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Lava U Review

The Unboxing

The Lava U came shipped directly from Hong Kong, and while individual ukulele dealers are selling them (such as The Uke Republic), you can also buy them direct from Amazon. The Lava U comes in the most protective shipping packaging I have ever seen.  The external box is heavy and large.  The ukulele is shipped inside a case, inside styrofoam, inside that large box.

While the use of styrofoam may not be Apple-like, the rest of the process of opening the box is very much an Apple-like experience.  If you take no joy out of brilliant packaging, then you can rip and tear and get on with things.  If you appreciate the design, from the moment the ukulele arrives, it is clear that great thought has gone into every aspect of the ukulele—including how it is shipped.

The Space Case

The most visually striking element of the ukulele is the unique space case, a hard shelled case which protects the Lava U and also allows the ukulele to be seen through its window.  I find myself of a split mind about the space case.  It is undoubtedly cool, and my wife—who tolerates my love the ukulele—was very quick to notice the case and inspect it.  So it definitely is going to catch the attention of players and non-players alike.

The space case will also keep your Lava U safe at home.  Many valuable ukuleles would be served by such a protective case.  

Where I am not convinced are the areas of practability of the space case as well as the added cost of the case.  The space case does have a handle, but it lacks a carrying strap.  I cannot imagine walking around a ukulele festival for a full day, dragging the space case with me…I think my hand would start to hurt with the metal handles.  I also don’t trust that the case will stay closed if dropped (e.g. locking mechanism) and I’m also not convinced about the durability of the case.  While I am getting a bit ahead of myself, I consider the ukulele to be more rugged than the case.

I don’t want to go as far as to say that the Lava U shouldn’t include the case.  I’ve considered this point of view, but I cannot commit to it.  The space case is definitely part of the appeal of this ukulele and an “Apple-like” experience (I think of my Apple Pencil, or my AirPods).  I do wish that a Lava-U shaped gig bag (nicely padded) was also included at the price point.

The Included Accessories

Upon opening the box, you find a set of items, which include a Flow Ideal Pick, a small user’s manual, a cleaning cloth, and a card thanking you for your purchase.  You also get a USB charging cable, which is tucked away separately in the styrofoam.

I’m not sure what to make of the Flow Ideal Pick, which is small, sturdy, and made of hard plastic.  I suppose you don’t have to worry about damaging a wood ukulele when playing the Lava U, but I fall into the camp of players who do not care if someone uses a pick as long as it is leather or felt (with the exception of a thumb pick).  While I know the Flow Ideal Pick is a Lava Music product and was designed alongside the Lava ME guitar, I’d prefer to see a leather, synthetic leather, or felt ukulele pick included in the package insread.

The USB charging cord is brilliant, angled on one side to easily fit inside the Lava U to make charging easier.  When you charge the Lava U, the ukulele-side seems to require a bit more force to make sure the plug is nestled securely into the charging port.  Don’t lose the cord.

What isn’t included with the ukulele is a ukulele strap; the strap is an additional purchase (as of 5/2020 I do not believe it is available).  The ukulele only works with Lava Music’s propietary strap, and this is one case where I wish they would have made the instrument accomodate traditional straps.

The Ukulele:

The ukulele looks futuristic without a complete departure as to what a ukulele looks like.  The body is more dreadnought in shape than anything else, which I think is an attempt to maximize the surface are of the sound board.  The whole ukulele looks cool and smooth and is very comfortable to hold.  The finish of the ukulele, which has a little sparkle to it, is tactile.  The shaping of the neck is also very comfortable in the hand.

The closer you look at the ukulele, the more details you see…and there are many of them!  There are ”screwless tuners,” the FreeBoost pickup system, and a chrome bumper around the soundhole.  There is a unique bridge which seems to mix the concepts of a tie bar bridge, slotted bridge, and a pull through bridge—all in one.  The ukulele has the Lava Music logo in chrome on the soundboard under the soundhole (and this looks great).  The ukulele has a compensated saddle, a flush mounted output jack, and a custom strap mount.  There are no front position markers, but side position markers are included.  You also cannot ignore the metal frets, something not seen on any other polycarbonate ukulele.

