The sad fact is, many affordable conga drums are poorly made. They'll have cheap hardware that will easily strip and stock skins that aren't at all responsive, a pain to play especially if you're a beginner. The drums on this list, though, will last a long time and can take serious abuse if you're a pro who gigs a lot. The main criteria for the higher finishers was the quality of the factory-issued skins, as well as overall durability and sound quality. The top tier drums here do cost a bit more than the featured bargain models, but $300 is the "budget"-level limit.
Latin Percussion Matador Wood Conga
Meinl Luis Conte Artist Series Conga
Latin Percussion Classic II Conga
Toca Player Series Fiberglass Conga Set
Toca Synergy Conga Set
Latin Percussion Original Conga
Meinl Professional Series Conga
Latin Percussion Salsa Model Conga
Meinl Woodcraft Series Conga
Toca Traditional Series Conga
Of all the mass produced conga drums in the world, LP Matadors are the best all-around buy that will satisfy congueros of all playing levels. Beginners get a great traditional feel and design. Professionals get a workhorse of a drum that for years will endure the rigors of the road while sounding great the whole time. Matador congas also project a sweet, traditional tone that's versatile enough to sound great in all popular and folkloric styles of music.
These come with traditional rims! Talk about hard to find these days, these may be the only game in town with this interesting feature. Many players prefer traditional rims because of their lighter weight and understated look, ergonomics be damned! Meinl is also known for its excellent craftsmanship and superior-sounding drums. Meinl's great sound is largely thanks to the attention they pay to selecting and manufacturing quality buffalo skin heads.
Classic II is a scaled down version of the LP Classic series, arguably the standard by which all modern conga drums are judged. This more affordable LP line is pretty much just as good as its more expensive cousin. The tone stands up well against more expensive drums that are twice the price. The Classic II conga has a Matador-style rim, as opposed to the Comfort Curve II standard on LP's professional lines, and lacks that inner layer of fiberglass that gives Classics slightly brighter projection. Otherwise, these are great drums for working conga players minus the sky-high professional-grade price tag.
Cheap fiberglass congas are the way to go instead of wood. These Toca drums project very impressively for having only five lugs and small 10" and 11" sizes. They could also make for a pair of interesting fixer-upper quintos of sorts for advanced players. Toca also impresses with the quality of skins they put on even their lower-level models like the Player Series, not bad at all for about $300.
Decent skins, a beautiful lacquer finish, way under $300 for two -- Toca Synergy congas are the best of the worst, so to speak. If you're strictly a recreational player, these are a good deal and sound surprisingly good. Toca's low-grade lines are much better than LP's, take Synergy over Aspire any day. The Synergy hardware is sturdier, and the skins are smoother and more responsive which makes the slap tone noticeably sharper and crisper.
The name says it all, this is the original LP design from the '60s and '70s that set the pace for modern conga drums. The shorter 28" height fiberglass shells can sound refreshingly warm if you put a thick skin on it. Originals also work well with synthetic heads, which will make them as loud as anything. This is a widely adaptable, pace-setting conga that will last several lifetimes thanks to LP's reputation for reliable manufacturing. The wood purists are gasping right now, but the simple truth is beautifully simple LP Originals will work better than anything else anywhere you take them, you can't go wrong with these.
Meinl drums are great. There's this classiness about them, kind of like the BMW of congas. The Professional Series is the company's high-end worker model and is the best wood conga costing over $400. The hardware is impressively sturdy and resistant to wear, while the rubber wood shells deliver sweet, warm open tones. Why pay almost twice as much for fancier wood drums when these sound better than the expensive competition?
These are fat, full and ferocious if you put synthetic heads on them. Otherwise LP Salsa Model congas are so versatile and project such a dynamically rich open tone, sharp slap and deep bass, they give wood aficionados a reliable drum for all occasions. These shorter drums are "designed to accommodate congueros who prefer to play seated," as the company describes them. Whether it be at a rumba or with a rock band, a Salsa Model conga will sound appropriate.
Meinl continues to impress with this beauty made of American White Ash. These are far superior to the similar LP Giovanni Galaxy congas, also made of Ash Wood. The tone is so much stronger and warmer, thanks to better quality skins and overall superior manufacturing. Now granted, woodcraft congas are expensive. But if ash wood moves you and you feel a spending splurge coming on, choose these over LP.
The sound, simplicity and power these drums deliver is so impressive, they made the overall best list, though the low price could easily have topped the budget category. Toca Traditional congas also come with, appropriately enough, traditional rims. The hardware looks like old Gon Bops, and the sound is definitely that dry folkloric Afro-Cuban tone. These are some darn impressive drums at a shockingly low cost.