Pros: relatively inexpensive; easy playability; good sound as an acoustic or electric
Cons: no way to know how it will age, due to laminated back and sides
Let's say you're an acoustic musician who sometimes performs in places where amplification is required. Maybe you want to be able to add some chorus or reverb, or maybe the rest of the band is plugged in and you'd be drowned out if you used a microphone.
You already have your $2000 Martin, Taylor or Santa Cruz acoustic at home, but you want something inexpensive and good that you can plug in and go.
What's your best choice?
I wound up on stage in that situation once, and someone dropped a Martin OM-15E in my hands. It was easy to play, sounded good plugged in, and was really comfortable to hold standing up, since it's a smaller guitar. It's also relatively inexpensive, retailing for probably around $1000 and available (if you can find one) for under $800.
Another nice alternative would be the Martin 000X-1E, the guitar reviewed here.
Readers of my reviews know that the regular (non-electric) Martin 000X-1 is one of my favorite inexpensive guitars. You can get one for about $500, and even though it's a laminate guitar (with a solid spruce top), I think the sound and playability rival that of many more expensive guitars.
I came across a Martin 000X-1E the other day at my local Guitar Center. It's the acoustic-electric version of the 000X-1, with bass, mid, treble and volume controls available on the "top side" of the guitar. The electronics are by Fishman, which has a good reputation, but that's about all I know about the electronics of this guitar (except for what I heard when I played it).
The basics: The Martin 000X-1E is not a solid wood guitar. Its back and sides are made of what Martin calls "Mahogany Pattern HPL Textured Finish." I think HPL means "high pressure laminate" which is code for high quality tightly compressed plywood. The top of this guitar IS solid wood: Sitka spruce to be specific.
Ornamentation is remarkably simple to keep costs down: This guitar has no binding or purfling, and the edges of the top are beveled into the sides. Finish appears to be matte; I don't know what kind of lacquer is used, if any. Scale length is the typical 25.4 inches, and neck width at the nut is 1 11/16 inches, also typical for a Martin guitar.
I played the Martin 000X-1E both as an acoustic and as an electric, plugged into a Roland 60 watt amplifier. The version I played was a cut-away, but I think both cut-away and non-cut-away versions are available. The guitar was of medium weight and felt well-balanced. It was also very comfortable in my lap due to its small size.
Playability was excellent, and intonation was really good up the neck, even when I used a capo.
The un-amplified sound was also excellent, resonant and warm. The bass had a nice "throng" to it and could be felt in my body, and the overall sound was surprisingly authoritative for a small, laminate guitar. I would describe the sound as smooth and pleasing, rather than jingly or aggressive.
I decided to "A-B" the Martin 000X-1E with the comparably priced Taylor 110E, which was on hand for direct comparison. The Taylor 110E was louder still, and brighter as well. This 110E was a better guitar than the 110s I played when the 110 first came out, and I was more impressed with it than I thought I'd be, but I ultimately found it a bit TOO aggressive. Both the Taylor and Martin were good guitars, I thought, but the Martin 000X-1E ultimately came off as warmer and more relaxed. It was also more comfortable to hold, since the Taylor 110E is a big ol' dreadnought.
Amplified, the Martin 000X-1E sounded good, and the tone was good enough that I could add effects (I used both chorus and reverb) and coax some really cool sounds out of the instrument. I never could get a totally natural acoustic guitar sound out of the Martin 000X-1E/Roland combination, but I can't tell how much the guitar is responsible. Still, I enjoyed messing with chorus and reverb, and really enjoyed the dynamic contrasts I could achieve using amplification. I actually found myself considering snapping up the guitar and amp (the amp retails for about $600, I think). I could light up the San Francisco BART station with this combo if they have an AC outlet down there.
The comparison between the Martin 000X-1E and the Taylor 110E was the same amplified: The Taylor sounded brighter and more aggressive, while the Martin sounded warmer and more relaxed. The differences could be reduced somewhat using the tone controls on the amplifier (or on the Martin, which has bass, mid and treble controls), but the basic character differences between the two guitars were still evident.
Overall, I consider the Martin 000X-1E to be an excellent acoustic-electric guitar at its price point. Of course, un-amplified, it doesn't have the character or depth of tone of a solid wood guitar like an OM-28V, but it does have a warm and friendly tone with surprising bass solidity, easy playability and excellent intonation. And amplified, I don't think I could tell that I'm listening to an under-$1000 guitar if I heard one of these backing a vocalist or cranking out solo guitar stuff with an effect or two thrown in.
My usual warning applies: I've played Martin D-28s, 000X-1s and even Santa Cruz guitars that I simply wouldn't own. You must play the particular guitar you're interested in before buying. The sample I played had good tone, playability and intonation, but not every 000X-1E will.
At only about $720, a good 000X-1E is a five star guitar.