Ultimately, you walk away from this ukulele knowing that it is the result of some experience in the field as well as a lot of careful planning.

The ukulele is well balanced, but it feels heavy.  The headstock is VERY small, and features “LAVA U” printed on the headstock.   My biggest disappointment with the appearance of the ukulele is the printing on the headstock.  It just doesn’t match with the rest of the ukulele and almost appears to be an afterthought.  I also miss the front fretboard markers—it turns out that I look at those more than I probably ought to!

Sound

I have been struggling to define the sound of the ukulele.  While all the notes are clear, the instrument really brings out the middle and lower frequencies of the instrument.  I have a difficult time hearing the ukulele for itself, because I keep comparing it to other polycarbonate ukuleles that I own.  And then, due to the price, I cannot help but compare it to wood ukuleles in the same price range.  This is a review, not a comparison—so I have done my best to not compare.  But know, as a reader, that it is really hard NOT to compare it to other ukuleles.

In an oversimplified summary, the sound is perfectly acceptable.  My ear likes ukuleles that carry a lot of higher overtones…something that isn’t true of the Lava U.  But I have watched and read many reviews of this ukulele, and there are a lot of players that prefer a ukulele that brings out the middle and lower range.  So while I wouldn’t buy this ukulele solely for its sound, there are people who would.

Again, when it comes to comparison, the ultimate ukulele I have ever heard is the Blackbird Clara, made of eKoa, and starting at $1300 (yes, I think they sound better than any wood ukulele, including my beloved KoAloha ukuleles).  When it comes to the Lava U I think I am wanting $1300 sound from a $400 ukulele…and that’s simply ridiculous.

The Electronics

While you can buy the Lava U without the FreeBoost Pickup System, I don’t know why you would want to.  The small premium you pay for the electronics is worth the expense; you cannot retrofit this ukulele.  Several companies are selling similar systems, some even in collaboration with the same partner (Double).  The idea is that you can add reverb and chorus or delay (note how that is written) while playing acoustically or amplified.  And this all works, but I find that I could use more volume for acoustic effects.  You cannot run chorus and delay at the same time—you have to choose between the two with a toggle swtich inside the ukulele.  I’m not exactly sure why this had to be.  I don’t know why another dial couldn’t have been added to the outside of the ukulele.  It wouldn’t have been that much larger of a panel.  And I’d also like to see the delay button have a sense of “clicking.”  It would be very hard to gig in a live setting and add the right amout of delay without a sense of where the levels are.

All that said, the effects are cool to have, and work even better when the ukulele is amplified.  I would personally consider the acoustic effects to be used for practice purposes (you’re not going to hear them around a campfire) and the amplified effects for performance.

Playability

I have already covered playability to some extent in this review.  The ukulele is comfortable to hold, the finish is grippy, and there is a very slight radius to the fretboard.  The neck is narrow, but playable.  There have been some concerns over the durability of frets with other polycarbonate and plastic ukuleles (even Magic Fluke ukuleles), but the Lava U’s metal frets should allieviate any concerns about the durability of the fretboad—and allow players to use wound strings without much concern.

Price

The thing you cannot escape with this ukulele is the topic of price.  The nearest polycarbonate/carbon fiber competitor costs $195 (including shipping) with no accessories.  The least expensive Lava U, at the time of writing, is $299 without the FreeBoost pickup, and I cannot find one available on the market!  The tenor model with the FreeBoost pickup system is $399.  

Most people will buy the concert ($379) or tenor ($399) with the FreeBoost system.

While ukuleles can cost much more, $400 is a serious amount for an instrument made out of a polycarbonate and carbon fiber blend.  To put that into perspective, that’s seven Flight TUSL-35 travel ukuleles.  A Leolani with the Double system sells for $449.  The Flight Diana with the Double system is about $420 (if you can find one!).  The Nova U with the AcousticPlus system is $180.  A full carbon fiber Klos ukulele is $1000.  There are a ton of ukuleles below the $400 price point, and some solid top ukuleles with an acoustic effects system are within reach of the price of the Lava U tenor.

