Review: Eastman’s CL81S Classical Model is Impressively Versatile
In the early 1990s, Qian Ni, a flautist getting his master’s degree in music at Boston University, saw a void in the marketplace for high-quality but affordable violin-family instruments. He founded a company, Eastman Strings, and set up a workshop of skilled violinmakers in his native China to produce these instruments. Before long, Eastman Strings started producing bows, and eventually archtop, steel-string, and electric guitars, as well as mandolins.
But it wasn’t until this year that Eastman turned its attention to the classical guitar. The company now offers a half-dozen different models, from the affordable CL105 (retail price: $295) to the deluxe, fan-fretted CL82S ($2,150). I received the next to top-of-line model, the CL81S ($1,850), for review and put it through its paces.
A Respectable Build
The CL81S is a straightforward classical guitar with a 650mm-scale length fretboard, 53-mm nut, and all-solid-wood body: Engelmann spruce soundboard, and East Indian rosewood back and sides. If the review model is any indication, Eastman clearly doesn’t scrimp when it comes to selecting these woods. The top is fine-grained and free from visual defects, and the quartersawn back and sides have a rich purplish-brown coloring.
The ebony fretboard is elevated in the style of a Humphrey Millennium, offering easier access to the notes above the 12th fret—a feature often found on many modern guitars. Depending on your repertoire, this could be a very nice plus. Of course, many classical pieces don’t venture high up the neck, but with the elevated fretboard, I was able to handle a C-major-seventh chord in 15th position.
It’s apparent the CL81S was built with skill and care. Inside the box, the reverse kerfing and bracing work is super-clean and devoid of excess glue run-outs. Outside, the nut is smooth and notched precisely, and the frets are cleanly seated and polished. The gloss finish is smoothly buffed and free from imperfections, although on the edges of the soundboard, there’s a subtle amount of bleed from the purfling.
Plays Well With Others
Like the steel-string Eastman guitars I’ve auditioned, the CL81S received an excellent setup and it felt effortless to play. The neck’s relatively shallow profile was easy on my fretting hand, and the action is low, but not overly so. There’s nothing in the way of fret buzzing or any other unwanted sounds. The notes rang true and clear—and intonated perfectly—up and down the fretboard.
Overall, the CL81S has a pleasing sound—warm and round, with a good balance between registers, between fundamentals and harmonics, and from string to string. And though it’s not a cannon, it has a decent amount of volume, projection, and sustain.
The CL81S feels adaptable when it comes to repertoire. It’s just as satisfying to play a Bach lute suite on the guitar as it is to work on Helen Walker’s “Divertissement No. 3” (published in CG’s Spring 2017 issue). Playing an arrangement of Enrique Granados’ “Spanish Dance No. 6” shows that the guitar sounds terrific in dropped-D tuning.
And though the typical concert guitarist doesn’t necessarily have much use for amplification, the CL81S is outfitted with a pickup. Thankfully, its single thumbwheel volume control is tucked inconspicuously inside the soundhole instead of having a control panel mounted to the bass-side bout.
When I plug the CL81S into a recent AER amplifier via a 1/4-inch jack at the endpin, the guitar has a surprisingly natural sound, quite like its unplugged voice. If you’re a classical guitarist who ventures outside of the idiom, say, to play bossa nova or jazz with an ensemble, then the CL81S is a great plug-in-and-play choice for your next gig.
With a list price of $1,850, Eastman’s CL81S isn’t exactly a budget guitar, and it’s unfortunate that the instrument comes with a gig bag and not a proper hard-shell case. But it’s a reasonable price for a high quality, all-solid-wood guitar. And given its agreeable personality and excellent playability, the instrument is a winning new option for players who are starting to discover their voices on the guitar.
BODY: Engelmann spruce soundboard; Indian rosewood back and sides; gloss nitrocellulose lacquer finish.
NECK: Mahogany neck with ebony center strip; ebony fretboard; 650mm scale length; 53 mm nut; gold open-gear tuners with ebony tuner buttons.
OTHER: D’Addario Pro Arté hard tension strings; hard shell case.
PRICE: $1,479 MAP
MADE IN: China
This article was originally published in the Summer 2017 issue of Classical Guitar magazine.