By Emile Menasché
This may seem an odd statement about a guitar as nice looking as the SE A40E Angelus, especially from a brand with the bona fides of PRS Guitars, but it took me a week or so to realize that my generally favorable first impression of this Chinese-built acoustic-electric was actually giving it short shrift. Probably more than any instrument I’ve tested in years, the SE A40E revealed its true potential gradually.
Then again, if you’ve been around long enough to remember when PRS emerged as a new major electric guitar maker, you may recall how the company broke into the mainstream. Instead of jumping on the metal-inspired super Strat bandwagon or merely imitating the more traditional brands, the Maryland-based company rethought and refined long-held ideas in a fresh way that solved practical problems for working players. Many of these refinements weren’t obvious to the naked eye; from the pickup wiring and switching to the scale length and hardware, PRS was like a hot-rodder who kept his car’s true power hidden under the hood—more Sunbeam Tiger than Shelby Cobra.
In that way, the SE A40E Angelus is very PRS. It doesn’t imitate any classic style, but it also doesn’t try to grab attention. Yet from the neck profile to the bracing and even the visual aesthetic, it’s clear that a lot of thought and skill went into its design and execution.
Built to PRS’ Angelus single-cutaway body specifications, the SE A40E features a solid Sitka spruce top with ovangkol for the back and sides. The mid-sized Angelus’ rounded shoulders flow organically into the cutaway to create a cohesive and organic-looking silhouette from both front and back. The top is available in two gloss finishes: natural or with our test model’s lovely Tobacco Sunburst. The binding—a combination of tiger acrylic (think faux tortoiseshell) and creme—ties the visual package together.
The flowing lines have the slimming effect of well-tailored threads. At first glance I thought the Angelus was smaller and shallower than it actually is. The body depth tapers from 3-19/32 inches at the neck block to 4-3/8 inches at the tail block. The traditional-style ebony bridge uses traditional pins to hold the strings, which rest on a compensated bone saddle.
The SE AE40E’s top features PRS’ hybrid X/classical bracing. According to the company, this design uses a traditional X at the soundhole “with classical fan bracing across the belly.” The goal is to let the top vibrate more freely for enhanced sound projection and a warmer tone.
The mahogany neck is topped with a 20 fret, 25.3-inch scale ebony fretboard and joins the body at the 14th fret. The angled headstock carries the trademark PRS shape and PRS-designed closed-gear tuning machines. While the headstock logo inlay and the fretboard’s creme binding add elegance, the visual highlight has to be the fretboard’s bird inlay pattern, which creates the impression of flight.
Maybe it has just been the luck of the draw, but many of the cutaway acoustics I’ve tested lately have gone for a more electric neck profile—i.e., thin, and sometimes angular. Not here. The SE A40E’s neck is chunky and deep—something I personally like, even on electrics. Fretboard width is 1-11/16 inches at the bone nut and 2-9/23 at the body. But with a fretboard radius of just under 12 inches, the neck doesn’t force you to stretch for chords and feels quite comfortable for both open and barre chords.
One of the myths about fat necks is that they’re harder to play. But when well-executed, they can actually be easier because they offer more support for your hand. And while the neck dimensions are just one factor in a guitar’s overall tone, chunkier necks are said to add resonance and improve sustain.
Without the benefit of a post arrival setup, the action was just on the high side of low. I was happy enough with it not to have a go with the truss rod (accessed near the headstock). Intonation was outstanding, as was tuning stability. This guitar gets in tune and stays in tune.
Overall, the A40E was really impressive. As lower-cost import lines go, PRS’ SE brand has always been a little different in that it has its own identify, instead of simply serving as a platform for entry-level versions of U.S.-made instruments. The guitar I tested was a fine example. Every detail, line, joint, fret end, and nut edge was right.
Impressions—Second and Beyond
I’m not sure other guitar testers would agree, but I always find it interesting to look at an instrument’s stats and measurements after I’ve played it for a while. Usually, there’s no big revelation. But in this case, seeing the above-mentioned neck width and radius numbers gave me a bit of an ah-ha moment.
As mentioned above, it’s been a while since I tested a chunky acoustic neck, and I described sleeker necks as more electric. But some readers may already have clocked that the radius (under 12 inches) is more common on electric guitars than acoustics (usually 14–16 inches). So one might argue that an electric guitar company’s acoustics do indeed borrow from their louder siblings—just in a different way.
With its relatively wide string spacing and the subtle help offered by a rounder radius, I found the PRS especially forgiving on arpeggiated chords in the first position. I tested the SE A40E while finishing a soundtrack project, and one of the themes was built on a six-string arpeggio based on the C/G shape. It’s a simple enough part, but when you need each note to ring for a recording, you don’t want your fingers crammed together. I honestly have trouble with that kind of stuff.
Without thinking about why at the time, I found the part quite easy to execute on the PRS. Same goes for arpeggios with fingers surrounding open drone strings. It’s a subtle thing and may be very particular to both the part and my weaknesses as a player, but it’s a good illustration of how small design choices can make a big difference when you’re trying to get the job done.
If it was easy to make solid contact on arpeggios, the same can be said for strummed chords, both open and barre shapes. Strummed with a flatpick, you can really hear the SE A40E’s size do its thing. It can be overpowering, but if never gets squawky.
I also had an opportunity to record some flatpicking leads for the same project. Here, I found the feel a little stiffer than I would prefer for really fast runs, even with the .012–.053 strings, but chordal figures and bends were easy to execute. The sustain and clarity really stood out on slower and more expressive passages.
A Surprising Sound
The SE AE40’s tone is controlled and balanced; punchy (bass), woody (mids), and clear (highs). It can get pretty loud, and would definitely be at home in a rock or modern country band. But you don’t have to hit it hard to reach across the room. This was the quality that kept catching me by surprise.
When I first heard the guitar—and without factoring in its relatively modest $799 street price—I found it a bit light on the secondary overtones that give a truly great flattop it’s magical three-dimensional sound.
But the more I played and recorded with the SE A40E, the more complexity I discovered, especially when I played quietly. Does it hum like angels accompanied by a Stradivarius orchestra? No. But the sustain has a pleasing decay that seems at its best when you play with a softer attack. It also lets individual strings speak. One test I like to do is to play a harmonic on the high E string while bending a note on the B string. Both notes should sustain clearly and sound in tune when the bend comes up to pitch. The PRS nailed it.
The Bottom Line
Is the PRS SE A40E Angelus is a workhorse that looks like a thoroughbred? Or is it a sleeper that overdelivers for an $800 import? After spending a few weeks with it (and letting go of the mixed metaphor before it snaps in my face), I’d say both, and more. I’m not sure if the guitar is opening up after being played so much or if I’m just noticing more of its sonic qualities, but I keep finding more dimension to the tone over time. The more dynamically I play, the more those elements come to the fore. Combine that tone with a very playable neck, rock-solid tuning, a cutaway, a sweet finish, and decent electronics—then throw in a hardshell case and a reasonable price tag—and you have a gigging/recording guitar that’s very easy to live with.
BODY PRS Angelus single cutaway size; solid Sitka spruce top with hybrid X/classical bracing; laminated ovangkol back and sides; ebony bridge; creme binding; tiger acrylic purfling; Natural or Tobacco Sunburst gloss finish
NECK 25.3″-scale mahogany neck with adjustable truss rod; 20 frets; ebony fretboard with 11.81″ radius; birds inlays; 1-11/16″ bone nut; PRS-designed tuners
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OTHER PRS Classic 80/20 strings (.012–.053); PRS-voiced Fishman GT1 electronics; hardshell case
MADE IN China
PRICE $799 street