A few weeks ago, we told you about an upcoming product from new keyboard manufacturer, Keyed Up Labs. The main draw of their first product, the KUL ES-87, was that it would offer a reasonably priced way to get a mechanical keyboard with Cherry MX Clear switches. We’ve spent several weeks with one now, and we’re ready to tell you more about it. There are some great things about the KUL ES-87, along with a few drawbacks. So let’s get started.
KUL ES-87 Review
Depending on your personal preference, the KUL ES-87 is either really boring to look at, or the perfect “no-nonsense” mechanical keyboard that you wouldn’t be embarrassed to use at work. The top casing has a textured matte finish, and the key legend font is Gotham, which isn’t commonly used on keyboards, but isn’t a radical design either. There’s nary a logo to be seen on the KUL ES-87 without flipping it over. This keyboard is designed to either fit into a business setting, or to use as a base for heavy modification.
Cherry MX Clear Switches
We’ll talk more about the KUL ES-87 in a moment, but first we have to talk about the switches used in this sample. We usually don’t dwell too much on switches in our keyboard reviews, since it’s mostly personal preference. If you know a keyboard offers the common Cherry MX switches – Red, Brown, Blue, or Black – you know what you’re getting into. There are a few models like the KUL ES-87 though, that offer a unique switch that you might not have tried. In this case, it’s Cherry MX Clear.
Cherry MX Clear switches fall into the “tactile” category, along with Brown, but they aren’t “clicky” like Blue switches. The easiest way to think of it is that Clear is to Brown as Black is to Red. They have a similar minor ‘bump’ that occurs right before actuation, but use a much stiffer spring (it takes about 65-70g to actuate, rather than 45-55g on the Brown switches). The reason people like to consider Clear switches over Brown is that while Browns do have a tactile bump, it is very minor. They are often referred to as ‘Dirty Reds’ by people who are unhappy with them. Cherry’s more common alternative to this is Blue switches, but they can be very loud, and hysteresis can often lead to errors when typing extremely fast (the switch resets at a higher point than it actuates).
So for those looking for the best tactile typing experience with Cherry MX switches, Clear is the way to go. Unfortunately they aren’t very common, so choices are limited. That’s why many are looking forward to see how the KUL ES-87 performs overall.
As for my personal take on these switches, I have to say that I have really enjoyed my time with them, and the KUL ES-87 will probably stay as my main keyboard even after this review is finished. To be able to take the spot normally held by the Topre Realforce 87U is quite high praise indeed. Gaming on Cherry MX Clear switches proved to be a fine experience, once you get used to the heavier springs. The actuation and reset points are both at exactly 2mm, which makes this a very nice switch for gaming. I tested the KUL ES-87 with several Titanfall sessions, and didn’t come across any issues at all. To be honest, I can game on just about any switch except MX Blue.
Cherry MX Clear switches aren’t the only thing going for the KUL ES-87 of course, so let’s get back to the keyboard itself. By the way, it’s also available with the more common switch types from Cherry – Black, Red, and Brown.
First let’s talk about “The Good”. The KUL ES-87 is probably the most sturdy keyboard we’ve reviewed thus far. It has a thick switch mounting plate, and the bottom tray is extremely rigid. It doesn’t flex at all when twisted, and just look at all those rubber pads. You can tell that Keyed Up Labs put a lot of effort into making the KUL ES-87 feel as solid and stable as possible sitting on a desk.
Another good design choice is that the USB mini plug is protected when installed, and the cable can be routed three different ways. Note that the channels all exit at the back of the keyboard rather than the side. This allows you to route the cable to either side, without having it get in the way of things that sit beside the keyboard, such as a mouse.
The lever stands are coated in rubber, which a lot of manufacturers seem to miss on their designs. Also of note are the extra rubber pads that increase the contact area when the levers are used. So yeah, the KUL ES-87 isn’t going anywhere, no matter how you have it set up.
As mentioned, the bottom tray is extremely rigid, giving the KUL ES-87 a solid, expensive feel. The same can’t be said about the keycaps, however…
And now for some of “The Bad”. So far the KUL ES-87 feels solid, sturdy, and expensive. The same simply can’t be said about the keycaps they used. They are ABS plastic, meaning they will eventually wear and shine over time (and it doesn’t take that long for ABS to start shining). The legends are laser etched, with the etching feeling ‘raised’ at least when they’re new (we’ll get to that in a moment).
The caps are 1.1mm thick, which aren’t the thinnest caps we’ve measured (that honor goes to the KBP V60 Mini which are 1mm thick). In fact it’s quite standard on keyboards that sell in the sub $100 range (for tenkeyless) from the big brands like Cooler Master and Corsair. We’ve only reviewed a few keyboards that have thicker keycaps, and these sell for $180-200 and up.
