Pros: big time balls; excellent intonation; sounds great flatpicked and fingerpicked; cool, slotted peghead
Cons: big and heavy
The Martin HD-28VS is a cannon. It may be the dreadnoughtiest dreadnought I have played. It is loud, bassy, responsive, tight, and good. It is also slightly unusual looking, fairly big, and quite expensive. Retail price is about $3800, but you should be able to get one for about $2900 (less if you dare to mail order).
OK, here are the essentials. Take your basic Martin HD-28V (the V stands for "vintage," I believe), one of my favorite dreadnought guitars. Lengthen the body, so there are only 12 frets clear of the body, instead of the usual 14, have the peghead be slotted, with the retro butterbean tuners facing toward the back, rather than to the sides like Shrek ears, and Voila! You have created the Martin HD-28VS.
It is a rosewood dreadnought guitar with a Sitka spruce top and a high quality ebony fingerboard. The neck shape is the retro "modified V" of most of Martin's modern vintage guitars. The top braces are scalloped and 5/16" across, which is standard for Martin's scalloped-braced dreadnoughts. Neck width is 1 3/4 at the nut.
Appointments are attractive but not overdone. The rosette is the regular 28 style rosette. No abalone necessary here. The back strip has an attractive zig zag pattern, binding is what Martin calls "grained Ivoroid" (it's off-white), and the pick guard is polished tortoise.
Fit and finish of the HD-28VS are excellent. The guitar is finished gloss (except for the neck, which will hand rub to a gloss finish in time), and all seams are true, with no unexpected ridges. I'm curious to know how much the "aging toner" will darken the spruce top over time. I like the relatively light color of the spruce top as it now stands.
Playability and comfort of the HD-28VS are very good. Although it's a big guitar, I actually found it to be more comfortable to hold and play than a regular HD-28. The shorter neck may mean less distance from left hand to body, and less strain on the left shoulder.
The ebony fingerboard, v-shaped neck, and moderately low action made for easy playability. No, it's not a Taylor, but it's pretty darned close. The 1 3/4 inch wide neck (at the nut) makes for easy chording.
The sound of this instrument is awesome, and quite different from high quality 14-fret dreadnoughts like the Martin D-28, HD-28, HD-28V, Santa Cruz D, Santa Cruz Tony Rice and Collings D-2H. The sound is warmer and richer, and the highs are less "jingly," than with these other excellent guitars. Sustain is outstanding, and the treble notes, while not subdued, are "framed" by the resonant bass of the instrument. This guitar cuts through well when you're picking with others.
I've always thought of the big rosewood Martins as good flatpicking guitars, but too "thick"-sounding for fingerpicking. For fingerpicking, give me my little Larrivee LS-05 or Taylor 614CE. I brought my fingerpicking buddy with me to audition the HD-28VS we and traded off playing and listening. To our surprise, the HD-28VS was a wonderful fingerpicking guitar. The bass was deep and full, but it did not overwhelm the treble tones. Everything just sounded authoritative and delicate at the same time.
To use a stereo analogy, the sound of a Martin HD-28VS reminded me of that sound of an old conrad johnson tube amplifier driving good speakers. The sound was warm and tended to favor the lower midrange and bass, but the treble notes still came through with amazing lightness and air. The standard rosewood dreadnoughts (and a couple of Santa Cruz OMs in the room) sound a bit strident and overly jingly by comparison, like listening to solid state after listening to a tube amplifier.
When my buddy picked up the Martin 000-16SGT, a mahogany 12-fret guitar with a slotted head which earned five stars from me at just over $1000 (discounted), the 000-16SGT sounded quiet, dry, and even a bit wimpy by comparison. I stand by my recommendation of that guitar at $1000, but this rosewood dreadnought is in a different league. Its liquidity, sustain, purring bass, and volume made it really stand out.
One other aspect of this guitar that I really like: it is extremely dynamic. You can fingerpick it lightly and it sounds beautiful. Or you can bang it in a room full of dreadnoughts, and it maintains its cool. It buzzes much less than most dreadnoughts when overdriven, instead just sounding more authoritative. This guitar has Martin balls big-time.
If I had to think of a negative about this guitar it would be that it is quite big and fairly heavy. I've lately taken a liking to smaller guitars because of their comfort over long playing sessions. My Santa Cruz OM is more comfortable in my lap when I'm sitting, and also more slender and lighter when I'm standing, relative to the Martin HD-28VS. My OM is a pretty good bluegrass guitar, but it does NOT have the HD-28VS's overall sense of authority. Would the HD-28VS tire me out over a long playing sessions, especially standing? I'm not sure.
The Martin HD-28VS is also a tad unusual-looking. If you're used to the clean lines of most Martin-based OMs and Ds, the HD-28VS will look a little too long in the body, short in the neck, and rounded at the shoulders. But the slotted peghead is cool as heck, and the overall effect is a good one, I think.
The Martin HD-28VS is one of the more impressive acoustic guitars I've played. It makes most other dreadnoughts sound jingly by comparison, and yet it sounds excellent fingerpicked as well as flatpicked. It's authoritative in a way most acoustics can't match, yet delicate and liquid at the same time. That's hard to pull off.