Martin XC1T Ellipse: A Guitar Designed Around The Electronics?
Nov 17, 2009
Review by ahand
Rated a Very Helpful Review
Pros:It's a guitar that's well optimized for use with electronics.
Cons:Without an amp or PA, it's an average sounding guitar.
The Bottom Line: It's looks appeal to special tastes, but it's a very good guitar for use with an amp or PA.
The Martin XC1T Ellipse is an interesting guitar. While still technically made of wood, the back and sides are Martin's High Pressure Laminate (HPL) which is essentially a type of pressboard, and the neck is "natural stratabond," which is made up of thin sheets of wood bonded together like plywood (but when shaped and sanded gives the illusion of wood grain). The top is sitka spruce, which of course is the one element that has to be natural wood, or else no one would buy this guitar. It's just the way the market is, players expect a spruce top.
Recommend this product?
The design and ergomonics can either be considered distinctive, or gaudy depending on your sense of traditionalism. It is an attractively shaped guitar, with a nice cutaway, and the thinner body makes for easy playing. The headstock has a sort of au natural grain appearance that makes it look rustic, with a sound hole decoration that frankly makes it look a bit like a mariachi guitar. I've read some comments that it's designed to appeal to and be used by women, but even if that was true, the Ellipse doesn't even vaguely resemble those plastic looking ones with the heart shaped sound hole, so it shouldn't be a consideration in this case.
It is a bit gauche looking, but it's a design worth looking into if you're a little bored with the traditional look of spruce top acoustic guitars. Like I tend to be.
What is apparent when you play the Ellipse is that it's remarkably similar to an Ovation in tone. Both are noticably brighter sounding instruments than regular guitars.
The reason is that the HPL sides and back are extremely dense, and reflect sound much like the synthetic shell of an Ovation. What you lose in traditional tone is made up for in volume, high end sound, and projection.
In other words, an ideal guitar for mounted amplification devices. You can always add more bass and midrange via electronics. It's a lot tougher to clean up the sound and get clarity or clean treble. So you want a guitar that may not be as loud as regular acoustics, but the sound should be bright, and very clean. Exactly the type of sound you want for pickups or microphones that an equalizer can manipulate.
This guitar has the Fishman Ellipse Blend system which blends signal from an internally mounted microphone and a transducer underneath the saddle. You adjust the sound from a control in the sound hole, which has it's good points and bad points. It does keep the side of the guitar structurally stronger without the mounting holes for the control panels, which has to be a consideration given that the HPL material has no grain like regular wood.
By the same token, it makes adjustment a navel gazing exercise with your face in close proximity to the sound hole until you get used to the controls and can adjust by feel. Add to that the hassle of changing the preamp battery which requires either loosening the strings and keeping the tension high by inserting a soft object like a baby power container between strings and fretboard (so the strings won't slip off the string posts), or just making the moment an opportunity to change the strings.
It is a pain, but more than a few guitars have such tortures built into their design, and one puts up with such things to get what is hopefully a feature that makes it all worth it. Changing strings on a Floyd Rose equipped guitar makes the battery change on this one feel as simple as putting new ones in a flashlight.
In other words, it's something to be aware of, but I don't consider it to be a deal breaker in itself. The more complex the system is, the more problems there can be in maintaining it. In this case, what you get for all this complexity is superior amplified sound.
In the early days of acoustic guitar amplification, you had a lot of imperfect choices. You could stick a modified electric guitar pickup into the sound hole and get plenty of volume, but also feedback and a guitar that didn't sound like an acoustic guitar. A transducer or piezo worked a lot better, but still tended to bring out more highs than lows.
The best, is still imperfect solution was to just play it in front of a very expensive mike, and if you had the money, mount a second mike a bit further away to give you a second sound source to add depth. The problem was, you had to keep the guitar an ideal distance from the mike and the sound would vary as you moved closer or further. This all made you very dependent on the sound man.
Most of these problems were due to one thing. Acoustic guitar makers had to make their guitars sound good without amplification or risk losing customers. The trouble is, what makes such a guitar sound good by itself, the overtones and depth of sound, often gets lost when condensed into the electronic signal of a mike, or creates feedback.
It's only been in recent decades, probably since the introduction of the Ovation type, that musicians have accepted that there are now two distinct types of acoustics; ones designed as traditional guitars and ones for stage work. The latter may or may not sound great without an amp or PA, but it is designed to be played at high volume and still sound good with minimal feedback problems. This type has become more and more popular over the past decade or so. The latter has become even more necessary as cutaway bodies have become more popular (and the resultant compromise of optimum sound versus playability).
This trend has been a boon for the economy guitar market. Making a high quality acoustic is expensive as you want balanced tone and decent volume. Making a guitar that makes a clean sound that can be amplified is much easier. In fact, if the truth be told, in this case you really don't need to bother with a high quality sitka spruce top except that the market still demands one as a mark of quality. The only advantage to a spruce top is that it ages and as the grain loosens, mellows the sound. A superfluous consideration when one can adjust the sound with a good equalizer and in the case of this Martin, balance the tone out from two sources within the guitar. Remember, the louder you play over a PA system, the less important the subtleties of an expensive acoustic become (in other words, you aren't going to hear any).
The transducer, under the saddle, is still the workhorse. If you're smart, you'll use the sound hole pickup to add depth and fullness, not provide the main amplified sound or you'll get the same feedback problem everyone has when depending on a sound hole amplification system. Which is my opinion, of course. In reality. you'll set both pickups to your taste, and let the PA system or amp do the rest.
