Roundup: 5 Acoustic-Electrics for Under Five Bones

January 30, 2014
  • THE FLAT-TOP ACOUSTIC GUITAR WITH ONBOARD electronics is one of the most “go to” instruments in a guitar player’s arsenal. By definition, the acoustic-electric is sort of the amphibian of the guitar family. Equally at home in a practice or small performance situation as it is on a big stage with a loud band, the modern acoustic-electric is a highly evolved instrument whose design has been refined over decades of trial and error to be the versatile hybrid that it is today. Adding a pickup and some controls to an acoustic box certainly isn’t brain science, but designing an affordable production guitar that has to do double-duty in the acoustic and electric realms does require considerable R&D to optimize the woods, body size, bracing configuration, and numerous other details that will ultimately result in an instrument that responds well acoustically, but isn’t so light and resonant that it becomes a howling feedback monster when plugged into an amp or played next to cranked up stage monitors. The fact that said guitar also has to look great, play well, and, finally, make a profit for the builder, presents a rather daunting set of challenges for any manufacturer in this highly competitive sector of the guitar market.

    The five guitars in this roundup cover the price spectrum from $299 to $499, and each has its own set of qualities that would make it an attractive choice for just about any application. We gave them all a thorough shakeout to test their acoustic performance, and auditioned them through a variety of acoustic and standard guitar amps, including a ZT Lunchbox Acoustic, a Bad Cat Bob Cat 100, a Fender Deluxe Reverb, a Fishman SA 220, and a Victoria 20112. That was the easy part. Finding a clear winner less so, because despite the $200 spread between these guitars, all of them have their charms and interesting things to offer. You could hardly go wrong with any of these guitars, but especially when shopping for an acoustic-electric, try out as many as possible to see how they groove with your playing style and sonic tastes. It will be time well spent to end up with something that’ll satisfy and inspire you for years to come. —ART THOMPSON


    Breedlove Passport Series C250/CMe

    Based on the body shape and voicing of Breedlove’s Custom Shop C25, the offshore-made C250/ CMe is a modern-looking instrument that comes with a satin finish and a tasteful cosmetics package that includes black binding on the body and fretboard, a simple black/white rosette, and tiny pearl dots on fretboard. The guitar’s construction is first rate throughout, and the interior areas are also clean as a whistle. The pin-less bridge with compensated saddle makes for quick and easy string changing due to the strings loading through the rear section of the bridge.

    The C250’s two-piece neck has an inviting feel and the frets are evenly crowned and well polished for enhanced playability. The action is low enough to invite a bit of buzzing here and there when you pick or strum hard, but overall, the setup and tuneful intonation throughout all reaches of the fretboard make it a gas to play. The C250’s acoustic sound is highly enjoyable, as everything sounds well balanced and open, with crisp highs, vibrant mids, clearly defined lows, and above average sustain that produces the “bloom” on notes and chords that you expect from costlier guitars. The C250 gets loud when you lay into it, and there’s little compression to hinder its punchy output.

    The visible part of the electronics package is the VTC preamp on the upper bout, which is a stripped-down affair with just three controls (Volume, Low, High) along with a built-in chromatic tuner that stands out by featuring a large LCD with a backlit needle-style indicator that’s very easy to see in all lighting conditions. Also, just above the endpin jack is the compartment for the 9-volt battery, which has a slide-out holder that grips the battery one way only for correct polarity.

    The amplified tones offer a good representation of the C250’s acoustic sound, and they have all the punchiness needed for live playing with a band. Some piezo artifacts are noticeable when you really dig into the strings, but the tone controls make it easy to dial in sounds, and I never felt like I was fighting honkiness or needed more control over the mids to get happening tones from this guitar.

    Breedlove’s distinctive styling is well represented by the C250/CMe, and if your tastes don’t demand a guitar that looks like it was built in the 1930s, this is an instrument with some very appealing attributes that lands at a price almost anyone can afford. Well done! —AT

    PRICE $499 street, gigbag included

    NUT WIDTH 1.69"
    NECK Mahogany
    FRETBOARD Rosewood, 25 1/2" scale
    FRETS 20
    TUNERS Mini die-cast chrome
    BODY Laminated mahogany with solid cedar top
    BRIDGE Rosewood with compensated saddle
    PICKUP Passport Active VTC undersaddle piezo
    CONTROLS Volume, Low, High; Tuner on/off
    STRINGS D’Addario EXP, .011-.052
    WEIGHT 4.68 lbs
    BUILT Korea
    KUDOS Plays and sounds like a higher-priced guitar. Excellent build quality. Large tuner display.
    CONCERNS Sharp corners on nut.

