Acoustic Collection Stadium and Concert Double Header Review

Our first double header here at StringTheory, and some full disclosure required. The Acoustic Collection Stadium I reviewed a couple of years ago for Acoustic, and loved it so much I bought it. This is my Stadium you see in the pictures, and on founding StringTheory one of the first things I did was to approach The Acoustic Centre about what else they might want me to review. They only carry interesting guitars, and I was delighted to be offered another one of the Acoustic Collection guitars to review, because genuinely, these are one of the biggest bargains to come out of the boom in Asian manufacturing. An all solid guitar, with a Fishman Ink4 pickup and head unit system and a beautiful hard case for £600? Can’t be a good guitar really, can it? Well, if that’s what you’re thinking, you’re mistaken. Read on.

  

You may know the name The Acoustic Centre; once upon a time they had a big central London store full of Martins and Taylors, but London property prices and the rise of the internet made that business less profitable, so now they are an online business with a despatch centre. Nil desperandum though, visitors are still welcome at The Acoustic Centre, and you can play any guitar you might be considering buying. They are the UK distributor for the Veillette Avante series, and Babicz guitars, and then the Acoustic Collection is their own line. I don’t know who designed and specced these guitars, or who is building them, but I can tell you that they are amongst the very best Far East sourced guitars, and better than a great many American and European made guitars which you can buy for much higher prices. Let my personal ownership of one stand as testament to that. Here we have the Stadium, a more or less jumbo sized instrument, and the Concert, a similarly sized but differently proportioned instrument.

Visuals

The designers of the Acoustic Collection had a clear eye on doing something different, using some very old guitar design elements indeed. The obvious cues which make these guitars stand out are the smiley face lyre style bridges, and the heart shaped soundholes, and for sure, these give them an aesthetic which you will other love or hate. I love it. The two have more elements in common than differences, so I’ll take you through the two together. The Stadium has a cedar top and mahogany back and sides, whereas the Concert is all mahogany, handsomely striped. The Stadium’s top looks to be really good quality; cedar has a wider grain than spruce, but this is tight and even. Both guitars are bound in mahogany with black and white striped purfling, and there’s a centre stripe on the back in a sort of art deco take on herringbone. The lyre guitar bridges are of ebony, and whilst the material of the fully compensated saddles isn’t specified, it looks like micarta or tusq. Whether rosette is the right term for what surrounds a heart shaped soundhole, we’re not sure, but it’s mahogany again, dotted with other woods. The mahogany necks have a diamond shaped volute where they meet the headstock, which looks great and strengthens the neck joint, but looks as though it might impede your hand. Fear not, you don’t feel it at all when playing! The 21 fret fingerboards are ebony too, with simple MOP dots supplemented with diamonds at the 5th and 12th frets, and at the top is a nut which again feels like a particularly hard composite, though what, we do not know. The shapely headstocks are faced in rosewood, and carry a diamond shaped die cast plate bearing the initials AC. This is maybe my least favourite feature; it feels as though it’s missing a DC! Tuners are generic closed back items, and after a couple of years of use, I can confirm that mine work perfectly well and pose no problems.

 

The Fishman Ink4 head unit is as low profile as you can ask for from a full featured preamp; it has a tuner, three band EQ, volume and brilliance control, all mounted in a low profile unit which looks like a solid black panel until you turn it on, and is very understated. The battery compartment and output jack are at the endpin, put the jack is separate from the strap button, which is very practical but may confuse you if you’re used to the jack being the strap button. Once or twice I’ve found myself on stage groping for a jack socket which isn’t where I thought it was, though in practise you’ll get used to it. The differences are significant, few though they are; we’ve touched already on the topwood, which makes a big tonal difference; more on that in the next section. Another obvious difference is that the Stadium has a sharp Florentine cutaway, allowing easier access up to the 19th fret, so if you’re a fan of the dusty end, this might sway you. The other is overall body size; the depth is identical, but the Concert is significantly longer behind the bridge. This keeps the overall area of the top similar, as the Stadium has a wider body at all points; the Concert has a notably bigger difference between the already narrower lower bout, and the much narrower top bout. This gives the Concert a slightly bottom heavy appearance, but has a significant effect on the handling.

Do these guitars look good? I certainly think so, but the plethora of “me too” Martin and Gibson copies out there tell me that acoustic guitarists can be a conservative bunch. What I can tell you is that when I play live with my Stadium, people remember it visually in a way that they simply will not remember your Taylor.