In a guitar like this one, the electronics are the key. By using HPL sides, and synthetic neck, you've basically taken the wood out of the equation. Sure, there'll be players who will argue that the sitka top adds to the sound (compared to an inferior wood), but spruce has only one real advantage over other guitar woods; over time it will age. That's a quality that may not be present when bought new. Tthe majority of players who buy guitars in this price range, and not in the 2500.00 bracket, frankly won't care. If spruce was that superior, classical guitars wouldn't be made of cedar.
In fact, now that even cheap guitars are advertised with sitka spruce tops, it's clear that having that type of top in itself isn't a sure sign of quality. Just as many inexpensive guitar makers use furniture grade mohogany so they can use that buzzword, the same goes for spruce. I've heard 300.00 cedar-based Walden guitars that sounded better than 600.00 spruce top models. When you talk spruce, you're also talking about grade and quality.
In the case of the Martin, it almost goes without saying that the spruce top will be decent. The company's reputation for quality is well earned.
However, Martin's specialty is high end guitars. Due to market forces, they've been forced to compete in the lower price brackets and come out with sub-thousand dollar guitars. Some have been superb, and some rather average. It may be hard to believe, but making an economy guitar is a skill in itself. The early economy Martins, in my opinion, had the quality of being guitars made of superb materials and workmanship, but mediocre in such details as set-up and playability. Electric Epiphones had the same type of problem for years; plenty of value in the materials, but mediocre electronics.
Which brings me back to this Martin. What you have here, in brief, is a nicely designed electric-acoustic that duplicates the virtues of an Ovation in the same price class and in some ways has superior electronics. The trade off is a finish that some may find gaudy, unamplified acoustic sound more suitable for fingerpicking than with a pick (due to it's brightness), and a guitar where only the top will age (and like any acoustic, how it will age isn't predictable).
Add to that the use of pressed wood on the sides and back, and what is essentially a plywood neck, and you have is a modern acoustic design that will need another decade to determine if it is stable and durable. Not to mention one that will keep it's resale value. I've read both horror stories about the HPL side warping and praise about the stability of the neck design. Since I've never seen a store model show such deterioration it's personally hard to say if the HPL concept is good or not. Regular wood guitars warp, crack, and do all sorts of annoying things too, so it can't be surprising that a pressed wood material might give out sometimes.
The important question is, what kind of guitar are you getting for the 850.00 or so this guitar costs?
From what I can see, you're getting a distinctively different guitar that is highly suitable for live gigs or any amplified situation. The synthetic materials, like cedar, are very suitable for electronic pickups as the sound is brighter and clearer and projects well. You do get the Martin name, although I've seen Epiphone Masterbilts that were better made and of finer materials, but you aren't going to buy this guitar on it's merits as a living room or recording instrument. It isn't optimized for that. The thinner body alone will make it sound quieter than any Yamaha, Takamine or even Dean you can think of.
Put through an acoustic amp or PA system, it's a different matter. It's an easy guitar to play while standing up on stage, and it will deliver as good a sound as your PA will deliver. Since it carries the Martin name, you will always be able to sell it later for whatever reason (and us musicians always can come up with a reason) and it will look more impressive on stage.
The Gotoh tuners are first rate. Another important consideration for live work. You don't want the thing going out of tune during a song because of hard playing. The one puzzling thing is that the two models I tried out both had high action. High action in an acoustic isn't necessarily a bad thing. In fact, on any guitar with a box and a sound hole, overly low action affects tone.
In this case, as we're dealing with what is essentially an electric guitar for live work, it doesn't make sense. You're controlling the tone with the equalizer, so playability is what counts. Unless you're a country flatpicker with years of experience, most folk and rock players prefer to avoid missing notes due to high action. That's an issue that can be resolved by a simple set-up job, but take that into account when buying a model if the set-up is poor. That is an extra cost.
In terms of the guitar being a keeper, I think the jury is still out. I think it takes at least ten years for a new concept like using HPL materials to really prove itself. From what I've read so far the last couple of years, it gives the player extra volume, certainly has reduced the cost of the guitar, and I haven't read very many comments that it fails to produce the distinctive Martin sound. I've also noticed that in used guitar shops, these HPL-based guitars do tend to keep a decent resale value although not particularly close to what was paid for it.
For those who want an amplified Martin, this is as good as any. Without good electronics, a 5000.00 Martin will sound like a cheap box anyway, and be feed back prone to boot. Which brings us to one final, but important point.
Unless you're a major star, with security to guard your instruments on stage, and techs to maintain those, it's better to leave the vintage Martin home and use one like the Ellipse. Most PA system tend to be a brutal equalizer of sound, and the best sounding acoustic guitars tend to be designed for use with electronics. Which is why Ovations are still around and thriving.
If you intend to make this your only acoustic, I'd consider both it's odd sense of design and whether you intend to mainly play it through an acoustic amp. If you want versatility, it's better to get a traditional type and just invest in a good pickup system that's out of sight (like a piezo) or removable. Either that, or just practice in front of a mike and learn proper positioning. If you intend to play it for pleasure in a living room, the extra cost of electronics is better spent on the guitar itself.
As a second guitar for gigs, the Ellipse is as good as any, and better than most. It's Fishman electronics are first rate, it stays in tune, and the HPL body is very tough and stands up to heavy use. As far as how it will stand up ten years from now, if that's a serious question in your mind, then go with an Ovation which is a proven design in terms of durabilty.
If you're a serious player though, you're only going to be thinking as far ahead as the next song in front of an audience that will clap or boo depending on how you play, not on what kind of guitar is being played or how long it will last. In such cases, the Ellipse will serve you in good stead.
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