Review: The Kiwaya KTS-4 Soprano is an Impeccable Japanese Update to a Vintage Mainland Uke Design


Though Kiwaya might be a new name to U.S. players, their bonafides in the ukulele department are unquestionable. Kiwaya is the oldest operating Japanese ukulele brand and the only major Japanese ukulele manufacturer with instruments readily available in the U.S. today. The company’s ukulele production dates back to the 1950s heyday of the Japanese Hawaiian Music craze, and it was instrumental in forging a musical link between the two groups of islands and ensuring that interest in the uke survived rock’n’roll and the intervening decades of musical change through its ukulele education and preservation efforts. Since the 1990s ukulele revival in Japan, Kiwaya, which sells its ukuleles under the Famous Ukuleles brand name there, has reaped the benefits of its efforts.

Today, Kiwaya makes three lines of instruments: the Artist, Eco, and Strummer series, with more than a dozen models of soprano, concert, and tenor ukes in total. The Eco is its line of affordable laminated wood ukuleles; the Strummer series is the premium tier, with options like Master grade solid curly koa and purfling and rosette inlays; and the Artist series of solid wood instruments is designed to achieve the sound, look, and feel of the benchmark of U.S. mainland mahogany soprano ukulele design that Martin set with its classic Style 0 ukulele. Kiwaya’s KTS-4 soprano, part of the Artist series, is its best-selling model in Japan, and that’s what I decided to dig into for this review. 

I happen to love soprano ukes and I also happen to have some old ones around, so I decided to start with a highly unfair comparison. I put the new Kiwaya KTS-4 mahogany soprano at arm’s reach on one side, and a vintage Martin Style 0 I had recently acquired on the other.

The Style 0, with its replaced tuners, is difficult to date with confidence but I estimate it to be between 40 and 80 years old. The truth is, there’s nothing fair about this comparison, but if Kiwaya is going to build a pretty exact copy of a heritage instrument then it’s really inviting the challenge. Luckily for Kiwaya, the company seems to have done its inspiration proud. 

Kiwaya KTS-4 soprano ukulele
Photo by Joey Lusterman

Youthful Image

Sitting side by side, aside from the wear, the two ukes are much more alike than they are different. They are the exact same size and shape, both with dark stained, beautifully figured wood. The finish on the old uke may be slightly darker, but that difference is likely just time. And the rosewood fretboard on the Kiwaya is slightly thicker and deeper in color.

The Gotoh Planetary tuners on the Kiwaya would look just right on any vintage instrument—I wish I had them on the Style 0, actually. And despite being dressed just right for the 1920s, the geared tuners function as surely and smoothly as anything the 21st century has to offer. Also updated are the white nut and compensated saddle, which look great and improve the tone and intonation. There’s not much room to improve on the 100-plus years of classic uke lutherie, but this is one area that certainly makes sense to me.


The build quality and setup of the Kiwaya were impeccable. Picking up a brand new instrument always requires some patience—the strings and wood need some time to wake up and to hold their tuning to sound their best. So I sat on my hands for a few days before really committing time to judge the sound. The wait paid off as the sound of the Kiwaya settled in, opened up, and began to ring.

Charming Sound

In standard G C E A tuning, this uke had a sweet, charming sound. Not particularly loud, but with plenty of volume while retaining a rich, woody, and well-rounded tone. It was everything I would not only expect, but demand from a good quality instrument. I usually prefer to tune a soprano up a whole step to A D F# B (sometimes called “D tuning”). Some subtlety might be lost, but the added tension adds verve, volume, and urgency to the tone. The difference is notable with all sopranos, but the Kiwaya in particular really comes alive with the higher tuning.

In a blind sound comparison, the first and biggest takeaway is that the Kiwaya and my old Style 0 are very similar. My partner, who helped with this review, actually preferred the tone of the Kiwaya, noting the more clear differentiation between the ring of each string. The vintage uke has a dryer, more treble-y sound that highlights the percussive elements of strong strumming, but I feel like the Kiwaya would trend in the same general direction with age as it acquires patina through the bangs and bumps of decades to come.

Kiwaya KTS-4 soprano ukulele back
Photo by Joey Lusterman

A Jedi in Training

The Kiwaya KTS-4 soprano is a new instrument that holds its own. There’s some amount of magic that only time and wisdom can impart on an old ukulele, and that magic adds more nuance and depth to the sound. I expect this Kiwaya will age well, picking up that sonic “wisdom” without losing any of the qualities that make it a great instrument. With its solid woods, impeccable build quality, and playability and tone to suit a professional, this padawan ukulele performs as close as I can imagine any modern ukulele could to the weathered old Jedi masters of yesteryear—at a price that’s reasonable for a first-class instrument.

Kiwaya KTS-4 Soprano Specs

BODY Soprano size with solid African mahogany top, back, and sides; 20-7/8″ length; matte finish

NECK 13-5/8″-scale; 1-7/16″ nut width; 12 frets; rosewood fretboard; pau ferro bridge; bone nut and saddle

OTHER Gotoh Planetary tuners; GHS Black nylon strings



PRICE $695 (street)