Sounds and playability

I remember the first time I picked up my Stadium, how surprised I was by the light weight. This is a big guitar with a preamp and pickup, and far eastern guitars have a reputation for being a bit overbuilt, yet it feels light and wieldy, and the Concert feels similarly featherweight. In terms of accessibility, there is a significant difference however; I am a large man with the arms of an organgutan, and the Stadium fits me fine, but the slimmer waist of the Concert definitely makes it an easier reach for smaller people, and if you play sitting down, the smaller upper bout makes it still better, whilst the callipygian lower bout and still-deep body make sure you don’t go short of bass. The slim neck profiles will suit most players, although the gloss finish of the necks isn’t to all tastes it’s not out of line with many other guitars. Setup is good and playable straight out of the box, but the action could come down a little; I know that Acoustic Centre had their tech set these guitars up, but setup is very much to the player’s taste, so with any guitar it’s worth spending a little to get it playing just the way you like.

A strum on the cedar topped Stadium reveals just what you would hope for; a big, warm, full tone, that fills the room. The treble is deliciously rich; play a chord fragment up the neck with a couple of strings ringing, and you can listen to the overtones in the decay all day. It’s not as bright as a guitar like the spruce topped Gretsch parlour we reviewed last week, but so much warmer, which is echoed in the midrange. There’s lots of bass on tap here too; if you push this guitar hard, it’ll certainly fill a room, and in fact, comparing it with most of my other guitars, I have to be a little more careful and controlled in my strumming in order to avoid letting things get out of control. The fatness of the bass means that if you really wail on this guitar, the tone can start to muddy, but that’s really only if you’re hitting it very hard. Put down the plectrum and play fingerstyle, and you have a gorgeous, lyrical guitar, super responsive and beautiful to listen to.

The Concert sounds very different; the mahogany top and different body shape having a large effect. The sound is considerably more focussed, particularly in the bass, so you can drive this guitar hard with more confidence. Listening to the strings one by one, the tone is much drier, with less harmonic overtone overlaying the fundamental note. This is again especially noticeable down at the bass end, where the volume is probably a little lower, but also the more focussed tone makes for a compact tonal footprint. The treble isn’t any brighter than the cedar topped guitar, but it’s bright enough, and that fairly dry, direct tone continues through the midrange. You can strum this guitar, with fingers or plectrum, to your heart’s content, knowing you’ll get a good, controllable tone, but played fingerstyle it’s a little flat. This is not necessarily something you would notice if you played it alone, but compared to the cedar guitar, it’s a clear difference. When I purchased my Stadium, I was playing mostly on my own, and once I started Honey and Bee, playing two acoustic guitars together really made me start to consider how the tones matched and complimented each other. My playing partner has a mahogany topped parlour guitar, and there while the Stadium sounded great for rhythm, it was somehow a bit unsatisfying playing lead lines over her guitar. I tried a couple of other guitars in that role before settling on an archtop, and now the Stadium is mostly kept for songs where only I am playing. We tried the Concert in place of her little parlour, and found that the extra bass filled things out beautifully, while the fact that it remained a pretty focussed tone meant that it didn’t get all over my lead playing. For comparison, if she plays her Gretsch G9511 and I use my Epiphone Olympic, the resulting combination is not pleasing at all.

The point of this really is that listening to a guitar on its own isn’t the full story. Do that with these, and you’ll be left with the sense that the Stadium is the better guitar, with its rich, pleasing tone, and indeed, that might continue to be the case if you’re in a band with a bass and an electric lead guitar. With another acoustic, you need to test the blend of the two instruments, and you might find that the Concert, with it’s slightly drier, more unassuming tone, will work better for what you need.

Both guitars are equipped with a good Fishman system; I’ve stopped plugging mine in, but when I did, it gave me a good enough approximation of the acoustic tone for most situations, with plenty of tone shaping possibilities, and the built in tuner is of course a godsend.

Conclusion

These guitars are superb value for money; it’s hard to find another all solid guitar with a hard case and pickup for £600 full stop, finding one as good is all but impossible. The looks will divide people, but I say be brave; they both have stunning visual appeal and will stand out from the crowd. The real reason to buy them, however, is the tone; these are wonderful, resonant, vibrant guitars at an incredible price, an opportunity which doesn’t come along every day. Find a chance, play one, and see if I’m wrong.

