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

Why this acoustic guitarist is giving up on pickups

I’ve been playing acoustic guitar for 30 years, and for most of that time, I couldn’t afford a high quality guitar. What I needed was something I could plug in to any PA, get a reasonable tone, and be ready to gig. My PA was generally one of those Peavey 6 channel mixer amps and a couple of JBL Control 1 speakers, the whole lot would be chucked into the back seat of my borrowed Skoda and I’d be off. If I’m honest, most of the venues I played in around the North East weren’t really suited to perfect acoustic tone and fancy woods. On one memorable night, the Ship Inn on Holy Island was  so packed that a  couple of people fell into me, taking out my mic stand and knocking the jack socket through the side of my guitar.

Times have changed, and my needs have changed with them. For a while, I’ve been using an Acoustic Collection Stadium, an all solid guitar with a high quality piezo system. It sounds quite a lot like the acoustic tone, but not quite like it. I’ve got a Boulder Creek jumbo, also with good piezo. Last winter I added an Epiphone Olympic archtop, again with piezo, this time a little further from the acoustic tone. I was struggling with my ukulele playing into a dynamic mic, so I drilled a hole in it and fitted a pickup. I bought a nice mandolin and guess what, I paid to put a pickup in it. These all sound at least ok, but you know, I love acoustic tone. When I buy a guitar, I buy the look and the feel and the acoustic tone, and the amplification is a bit of an afterthought. Not only that, but if you’re using two or three guitars, a mandolin and an ukulele in a set, that’s a lot of disconnecting and reconnecting cables between songs, and if you have a not too alert soundman, you may break everyone’s ears too.

 

The final straw came with the acquisition of even more instruments. First, an acoustic Gretsch parlour which I intended only to be used as a home guitar, but was too charming not to gig. Then, a Loar LH-700, and a wonderful 150 year old double bass came along too, and piezo’s time was gone.

The solution? Well, it was staring me in the face. In the back of the alcove full of kit I laughingly call my office was a large diaphragm condenser mic, from the days when I did more  YouTube music. Coupled with an AKG C1000 small diaphragm condenser pointing at the neck, that should get me really good acoustic tone, and I’ll be able simply to approach those mics with whatever instrument I’m using, no noisy unplugging. Of course, I can’t rely on every house PA to have or understand phantom power, so I’ve got a Presonus Blue Tube two channel preamp with phantom power, which should also afford me a bit of extra tonal control too. Perhaps this would be too feedback prone in a loud rock band, but in an acoustic country folk duo, I think I’ve found my perfect solution. Goodbye, pickups!