One of the things I’ve learned in my life is that some things are worth paying more for, if they will last longer and work better.  Lava Music has certainly invested in the complete design of this ukulele, from internal BreatheNet bracing to the shipping box.  As I’ve said many times in this article, the ukulele appeals to a buyer who is willing to pay a premium for a particular experience, much like an Apple product.

I’m not going to say the Lava U isn’t worth it; but it certainly rides at the high end of comparable ukuleles.  Keep in mind, I’m not the person placing capital at risk to create and sell these ukuleles. They know their market.  In fact, they did market research and determined that a large percentage of their buyers will be female.  As a result, the ukulele comes in a number of colors that appealed to female buyers.  So, I trust that Lava Music knows how much they need to charge to cover their operations and make a profit—so who am I to tell them otherwise?

As for you, whether or not you think the Lava U is worth the investment of your hard earned income depends on how you will use the ukulele.

The Purpose of the Ukulele

As I consider the Lava U, I’m faced with a really important question: what is the purpose of this ukulele? 

It certainly isn’t designed for true outdoor use.  The space case isn’t designed for rough conditions, the ukulele’s finish could be easily scratched.  On top of that, the electronics should not get wet.

It isn’t a travel ukulele.  It is not light, nor thin, and the space case wasn’t really created for travel.

And it isn’t a traditional wood ukulele…laminate, solid top, or solid wood.  

Ultmately, the Lava U is for all other scenarios, which represents the majority of my playing, and probably the majority of yours, too.  Yes, the Lava U will require a modicum of care, so you can’t throw it around like a travel ukulele.  But it can be used in various weather conditions without worry (-4ºF to 140ºF, huimidity from 10%-90%). Your strings will have issues but the ukulele will be fine.  The ukulele has the FreeBoost system, which is okay acoustically but outstanding amplified.  The Lava U has metal frets which won’t wear down, unlike any other polycarbonate ukulele on the market (in other words, wound strings should be okay).  The ukulele will get a lot of attention, both in and out of the space case.  So, if the Lava U is your only ukulele, it can serve in a vareity of uses…as long as you care for it at least a little bit.

Conclusion

I really like the Lava U.  I’m a recovering Windows user (and recently bought my son a Windows laptop to use for gaming) who bought into the Apple ecosystem.  I can’t imagine doing what I do—as an educator and as a creator of content for the ukulele—without my Apple devices.  I pay a premium for those devices, but then I can produce premium content.

In a previous post, I stated that the Lava U it is a ukulele unicorn.  It really is…a polycarbonate and carbon fiber (called AirSonic) ukulele with an acoustic and amplified sound system, futuristic styling, and a crazy case.  It is a well-rounded ukulele, both in shape and what it can do. 

As with all ukuleles, there are some negatives for me.  I would love to see a custom fit gig bag included at this price for when you can’t (or shouldn’t) travel with the space case.  I’d love to see an adapter that would allow any strap to work with the ukulele.  I’ve love to see all of the FreeBoost buttons on the outside of the ukulele (the charging port can stay on the inside).  And for me, the sound is more on the mid/low frequencies of the ukulele instead of the higher frequencies I like to hear.  

So…should you buy one?

If the aesthetics of the ukulele (and the space case) are pleasing to you, and you like what you hear in recordings (both acoustic and with effects), absolutely.  Go for it.  Yes, $400 is a lot for a molded instrument.  But in the big scheme of things, it is a very small amount to pay for a high quality instrument.  In comparison, the Lava ME guitar is $1400.  If you think of the Lava U as an investment in a hobby, and as an instrument that can take the place of several other instruments—it’s not so bad.  And while I haven’t done so very often, I have spent more on a ukulele that was not a good instrument.  You don’t have to worry that in this case.

If you are the person who is looking for a ukulele on Amazon with a maximum expenditure of $75, this is not the ukulele for you.  And if you are a traditionalist, looking to by a solid Koa Kamaka ($1300), this is also not the ukulele for you.  But, to that middle ground that is open to a ukulele from $250 to $800, this is definitely an instrument worth consideration for all that it brings to the table.

Again, I think the biggest thing for you to consider is tone.  If you like the low/mid range, I think you’ll be very, very happy with the Lava U.  So…is this ukulele unicorn going to join your stable?

You can find the Lava U at Amazon.com, as well as at The Uke Republic.

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