Stadium

Price:

£600 including hard case

Pros:

Standout looks, rich, warm, complex tone

Cons:

If you drive it really hard, things can get muddy.

Overall:

Fantastic value for money.

Scores

Looks – 9/10

Build Quality – 8/10

Sound Quality – 9/10

Value for Money – 10/10

Overall score – 9/10

Concert

Price:

£600 including hard case

Pros:

Good looks, punchy direct tone

Cons:

Played solo, tone a little dry

Overall:

A great band instrument

Scores

Looks – 8.5/10

Build Quality – 8/10

Sound Quality – 8.5/10

Value for Money – 10/10

Overall score – 8.75/10

Buy the Acoustic Collection guitars online

Gretsch G9511 Single O Parlour Guitar

 

This little Gretsch looks nothing like the image that comes to most people’s heads when the name Gretsch comes to mind, but it’s an absolute category killer that other manufacturers would be wise to take note of. I reviewed this guitar for Acoustic early in the year (Link to that review on Musicradar at the bottom of the article), and I loved it so much that I bought one, and so did my partner in Honey and the Bee, Clare. In fact, I bought the exact one I reviewed, because I wanted to be damn sure that if this was an anomaly, I would be getting the absolute cracker I had played. Clare’s turned out to be every bit as good, and on that basis, I’ve been recommending it to everyone since, including a friend who had bought a Gretsch Jim Dandy, and was distinctly unimpressed. He ended up buying the sister model, the 9521 Triple O model, and was blown away by that also. I reviewed two other Gretsch acoustics, both from the Rancher series, and was impressed with those too, so that I now see Gretsch as a very underrated manufacturer of acoustic guitars.

Visuals

So, straight out of the gate, this guitar looks like a blues box, which gave me some initial preconceptions about the tone. When you see Robert Johnson, he’s holding a guitar which looks like this, and that barking, short sustaining, ladder braced blues box tone is what I am half expecting. Inspired by old Gibsons though it is, the 9511 is quite original in shape; the neck to body join is at the 12th, and so though the bridge is very near the bottom of the instrument, the body isn’t too tiny. The finish, described as Appalachian Cloudburst, is very very dark, with only a little patch of honey coloured spruce between the soundhole and the bridge. I love it, it’s one of the most unusual and handsome sunbursts I’ve seen, and it really makes the guitar stand out. The spruce of the top, as seen in that patch, looks pretty decent; it’s rare to see a poor quality spruce soundboard these days. Top and back are laminate, with a mahogany veneer, which looks nice; in fact, mahogany veneer, not needing to be structurally strong, is often more attractively figured than the solid mahogany used in most more expensive guitar builds. Something I appreciate about Gretsch is their honesty about the materials they use; their site clearly says “laminated mahogany”, and when the rule you usually have to use is “if it doesn’t explicitly say solid, it will me laminate”, I give a lot of kudos for that.

This is a simply appointed guitar; it is after all designed with a depression era vibe, and also, it’s really low cost. A quick google while writing this article revealed that the street price of the G9511 is currently about £265, which doesn’t buy you a lot of abalone or herringbone, and if it does, probably means the underlying guitar isn’t much good. The G9511 is bound in plastic, but with an aged ivory colour that’s appropriate to the vibe. There’s a simple black and white soundhole rosette, a simple rectangular rosewood bridge, and not much else to tell about the body. As standard, these come with off white plastic bridge pins, but I have replaced mine with bone pins with an abalone inlay. I honestly did it because I wanted to give the little box a treat for being so much better than it should be, but as I installed them, keeping the same strings on and just slackening them, I was able to hear an improvement in the already excellent tone, so I would say they were well worth the money. Gretsch don’t specify the saddle material, but it seems to be plastic, while the nut, according to the spec sheet, is bone.

The 19 fret mahogany neck has a rosewood fingerboard, and is a slim modern C section. Eagle eyed readers will note that when I first reviewed the guitar, Gretsch’s spec stated it had a vintage V profile, but they have since changed this, and the influential guitar journalist in me would like to think that’s my doing. Many online retailers still retain the vintage V claim from the original spec sheet, but take my word, that’s not what you’re going to get, and most people will prefer it as it is. I personally love a hard V, but I’ve long accepted that those with hands like polar bear paws don’t get to make the rules for everyone. Fingerboard inlays are simple, but replacing dots with mother of pearl diamonds does give you a sense that at least some thought has gone into the decoration. The headstock is faced with mahogany, and has a simple Gretsch script; the headstock ornamentation from a White Falcon would indeed be out of place on this guitar! It has very simple vintage style open back tuners with aged ivory coloured plastic buttons; these seemed a little flimsy to me at first touch, but 9 months on, they work perfectly, and I think there’s nothing to worry about. The scale length, befitting such a dinky body, is 24.875″ (632 mm) , so the board has a lovely compact feel.