As mentioned, the laser etched key legend feels ‘raised’ when new. However after only a few weeks, the etching will begin to wear off, leaving the keys looking inconsistent and rather poor looking.
This is our sample after only about 3 weeks. It may be hard to tell from the picture, but if you compare certain letters like “C” and “V” to the less used ones liky “Y” and “U” you can see how the etching is wearing out on some more than others.
Basically, the keycaps are quite poor; probably the poorest we’ve reviewed thus far. The reason we can overlook this somewhat is that a keyboard like the KUL ES-87 is just begging to be modified a bit, and that includes swapping the stock keycaps out for something better. If Keyed Up Labs had included 1.5mm thick PBT caps like the Deck Francium Pro, the KUL ES-87 would probably cost about $50 more than it does. I guess the thought is that if you care that much about how keycaps feel, you can put $50 towards a set yourself.
Another major feature of the KUL ES-87 is its customizability due to having an 8 switch DIP. I appreciate that they printed the functions on the label itself, and they even remind users that there’s no need to destroy the label to disassemble the KUL ES-87. The usual options are there, such as the ability to swap Left Ctrl and Capslock. There are a few extras though, like a higher polling rate, and the ability to enable N-Key rollover. While normal 6-key rollover is usually sufficient, it’s nice to have that option. We tested it on our N-Key Rollover test page, and there are no problematic combinations in either mode.
We’ve seen other keyboards cheap out in the past, with allowing users to swap key functions but not offering extra keycaps to accommodate those swaps. Thankfully the KUL ES-87 offers all the keys needed to make use of these options, including a backlit 1.25 Capslock key for those who swap it with left Ctrl.
They even include an extra pair of Backspace and Backslash caps, for those who intend to swap them. I’ve actually never heard of this, is it very common?
The plate mounted switches add to the overall sturdy feel of the KUL ES-87, and despite the relatively thin keycaps, it has quite a nice typing feel and sound. Here’s our sample, which you can compare to some other keyboards we’ve reviewed in the past.
Compare Typing Sound:
- Topre Realforce 87U: Topre 55g, Plate Mounted, PBT
- Razer Blackwidow 2013: MX Blue, Plate Mounted, ABS
- KBParadise V60 Mini: MX Red, Plate Mounted, ABS
- Deck Francium Pro: MX Red, Plate Mounted, PBT
- Deck Hassium Pro: MX Brown, Plate Mounted, PBT
- Vortex iKBC Poker II: MX Brown, Plate Mounted, ABS
- KBT Race II: MX Brown, Board Mounted, ABS
The KUL ES-87 is the first keyboard we’ve tested with clear switches. As far as sound level goes, I would say that it sounds about the same as a similar keyboard with Cherry MX Brown switches might. If you can type without bottoming out though, they may be even quieter.
The KUL ES-87 uses Cherry stabilizers on the extended keys, which has its pros and cons compared to Costar stabilizers. On the pro side, it’s much easier to swap the keycaps out without worrying about breaking or losing delicate components. Also, they are more durable, and less prone to developing a squeak over time. The main disadvantage of Cherry stabilizers is that they have a sort of ‘mushy’ feel when bottoming out, giving the Shift and Enter keys a slightly inconsistent feel. Costar stabilized keys feel pretty much the same as the rest of the keys on a keyboard.
Since there’s not much in the way of extra features, this is going to be a relatively short keyboard review by our standards. That in itself can be seen as a negative; if you’re looking for a keyboard with macro features, you’ll have to look elsewhere. Also, if you’re looking for something flashy, with a lot of extravagant lighting features and things like headphone ports and USB hubs, the KUL ES-87 isn’t going to be for you either.
However, if you’re looking for a solid (both literally and figuratively) mechanical keyboard which offers a fantastic typing experience if you can get your hands on the MX Clear version, the KUL ES-87 is worthy of consideration. While it may not have a lot of extra features, it has very well thought-out design that may not be instantly noticeable if you’re not a keyboard enthusiast. If you look closer though, you can tell that the folks at Keyed Up Labs put a lot of effort into making the KUL ES-87 feel like a premium product while having a relatively low price.
The one poor choice they made was with the keycaps – they are thin, and the legend wears off quickly. If you intend on using a custom set anyway, this won’t affect you. However the stock keycaps do bring the experience down a little bit from its full potential . With a nice set of PBT caps, to me the KUL ES-87 fits right in with the likes of much more expensive keyboards from Deck or Topre.
Retraction: The initial version of this article included an assumption that Keyed Up Labs was a subsidiary of EliteKeyboards.com’s parent company. This is denied by them, and I apologize for the error.