The Korean-made SE features a beautifully shaped mahogany neck that feels almost exactly like the one fitted to our $2,800 PRS McCarty. The SE's 22 medium-jumbo frets are smooth and well shaped, and the low action makes for enticing playability. (Some high E-string buzz in the first position was easily eliminated by simply raising the saddle a bit with the included hex wrench.)
The 7 lb SE exudes a high-quality vibe, and it balances well (the weight of the neck doesn't overwhelm the body, and vice-versa). The body's contoured back and rounded edges enhance the ergonomic feel, and reaching the high frets is relatively easy despite a substantial neck heel. (A smooth bevel on the lower cutaway helps you reach the upper registers.) The neck-to-body joint is clean, the simulated abalone fretboard inlays are neatly set, and the translucent blue finish is glassy and flawless. Downers? Some little dings on the fretboard edges, and sloppy shielding paint in the control cavity.
The SE's hardware is happening. The tuners are precise and the bridge boasts rounded edges and recessed saddle-adjusting screws. The saddles themselves, however, aren't rounded, and a collision with the outer edges would definitely sting. The chromed-steel vibrato bar slides easily into its nylon bushing, and can be swung into any position with a gentle push. Nice. The bar feels a bit skinny, but the trem works smoothly and the strings stay in tune even under hard workouts. The SE is also available with a McCarty-style fixed bridge/tailpiece at no extra cost.
Strummed acoustically, the SE is resonant and zingy. It also intonates quite well. And in true PRS fashion, there's an immediate sense of power and harmonic coherency when you pump it though an amp. I've always been impressed by the way PRS guitars seem to bring out the best in any amp, and the SE echoes this attribute. Whether played through a Marshall JCM 800, a JBL-loaded Fender Twin, or a reissue AC30, the SE sounded clear, sweet, and strong. It also packs a potent rear-pickup lead tone, and the sustain is impressive. The highs are substantial, but they never assault -- even when you're pummeling a thin-sounding amp.
The SE offers no single-coil options, however, the dual-pickup setting yields a rich crispness that works well for clean rhythms. The neck 'bucker offers round, detailed tones that are great for wailing blues solos or jazzy comping. The SE doesn't sound muddy when you turn down the volume, and the tone control does a good job of mellowing the treble without killing detail.
An ideal blues/rock guitar that happens to be a superb bargain, the SE delivers the essential sound and playability elements that have made PRS the top banana of the $2,000-and-up club. Though I suspect more than a few pros will line up to purchase SEs, beginners and budget-minded working players have the most to gain from PRS's march into the mid-priced market. Santana should be pleased with the result.