  • Epiphone AJ-220 SCE

    A sweet looker with its vintage-style sunburst top and nicely grained mahogany sides and back, the AJ-220 SCE invokes a technological leap that occurred many decades ago with its “Advanced Jumbo” body design, which is both deeper and broader at the shoulders—the idea being to enhance the guitar’s ability to pump out a big, full sound without a lot of player effort. The AJ’s D-shaped SlimTaper neck is satin finished, and it offers a comfortable hold and excellent playability afforded by a 12"-radius ’board and polished frets. The smoothed tips of the frets make for a snag-free ride along the bound fretboard, and the nut is also rounded off to prevent nicks to your hand when you’re chording in the first position or lifting the guitar from a stand. Dressed in a gloss polyurethane finish, the cutaway body is trimmed in cream binding and the soundhole is tastefully decorated with a rosette of black and white rings. The pickguard with stylized “E” badge, ivoroid heel cap, and black back stripe are other classy touches.

    The guitar tuned up easily and the buzz-free setup and sweet-sounding intonation made it a pleasure to play right out of the case. The AJ-220 SCE is a fun guitar acoustically, but when more volume is needed in performance situations, the onboard Shadow electronics provide ample tone shaping with three bands of EQ, along with a Phase switch to assist with feedback suppression. I found the tiny knobs difficult to grasp (stippling their surfaces would help), and the tuner’s small LED display a little hard to read at times, but everything works as it’s supposed to, making it easy to get sounds from our test amps and P.A. that accurately reflected the guitar’s acoustic tone, and without any of the harsh artifacts that can plague some piezo pickups.

    Epiphone has taken the time to get things right with the AJ-220 SCE, which is well made and finished, with above-average attention to detail. In the supremely important areas of sound and playability, it delivers above and beyond what you’d expect in this price class, making it a top bargain in a jumbo-sized flat-top. —AT


    AJ-220 SCE
    PRICE $299 street

    NUT WIDTH 1.69"
    NECK Mahogany
    FRETBOARD Rosewood, 25 1/2” scale
    FRETS 20
    TUNERS Die-cast nickel-plated
    BODY Laminated mahogany with solid Sitka spruce top
    BRIDGE Rosewood with compensated saddle
    PICKUP Shadow NanoFlex
    CONTROLS Volume, Bass, Treble; Phase switch, Tuner on/off
    STRINGS D’Addario, .011-.052
    WEIGHT 4.6 lbs
    BUILT Indonesia
    KUDOS Well made. Plays and sounds well above its price level.
    CONCERNS Very small control knobs.


    ESP LTD Xtone Series AC-15EF

    Featuring the same ultra-fast playability that put their electric guitars on the map, ESP’s Xtone AC-15EF is also quite the showboat with its gorgeous blond top, extensive abalone inlays, crisp binding, and expertly applied gloss finish. The AC-15EF played wonderfully in tune up and down the neck right out of the box, yielding complex, clustered intervals that rang with the same tunefulness as open-position chords. The ESP is also set up to burn, with crazy low action, a speedy “U”-shaped neck contour, and super-sleek polished frets—a boon for electric guys who want to shred granola-style. Also, whether sitting down or standing, the AC-15EF is extremely comfortable and balanced, and the cutaway allows you to roam free in the fretboard’s upper range.

    Sonically, the AC-15EF delivers booming-yet-taught bass response and ultra-sparkly treble frequencies. The leaner midrange is well focused and wonderfully suited for bringing upper register chords to life and propelling solos from the soundhole with a clear and authoritative voice. This same detail also allows arpeggiated chords and fingerpicked licks to speak with a lilting beauty and clarity. Dynamically, the AC-15EF responds to your picking touch very well, giving you a good range of volume levels to play with, which is always appreciated in an acoustic guitar. Plugged in, the Fishman ISYS+ pickup system cranks out enough volume and EQ flavors to satisfactorily dial in the tones, whether it was into a P.A. or an acoustic amp. The Phase switch helps to nuke any feedback problems you may encounter and the tuner is easy to read.

    For under $300, ESP delivers a lot of guitar with the AC-15EF. Besides its stellar looks and careful construction, the guitar plays like a dream and sounds good to boot. It’s comfy dimensions and excellent-sounding electronics make it a natural for the stage—and for the price, you’ll have change to buy the band a beer on your break! —DF


    PRICE $299 street

    NUT WIDTH 1.69"
    NECK Mahogany
    FRETBOARD Rosewood, 25.5" scale
    FRETS 20 medium-jumbo
    TUNERS LTD die-cast tuners
    BODY Solid Sitka spruce top with rosewood back and sides.
    BRIDGE Rosewood with compensated saddle
    PICKUP Fishman ISYS+
    CONTROLS Volume, Treble, Bass, Tuner, Phase
    STRINGS Cleartone, .011-.052
    WEIGHT 4.5 lbs
    BUILT China
    KUDOS Incredible looks and playability.
    CONCERNS None.

  • Ibanez AEF30E

    Available in Transparent Blue or Violet (as tested), the AEF30E is a visual knockout with its flamed maple construction, gold-plated hardware, and carefully set abalone/pearl fretboard inlays. Multiply binding graces the top—which is also spiced up with a pearl rosette in surrounding black/white rings—and single-layer cream binding also trims the back, edges of the fretboard, and the heel cap. Black dotted “Advantage” bridge pins are found on the rosewood bridge, with the strings running to them over a compensated Ivorex II saddle.