It’s nicely put together, simple but well executed, and after lots of play, a slight drying of the fingerboard at the last three frets (I don’t play a lot around the 18th on an acoustic parlour) is the only issue I’ve experienced, and a little lemon oil deals with that. Is it a looker? I would say so. I think it stands out from the crowd, which at this price point includes a lot of samey, me too guitars. It’s the cheapest acoustic guitar I own by some distance, but it sits in the herd holding its own visually.

Sounds and playability

The G9511 is so accomodating you barely know it’s there. The little body and short scale mean it perches in your lap perfectly, an ideal companion for late night sofa sessions and off the cuff strumming. Mine lives next to my chair in the lounge, and is my go-to for any unplanned playing; I have no reason to take any other guitar down off the wall. The action on the review model was nice and low (neither mine nor Clare’s guitars have needed a setup), and the neck profile is accommodating, while the satin finish is easy to play on. It’s also incredibly light; tiny body, light construction, lack of electronics all add up to a really

You know what to expect from the tone here; a spruce and laminate parlour is going to be bright, twinkling, and intimate, but with a boxy bottom end, right? Well, yes and no. Bright it certainly is, sparkling in fact, a dancing beguiling tone at the treble end of things. Laminate bodied guitars can be a bit fundamental heavy, over direct, lacking in nuance, but none of that here; certainly the tone isn’t like my cedar topped jumbo, but any concern about a two dimensional tone can be put aside; it’s alive. The bright airiness continues through the midrange; there’s no fat, harmonic laden body to it, but it’s a winning sonic picture all the way down to the bass. This isn’t as boxy as you might expect; perhaps it’s the 12th fret join, but bass response is pretty decent, and the slightly quieter low E that I noted in my initial review has either improved, or I’ve got accustomed to the tone. This is not my go to guitar for big, bass heavy riffs, for sure, but the tone is balanced, and there’s certainly sufficient bass.

For fingerstyle, it’s sweet and delicate, I like to strum with my fingernail, and the brightness of the tone really compensates for the attack you lose by putting down the plectrum. It’s a surprisingly good lead guitar too; the tone is quite reminiscent of Kenneth Pattengale’s battered vintage Martin, as used in the Milk Carton Kids, so for a sweet, sustaining alternative to my arch tops, it’s wonderful in that role too. I have not found very many things this guitar can’t do.

Conclusion

This is the cheapest acoustic guitar I own, but it gets played the most. There’s a message in that. It sits by my chair, and is picked up several times a day. If I’m going camping, or to a festival, it gets thrown in the back of the car in its hard case. If I need to grab a guitar to play in the garden, it’ll be this. Since I bought it, nearly every song I’ve written has been on it. Clare’s sister guitar has featured on the radio in the hands of her husband, Dead Dead Dead gutiarist Matt Canning, because anyone who picks up this guitar loves it. In my original review, I said it wasn’t a stage guitar, but I’ve bought a set of condenser mics because I cannot bear to leave it behind. I would say that this is the best sounding spruce and laminate guitar I’ve ever played, and as an even higher compliment, it might be the best parlour I’ve ever played, and that’s up against some very high end instruments from makers like K Yairi and Santa Cruz. I would like to issue a challenge to any manufacturers, luthiers, distributors or retailers; send me a better laminate back and sides instrument, or a better parlour. I would love to play that instrument.

If you’re buying a parlour, play this. You have to. If you’re considering things like an OM, looking for a sweet voiced picker’s guitar; try one too. There aren’t many better bargains in the world right now.

Pros:

Great looks, really cheap, wonderfully sweet resonant tone

Cons:

Not much. Dreadnought players will miss the bass.

Overall:

An incredible bargain, and a category killer.

Scores

Looks – 8.5/10

Build Quality – 8/10

Sound Quality – 9/10

Value for Money – 10/10

Overall score – 8.9/10

Click here to buy the Gretsch G9511

Read my original review on Musicradar here