Breedlove AD20/SM and AC250/CR

Well established as one of the country’s leading independent quality makers, the Breedlove Guitar Company has also been pleasing shallower-pocketed players for a couple of years now with the elegant and subtly nouveau Atlas Series. Instruments in this mid-priced line are designed and quality checked by the Breedlove headquarters in Bend, Oregon, and manufactured in Korea. I’m continually impressed with the quality coming out of Korea these days. The materials, workmanship, finish, and setup on these guitars inspire confidence right out of the case.
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Breedlove AD20/SM

The non-cutaway model, dreadnought-styled AD20/SM ($799 list/$599 street, hardshell case included) has fewer of the Breedlove visual characteristics than its partner in this review, but the gently tapered, asymmetrical headstock and distinctive pinless bridge tip off its origins. Designed by Kim Breedlove, the AD20/SM wears a solid Sitka spruce top with a tight, straight grain, a solid mahogany back, and laminated mahogany sides. Its abalone rosette, tortoise binding and pickguard, and gold Grover tuners betray a restrained dressiness—all framed beautifully by a well-buffed gloss finish—yet the small dot position markers, unbound rosewood fingerboard and rich reddish-brown rosewood headstock overlay help to keep the look understated. Specs-wise, it follows pretty standard medium-sized dreadnought dimensions and scale length, so no surprises on your lap here.

The three-piece mahogany neck is easy to get to grips with. Its rounded, full-C profile sports a thin satin finish that avoids any stickiness, and this and the smooth setup with medium-low action make it a comfy ride from the nut right up to the 14th-fret neck/body joint (where I was pleased to discover a pre-installed neck-heel strap button, included on the AC250 as well—a nice touch that will prevent you from botching the job yourself before taking your new Breedlove out on stage).

A peek inside the soundhole shows as much care has been taken with the construction as with the external cosmetics. I couldn’t find even a trace of excess glue at the edges of the scalloped braces under the X-braced top or the back; what I did find was the same JLD Bridge Truss System used on far more expensive American-made Breedloves. A cantilevered arrangement designed to counterbalance string tension, the JLD system is the cornerstone of any Breedlove’s thin, responsive top.

A gentle thrang of the D’Addario EXP Lights to get the spruce moving reveals a voice full and fairly well-balanced in the classic dreadnought mold, with a big low end that blooms and swells without being overly boomy, silky highs that aren’t over-pronounced, and a scooped midrange. Overall, the AD20’s voice makes it a particularly adept rhythm box—a very pleasing strummer with lots of ring and thump at the respective ends of the spectrum, partnered with impressive note definition even within full open chords. The considerably recessed mids make it less cutting as a single-note lead instrument, although it still performs admirably in chord-melody or basic flatpicking solo outings. Overall, it’s a real performer, and a good value for a solid-topped and backed dreadnought in this price range.

Breedlove AC250/CR-SYN

The AC250/CR-SYN ($1,329 list/$999 street, hardshell case included) screams Breedlove a little more vehemently, with its elegant “melted Maccaferri” cutaway and petite dot position markers that jump from the bass side to the treble side of the rosewood fingerboard at the 12th fret. A full-bodied concert model, the AC250 has many constructional nuances in common with the AC20—such as the pinless rosewood bridge, JLD Bridge Truss System, and scalloped X-bracing—but its solid western red cedar top is partnered with laminated rosewood back and sides rather than the dreadnought’s solid back. The one-grand-plus price of this model is accounted for not by wood upgrades, but by its electronics: The AC250/CR-SYN carries Breedlove’s advanced Synergy System, with six individual RMC piezo bridge saddle pickups and 8-pin output for connection to a Poly-Drive II preamp (a $400 retail upcharge). From here you can patch the guitar into a standard acoustic amp or sound system, record direct to your digital system, or connect to 13-pin polyphonic rigs such as many top Roland units.

Approached purely as an acoustic guitar, this instrument pleases instantly. The light satin finish lends an aged richness to the cedar top, although I find it leaves the back and sides a little lackluster. The AC250’s three-piece mahogany neck is just a littler fuller than the AD20’s, closer to a soft-D shape, but remains fast and playable, and is an easy glide with this sweet setup. Hit hard, the guitar issues just a little buzz from the lower strings, but that’s not uncommon with light, fast-action setups on acoustics, and there are no major issues here.

The AC250/CR-SYN is more linear across the frequency range than the AD20, and has just a little extra oomph in the mids, which works to its advantage in many situations. There’s a touch of metallic sizzle in the highs—not necessarily a negative thing—owing perhaps to the steel piezo bridge saddles. It doesn’t have quite the bold lows of the AD20 or the overall volume, but it’s not far short and possesses more punch besides. For many players this guitar might prove more of an all-around instrument—even before being plugged in—with enough muscle for bold rhythm work and enough snap for fingerstyle playing and more progressive genres.

Hitched up to the Poly-Drive II preamp, however, this model’s versatility escalates exponentially. There isn’t space or scope in this review to fully explore its capabilities as a synth driver, but a brief injection into a colleague’s Roland rig unveiled a wealth of polyphonic possibilities. With a little imagination and the time to experiment, the sky’s the limit. Adventurous players such as Jeff Pevar, Radim Zenkl, and the California Guitar Trio have already made some waves with the Synergy System, and no doubt there are myriad more sounds to be tapped here.

Used simply as an acoustic preamp, the Poly-Drive II–which carries sliders for Level and 3-band EQ, along with its polyphonic blend and patch access controls—offered great results through a range of acoustic combos, P.A. setups and even a standard tube guitar combo. It’s a clear, transparent unit with enough gain to push most rigs you’d want to pump it through, and a broad enough sweep in its Low, Mid and High bands to sculpt a tone to most tastes. I think a feedback filter would be useful here, although the EQ can do some of that job for you. I can’t help thinking that you’re really forced into purchasing the Poly-Drive II even if you just want to use the AC250/

CR-SYN as a standard acoustic/electric, because the 8-pin connector is the guitar’s only output. That said, taking the financial and stylistic leap certainly opens up a brave new world of sonic capabilities, and many guitarists will find the AC250/CR-SYN well worth the plunge. No matter how you look at it, it’s a whole lot of guitar (and guitar synth) for the money.