    It’s nice to see gold-plated strap buttons already installed, and the rear one sits above the instrument’s jack plate and battery compartment, which pops out for easy replacement of the two AA cells. The AEF30E has both 1/4" and XLR outs, and the latter is handy for sending a balanced, low-impedance signal to a P.A. or recording mixer. Talk about convenience; it’s like having a built-in direct box!

    The AEF30E has a great playing feel and no buzzes were detected despite the lowness of the strings over the polished frets. The guitar came up to pitch easily via the easy-to-read chromatic tuner, and the intonation sounded solidly tuneful throughout the range of the fretboard.

    Played acoustically, the AEF30E offers tight bottom, a crisp top end, and a warm but not “honky” midrange. Ibanez attributes the response curve partly to the Ivorex II nut, which is harder than bone—a factor that supposedly helps to accentuate the high and low frequencies while keeping the the mids in check for better amplified response.

    Guitars in this price class aren’t expected to have the sensitivity or touch responsiveness of higher- end models, but the AEF30’s dynamic envelope invites delicate fingerpicking and also stands up to hard strumming without overly compressing. Of course, the “E” in the model name denotes electronics, and anyone who plans on using this guitar live (and possibly for recording) will likely want to plug in. In this mode, the Fishman Sonicore undersaddle pickup and Ibanez SST preamp work well together to provide a good representation of the guitar’s natural voice. I got happening tones by leaving the EQ sliders near their middle settings and moving the response in a fuller or leaner direction (depending on the needs of the amp or P.A.) with the very effective Shape slider. The AEF30E gets quite loud before feedback becomes a problem, and when it does, changing the Phase switch setting and/or pulling back the Midrange and Bass slider a tad can help eke out a little more SPL.

    The AEF30E certainly has a lot going for it, and would make a fine choice for anyone on a tight budget who wants a guitar with gig-worthy features, quality sound, and a look that’ll set it apart from the crowd. —AT


    PRICE $399 street

    NUT WIDTH 1.69"
    NECK Mahogany
    FRETBOARD Rosewood, 25 1/2" scale
    FRETS 21
    TUNERS Ibanez die-cast, gold-plated
    BODY Laminated flamed maple back, sides, and top
    BRIDGE Rosewood with compensated saddle
    PICKUP Fishman Sonicore
    CONTROLS Volume, Bass, Middle, Treble, Shape, Phase switch, Tuner on/off
    STRINGS D’Addario EXP
    WEIGHT 4.6 lbs
    BUILT China
    KUDOS A nice-playing guitar with excellent features.
    CONCERNS Sharp nut edges.

    Seagull Entourage Natural Spruce CW QI

    For 40 years, Seagull has been making high-quality, affordable acoustic guitars, and the new Natural Spruce Entourage upholds this reputation. Sporting familiar Seagull appointments such as a compound curve top and double-function trussrod for max neck-tweaking ability, the CW adds an air of class and sophistication to the company’s posse of acoustics with its eye-catching, ultra-blonde spruce top and contrasting, red-hued cherry back and sides. The CW’s clean interior reveals neatly bundled electronics and extremely tidy bracing of quarter-sawn Adirondack spruce. It also boasts a light, tastefully applied satin finish and slightly aged-looking binding, which yields a tasty bit of vintage vibe. The fretwork is nicely worked, and the nut has snag-free slots and tidy edges.

    The Seagull is a blast to play. Its “C”-shaped neck fills up your hand nicely making open position cowboy chords and barre chords up the neck a breeze to play for long periods. Thanks to the shorter, 24.84" scale, there is also a touch of sleekness to the feel, so single-note passages are easy to execute as well. The setup out of the box was buzz-free and intonated wonderfully up and down the neck, and the guitar’s tones bloom nicely with a well-balanced frequency range. The low end is lean and focused, nicely complementing the smooth mids and keening high-end response.

    Plugged in, the Bass control adds a nice amplified “oomph” if you’re looking for a more exaggerated low-end party, and the Treble control’s voicing allowed me to get a smooth sound from the piezo pickup though all my test amps. That said, I didn’t need to rely on heavy EQing to get the CW’s amplified tones up and running—always a sign of a good sounding acoustic and well-implemented electronics.

    Seagull has successfully added a new member to its Entourage series with the Natural Spruce CW. Offering comfy playability and understated elegance, combined with solid construction and balanced tones, this guitar is a real winner. —DF


    PRICE $499 street (TRIC case optional)

    NUT WIDTH 1 3/4"
    NECK Silver Leaf Maple
    FRETBOARD Rosewood, 24.84" scale
    FRETS 21 medium
    TUNERS Seagull chrome-plated
    BODY Laminated wild cherry with solid spruce top
    BRIDGE Rosewood with compensated saddle
    PICKUP Godin Quantum 1
    CONTROLS Volume, Treble, Bass, Tuner on/off
    STRINGS Cleartone Phosphor Bronze Light, .012-.053
    WEIGHT 9.8 lbs
    BUILT Canada
    KUDOS Nice looker, great player, and well made.
    CONCERNS None.

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