…particularly if you have an environment where you can care for those instruments (e.g. Humidity).

As a final note, check out Vic’s videos about his Caramel (which has the new bridge):

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